Sunday, November 18, 2012

Suffering of the Righteous

The central theme of the Christian religion is that the Nazarene's death provided vicarious atonement for the sins of humanity. Through belief in the Nazarene the punishment for an individual's sins are met in his suffering. It is often boldly asserted that Judaism completely rejects such a notion of vicarious atonement and that such an idea is totally foreign to us. However there is a concept that may, at first impression, seem to suggest the contrary. Throughout Jewish literature we see occasional references to the suffering of the righteous, Tzaddikim, as punishment for the sins of others.

The Ramchal, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, develops this theme in his work "Derech Hashem". When we examine his explanation and the sources it is derived from we begin to see that it bears no true resemblance to the doctrine of "Vicarious Atonement."

First, it would be useful to examine a Biblical source for this doctrine. We see it in a passage in Yechezkel (Ezekiel). Yechezkel was given a prophecy regarding a siege of Yerushalayim. Hashem commanded Yechezkel to lie on his side to enact the coming siege for the people. In chapter 4 verse 4 we read, "Then lie upon your left side, and place the iniquity of the House of Israel upon it, according to the number of days that you lie upon it you will bear their iniquity." Each day represented a year that Israel rebelled against God. Then the same procedure was followed on the other side for the years Judah rebelled against God. This passage will highlight between what the Ramchal describes and Christian dogma, and show the Biblical basis for the Jewish approach which stands opposed to the Christian view.

Notice that we read that the prophet Yechezkel is bearing Israel and Judah's iniquity. In Christianity this can only be accomplished by the Nazarene, the theoanthropic Messiah. Jewish sources, including the Jewish Bible, never limit the effectiveness of suffering to that of Moshaich. In fact we see that any righteous person may suffer on behalf of others. The passage in Yechezkel in and of itself makes it impossible to assign Moshiach such exclusive ability to suffer for others or to make it contingent upon the individual being divine. The Christian Bible does not record the Nazarene as saying, "No one may come to the Father but through me...or Yechezkel." This passage contradicts the Christian belief in the sole efficacy of the Nazarene's death as a means of atonement.

Furthermore we see that to the Ramchal that such suffering of the righteous on behalf of others is not the only means of attaining perfection, but rather to tip the scales in the favor of others whose merit was insufficient. This is implicit in our passage from Yechezkel as well, insofar as we see his suffering was only for specific time periods, not to be all inclusive. As such it is an inferior way of obtaining perfection and not the one taken by all. On the other hand Christianity presents the Nazarene's suffering as the ONLY means of atonement. Besides contradicting other places in the T'nakh which indicates G-d will forgive one's sins through other means as well, such a doctrine contradicts Yechezkel. How can the Nazarene alone bear iniquity that was already borne by Yechezkel?!

Nor does the Ramchal or other Jewish sources indicate that such suffering by tzadikim must result in death. This is clearly not the case with Yechezkel whose actions were not fatal. Within the Christian belief system the term "suffering servant" is misleading. It is not the Nazarene's suffering which supposedly provided atonement but his death as a sacrifice. His suffering was merely a byproduct of his "atoning work" of sacrificial death, not the cause of the atonement. This is precisely the reverse of the Jewish view in which the suffering satisfies the debt of punishment and any related death is incidental to that suffering.

Now that we have seen some plain distinctions between Ramchal's description of tzadikim suffering on behalf of others and Christian "vicarious atonement", let us examine how the Jewish approach is effective to further shed light on the differences. Ramchal writes, "In order for this to be possible, all men were originally bound to each other, as our Sages teach us, 'All Israel are responsible for one another'."  The concept is that the Jewish people are a unified whole, as such the tzadik is not suffering from a separate and distinct individual since he is bound together with his compatriots for whom he suffers. His suffering is not "vicarious", but for his own "self" as it where. While Judaism makes the effectiveness of such suffering contingent upon such common identity Christianity contends the Nazarene's death was effective precisely because there was not association...he was "guiltless".

And while it is not explicit in the Ramchal there seems to be another factor which contributes to the Tzadik being able to suffer for others. He alludes to the notion in Jewish law that one may share the guilt of another's sin. Jewish law requires that one prevent another individual from sinning if one has the ability to do so. Though by the letter of the law one may not be liable in certain instances according to the letter of the law, Tzadikim are held to a higher standard. Not only is his actual ability to prevent the sin taken into account, but his potential ability to prevent sin may be considered. Thus while an ordinary individual would not be considered able to influence another to refrain from sinning, the Tzadik is on a higher plain...and has a higher degree of influence. So while he has not technically committed a sin, the Tzadik is judged stricter for his passive involvement in the sinner’s transgression and punished accordingly. As a result the sinner can be judged more favorably based on the established fact that if he had the benefit of a better environment provided by the Tzadik then who wouldn't have sinned, and he in turn is judged more favorably. The net result is that the Tzadik is technically innocent according to our regular notion of liability, but nevertheless the punishment is due to his own action...or inaction, of failing to prevent a sin when it was in his ability to do so if only he had worked harder to reach a higher level.

So when contrasting the Jewish notion of a Tzadik suffering for others with the Christian doctrine of Vicarious Atonement we are left saying "l’havdil elef havdalos", differentiate a thousand distinctions! Even without noting the nuances of difference between Jewish concepts of reward and punishment, repentance and the afterlife which further distinguishes these two approaches we are presented with clear and obvious differences. Judaism knows nothing of a single individual's death being the only means of atonement for the entire world's sins. Rather tzaddikim may suffer for others but this is not the only means of atonement nor limited to an individual tzadik. Furthermore it is only effective insofar as the Tzadik is considered one with the sinner and the Tzadik does not actualize his potential to prevent the sinner from violating Torah. They are two different, and mutually exclusive, understandings of the role of suffering in the forgiveness of sin.

(I apologize that footnotes from the original version have been lost in transmission, b'ezras Hashem they will be restored in the future)


in the vanguard said...

What I fail to understand, from what little I know of christianity, is how can faith alone, just pure faith, count for anything? Faith without action may as well be faithless. How could a murderer who has faith be anything better than a murderer?

Like I said, this Nazarene stuff just befuddles my mind.

Hashem bless you, my friend.

Yirmiahu said...

They believe true faith is tied with teshuvah, the problem is they believe that it is only made possible through (a very specific and unsupported by Torah) human sacrifice.

They say they believe in Grace but the truth is their conception of G-d doesn't allow Him to forgive without "someone" (the Nazarene) paying for it.

We on the other hand emphasize both the importance of obedience and the power of teshuvah.