Humanity's Power Over Nature - According to the Rabbis Dr. Elana Stein Hain


What does it mean that Judaism posits a God who is the God of creation, but also the God of revelation? The God of creation is the God of a natural world that gives us great bounty - and also COVID-19. Judaism also attributes to God a system of revelation - holidays, ritual requirements, and all that this entails - which is separate from the natural world.

For the rabbis, this was an important question, because the Roman society in which they lived asserted that for something to be Divine, it has to mirror the created world. There is intrinsic value to the way things are in the world, and to know what Divine law is, just look to natural law - what any rational human being would understand. The rabbis went in a very different direction, and understood nature and revelation to be separate systems.

At this moment of pandemic, we may wonder: What does this mean for moments when we are fighting against divinely created nature? What exactly is the connection between the world that we can view through science, and the world of obligation that is part of revelation? What responsibilities does each system place on us?

This class looks at three different conversations that are imagined to have happened between the great Rabbi Akiva, who represents rabbinic thought and the paradigmatic Roman official, Turnus Rufus. He lived in the late first an early second century, and was directly involved in trying to put down some of the rebellions in which Rabbi Akiva took part.

שָׁאַל טוֹרְנוֹסְרוֹפוֹס אֶת רַ' עֲקִיבָא.

אָמַר לוֹ: מָה יוֹם מִיָּמִים?

אָמַר לוֹ: וּמָה גֶּבֶר מִגְּבָרִים?

אָמַר לוֹ: שֶׁרָצָה הַמֶּלֶךְ לְכַבְּדֵנִי.

אָמַר לוֹ: אַף זוֹ שֶׁרוֹצֶה מֶלֶךְ הַמְּלָכִים לְכַבְּדָהּ.

אָמַר לוֹ: כָּךְ אָמַרְתִּי לְךָ – מִי יֹאמַר שֶׁהַיּוֹם שַׁבָּת?

אָמַר לוֹ: נְהַר סַמְבַּטְיוֹן יוֹכִיחַ, שֶׁהוּא מוֹשֵׁךְ אֲבָנִים כָּל יְמוֹת הַחֹל וּבְשַׁבָּת הוּא נָח.

אָמַר לוֹ: לָרוּחַ אַתָּה מוֹלִיכֵנִי?

Turnus Rufus asked R. Akiva: Why is today different than any other day?

He responded: How are you different than any other man?

He said to him: The king wished to honor me.

He said back: This too (=Shabbat) the Sovereign wished to honor her.

He said to him: So I have said to you – Who says that today is Shabbat?

He responded: The Sambatyon River will prove it, for it pulls along rocks all week, but rests on Shabbat.

He responded: Are you sending me to the wind?

In this conversation, Turnus Rufus has a clear perspective on the relationship between the natural world and the metaphysical world. If Shabbat is a special day, he argues, it should be apparent in nature that it is different from other days.

Rabbi Akiva argues back by saying that just as the position that Turnus Rufus holds in the empire is merely an expression of the will of the ruler, so too, is the observance of Shabbat.

Turnus Rufus presses his point, and asks again: How do you know that this is the correct day? In other words, he wants empirical evidence that this day is different from all others.

Rabbi Akiva claims that the Sambatyon river offers proof: it moves rocks on every day but Shabbat.

This river appears in both Rabbinic and Roman writings, and Pliny the Elder says it flowed six days a week, and on the 7th it rested. They referred to it as a Jewish river, and the implication is that Jews are lazy, because they have selected a day of the week to refrain from work. But Turnus Rufus is unconvinced, and the conversation continues:

אָמַר לוֹ: בַּעַל אוֹב יוֹכִיחַ, שֶׁהוּא עוֹלֶה כָּל יְמֵי הַשַּׁבָּת וְאֵינוֹ עוֹלֶה בְּשַׁבָּת;

קִבְרוֹ שֶׁל אָבִיךָ יוֹכִיחַ, שֶׁאֵינוֹ מַעֲלֶה עָשָׁן בְּשַׁבָּת.

אָמַר לוֹ: בִּזִּיתוֹ, בִּיַּשְׁתּוֹ, קִלַּלְתּוֹ.

יָצָא וּבָדַק בְּאָבִיו.

כָּל יְמוֹת הַחֹל עָלָה,

וּבְשַׁבָּת לֹא עָלָה.

לְאַחַר שַׁבָּת הֶעֱלָהוּ.

אָמַר לוֹ: מִשֶּׁמַּתָּ נַעֲשֵׂיתָ יְהוּדִי?

אָמַר לוֹ: כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְשַׁמֵּר אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת אֶצְלְכֶם בִּרְצוֹנוֹ, כָּאן מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּעַל כָּרְחוֹ.

אָמַר לוֹ: וְכִי מָה עָמָל יֵשׁ לָכֶם כָּל יְמוֹת הַחֹל?

אָמַר לוֹ: כָּל יְמוֹת הַחֹל אָנוּ נִדּוֹנִים, וּבְשַׁבָּת אָנוּ נָחִים.

חָזַר אֵצֶל רַ' עֲקִיבָא,

אָמַר לוֹ: אִם כִּדְבָרֶיךָ, שֶׁהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא רוֹצֶה בִּכְבוֹדָהּ שֶׁל שַׁבָּת,

אַל יַשֵּׁב בָּהּ רוּחוֹת,

אַל יוֹרֶד בָּהּ גְּשָׁמִים

וְאַל יַצְמַח בָּהּ עֵשֶׂב.

אָמַר לוֹ: תִּפַּח רוּחוֹ שֶׁל אוֹתוֹ הָאִישׁ!

אֶמְשֹׁל לְךָ מָשָׁל, לְמָה הַדָּבָר דּוֹמֶה?

לְאֶחָד שֶׁדָּר בַּחֲצֵרוֹ,

הֲרֵי הוּא מֻתָּר לְטַלְטֵל בְּכָל הֶחָצֵר כֻּלָּהּ.

אַף כָּאן הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, לְפִי שֶׁכָּל הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלּוֹ וְאֵין רְשׁוּת אַחֶרֶת עִמּוֹ,

הֲרֵיהוּ מֻתָּר בְּכָל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ.

He said to him: The necromancer will prove it, for the dead rise all week, but not on Shabbat.

Your father’s grave will prove it, for it does not billow with smoke on Shabbat.

He responded: You have scorned, humiliated and cursed him.

[But] he went to check on his father. Indeed, on weekdays, he arose, but on Shabbat he did not. After Shabbat, he brought his father’s spirit forth. He said to him: since you died, have you become Jewish?

He responded: All who do not keep Shabbat among you voluntarily keeps it here against their will.

He said to him: What work do you even do during the week?

He responded: On weekdays we are
judged, but on Shabbat we rest.
He returned to Rabbi Akiva.
He said to him: If you are right that the
Holy Blessed One wishes to honor
Shabbat, then no winds should blow, no
rain should fall, and no grass should grow
on Shabbat.
He responded: Drop dead!
I’ll explain via metaphor: this is like one
who lives in their own courtyard and may
carry throughout it [on Shabbat]. Likewise,
because the whole world belongs to God,
and there is no other power alongside
God, God is permitted to [cause wind to
blow things, cause rain to fall, cause grass
to grow] throughout the world.

Rabbi Akiva tries again. There is no proof in the realm of nature, and so he resorts to the world of spirits to prove his point, turning to the deceased father of Turnus Rufus to testify to the differences between Shabbat and weekdays that he experiences in the afterlife.

But Turnus Rufus still believes that if Shabbat is God's will, it should be reflected in the natural world. The fact that nature continues to function as it does every other day undermines the idea of Shabbat. For Rabbi Akiva, the fact that the natural world does not reflect Shabbat further underscores God's sovereignty over both revelation and creation. The world belongs to God, and God can do whatever God wants in God's world on Shabbat.

In other words, this source grapples with the question: What does it mean to have faith in something that you cannot see, and yet believe that what you do see was created by that same Sovereign?

In summary, this source argues that metaphysics is based on God's will (and so is nature). Nature and metaphysics are separate from one another, and they do not necessarily correspond.

The next conversation is in the context of a conversation about civil law. It stems from a discussion of what you can force another person to build in order to support the common good, and then transitions into a conversation about charity.

שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר"ע אם אלקיכם אוהב עניים הוא מפני מה אינו מפרנסם אמר לו כדי שניצול אנו בהן מדינה של גיהנם אמר לו [אדרבה] זו שמחייבתן לגיהנם אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שכעס על עבדו וחבשו בבית האסורין וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו ושלא להשקותו והלך אדם אחד והאכילו והשקהו כששמע המלך לא כועס עליו ואתם קרוין עבדים שנאמר (ויקרא כה, נה) כי לי בני ישראל עבדים אמר לו ר"ע אמשול לך משל למה הדבר דומה למלך בשר ודם שכעס על בנו וחבשו בבית האסורין וצוה עליו שלא להאכילו ושלא להשקותו והלך אדם אחד והאכילו והשקהו כששמע המלך לא דורון משגר לו ואנן קרוין בנים דכתיב (דברים יד, א) בנים אתם ליי אלקיכם אמר לו אתם קרוים בנים וקרוין עבדים בזמן שאתם עושין רצונו של מקום אתם קרוין בנים ובזמן שאין אתם עושין רצונו של מקום אתם קרוין עבדים ועכשיו אין אתם עושין רצונו של מקום אמר לו הרי הוא אומר (ישעיהו נח, ז) הלא פרוס לרעב לחמך ועניים מרודים תביא בית אימתי עניים מרודים תביא בית האידנא וקאמר הלא פרוס לרעב לחמך:

And this is the question that Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva: If your God loves the poor, for what reason does He not support them Himself? Rabbi Akiva said to him: He commands us to sustain the poor, so that through them and the charity we give them we will be saved from the judgment of Gehenna. Turnus Rufus said to Rabbi Akiva: On the contrary, it is this charity which condemns you, the Jewish people, to Gehenna because you give it. I will illustrate this to you with a parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who was angry with his slave and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this, would he not be angry with that person? And you, after all, are called slaves, as it is stated: “For the children of Israel are slaves to Me” (Leviticus 25:55). If God decreed that a certain person should be impoverished, one who gives him charity defies the will of God. Rabbi Akiva said to Turnus Rufus: I will illustrate the opposite to you with a different parable. To what is this matter comparable? It is comparable to a king of flesh and blood who was angry with his son and put him in prison and ordered that he should not be fed or given to drink. And one person went ahead and fed him and gave him to drink. If the king heard about this once his anger abated, would he not react by sending that person a gift? And we are called sons, as it is written: “You are sons of the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1). Turnus Rufus said to him: You are called sons and you are called slaves. When you fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called sons; when you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, you are called slaves. And since now you do not fulfill the will of the Omnipresent, the parable that I offered is more apt. Rabbi Akiva said to him: The verse states: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and that you shall bring the poor that are cast out to your house?” (Isaiah 58:7). When do we bring the poor that are cast out into our houses? Now, when we have to billet the Roman soldiers in our homes; and about that very time, the verse states: “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?”

This story begins with Turnus Rufus posing a theological challenge to Rabbi Akiva: If your God loves the poor, why doesn't your God feed them?

Rabbi Akiva explains that it is incumbent upon us to act to act in the world and have a positive impact, and we do that by feeding the poor. In other words, God has created a world in which there is poverty, and God has also determined that we are responsible for helping them.

But Turnus Rufus pushes back, because in the Roman worldview, the way things are in the world is the way they are supposed to be. He claims that God actually punishes the Jews for fighting against God's will. The two men trade allegories, and Rabbi Akiva insists that we actually earn our place in the world by helping God's children.

Turnus Rufus then argues that the analogy to being children of God works only when we do God's will. However, when we do not listen, we are merely the servants of God. Clearly, he says, the Jews are not God's children at this moment!

Rabbi Akiva gets the last word, however, and uses a verse from the book of Isaiah to prove that actually, it is precisely at a time when we are responsible for feeding others that we are considered God's children. In our reality, claims Rabbi Akiva, when we have Roman servants quartered in our homes, we are obviously God's children!

The winning argument here comes from Rabbi Akiva, and he is essentially arguing that the way of the world does come from God, and yet God (sometimes) wants us to interfere and subvert the way of the world. Sometimes, we are rewarded when we intervene.

In other words, one can believe in a God who created COVID-19, and also believe that God wants us to fight this deadly disease.

שאל טורנוסרופוס הרשע את ר' עקיבא איזה מעשים נאים של הקב"ה או של בשר ודם? א"ל של בשר ודם נאים. א"ל טורנוסרופוס הרשע הרי השמים והארץ יכול אתה לעשות כהם. א"ל ר' עקיבא לא תאמר לי בדבר שהוא למעלה מן הבריות שאין שולטין בהן אלא בדברים שהן מצויין בבני אדם.

אמר ליה למה אתם מולים? א"ל אף אני הייתי יודע שאתה עתיד לומר לי כן. לכך הקדמתי ואמרתי לך מעשה בשר ודם הם נאים משל הקב"ה. הביאו לו שבולים וגלוסקאות אמר לו אלו מעשה הקב"ה ואלו מעשה בשר ודם אין אלו נאים? הביאו לו אנוצי פשתן וכלים מבית שאן. א"ל אלו מעשה הקב"ה ואלו מעשה בשר ודם אין אלו נאים?

א"ל טורנוסרופוס הואיל הוא חפץ במילה למה אינו יוצא מהול ממעי אמו?

א"ל ר' עקיבא ולמה שוררו יוצא בו? לא תחתוך אמו שוררו. ולמה אינו יוצא מהול? לפי שלא נתן הקב"ה לישראל את המצות אלא כדי לצרף בהן. לכך אמר דוד "כל אמרת יי צרופה וגו' (תהילים יח:לא)."

Turnus Rufus the wicked asked R. Akiva: Which are more beautiful – the works of God or of flesh and blood? He responded: those of flesh and blood are more beautiful. Turnus Rufus the wicked responded: Behold the heavens and the earth; can you make something like them? R. Akiva responded: Do not speak with me about something which is beyond humans, for they do not control them, but regarding things that are found among people.

He responded: Why do you circumcise? He responded: I knew you would ask this. Hence, I said in advance that the works of flesh and blood are more beautiful than those of God. He brought him ears and loaves. He said to him: These are the works of God, and these are the works of flesh and blood. Are these not more beautiful? They brought him bundles of flax and garments from Bet She’an. He said: These are the works of God, and these are the works of flesh and blood. Are these not more beautiful?

Turnus Rufus said to him: If God wants circumcision, why doesn’t the child leave its mother’s womb already circumcised?

Rabbi Akiva responded: Why does the umbilical cord come out attached to the baby? Does not his mother cut his umbilical cord? So why does the child not leave the womb already circumcised? Because God gave Israel the commandments in order to purify them. Therefore, David said:“Every word of God is pure (II Sam. 22:31/Psalms 18:31).”

In this source, the theological debate continues. Turnus Rufus asks Rabbi Akiva whether God's creations or human creations are superior. Rabbi Akiva is ready for what is coming, and asserts that when it comes to things that both God and people can accomplish, the works of human beings are superior.

Turnus Rufus has a follow up question: Why do you circumcise baby boys? After all, babies are born as God intended them to be!

In response, Rabbi Akiva reminds Turnus Rufus that even the Romans cut the umbilical cord when a baby is born. No one leaves the natural world entirely as they find it, and God gave people commandments in order to refine us.

In this moment, when nature is challenging us with a virus, people are fighting back in all sorts of ways. God gives us the world, and, through revelation, provides us with principles for how to live in this world. The principles are not contained in the structure of the world itself, and our job is to use those ideals to refine the world and refine ourselves. This is the theology of Rabbi Akiva.

For more classes in this series, check out the [email protected] initiative from the Shalom Hartman Institute