Monday, March 23, 2009

Reward and punishment: Blaming the victim

Recently, my husband and I watched a movie biography of composer George Gershwin. To me, one of the most striking things about the film was the fact that no reason was given for Gershwin's premature death, though it seemed fairly obvious to me that the headaches and occasional lack of ability to control his hands depicted in the movie meant that he probably died of either (a) a series of mini-strokes followed by a massive one or (b) a brain tumor. Just how taboo was it to discuss the cause of death at the time that the movie was filmed, and/or why was cancer considered such a taboo, even as recently as when I was a child?

I was reminded of this movie, and those questions, recently when, first, a girlfriend's Multiple Sclerosis flared up, then, my husband landed in the emergency room with yet another kidney-stone attack.

Yes, I've been down this road before, but my opinion is still in accord with "this quote (from the third-season episode “A Late Delivery from Avalon”) from the 1990’s series Babylon 5 (chief writer J. Michael Straczynski), spoken by Ranger Marcus Cole to Babylon 5 space station’s chief physician, Dr. Stephen Franklin: “You know, I used to think it was awful that life was so unfair. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be much worse if life were fair, and all the terrible things that happen to us come because we actually deserve them?’ So now I take great comfort in the general hostility and unfairness of the universe.”

A former rabbi of ours (Conservative) once explained to me that one of the differences between Conservative and Recontructionist Judaism is that Conservative Jews believe in reward and punishment. That's one point of theology on which Conservative Judaism and I part company, probably due to my 20-some years of membership in a dual-affiliated Conservative/Reconstructionist synagogue. To me, the glaringly obvious problem with a belief in reward and punishment is that it seems to imply that people deserve anything bad that happens to them. Maybe that's a simplistic interpretation--please feel free to present a clearer picture in the comments--but I can't understand what our son did to deserve to be diagnosed with both kidney stones and Crohn's Disease before he'd even earned his undergraduate degree. For that matter, why do most kids get away with multiple ear infections, while ours has been wearing hearing aids since he was three and a half?

Cancer. That was a disease that, for many years, dared not speak its name. People barely discussed it in hushed tones when I was a child. Why? Was it assumed that G-d was punishing the victim for some sin?

Why are we surprised when some of our most right-wing Orthodox rabbis blame tsunamis, earthquakes, and even, heaven help us, the Holocaust and terrorist attacks on such sins as not checking the mezuzot on our doorposts? Isn't that what a belief in reward and punishment implies? Isn't that what the second paragraph of the Sh'ma tells us that we're supposed to believe?

What interpretation of this belief, if any, is acceptable to a 21st-century person?


Blogger katrina said...

I believe that my more educated frum friends approach the subject in a few ways, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

1) "There is no justice in this world" (actual quote from yeshivish friend), but in olam ha'bah/the days of the Messiah, everyone will get what he or she deserves.
2) "If you understood God, you would be God" (actual quote from a different Haredi friend). We don't understand why things happen. Our understanding how the universe works would be like penguins understanding nuclear physics. We might understand in the future (some overlap with #1), but there is no way of knowing that, either.
The fact is that we live in an unredeemed world. The fact is that God is infinite and we are finite. Any attempt to understand reward and punishment has to take those two things into account.
I have no idea if this is satisfying or not. I don't think it is really meant to be. But that's what I have.

Mon Mar 23, 10:40:00 PM 2009  
Blogger katrina said...

I did not mean the preceding to be snotty or cold. It is the only thing that makes even a bit of sense to me.

Mon Mar 23, 10:42:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Katrina, the traditional belief in life after death is a classic response to the question of why people don't always get what they deserve. Some say that we Jews picked up that belief from the Zoroastrians (possibly while we were exiled in Bavel/Babylon), and I don't blame the rabbis for borrowing it, since it's very comforting.

"If you understood God, you would be God" probably works much better for a person who's sure s/he believes in G-d. I'm too much of an agnostic for that explanation to be of much help.

Don't worry about not having the perfect answer. I'm not sure that such a thing exists. Maybe it's more important that your answer works for you.

Tue Mar 24, 09:18:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

my thoughts from a while ago are here

Tue Mar 24, 11:13:00 PM 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shira - there definitely is reward and punishment, but we as human beings cannot understand it. Whenever I read an Orthodox person claiming that this and that happened because of this or that, it makes me cringe. How can a person have the arrogance to think he knows all of G-d's intentions?

Wed Mar 25, 06:48:00 AM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Steg, that poem was, and is, a real beauty, and is possibly as close to an answer as I'm likely to get. Thanks for the link.

"How can a person have the arrogance to think he knows all of G-d's intentions?" Amen to that, WBM.

Wed Mar 25, 12:38:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

I hold by my understanding of the Rambam, who I understand to basically say that only a perfect tzaddik would receive actual direct reward and punishment in this world. For the rest (i.e. everybody) we are subjected both to Teva (the ordinary rules of the world) and Hashgacha Pratis (divine interference) in varying measure.

Here's a 50 minute audio shiur on Rambam's approach to reward and punishment. I found it very useful in providing me to an alternative metaphor to Hashem the Accountant.

Thu Mar 26, 10:45:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Teva, I believe in, Hashgacha Pratit, not so much.

Thanks for the link, Larry. Given the pre-Pesach prep, I don't think I'll get to listen to this shiur before chol hamoed (the intermediate days of a festival, when turning on electrical devices is permissible).

Fri Mar 27, 02:32:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Let me know what you think if/when you listen to it.

Fri Mar 27, 02:48:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

If you want to read something short that is really into Hashem the Cosmic Accountant, look at this post on Gil's blog

Fri Mar 27, 03:12:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

If the linked post is any indication, and, assuming that I understand it correctly, this is Rabbi Gil Student's approach, standing on one foot: Do your best to improve your behavior, and, if misfortune still strikes, at least you'll have the comfort of knowing it wasn't your fault. There's some merit to that approach, but, from my rather non-traditional perspective, G-d doesn't necessarily have much to do with it. If I do well on my current project but my employer runs out of money, my being reduced back from full-time permanent employee to part-time temp. won't have anything to do with G-d's will, in my opinion.

Sun Mar 29, 12:32:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Rivka Matitya said...

1. SO COOL, that you quoted from B5!! I LOVE Marcus!!! (my husband knows)

2. Reward and Punishment are not in this world.

3. People didn't talk about cancer back then, because everyone who had cancer died.

Today, cancer is somewhat less frightening, because not everyone dies from it.

Moreover, because awareness can save lives, people are encouraged to talk about cancer.

That said, many cancer patients are still very private about their situation. And not everyone is so comfortable discussing cancer with someone who actually has cancer.

This has nothing to do with rewards and punishments. It has everything to do with facing, or not facing, our own mortality.

4. I could write a lot about life not being fair. But I don't really want to go there.

To quote one of my real life heroes, Randy Pausch, "We can't control the cards we are dealt, only how we play our hand."

Sun Mar 29, 06:57:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Another B5 fan! Rivka, I cried my eyes out when Marcus died.

You may be right about cancer not being as big a taboo, now that not everyone who gets it dies from it. That's not much consolation to the victims, whether they survive or not, or to their loved one, but . . . It might be argued that AIDS is the new cancer, though, thank heavens, not everyone dies from that anymore, either.

Facing our own mortality, and recognizing that we can't necessarily control what happens to us, but rather, only how we respond, are both major challenges.

Mon Mar 30, 01:12:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Larry Lennhoff said...

Appropos Marcus Cole, I see you've never read Space, Time, and the Incurable Romantic.

Mon Mar 30, 01:40:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Actually, I did read that story, and while I was tickled when I first read it, I later wondered whether Susan, a woman of action, wouldn't be bored to tears in the long run with the new life that Marcus created for them, given that she would have nothing of substance to do.

Mon Mar 30, 07:19:00 PM 2009  
Blogger Unknown said...

I stumbled on your site while looking for a source on the reward for wearing tzitzith (Zekhariya 8:23 x amount of gentiles will willing become servants, I think it comes out to hundreds). Shira, when you say "conservative Jews believe," do you really think that's true? Do, for example, conservative Jews "believe in driving on shabbath" only to schul? All of this "conservative theology" is so moot when so few discuss it & even fewer observe. It's appears to me like people arranging the chairs on the deck of a sinking Titantic. And what's a "21st-Century person?" Is that someone who dates himself from Jesus??? What is the function of this world, to get a degree? Why is an ear-ache also not an injustice? The Infinity of G-d argument applies only outside of the tzimtzum, not w/in it (or at least on the seams where paradox rules), so that's not valid. Look, the Ramchal & chassiduth (though seemingly at odds) are both good sources for understanding suffering. The Ramchal says G-d wants to offer goodness. Your problem, OUR problem, is trying to understand what goodness is when we are only giving slices of a TRAILER (as in a film, not as in a park). Chassiduth talks about every neshama having its own tiqun so of COURSE everyone is different & must undergo different trials. We get hung up on discomfort & even horror & that's legit, we are human & it's so hard to get away from that (if not impossible). Yet when you say you go more by teva' than Divine Providence, quantum physics makes sense to you??? It seems just as unpredictable as Divine Providence. BTW, is Jewish existence "natural?" What king was that who asked his adviser for proof of G-d's existence & the adviser responded, "The Jews, your highness, the Jews?" That's certainly a vote against teva', isn't it. Gotta go teach, bye! Ra'anan in Jerusalem

Mon May 26, 10:26:00 AM 2014  

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