Thursday, March 04, 2010

Moshe, dying for our sins?

Summary: While the concept of the righteous of the generation absorbing punishment for the generation is not entirely without precedent or manifestation in Jewish theology, it features quite prominently in Christian doctrine. So it is somewhat surprising that Rambam understands an offer by Moshe Rabbenu in Ki Sisa to be just that, and that Ramban refers to Isaiah 53, the Suffering Servant, as precedent. Especially since Ramban understands that section to refer to the collective, rather than to a specific individual. The answer may well be that Ramban is not arguing for this position, but rather against it.

Post: Back when I lived in Riverdale, as I was entering the elevated subway platform, someone spotted my black velvet yarmulke and decided to ask me a deep theological question.
"Is it true that Jews don't believe that Jesus is God?"
"Then who do they believe is God? Moses?"
There is a Ramban in this week's parsha that appears to suggest that Moshe was ready to die for our sins, and that there is Biblical precedent and justification for this idea. The relevant pesukim in Ki Sisa are (perek 32):

לא  וַיָּשָׁב מֹשֶׁה אֶל-ה', וַיֹּאמַר:  אָנָּא, חָטָא הָעָם הַזֶּה חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם, אֱלֹהֵי זָהָב.31 And Moses returned unto the LORD, and said: 'Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made them a god of gold.
לב  וְעַתָּה, אִם-תִּשָּׂא חַטָּאתָם; וְאִם-אַיִן--מְחֵנִי נָא, מִסִּפְרְךָ אֲשֶׁר כָּתָבְתָּ.32 Yet now, if Thou wilt forgive their sin--; and if not, blot me, I pray Thee, out of Thy book which Thou hast written.'
לג  וַיֹּאמֶר ה', אֶל-מֹשֶׁה:  מִי אֲשֶׁר חָטָא-לִי, אֶמְחֶנּוּ מִסִּפְרִי.33 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Whosoever hath sinned against Me, him will I blot out of My book.

To explain this,
Rashi writes:

And now, if You forgive their sin…: good, I will not ask You to erase me, but if not, erase me. This is an elliptical verse, and there are many like it.ועתה אם תשא חטאתם: הרי טוב, איני אומר לך מחני. ואם אין, מחני, וזה מקרא קצר, וכן הרבה:מספרך מכל התורה כולה, שלא יאמרו עלי, שלא הייתי כדאי לבקש עליהם רחמים:
from Your book: From the entire Torah, so that they will not say about me that I was unworthy to beg mercy for them [the Israelites].:

But Ramban (translation) explains otherwise:
ולפי דעתי, כי משה אמר ועתה אם תשא חטאתם, ברחמיך, ואם אין מחני נא תחתם מספר החיים ואסבול אני עונשם, כעניין שאמר הכתוב (ישעיה נג ה): והוא מחולל מפשעינו מדוכא מעונותינו מוסר שלומנו עליו ובחבורתו נרפא לנו, והקב"ה השיבו, החוטא אמחה מספרי, ולא אותך שלא חטאת:
And according to my opinion, Moshe said, "And now, bear their sin with Your mercy. And if not, please wipe me out in their place from the book of life, and I will suffer their punishment, as the verse says, "But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed." (To which Hashem said, "No - for this sin, only those who sinned will be wiped out.") 
This is more than a bit surprising. Yes, one surprising element would be that it is theologically acceptable to maintain that God would punish a tzaddik for the sins of the generation, and how closely this hews to the Christian idea of Jesus dying for the sins of all humanity. Yet there are admittedly some scattered and relatively obscure references to this idea (see here), which might well be where the Christians took it from, before developing it the way they did. So while it is a bit surprising to see a Rishon maintain this idea, it is not entirely "out there".

More surprising to me is his prooftext. Ramban cites Isaiah 53!

ה  וְהוּא מְחֹלָל מִפְּשָׁעֵנוּ, מְדֻכָּא מֵעֲו‍ֹנֹתֵינוּ; מוּסַר שְׁלוֹמֵנוּ עָלָיו, וּבַחֲבֻרָתוֹ נִרְפָּא-לָנוּ.5 But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed.

For those unaware, that is the Suffering Servant, the perek often used by Christians as purported prophecy predicting Jesus' arrival, suffering, and dying for all mankind's sins. It is used to show that Yeshu is the messiah. By referring to this as his prooftext for the legitimacy of the idea, isn't Ramban promoting Christianity.

I'll ask a better question. In the disputation of Barcelona, Ramban argued what is the standard Jewish interpretation of that perek, that this is not a reference to a specific individual, but rather to the congregation of Israel. To cite:

Friar Paul claimed: "Behold the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, tells of the death of the messiah and how he was to fall into the hands of his enemies and how he was placed alongside the wicked, as happened to Jesus. Do you believe that this section speaks of the messiah?
I said to him: "In terms of the true meaning of the section, it speaks only of the people of Israel, which the prophets regularly call 'Israel My servant' or 'Jacob My servant.'"
To turn around now and use it as precedent for the idea of a single individual, Moshe rabbenu, a tzaddik, dying for everyone's sins, would seem to undermine that interpretation of that perek in Yeshaya as referring to the entire people of Israel. Yes, one could rescue it, by making the parallel less clear; or one could claim that he was dissembling in the anti-Christian polemic. Still, it makes this interpretation somewhat awkward.

However, we might be able to answer quite simply, that just because Moshe proposed an idea does not mean that it was the best idea, or most theologically sound idea. By referring us to Isaiah 53, Ramban may have been obliquely making reference to this central idea in Christianity, and to the Christian interpretation, rather than promoting this as a legitimate idea within Jewish theology. And then, in the next pasuk, and as Ramban writes, Hashem categorically rejects that idea: The one who sinned shall be wiped out, but not you, who didn't sin!

Rabbi Yitzchak Abohav, a supercommentator of Ramban, appears to come to a similar conclusion but via a slightly different path:
ועתה אס תשא וגוי. וא״כ מה וכו', אפשר לפרש ואם כן ששאלת משה שימחנו הש״י משום כבודו מה השיבו הש״י באמרו מי אשר חטא לי אמחה ולאחר לא אמחה ואין זה מדרך הר׳ לכפול ענין כמובן מעצמו, ונר״ל שכוון לומר אס כן ששאלתו שימחנו מפני כבודו מה השיבו השם ית׳  באמרו מי אשר חטא וגו', ומ״ש ולא לאחר למחות כי מספרו כיין, הרי אין בכאן איש אחר למחות כי אם החוטאים על זה שאל מחני נא, 'וא״כ מה תשובה זו על שאלתו שעל זה הוא דן עם הש״י, אולי אין דברי השם ית׳ בדרך תשובה אלא הודעה, כלו' דע לך שאין מדרכי למחות כי אם החוטאים לא זולת.
(See also here.)


S. said...

>Post: Back when I lived in Riverdale, as I was entering the elevated subway platform, someone spotted my black velvet yarmulke and decided to ask me a deep theological question.

> "Is it true that Jews don't believe that Jesus is God?"

> "Yes."

> "Then who do they believe is God? Moses?"

You attract a more thoughtful sort of person. My exchange along those lines went as follows:

"What do they do when that hat falls off?" -- pointing at my yarmulke.


"If it falls off. Is it true the elders beat you?"

"Huh? No." -- at this point I'm pretty puzzled. (The elders?)

"So what happens if it falls off?"

"I pick it up."

yaak said...

Notice how I added "for this sin" into the Ramban's translation.
Mistama, acc. to the Abohav's explanation of the Ramban, since he adds the word מדרכי, would differ from this explanation. However, one can definitely interpret the Ramban my way without giving any credence to Christian dogma.

First of all, I had numerous proofs from Hazal, along with some more which I didn't mention. You claim those to be arcane - it's hard (or perhaps even blasphemous) to say that Hazal's beliefs in something so fundamental should not be our beliefs today.

Secondly, any proof from Yushke can only be mocked. He's dying for the sins of everyone in all generations? That's just silly.

Rav Mordechai Eliyahu suffering for the sins of this generation, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense. He is Soveil so Kelal Yisrael doesn't have to be. Many Gezeirot were averted due to this. Again, we're talking about today. And hopefully, this will bring Mashiah very soon.

joshwaxman said...

for the moment, please ignore the "arcane" bit. i am withholding response for the time being.

the argument of this post is the strangeness of a prooftext of Isaiah 53, in light of how it is used and in light of Ramban denying it refers to an individual.



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