Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Talmud on mitzvot and theodicy

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: Crime and Punishment and Punishment and Punishment. The Talmudic system of laws assumes the adherent is eager to learn how to follow God’s commandment, not why to follow it—and that he has faith in an otherworldly justice not necessarily reflected in this life.
But in the Talmud, punishment is an elusive subject. Most of the time, the rabbis redefine the death penalty in terms of karet, the “cutting off” of the sinner from the world to come, thus turning a this-worldly punishment into a supernatural one. Often, when the Bible specifies a punishment that the rabbis seem to regard as excessive or barbarous, they will find a way to interpret the law so that it cannot be carried out. (One famous example concerns the biblical prescription for stoning a rebellious son.) We do hear about courts imposing fines and monetary settlements in civil cases. But in general, the question of punishment simply fails to arise in the Talmud: The same rabbis who spent many pages figuring out exactly what a law means have no interest in figuring out what to do with Jews who defy it.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.