As a general rule, we like it when things work the way they’re supposed to work, when things go according to plan. And yet, across the range of human experiences, this is not what actually occurs. In contemporary society, this perhaps most commonly takes the form of technology failing to live up to the expectations of its owners. Beyond the functioning of tools, this is a basic problem of human will, where we want to do one thing and yet end up doing another. In ancient Greek philosophy this was thought of as the problem of akrasia, and Freudian psychology has generated a massive theoretical discourse exploring this facet of human existence. In theology and religion this problem arises in terms of evil in the world and attempts at theodicy. If a good god made the world then why does it fail to be good? While the technological problems tend to be minor annoyances in our day to day lives, the anthropological and theological problems concern fundamental issues in how we think about God, reality, and what it means to be a person.
In this essay I want to explore three texts, one from Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed” and two from Rabbi Tsadok Rabinowitz Hakohen’s (Rav Tsadok) “Tsidkat Hatsadik,” which touch on these issues. In doing so, these texts place God in the uncommon, and perhaps uncomfortable, position of the source of failure. These texts suggest that, in one form or another, God is the reasons that things don’t “work.”
Before launching into the texts, I want to make a methodological note. I am not going to attempt here to present a thorough and broad understanding of the theologies of either Maimonides or Rav Tsadok (with the former, at least, I’m not even sure that is possible); I am simply going to look at these texts in and of themselves. My goal is to examine the theological intuitions and ideas contained within the texts, rather than explain what Maimonides and Rav Tsadok think more broadly.
Guide II 32 – The Failure of Prophecy
Maimonides discussions of prophecy in the Guide for the Perplexed cover all of the traditional issues bound up in the concept: what it is, what type of information it conveys, who can get it, how they get it, are there different levels, etc. In one of his discussions of it, in Guide II:32, he suggests that there are three primary opinions about the nature of prophecy. Only the third is of relevance to us, but it must be understood agains the background of the first two.
The first is that of the people, including Jews, whom Maimonides calls “ignorant people”:
Among those who believe in Prophecy, and even among our coreligionists, there are some ignorant people who think as follows: God selects any person He pleases, inspires him with the spirit of Prophecy, and entrusts him with a mission. It makes no difference whether that person be wise or stupid, old or young; provided he be, to some extent, morally good. For these people have not yet gone so far as to maintain that God might also inspire a wicked person with His spirit. They admit that this is impossible, unless God has previously caused him to improve his ways. (Guide, II 32, Friedlander translation)
According to the first group, the ignorant people, prophecy is a totally miraculous event (notably, this group seems to include Rav Sa’adiah Gaon. See “The Book of Beliefs and Opinions” chapter 3). It occurs when God decides to impart it to a person, regardless of any other conditions. Moreover, it is entirely driven by God’s initiative, rather than man’s; it is entirely “top-down” as it were. Prophecy is, in this sense, entirely chaotic and arbitrary. There can be no question of prophecy “working” or going according to some plan, because there can be no plan.
This is in stark contrast to the opinion of the second group, the philosophers:
The philosophers hold that prophecy is a certain faculty of man in a state of perfection, which can only be obtained by study. Although the faculty is common to the whole race, yet it is not fully developed in each individual, either on account of the individual’s defective constitution, or on account of some other external cause. This is the case with every faculty common to a class. It is only brought to a state of perfection in some individuals, and not in all; but it is impossible that it should not be perfect in some individual of the class; and if the perfection is of such a nature that it can only be produced by an agent, such an agent must exist. Accordingly, it is impossible that an ignorant person should be a prophet; or that a person being no prophet in the evening, should, unexpectedly on the following morning, find himself a prophet, as if prophecy were a thing that could be found unintentionally. But if a person, perfect in his intellectual and moral faculties, and also perfect, as far as possible, in his imaginative faculty, prepares himself in the manner which will be described, he must become a prophet; for prophecy is a natural faculty of man. It is impossible that a man who has the capacity for prophecy should prepare himself for it without attaining it, just as it is impossible that a person with a healthy constitution should be fed well, and yet not properly assimilate his food; and the like. (Ibid.)
According to the philosophers, prophecy is not miraculous but natural. It is a capacity with which all people are born, though they have to develop it properly. If someone does develop their moral and intellectual faculties properly, and they have the necessary imaginative capacity, then they inevitably attain prophecy. This might be characterized as a “bottom-up” approach. Prophecy “works” in the sense that I have been discussing; it goes according to plan. If you attempt to achieve prophecy, and you meet every condition, you will necessarily receive prophecy. In contrast to the divine chaos of the first opinion, there is an entirely natural order.
The third opinion, which Maimonides attributes to Tanakh and to the fundamental principle of Judaism, is a significant variation on the opinion of the philosophers:
The third view is that which is taught in Scripture, and which forms one of the principles of our religion. It coincides with the opinion of the philosophers in all points except one. For we believe that, even if one has the capacity for prophecy, and has duly prepared himself, it may yet happen that he does not actually prophesy. It is in that case the will of God [that withholds from him the use of the faculty]. (Ibid.)
Prophecy, according to this opinion, is achieved by way of a natural process wherein a person develops their moral and intellectual capacities to the point of perfection. As opposed to the opinion of the philosophers, however, achieving prophecy is not inevitable for the person who reaches the end of this process. A person could reach this peak of moral and intellectual perfection and still not attain prophecy, because God can prevent her from doing so. God intervenes in and disrupts the natural prophetic process.
To sharpen this a little bit, I want to correct a common misunderstanding about this text. I have often heard or read this third opinion explained as a combination of or midpoint between the first two. If the first is top-down and the second is bottom-up, then the third, it is said, is when the two sides meet in the middle; a person develops herself to a certain point and then God decides whether or not to bestow prophecy upon her. However, it is pretty clear from Maimonides’ words that this is not the case. The third opinion is not a midpoint or combination of the previous two, it is simply a variation on the second. Prophecy remains an entirely natural process; God only comes into the picture when the process fails.
This point is driven home in the continuation of the passage, where Maimonides expands this concept from prophecy to miracles.
According to my opinion, this fact is as exceptional as any other miracle, and acts in the same way. For the laws of Nature demand that every one should be a prophet, who has a proper physical constitution, and has been duly prepared as regards education and training. If such a person is not a prophet, he is in the same position as a person who, like Jeroboam (1 Kings xiii.), is deprived of the use of his hand, or of his eyes, as was the case with the army of Syria, in the history of Elisha (2 Kings vi. 18). (Ibid.)
According to the natural order, someone fitting to receive prophecy will necessarily do so. It is only through miraculous intervention that such people on in some instances do not receive prophecy. Moreover, this miraculous intervention is the same in form to all other miracles; they all consist of God interfering with and disrupting the natural order. Maimonides brings two proofs from Tanakh to show that this is how miracles work. Regardless of the existence of counter-examples, Maimonides could not have found better proofs if he wrote them himself. The first is from 1 Kings 13, when God saved an unnamed prophet from the Israelite king Jeroboam by causing the king’s hand to wither, and the second is from 2 Kings 5, when God blinded the Assyrian army. Maimonides argues that the withered hand and the blindness, rather than being direct acts of God, result from God disrupting the regular functioning of the natural order. Prophecy is a natural human capacity just like seeing and use of the hand, and God’s role in prophecy is solely causing it to fail.
Tsidkat Hatsadik 102 – “God sets up problems and obstacles for a person”
Rav Tsadok dedicates a good deal of his notebook, Tsidkat Hatsadik, to meditations on sin and repentance and their interplay with the divine will. In one piece on the topic, #102, he presents a creative reading of the rabbinic statement that people who have sinned and repented are on a higher level, in whatever sense, than people who have never sinned.
This is the meaning of the saying that in the place where repentant individuals stand, even the completely righteous cannot reach. God sets up problems and obstacles for a person, and the person must then repent and atone for his “sin.” Through this process he extracts treasure from garbage. (Excerpt from Tsidkat Hatsadik 102; translation is mine. [The linked version is missing a section that was censored out beginning with the second edition and only restored in more recent printings.])
Rav Tsadok is working with an intuition very similar to that of Maimonides, but he is talking about human sin instead of prophecy. The way most people think of sin is that there is a theoretical list of things that people should not do, and sometimes people attempting to adhere to this list fail to do so. Rav Tsadok argues, in contrast, that sin is not simply a function of human failure to adhere to this list, but is in fact, or can be, God making a person sin (cf. Tsidkat Hatsadik, 40, 43). Much like Maimonides’ natural order, human willpower works. A person can decide to do or not do something, and follow through on that decision. Sometimes, however, a person will fail to follow through. While note ruling out other potential reasons for this failure, Rav Tsadok says that, at least sometimes, it is because God wanted the person to sin. In this passage, Rav Tsadok suggests that God wanted the person to sin because the process of repenting for this sin is itself valuable. In some of the passages that appear after this one, Rav Tsadok meditates on other possible reasons. He maintains throughout this basic idea that God directly causes a person to sin. Notably, this is a distinct step beyond Maimonides assertion that God merely keeps people from getting prophecy, though the basic idea is the same.
Tsidkat Hatsadik 101 – Nothing Works
Both passages that I have looked at so far, from Maimonides and Rav Tsadok, asserted that God causes systems or processes to fail, for whatever reason. This idea is built up on the assumption that there are systems or processes that, barring external intervention, work the way they are supposed to work. I want to turn now to a passage from Tsidkat Hatsadik, the one directly preceding the last one we looked at, and see how Rav Tsadok reads a famous rabbinic statement about the creation of the world in a way that direct challenges that assumption (there are ways of resolving the tension between these two pieces, but I’m not concerned about that in this essay). As it is somewhat shorter than the other pieces we looked at, I will quote it in full:
In practice it is impossible for a person to stay within the boundaries of the law (shurat hadin), as the verse says, “there is no righteous person on earth who does good and does not sin” (Ecclesiastes 7:20). A righteous person (tsadik) is careful not to stray outside the boundaries of the law [it is common knowledge that in the realm of practice (Olam Ha’Asiah) there are many kelipot, at all levels, but that is beyond the scope of this piece]. This only possible in thought, not practice, and in a person’s inner conscious will, where he decides in his mind that he will act in a specific way and not sin, only there is it possible for him to desire and think like this.
In truth, in the thought and will that transcend the worlds, that sinful act is also part of the plan and does not go outside the boundaries of the law, for everything is within the law (hadin).
This is what the rabbis meant when they said that initially God thought to create through his attribute of law [but God saw that the world could not exist like this, so he created it with compassion (rahamim) as well -LM]. Action therefore necessarily means going outside the boundaries of the law, while thought is the attribute of law, and does not exceed the boundaries of the law. In the verse, “God is righteous in all his ways, and pious in all his deeds” (Psalms 145:17), “his ways” means words of Torah, as the beginning of Tractate Kiddushin says and in line with the verse, “He made his ways known to Moses” (Psalms 103:7). God, too, behaves according to the Torah, but when it comes the deed he is pious, meaning not according to the strict boundaries of the law, as discussed in Tractate Shabbat (120a, and see Rashi there).
This is in line with the verse, “I will be gracious to anyone I want” (Exodus 33:19). This too is a verse in the Torah and is known to be one of God’s ways, just as “it is a time to act for God and reject the Torah” is an established halakhah, just as, when we get back to the level of thought, this too is part of the plan and the proper boundaries. (Tsidkat Hatsadik 101; translation is mine, as is the emphasis)
In this piece, Rav Tsadok argues that failure is built into the system. People and the world are not supposed to perfectly live up to their ideals. As a support for this, he references a rabbinic narrative describing how God intended to create the world such that it would function according to strict laws. However, God saw that such a world could not be sustained, and so he created the world with compassion instead. Compassion, Rav Tsadok claims, is just one form of exceeding the boundaries of the law, and now it is an inherent part of the world. People fail to live up to their ideals because that’s part of how people work. As opposed to the assumption underlying the passages we saw from the Guide for the Perplexed II 32 and Tsidkat Hatsadik 102, systems don’t work. Thinking that things work out the way they are supposed to work out is a mistake, verging on self-delusion. God does not directly cause failure, but God built a world that is broken, along with everything in it; none of it works as it ideally should, and that’s how it is supposed to be.
In this piece we have seen two different ideas positing God as the source of failure, built around two different intuitions about how whether people and the world “work.” The first says that things basically work, and God interferes with their functioning, causing things to fail. The second says that things don’t work, that failure is built into people and the world, and that God made it that way. These two ideas bear some significant implications for our religious lives.
Religion is in many ways about living up to certain ideals of action, belief, or both, something in which we are not always successful. We need to consider the degree to which we are really meant to succeed in this goal all of the time (Rav Tsadok says in piece 101, quoted above, that the system of halakhah includes its own violation). If we really are meant to succeed, if the system works, then failure might just mean that we didn’t do our part properly, and we have to work harder on our end. The real possibility exists, however, that we will find no fault of our own, and the fault for our failure must fall to God (cf. Bavli Berakhot 5a, “יסורים של אהבה”). In such an instance, we must reconsider how we understand failure. It shifts from being sin to “sin,” as Rav Tsadok put it, from failure to the first step of success.
If, however, failure is built into the system and success is never assumed, then it may be impossible to know why we failed in any given instance. However, failure also becomes less dramatic. It might not even be “failure” in the way we normally mean it. Failure is a part of what it means to be created by God, and humbly accepting our creatureliness means accepting the fact that we fail all of the time.
Finally, I would note that this is an issue of obvious significance for the days of Elul, when Jews have repentance on the mind. Both of these ideas take the edge off of sin, meaning that perhaps it should not be the focus of repentance. Instead, repentance should either focus on how the sin can be the first step in something better (the first approach), or in accepting the fact that we are not divine, and thus sin is to some degree an unfortunate inevitability. Either way, the primary emotion of repentance is not guilt but determination or humility.
[This post was influenced by lectures by Yishai Mevorach, a student of Rav Shagar and an editor of his writings, and an interesting thinker in his own right. An English interview with Prof. Alan Brill about Mevorach’s new book, “A Theology of Absence” can be found here, and Mevorach’s Hebrew lectures on a variety of topics can be found on his youtube channel here.]