Monday, February 21, 2005

The Biggest Sacrifice

I used to wonder about this idea on and off, back when I was religious.

Most people would agree that giving one's life for a good cause is a good deed. Right? You jump the path of a bullet to save someone's life, run into a burning building, etc. These are great heroic deeds. And I would suppose that religious people who believe in reward and punishment in the next life would agree that such people would be rewarded.

But, now, let's suppose a person makes an even bigger sacrifice than just one's own life. Huh?, you might ask. What could that possibly be? Well, what if a person sacrifices the lives of the people he loves, that might hurt him more than losing his own life. But this is no problem. The religious mind has no trouble with that scenario. A person has no right to sacrifice the lives of others and whatever good deed he does, it must be balanced by the terrible thing he did to others. And God (or whomever) ultimately decides where to put such a guy.

Now, let's suppose the guy makes a bigger sacrifice than his own life, but doesn't hurt anyone else in the process. Wha?! What the hell could that be?

What if he sacrifices his SOUL. What if a person does lots of technical sins but in doing so helps out many people. He knows what he's doing, knows that he will be punished in the hereafter, but cares so little for his own well being that he does all he can for others. Every week, the person intentionally breaks shabbos to go work at a soup kitchen and feed the homeless. Instead of paying for excesses like what is needed for tefillin or mezzuzot and such he sends his money to worthy causes around the world. Instead of spending those long days each year begging for forgiveness each Yom Kippur, he is heading demonstrations for foreign governments to stop human rights violations on their own citizens.

Isn't such a person a better person because his sacrifice is so much greater? Sacrificing your life is one thing, but it is a finite sacrifice and having faith in the afterlife doesn't make that sacrifice so great comparatively. But to sacrifice one's soul is a sacrifice for eternity, or at the very least the extremely intense punishment of gehinnom (depending on what exactly the theist believes). Isn't that a greater sacrifice for others?

So, if the sacrifice is so great shouldn't the individual get rewarded? But how can he get rewarded if the reward is exactly what he has sacrificed? So, this is to you schar v'onesh believers, what happens to the individual?

14 comments:

D.C. said...

I think that your premise is faulty. While it is important to realize that you are not the center of the universe, and other people need to be treated well and helped, selflessness is not, in its own right, a Torah value. In fact, you are not permitted to jump into the path of the bullet and give your own life for someone else.

Suppose that someone decides that he is not going to eat any food, but instead, will send all of the food that he would have eaten to starving people in the Sudan. Would your strawman consider this to be heroic and noble?

My understanding is that you have to treat others well for the same reason that you have to treat others well -- because we are all created in the image of God.

Orthoprax said...

D.C.,

I had written a post before, but after writing it I began to think it over. You're right. Not about everything, mind you, but about the essence of the problem.

My logic went something like this:

1. Sacrifices in life are followed by reward in the afterlife.
2. The bigger the sacrifice the bigger the reward.
3. The biggest sacrifice is to sacrifice the reward.
4. Therefore those who commit the biggest sacrifice, get no reward - yet they should also get the biggest reward.

You put into question the first premise that sacrifice is rewarded. And according to sources in Judaism, that is only sometimes true. There are some circumstances where sacrifice is not rewarded and is indeed forbidden.

I did some research and I found there's a whole discussion behind how far one can sacrifice for others.

You can't give your life for another, but that's true for an absolute case. As in you know that you will die if you do such an action to save another. (See Bava Metzia 62a.) But it does not apply for those cases where there is just a _risk_ of death. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein holds that one _may_ choose to put one's life in risk for others - as Abram did to save Lot from captivity. Some sources say it is actually obligatory for a bystander to put his life in uncertain danger, e.g. in Hagahot Maimoni. Though, of course, also here there is disagreement. With the opposition of Radvaz who holds one _cannot_ risk his life for others.

Back to issue now, if sacrifices in life are not necessarily rewarded in the afterlife, then the rest of the premises fall and the conclusion is unsupported.

Well done. And I thank you.

However, there does remain a different but related problem. By everything we consider today as good and fine, self-sacrifice for others is a greatness few people can look down on. I think you will find very few believers who will claim that such actions are not being rewarded for in the afterlife. If we go by your route and assert that some sacrifice is unrecognized in the hereafter, then doesn't that leave believers' sensibilities hurt?

"My understanding is that you have to treat others well for the same reason that you have to treat others well -- because we are all created in the image of God."

I'm going to assume that one of those "others" was meant to be "yourself" because, if not then what you say makes no sense.

But anyway, that's a fine conclusion. The problem I have posed, however, remains. We have what humanity considers some of the best and noblest people being sent for punishment (or at the very least no recognition) for exactly what we consider noble.

In fact, the problem gets only worse if you're right and self-sacrifice of even corporeal kinds are to be punished. The soldier who jumps on a grenade to save his squad is now being punished in the afterlife? You have an obvious schism between what we consider good and how it is followed up by in the hereafter.

The only thing a believer can truly conclude is that our conceptions of what is noble and good is different from God's (or gods') notions. But that won't stop the people from celebrating such heroism. Are such celebrations upsetting to God?

-Orthoprax

SholomBare said...

why are you guys so preoccupied with these issues? ( why am I reading this?) Why can't you (we) just enjoy y(our) lives. We all have the same fate awating us no matter what kind of milk you drink or if your kipa is on the back or front of your head!

Orthoprax said...

Sholombare,

I've thought about that myself. I have a lot of religious friends and when I bring up any kind of "deep" topic (happens infrequently) they get all bewildered. They simply don't think about it.

So why the hell should we?

It's been suggested that I may be obsessive. (See what that rabbi said in my discussion with him a few blogs down.) But I don’t think that’s it. There is real value beyond the utilitarian.

As Bertrand Russell had said: “Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.”

-Orthoprax

D.C. said...

"The only thing a believer can truly conclude is that our conceptions of what is noble and good is different from God's (or gods') notions."I think that is obvious to any believer. Otherwise, there is no need for a Divine law at all. That's not to say that our intuitive sense of morality isn't very important, but it's not the ultimate determinant of right and wrong.

To the extent that religious people would praise an action that halakhah considers wrong, firstly, keep in mind that the inconsistency of people's actions with the beliefs that they espouse does not neccesarily indicate a problem with the beliefs themselves.

As for God's reaction to people who violate halakhah for a noble cause, I have absolutely no way to know. I don't know which mitzvot are "bigger" in God's eyes, and I have no idea what will happen in the afterlife to the person who spends Yom Kippur heading human rights demonstrations. On one hand, we know that he's punished with karet (assuming there's melakhah or eating involved). On the other hand, perhaps he fulfilled "ha-lo zeh tzom evcharehu" (Yesha`yahu 58:6) better than any of us.

What I do know is that God's instructions for maximizing my potential in this world tell me not to violate Yom Kippur in such a fashion, and as Antigenos Ish Sokho said (Avot 1:3), that's much more important than considerations of what will happen in the afterlife to somebody who does. Even though he may have accomplished great things of tremendous religious value, and he may very well be rewarded for those accomplishments, I can comfortably say that he made the wrong decision.

Along similar lines, I can understand why religious people may praise somebody who made a halakhically inappropriate sacrifice. While this may sometimes not be true in a technical sense, in a certain sense, a mitzvah ha-ba'ah ba-`aveirah is still a mitzvah, and deserves positive recognition.

It is not only in the realm of religion that we may praise a result while not completely approving of the process. We can marvel at the pyramids despite our disapproval of the slave labor that was used to build them. We can appreciate all of the good resulting from the fact the Saddam Hussein is no longer in power even if we disapprove of the decision to invade Iraq.

Orthoprax said...

D.C.

"I think that is obvious to any believer. Otherwise, there is no need for a Divine law at all. That's not to say that our intuitive sense of morality isn't very important, but it's not the ultimate determinant of right and wrong."

You shouldn't be so quick to say what's obvious or not to people. Many times the argument from morality has been used to try and prove the existence of a deity. Where else could our moral sense have come from, but from God?

But here we come to a head where that argument can no longer fly as even within the confines of strict orthodoxy our moral center is in contradiction with what God supposedly considers right. If our sense of morality comes from God, why would it contradict God’s morality?

You might also take note of the very many people who hold a certain point of view and commandeer God Himself as an authority for whom they claim agrees with them. They're on "God's side."

"To the extent that religious people would praise an action that halakhah considers wrong, firstly, keep in mind that the inconsistency of people's actions with the beliefs that they espouse does not neccesarily indicate a problem with the beliefs themselves."

My concern is not with the action of praise, but with the internal belief that what they praise is good. They believe something is good and yet not good at the same time. Or perhaps they emote one thing and think the other. Either way, they have a contradiction within themselves.

"Even though he may have accomplished great things of tremendous religious value, and he may very well be rewarded for those accomplishments, I can comfortably say that he made the wrong decision."

A lot of people look at halachah as a rulebook to follow and if they follow it well enough, then they'll be rewarded in some undetermined way, typically embodied as the hope of Heaven or Olam Habah. So, clearly, if you break a rule in the rulebook, you made a bad decision according to the written rules.

But with your own moral center (and even you personally), you cannot stop yourself from contemplating the idea that such a break from the rules is rewarded somehow. Because you feel that it would be _wrong_ to punish such noble behavior, rulebook or no rulebook.

We have this rulebook called halachah with all its rules, moral and otherwise. But aren't you, even accidentally, recognizing the existence of a higher unwritten rulebook? One where sometimes breaking the rules is seen as morally superior to keeping them?

"While this may sometimes not be true in a technical sense, in a certain sense, a mitzvah ha-ba'ah ba-`aveirah is still a mitzvah, and deserves positive recognition."

See, just here you make the distinction clear. In a technical sense a broken rule is wrong. But in this "certain sense" in this unwritten moral rulebook, you still recognize the value of the act.

"It is not only in the realm of religion that we may praise a result while not completely approving of the process. We can marvel at the pyramids despite our disapproval of the slave labor that was used to build them. We can appreciate all of the good resulting from the fact the Saddam Hussein is no longer in power even if we disapprove of the decision to invade Iraq."

Well, yes and no. While the marvel is there, the value of the action itself is not in question. The moral value, I mean. If you see slave labor as wrong, the use of slave labor to build the pyramids was wrong. Simple. Marveling at the great things slave labor has built doesn't change the fact that you see the act as wrong. You are not marveling at a moral edifice, but a marvel of architecture.

Similarly, the invasion of Iraq. If you think the act was wrong - it was wrong. Again simple. Just because positive results came from it has no bearing on the morality of the initial act.

But here, with regards to self-sacrifice and breaking halachah - the act itself is moral and immoral at the same time according to which rulebook you're looking through. The act is seen as against halachah and therefore punishable with death through one pair of glasses. Yet the act is seen as noble and worth praise through another pair. It is the act itself which is noble, not the results of it.

-Orthoprax

D.C. said...

"See, just here you make the distinction clear. In a technical sense a broken rule is wrong. But in this "certain sense" in this unwritten moral rulebook, you still recognize the value of the act."

No, I'm not talking about a separate unwritten moral rulebook. We're discussing cases where the outcome (lives being saved) has positive value within the Torah's own system of values.

The Torah commanded me to give tzedakah in order to accomplish something. The Torah also commanded me to observe Shabbat in order to accomplish something. If I write a check for tzedakah on Shabbat, I have still accomplished the first objective (and for that I may be rewarded), but I have confounded the second (and for that I may be punished).

The halakhah is clear that when these two values go up against each other, I am not permitted to write the check on Shabbat. You are looking at reward and punhishment in a one-dimensional way, and assuming, understandably, that the halakhah being what it is, the punishment for the `aveirah ought to outweigh the reward for the mitzvah, and we should look at the action as a whole as one that is punishable.

Perhaps, though, it is not so linear. Perhaps the punishment and the reward are both there, but the punishment does not directly cancel out the reward. This is possible if we look at reward and punishment as corresponding to attainment of desired objectives, rather than to a net judgement of particular actions. This (process vs. result) is a classic chakirah, really.

Orthoprax said...

D.C.,

"No, I'm not talking about a separate unwritten moral rulebook. We're discussing cases where the outcome (lives being saved) has positive value within the Torah's own system of values."

I'm sorry, but it is the act and the intention which is noble and valued. It is the fact that an individual is willing to give up everything important to himself in order to help others. The results are an added bonus, but even poor conclusions following a gesture of sacrifice is often celebrated as great.

A person who dies trying to protect another is found a hero. If the object of his protection still dies it matters not to his heroic status. He may have failed, but his cause was true.

Consider the soldier jumping on a grenade. His intention was the protection of his comrades and thus his action is heroic. Maybe the grenade was filled with poisonous gas and it kills his friends a few moments later. Does his act suddenly become devalued? I think not.

The gesture is what is valued, not necessarily the results.

"Perhaps, though, it is not so linear. Perhaps the punishment and the reward are both there, but the punishment does not directly cancel out the reward."

I think we've gone past the afterlife rewards discussion already. If there is an afterlife and one which punishes and rewards, we have no way of knowing which acts are valued more or less or how the way punishments and rewards are given, spotty or lump-sum.

The discussion I've gone into is the way people think about certain actions. I think they come to a difficult contradiction of beliefs wherein some acts are immoral in a certain rulebook, and yet those same acts are very moral in another.

-Orthoprax

D.C. said...

Consider the soldier jumping on a grenade. His intention was the protection of his comrades and thus his action is heroic. Maybe the grenade was filled with poisonous gas and it kills his friends a few moments later. Does his act suddenly become devalued? I think not.Okay, good point. I'll modify my position a little bit. It is the intended positive result that is laudable.

See Rav Chaim on Hilkhot Shabbat 10:17 for an great example of when an otherwise forbidden action is permissible -- even when the action is done with full awareness -- since the focus is on the result and not the action.

In our case, the action does not actually become permissible (assume a case where it's your life vs. one other person's life, so there is no doubt as to the halakhah). Nonetheless, a similar principle could at least explain how we can focus on the (intended) positive result here instead of just the forbidden action.

I think that people consider him heroic because of how devoted he was to the cause of saving his friend's life (which is, in itself, a good thing). Surely, he would have much preferred to do so without losing his own life. Nobody sees a person who commits suicide as a hero, and the fact that he ended his own life does not, in itself, make him heroic at all.

Personally, my reactions to hearing about such a person would include both admiration for his devotion to his friend and recognition that he made an incorrect choice. I believe that these two reactions are not mutually contradictory, and they do not reflect a tug-of-war between two different value systems, but rather both stem from Torah values.

Think of the person who finds out that his relative just died and he inherited a lot of money. He says "barukh dayan ha-emet" and "barukh ha-tov ve-ha-meitiv" in the same breath, and they can both be genuine. It's not that he's conflicted as to whether the death is bad news or good news.

Orthoprax said...

“Okay, good point. I'll modify my position a little bit. It is the intended positive result that is laudable.”

Well, that is part of it, but the intention alone is not what is respected. Anyone can have good intentions. It is the intent and the act together which is lauded.

"See Rav Chaim on Hilkhot Shabbat 10:17 for an great example of when an otherwise forbidden action is permissible -- even when the action is done with full awareness -- since the focus is on the result and not the action."

This isn't really relevant. Halachah never claims that its rules are absolute. There are many exceptions to rules, just like that one, that are found throughout Jewish law. There is no contradiction here as the contradiction is still found _within_ the law.

My issue has to do with contradictions between Jewish law and another separate unwritten moral law.

"In our case, the action does not actually become permissible (assume a case where it's your life vs. one other person's life, so there is no doubt as to the halakhah). Nonetheless, a similar principle could at least explain how we can focus on the (intended) positive result here instead of just the forbidden action."

But you can't do that. The halacha given by the Rambam is specific and cannot be used to justify other actions. A declaration of mutar was deemed for only that rule and for only those circumstances. You cannot use the justification in one scenario to fit all scenarios.

"Personally, my reactions to hearing about such a person would include both admiration for his devotion to his friend and recognition that he made an incorrect choice. I believe that these two reactions are not mutually contradictory, and they do not reflect a tug-of-war between two different value systems, but rather both stem from Torah values."

No, but you see, they can't. The law is clear when in comes to certain things. There is no opinion that holds that knowingly giving your life for another is permissible. Doing so directly contradicts the rule.

If you want to say that "saving lives" is a Torah value and it contradicts with the "do not sacrifice your life for another" Torah value, you can say that. But still, those are just general values. In this specific case valuing "saving lives" over "no sacrifice" is a transgression of the rules.

Now, why would you value one Torah precept improperly over the other unless you are under the influence from another moral rulebook?

"Think of the person who finds out that his relative just died and he inherited a lot of money. He says "barukh dayan ha-emet" and "barukh ha-tov ve-ha-meitiv" in the same breath, and they can both be genuine. It's not that he's conflicted as to whether the death is bad news or good news."

The death is bad the new wealth is good. These are two distinct occurrences and there is no contradiction. The person is not happy that the person died. He is happy that he got this money.

-Orthoprax

D.C. said...

I think that we're starting to go in circles, but I will try to further clarify my posiiton.

First of all, I don't "value one Torah precept improperly over the other." My only point was that despite my obvious recognition of the bad in his taking his own life, I can also recognize the good in his having saved his friend. I still think, though, that he made the incorrect decision.

I don't know if this is exactly the reaction that you are attributing to your hypothetical believers, but I can only speak for myself.

Rules are not the same as values. Halakhah is a set of rules. I see the rules as a reflection of God's values and the relative weights that should be assigned to them. It seems that you are (or, rather, your hypothetical hypocritical believer is) viewing the rules as themselves being the purest reflection of God's will, and therefore assuming that any action which the rules deem permitted has only positive value, and any aciton which the rules deem forbidden has only negative value.

This basic debate is at least as old as Plato. I suspect that it may also be behind the machloket of Abayei and Rava in Temurah (bottom of 4b - top of 5a).

I would even venture to say that it was the set of values that was given at Sinai, and that many a machloket can be understood a dispute of which of two conflicting values wins out in a given situation. While the halakhah is clearly like R' Akiva, remember that Ben Peturah was a believer, too, and was, presumably, working within the Torah values system.

Orthoprax said...

D.C.,

“First of all, I don't "value one Torah precept improperly over the other." My only point was that despite my obvious recognition of the bad in his taking his own life, I can also recognize the good in his having saved his friend. I still think, though, that he made the incorrect decision.”

Aha, I do think we are going in circles as we’ve already established that any good results of the act are irrelevant. We have already agreed that the act itself is noble even with poor results. So you _cannot_, without contradiction, now be saying that you see value in the act because of the good which was done by it.

“Rules are not the same as values. Halakhah is a set of rules. I see the rules as a reflection of God's values and the relative weights that should be assigned to them. It seems that you are (or, rather, your hypothetical hypocritical believer is) viewing the rules as themselves being the purest reflection of God's will, and therefore assuming that any action which the rules deem permitted has only positive value, and any aciton which the rules deem forbidden has only negative value.”

I can understand any man-made set of moral values as having some internal conflicts. As they’re only human constructs, perfection is hardly expected. Values bump and grind against each other until some equilibrium is found. But here, halachah is supposed to be the will of God. The rules embody the values which God is supposed to hold. As such, there shouldn’t be conflicts. Following the rules would be the equivalent of following the moral code of God - which we’ve already established is different from human moral codes and we don’t truly understand it anyway.

Human understandings of “positive” and “negative” values are not significant when posed against the moral rules of God. It would be presumptuous for a believer to value something which goes against halachah. Since we cannot understand God’s values as values - all we have to go on are the rules themselves.

“I don't know if this is exactly the reaction that you are attributing to your hypothetical believers, but I can only speak for myself.”

I cannot understand the position you hold unless you are in fact valuing things contradictory to halachah and simply contending otherwise. You are taking your human feelings of value and appropriating them towards the rules.

-Orthoprax

D.C. said...

"Since we cannot understand God’s values as values - all we have to go on are the rules themselves."

Well, that's one view of what's wrong with saying "al kan tzippor yagi`u rachamekha" (Berakhot 33b). It's not the only view, though.

The Rambam (Moreh ha-Nevukhim 3:48) explicitly states that he believes this view was rejected.

Does your hypothetical believer believe that Moshe Rabbeinu received the equivalent of a "Mishneh Torah" at Sinai, and that every machloket is simply due to an error in transmission?

I don't think that this was the understanding of Chazal themselves, it's certainly not the understanding of the Rambam (see Shoresh 2 in the hakdamah to Sefer ha-Mitzvot), and it's not my understanding.

Orthoprax said...

D.C,

"Does your hypothetical believer believe that Moshe Rabbeinu received the equivalent of a "Mishneh Torah" at Sinai, and that every machloket is simply due to an error in transmission?"

That's what the typical Oral Law belief is. The Oral Law was given to Moses at the same time as the written Law. Though some would say not all at Sinai, but spread over the course of the forty years in the wilderness. It was only written down because it was in danger of being forgotten. The conflicts from the time of the Talmud until this day are because we have forgotten the intricacies of the laws for every situation. But Chazal had ruach hakodesh and their opinions are authoritative.

"I don't think that this was the understanding of Chazal themselves, it's certainly not the understanding of the Rambam (see Shoresh 2 in the hakdamah to Sefer ha-Mitzvot), and it's not my understanding."

It couldn't have been the understanding of Chazal because they knew they were only scholars not magicians. Later generations idealized them. Many of Rambam's views of theology were and are unorthodox. And apparently yours are too.

Unorthodox in the sense that they are irregular, not necessarily that they are beyond the limits of what Orthodox Judaism will accept.

-Orthoprax