lethargic_man: "Happy the person that finds wisdom, and the person that gets understanding."—Prov. 3:13. Icon by Tamara Rigg (limmud)
[personal profile] lethargic_man

As is well-known, early in the revolt against Rome, El`azar ben Ya'ir led a band of Sicarii to occupy the fortress and rock of Masada in the Judaean desert, from which he led raids on the surrounding countryside. The Romans came and besieged this fortress, which was regarded as pretty much unconquerable—it's located on a fragment of rock splintered off the western wall of the East African Rift Valley, with sheer sides, and inhospitable desert at its foot—but the Romans conquered it anyway by building a ramp up to reach it. When El`azar ben Ya'ir saw that defeat was imminent, he made a long speech in which he talked his followers into mass suicide, in which he makes the following interesting comment upon suicide in contemporary Indian religion (VII.8):

Yet, if we do stand in need of foreigners to support us in this matter, let us regard those Indians who profess the exercise of philosophy; for these good men do but unwillingly undergo the time of life, and look upon it as a necessary servitude, and make haste to let their souls loose from their bodies; nay, when no misfortune presses them to it, nor drives them upon it, these have such a desire of a life of immortality, that they tell other men beforehand that they are about to depart; and nobody hinders them, but every one thinks them happy men, and gives them letters to be carried to their familiar friends [that are dead], so firmly and certainly do they believe that souls converse with one another [in the other world]. So when these men have heard all such commands that were to be given them, they deliver their body to the fire; and, in order to their getting their soul a separation from the body in the greatest purity, they die in the midst of hymns of commendations made to them; for their dearest friends conduct them to their death more readily than do any of the rest of mankind conduct their fellow-citizens when they are going a very long journey, who at the same time weep on their own account, but look upon the others as happy persons, as so soon to be made partakers of the immortal order of beings. Are not we, therefore, ashamed to have lower notions than the Indians? and by our own cowardice to lay a base reproach upon the laws of our country, which are so much desired and imitated by all mankind?

I wonder what religion he's referring to. A glance at Wikipedia does not indicate any of the major Indian religions with a positive attitude towards suicide nowadays. I wonder whether what we have here is a slightly garbled account, rather, of suttee (though Wikipedia states "few reliable records exist of the practice before the time of the Gupta empire, approximately 400 AD").


The Torah is very strong on the theme that G-d rewards and punishes. By the time of the Mishna, however, the fact that bad things happen to good people, and vice versa, was troubling Jewish theologians, and they wrestled with the issue. In some places in the Talmud and Midrash the problem is stated in stark terms but left unsolved; in others the solution is given that reward and punishment does not occur in this world but is deferred to the World to Come.

Nowadays only the most dyed-in-the-wool Orthodox would claim reward and punishment happens in this world: the idea that all of the five million six hundred thousand murdered by the Nazis—including the children, including the babies—were morally responsible for the "punishment" that was brought upon them is morally repugnant to most people. However, less than a century before R. Akiva stated the doctrine of deferred reward and punishment, you still had one man, at least, firmly believing in the concept of reward and punishment in this world:

After spending an entire book describing the horrors of war and all the people justly or unjustly killed, enslaved and exiled, Josephus concludes his work by telling of a Jew and a Roman who conspired to blame a late Sicarian revolt upon upright citizens, and then went on to have anyone who might put the lie to this accused and peremptorily executed. Eventually Vespasian smelled a rat (as Williamson puts it) and has the Jew executed. The Roman, Catullus (not the poet!)

for the time being profited by the lenience of [Vespasian and Titus] and received no more than a reprimand; but soon afterwards he succumbed to a complicated sickness beyond remedy and died miserably, not only chastened in body but suffering from a much more terrible disease of the mind. He was tormented by terrors, constantly calling out that he saw the ghosts of those he had murdered standing before him; and losing control of himself he would spring from his bed as if he himself was being tortured and burnt. His malady grew rapidly worse and worse, and his bowels were eaten through and fell out. Such was his end—proof, if ever there was one, of the providence of God, who executed judgement on the wicked.

[Josephus] Josephus notes         Jewish learning notes index


Date: 2012-08-23 02:23 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] bluepork
> After spending an entire book describing the horrors of war and all the people justly or unjustly killed, enslaved and exiled, Josephus concludes his work by telling of a Jew and a Roman who conspired to blame a late Sicarian revolt upon upright citizens, and then went on to have anyone who might put the lie to this accused and peremptorily executed.

This is not a well formed sentence. It's too long and I had to read it several times before I got it. Maybe put a comma before the word "accused"?

Anyway, apart from that, I disagree with the notion that: "Nowadays only the most dyed-in-the-wool Orthodox would claim reward and punishment happens in this world"

Whilst it may be unacceptable in modern Judaism to preach this concept from our religious precepts, the fact that this belief is widespread is belied by superstitious actions with no basis in halachah. I'm sure you can think up your own examples. Also, it is completely accepted to pray for personal (as well as national) benefits, such as health and wealth, as well as protection against misfortune. These prayers are part of all Judaism's liturgy, and not just the orthodox. (The Holocaust is an extreme example and I'm not going to get drawn into that discussion)

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