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Rejoinder to Talmid’s Thoughts on Deuteronomy 30:6


The tendency of Talmid’s Essay in The Occident for Nissan, 5607, is to impress on our mind, that God must needs circumcise our heart, or in other words influence us with a desire for virtue; because, according to his mode of belief, man is born in original sin. This idea is very difficult to be understood. For if it is God’s holy will that man should love virtue, why did He send him into this state of life with an original sin, this great and insuperable stumbling-block to the pursuit of virtue? If it is the highest attribute of man to possess freedom of will, and if this is the basis of all moral excellence: then is the notion of original sin, and God’s direct impulse, quite impossible. If man can act only under guidance of a supernatural influence, how can God reward or punish him? Or how can we explain then the passage of the Bible (Deut. 5:29): “O that there were such an heart unto them to fear me and to keep my commandments always, that it be well with them and their children for ever?” It is a sublime and philosophical principle of our religion, that from the hand of the All-good never any evil can come; wherefore we know nothing of an original sin, nor of a devil, nor a sacrificed saviour to redeem the human race from their iniquities.

Talmid, however, attempts to prove the correctness of his views by the words of Deuteronomy, 36, and of Aben Ezra’s assertion, מאתו העלילה הראשונה “from Him is the first impulse.” I have to state here, that the old philosophers never employ the word עלילה as the cause of good, for when such an idea is to be conveyed, they make use of the word סבה or עילה; they use עלילה only in its strict sense, the cause of evil; the author of רוח חן gives no other explanation of this word. To come to a correct understanding. of Aben Ezra’s meaning, we must first refer to a passage of the Rambam, which he repeats three times, in הל' יסוד התורההל' תשובה —and ה' פרקים that “God deprives the deeply fallen sinner of his power of will, till he has suffered his merited punishment, when only he is restored to his dignity of man, and obtains again the power over himself;” and this is, according to the opinion of the Rambam, the severest punishment in this life. He thus explains several passages in Scripture, for instance: “And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh,” (Exodus 9:12;) “Harden the hearts of this people,” (Isa. 6:16,) &c. &c. This doctrine of our learned Rambam is quite plain; not only because without it many passages in the Bible, Talmud and Midrash could not be explained, but because the common observer can find a thousand proofs for it in practical life. The obdurate sinner sleeps his sleep of sin in the dark night of his ignorance; let the thunder of the Almighty roll terribly over his head, let, the lightnings of the most High rend asunder the veil of the darkness which envelopes him: he still sleeps, has terrible dreams, and starts up frightened by these visions—but immediately sinks again into sleep. This is the punishment from the Lord for him who will not listen to the divine voice, when it calls to him in accents of love: “Till here, and no farther! stand still and consider!” For him who has emptied the cup of sin, and in his intoxication keeps the cup cleaving to his thirsty lips. And when this cup of virulent poison is at length quite drained, he casts it down, shatters it to fragments, and in his madness he snatches up the shattered pieces, and licks off the single drops that perchance adhere to them, till they are soiled with the blood of the sinner. If we now ask, whether such a punishment is not in contradiction with the idea of a benevolent Deity, of a just God; we ought to seek for a solution m the words of Isaiah (26:10, 11): “Let favour be showed to the wicked, never will he learn righteousness, in the land of uprightness will he continue dealing unjustly, and will not behold the majesty of the Lord. Lord! when thy hand is lifted up they will not see; but they shall see and be ashamed.”

Only by taking this idea of the Rambam for our guide can we understand Deuteronomy 28:64: “And the Lord shall scatter thee among all people, from one end of the earth even unto the other, and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone.” On account of the sinful life of the Israelites, the sin of idolatry is prophesied to them as a punishment. Can one sin be a recompense for another? But according to the views of the Rambam, it is the very punishment which we might expect; the helplessness, namely, which follows on habitual transgression; and so the vicious will have a full knowledge of their vices, without possessing the free will to abandon them.

In Deut. 29 it is said that, if the Israelites would walk in the ways of the Lord, they should partake of his blessings; then follows a delineation of their dreadful fall, and a severe retribution for their iniquity is threatened. And to the question asked by the nations: “Why hath the Lord done thus to this land?” the answer is given: “Because they forsook the Lord their God, and served other gods.” And lastly, it is said: “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book.” Why are the nations introduced here as propounding questions? Why would God bring all his curses over our land?  Might not the people repent? and does not the Talmud lay it down as a principle אין לך דבר שעומד מפני התשובה “Repentance extinguishes every guilt?” To this we answer, because God will, at some future day sure to come, be acknowledged by all nations, who, when they behold so terrible a punishment, might come to believe that God never pardons a sin, but punishes continually. Therefore does the Lord say to the nations: “The inhabitants of this land have erred so grievously, that my whole anger was aroused against them, in such a manner that it took from them their freedom of will to call on me for mercy, until they had suffered my whole punishment; wherefore the land presents the fearful picture of desolation which strikes the eye of the beholder.” With chapter 30 begins the second section of this prophecy, and refers to the time when God’s punishing hand will be removed from Israel, and they will be restored to their freedom of will: והשבת אל לבבך “And thou wilt cause thy will to come back to thy heart:” (the Hiphil has no other than a causative meaning.) And thenושבת עד ה' אלהיך Thou wilt return even unto the Lord thy God, and He will receive thee again, and thou shalt be his accepted nation, his chosen people, the peculiar treasure of the Most High.” With the sixth verse commences the reply to the question, whether the persecutors of Israel shall remain unpunished; and it says: ומל ה' אלהיך את לבבך “When the Lord shall have circumcised thy heart.” But how? or in what way? Does God then give the impulse to the good? Not a word is said here on this point; and we with perfect justice now apply the words of Aben Ezra: מאתו העלילה הראשונה “From Him came the first cause of a hardened heart, for this was the punishment; and now he has taken away the punishment, and the heart is circumcised; but those who have persecuted thee, whose vices were as heinous as thy own, shall now bear the same burden of obduracy.” Talmid will not understand the other passage from Aben Ezra, and no doubt better yet, if we add that he and the Rambam belonged to the same philosophical school.


(To be continued.)

NOTE.—The great length of several articles in our present number reluctantly compels us to divide W.’s article, also to postpone Talmid’s third essay for a later period.