Parashat Behar / The Logic of the Underdog

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Charities giving out food.Credit: Gili Magen-Cohen
Yakov Z. Meyer

“This was the question the wicked Turnus Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva: ‘If your God loves the poor, why does he not see to their material needs?’ Rabbi Akiva replied: ‘Because he wants us to give them charity to save us from hell.’ Turnus Rufus retorted: ‘On the contrary, the act of giving them charity condemns all of you to hell. Here is a parable. A king was angry with his servant and sent him to prison, with orders he was to be denied food and drink. Someone came and provided the servant with food and drink. When the king heard this, was he not enraged? And all of you are called servants, as it is written, “For unto me the children of Israel are servants” [Leviticus 25:55]!’

“Rabbi Akiva said to Turnus Rufus, ‘Here is a parable. A king was angry with his servant and sent him to prison, with orders he was to be denied food and drink. Someone came and provided the servant with food and drink. When the king heard this, did he not send a gift to that person? And we are called sons, as it is written, “Ye are the children of the Lord your God” [Deuteronomy 14:1]!’

“Turnus Rufus answered, ‘You are called both sons and servants. When you obey God, you are called sons; when you disobey him, you are called servants. Today you are disobeying God.’ Rabbi Akiva replied, ‘But God has told us, “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?” [Isaiah 58:7]. And when will you bring the poor to your house? Today. That is why it is written, “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry”’” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, p. 10a).

Like the Calvinists, Turnus Rufus considers material success to be the sign that God is pleased with our conduct. If the poor remain poor, argues this Roman official, perhaps God wants them to remain poor. Basing himself on the sages’ paradigm of reward and punishment, Rabbi Akiva replies that God does not want the poor to remain poor and instead delays their reward to enable us, by giving them charity, to be saved – thanks to the poor – from hell. Quite the contrary, retorts Turnus Rufus: The very act of giving charity will land you in hell, because God has decreed that the poor will remain poor and you are trying to alter their fate against his will.

Although unable to refute Turnus Rufus’ logic, Rabbi Akiva casts God’s relationship with mortals in a different light, so that logic’s laws will not apply. Turnus Rufus says there is clearly a direct relationship between God’s decision and the fate of the poor: Accordingly, God, the true master of the poor, as proven by Leviticus 25:55, in this week’s Torah reading (Parashat Behar, Leviticus 25:1-26:2), is the one who decrees the fate of the poor to remain poor; thus, anyone who tries to alter their fate acts in contravention of God’s will.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the relationship between God’s will and the fate of the poor is ambivalent and incoherent. Rabbi Akiva argues that the poor are sons, not servants, and that, although God has decreed that his sons must remain in prison – i.e., must remain poor – he will reward anyone who saves his sons from the fate he, God, decreed. The king’s love for his son, the prince, in Rabbi Akiva’s parable, undermines the logic in Turnus Rufus’ parable.

Although Rabbi Akiva initially argues that the poor remain impoverished so that God can reward those who give them charity, in the parable he offers, he argues that the fact that the poor remain poor has nothing to do with the reward God grants to those giving charity. Quite the contrary, Rabbi Akiva claims: Giving charity is a subversive act that contravenes God’s explicit will, but is congruent with his hidden will. Turnus Rufus agrees with Rabbi Akiva, noting that Jews are sometimes called sons and sometimes called servants, and that their status depends on their actions – although the Jews at present are called servants because they disobey God.

If so, we go back to the original question: Why should one give charity, because, if God loves the poor, why does he not see to their material needs?

Through this argument, Turnus Rufus reveals the true meaning of his dispute with Rabbi Akiva, and the significance of the shift evident in the latter’s responses. Initially, the two seem to be talking about the meaning of social injustice, and the Roman challenges the very concept of giving charity. It sounds as if Jews are saved from hell because they help the poor. However, later on in the discourse, Turnus Rufus says he did not intend to talk about social injustice: In his view, the poor are the Jews because God has destroyed their Temple, and when the Jews are called sons it means God might be happy if someone offers them food and drink. However, he adds, at this point God is angry with them and they are thus called servants.

We must reinterpret the beginning of the men's discussion – when Turnus Rufus asks, “If your God loves the poor, why does he not see to their material needs?” Although Rabbi Akiva tries to shift this question from its "political" context, ultimately he must answer it directly.

In his reply, Rabbi Akiva cites Isaiah, “Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?” According to a literal reading, these words describe how people should act – sharing their bread and providing shelter for the less fortunate.

Rabbi Akiva reads the second half of this verse as a promise: The “poor that are cast out” are the Jews, and God will one day bring them home. He will also rebuild his dwelling – the Temple in Jerusalem – which is currently in ruins and will bring his people there. If the verse's latter part is a promise, the first is a condition: Only when the Jews are starving will God return them to his new home.

The midrash places on the lips of Turnus Rufus, the learned Gentile, the argument that explains the Jews’ grim situation in accordance with clear-cut, accepted logic: Whereas the poor are socially marginalized, the ideal is to be rich and happy. No, replies Rabbi Akiva: God wants and does not want, is simultaneously angry and loving, punishes us but will be happy if we are liberated against his will – that is, his revealed will – because our liberation is in keeping with his hidden will, which is, of course, known to Rabbi Akiva.

When all hope is lost, when reality – like logic – leaves no room for hope, Rabbi Akiva creates a reverse logic, the logic of the underdog. Poverty and misery are the only path leading to Israel’s liberation. That liberation, as presented in the Torah, cannot express itself in the real world and is, in fact, the precise reverse of the real world. The greatness of the liberation waiting around the corner is inversely proportional to the grimness of Israel’s reality in Rabbi Akiva’s day. He pins his hopes on a new reading of Isaiah’s prophecy – one that runs counter to the text’s straightforward meaning, and explains that text as a promise that the road to Israel’s redemption runs through Israel’s dismal situation in Rabbi Akiva’s time. Only those who experience extreme hunger will be brought to God’s home in Jerusalem.

The above midrash, in which the direct argument is placed in the mouth of the evil Turnus Rufus, proves that the underdog’s subversive picture of the world is not an intuitive result of a grim reality or a theological shelter from logic, but rather a well-reasoned and carefully planned philosophical move – an organized revolution of consciousness that is created by the sages. They are starving homilists who experience extreme hunger, and whose sole source of power and hope in the face of Turnus Rufus’ depressing depiction of reality is their ability to reinterpret the Torah’s verses contrary to their literal meaning and contrary to the dark reality in which the sages exist.