The Natural Order in the Thought of R. Lipschutz

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau


By Rav Yitzchak Blau


Shiur #04: The Natural Order in the Thought of R. Lipschutz



Differing positions regarding the natural order represent an important dividing line among rabbinic thinkers.  Some view the natural order as an illusion through which the religiously great manage to see.  In reality, this view contends, God controls every moment of the created order and He brings about all that occurs.  Admittedly, most (or perhaps even all) people must put in some human effort (hishtadlut) as a kind of tax or religious duty, but that effort does not truly produce the desired results in a directly causal fashion.  On the other hand, other thinkers contend that God set up a world with laws of nature that He does not easily decide to abrogate.  From this perceptive, human effort and initiative directly impact on the world and God is not the immediate cause of all that happens.


This split can lead to varying attitudes on a number of important theological issues.  Who provides the most significant protection to the modern state of Israel - those studying Torah in kollel or those serving in the army standing at guard posts along the borders?  When a person stubs a toe or becomes more seriously ill, does that indicate Divine punishment or can we say that natural laws are simply continuing their work?  How worthwhile is the human endeavor of medical research as a means of alleviating human suffering?  All of these questions may depend on the division mentioned above.  (For a fine discussion of some of these issues, see David Shatz’s article in The Torah U-Madda Journal, vol. 3:


Where does R. Yisrael Lipschutz stand on these matters?  His Tiferet Yisrael commentary reveals significant interest in the natural sciences, and we shall now see that he strongly believed in the ongoing reality and consistency of natural laws.  The strongest expression of his views can be found in an extended commentary toward the end of Kiddushin.  The mishna there discusses the proper profession for a religious person.


R. Meir says: A person should always teach his son a profession that is honest and easy, and pray to the One to whom wealth and property belong; for each profession has wealthy and poor, since wealth and poverty come not from the profession but are based on zekhut (merit). 

R. Shimon ben Eliezer says: Did you ever see an animal or bird with a profession?  And yet they find their sustenance without difficulty.  Were they not created to serve me [mankind]?  And since I was created to serve my Maker, does it not follow that I should find sustenance without difficulty?  Rather, I lost my sustenance due to my evil deeds.  (Kiddushin 4:14)


            This mishna apparently plays down the impact that human effort and planning have on feeding one’s family.  R. Meir argues that choice of profession does not matter, but prayer does.  Furthermore, the determining factor is religious merit.  R. Shimon views the very need to labor to put food on the table as the product of sin.  Arguably, he might further say that the truly righteous would no longer have to dedicate much effort to finding sustenance. 


            Tosafot (Kiddushin 82a s.v. Ela) cite a gemara (Mo’ed Katan 28a) which, contrary to the above mishna, teaches that sustenance depends upon mazal (fortune) and not upon zekhut.  To reconcile these conflicting sources, Tosafot suggest that the term zekhut in the mishna in Kiddushin really refers to mazal.  According to their interpretation, both sources present mazal as the essential determining factor.  Mazal in rabbinic literature usually refers to an astrological belief in the influence of the constellations.  Thus, Tosafot may have downplayed the dominant role played by God in giving out sustenance, while at the same time even more powerfully neutralizing the impact of human effort.  If we are caught in a deterministic structure based on the position of the stars at certain times, then all our efforts will not allow us to provide for our families.


            Yet, a fully deterministic reading of R. Meir creates certain difficulties.  If everything depends upon the constellations, why bother praying?  R. Lipschutz interprets the Tosafot in an entirely different manner (Kiddushin, Yakhin 4:66, Boaz 4:1).  He refuses to accept that Chazal’s references to “mazal” refer to astrology, as he asserts that belief in astrology is theologically offensive.  Why should we limit the power of God by saying that during a given astrological moment, only certain kinds of children can be born?  Furthermore, astrology leads to idolatry, as attributing such influence to the heavenly bodies will invariably lead people to relate to the stars and planets as entities worthy of worship. 


            It must be admitted that the first critique could apply to a firm believer in the laws of nature as well.  Why limit God’s influence by saying that He rarely deviates from the patterns of nature?  Perhaps R. Lipshutz would argue that the stability of the natural order promotes some good, such as human free will, while astrological limitations do not enable any such good.  Alternatively, R. Lipschutz could focus more on the second critique and argue that belief in astrology inexorably leads toward worship of other entities in a way that belief in the stability of nature does not.


R. Lipschutz champions Rambam’s famous letter to the sages of Marseille, which rejects astrology as a foolish belief.  We can assume that R. Lipschutz knew quite well that many rishonim believed in the power of astrology.  Yet, for him, Rambam’s negative assessment reflects the normative position.  R. Lipschutz argues that we must interpret Talmudic sources that seem to endorse astrology in a metaphoric fashion.  He also cites a Talmudic source that seems to deny astrology.  The Torah (Vayikra 19:26) commands us not to use divination or soothsaying (ve-lo te’onenu).  One gemara (Sanhedrin 65b) explains that this verse prohibits deciding which times are right for various endeavors based on astrological considerations (te’onenu – from the word onot = times).  R. Lipshutz argues that we should sooner offer an allegorical reading of aggadic gemarot that seem to adopt astrological beliefs than reread this halakhic gemara in Sanhedrin that rejects astrology.


            In truth, the gemara in Sanhedrin rejects astrological practices more than astrological belief.  Nevertheless, R. Lipschutz employs it as part of his argument that Chazal did not believe in astrology.  If they did not refer to astrology, what did our sages mean by the term “mazal”?  R. Lipschutz offers a naturalistic reading that shows his firm belief in the power and influence of the natural order.


            When R. Meir employs the word “zekhut,” he refers not to innocence or merit but to what a person has acquired, as in the word “zekhiya.”  Furthermore, mazal is not a reference to astrology but to the flowing (“nozel”) power of natural forces.  According to R. Lipschutz, R. Meir informs us that a person’s ability to provide depends upon a series of natural factors.


            He enumerates six such categories.  People will exhibit certain qualities due to what they inherit from their parents, the climate in which they grow up, the impact of the season or the time of day, the food they eat and drink, the nature of their education and upbringing, and the specific work that they do.  These six items represent powerful forces that will often determine a person’s material success.  R. Meir counsels a person to select a good profession (“honest and easy”) as the first move towards success.  Then he notes that human efforts will not always bear results, due to the limitations of the natural framework outlined above.  Therefore, a person should pray to God to remove those natural forces that might prevent success.


            However, such an individual should not think that God will change the entire natural order due to the prayer.  God prefers not to alter natural law.  Moreover, an attitude of great confidence that prayers will be answered actually leads people away from belief in Providence when they experience unanswered prayers.  Thus, a person should both pray and make an effort within the natural order, while realizing that neither guarantees material bounty.


            R. Lipschutz explicitly applies his theories to the problem of theodicy, the question of why the good suffer.  He catalogues some standard religious responses.  Such suffering may reflect punishments for the minor transgressions of the righteous.  Alternatively, it could be a test.  Another possibility is that the apparent evil may truly be a means of bringing about a greater good.  Finally, he adds the possibility that the good suffer because that is what the laws of nature dictate and God does not rush to alter them.  He connects the word “teva” with a “matbe’a over la-sokher,” a coin or item that the king will not easily invalidate. 


            This last explanation of the suffering of the righteous has broad significance.  While we imagine that R. Lipschutz would not object to the religious notion that misfortunes should inspire us to repent, he would reject a simplified mechanical application of reward and punishment that would evaluate every bruise as divine punishment.  In a series of articles, Yaakov Elman has argued that our tradition includes several models that move beyond the assumption that every misfortune stems from sin.  (See, for example, his article “The Contribution of Rabbinic Thought to a Theology of Misfortune,” in R. Shalom Carmy, ed., Jewish Perspectives on the Experience of Suffering [Northvale, NJ, 1999], pp. 155-212)  R. Lipschutz would certainly agree. 


            R. Lipschutz adds a remarkable reading of a passage in Shemot (23:20) where God says that He “will send a malakh before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”  Most medieval commentators understand this verse as referring to an angel. Chizkuni thinks that it speaks of Yehoshua.  In contrast, R. Lipschutz says that the angel in this verse refers to the natural order.  God informs the people that even if they are righteous, they have a responsibility to work within nature, be it in the context of farming or of waging war.


            God then warns the people: “Beware of him and obey his voice, do not rebel against him, because he will not forgive your sins, for My name is in him” (23:21).  The classic commentators explain that the angelic being that God provides the Jewish people does not have God’s ability to forgive.  Therefore, any communal transgression under his angelic watch will prove dangerous.  R. Lipschutz offers a radically different reading.  God directs the people to work with the laws of nature and not to sin against them.  The verse refers not to religious iniquity but to a refusal to accept the limitations of the natural order.  The nation cannot simply rely on righteous behavior but must use human planning and effort within the natural framework in order to succeed.  “My name is in him” hints at the fact that the numerical value of Elokim, eighty six, equals that of “ha-teva.”  God had placed His stamp of the natural order and He does not rush to change it.


            We have here one of the strongest statements in the last five hundred years of rabbinic literature in favor of the stability of the natural order.  R. Lipschutz explicitly draws some of the implications of his position as regards the problem of evil and the need to engage in human effort because that effort does have a direct causal affect on the outcome.  It is not surprising, then, that R. Lipschutz shows real interest in scientific endeavors.


            Few rabbinic writers would interrupt their commentary on a mishna in Yoma (Yakhin 8:34) to explain the cure for scurvy, but that is precisely what R. Lipschutz does.  He also adds a suggested medical response to a rabid dog bite that he found in the writings of an Italian doctor (Boaz 8:2).  Whether the scientific information is entirely accurate is an important question for a different forum, but, in our context, these examples show R. Lipschutz’s scientific interests.


            R. Lipschutz also looked at general scientific literature in an attempt to justify Chazal’s depiction of a creature that is half flesh and half earth (Chullin 9:6).  This depiction seems to indicate a belief in spontaneous generation, in which a live creature emerges from the non-living environment.  R. Lipschutz mentions that scoffers attack this mishna, but he defends it based on something he read in Heinrich Link’s Urwelt (Boaz 9:2).  Professor Shnayer Leiman (“R. Israel Lipschutz and the Mouse that is Half Flesh and Half Earth,” in Y. Elman and J. Gurock, eds., Hazon Nahum [Hoboken, 1998], pp. 449-58), has shown that R. Lipschutz misunderstood the passage in Urwelt.  R. Lipshutz may not have been an expert in science, but his interest in the world of science emerges all the same.  Non–Jewish scientific works are not often cited in Mishna commentaries.


            Chazal famously state that a circumcision should include the sucking out of blood after the cut, known as metzitza, to promote the health of the baby.  This creates questions about whether and how to continue this practice today, when modern science views such a procedure as creating more danger for the baby.  R. Lipschutz mentions the possibility of dropping this practice, but rules that we should continue to do so because contemporary doctors have also found it to have some beneficial health impact (Shabbat, Boaz 19:1).  His entire discussion grants credence to scientific discovery.


            Finally, R. Lipschutz employs knowledge of the history of science to impact on the interpretation of a mishna.  The mishna (Kelim 30:2) talks about when something called an aspaklarya is subject to ritual impurity. R. Lipschutz says this term cannot refer to a telescope, or the like, as the telescope was only invented by Zacharias Jansen in the seventeenth century (Boaz 30:1).


            Interest in science and belief in the stability of the natural order go together.  As R. Lipschutz affirmed strong belief in the stability of the natural order and emphasized the abilities and responsibilities of human efforts within that order, it makes sense that he would respect the endeavor of human scientific achievement and take an interest in its history.