Thursday, August 24, 2023

Jewish Calculus of Suffering:Stop sin or suffering?

 from my book Child and Domestic Abuse vol II

I have spent much time researching and analyzing the issue of abuse and reaction to suffering. The issue that keeps reoccurring is why is so little being done to alleviate or even give comfort to abuse victims. Originally I assumed that the issue was a simple halachic issue - the problem of mesira or chillul hashem or the complicated halachos of lashon harah.

While these reasons obviously play a part I have come to the conclusion that what is at work in our community is a theological attitude or value. This issue is stated clearly in Sanhedrin (73a) concerning the issue of stopping a rodef (someone pursuing someone to kill or rape). The Mishna says, “these are those who are saved by their lives”. This is an ambiguous statement. Who is saved? There are commentaries that say the reference is to the pursuer - we kill this pursuer to save his soul from sin. Others say that it means we save the potential victim by killing the pursuer.

It seems that we have two alternative lenses for evaluating these events. Are we preventing someone from sinning or are we saving a person from attack. As I have used these two lenses over a wide variety of issues - it seems in fact that this is the answer to my original question. Are we concerning with stopping sin and thus we are concerned with maximizing the spiritual content of our universe? Or alternatively am I concerned with the human suffering of the victim.

A clear example of the orthogonality of these views is the well known story of Rabbi Akiva. He died a horrible death of his skin being shredded with iron combs. Rabbi Akiva was ecstatic that he could die such a horrible painful death because of its spiritual significance. In contrast his students and even the angels didn’t understand this. They were bothered by the human element that he was suffering a horrible death.

Another example is Sma (C.M. 421:13) who mentions that a person is allowed to save another person from being beaten - even if it entails beating the assailant. He says that is because we need to stop the assailant from sinning. However he says if a person normally ignores such events and in general doesn’t stop assailants from beating other people it shows he is not concerned about stopping sinning. Therefore he says he can not intervene or rather if he intervenes he needs to pay because his motivation was not to stop sin but rather he hated the assailant. (The Taz comments on the Sema and says he doesn’t understand what relevancy the intent is. As long as the victim is saved from beating - that is sufficient to allow the rescuer to beat the assailant.)

Correspondingly the Chofetz Chaim says that even though lashon harah can be said if it brings benefit - but even if there is a beneficial outcome to speaking lashon harah - it is prohibited to say lashon harah. The Klausenberger explains that the evilness of lashon harah is dependent on the intent of the speaker - not the consequences. This would mean that if a woman is raped and she is driven by hatred to destroy the reputation of her rapist - she is not allowed to tell others what happened to her!

There are many other situations which seem puzzling but become clear once the question is asked - are you focusing on the net spiritual consequences or on stopping suffering? In fact both views are viable Jewish views. The distinguishing factor is whether the focus is on saving the person or on saving him for the proper motivation.

An additional issue of theological lens is how does one look at someone in need? Do you say this person needs my help and if I don’t help him he will suffer? Or do I say, “It is a mitzva to help people but if I don’t help then someone else will since G‑d determines whether a person suffers or not. Even if I refuse to help all it means is that I lose the merit of helping another person.”

This is a dispute in Bava Metzia (83b) as to whether man needs to take action against injustice and crime – when the Torah parameters don’t help. The Meiri says that one can not use methods which were not permitted by the Torah and therefore it is G‑d’s job to solve the problems. The Rashba and others say that one must use techniques that work – even if they don’t conform to the prescriptions of the Torah. Man must do something.


  1. Very interesting.
    There are many applications of this analysis. Not sure I understand haMeiri. Or the chofetz Chaim.
    HaMeiri is saying that setting up a rackman style court is not justified. If it bends the Law. Rashba is saying the Holy ends justify the means. Obviously it depends on the parameters of the discussion in the gemara. But rackman made this argument of a teleological halacha which Rashba appears to affirm.

    Is the CC making a paradoxical statement? Or l'chatchila vs bediaved ?

  2. This could also been seen as a conflict between Ben Adam L'Makom and Ben Adam L'Chaveiro. Look at the example of giving tzedakah - am I giving it to be kind and helpful or because I want the mitzvah points? I would state a preference for the former because the latter dehumanizes the object of my aid. If I'm trying to help you out financially but only because I want the mitzvah points then I've turned you into an object. I get a mitzvah point from shaking my lulav. I get a mitzvah point from giving you money. And just like my lulav no longer matters once I'm doing with it, you no longer matter once I've handed over my money. That's dehumanizing and strips value from someone God took the time to create.

  3. This discussion also has manifestations in the Tenach.
    Avraham tries bargaining to prevent Sdom and Amara being destroyed - down to 10 good men . So he wants to prevent suffering.

    In the conclusion of the book of Jonah, Jonah has given up on the people, but Hashem accepts their repentance and says :

    And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many beasts as well!”

    It is movement from one pole of the dialectic to the other, with teshuva serving as the catalyst.

  4. Excellent point.
    Saving the other specifically from sin also dehumanizes and detaches the I. Mitzvah observance becomes technical and selfish.
    As Rabbi YY Jacobson shlita aptly puts it, to get a better portion of sushi from the leviathan.
    Judaism is not a religion. Religions are systems of manipulating the Divine for personal benefit, spiritual and/or physical.
    Judaism is the fulfilling of Gd's will according to the Torah and perfecting ourselves as His servants in the process. Bringing heaven to earth. Not like all religions which strive to bring the fulfiller to his personal fulfillment in heaven (salvation, virgins, nirvana etc.) And Gd help anybody who seems to get in the way!
    Avraham (also with interrupting his high with GD to care for anonymous guests and more), Jonah, and the prophets in general clearly extol us to humanize our relationship to others. The Baal Shem Tov emphasized this as well. We see it in the famous story of the Brisker Rov who hesitated forgiving the innkeeper who contritely apologized for not honoring him as a great Rabbi and made sure he learns to honor and care for even the simplest Jew. Only then would he agree to forgive him. And is that not part of what רחמנא ליבא בעי means? And is ואהבת לרעך כמוך just a technical issue?

  5. Precisely. Imagine someone insisting you have to act a certain way so he can fulfill his "V'ahavta"


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