Monday, May 11, 2009

RaMBaM (Maimonides) and Middle Knowledge: A Puzzle in the Lehem Mishneh

Here is the abstract of an article I just had published in Bar Ilan University's Jewish Studies journal, BBD. The whole article can be found in RTF format at:

RaMBaM and Middle Knowledge:

A Puzzle in the Lehem Mishneh


RaMBaM’s Hilkhot Teshuva 2:2 requires that a penitent call upon “Him who knows all secrets to witness that he will never return to this sin again.” R. Abraham Di Boton’s commentary Lehem Mishneh on that passage seems to be based on the idea that RaMBaM would be afraid of attributing knowledge of the future to God, because that would contradict human freewill. This is odd, since in Teshuva 5:5 RaMBaM explicitly rejects the notion that divine foreknowledge contradicts human freewill. Surely the author of Lehem Mishneh must have been aware of that passage! There is reason to believe that Di Boton thought that RaMBaM's solution to the foreknowledge/freewill problem is based upon the notion that God exists in a permanent present beyond the dimension of time as experienced by human beings. It may further be suggested that Di Boton's comments on Teshuva 2:2 are not motivated by worries about a contradiction between human freewill and divine foreknowledge, but rather by worries about a contradiction between human freewill and divine middle knowledge (knowledge of how someone would act in any possible situation, whether or not those situations ever actually come about in reality). Since the idea of God existing beyond time does not obviously solve the contradiction between freewill and middle knowledge, Di Boton had to take this new problem of freewill into account, despite what the RaMBaM wrote in Teshuva 5:5.

Berel Dov Lerner

Kibbutz Sheluhot

D.N. Beit Shean 10910

Western Galilee College

Monday, November 10, 2008

Samaritans, Jews and Philosophers

Published in The Expository Times, 113 (4) 2002 pp. 152-6.

Peter Winch, D.Z. Phillips and Lars Hertzberg have all understood Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan as dealing with the proper attitude of any person to his or her fellow human beings. Reading the parable against the background of Talmudic literature, I argue that the parable actually addresses ethical issues involving the notion of membership in a community and the duties which community members owe to each other.

Read it at:

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Should Philosophers be Consistent? (The first in a series of two articles)

(See the second article in my previous post. My present article appears in Think: Philosophy for Everyone, issue 17/18 Spring 2008, pp. 201-2.)

Consistency is a virtue for trains: what we want from a philosopher is insights, whether he comes by them consistently or not.
Stephen Vizinczey

Would it be wrong for a philosopher to sometimes argue for one position while at other times arguing for another, contradictory thesis? What should we think of a philosopher who devotes one book to proving God’s existence, and another to defending atheism?

The notion that it is somehow valuable for a philosopher to strive for consistency is based on a false picture of how human knowledge progresses. If it were up to each individual philosopher to single-handedly create a comprehensive and coherent grand system, then it would be important for all of a philosopher’s publications to agree with each other. Philosophy is, however, (like science) a communal rather than an individual pursuit. The individual philosopher makes his or her contribution to the discipline by presenting new ideas to the philosophical community as subjects for debate and criticism. At the end of the day, a philosopher must depend upon his or her peers to evaluate a new idea, and it is the community of philosophers which will draw out its full implications.

Many people do believe that great individual geniuses are responsible for important intellectual breakthroughs, but that impression is just an artifact of a certain way of retelling the history of ideas. Biography is a compelling literary genre, and as a result we have many books that concentrate upon a few outstanding thinkers, and very few that tease out the complicated processes by which new knowledge is produced by communities of researchers. It would be enormously difficult – and not very entertaining – to describe how new ideas developed through the interaction of many different people, but that must not blind us to the existence of such processes.

Once we appreciate the communal nature of philosophy, it becomes immediately clear why it is counterproductive for individual philosophers to censor their own work out of fears of inconsistency. If someone who has published theistically-oriented work in the past suddenly comes up with an interesting line of atheistic arguments, she has a duty to share those new ideas with her peers. It would be both unfair as well as foolishly arrogant for an individual philosopher to decide not to develop and publish lines of thought just because they do not agree with her previous work. Philosophers should let their minds take them were they may; in any case, it will be the community of scholars who end up separating the wheat from the chaff. So: let a thousand flowers bloom, and let each gardener plant a thousand flowers!

Should Philosophers be Consistent? (The second in a series of two articles)

(My article appears in Think: Philosophy for Everyone issue 17/18 Spring 2008, pp. 203-4. See the first article above)

Consistency is the hallmark of serious thought. Philosophers are human beings and it is a general truth of human psychology that when people are not expected to hold consistent opinions they find little incentive to think deeply about what they say before they say it. It is simply impractical to assume that the quality of philosophical work does not suffer when there is no price to be paid when philosophers change their minds. Why invest effort in working out the implications of an idea before publishing it when you can painlessly change your mind in a later article?

Consistency is vital for the task of interpreting a philosopher’s writings. If consistency may be assumed, then an ambiguous passage found in one paper written by a particular philosopher can be interpreted in the light of passages from other books and articles written by that same philosopher. However, if inconsistency were to become the norm, every paper and monograph would become an isolated exegetical island. If a particular passage proved unyielding to our best efforts at interpretation within the confines of the work in which it appeared, we would have nowhere left to turn to for help.

Finally, the view that philosophers should have no qualms about being inconsistent is based on a false picture of how human knowledge progresses. Philosophy is (like science) a communal rather than an individual pursuit. The individual philosopher makes his or her contribution to the discipline by faithfully representing certain ideas within the philosophical community. The process by which a philosophical idea is tested is similar to the workings of a court of law. Some philosophers tenaciously defend the idea, while others attack it. Imagine the miscarriages of justice that would take place if attorneys for the defense and prosecutors felt free to switch roles as often as they liked during the course of a trial! Similarly, if ideas could not claim the allegiance of particular philosophers, how could we be sure that they ever enjoyed a fair “day in court”? It is especially unfortunate when the inventors of new ideas abandon them, because the person who invents an idea is very likely to be particularly well-suited to defend it.

Of course, sometimes a philosopher will find herself compelled by persuasive criticism to change her mind. In such cases, however, the philosopher involved owes her readers a special debt. She must take pains to explicitly announce her change of heart and to lay out her new stand regarding her earlier writings. She must directly engage with the arguments she had previously forwarded in support of her now abandoned thesis and explain why she no longer finds them convincing. Failing to do so would make the interpretation of her work unnecessarily difficult, and serve to undermine the quality of philosophical debate.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

My New Book Review Blog

I have just put together a blog with links to web-published book reviews I have written and with texts of my published and forthcoming book reviews that are not otherwise available online. Most of the books reviewed are philosophical.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Multicultural Dialogue on the Transmigration of Souls

Think 9:77-85 (Spring 2005) ©Berel Dov Lerner

Three students, namely Walid, a Druze man, Fatimah, a Muslim woman and Sigal, a secular Jewish woman are eating lunch in the cafeteria at the Western Galilee Academic College.

WALID: I’m thinking of studying some philosophy next year. Aren’t you two taking the philosophy of religion course? How is it?

FATIMAH: I’ve got to admit it’s a bit strange. I’m not completely at home at home with the idea of talking about God so casually. It’s not that the lecturer is disrespectful, but he doesn’t seem to always appreciate the gravity of the topics he discusses. A few weeks ago he developed some ideas based on the example of God playing chess against a human. A very religious Jewish student came up to him at the end of class and asked to be excused from attending further lectures. The student said he just couldn’t bear the frivolous way that philosophers talk about God.

SIGAL: It’s amazing how closed-minded people can be!

FATIMAH: Maybe you are also a bit closed-minded in your own way?

SIGAL: What do you mean?

FATIMAH: Well, suppose someone were to give a series of lectures about medical ethics and all of the examples discussed involved members of your own family. Imagine; the lecturer would constantly mention your mother by name and make witty observations about whether she should have aborted you, under what conditions you would consider having her taken off a ventilator, or whether the public should have the right to know if she is HIV positive. Wouldn’t that disturb you? Maybe that religious student feels very close to God. He is just as bothered by the way some philosophy professors talk about God as you would be hearing them talk about your mother!

WALID: Heavy. So what did the heretic lecturer have to say today?

FATIMAH: I was just trying…

SIGAL: Ok, ok, you’ve made your point. Today’s lecture was about life after death. Excuse my candour, but the whole thing seems ridiculous to me. People simply are their bodies. When the body dies, the person goes with it!

FATIMAH: Well, that’s quite an assumption. Why can’t there be a soul that survives the body’s death?

SIGAL: Look at it this way. The continued and proper functioning of whatever it is you call a soul is obviously dependent on the state of the body. My soul’s powers of reason are promptly dissolved by a few ounces of vodka swallowed by my body. If my body were to stop breathing for the next few minutes, I would never think another conscious thought again. When my body dies completely, I can only assume that my ‘spiritual’ functions will die with it.

FATIMAH: Not so fast. Maybe death allows the soul to be freed of the limitations imposed by a damaged body. It may sound silly, but think of the body as being like a kind of shoe. When a high-heel breaks off, you start hobbling around as if you had sprained your ankle. But just kick off your shoes and you can start walking barefoot again! Maybe that’s what hap­pens when people die and their souls no longer suffer from their bodies’ ailments. The soul kicks off its broken body, and may resume its spiritual life unhindered.

SIGAL: That sounds like a very problematic ‘maybe’ to me. I’ll grant you that your thesis may be logically possible, but where is the evidence for it?

FATIMAH: I could just as easily dismiss your thesis as merely ‘logically possible’. What evidence can you offer?

SIGAL: But the burden of proof is on you, Fatimah. My thesis only talks about human bodies, and you already believe in the existence of bodies! However, your thesis requires that I believe in a whole new category of beings, in souls that can survive in a disembodied state. It is easy to prove that some kind of thing exists; all you have to do is produce an example of it. But how can I be expected to show that disembodied souls do not exist? Should I take you on a guided tour of the entire universe and show you how we never come across an example of a disembodied soul? Wouldn’t it be more reason­able to demand that you introduce me to one single existing disembodied soul? Anyway, I’ve got another problem for you. Suppose that disembodied spirits or whatever it is that is supposed to survive death really do exist. You still have to deal with the problem of personal identity. All through this semester, we’ve been eating lunch together every Wednesday. How do I know that you are the same Fatimah I ate with last week, and how do you know that I’m the same Sigal who ate with you last week? We recognize each other as soon as we see each other’s face, each other’s body. We’ve always known each other as embodied human beings. Now suppose I were to die tomorrow, and simultaneously with my death, a new incorporeal spirit would somehow come into existence. Why would it even occur to you to identify that particular entity as your dearly departed Sigal?

FATIMAH: I think that you should have paid more attention to today’s lecture. There is a respectable body of philosophical opinion, reaching back to John Locke in the 17th century, which sees personal identity as involving the continuation of memory, or perhaps of cognitive skills and character traits. Imagine if some disembodied spirit managed to communicate with me, claiming to be my late grandfather. Suppose it demonstrated knowledge of all of the most intimate details of my late grandfather’s life, told jokes just as my grandfather used to, let me beat him in chess in the same transparent way that my grandfather used to, and so on. Would it be wrong of me to identify that spirit with my grandfather?

SIGAL: All right, I can see your point, but how can you even begin to imagine a disembodied spirit? Everything has got to be somewhere. Just where would your grandfather’s spirit exist? Can you talk about something lacking any material presence having a location?

WALID: Just a minute, I’ve been holding my tongue long enough. I can understand how Western philosophers might get all confused by the idea of surviving death, but have you considered the transmigration of souls? Sigal, you should be happy with the idea, because transmigrant souls are embod­ied, while Fatimah will be pleased to know that transmigrants posses memories and character traits that survive from previous lifetimes. Most importantly, I’m not just talking about a theoretical possibility; transmigration of souls is a fact of life! I don’t think of myself as being particularly religious, but just ask any Druze student, we all know of cases of transmigration. There was a border policeman from my own village who was killed in Lebanon. Years later, a Druze boy showed up from the Golan who knew every intimate detail of the policeman’s life. The widow and her family are convinced that the boy is the fallen policeman, and I see no reason to disagree! If you had met him, your technical worries about identity would melt away.

SIGAL: Look, I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but we’ve all heard Druze stories about the transmigration of souls, and it’s just too weird for me.

WALID: But you do agree with me that such things occur among the Druze — what’s your explanation?

SIGAL: I would have to look into the details before suggesting an exact explanation. I do know that some people, such as psychics and tarot-card readers, are very good at picking up information from a person’s manner of speaking and body language. Maybe something like that is involved.

WALID: So you are saying that these kids are deliberately faking it?

SIGAL: Deliberately? Not necessarily. Some neurosis might be behind it, driving them to assume the identities of deceased people and to subconsciously gather appropriate information about them.

WALID: I see. When people experience something that you don’t understand, you call them crazy.

SIGAL: Look, here’s my problem: why is it that these stories always involve some Druze boy from a village in Lebanon or the Golan? Why don’t any Jewish kids from north Tel-Aviv ever announce that they are fallen soldiers returned from the dead? If the transmigration of souls was an objective, independent element of reality, I would expect to find it everywhere, but I don’t. That’s why I say that the ‘transmigration of souls’ is simply a psychological disorder refracted through the lens of culture.

FATIMAH: Nice metaphor, but what does it mean?

SIGAL: Well, suppose someone has to deal with a lot of stress in his or her life, or perhaps they suffer from some kind of mild brain dysfunction. The outward symptoms of the disorder and its meaning for patient will depend on the cultural background of the victim. Western girls read about supermodels and become anorexic, Druze boys learn about the beliefs of their culture and bear transmigrated souls.

WALID: Even if I accepted your psychological explanation of transmigration — which I don’t — I still wouldn’t call it a ‘disorder.’ It’s not at all like anorexia, which puts a tremendous strain on families and can be fatal to its victims. These transmigrant kids enjoy a certain harmless celebrity and the grieving families find some solace. Everybody wins!

SIGAL: I can certainly agree with you that even I would rather deal with a transmigrant son than with an anorexic daughter. However, I must still insist that no matter how benign or even benevolent it may seem, a delusion is a delusion, and people whose lives are built upon self-delusion are not psychologically healthy.

FATIMAH: OK Sigal, here’s a thought for you; Walid, are there any gay men in your village?

WALID: Pardon?

FATIMAH: I asked if there are any gay men in your village, do you know any gay Druze men?

WALID: I don’t know what that has to do with anything, but let me think. I did once see something in the paper about a Druze homosexual, but no, I never met one and I am sure that there aren’t any in my village.

FATIMAH: Sigal, what do you say to that?

SIGAL: It can’t be true. I’ve read that about four percent of all human male populations are gay, and Walid’s village is no exception.

WALID: So where are they all hiding?

SIGAL: In the closet. Or perhaps, lacking role models or social recognition, they simply become unhappy people who have no idea how to act as their true selves.

WALID: OK Fatimah, now I get it. Sigal, you’ve been set up! You assumed that Druze ideas about transmigration must be false and that they must give rise to neurotic self-deception. But Druze beliefs could just as easily be correct and help people gain true self-understanding. Suppose some kid in north Tel-Aviv were to begin recalling a genuine previous lifetime. He might have recurring dreams about living an adult life, about dying as an adult. He might feel a compulsion to visit some strange family. He might discover himself feeling surprisingly at home in places he’d never been before. Lacking the role models and social recognition afforded by the Druze community, he would never be able to make any sense of it at all. He would probably try to repress the whole thing and end up on some psychoanalyst’s couch.

FATIMAH: There may not seem to be many transmigrants in north Tel-Aviv, but there are certainly plenty of neurotics!

SIGAL: Touché! Maybe that’s my real problem; I have to come to terms with my latent transmigratory tendencies!

WALID: So that’s it, Sigal the skeptic believes in the transmigration of souls!

SIGAL: Come now, do you think I will give up that easily? Why should I prefer your supernatural explanation over my psychological explanation?
WALID: That brings us back to the question of evidence. I must still insist that your psychological explanations cannot account for the objectively accurate, in-depth knowledge of previous lifetimes demonstrated by transmigrants.

SIGAL: I’ve never interviewed or even met any alleged transmigrants, and I haven’t even read any serious research about them. I can’t really pretend to have an informed opinion regarding the evidence you’re talking about. But you know what Walid? Now that you’ve gotten me to start entertaining ideas from outside my customarily scientific world-view, your evidence for transmigration is looking weaker by the minute.

WALID: Why would that be?

SIGAL: Up to now we’ve been discussing the phenomenon of Druze ‘transmigrants’ as if there were only two basic avenues of explanation available. Either they can be explained away in scientific terms as being unusually perceptive yet delusional misfits, or we can embrace the traditional Druze explanation and admit to the reality of the transmigration of souls. No doubt Walid could cite cases that would be very difficult to explain in the conventional scientific framework. But that doesn’t mean I have to accept transmigration!

FATIMAH: Of course not. Just because you don’t have a good scientific explanation available at the moment doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to devise one in the future. You may be better off leaving a phenomenon unexplained than accepting what you believe to be a patently bad explanation of it.

SIGAL: That’s an important point, but I’m on to something else. Faced with the problem of Druze transmigrants, Walid expects me to abandon the framework of my customary materialistic and scientific world-view. But as soon as I do begin considering paranormal explanations, there is no reason why I have to agree that transmigration is the best paranormal explanation available.

WALID: What else do you have in mind?

SIGAL: How about telepathy? Perhaps the young boy from the Golan was simply picking up information about the deceased from the thoughts of the bereaved? When people ask the boy questions in order to test him, it would only be natural for them to be thinking of the answers in expectation of his replies.

WALID: Again you seem to imply that transmigrants are charlatans.

SIGAL: I’m not saying the boy is a sham. For some reason, he has found himself overwhelmed by other peoples’ thoughts regarding the deceased. His culture offers him self-understanding in terms of the transmigration of souls, so of course he takes that role upon himself.

WALID: But can you accept telepathy?

FATIMAH: Well, for Sigal it’s an issue of intellectual damage control. I can see how belief in telepathy might wreak less havoc upon her scientific world-view than would belief in the transmigration of souls. All that telepathy requires is that one person have access to the current thoughts of another. In order to believe in transmigration, Sigal must be prepared to accept the notion that a new-born baby can somehow incorporate the soul of a recently dead adult. That poses some serious difficulties. If the transmigrant eventually remembers so much from his previous life, why wasn’t he born knowing how to talk? How does the soul pass through space from one person to the next?

WALID: Souls in space? Five minutes ago you adopted Locke’s claim that memory establishes personal identity. Now consider this. Suppose I die tomorrow. Instantaneously, a beautiful baby boy is born who somehow remembers all of the events of my life, just as if he had lived them himself. That should be enough to convince a Lockean such as yourself that my personal identity continues in him. There is no need for you to talk about ‘souls passing through space’. All that you need is someone with my memories, not someone with my soul.

FATIMAH: Technically you may be right. Locke did distinguish between ‘souls’ and ‘persons’. Perhaps he left room for the possibility that someone could be thought of as the continu­ation of a particular person’s existence while not necessarily possessing that person’s original soul. But what do you want from me? You are the one who insists on talking about the transmigrations of souls.

WALID: Fatimah, when did you become such a skeptic?

FATIMAH: I am a believer, but who ever said Muslims are supposed to believe in transmigration?

WALID: I’d be the last person to tell you what Muslims are supposed to believe in! However, Sigal, I remain unconvinced by your theory. You admit that you don’t know much about the kind of evidence that’s around, and I don’t think that all of it can be explained away by telepathy. For instance: What would you say about a transmigrant who knew where the deceased had hidden some precious object that no one else could find? Mere telepathic access to the thoughts of the living could not account for such a feat!

SIGAL: That would considerably complicate matters, and I am starting to enjoy the idea of blaming all of my neurosis on psychological baggage from past lifetimes. We’ve got to find an opportunity to carefully examine the evidence together — that sounds more like science than philosophy! Anyway, it’s time for our next class.

Understanding A (Secular) Primitive Society

Religious Studies Sept 1995 v31 n3 pp. 303-9 © COPYRIGHT 1995 Cambridge University Press

In her essay entitled `Heathen Darkness’,(1) the anthropologist Mary Douglas has exposed one of the most prevalent modern misunderstandings of ’primitive’ societies, the myth of primitive piety:

It seems to be an important premise of popular thinking about us, the civilised, and them, the primitives, that we are secular, sceptical and frankly tending more and more away from religious belief, and that they are religious. (p. 73)

Douglas goes on to discuss how the myth of primitive piety has served both religious and anti-religious ideologies, and more particularly, how it has thwarted the proper development of the anthropology of religion. There is always a risk involved in studying the religious life of traditional people; they may turn out to be thoroughly secular. In that case the ethnographer is left to make an uncomfortable choice between publishing the heretical finding that `My tribe hasn’t got any religion’ (p. 76) and blindly assuming that native secretiveness makes their faith impenetrable to outsiders. Most anthropologists avoid the problem altogether by attending to safer issues such as politics and economics. Furthermore, the assumption of a universal (and static) traditional piety makes a genuinely comparative study of religion impossible: they (the `primitives.’) are religious, while we (the `civilised’) have become, after a long and twisted spiritual history, secular. Such a view hardly leaves room for any enlightening application of insights gained from the study of traditional societies to the analysis of the Western religious heritage or of our own contemporary spiritual situation. This predicament leads Douglas to proclaim the importance of the recognition of primitive secularity and heterodoxy for the understanding of religion: `Unless we can think of tribes as secular, or given to mystery cults, dualist philosophies, or heterodoxies about the nature of grace and the godhead, the questions that have unleashed historic wars and mass executions, we have hardly begun the anthropology of religion’ (p. 81). I would add that important work in the philosophy of religion has also been distorted by an inability to recognize `primitive’ secularity.

Almost thirty years ago Peter Winch wrote an article entitled `Understanding a Primitive Society’ (UPS), in which he tried to defend and extend the argument made in his earlier book, The Idea of a Social Science (ISS).(2) Both works have become seminal texts for contemporary Anglo-American philosophy, and have together generated a whole literature of debate among philosophers, theologians and social scientists. In his article, Winch anchors a theoretical discussion of the intelligibility of religion and of cross-cultural understanding in examples taken from the mystical beliefs and practices of the Azande, a traditional people living on Africa’s Nile -- Congo divide. The source of these examples is the ethnographic classic, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande,(3) by the prominent British anthropologist, Sir E. E. Evans-Pritchard (hereafter: E-P). Since Winch’s work is so well-known there is little point to my offering yet another summary of his philosophical arguments, especially as these have no direct bearing on the topic of the present essay. Instead, I shall concern myself with the spiritual attitudes Winch attributes to the Azande, and how a broader consideration of E-P’s writings may lead to a different understanding of the spiritual condition of Zande society, an understanding which may be exemplary for Douglas’s program of a reformed anthropology of religion.

Winch’s reading of E-P is not entirely uncritical. A central aim of Winch’s paper is to demonstrate that E-P is mistaken in pronouncing Zande magic ineffective and their belief in the existence of witches false. According to Winch, by judging magic ineffective, E-P applies a criterion appropriate to the evaluation of technologies to social practices which do not play a technological role in Zande society. Furthermore, says Winch, E-P’s claim that Zande witches do not really exist involves the application of epistemological standards native to empirical science to the evaluation of beliefs which do not belong to a scientific theory.

Having rejected as misplaced the question of witchcraft’s empirical reality, he suggests a different role for such notions and practices in Zande life:

We have a drama of resentements, evil doing, revenge, expiation, in which there are ways of dealing (symbolically) with misfortunes and their disruptive effects on a man’s relations with his fellows. (UPS, p. 321)

The idea of `dealing with misfortunes’ is fundamental for Winch’s interpretation of Zande mysticism. Every human society is limited by the effectiveness of the technologies it has developed for the preservation and promotion of that which it holds dear, i.e. life, health, prosperity, security, and so on. When these are threatened by contingencies beyond the control of available technology, people must find ways to recognize their own limitations without being paralyzed into inaction. While improved technology may remove a particular source of anxiety, it cannot offer a complete solution to the human predicament because something can always go wrong:

He [the Zande man] may wish thereby, in a certain sense, to free himself from dependence on it [something important to his life yet over which he has imperfect control]. I do not mean by making sure that it does not let him down, because the point is that, whatever he does, he may still be let down. The important thing is that he should understand that and come to terms with it. (UPS, p. 320)

According to Winch, Zande magic, like Christian prayer, expresses such an attitude to the contingencies of life:

I do not say that Zande magical rites are at all like Christian prayers of supplication in the positive attitude to contingencies which they express. What I do suggest is that they are alike in that they do, or may, express an attitude to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these. (UPS, p. 321)

What would E-P say to all of this? Winch himself has always been aware that the relationship between his philosophy and E-P’s ethnography is far from simple:

The relationship between [Alasdair] MacIntyre, Evans-Pritchard and myself is a complicated one. MacIntyre takes Evans-Pritchard’s later book, Nuer Religion, as an application of a point of view like mine in the The Idea of a Social Science; he regards it as an object lesson in the absurd results to which such a position leads, when applied in practice. My own criticisms of Evans-Pritchard, on the other hand, have come from precisely the opposite direction. I have tried to show that Evans-Pritchard did not at the time of writing The Azande agree with me enough; that he did not take seriously enough the idea that the concepts used by primitive peoples can only be interpreted in the context of the way of life of those peoples. Thus I have in effect argued that Evans-Pritchard’s account of the Azande is unsatisfactory precisely to the extent that he agrees with MacIntyre and not me. (UPS, p. 315)

While in the above paragraph, Winch is discussing meta-interpretive aspects of studying another culture, it might apply equally to the actual content of particular interpretations of traditional societies. Here again E-P’s later work seems more congenial to Winch’s views. While Winch implies that E-P of The Azande underestimates the religious depth of traditional mystical practices, Nuer Religion is a virtual panegyric to primitive spirituality. Thus E-P concludes his book on the Nuer with a statement which might as easily be applied to any of the great monotheistic religions:

Though prayer and sacrifice are exterior actions, Nuer religion is ultimately an interior state. This state is externalized in rites which we can observe, but their meaning depends finally on an awareness of God and that men are dependent on him and must be resigned to his will. At this point the theologian takes over from the anthropologist.(4)

Now that is exactly the kind of spirituality which Winch wanted E-P to discover in Zande magic. Recognition of one’s dependency on God and resignation to His will constitute the classic monotheistic solution to the problem of coming to terms with the contingencies of life.

Winch’s reference to E-P ’at the time of writing The Azande’ implies a process of change of heart. The old E-P was partially blind to the diversity of human experience; the new E-P is capable of appreciating Nuer society on its own terms. Similarly, one might think that the old E-P saw primitive ritual as false technology, while the new E-P recognizes its true spiritual depth. E-P himself had disavowed the errors of The Azande ten years before Winch’s article was published!

I reject this interpretation of E-P’s development. A more careful examination of E-P’s writings reveals that rather than a change of heart, we have here a change of subject matter. According to E-P, the Azande and the Nuer are informed by fundamentally different attitudes towards life, as was immediately apparent to him upon encountering the latter:

I had previously spent many months among the Azande people of the Nile-- Uelle divide. From my earliest days among them I was constantly hearing the word mangu, witchcraft, and it was soon clear that if I could gain a full understanding of the meaning of this word I should have the key to Zande philosophy. When I started my study of the Nuer I had a similar experience. I constantly heard them speaking of kwoth, Spirit, and I realized that a full understanding of that word was the key to their -- very different -- Philosophy. (Nuer Religion, p. vi)

Another important difference between the two peoples involves their respective dependence on magic and medicine:

Coming to the Nuer from Zandeland, where everyone is a magician and medicines are legion and in daily use, I was at once struck by their negligible quantity and importance in Nuerland, and further experience confirmed my first impression. I mention them chiefly for the reason that their rarity and unimportance are indicative of the orientation of Nuer thought, which is always towards spirit. (NR, p. 104)

Not only are the Azande more interested in witchcraft and magic than they are in Spirit, E-P believes that these concerns actually bar their way from approaching God:

Witchcraft ideas play a very minor role [in Nuer religion], and magic a negligible one. Both are incompatible with a theocentric philosophy, for when both fortune and misfortune come from God they cannot also come from human powers, whether innate or learnt. (NR, pp. 316-17)

It is now possible to reappraise E-P’s view of the Azande. E-P is completely aware of the importance for people to find a way to deal with the contingencies of life. Like Winch, he does not believe that it is possible to address the spiritual implications of the reality of human frailty by undertaking yet more practical measures. It is exactly for this reason that he refuses to attribute spiritual depth to Zande magic and witchcraft, for these notions teach that `both fortune and misfortune . . . come from human powers’. Azande magic does not point to human finitude, it is viewed `as a tangible weapon of culture ... deriving its power from the knowledge of tradition and the abstinence of living men.’(5) Far from offering a way to `express an attitude to contingencies, rather than an attempt to control these’, E-P implies that Zande mysticism instills false confidence and blinds its practitioners to the real extent of their control over nature.

As we have seen, E-P argues that only theism, rather than magic, can foster a spiritually rich sensitivity to life’s contingencies. Do the Azande, in addition to their magic, possess a theistic sensibility? In his essay `Zande Theology’(6) (which could be less deceivingly titled `Zande Atheology’), E-P completes his picture of Zande spirituality (or lack of it) by discussing the notion proposed by other writers that `the idea of a Supreme Being is deeply anchored in Zande mentality’ (p. 291). Not surprisingly, E-P finds that theistic concepts and practices play a very minor role in Zande life. They have little or no concern for God or gods, almost no mythology explaining the relationship between the divine and human realms, and spend practically none of their time in worship, prayer or sacrifice. For instance, he describes how the name of Mbori, a vague supernatural entity considered by some ethnographers to be the Zande Supreme Being, enters into day to day speech:

As a fieldworker I must record that I have never heard a Zande pray and that I have seldom heard people utter his [Mbori’s] name, and then only as an ejaculation of emotional intensity and with only the vaguest suggestion of doctrinal significance. I must confess also that I have found the greatest difficulty in obtaining either information about Mbori or arousing any interest in him.... (p. 299)

One could imagine that Mbori could somehow play the same role as the God of the great monotheistic religions, but in fact the Azande do not cultivate an attitude of dependence on Mbori similar to the notion of `God’s will’ preached by Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even at the hour of death, Mbori’s providence is rarely mentioned:

In sickness and death he [the Azande] thinks of witchcraft as their cause, and not of Mbori, who does not interfere in such matters, and he seeks to cure disease and avenge death through magical and oracular processes against witches and not by prayers to Mbori. Nevertheless, it appears that death is sometimes vaguely attributed to Mbori when no other cause can be discovered. [My emphasis -- B. D. L.] (p. 300)

All-in-all, E-P paints a picture of a thoroughly secular Zande culture whose members take more-or-less effective practical measures to protect and promote their interests, but who are unwilling or unable to face up to the limitations of their powers. Their magic is not a proper medium for piety, their theistic faith almost non-existent. This description sounds startlingly familiar. A similar attitude has been central to the Western sensibility since the Enlightenment which promoted `the view that the experiences of contingency and problems of meaning that were previously interpreted in religious terms and worked-off in cult practices can be radically defused’ by technological solutions.(7) The Azande have their magic and we our technology; neither society is particularly comfortable with the idea that some contingencies will always remain beyond its control. Although our hubris may be better-founded than that of the Azande (our technology works better than their magic), both cultures (to the extent that the West is as thoroughly secular as the Azande!) share essentially the same spiritual condition.

On the opening pages of UPS, Winch suggests that the reason why anthropologists often depict magic as an irrational form of technology is that they accommodate their explanations to their own (Western) culture, `a culture whose conception of reality is deeply affected by the achievements and methods of the sciences’ (p. 307). What I am suggesting is that a broader and more careful reading of E-P’s writings reveals that far from being the product of a narrowly Western, secular, and instrumental sensibility, E-P’s studies of the Azande constitute a critical analysis of such a secular sensibility which happens to inform a traditional society. While Winch claims (but never in such harsh terms) that E-P was blind to Zande spirituality, it may be said that E-P explains why the Azande themselves are blind to the kind of spirituality embraced by Winch. Just as we are in danger of losing our ability to appreciate a religious perspective due to our `conception of reality’ which is `deeply affected by the achievements and methods of the sciences’, the Azande never developed such a perspective due to their own conception of reality which is deeply affected by the achievements and methods of magic. That is exactly the kind of comparative hypothesis sought by Mary Douglas in her essay `Heathen Darkness’. It would be fair to say that in the 1930s, Evans-Pritchard had already laid the cornerstone for Douglas’s reformed anthropology of religion.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a set of remarks which inspired Winch’s interpretation of the Azande, once wrote:

What narrowness of spiritual life we find in [Sir James] Frazer! And as a result: how impossible for him to understand a different way of life from the English one of his time! Frazer cannot imagine a priest who is not basically an English Parson of our times with all his stupidity and feebleness.(8)

Sometimes it requires an even greater effort of the imagination to recognize that the weaknesses of our own culture may reappear in the most surprising places.(9)


(1) In her Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 73-82.

(2) Peter Winch, `Understanding a Primitive Society’, American Philosophical Quarterly, 1 (1964), 307-24 and The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy (second edition) (Atlantic Highlands: Humanities Press, 1992).

(3) E-P, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937).

(4) E-P, Nuer Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956), p. 322.

(5) E-P, `The Morphology and Function of Magic: A Comparative Study of Trobriand and Zande Ritual Spells’, American Anthropologist I (1929), 619-41. Here cited as reprinted in John Middleton’s (ed.) Magic, Witchcraft, and Curing (New York: Natural History Press, 1967), pp. 1-22. Present quotation, p. 20.

(6) E-P, `Zande Theology’ in his Social Anthropology and Other Essays (New York: Free Press, 1962), pp. 288-329, here p. 300.

(7) Jurgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society (Thomas McCarthy, translator) (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984), p. 149.

(8) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough (translated by R. Rhees) (Nottinghamshire: The Brynmill Press, 1979), p. 5e.

(9) I wish to thank Professor Jacob Joshua Ross for discussing with me the issues dealt with in this paper.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Interfering with Divinely Imposed Suffering

In the course of presenting his celebrated ’vale of soul-making’ theodicy, John Hick invites his readers to consider what consequences would have followed had God chosen to govern the world in a way which would make His justice completely intelligible to human beings. I will refer to the possible world which God governs in this way as ’Justland’. Hick’s explanation of why God would not find such a world to be worthy of creation is partially based on certain assumptions about people’s reactions to just, divinely imposed suffering. Careful scrutiny of these assumptions shows them to be faulty. In order to be fair to Hick, I shall begin my discussion by quoting his description of Justland at length:

... try to imagine a world which, although not entirely free from pain and suffering, nevertheless contained no unjust and undeserved or excessive and apparently dysteleological misery. Although there would be sufficient hardships and dangers and problems to give spice to life, there would be no utterly destructive and apparently vindictive evil. On the contrary, men’s sufferings would always be seen either to be justly deserved punishments or else to serve a constructive purpose of moral training. In such a world human misery would not evoke deep personal sympathy or call forth organized relief and sacrificial help and service. For it is presupposed in these compassionate reactions both that the suffering is not deserved and that it is bad for the sufferer. We do not acknowledge a moral call to sacrificial measures to save a criminal from receiving his just punishment or a patient from receiving the painful treatment that is to cure him. But men and women often act in true compassion and massive generosity and self-giving in the face of unmerited suffering, especially when it comes in such dramatic forms as an earthquake or a mining disaster. It seems, then, that in a world that is to be the scene of compassionate love and self-giving for others, suffering must fall upon mankind with something of the haphazardness and inequity that we now experience. [1]

Hick’s description of Justland involves a number of different predicates. Several of these refer to objective moral realities: suffering in Justland is:

(1) not unjust;
(2) not undeserved;
(3) not excessive, and
(4) not utterly destructive.

Since Hick is concerned with how conditions in Justland affect the souls of its inhabitants, it is not surprising that he also mentions several predicates which describe how Justlanders perceive suffering. Suffering does not appear to be:

(5) dysteleological, or
(6) vindictive; and will always be seen as
(7) either justly deserved punishment or else to serve a constructive purpose of moral training.

In parallel to these objective and perceptual predicates, we might say that Hick is concerned with two different viewpoints on divine responsibility for evil. At the objective level, Hick tells his readers exactly what God is actually up to in his proposed world. At the subjective level, Hick describes the opinions which the Justlanders form regarding the role of suffering in human life.

Even if Hick’s readers know that he is describing a world in which suffering is always deserved, this alone does not guarantee that the inhabitants of such a world will be similarly convinced. Here we are faced with both epistemological as well as psychological issues. The epistemologist might point out that only an omniscient busybody could possibly know enough about his neighbours’ comings and goings to be rationally convinced that all of their sufferings are justified. Although Justland is free of many of the terrible tragedies which challenge the faithful of our world, it will require much extra divine tampering to ensure that it lacks convincing instances of apparently undeserved suffering. In Justland, God must be careful either to hide the sufferings of evildoers from the public eye, or to make sure that the sins of those who suffer become a matter of public knowledge.

Even if Justland were so fashioned as to demonstrate God’s love and justice to nonomniscient yet rational human observers, such unbiased observers are not to be found. The objectively deserved sufferings of charming scoundrels might evoke crises of faith, while the wellbeing of uncharming saints would be attributed to blind luck. In fact, considering people’s factual ignorance and proneness to selfdelusion, it becomes quite difficult to imagine a world in which divinely ordained punishment could both actually be and appear to be completely justified. Perhaps it would require that human inhabitants be replaced with creatures enjoying a different cognitive endowment. These difficulties alone may be serious enough to explain why it is that a just God would not (or perhaps logically could not) create our world after the fashion of Justland. Let us drop these considerations and now examine why Hick himself thinks that God did not deem Justland worthy of realization.

One of Hick’s problems with Justland (the other being that Justland’s regime of reward and punishment would eliminate the possibility of people doing good for its own sake) is based on a certain assumption regarding the human response to divinely ordained suffering, i.e. that human suffering in such a world would not evoke a compassionate response. Opportunities to feel compassion or come to the aid of others are essential for a person’s proper spiritual development. If God had created Justland, it would have remained a home to shallow, stagnant, and unloving souls.

Once more, we must differentiate between the objective side and the psychological side of Hick’s assumption. Objectively, Hick is saying that there would be no moral point to helping sufferers in such a world. After all, ’We do not acknowledge a moral call to sacrificial measures to save a criminal from receiving his just punishment.’ Furthermore, Hick offers a psychological hypothesis, i.e., that ’In such a world human misery would not evoke deep personal sympathy or call forth organized relief and sacrificial help and service.’

There is room to argue both with Hick’s psychology and with his ethics. Even if everyone accepts the philosophical thesis that a scoundrel should not be spared his deserved punishment, it is not at all clear that the sufferings of a particularly beloved scoundrel will not evoke an outpouring of heartfelt sympathy. Here we must recall Hick’s description of suffering in his proposed world as neither excessive nor ’utterly destructive’. If Hick was merely stipulating that no-one ever suffers very much in Justland, then it is hardly surprising that its inhabitants lack opportunities to grieve for each other and make dramatic contributions to each other’s wellbeing. Profound sympathy can usually only follow upon profound suffering. Hick does argue that the reality of suffering makes possible important spiritual goods such as love and courage, but this occurs in an earlier section of his book. [2] Justland is explicitly introduced in order to address the different issue of whether deserved suffering may evoke deep sympathy or impressive acts of kindness. In any event, it is far from clear that Justlanders never deserve to suffer profoundly. Human beings have a long history of perpetrating terrible crimes, crimes for which ’utter destruction’ (i.e. capital punishment) has very often been viewed as not constituting an ’excessive’ punishment. Imagine if the celebrated outlaws Bonnie and Clyde were Justlanders. God would, no doubt, arrange for them to undergo serious punitive sufferings. If they achieved the same folk-hero status in Justland as they did in our world, Bonnie and Clyde’s well-deserved sufferings would no doubt evoke widespread sympathy and even, perhaps, displays of sacrificial help.

Hick need not be too troubled by the mere psychological possibility of heartfelt sympathy in Justland. He might argue that misplaced sympathy for criminals is of no value for genuine soul-making. If Hick is correct in assuming that there is no ethical value to the relief of justly deserved punishment, Justlanders will indeed lack any possible opportunity to experience ethically valuable sympathy. The truth of Hick’s ethical assumption is far from obvious. In the context of his argument, there is something confusing about Hick’s mentioning that, ’We do not acknowledge a moral call to sacrificial measures to save a criminal from receiving his just punishment.’ I think we must distinguish between the case of a criminal, who, having been justly tried by a human court, is sentenced to punishment at the hands of his fellow humans, and the case of a sinner whose misdeeds are known to God and who suffers divine punishment. When people interfere with the just punishment of criminals by the legitimate human authorities, they may dangerously undermine governmental functions which are necessary for the preservation of civil society. Such considerations cannot enter into our judgment of those who would mitigate divinely imposed punishments; the functioning of an omnipotent God is not endangered by human meddling, nor is it dependent on human cooperation. I would go so far as to say that while as members of civil society we are required not to interfere with the human punishment of criminals, the enforcement of divine punishment (unless, of course, it is specifically commanded of human beings by God) is solely God’s own business. All things being equal, the fact that someone’s suffering is an instance of divinely ordained punishment need not nullify our prima facie duty to come to the aid of the sufferer qua fellow human being. I seek to drive a wedge between divine justice and human duty. Although this idea may appear surprising at first blush, I think that further reflection proves it to be quite intuitive and represented in the established theistic religions. Allow me to ground this claim in two examples from the Jewish tradition.

Deuteronomy 22.8 relates the safety regulation requiring (apparently flat) roofs to be enclosed by a railing or parapet: ’When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.’ [3] A stylistic anomaly of the original Hebrew is lost in translation. The phrase ’if anyone should fall from it’ (ki yipol hanofel mimenu) could be rendered literally as ’if he who falls should fall from it’. Who is this ’he who falls’? The great medieval exegete Rashi explalns: ’This man deserved to fall to his death (on account of some crime he had committed), nevertheless his death should not be occasioned by your agency, for meritorious things are brought about through the agency of good men and bad things only through the agency of evil men.’[4] According to Rashi, the potential victim of falling deserves to die, and such is, no doubt, God’s will. Nonetheless, the righteous are expected to take steps to prevent the sinner’s death. If the sinner must suffer, let it be at the hands of the wicked!

My second example touches directly on the issue of our duty to relieve the sufferings of those who have been justly punished by God. An old Talmudic tradition has it that the inhabitants of Gehenna are freed from their sufferings for the duration of the Sabbath. This creates an interesting possibility. The Sabbath ends with the (Saturday) evening prayer service, which is usually held just after nightfall. However, an individual or community may choose to extend the Sabbath by delaying or extending the evening service. Established custom has it that the concluding verses of the service should be ’sung in a pleasant voice, so that they [i.e. the time required for their recitation] should be somewhat lengthened, and [thus] delay the return of the wicked to Gehenna’. [5] In other words, this custom is specifically intended to interfere with the execution of justified divine punishment; worshippers help sinners escape (if only for a few fleeting moments) the fires of hell!

These two examples may demonstrate how the detachment of human duty from divine justice operates within a living religious tradition, but we may still ask how such detachment could possibly be justified or rational. How could I be duty bound to foil the plans of a just and omnipotent God? And if I were, par impossible, somehow to succeed in interfering with divine justice, would I not have caused the world to be a less just, less valuable place?

These two questions are intimately connected. If I am in fact duty bound to interfere with God’s plan, then my compassion towards sinners is not misplaced. The experience of genuine compassion contributes greatly to my soul’s development, perhaps outbalancing any loss incurred to the world’s worthiness through the disruption of divine punitive justice. Assuming that God desires the best possible world, this suggests that God may deliberately allow for (even welcome) the disruption of His plan to execute punishment.

Consider the following scenario: Jack is Justland’s arsonist. His fires have hurt many people and destroyed much property (leaving aside the problem of how the Justlanders remain free to hurt each other). Jill is a shy adolescent who has yet to realize her hidden potential for moral heroism. One morning, Jack awakes in a fit of coughing to discover that his own home is engulfed in smoke and flames. God, no doubt, has arranged for Jack to suffer the burns he has inflicted on others. Jill happens to pass by and, hearing cries for help, selflessly races into the inferno and pulls Jack out to safety. Jill is transfigured by her experience. The insecure girl has become a young woman of rare courage and moral seriousness.

We might imagine God’s plan subsuming two possible options:

(a) Jack receives his well-deserved punishment and is seriously burned, making the world a more just and therefore a better place than it would be otherwise.
(b) If Jill chooses to save Jack, she will be allowed to succeed in her efforts in order that she undergo spiritual growth, making the world a better place than it would be otherwise (even sustaining the loss of justice).

Thus we have a ranking of possible worlds: the best, where Jill saves Jack, next best, Jack suffers for his sins; worst, Jack is in no danger of punishment.

Again we are left wondering: how could helping Jack avoid his well-deserved punishment constitute a valuable (rather than misdirected and confused) act of compassion? I think that the answer to this will depend on how one views the thorny issue of divine punishment. Does such punishment come to serve some independent ideal of abstract justice? Or has Jack merely forfeited his right to protection from punishment, while the value of the punishment itself is purely educational, i.e. it serves as a warning to others and perhaps to the sinner himself? As for the first possibility, I shall merely point out that anyone who praises God’s reported tendency to mercifully relieve sinners of their deserved divine punishments must equally value human efforts to do the same. On to the second possibility, i.e. that punishment is educational. Here the problem with Jill’s helping Jack is not that she is trying to disrupt some sort of moral fabric of the universe, but rather that Jill is interfering with an important educational exercise. In that case, one might argue that if the spiritual benefit gained by all involved from witnessing an instance of merciful human intervention (plus the immediate advantage to Jack of being spared suffering!) is greater than the spiritual benefits gained from witnessing an instance of divine punishment, then Jill’s attempt to intervene is genuinely valuable. Furthermore, although Jack in his wickedness may have forfeited his right not to suffer at God’s hands, this does not drain Jill’s intervention of value as a (at least!) supererogatory moral act. We must also consider the great spiritual disutility of Jill’s not helping Jack. By standing idly by as Jack burns, Jill not only misses an opportunity for soul-making; she also undergoes a profoundly soul-coarsening experience.

How can Jill be sure that in Jack’s particular case, interference with divine punishment is justified? Practically speaking, Jill faces no true dilemma; she must always try to help Jack. All that Jill can be sure of is that suffering is itself an evil. She lacks the ability, the leisure and the need to evaluate the ultimate costs and benefits of her rescue attempt for the spiritual development of everyone involved. After all, if God values Jack’s justified punishment over Jill’s successful act of kindness, He will have no problem at all ensuring that Jill will fail to spare Jack his suffering. (Again we encounter the destabilizing force of free will for the whole notion of Justland. Perhaps God especially values a world in which people such as Jill are able to interact with His plans, whether for better or for worse. After all, Jack already changed the just distribution of suffering through his criminal acts. Then again, perhaps the fair distribution of suffering in Justland only applies to suffering of non- human origin. Since in his book Hick did not develop this aspect of Justland, I will avoid such speculation.)

So far I have dealt only with suffering resulting from divine punishment; what about suffering divinely imposed to ’serve a constructive purpose of moral training’? (The difference between punishment in my second theory and suffering as ’moral training’ being that moral training must be sufficiently valuable to the sufferers themselves to compensate them for the harm implicit to suffering.) Hick argues against the moral value of ameliorating such suffering from the presumed ethical fact that, ’We do not acknowledge a moral call to sacrificial measures to save...a patient from receiving the painful treatment that is to cure him.’ Once more, it is not clear what bearing the example of a painful medical cure has on the problem of suffering as an element in moral training. Here we can rehearse all of the arguments justifying human interference with divine punishment, except that in the case of suffering as moral training we shall be spared confusing speculations regarding the point of the suffering involved. It is certainly plausible that, in many instances, being the object of a ’sacrificial measure’ of kindness may be no less spiritually therapeutic than undergoing a chastening bout of suffering. Let us return to the saga of Jack and Jill. God, let us say, has arranged for Jack to suffer the burns he has inflicted on others in order that he finally appreciate the consequences of his actions. However, Jack’s realization that Jill risked life and limb to save him from the very suffering which he has caused others may be just as powerfully transforming for Jack as would have been the experience of suffering itself. Then again, perhaps lack will remained untouched by Jill’s heroism; only physical misery can move him to repent. How can Jill know whether God would prefer that Jack suffer rather than that she heroically prevent that suffering? Once again, Jill can only try to help Jack, and leave it in God’s hands to resolve the situation for the best.

Hick says that when all suffering is attributable to the activity of a just providence, no room is left for genuine human compassion. Since Justlanders know that their neighbours’ suffering is deserved, there is no point to the relief of that suffering. I have argued that such knowledge is not sufficient to drain the relief of suffering of its moral value. Such a disvaluation of kindness could only be possible in a much more heartless world than Justland, i.e., in a world whose inhabitants knew that acts of compassion would never bring about ultimately positive consequences. If I have succeeded in demonstrating that it is morally valuable for people to interfere with divinely imposed suffering, then even Justland’s sufferers are legitimate objects of merciful human intervention. Despite Justland’s other paradoxes and incoherencies, its inhabitants would not lack opportunity to be moved by authentic sympathy for the afflictions of others. [6]


(1.) John Hick Evil and the God of Love (London: Macmillan, 1974), 334. Quoted with the kind permission of the author.

(2.) Ibid., 324-327.

(3.) All biblical quotations are from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures (Philadelphia PA and New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1988).

(4.) From M. Rosenbaum and A. M. Silberman (transl.) Pentateuch with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi’s Commentary (Jerusalem: Silbermann/Routledge & Kegan Paul/Shapiro Valentine, 1973), Deuteronomy, 109.

(5.) My translation of Rabbi Israel Melt ha-Kohen Mishnah Breura on Shulkhan Arukh Orakh Hayyim (Jerusalem: Machon Da’at Yosef, 1994), 295.

(6.) My thanks to Jerome Gellman and to an anonymous reviewer for commenting on an earlier version of this paper and to William Rowe for corresponding with me in connection with some issues discussed in it.

© Cambridge University Press. This article originally appeared in Religious Studies 36:95-102 (2000).

Wittgenstein's Scapegoat

In his essay "Wittgenstein on Language and Ritual"1, Rush Rhees quotes with approval a remark written by Wittgenstein several months before he began writing his comments on Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. The remark refers to the ritual of the scapegoat, one element in the elaborate procedures described in the sixteenth chapter of Leviticus. These procedures served two functions; they were necessary for Aaron's safe entry into the Shrine (Lev.16:3) and, more generally, constituted the rite of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29-34). Here is a translation of the verses dealing specifically with the scapegoat:

Aaron shall take the two he-goats and let them stand before the Lord at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting; and he shall place lots upon the two goats, one marked for the Lord and the other marked for Azazel. Aaron shall bring forward the goat designated by lot for the Lord, which he is to offer as a sin offering; while the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be left standing alive before the Lord, to make expiation with it and to send it off to the wilderness for Azazel...When he has finished purging the Shrine, the Tent of Meeting, and the altar, the live goat shall be brought forward. Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites, whatever their sins, putting them on the head of the goat; and it shall be sent off to the wilderness through a designated man. Thus the goat shall carry on him all their iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. (Lev.16:7-9;20-22)2

And now Wittgenstein's comment:

The scapegoat on which sins are laid and which goes out into the wilderness with them, is a false picture and like all the false pictures of philosophy. Philosophy might be said to purify thought from a misleading mythology.3

Wittgenstein's comment is of singular importance for the exposition and defense of his ideas on religion. His followers have been frequently accused of "Wittgensteinian Fideism", an epithet coined by Kai Neilsen4 to refer to their alleged unwillingness to criticize religion. Here, at last, in Wittgenstein's comment, is an instance in which the criticism of a particular religious practice is undertaken by the master himself. Wittgenstein's disciples are well aware of the comment's apologetic value. In his book Belief, Change and Forms of Life 5 D.Z. Phillips quotes the comment in order to demonstrate that "one cannot ascribe to Wittenstein the view that anything that is called religious or ritualistic is free from confusion." Rhees himself originally introduced the comment in order to dispell the impression that "Wittgenstein was coming forward in defense of the ancient rituals".6

Wittgensteinian criticism of the scapegoat ritual is philosophically problematic. It requires the underlying assumption that we possess an infallible appreciation of ancient Israelite sensibilities. To quote Rhees, "Wittgenstein thought the symbol, in the role that was given it, was badly mistaken."7 In order to make such a judgment, Wittgenstein would have to know a) what account of the expiation of sin would make sense for the ancient Israelite religion and b) how the ancient Israelites were likely to misinterpret the symbolism of the scapegoat. Rhees suggests that the ancient Israelites thought along the following lines:

If the people assembled here do bear the sins of their fathers, and of their brothers now living, then why should the priest not bring in some animal to be made one of them in this sense only - that it bears their sins - and then, after laying his hands on it, send it with their sins away from them into the wilderness?'

Rhees himself admits that "it is hard to see the substitution in the scapegoat that delivers them of their sins. I do not know how they thought of this. Nordoes anyone now." Yet he concludes with the non-sequitor "This does not affect the point Wittgenstein is making."

After freely admitting that he lacks a basic understanding of what he sees as the central point of the scapegoat ritual, Rhees still remains confident enough to lable it as misleading. The conventional dictates of interpretational charity point to a different conclusion. If a particular interpertation of an ancient ritual implies that the ritual was essentially flawed, this should motivate us to reexamine the validity of the interpretation itself. More specifically, we should consider the possibility that the investigator had inadvertently sought in the ritual the expression of ideas native to his own culture yet absent in the culture in which the ritual was actually practiced. In particular, while the scapegoat ritual might seem misleading to someone living in a Christian culture, it may have been completely unproblematic for Jews living before the rise of Christianity. After all, it is meaningless to talk about a "picture" being false outside of any cultural context. It is equally meaningless to talk about a ritual presenting a particular "picture" in an extra-cultural sense. Rhees does demonstrate some concern for the importance of the cultural context of ritual. H e believes that his interpretation of the scapegoat is grounded in an appreciation of tribal notions of "bearing the sins of others", ie. that one may bear the sins committed by the members of one's family, living or dead. Against this I contend that Rhees's attempt to uncover the source of the scapegoat's misleading nature merely underscores his own cultural prejudices. Let us first examine his analysis of the linguistic description of the ritual:

When Wittgenstein calls this rite a misleading picture, he may mean something like this: consider

1)"Children carry the sins of their fathers."

2)"A goat, when consecrated, carries the sins of the people."

In the first sentence "carry" is used in the sense of the whole sentence. In the second sentence "carry" seems to mean what it does in "The goat carries on his back the basket in which we put our fire wood"; and yet it can't mean that.

It is always dangerous to subject a translation to linguistic analysis. In the present instance, the Hebrew verb translated as "carry" in Leviticus simply does not possess exactly the same range of meaning as the English word "carry". Perhaps this point is not sufficiently philosophical; but can Rhees be seriously suggesting that a proper understanding (an understanding so precise that it may serve as the basis for the rejection of the symbolism it means to explain) of the Old Testament may be gained through the analysis of contemporary English usage? Exodus 34:7 has been translated as Extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. The same verb which was translated as "carrying" in Leviticus is here translated as "forgiving". The philological situation does not allow for easy analogies to English.

Problems of interpretation aside, it is possible to develop a much more charitable interpretation of the scapegoat based on Rhees's own schema. Consider the remark made by Hegel after first seeing Napoleon: “This morning I saw the Emperor - this world-soul - ride through the town."8 Presumably, Napoleon was riding on a horse. The horse bore Napoleon on his back. Hegel's remark might be restated as "This morning I saw a horse bearing a world-soul". Compare the following two sentences:

A) The Emperor bears a world-soul.

B) The horse bears a world-soul.

We may now rewrite Rhees's comment:

In the first sentence "bears" is used in the sense of the whole sentence. In the second sentence "bears" seems to mean what it does in "The horse bears on his back the basket in which we put our fire wood"; and yet it can't mean that.

The point is, given the context of Hegel's statement, that it can mean just that. Napoleon's horse was just a horse; he let his master worry about the consciousness of freedom. Although B) may sound like a joke, it is not hard to imagine a cultural situation in which it could become a perfectly normal and comprehensible utterance, i.e. if Hegel's remark had entered into to everyday speech as a way of referring to Napoleon. I would suggest that Rhees's statement 2) about the scapegoat be understood in the same fashion. The ritual of the scapegoat was in fact symbolic; it symbolized God's forgiveness for the sins of the people, the sins had been symbolically banished to the uninhabited wasteland. However, it was unnecessary for the goat to substitute for anyone or be granted honorary membership in the nation of Israel. No one had to take these sins upon himself; God was going to forgive the sins, make them "go away". The high priest symbolically placed the people's sins on the goat - but this does not mean that the goat was thought to have taken on some kind of spiritual responsibility for them. The goat's role was purely practical; he served as a means of transportation. Perhaps this would be clearer to us if instead of merely uttering a verbal confession the priest had tied a written list of sins to the goat's head. The goat's job would be to physically carry the list far away to the wilderness. Of course there was no written list, but we can hardly fault the ancient Israelites for not introducing yet another material element into a ritual which was meant to express an entirely spiritual concern.

A comparison with a Jewish ritual, known as tashlih, which is still observed today, may make this clearer. On the afternoon of the first day of the Jewish New Year, it is customary to visit a natural body of water, throw crumbs of bread into it, and read certain verses from Scripture, including Micah 7:19:

He will take us back in love; He will cover up our iniquities, You will hurl all their sins into the depths of the sea.

The point of this ceremony is to symbolize the longing for divine forgiveness. It might be said that the bread crumbs represent sins, and that they are borne away by the waters of the river or stream. No one would think that the water was somehow going to suffer for the sins of the participants in the ritual, or that Micah meant to say that the depths of the sea would be spiritually burdened with the sins of men. The point is that the sins are forgiven, cast away to the inaccessible depths from which they can never return.

Even when understood in this way, the scapegoat ritual (or rather the entire ritual procedure of the Day of Atonement of which the scapegoat was merely one element) might still have been misconstrued by some worshippers as mechanically forcing God to forgive their sins. The same might be said of the tashlih ceremony, or for that matter, of the Christian sacraments. In fact, this kind of misunderstanding is endemic to practically all religious ritual and hardly gives cause to isolate the scapegoat for special criticism.

The deeper cultural roots of the misunderstanding of the scapegoat ritual become clear a few lines later in Rhees's article:

Perhaps we'd not find it incongruous - we'd not find the picture jams in in symbolizing what is intended for it - if you said that a man might take on himself the sins the people have had to bear, and to offer himself in atonement for them. But a goat?

Rhees has let the cat out of the bag. The notion of a man taking on the sins of others and offering himself (or should I write Himself) in atonement for them is all too familiar. Rhees has been mislead by the application of a picture - the Christ idea - to a culture in which it simply had no application. I would suggest that the "false picture" which the scapegoat is thought to project was simply not available to those who actually performed and observed the ritual.

By modeling his interpretation of the scapegoat ritual on the crucifixion, Rhees reduces it to a kind of confused religious farce. Of course, a goat does not make for a terribly impressive Christ figure. Worse yet, the ritual does not make for a convincing analogy to the crucifixion. Scripture gives us no reason to believe that the goat suffered at all: and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness, not such a terrible fate for an animal living in a culture with an active sacrificial cult! (Later, Talmudic, sources do state that the goat was killed in the wilderness, but apparently the point of this was to make sure that it did not wander back into inhabited territory)9. But why force an analogy which merely obscures that which it is meant to make clear? Isn't it more reasonable to conclude that the scapegoat is simply not comparable to Christ?

Ever since Peter Winch published his celebrated book The Idea of a Social Science and his subsequent essay, "Understanding a Primitive Society"10, philosophers in the Wittgensteinian camp have attacked the idea that the magic and ritual of primitive societies constitute some failed form of proto-science. They view this idea as the product of the imposition of Western thinking on non-Western societies; perfectly good magic is misinterpreted as hopelessly bad science. By forcing the scapegoat ritual into a Christological mold, Rhees becomes subject to an exactly parallel criticism. Certainly if we are prohibited from reducing magic to bad science, we should avoid reducing biblical Judaism to bad Christianity.

Phillips's treatment of Wittgenstein's comment offers no improvement on Rhees. Before quoting Rhees at length, he offers his own version of the scapegoat ritual:

In Leviticus we are told that on the Day of Atonement, a goat said to be laden with the sins of the people is driven into the wilderness, the abode of Azazel, leader of the evil angels. As the scapegoat is driven into the wilderness, so the sins of the people depart with it to the spirits of darkness to whom they belong.11

Even a cursory comparison of this description with the text of Leviticus (unless by "Leviticus" Phillips means "Leviticus as translated in the Syriac version" rather than the Masoretic Hebrew text, the ancient Septuagint and Vulgate translations, or any of the modern translations) makes it clear that Phillips places the scapegoat in the worst possible light. Scripture makes no mention of mythic elements such as "evil angels" and "spirits of darkness". The meaning of the word "Azazel"(which is not capitalized in the Hebrew, since that language lacks capitalization) is not explained by the text; it may designate a geographical location. Most translations I have seen treat it as such. Phillips's description does reflect, without any of their scholarly caution, the views of some modern Bible researchers. Yet Phillips goes much farther than they do in depicting the ritual in crassly barbaric terms. Father Roland de Vaux, in his classic work, Ancient Israel arrives at an interpretation of the scapegoat similar to that of Phillips; and then he adds:

It is important to remember that the transferring of sins and the expiation which results from it are said to be effective only because the goat is presented before Yaweh (v. 10): Yaweh brought about the transfer, and the expiation.12

Someone who had only read Phillips's description of the ritual might not even be aware that God was thought to have any role in it, or that it was part of the practice of a monotheistic religion. Certainly he gives no indication that the ritual might be intended to express some more subtle sentiment through symbolic means.

After reproducing Rhees's discussion Phillips quotes from The Interpreter's Bible:

Christ, as identified with man in his shame and sin, rejected by men and driven away bearing their sins and done to death for their forgiveness, is symbolically depicted, crudely and inadequately yet really, in the scapegoat.13

Phillips then comments:

Notice that here one has the possibility of criticism within a tradition. The ritual concerning the scapegoat is called crude and inadequate.

While the quotation from The Interpreter's Bible offers a fine example of the Christian reinterpretation of Judaism, it says nothing against the fact that the scapegoat ritual, as an anthropological datum, had absolutely nothing to do with Christ. One might as well criticize the rituals of Africa's Azande tribesmen for so poorly symbolizing the Immaculate Conception! As for Phillips's claim that this constitutes a "criticism within a tradition", one must wonder exactly which tradition he is talking about- that of ancient Judaism, which apparently found no fault with the scapegoat ritual, or that of Christianity, which radically reinterpreted the ritual in terms of a doctrine which had not yet been formulated during the period in which the ritual was actually practiced. It seems a bit messy to offer an example which spans the gap separating two theologically distinct and historically mutually antagonistic religions as an illustration of "criticism within a tradition". I would like to take this opportunity to point out a much "cleaner" example.

The Old Testament itself offers clear evidence of the rejection of a ritual element belonging to the ancient Israelite tradition due to the inherently confusing nature of its symbolism. I refer to the copper serpent from Numbers 21:9:

Moses made a copper serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the copper serpent and recover.

Considering the Israelites' much lamented predilection for the worship of graven images, it is not hard to imagine the "false picture" which Moses’ creation projected to the people. Much later, in the course of carrying out his religious reforms, King Hezekiah destroyed the serpent. The author of Kings apparently approved:

He did what was pleasing to the Lord...He also broke into pieces the copper serpent which Moses had made, for until that time the Israelites had been offering sacrifices to it; it was called Nehushtan. (II Kings 18:3;4)

Given such a well documented case of "criticism within a tradition" why pick on a scapegoat?

© Berel Dov Lerner. This is a slightly corrected version of the article that originally appeared in Philosophical Investigations 17:4:604-12 (1994).

1) Pp. 450-484 of Essays on Wittgenstein in Honor of G.W. Wright, vol. 28 of Acta Philosophica Fennica (Amsterdam 1976).
2) All biblical quotations are from the Jewish Publication Society of America's translation (Philadelphia 1962 and 1978).
3) As translated by D.Z. Phillips in his Belief, Change and Forms of Life (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey 1986) pg.30.
4) See his "Wittgensteinian Fideism", Philosophy Vol. xlii no.161 pp. 191 - 209.
5) Phillips pg. 27.
6) Rhees pg. 459.
7) Rhees pg.460. All further quotations of Rhees are from this and the following page.
8) As quoted in Shlomo Avineri's Hegel's Theory of the Modern State, Cambridge 1972,pg.63)
9) See the Mishna, Tractate Yoma 6:6. The unimportance of the scapegoat's death for the proper completion of the ritual may be inferred from Yoma 6:8, according to which the high priest was informed of the goat's arrival at the wildern
ess, but not of its death.
10) (London 1958) and American Philosophical Quarterly Vol. 1 no. 4 pp. 307-324.
11) Phillips pp. 29-30.
12) Volume II: Religious Institutions (New York 1965) pg. 509. This page also contains a discussion of the problems of identifying "Azazel" in the various versions and translations of the Bible.
13) Phillips pg. 31.

Maimonides on Free Will at the Societal Level

Although there has been some debate regarding Maimonides’ esoteric view of human metaphysical freedom (Pines 1960, 195-98; Altmann 1974) there is no doubt that his public stand is one of uncompromising support for the doctrine of free will, or what is known in philosophical circles as libertarianism (not to be confused with the similarly named political doctrine!). As Moshe Sokol (1998, 27) points out, Maimonides was concerned with defeating “four different grounds for denying freedom of the will: astrological fatalism, kalam (‘a school of medieval Islamic theology’) and other notions of divine will and causality, psychological determinism, and divine foreknowledge.” These indeed are the only obstacles to human freedom which Maimonides explicitly addresses as possible foundations for an attack on libertarianism. Maimonides attacks psychological determinism, but he does not mention sociological determinism. His discussion in the final chapter of Shemonah Perakim concerns inborn psychological predispositions and ‘second nature’ resulting from repeated deliberate action, rather than the effects of social factors. However, it is clear from the Mishneh Torah (Hyamson 1962) that Maimonides also contends that social pressures constitute a very real challenge to autonomous action:

It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, byone’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs ofone’s fellow citizens.(Deot 6:1)

Although Maimonides is never troubled by the social factor’s philosophical significance for human freedom, I believe that it does serve a pivotal role in the solution of an interesting puzzle in the Mishneh Torah, a puzzle which brings together issues in biblical interpretation, metaphysics, and the philosophy of the social sciences. My explication of this problem begins with the fifth chapter of Hilkhot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, where he makes a general argument harmonizing human freedom with divine foreknowledge:

As to the solution of this problem, understand that “the measure thereof is longer than the earth and wider than the sea” (Job 11:19), and many important principles of the highest sublimity are connected with it. You, however, need only to know and comprehend what I am about to say. In the second chapter of the Laws Relating to the Fundamental Principles of the Torah, we have already explained that God does not know with a knowledge external to Himself, like human beings whose knowledge and self are separate entities, but He, blessed be His Name, and His knowledge are One.(Teshuva 5:5)

The crux of Maimonides’ argument seems to be that divine foreknowledge does not interfere with human freedom because divine knowledge is different from human knowledge. Apparently, Maimonides is saying that if one person’s future decisions really were genuinely known now by another human being, that would create a problem for the former’s freedom. However, since God is not a human being and His knowledge is not similar to that possessed by humans, his foreknowledge of human decisions does not interfere with human freedom. (I shall return later to the question of what it is about human foreknowledge that makes it a problem for libertarianism.) Maimonides devotes his next chapter (Teshuva 6) to the exegesis of scriptural verses which seem to contradict the libertarian doctrine. Among these is Deut. 31:16:

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I made with them.

Deuteronomy seems to be saying that the children of Israel are foredestined to sin. How can this square with their human freedom? Maimonides explains:

It is also written, “This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land” (Deut. 31:16). Did He not decree that Israel should worship idols? Why then did He punish them? [The answer is] that He did not decree concerning any particular individual that that individual should be the one to go astray. Any one of those who went astray and worshipped idols, had he not desired to commit idolatry, need not have done so. The Creator only instructed Moses as to the way of the world, as one might say, “This people will have among them righteous and wicked persons.” A wicked man has no right, on that account, to say that it had been decreed that he should be wicked, because the Almighty had informed Moses that among Israel there would be wicked men, just as the text, “For the poor shall never cease out of the land” (Deut. 15:11) [does not imply that any particular individual is destined to be poor].(Teshuva 6:5)

Maimonides’ apology for Deut. 31:6 is based on the distinction he makes between knowing how a particular person will behave as against knowing what we might call the statistical distribution of future behaviors in a certain society. He reads the verse as we would read the economic prediction that next year unemployment in some country will reach ten percent. The economist does not claim to be able to produce a list naming those who will lose their jobs, but rather only offers a general indication of how many people will be unemployed. Similarly, Deuteronomy is not telling us that any particular person will worship false gods, rather that there will indeed be such sinners among the Israelites.

Maimonides’ comparison of Deut. 31:6 with the prediction, “This people will have among them righteous and wicked persons,” is a bit misleading. Deuteronomy is not talking about the kind of deviance from accepted norms which occurs in every human community. The prediction, “This people will thereupon go astray,” implies a society-wide phenomenon of mutiny against God. In simplest terms, Deuteronomy may be understood as saying that a majority of Israelites will be involved in idolatry. Following Gilbert (1989, 257; 1998), this is what might be called a ‘simple summative account’ of group action. Assuming that Maimonides would accept this point (and in this paper I take Maimonides’ biblical exegesis not to be mere ad hoc apologetics, but rather a serious attempt to explicate scripture in a way that addresses issues of plain meaning and context), his understanding of the verse may be given the following formulation: Although more than fifty percent of the Israelites will worship foreign gods, no specific individual is compelled to belong to that number. Furthermore, this situation reflects “the way of the world,” i.e., the historical phenomenon of widespread Israelite idolatry was a natural and predictable state of affairs. Maimonides seems untroubled by the idea that human behavior is predictable at the aggregate, societal, level.

Maimonides’ solution to the problem of Deut. 31:6 invites (at least) two questions: First, what is it about Deut. 31:6 that deserves special comment? (I shall not here attempt an explanation of Maimonides’ parallel interpretation of Gen. 15:13 in the same section of Teshuva.) Why not simply assume that it is covered by the general argument for the harmonization of libertarianism with divine foreknowledge in Teshuva (5)? Second, how does Maimonides square individual freedom with determinism on the societal level? In order to answer these questions, we must examine the immediate context in which Deut. 31:6 appears.

God, knowing that the Israelites will sin after Moses’ impending death, asks him to teach them the song (Deut. 32:1-43) which, in the future, will help them to understand the meaning of their own history of redemption and exile:

The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your fathers. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land which they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant which I made with them. When I bring them into the land flowing with milk and honey that I promised on oath to their fathers; and they eat their fill and grow fat and turn to other gods and serve them, spurning Me and breaking My covenant, and the many evils and troubles befall them—then this poem shall confront them as a witness, since it never will be lost from the mouth of their offspring. For I know what plans they are devising even now, before I bring them into the land that I promised on oath.(Deut. 31:16-21)

Later, Moses addresses the Levites:

Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant towards the Lord; how much more then, when I am dead! Gather to me all the elders of your tribes and your officials, that I may speak all these words to them and that I may call heaven and earth to witness against them. For I know that, when I am dead, you will act wickedly and turn away from the path which I enjoined upon you, and that in time to come misfortune will befall you for having done evil in the sight of the Lord and vexed Him by your deeds.(Deut. 31:27-29)

Moses’ speech places the prophecy of Deut. 31:16 in a rather odd light. It is trouble enough for the libertarian doctrine that God predicts Israel’s spiritual failure. Here we have Moses speaking as a human being and in his own name predicting the turn to idolatry! As Maimonides’ great critic, R. Abraham ben David of Posquieres (c. 1125-1198) points out in his gloss on Teshuva 6:5, Moses was capable of making this prediction through the exercise of his own intelligence. Now it is clear why Maimonides must offer a special explanation of Deut. 31:16. His general argument harmonizing divine foreknowledge with human freedom depends on a strict distinction between divine and human knowledge. Deut. 31:16 relates to foreknowledge which is also directly available to human beings such as Moses.

Moses’ speech may also help us understand what it is about human foreknowledge that may create problems for human freedom. Moses does not baldly proclaim that the Israelites will sin. Rather, he offers an explanation of how he knows that this will occur. This takes the shape of a well-formulated sociological prediction: “Well I know how defiant and stiff-necked you are: even now, while I am still alive in your midst, you have been defiant towards the Lord; how much more, then, when I am dead!” (Deut. 31:27). In modern parlance, one might say that Moses observed in the Israelites a tendency to rebellion against God so powerful that it prevailed even in the face of a strong countervailing factor, i.e., Moses’ own leadership. Certainly with the removal of the countervailing factor (i.e., after Moses’ death), the underlying tendency to idolatry will continue to determine Israelite behavior.

Moses seems to be engaging in exactly the kind of psychological forecasting which Maimonides sees as threatening the libertarian doctrine. I propose that Moses’ prediction makes salient that aspect of human foreknowledge which is so problematic when applied to future human behavior. To borrow Maimonides’ expression, Moses’ knowledge of the future is “outside of himself.” It is a knowledge based on the observation of past and current tendencies which will continue to determine the course of events in the future. How do we human beings know that the egg, which has just been thrown off the top floor of a high building, will soon splatter on the sidewalk? We have seen eggs fall in the past, and we assume that the same determining processes and tendencies that splattered eggs in the past are also at work in the present situation. If no determining processes were involved, we would be unable to predict the egg’s fate. Similarly, we may only predict future human behavior to the extent that that behavior results from determining processes on which we may depend, processes that are incompatible with human freedom. Inasmuch as divine foreknowledge does not depend on the presence of empirically discoverable determining processes, it does not imply a lack of human freedom (at least not for the reasons under discussion).

So far I have argued that Deut. 31:16 poses special problems for Maimonides’ libertarian doctrine. He proposes a solution to these problems which suggests that God (and Moses) did not predict that any particular individual would worship idols, but merely that idolatry would become a widespread feature of Israelite society. On my interpretation, Maimonides is here willing to accept the notion that widespread social phenomena may be caused by predictable, determinate processes. This brings us to my second question, i.e., how does Maimonides square individual freedom with determinism on the societal level?

In order to answer this question, we must recall that even when he argues against psychological determinism, Maimonides admits that a person’s decisions are influenced by his or her particular psychological tendencies. A naturally (or experientially conditioned) charitable person will find it easier to give alms to the poor than will a born (or experientially conditioned) miser. Furthermore, the miser is not free to instantaneously become charitable. Rather, he may choose to undertake a course of training (consciously designed to exploit natural psychological processes) that will serve to develop his charitableness.

In the short term, certain aspects of human psychology are predictable. Mary who is a miser in the morning will remain a miser at noon. She may, through sheer force of will, perform generous acts. Indeed, that is exactly the therapy which Maimonides would prescribe. However, even if she has undertaken to change her ways, character traits cannot be overturned in the course of a few hours. If the moral inertia generated by natural psychological tendencies can be shown to become stronger at the cumulative societal level, perhaps we will have discovered the mechanism which allows for predetermined social processes of a kind which are not paralleled in the psychology of the individual.

In order to explain how, according to Maimonides’ psychological doctrine, moral inertia accumulates and strengthens at the societal level, I must now reintroduce the notion of social pressure with which I began this paper. Like other psychological forces, social pressure is, for Maimonides, a factor to be recognized and even harnessed for the achievement of moral perfection:

It is natural to be influenced, in sentiments and conduct, by one’s neighbors and associates, and observe the customs of one’s fellow citizens. Hence, a person ought constantly to associate with the righteous and frequent the company of the wise, so as to learn from their practices, and shun the wicked who are benighted, so as not to be corrupted by their example. So Solomon said, “He that walks with the wise, shall be wise; but the companion of fools shall smart for it” (Prov. 13:20). And it is also said, “Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1).(Mishneh Torah, Deot 6:1)

Social influences are so powerful that one should come to terms with them by simply avoiding contact with the wicked. When an entire society becomes evil, a person who strives for righteousness has no choice but to leave:

So too, if one lives in a country where the customs are pernicious and the inhabitants do not go in the right way, he should leave for a place where the people are righteous and follow the ways of the good.(Deot 6:1)

If all societies have become corrupted, one must shun human company altogether:

If all the countries of which he has a personal knowledge, or concerning which he hears reports, follow a course that is not right—as is the case in our times—or if military campaigns or sickness debar him from leaving for a country with good customs, he should live by himself in seclusion, as it is said, “Let him sit alone and keep silence” (Lam. 3:28). And if the inhabitants are wicked reprobates who will not let him stay in the country unless he mixes with them and adopts their evil practices, let him withdraw to caves, thickets, or deserts, and not habituate himself to the ways of sinners, as it is said: “O that I were in the wilderness, in a lodging place of wayfaring men” (Jer. 9:1).(Deot 6:1)

We may infer from Deot 6:1 that the influence of social pressure is so overwhelmingly powerful that it is impossible for a person to remain within a corrupt society without partaking of its corruption. The scope of individual moral choice in such a society shrinks to the single issue of staying or leaving, or, if relocation is not a viable option, participating or not participating in the life of the community. Inasmuch as the society survives, its general moral tenor will be defined by the behavior of those of its members who do not choose to leave it, and who continue to function as its members, i.e., the morally weaker element. Anyone participating in such a society will inevitably be corrupted by its influence. All other things being equal, such a community qua community is trapped in a moral decline which its own members are incapable of reversing. Even if each and every person in the society were to simultaneously make an individual decision to abandon evil, a societal reformation could not take place. Instead, their decisions would only result in the total dissolution of the society through the dispersion of its members.

The case of Moses’ predictions of future Jewish idolatry may be reinterpreted in the light of these speculations. Moses may have held the Jewish people of his time to be so radically predisposed to idolatry that he was sure that after the mitigating factor of his own charismatic presence would no longer be in effect, they would degenerate into the kind of hopelessly depraved community from which a pious individual must choose to flee. In that case, the Jewish people’s fall into idolatry was indeed the foregone conclusion of an inevitable causal process. Indeed, such a thesis conforms to ideas that find explicit expression in the Bible. The second chapter of the book of Judges sets out a cyclical model of Israelite history, in which a “secular trend” towards idolatry is temporarily interrupted in reaction to the presence of an external military threat and the divine appointment of a successful military leader. In the long term, such leaders were no more successful than was Moses himself: “But when the chieftain died, they would again act basely, even more than their fathers, following other gods” (Jud. 2:19).

Only the ultimate catastrophe of exile and the turbulent struggles of the Second Temple period would be able to finally shake the Jews free of their propensity to worship strange gods. The rabbis of the Talmud were well aware of how different they were from the Jews of earlier times who had found idolatry irresistibly attractive. It is related that Rabbi Ashi spoke with King Menasheh in a dream and asked why even the wise men of his generation succumbed to the idolatrous impulse. King Menasheh retorted that had Rabbi Ashi lived in those early days when idolatry was overwhelmingly enticing, the good rabbi himself would have “lifted up the hem of…[his] robe to run after it” (B. Sanhedrin 102b).

Is there any basis for these speculations in Maimonides’ own writings? According to the account in Mishneh Torah, the Israelites had fallen into an almost irreversible spiritual decline during their stay in Egypt:

When the Israelites had stayed a long time while in Egypt, they relapsed, learned the practices of their neighbors and, like them, worshipped idols, with the exception of the tribe of Levi, that steadfastly kept the charge of the patriarch. This tribe of Levi never practiced idolatry. The doctrine implanted by Abraham would, in a very short time, have been uprooted, and Jacob’s descendants would have lapsed into the error and perversities universally prevalent.(Avodat Kokhavim 1:3)

Apparently unable to help themselves, the Israelites were lifted out of the depths of idolatry by divine Providence acting through the person of Moses:

But because of God’s love for us and because He kept the oath made to our ancestor Abraham, He appointed Moses to be our teacher and the teacher of all the prophets and charged him with his mission. After Moses had begun to exercise his prophetic functions and Israel had been chosen by the Almighty as His heritage, He crowned them with precepts, and showed them the way to worship Him and how to deal with idolatry and those who go astray after it.(Avodat Kokhavim 1:3)

Here, then, is the “Moses factor,” come to restrain (with rather modest success, as all readers of Scripture know) the tendency towards idolatry acquired by the Israelites from their Egyptian “hosts.” This much of the story is explicitly recorded in Maimonides’ writings. It would be fair to suggest that Maimonides believed that after Moses’ death, his immediate personal influence would cease to work against idolatry, leaving the Jewish people fated to regress once more. We might add that only the long and tortuous historical process of the genuine internalization of the Law, accompanied and prodded by the course of external events, would finally bring about the true break with idolatry.


I first discussed the ideas set forth in this paper in a lecture on “Maimonides on Sociological Determinism and the Covenant Between God and the People of Israel,” sponsored by the Department of Philosophy and the Wolfson Chair of Jewish Thought, Haifa University, December 1997. My thanks to the holder of the Wolfson Chair, Prof. Menachem Kellner (who also commented on an earlier version of the paper), as well as to others who participated in the discussion. My thanks also to Jerome Gelman, David Widerker, Josef Stern, and an anonymous reviewer who spoke or corresponded with me in connection with several points in this paper.

Altmann, Alexander. 1974. The Religion of the Thinkers: Free Will and Predestination in Saadia, Bahya and Maimonides. In S. D. Goitein, ed., Religion in a Religious Age. Cambridge, MA: Association for Jewish Studies.

Gilbert, Margaret. 1989. On Social Facts. Princeton: Princeton Univ.Press.
_________. 1998. In Search of Sociality. Philosophical Explorations 1: 233-41.

Hyamson, Moses, ed. and trans. 1962. Mishneh Torah: The Bookof Knowledge by Maimonides. Jerusalem: Boys Town Publishers.

Pines, Shlomo. 1960. Studies in Abul Barakat al-Baghadi’s Poetics andMetaphysics. Scripta Hierosolymitana 6: 195-98.

Sokol, Moshe. 1998. Maimonides on Freedom of the Will and MoralResponsibility. Harvard Theological Review 91: 25-39

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article originally appeared in Interpretation: a Journal of Political Philosophy 32(2): 115-123 (Spring 2005).