Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Once I Was Young

Rabbi Gil Student, in his post Once I Was Young And Now I Am Old, recalls that as a child in summer camp, some campers (but apparently not him) were bothered by the last section of Grace After Meals, "Once I was young, and now I am old, yet I have never watched a righteous man forsaken or his children begging for bread." He then quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who apparently explains this passage to Gil's satisfaction. Interestingly, he also references Alan Dershowitz's book Chutzpah in the comments section, in which Dershowitz states (p. 130ff):
From the time I was in elementary school, I recited in Hebrew the following verse from the Thirty-seventh Psalm several times each day, as part of the prayer after meals: "I was a child and then grew old, but I never saw a righteous person abandoned or his children asking for food." I recall raising questions in class about what these perplexing words could possibly mean. Surely they did not accurately describe reality. The remnants of the Holocaust were all around me - classmates with numbers tattooed on their arms, teachers who had lost entire families, friends who had experienced the displaced persons camps. Righteous people had been abandoned and their children left wanting.

My yeshiva rabbis made heroic efforts to explain this passage. Perhaps those who were abandoned were not really righteous in their souls. An insulting and denigrating rationalization! Surely some of the abandoned were truly righteous — at least more righteous than many who were not abandoned. How dare the commentators, I remember thinking, sit in smug collective judgment of all who were abandoned. Perhaps, the rabbis said, the passage refers to being abandoned by God in the hereafter and not by fallible fellow men on earth. That won't work either, I thought, since the obviously human author ("I was a child and then grew old") is describing what he has "seen," and one does not see the hereafter. Maybe the passage reflects the hope that the righteous will no longer be abandoned, my teachers suggested. Maybe, but that is not what it says. Other proffered explanations fell equally short.

To my mind, the best and simplest explanation is that the passage is wrong. It is pretty poetry but ugly philosophy. There is in fact no relationship between righteousness and good fortune, or unrighteousness and bad fortune. If there was ever any doubt about this sad reality — and I don’t believe there ever was — all such doubt was permanently erased by the Holocaust.

Indeed, the Holocaust, and the world’s reaction to it, make it demonstrably clear not only that the observation is factually false, but also that it is morally unacceptable. The psalm implies, at the very least, that human beings are morally responsible for their misfortunes; had they been righteous, they would not have been slaughtered in the Holocaust, struck down by disease, or devastated by natural catastrophe. This is an obnoxious principle that gives rise to the kind of "naturalistic fallacy" underlying the doctrines of some fundamentalist religions, which declare disasters to be the fault of the victims. Some bigots even blame the Holocaust on the Jews. A religious doctrine capable of such moral mischief must be unacceptable to Jews, especially after the Holocaust.

To be sure, there may be an obscure interpretation that would be entirely acceptable. but even if that were to be so, I would still conclude that the homily is objectionable, since its obvious meaning — the one accepted by millions who daily recite it — is so fundamentally immoral…
To me it's no big deal; either find an acceptable interpretation that resonates with you or omit the passage if it offends you. You've already fulfilled your bentching obligation. Of course, if you are at a Shabbos table where everyone is singing the entire Birkat HaMazon together, you may have a little problem with appearances, but I'm sure that you can find a way to be creative in the commission of your omission.

But even when folks don't sing together, it is quite common to do so for the first bracha. And this one is a much bigger problem for me.
Blessed is The Lord our God, Sovereign of the universe, who sustains the entire world with goodness, kindness and mercy. God gives food to all creatures, for God’s mercy is everlasting. Through God’s abundant goodness we have not lacked sustenance, and may we not lack sustenance forever, for the sake of God’s great name. God sustains all, does good to all, and provides food for all the creatures whom God has created. Blessed is The Lord our God, who provides food for all.
Gives food to all creatures? Provides food for all?

Let's see what Professor Wiki has to say:
On the average, a person dies every second as a result of hunger - 4000 every hour - 100,000 each day - 36 million each year - 58% of all deaths (2001-2004 estimates). On the average, a child dies every 5 seconds as a result of hunger - 700 every hour - 16,000 each day - 6 million each year - 60% of all child deaths (2002-2008 estimates).
A friend of mine insists that this bracha makes a valid assertion since mankind produces enough food to feed everyone (indeed, a source in the wiki article on starvation claims that we could feed double the current world population of 6 billion people.) That the blessing should serve as a constant reminder of our responsibilities to those less fortunate than us.

It's a nice thought, but it is clearly not the intent of the bracha. Such a flawed exegesis also implies that the blessing was not true for pre-industrial history (unless one says that the earth has always had the potential to feed everyone, but that is really stretching things.) And it is humankind's refusal to sit back and say "God will provide" that has made possible the advancement of modern agricultural techniques - fertilizers, pesticides, mechanized equipment, and other crop management techniques.

God does not provide food for all. It is a patently false assertion that becomes absurd to the extreme when one looks at "all creatures", and considers the countless species over geologic history that are now extinct for lack of sustenance, whether via disruptions such as climate change, or competitive exclusion for the same environmental niche. The struggle for survival is mostly the struggle for food.

Of course, one is only supposed to say the blessing after being satiated with bread, so the passage "we have not lacked substance" does have a logical sense of immediacy. And certainly we all hope that "may we not lack sustenance forever." But to make the statement that God provides food for all creatures? It is not true, plain and simple. (I'm not addressing the theodicy issue of "does good to all" with a 10-foot pole.*)


Malcolm Gladwell, in his latest book Outliers: The Story of Success, describes an essential difference between rice growing cultures of Asia and Western farming cultures. Growing rice is incredibly complex and labor intensive. Increasing rice yields requires constant and close attention to a myriad of diverse tasks. A successful rice farmer works hard every day of the year in managing his tiny rice paddy. Contrast this with 18th century European farmers. They typically worked only between late spring and early summer, essentially bedding down to preserve food and energy during the long winter months. The former worked up to 3000 hours a year, while the latter worked approximately 1200 hours! This also explains why China and Japan could not develop the oppressive feudal landlord system so common to Europe. Rice farming is too complex to coerce farmers into maintaining paddies. As a result, it was much easier for a landlord to charge a fixed rent and let the tenant farmer reap the rewards of hard work.

Gladwell then quotes the historian David Arkush who compared Russian and Chinese peasant proverbs. A typical Russian proverb:
If God does not bring it, the earth will not give it.
Such a proverb reflects an attitude of "pessimism and fatalism typical of a repressive feudal system where peasants have no reason to believe in the efficacy of their own work." On the other hand, a penniless Chinese peasant would typically say,
Don't depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.
Readers should immediately recognize that the Russian aphorism is similar to sentiment expressed in Deuteronomy 8:17:
כֹּחִי וְעֹצֶם יָדִי, עָשָׂה לִי אֶת-הַחַיִל הַזֶּה
[Beware lest you forget the LORD your God] and you say in your heart: 'My power and the might of my hand has given me this wealth'.
The passage implies that the well-off have the greatest difficulty in recognizing - or more accurately, believing in - the hand of God. Yes, the ones that truly believe the admonishment of Deuteronomy are usually those that depend on charity for their survival such as the impoverished kollel and chareidi families with a dozen kids who live in poverty and rely on welfare checks and tzedaka, as well as unfortunate "victims of circumstance". But I think it is more likely that the vast majority of us moderns are simply too far removed from the European peasant cultures and fatalistic Islamic regimes under which most of ancestors have lived over the past 1000 years. I suspect that most of us pay only lip service to "kochi yadi" while avoiding the heretical implications of our disbelief by relying on Ben Franklin's "God helps those who help themselves." Our psychology is largely informed from viewing the world around us, and the world around us seems much more in tune with the aphorisms of the Chinese rice farmer.

Regardless of how the world seems to work, our knowledge of the deep underpinnings of reality is mostly non-existent (and that's true even if you're a radical materialist!) So there is plenty of room for emunah whether discussing concepts of "kochi yadi", or "tzadik v'ra lo" (*ok, a five-foot pole), or many other difficult religious topics. But emunah can only go so far. It isn't something that suffices to explain away a clearly observable fact of nature. If Moses did indeed write the first blessing to Birkat HaMazon, he may have been expressing a desire as to how he would like the world to work, but an honest person cannot recite it in its current form as a statement of how the world works in actuality. God does not provide for all creatures.

10 comments:

G*3 said...

Regarding the first bracha in bentching, I think it may be poetic rather than literally straightforward. Not so much that God provides all the food a person could desire, but that everything that a person is provided with comes from God. And like you said, the part about how "we have not lacked sustenance" could be taken as refering to the just-finished meal, rather than a statement about the general state of humanity.

Of course, none of this helps with the last bracha, which is just false.

"[Beware lest you forget the LORD your God] and you say in your heart: 'My power and the might of my hand has given me this wealth'."

This is a particularly abhorant position. It boils down to, 'Anything good in the world, including any of your personal accomplishments, are gifts granted by God. Anything bad in the world is humanity's fault."

Rich Perkins said...

After reading through bentching and other prayers, i too found there where things that i just couldn't say. However, the concept of bentching is a nice one in that you should recognize and give thanks for those that provide you with sustenance.

Therefore, I make it a point to thank my wife for every meal because she took the time to make a delicious meal and deserves credit. I make sure she realizes that I appreciate the effort she puts forth to provide the family in such a manner. for without HER i would be eating quite poorly.

jewish philosopher said...

"The remnants of the Holocaust were all around me - classmates with numbers tattooed on their arms, teachers who had lost entire families, friends who had experienced the displaced persons camps. Righteous people had been abandoned and their children left wanting."

Says who?

http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2007/06/holocaust-painful-miracle.html

"On the average, a person dies every second as a result of hunger"

On the average, about six billion people eat every day. That's what "God gives food to all creatures" means; those who aren't dead are obviously eating something.

Frum Heretic said...

G*3 - you obviously have a problem with the last part, just as many others do. My problem is that the first bracha is not optional and has always seemed to me to be a statement of fact, and not merely poetic. So I just cannot say it as if I believe it to be true!

Frum Heretic said...

Rich, without their wives most guys would be eating nothing but pizza and pb&j (not me, as I like to cook.) We make it a point to thank the wife/mom for the shabbos meal, but we also have the custom of having her make the hamotzi (unless we have guests that would freak out.)

Frum Heretic said...

JP - yeah, I read that repugnant post when you first wrote it. It reach a new low, even for you. zdub and other responses hit it on the mark.

Baal Habos said...

Nice post, though I don't usually dwell on these kind of issues, those who believe, ultimately explain away all these issues, some more satisfactory than others. Those who don't believe, well, that's just preaching to the choir; but again, nice post.


>... the ones that truly believe the admonishment of Deuteronomy are usually those that depend on charity for their survival such as the impoverished kollel and chareidi families with a dozen kids who live in poverty and rely on welfare checks and tzedaka, as well as unfortunate "victims of circumstance".

I think there's a bell curve here. I find that those on the high end of the totem pole, the wealthy Baal Habos (no, not me!) also does not tend to veer off the path. And while not giving up on hishtadlus, he is afraid to jinx his good station in life and enhances his practice with more davening, segulos, etc. He realizes that he is a beneficiary of good circumstance and that it could end.

The poor throws up his hands and says I did all I can, (work or learn), the wealthy do the same.
It's the middle class, whose Emuna gets squeezed.

frumheretic said...

I find that those on the high end of the totem pole, the wealthy Baal Habos (no, not me!) also does not tend to veer off the path... he is afraid to jinx his good station in life

Yes, that's true, yet I still wonder about what many of them believe deep down, especially those who only achieved success as a result of great sacrifice. Does a workaholic truly believe that their success wasn't a result of their own efforts?

Joshua said...

Regarding the passage at the end ""Once I was young etc..." I heard once an idea from a Reform Rabbi about this passage. The idea was a statement that we hadn't seen any children begging in the streets or any righteous suffering because we as a community have taken care of them so that there is no need to beg. It is a nice idea although it clearly doesn't fit with the intended meaning of the text.

Anonymous said...

The reconstructionist community has decided to omit this passage. While it may seem radical to omit what offends, it is keeping with Jewish tradition to allow evolution of the liturgy.