Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Beauty of Human Justice: Thou Canst Not See My Face

So Student Council gifted me with a wonderful book entitled To Heal a Fractured World, written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The reason I'm particularly happy about it is that the book answers a question I wrote about two years ago in "The Meaning of Justice." (Although I have had the question for a longer period of time than a mere two years.) I reproduce the excerpt below:


God exists, therefore there is justice. But it is divine justice- justice from the perspective of one who knows all, sees all, and considers all: the universe as a whole, and time as a whole, which is to say, eternity. But we who live in space and time cannot see from this perspective, and if we did, it would not make us better human beings but worse.

To be a parent is to be moved by the cry of a child. But if the child is ill and needs medicine, we administer it, making ourselves temporarily deaf to its cry. A surgeon, to do his job competently and well, must to a certain extent desensitize himself to the patent's fears and pains and regard him, however briefly, as a body rather than as a person. A statesman, to do his best for the country, must weigh long-term consequences and make tough, even brutal, decisions: for soldiers to die in war if war is necessary, for people to be thrown out of jobs if economic stringency is needed. Parents, surgeons and politicians have human feelings, but the very roles they occupy mean that at times they must override them if they are to do the best for those for whom they are responsible. To do the best for others needs a measure of detachment, a silencing of sympathy, an anesthetizing of compassion, for the road to happiness or health or peace sometimes runs through the landscape of pain and suffering and death.

If we were able to see how evil today leads to good tomorrow- if we were able to see from the point of view of God, creator of all- we would understand justice but at the cost of ceasing to be human. We would accept all, vindicate all, and become deaf to the cries of those in pain. God does not want us to cease to be human, for if he did, he would not have created us. We are not God. We will never see things from his perspective. The attempt to do so is an abdication of the human situation. My teacher, Rabbi Nahum Rabinovitch, taught me that this is how to understand the moment when Moses first encountered God at the burning bush. 'Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God' (Ex. 3:6). Why was he afraid? Because if he were fully to understand God he would have no choice but to be reconciled to the slavery and oppression of the world. From the vantage point of eternity, he would see that the bad is a necessary stage on the journey to the good. He would understand God but he would cease to be Moses, the fighter against injustice who intervened whenever he saw wrong being done. 'He was afraid' that seeing heaven would desensitize him to earth, that coming close to infinity would mean losing his humanity. That is why God chose Moses, and why he taught Abraham to pray.

A Holocaust historian was once interviewing a survivor of the extermination camps. He was a hassidic rebbe (the name given by hassidim, Jewish mystics, to their leader). Astonishingly, he seemed to have passed through the valley of the shadow of death, his faith intact. He could still smile. 'Seeing what you saw, did you have no questions about God?' she asked.

'Yes,' he said, 'Of course I had questions. So powerful were these questions, I had no doubt that were I to ask them, God would personally invite me to heaven to tell me the answers. And I prefer to be down here on earth with the questions than up in heaven with the answers'. He too belonged to this ancient Jewish tradition.

There is divine justice, and sometimes, looking back at the past from a distance in time, we can see it. But we do not live by looking back at the past. More than other faiths, the religion of the Hebrew Bible is written in the future tense. Ancient Israel was the only civilization to set its golden age in a not-yet-realized time, because a free human being lives toward the future. There is divine justice, but God wants us to strive for human justice- in the short term, not just the long term; in this world, not the next; from the perspective of time and space, not infinity and eternity. God creates divine justice, but only we can create human justice, acting on behalf of God but never aspiring to be other than human. That is why he created us. It is why God not only speaks but listens, why he wants to hear Abraham's voice, not just his own. Creation is empowerment. That is the radical proposition at the heart of the Hebrew Bible. God did not create humankind to demand of it absolute submission to his all-powerful will. In revelation, creation speaks. What it says is a call to responsibility.

~To Heal a Fractured World by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, 22-23


The reason I am particularly pleased with this answer is that it suggests there is a unique task to being human as opposed to striving to be God. While imitatio Dei is a major part of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik's thought, he also stresses the fact that we create yeish m'yeish as opposed to yeish m'ayin, a concept that is further elaborated upon by Rabbi Ari D. Kahn in his work Explorations. The idea that there is a particular role for the human being to fulfill sits well with me, and it also answers troubling places in the Talmud where we seem to override truth in favor of a false ruling perpetrated by human justice. This is an idea I have touched on in "Untrue Halakha." Assuming I accept the idea suggested by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, namely that there are specific realms for the human and the Godly and the two should not mix, this then makes sense. Why would the sages ignore a Bas Kol emanating from Heaven and focus on their own mortal and potentially fallible logic? Well, answers this idea from R' Sacks, it's because we are meant to be human and not God in these arenas. When we say, "The Torah is not in Heaven," what we are really affirming is our humanity and even our fallibility. It is our humanity that allows us to cry out to God at pain as opposed to accepting it all with eqanimity, stating that this is our lot and we should not tamper with it, as surely there is a purpose to everything. It is our humanity that makes us interfere and intervene when we see people suffering, as opposed to accepting it as divine justice. And apparently, it is that same humanity which must be allowed to reign when it comes to decisions of the law.

Now, the reason this idea is so amazing to me is that I have always been taught that we are supposed to be striving to be Godly in every single way. So it would seem to me that if we were given the chance to understand Divine justice, wisdom, logic, rulings and God, that is a chance we ought to take, something that would epitomize what a human being is trying to do! But Rabbi Sacks says no; we were placed on this earth to be human and we are supposed to be gloriously human and not to strive to become or be God. Yes, in certain ways we should imitate God, but we must never forget the glorious differences that make us human- the fact that we create yeish m'yeish, that we live and breathe, that we are fallible and can commit errors. We were placed on this earth to be human, not to attempt to be God.

Of course, with this idea comes questions, however. If Moses truly turned his face so that he could continue being human, moved by every cry and every sorrow, why is it that later he appeals to God to reveal His ways and divine justice to him?

יח וַיֹּאמַר: הַרְאֵנִי נָא, אֶת-כְּבֹדֶךָ. 18 And he said: 'Show me, I pray Thee, Thy glory.'

יט וַיֹּאמֶר, אֲנִי אַעֲבִיר כָּל-טוּבִי עַל-פָּנֶיךָ, וְקָרָאתִי בְשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְפָנֶיךָ; וְחַנֹּתִי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אָחֹן, וְרִחַמְתִּי אֶת-אֲשֶׁר אֲרַחֵם. 19
And He said: 'I will make all My goodness pass before thee, and will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.'

כ וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא תוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת-פָּנָי: כִּי לֹא-יִרְאַנִי הָאָדָם, וָחָי. 20
And He said: 'Thou canst not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.'

~Exodus 33: 18-20

Why would Moses want to suddenly accept God's justice with equanimity, which would potentially result in his being unmoved by the plight of humans, when formerly he had protested it?

On the other hand, the famous story with Elijah and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi (see: GOD'S JUSTICE VINDICATED here) does suggest that Rabbi Sacks' idea is correct. Elijah, who understands God's ways and in fact carries them out within the framework of this story, expresses no pain at the fact that he has killed the poor people's cow, builds up a cruel rich man's wall, and otherwise does things that seem unfair. At each occurrence, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi is wholly astonished, and unable to hold himself back, begs Elijah for an explanation, even though he knows they must then part ways. Elijah explains how each of these actions was actually divine justice. However, from the human perspective and the human point of view, we are right for being astonished and upset, for thinking that the poor man has gotten the bad end of the deal when the cow is killed. That is who we are, who God created us to be. Had someone caught Elijah killing that cow, he would have been tried and would have had to pay for the animal according to the rules of the human court system, and that would have been right and proper for us to do- because that's the role we are supposed to play as humans.

Thus, to have heeded the Bas Kol declaring the Oven of Aknai to be tahor would be to stake out the domain of the Divine when we are meant to live in the domain of the human, when it is not our role to be Godly and not even something we are supposed to strive for! To feel compassion and sorrow for all creatures who are oppressed, to not accept the world with equanimity and claim that God's having a plan is the reason we do so, to be upset, moved and emotionally shaken by our encounter with life- that is our task. We should be human! At least, that is the answer that R' Sacks posits, and it's the best one I've heard thus far.

1 comment:

rashi said...

That is so beautiful! As I was reading the excerpt, I thought of the verse "ki lo yirani haadam vechai" and then I saw it in Rabbi Kahn's book.
I was also pondering this week about the idea of ethics and justice and where divinity comes into it. I am currently trying to understand Akedat Yitzchak from a moral perspective. If you have insight, please share.