8/22/2006

Wealth as Proof of Divine Grace? Reading Bava Batra 8a

Suggesting that monetary wealth is ‘proof’ that one has found Divine favor seems to run counter to all of the ‘Hashkafic’ literature that we’re accustomed to. However, I remember from learning Bava Batra (the beginning, the sugyot pertaining to tzedakah), that there’s a definite voice, associated with R’ Yehuda Ha-Nasi of all people, which seems to regards poverty, at least for the unlettered masses, as part of the natural order of things, and to disturb that order is to ‘play God’ in an unwarranted fashion. A good example, from Bava Basra 8a:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת בבא בתרא דף ח עמוד א

רבי פתח אוצרות בשני בצורת, אמר: יכנסו בעלי מקרא, בעלי משנה, בעלי גמרא, בעלי הלכה, בעלי הגדה, אבל עמי הארץ אל יכנסו. דחק רבי יונתן בן עמרם ונכנס, אמר לו: רבי, פרנסני! אמר לו: בני, קרית? אמר לו: לאו. שנית? א"ל: לאו. אם כן, במה אפרנסך? [א"ל:] פרנסני ככלב וכעורב, פרנסיה. בתר דנפק, יתיב רבי וקא מצטער ואמר: אוי לי שנתתי פתי לעם הארץ! אמר לפניו ר' שמעון בר רבי: שמא יונתן בן עמרם תלמידך הוא, שאינו רוצה ליהנות מכבוד תורה מימיו? בדקו ואשכח, אמר רבי: יכנסו הכל. רבי לטעמיה, דאמר רבי: אין פורענות בא לעולם אלא בשביל עמי הארץ. כההוא דמי כלילא דשדו אטבריא, אתו לקמיה דרבי ואמרו ליה: ליתבו רבנן בהדן, אמר להו: לא. אמרו ליה: ערוקינן, [א"ל:] ערוקו. עקרו פלגיהון, דליוה פלגא. אתו הנהו פלגא קמי דרבי, א"ל: ליתבו רבנן בהדן, אמרו להו: לא. ערוקינן, ערוקו. ערקו כולהו, פש ההוא כובס, שדיוה אכובס. ערק כובס, פקע כלילא. א"ר: ראיתם, שאין פורענות בא לעולם אלא בשביל עמי הארץ.

Rabbi (i.e., R’ Yehuda Ha-Nasi) opened his storehouses in years of hardship. He said: Masters of the Scriptures, the Mishna, the Gemara, the Halakhah, and the Aggadda may enter; amei ha-aretz (the ignorant masses) may not enter. R’ Yonatan b. Amram pushed his way in and said, “Rabbi! Feed me!” He [Rabbi] replied, “My son, have you mastered Scripture?” He said, “No”. “Studied Mishna?” He said, “No”. “If so, how can I feed you?” He replied, “Feed me like a dog or raven”. He fed him. After he left, Rabbi was distraught, saying “Woe is me that I gave bread to an ignoramus”. R’ Shimon, Rabbi’s son, said before him, “Perhaps it was your student Yonatan b. Amram, who never wished to derive benefit from the Torah’s honor.” The checked and found it to be the case. Rabbi said, “Let everyone in.”

And Rabbi is consistent, for Rabbi said that misfortune enters the world only because of the ignorant, like the time that a crown tax was levied upon Tiberias. They came before Rabbi and said, “Let the Rabbis sit with us” (i.e., let them pay part of this tax, even though they’re normally exempt from taxes). He said, “No”. They said, “We’ll flee!”. He said, “Flee!”. Half fled, and half the tax was lifted. That half came before Rabbi and said to him, “Let the Rabbis sit with us”. He said, “No”. “We’ll flee!” “Flee!” They all fled, leaving one launderer. The entire tax was levied upon the launderer. He fled, and the tax was lifted. Rabbi said, “See! Misfortune is only because of the ignorant”.

It’s worth noting that even at the end of the first story, Rabbi hasn’t fundamentally altered his position. Rather, he’s afraid that he’ll miss a ‘diamond in the rough’.

I recalled this Gemara when reading the following discussion on pages 151-153 of Seth Schwartz’s Imperialism and Jewish Society: 200 BCE to 640 CE:

The following is the epitaph of a retired low-ranking officer…

Here I lie, Amandus, who has partaken of every luxury, who has lived, godlike [isotheos], a great number of years, honorably having the rank of decurion in the army, having virtue which lives even after death. Who has enjoyed as many luxuries among men as I? Who is so beloved of his native city? I, who am always well-known among many men, whom the native city longs for, [T]i[berias?], that is, which bore me…

Perhaps this is an idiosyncratic expression of a religious value not foreign to ancient moralists, Greek, Roman, or Jewish – a theodicy of good fortune (in Max Weber’s formulation), the conviction that the fortunate ipso facto enjoy divine favor. Perhaps Amandus thought that it was precisely his enjoyment of luxury that had made his life isotheos…Surely the display and celebration of wealth, the sharing of it with friends, clients, and the city, and the attribution to it of religious significance were essential parts of the ideological fabric of the Greco-Roman city. And it is in such a cultural nexus that the sentiments, both commonplace and unusual, that Amandus had carved on his sarcophagus belong…

It was really Schwartz’s analysis that caught my eye. When I first read the inscription, I thought of Ozymandias, not Rabbeinu Ha-Kadosh. Any comments from the chokrim (Menachem Mendel, Hagahot, gisi ke-achi)?

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