Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Buying Salvation

The history of Christianity has profound lessons for Jews.

If you were a Christian in the medieval period, and you had sinned (as we all do), what was there to be done about avoiding punishment in the afterlife? A priest was empowered to grant God's forgiveness and thereby prevent eternal damnation, but that wouldn't remove the need to "do time" in purgatory. 

The Church therefore also provided the opportunity for "indulgences." The debt still owed for forgiven sins could be removed by contrition, confession and good deeds. Suitably qualified priests would decide exactly how much of these were necessary to cancel the debt for each sin.

Now, the good deeds that were required were sometimes too challenging for people to fulfill. For example, making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was very difficult before air travel. But that was easy to solve - the popes offered the alternative solution of enabling other people's good deeds instead. You could give money towards building a church, and attain redemption from punishment that way.

But what if you wanted to obtain redemption on behalf of someone else, who had already passed away and was suffering in purgatory? In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV provided a solution for that too: you could gain an indulgence for them by giving money on their behalf. The German friar Johann Tetzel put this into highly successful practice. He made potential buyers "feel guilty if they did not seize the opportunity," reminding audiences of their parents and ancestors "clamoring for help" in purgatory and needing just one donation to send them into paradise.

It's not difficult to see where the theology of indulgences led. Instead of people having to actually improve their ways, they could just buy their way out of purgatory. And they felt that they could help their loved ones by buying redemption for them. And various theologians actively encouraged this, because they were financially benefiting from it. All this inevitably snowballed into a mountain of greed and corruption. 

Finally, Martin Luther reacted by launching the Protestant reformation. Forced to respond, the Catholic church ruled that it was forbidden to provide absolution via taking money for good causes.

It's not that there is anything wrong with people giving to charitable causes - far from it! But once you provide for repentance to be outsourced, and you monetize it, this inevitably results in three problems. 

One is that people stop feeling the need to actually become better people. Why go through the great difficulty of changing your ways, if you can just write a check to get the same results? And consequently, rich people achieve greater spiritual benefits than the poor!

The second problem is that ecclesiastical authorities who need funds are motivated to devise theologies and campaigns to encourage people to obtain redemption via giving money to them. They are not necessarily bad people. But "bribery blinds the eyes of the wise, and corrupts the words of the righteous" (Devarim 16:19). Note that the Torah doesn't say that it corrupts regular people - it says that it corrupts the wise and righteous. It's noble to want to help people who have passed away, and it's natural (and sometimes noble) to want to build up institutions. The combination of the two is a powerful incentive to devise a supporting theology. Thus, theology becomes motivated by factors other than determining truth.

The third problem is that once this theological mechanism has been created and embellished, it's all too easy for charlatans to take advantage of it. And there can be many different levels of charlatans, not all of whom are outright frauds. It's not just about hassidic rabbis and kabbalists becoming millionaires. It's also about manipulative behavior with fundraising, born of the desperation to support families of unemployable kollel students.

Outsourcing and monetizing salvation is bad theology, and a recipe for corruption. But the motivations behind it are a potent mix of both noble and less noble desires. This is what enables people to dispute or consciously ignore the clear statements of the Rishonim:

"There is no doubt that what one person does for another after their passing is of no benefit or aid, for each person is judged according to what they are at the time of their death. In accordance with the person’s level and attainments at the time that his soul departs from his body, so will he attain elevations and merit light with the Light of Life, and there is no additional elevation or benefit in that which others do afterwards to benefit him…" (Maharam Chalavah, Responsa, #17)

"A person cannot merit someone else with reward; his elevation and greatness and pleasure from the radiance of the Divine Presence is only in accordance with his deeds. Even if all the righteous people in the world were to seek mercy for him, and all the righteous acts were to be done in his merit, it would be of no help to him…" (Rashba, Responsa, Vol. 7 #539)

"These concepts are nonsense and one should not rely upon them. How can one entertain the notion that the reward of good deeds performed by one person should go to another person? Surely the verse states, “The righteousness of a righteous person is on him,” (Ezek. 18:20) and likewise it states, “And the wickedness of a wicked person is upon him.” Just as nobody can be punished on account of somebody else’s sin, so too nobody can merit the reward of someone else. How could one think that the reward for mitzvot is something that a person can carry around with him, such that he can transfer it to another person?" (Rav Hai Gaon cited by Maharam Alashkar, Responsa #101)

"How can the merits of Reuven be of benefit to his brothers Shimon and Levi? What could his mitzvot do for them?!" (Responsa Binyamin Ze'ev 202)
For detailed discussion, see my essay, What Can One Do For Someone Who Has Passed Away?
 
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39 comments:

  1. Times change, people change - as in the move from anonymity in charity to putting one's name in 20 point font - see:
    שולחן ערוך יורה דעה הלכות צדקה סימן רמט סעיף יג
    סעיף יג
    טז] פחות מזה, ט שיתן לו ח'} בעצב. הגה: יז] ועל כל פנים לא יתפאר האדם בצדקה שנותן. ואם מתפאר, לא די שאינו מקבל שכר, אלא אפילו מענישין אותו עליה (סמ"ג מביאו ב"י סי' רמ"ז). יח] ומ"מ {ב} מי שמקדיש דבר לצדקה, מותר לו (ג) שיכתוב שמו עליו שיהא לו לזכרון, ט'} וראוי לעשות כן (תשובת רשב"א סימן תקפ"ב /תקפ"א/).

    KT

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  2. RNS
    I appears you are conflating 2 issues:
    Chazal say: במסכת פסחים (דף ח.) , האומר סלע זה לצדקה בשביל שיחיה בני, הרי זה צדיק גמור. so one does get salvation from giving charity. You sources are about passing the reward to someone else
    On a seperate note one can give Charity or pray for the deceased if they would of done the same had they been alive.This is what the poskim say (see Machzor Vitri 312 Shulchon Oruch 621 Tanchuma parshas Haazinu) This is the reason we say Yizkor and pray for the deceased)

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  3. Another theological downside is that if salvation can be purchased, then salvation becomes only for those who can afford it.

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    1. joseph,

      "Another theological downside is that if salvation can be purchased, then salvation becomes only for those who can afford it"

      that's not really true, as there is a sliding scale. (actually that is not merely a joke, chazal say אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט, ובלבד שיכון ליבו לשמים)

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    2. God loves those one percenters!

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    3. You noticed very accurately ...

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  4. R'Natan,
    Thank for you this interesting piece. I am curious as to your thoughts about the Yizkor prayer. I do not know you personally and hope that you have no need personal need for this prayer.. But would you say this prayer and follow through with its practical obligation made by the offeror of this when when said?

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    1. many authorities struggle with this practice. if you'd like handouts with sources please contact me offline
      kt

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    2. Could you write some examples here in the comments section?

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    3. Shulchan Aruch סימן תרכ"א, סעיף ו says that we say Yizkor on Yom Kippur because the deceased are also forgiven on that day:
      נהגו לידור צדקות ביום הכיפורים בעד המתים:

      (ומזכירין נשמותיהם, דהמתים גם כן יש להם כפרה ביום הכיפורים) (מרדכי):

      The fact that something is in Shulchan Aruch doesn't necessarily mean that it's rationalist, however.

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    4. 25מגן אברהם על שולחן ערוך אורח חיים הלכות יום הכפורים סימן תרכא סעיף ו
      ו כפר' ביוה"כ - כשנודדין בעבורם דאומרים אילו היה חי היה נותן ג"כ צדקה אבל בעבור רשע אינו מועיל, ב"י רוקח וכ"מ במרדכי וע' בספר חסידים:

      kt

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    5. Think about the source - why did R' Akiva have to find the son, why didn't he just say kaddish himself?
      KT

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    6. @joel rich: Kitzur Shulchan Aruch brings a quote from the Zohar saying how a son honors his father, even after the father's passing, by going in the proper way. So, there's a definite benefit that the son goes in the proper way.

      But when someone has been hired to say kaddish or learn mishnayos, it's usually because the son of the deceased doesn't have access to a daily minyan, or doesn't have the time or ability to learn mishnayos. Can the son appoint a "שליח" in these matters? Is such a thing relevant?

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  5. I am not seeing the link to your original article.

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  6. What another excellent essay by RNS! Most people are unaware that the Church used "indulgences" to buy salvation. I dislike this practice. Once the person dies he or she is judged by their own behavior, not mine. Thus the mystical concept ilui neshama, “elevating the soul,” makes no sense. The concept of zechut avot, “merits of the fathers,” is also problematic, as it implies that the individual’s merit can be stored in a bank account and be used at a later date. Likewise, the Christian notion of “original sin,” is not Jewish but of Christian theology. Needless to say, descendants should not be rewarded by an ancestor's past deeds but act responsibly and merit their own rewards, as deserving. Thus, Martin Luther, as the rabbi wore, disparaged the Roman Catholic Church practice of indulgences in which people could purchase rewards salvation out of purgatory not only for themselves but for their ancestors as well. This leads to greed and corruption.

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    1. Ida know, I thought indulgences were pretty famous (infamous?) in their use. Maybe I just went to a not-terrible high school?

      Agree of course with the Original Sin thing being Christian. I think it's kinda funny (and kinda sad) that from the Jewish perspective (at least midrashically) that the one who comes and lifts the Curse of Adam is... Noach. Who helps with the thorns and thistles by inventing the plow or something. While for Christians they are still waiting.

      Zechus Avos, when you put it like that, certainly has a strange vibe to it. But isn't that the point - that We don't deserve it, but we should be saved on behalf of our forefathers? Not necessarily that there is some Heavenly currency stored up, but that our being destroyed is itself a negative consequence to the Avos, and they don't deserve that?

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    2. Re "original sin", i recently saw the following from Christian creationist Vance Farrel.

      "Among professed Christians there are church leaders, religion teachers, science teachers, and scientists who attempt to combine part of evolutionary theory with Biblical beliefs. But the two positions just do not mix. For example, some will claim to believe the Bible, yet will maintain that there were long ages of developing life-forms into human beings before the Six Day Creation of Genesis 1. If such be true, then the Fall of Man, as given in Genesis 3, is incorrect. And if man did not fall into sin, then the promise of Genesis 3:15 is not needed, Christ is not needed, Calvary is not needed, no atonement for sin is needed, salvation from sin is not needed."

      Now we have an additional bonus from allegorizing the story in the garden. It stops Christianity from getting off the ground.

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    3. Of course, Christians would say that Jesus lifted the stain of sin when he was crucified. Paul would say that people are “saved” by believing in Jesus, for Jesus died to rid the wrongs and so that they could be saved. This is the reason why I dislike the notion of “original sin.”

      The reason why zechut avot seems problematic to me is that it sounds a lot like Christian theology. Tho your last point was well said, it does appear to me to be derived from Christian theology.

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    4. @chaim, Yes, Maimonides6 understood the Garden of Eden story as an allegory. Christianity is still backwards rejecting evolution.

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    5. TH: "Christianity is still backwards rejecting evolution."

      Actually that depends which branch. The pope(s), i.e. a very significant opinion within Christianity, allow(s) it.
      See here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_and_the_Catholic_Church

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  7. If a person's parents taught them to be kind and generous, it would seem that such activity by the child inures to the benefit of the departed parent. In this sense it would seem to make sense to proclaim that such acts of kindness serve to elevate the soul (l'ilui neshama).

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  8. In the following link you can see the absurd that it has reached https://www.kan.org.il/item/?itemid=74996 someone who killed a child while driving intoxicated and then lied many times in his interrogation and in court justifies himself by saying (in the last half a minute of the video) that he prays and does many things לעילוי נשמתו.

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    1. For everyone else that would be guilt by association.

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  9. Far worse than these bad habits,are outright pagan superstitions and idolatries like believing an ugly North African idol (the horrible chamsa)protects you,believing in astrology and "connecting" with the (dead since 1994) Rebbe as many do nowadays. Mamash idol worship,if you ask me.

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  10. Absolutely no one thinks about what voodoo they do, and justify.

    Kiss a mazuza lately? Ask yourself why?? You still believe garbage like mazal adar dagim?



    superstition is everywhere.

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    1. It doesn't say to kiss the mezuzah in Shulchan Aruch, just to touch it and remember about Hashem as you leave and enter the house. (Yoreh Deah 285:2):
      הגה: יש אומרים כשאדם יוצא מן הבית יניח ידו על המזוזה (מהרי"ל שם ומוכח בעבודת כוכבים דף יא) ויאמר "השם ישמר צאתי וגומר" (במדרש). וכן כשיכנס אדם לבית -- יניח ידו על המזוזה.

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    2. I was a bit disappointed: I try to give some money to Mifal HaShas. I received a recorded message from them that, if you give a certain amount of money to Mifal HaShas, a group of talmidei chachamim will pray for you for the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur!

      I felt that, if I give tzedaka to Mifal HaShas, the money goes to stipends for the guys who get good grades on the exams (and some for the guys preparing and grading the exams). That's שכר enough. I can pray myself for the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Yom Kippur--I don't see the benefit of someone else praying for me.

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    3. Agree with the "superstition is everyone" idea - my grandmother (A"H) kept saying to "put a red bendel" on my cute children, I suppose to avert the ayin hara. And years ago, Rabbi Pruzansky in Teaneck gave a Shabbos drasha on Parshas Ki Savo about this - he said it doesn't say Baruch Atta Ba'Ir kenayin hara, Baruch Atta BaSadeh Poo Poo Poo! He was upset at a news article that described Orthodox Jews as superstitious.

      Anyway, I never looked at kissing the mezuzah as a magical act. I felt it was like kissing a Sefer Torah as it walked by, or kissing a sefer that I picked up or put away: a sign of love/respect. [Is that why Sefardim kiss their fingers after shaking hands with someone? I feel weird when they do that - my hand is not a Sefer Torah.]

      Now, HAVING a mezuzah... THAT has indeed been cop-opted by the superstition crowd. Just ask Uncle Moishe ("I have a mezuzah... on my door; now it will tell you what it's for. I protect you... day and night!"). I guess "because the Passuk says to surround yourself with words of the agreement with Hashem and to be a sign of our connection to Him" doesn't translate well into song.

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    4. Yes, unfortunately, many Jews still believe in superstitions such as evil eyes, mysticism, magic, demons, amulets, black cats, and lucky charms. It satisfies their emotional needs, and psychologically, people feel better sometimes when holding pendants. But The Tanaim knew these physical objects were fences for the unsecured. Tosefta Chap. 7, Shabbat says that wearing red threads (kmiyas) is an Emorite and not Jewish custom yet, some Kabbalists have claimed threads died red contain "certain mystical" powers, but what if they remained white? or died some other color? Would they still glow to the same effect?

      Evidently, red bendels will not protect you from ayin harah (Tosefta Shabbos, Chap. 7). If you ignited a red bendel, amulet, or a mezuzah, it burns. If these items cannot protect themselves, how much more so they cannot protect you.

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    5. @Yehuda P, I'm not sure but i assume that if you give that amount it isn't earmarked for the daveners, but entered into the general account. If that's correct, it would be like the tale of the philanthropist who was upset that the cause he supported began sending around their fundraiser in an opulent carriage. He wanted to support the actual cause, not carriages. But a Rav later told him that Betzalel had the ability to see your intent in whatever you donated and those with the best intent had their donation used for the holiest objects. Then for you, you can give with pure intent and it will go to the best component of the organization.

      That's for you. As for the people running the organization, I judge them to be sincere. I'm sure that their goal is to get more money for the learners themselves. The davening thing is just an investment to help them get that.

      On the other hand, the davening is being done especially for you ... but how much of your donation is going for that?

      You also have the option of telling them that you don't want the davening, you only want to pay for the learning.

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    6. @YR, very good point about the kissing being for love and not for magic.

      About the Uncle Moishe thing, Rambam at the end of hilchos teshuvah says that doing mitzvos for ulterior motives is fine for children (though eventually a person is meant to mature) (and for Amei Ha'aretz). So if the shmira thing is legit, let UM keep on singing.

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    7. Yehuda P: But the Gedolim are going to pray for you the 40 days. After all, their picture is prominent in the mailer (though the copy dances around such claims).
      2. Was your father my English Lit professor?

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    8. @MiMedinat HaYam: I received a flyer from Mifal HaShas--I don't know if they said that "Gedolei Yisrael" will pray for me, or just some of the fellows learning in the Mifal HaShas program. It's not only for kollel guys--I understand that there are yeshivot that enroll their students in the 20 daf/month or 30 daf/month program, and "hitch a ride" on the Mifal HaShas exams to see how well they're learning. I myself was enrolled in it when I learned in kollel: The exam is 25 essay questions, with each question usually consisting of two or three sub-questions! Intense!

      And no, unfortunately, my father o.b.m. passed away 55 years ago, when I was just a few months old. He was a chemist, not a English professor.

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  11. Ticket to heaven (Dire Straits)

    I can see what you're looking to find
    in the smile on my face
    in my peace of mind
    in my state of grace
    I send what I can
    to the man from the ministry
    he's a part of heaven's plan
    and he talks to me
    now I send what I can to the man
    with the diamond ring
    he's a part of heaven's plan
    and he sure can sing
    now it's all I can afford
    but the lord has sent me eternity
    it's to save the little children
    in a poor country
    I got my
    and everlasting life
    I got a ride all the way to paradise
    I got my
    and everlasting life
    all the way to paradise

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