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Archive for the day “February 26, 2013”

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Intention, Action, Consequence: Thinking in Jewish XVI

Some things are beginning to emerge with some clarity, although I am not absolutely certain that my analysis is at all correct until I am able to run some ideas past Rabbi Mendel on Thursday. As I read Talmud with him and read some on my own as well I am struck by the consistency of analysis I am beginning to see unfold. In this post I want to discuss what I think of as preparatory rules of analysis. These rules focus primarily on secular and not religious definitions almost as if they were conceived by classical philosophy and not priests and rabbis. They set the stage for all behavior rather than define that which is holy or what must be done to insure holiness. Much of this is gaining clarity as I read from Tractate Shabbat, the rules for the Sabbath.

The first of these principles is human intention. In a nutshell, the rule for intention exempts from any and all liability for atonement acts that were performed that one would otherwise be liable for if they were performed without intentionality; one forgot it was the Sabbath and performed an otherwise forbidden action. The one caveat to this rule is that once the error was recognized the behavior must stop. To intentionally violate a Sabbath prohibition is strictly forbidden but if one violates more than one provision the liability extends only as if the combined acts constituted a single act and therefore a single liability is attached. In short, human motives play a large role in the attachment of liability.

Liability must flow from action and not merely thought. If three frogs were sitting on a log and two of them intended to jump off the log into the water, how many frogs remain on the log? The short answer is three because if intentions are not translated into specific action then the intention does not constitute a violation of actions prohibited. This seems so logical it almost hurts. Thinking is not punishable, period.

Violations of intent coupled with actions have consequences. To make this leap, the sages of the Mishnah and Talmuds adopt a teleological point of view that argues for historical purpose; that all of history in its separate and independent acts are all part of a larger plan, a purpose for the very existence of the universe and ultimately human beings. Taken to its logical outcome there must also be a time when history as we know it must end, the eschatological time, the end of time itself. Consequences, especially negative consequences, serve to mark the severity of the end of times. Consequences are both cumulative and generalized to the whole of the population. If only a small minority of the people violate prohibitions of any kind the entire population is likely to suffer. Punishments from God differ but they are always traceable back to a breakdown of ordered living into chaos, the very reverse of the process of creation itself.

The underlying purpose of these fundamental tools of analysis are in place to set the stage for the next three and much more deeply connected to religious life; space, time and prohibitions. Up to this point, it seems to me that these preliminary rules are deeply philosophical at their core and, while the argument is not made in such a way as to flow neatly from one point to the next, the argument is, nevertheless, identifiable and defensible. While I can quibble with the teleological view of history and the eschatological consequences of that very teleology, I am also able to understand the context in which it occurs. As one of the fundamental cornerstones of Rabbinic Judaism these preliminaries are found in all four of the tractates of Talmud Bavli I have read to date. I am less certain to agree with the next three which I will discuss next.

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