Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Kindness of the Nations

Babylonian Talmud « seider Neziqin « masekhet Bava Batra 10b:
Rabbán Yohhanan ben Zakai said to his students:
My children! What does it mean that Scripture said tzedaqa teromeim goy, vehhesed le’umim hhatat ("righteousness/charity exalts a nation, and the kindness of the nations is a sin(-offering)")?"

Ribbí Eli‘ezer answered, and said:
"Charity exalts a nation" &mdash this is Israel, as is written, "and who is like your people Israel, one nation in the land."
"And the kindness of the nations is a sin(-offering)" — every act of charity or kindness that the [idolatrous] nations of the world perform is a sin to them, for they only do it to aggrandize themselves, as is said, "that they may offer aromatic sacrifices to the God of Heaven, and pray for the life of the king and his sons"...

Ribbí Yehoshua‘ answered, and said:
"Charity exalts a nation" &mdash this is Israel, as is written, "and who is like your people Israel, one nation..."
"And the kindness of the nations is a sin(-offering)" — every act of charity or kindness that the [idolatrous] nations of the world perform is a sin to them, for they only do it so that their kingdom will endure, as is said, "wherefore, King, let my counsel be acceptable to you, and release yourself from your sins by charity, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor; then there may be a lengthening of your prosperity etc."

Rabbán Gamli’eil answered, and said:
"Charity exalts a nation" &mdash this is Israel, as is written, "and who is like your people Israel..."
"And the kindness of the nations is a sin(-offering)" — every act of charity or kindness that the [idolatrous] nations of the world perform is a sin to them, for they only do it to look frum...

Ribbí Eli‘ezer Hamoda‘i says:
"Charity exalts a nation" &mdash this is Israel, as is written "and who is like your people Israel, one nation..."
"And the kindness of the nations is a sin(-offering)" — every act of charity or kindness that the [idolatrous] nations of the world perform is a sin to them, for they only do it to abuse us with it, as is said, "and God brought it, and did as he said; because you sinned to God and did not listen to his voice, and therefore this has happened to you."

Ribbí Nehhunya ben Haqaneh answered, and said:
"Charity exalts a nation, and kindness" — for Israel;
and "the nations, sin(-offering)."

Rabbán Yohhanan ben Zakai said to his students:
Ribbí Nehhunya ben Haqaneh's words look better than my words and your words, for he gives 'charity' and 'kindness' to Israel, and to the [idolatrous] nations of the world, 'sin'.

If he [=RYbZ] also said something, what was it?

We have learned —
Rabbán Yohhanan ben Zakai said to them:
Just as the sin-offering atones for Israel,
so charity atones for the nations of the world.

What the heck is going on here?
Are these illustrious sages making eternal, immutable metaphysical pronouncements that describe or shape the nature of reality for all time? Are Non-Jews really that bad?

Heck no! To She’ol with such thoughts!

Remember — this is Rabbán Yohhanan ben Zakai, who survived the destruction of the Second Temple and the Second Jewish Commonwealth. These are his students, who if they didn't also experience the Hhurban itself, they experienced the harsh hand of Roman rule over Judæa.

Whose answer did RYbZ prefer, beyond all his other students' answers as well as his own?

The meaningless one. Unlike his colleagues, Ribbí Nehhunya ben Haqaneh makes no claims about the actions or motivations of the Nations of the World. He simply out-negatives the other sages with a simple rearrangement of words without regard for grammatical constraints. He assigned the positive words in the sentence to Us, and the negative ones to Them. That's all he did. And in doing so, he expressed the most negative, primal-scream cry of anguish over the Destruction of our world. An association without context and without meaning. (For a contemporary scientific study of this type of positive/negative associative thinking, check out the Implicit Association Tests)

And whose answer is the #2 answer, the runner-up?

It seems to me that it must have been Rabbán Yohhanan ben Zakai's answer, himself. Now I admit that this isn't particularly convincing, but considering the fact that (A) he's the teacher [okay so as a teacher i'm a bit biased ;–)], and (B) he characterizes the final answer as better than both his own and the others', it looks to me like if RNbH hadn't come up with his answer, the final say would have gone to RYbZ himself.

Also, for some reason (*cough*cough*antigoyism*cough*cough*) some people like quoting Ribbí Eli‘ezer's answer as if it were masqanat hasugya, the conclusion of the discussion. So I guess if people are going to quote that negative one as if it were the Talmud's final say on the matter, there should be no problem with me going around quoting RYbZ's original answer as if it were the Talmud's final say on the matter!


Blogger Mike Miller said...

Very nice post. DO you want to reply with a reference to the thread that spawned it?

6/30/2006 5:07 AM  
Anonymous brother aharon said...

I think that the use of words is very important in this Sugya, and that the old Soncino translation gets it right when it highlights that Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Gamliel, and Eliezer-M used the word "chet" -- while the pasuk, Rabbi Yochanan, and Raban Gamliel all use the word "chatat".

There's a big difference between a sin and a chatat.

The Four Students do an extreme drash and flip the obvious meaning of the verse on its head, substituting "sin" for "korban that fixes sin". They're desperately looking for a weapon, even a twisted verbal one in their own minds, with which to beat the idolatrous faux-civilization that created the world of destruction they live in.

The Teacher does a simple drash, one which might be viewed as the most "liberal" of them all. He reads the pasuk again, simple pointing to Israel as the "goy" referred to, and the (idolatrous/foreign) nations as the "leumim". He keeps the logical syntax of the pasuk, and follows it to its logical conclusion--
Tzedaka&Chesed : The Leumim :: KorbanChatat : Israel
I think it's telling that the Teacher in the sugya, who most keenly remembers Judea pre-destruction and was there for the Churban itself, is the one with the most generosity in his drash: not only does he recognize Charity and generosity among the very groups who have injured and persecuted him, but he equates in their essence those acts with Jews performing the avodah in the mishkan! This seems similar to me how ignorant bigtory towards non-Jews is much more prevalent among the younger generations that grew up in America than among their parents and grandparents who expereinced real tragedies in Europe. There was a book published recently of lost "humanistic" teachings of a famous Rav, I forget the details. It's floating around online somewhere.

The One student, whose answer is in the end is the preferred one stakes out a middle ground, as is frequently necesary when you're living in messy history with an idealistic tradition. He out-drashes everyone else in how far he strays from the pshat of the verse in order to separate Israel's "tsedaka" and "chesed" from the "chatat" of the Leumim, but unlike the other students he does not magically zap "chatat" into "chet", replacing the Sin-healing Korban given by the pasuk with a crime. His drash would read in English (my rephrase of the soncino translation, I don't have it in front of me): "charity and kindness ELEVATE israel, but act as a Sin-healing Offering for The Nations". This drash is the one which is preferred by the Teacher in the end, because it doesn't twist "chatat" into "chet", but it doesn't have the pre-Churban naivete of the Teacher's own answer.

I also think that the identity of the korban is important here: Chatat only atones for accidental sins, if I remember right. So nobody's denying the Romans responsibility for their cruelty and bloodthirsty genocidal viciousness - those are sins Be-mezid. The question is about recognizing that charity, kindness, and the rectification of sin does exist among all nations.

(Side comment: Could you translate "goy" and "leumim" as separate words? I think it would be clearer for the reader)

6/30/2006 7:53 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Sure, I guess so... I'm following in the footsteps of R' Harry Maryles who likes writing posts about conversations going on on the Avodah/Areivim listservs. If i remember the sequence correctly, someone posted a reference to all the philanthropy that Bill & Melinda Gates, among others, have been doing. And then someone responded sarcasticly with one of the 'negative motives' interpretations of hhesed le’umim hhatat.

BA [Baracus?]:

There is a big difference between a חטא and a חטאת — the only problem is, it's only about 45% of the time. I checked in a Qonqordantziya the different uses of the words, and there were about 135 cases of hhatat meaning "sin-expiating offering" and 155 cases of it meaning "sin" stam, same as hheit.

Thanks for the deep analysis of the sugya. You should know, though, that while the peshat of the verse on its own seems like your, mine, and RYbZ's understanding, it does appear in the context of a series of tiqbolot nigudiyot (contrasting parallelisms), and so both the old and new JPS understand חטאת there as equal to חטא, and חסד as it's used here.

Changing the translation is a good idea.

6/30/2006 10:25 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

The only problem is that i can't think of three good distinct Engish words for each of
the last one is needed for מי כעמך ישראל

6/30/2006 10:29 AM  
Anonymous brother aharon said...

What's the concordantsia say as to the frequency of the use of "chessed" to mean "anti-chessed"?

6/30/2006 10:34 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

I unfortunately lack a Konkordantsiya of my own, but the BDB Biblical Hebrew & Aramaic dictionary says that it only appears twice — in these two cases.

I'm pretty sure that's what the Concordance said too.

Here's BDB:

[symbol for 'all instances listed'] II. חֶסֶד n.m. shame, reproach, only abs[olute form].:— ח' הוּא Lv 20:17 (H) it is a shame (shameful thing); ח' לְאֻמִּים חַטָּאת Pr 14:34 sin is a reproach to peoples.

6/30/2006 10:55 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

BDB connects it to an Aramaic verb חסד that means "to be put to shame; to reproach, revile", and understands the verbal form of חסד in Mishley 25:10 as a Hebrew form of that same meaning of the root.

So i guess that means there's a total of 3 instances of hhesed meaning anti-hhesed.

6/30/2006 10:58 AM  
Blogger YGB said...

I think I am going to post to Areivim or Avodah on the topic.

6/30/2006 11:35 AM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...


Great, can't wait.
If you want to put some of your response here, too, feel free.

6/30/2006 11:53 AM  
Blogger Knitter of shiny things said...

Great post!

I remember learning this sugiyah before, like outside the text, and I forget who it was that quoted it. But I was like "Hah! in your face anti-goy Hareidim!..."

But of course they would quote Rabbi Eliezer's answer as the final one, and wouldn't bother learning the rest...

But yay! You're going to be in Israel in a few days! [which I guess has nothing to do with this post but rather the next post.]

7/01/2006 6:52 PM  
Blogger thanbo said...

BA's distinction between the generation that suffered tragedy giving generous interpretations, while the generations that descend from them only give negative interpretations, could reflect the "Abarbanel" position on why we take out wine from the cup at the Ten Plagues.

That is, it is atrributed to Abarbanel (can't seem to find where, though) that we take out wine because we decrease our simcha at the plagues, in line with "bifol oyivcha al tisamach."

However, most sources say that binfol oyivcha explicitly doesn't apply to the Egyptians who drowned or who suffered in the plagues.

Abarbanel lived through the expulsion from Spain.

The rest of us didn't.

7/02/2006 10:45 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Well howdy do! Somehow I had overlooked entirely that you too wrote about chesed le umim chatas.

An entire year before I even mentioned the phrase, too.

See here:

You will note that I took a different tack in discussing the phrase. One that seemed obvious to me. I would value your comment.

12/22/2008 8:29 PM  

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