Divinely Coerced Sin and Non Literal Interpretation
By Rav Yitzchak Blau
Shiur #09: Divinely Coerced Sin and NonLiteral Interpretation
R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: Israel
only made the golden calf to give strength to those who want to repent, as it
says: O that they had such a heart
as this always, to fear me, and keep all my commandments (Devarim 5:26)
[the people of Israel were on a high spiritual level, so they were not fit to
sin; they must have only sinned in order to help out those who want to
repent]. This accords with what R.
Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai: David was not the kind of
person to do that act (the sin of Bat Sheva), nor was
Taken at face value, this gemara indicates that Divine providence arranged for the sin of David with Bat Sheva and for the sin of the golden calf so that future generations would have models of individual and communal repentance. That idea directly opposes other Torah principles such as free will. How could God coerce individuals or communities into heinous transgressions? Furthermore, both instances bring about extremely harsh punishments. The golden calf reverberates throughout Jewish history, and increases the punishments for later iniquity (Shemot 32:34). David suffers immensely for the sin of Bat Sheva, including the loss of a child and witnessing his wives taken by another before his very eyes (Shmuel II 12). How could people undergo such torments for a sin not freely chosen?
difficulties, the traditional commentaries refuse to take this gemara
literally. Maharsha bases his
explanation on a gemara in Kiddushin (30b) which says that God
helps people combat the evil inclination.
Had God done so, David would not have erred in the Bat Sheva episode and
Maharal, this gemara conveys that God wanted sin and repentance to be
part of the created order. He
fashioned a world in which someone would inevitably sin, but did not coerce any
particular individual to sin. This
explanation resembles Rambams idea that just because God predicted, as part of
the brit bein ha-betarim (covenant between the pieces), that a nation
would enslave the Jewish people, did not mean that any particular nation was
forced to do so. Since each
individual nation was free to desist, the Egyptians retain full moral
culpability, notwithstanding this Divine prophecy (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot
Teshuva 6:5). In our
context, the original Divine plan included the potential for sin and the
possibility of repentance. God
arranged a world where sin and repentance would occur, and they occurred in the
cases of David and
Tosafot make a
brief comment whose import is easily missed: It was necessary to write about
their sins and the acceptance of their repentance. As Maharam of Lublin notes, Tosafot
shift the gemaras focus from the sins to the biblical recording of the
sins. Both David and
Talmudic language supports Tosafots reading. The tzerikha form, in which the Gemara outlines what would have happened if we had only been taught one of the ideas, tends to address the need for two authoritative texts. The Gemaras use of this language here fits with Tosafots approach that the Gemara questions only the need for writing the David passage and the golden calf story. If we accept Rashis reading, then the gemara addresses the actual events and not the texts about them, in which case the application of tzerikha (If we only learned) terminology would be quite unusual.
Methodologically, we should not reinterpret a gemara every time it conflicts with another theme in rabbinic literature, since our rabbinic tradition includes disparate voices and opinions. A survey of aggadot reveals a host of positions regarding issues such as the balance between Divine providence and the natural order, or how seriously to take dreams, and there is no reason to harmonize all views into a single approach. At the same time, some aggadot contradict notions that are so fundamental to Torah that we are justified in rejecting the literal interpretation. Judaism affirms human freedom and the impossibility of receiving punishment for coerced behavior. Since R. Shimon bar Yochai would not contest these notions, we must understand his statement in a different fashion.
As an addendum, note that this gemara assumes that David sinned in the Bat Sheva story. Although it is quite difficult to read chapters 11 and 12 of Shmuel II and arrive at any other conclusion, another gemara famously states: Whoever says that David sinned is mistaken (Shabbat 56a). Perhaps the Talmud includes conflicting views on this matter; indeed, the same Talmudic page cites Rav as critiquing Rabbi for saying that David did not sin. Alternatively, the gemara in Shabbat never intended to whitewash David; it simply states that David did not technically sin when he took Bat Sheva, since his soldiers gave a bill of divorce to their wives to prevent them from turning into agunot (women bound to their husbands with no means of ending the marriage) in the event that their husband was lost at war. Yet morally and religiously, he certainly did something extremely grievous in taking advantage of the wife of a soldier away defending his countrymen. Along similar lines, Maharsha develops two models in which David tried to commit adultery, but was saved by circumstance. Either David was unaware of the divorce, or the divorce remained contingent on a yet to be fulfilled condition (Uriyas death). Understood in this light, the gemara in Shabbat rescues David from technical violation of Halakha, not from moral failure.