A Roman philosopher asked Rabbi Gamliel (1st century),"If your God despises idolatry, why does he not destroy the idols themselves? Why does he only react toward their worshipers?” Replied Rabbi Gamliel, “It is likened onto a king whose son named his dog after his father, and every time he would summon his dog, he would do so by calling out his father’s name. Shall the king react toward the dog? Shall not the king react toward the son who calls the dog by his father’s name?”
The philosopher asked, “But I once saw a great fire that destroyed a village, yet it did not destroy the local idolatrous house of worship! How can this be so?” Said Rabbi Gamliel, “It is likened onto a king who is at war. Shall his battle be with the dead, or with the living? Of course with the living!” (Talmud Bav’li, Avodah Zarah 54b). God’s beef, in other words, is not with false deities but with those who worship them.
The Talmud goes on to recount an incident that was reported concerning a village called Atrin whose region was experiencing a severe drought. In a dream one night, the shaman of Atrin was told that in order for the drought to end and the rains to fall, the community needed to sacrifice one of its members. They did so, and the rains fell. How do the ancient rabbis explain this horrific event? Glibly, to say the least: “One who comes to commit an impure act, the path is opened for them” (Talmud Bav’li, Avodah Zarah 55a).
The God of Judaism, we are taught here, is very flexible. Maybe too flexible for some. Wanna do something bad? The path is open for you. God will step out of your way and permit your wrongful act, regardless of how disgusting it is.
While Rabbi Gamliel’s teaching has God reacting to wrongfulness, it does not preclude God allowing wrongfulness, to begin with.
Now, you and I would do it differently, of course. If we see someone about to do something bad, we will react in that very moment and do what we can to not allow it to happen. We will have our reaction, in other words, not only after the fact but before the act as well.
Why does God not react immediately? Why does God allow the wrongful act to take place, to begin with? What does it mean: “One who comes to commit an impure act, the path is opened for them”? Does this not imply that a path is actively and deliberately cleared for those intent on doing something wrong, even as horrifically wrong as genocide or human sacrifice?
And how can the sages be so glib in their explanation of the incident in Atrin? God simply allows? Opens the way? Unacceptable! The argument of Abraham rises from within us: “You, a God of justice, would do such a thing, to destroy the innocent along with the guilty?” (Genesis 18:25).
The accompanying teaching to this “One who comes to commit…” doesn’t help much either. It goes like this: “One who comes to commit a pure act, they are helped” as in actively supported. What, pray tell, is the difference between being actively helped and being actively allowed? Do bad, they actively clear the way for you. Do good, they actively help you out. See any difference? What distinction, if any, are the sages trying to make between a positive act and a negative one? In either case, it seems you will be aided and abeted, for better or for worse.
The elder Rabbi Eliezer Benseon, my teacher of many years ago, explained it this way: “The distinction is that every person is given choices completely their own to make. One who chooses evil, the way is opened for them, meaning they are not aided but rather allowed. The possibility of their choice is enabled. One who chooses good, is supported, aided, helped. Thus, the wicked cannot claim that their success as, say, a bank robber was due to God’s help. Whereas the righteous can and ought to attribute to God’s support their success in doing good. Doing good is not nearly as easy as doing bad. To make evil choices, all we need is for the path to open for us, the opportunity to rise up for us. To make good choices, however, often requires divine support.”
But but but, I asked, why then not simply say that one who seeks to commit evil, is given the free choice to do so, rather than word it as if divine providence is actively opening up a path for them?
“Ay, Gershon, Gershon, Gershon,” he responded, stroking his 87-year-old beard. “In your question resides the answer. The MaHaRaL (16th-century Rabbi Yehudah Loew) reminds us that free choice is exclusively divine, can only come from God. In the realm of the mortal, it is impossible. For example, two men share a boat. Can they grant one another free choice? Not at all. For what if one wishes to sail west and the other east? There is no free choice. If two men wish to marry the same woman, is there free choice for each? (Maharal in Ohr Chadash, folio 91). Achash’vey’rosh [Xerxes] tried to emulate God by granting everyone at his party free choice, for each to do what they wished, and it turned into a catastrophe!”
I was excited by the Maharal’s take on all this, so I explored his writings on the matter further, and found this: “Moreover, when we seek to do the right thing, we may at times seek it through the wrong means. Thus, when you seek to do the right thing and you have chosen a means that is correct, you are supported. However, if you seek to do the right thing and you have chosen a means that is inappropriate, since your intent is for the good, the way is cleared for you to achieve that good even if the path is not the correct one. The guardians may block your way, but they will eventually give in to your persistent knocking and shoving at the wrong door. For perhaps by the power of your intent you will nonetheless arrive at a good place in the end, even though you chose the wrong means to get there” (Maharal in Chidushey Aggadot, Vol. 1, folio 48, Tractate of Shabbat).
Good. But how does that explain Atrin? Why did God send the rains in response to the people’s act of human sacrifice? This incident is not one of “allowing” but more of “helping” and actively enabling!
The God Who Allows: Part Two
WHAT ABOUT “ATRIN”?
Ah. The question still remains. What of Atrin? The village that sacrificed one of its members in order to bring the rain during a severe drought. And it worked! It’s one thing to explain its efficacy as one more tragic lesson that free will has its dangers, too. And that were God to intervene all the time, there would be no free will. And in this case, the sacrificial ritual happened to coincide with the time predetermined for it to rain anyway. And so the people assumed it was their ritual that brought the clouds. Stuff like that happens. The Talmud recounts an incident when a man on crutches entered a house of idolatry to worship and emerged healed. One of Rabbi Akiva’s disciples noticed this phenomenon and reported it to the sage who explained: “See how great and altruistic is God’s compassion. For although this man prayed to wood and stone, nonetheless since it was his time to be healed, God did not withhold his healing. Thus says God: ‘Shall I postpone the healing of this one just because his designated time for healing happens to coincide with his foolish visit to the house of idolatry?’” (Midrash Asseret HaDib’rot, Chapter 2, end of Paragraph 1).
That is what the sages meant to imply when they explained the incident at Atrin with: “One who comes to commit the impure, the way is opened for him” – if you seek it that badly that you are knocking on the door until your knuckles bleed and crack, meaning to the degree that you are even willing to kill for it, the gates are opened for you. The universe will cease its attempt to stop you. The angelic keepers of the pathways will buckle under and allow you to pass and to stumble and self-destruct in the muck of your wrongful choice. And the rains will fall, and you will adopt your erroneous ritual as a practice for all times of drought, and it will never work again, and strange warriors will arrive by boat from afar and thrash your culture, burn your villages, and turn your sky-high altars into tourist traps. And you will learn the hard way, the tragic way, that all that sacrificing of the few on behalf of the many may have brought you rain now and then, but ultimately it also cost you the lives of the many for whom you sacrificed the few.
And the highest lesson of all: If you can knock down the barriers with unrelenting persistence even if your means are evil, imagine what you can do if your means are good. In the third century, a pimp named Pentakakus succeeded in bringing the rains during a drought in Judea when the holy rabbis failed. He, too, sacrificed. Not someone else’s life, but his own precious bed and bedding in order to help a desperate woman redeem her husband from Roman captivity. She was about to sacrifice her body and her dignity by joining Pentakakus’ brothel. Pentakakus remembered the lesson of Atrin which he had studied in yeshiva during his more innocent youth, and realized that what this woman was about to sacrifice would indeed bring redemption to her husband, but it would ultimately bring ruin and trauma to both her and her husband and their family. Realizing this, Pentakakus replaced her near-sacrifice with something of his own that would in no way wreak wrongful consequences, only good. In good faith, he denied her application and instead gifted her with his most expensive blankets and the brass of his fancy bed, which she then sold in the marketplace. And with the funds from her garage sale, she redeemed her husband from captivity and even had enough left over for a second honeymoon. And so, the holy chaste Rabbi Abbayeh, whose prayer for rain failed, was instructed in a vision to seek out Pentakakus the Pimp, for only his prayer alone would bring the rains. And so it happened (Talmud Yerushalmi, Ta’anit 1:4 [or 4a-5b]).
The 18th-century Rabbi Yisroel Ba’al Shem once explained it this way. “God hears all prayers, even of the wicked. The difference? The righteous might pray for something that is essentially not good for them, but God may grant their yearning anyway. And then, when the righteous one realizes it was wrong for them, they cry out to God once again, and God redeems them from their plight, as is written: ‘God performs the will of those who are in awe of God, and then listens to their crying out and rescues them’ (Psalms 145:19). Now, with a thief, for example, it is different. A thief might pray to God with utmost sincerity for success in sneaking into someone’s home and robbing them. And God might heed their prayer. But then, if the thief gets caught, the second prayer of the thief for rescue may not be heeded” (Keter Shem Tov).
Bottom line, both work. Good and evil. Both are powerful, potent means of conjuring forth what is needed or desired. But if you spend with evil, you accrue interest; if you spend with good, you accrue points. Better to be welcomed through the gates, than to be a party-crasher. In both instances you get in. Albeit, in the former instance you get to stay, while in the latter instance they will eventually kick your ass out on the street.
Your choice. Remember Atrin. Remember Pentakakus.