Correct Belief and Moral Luck


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Dean

Why aren’t all true beliefs self-evident to everyone?  Perhaps the answer is weakness of character or willful ignorance.  We evade the truth about the world in order to avoid facing truths about ourselves, or to gain this-worldly pleasures and avoid this-worldly pains.  I suspect that every religion/ideology has adherents who make these assertions.

Yet almost every believer – including baalei teshuvah and converts – wonders at some point whether true belief is just a matter of spiritual luck, of being born in the right place at the right time to the right people.  But how can we be held responsible for bad luck, or rewarded for good luck?  If belief matters at all, what room is there for Divine justice?

Parashat Acharei Mot opens by describing the rituals that a Kohen Gadol must perform before entering the Holy of Holies, if he wishes to survive the experience.  (This was regardless permitted only on Yom Kippur, although Chokhmat Adam cites R. Eliyahu of Vilna as arguing that Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, was permitted to enter on any day.)  Performing the ritual was no guarantee of survival; during the Second Temple, many High Priests died in their first year of service. (although likely without a rope tied around them to pull them out in case of death; see the ever-remarkable Dr. Ari Zivatofsky’s article at

Finally, the people did not rely on G-d to eliminate the unworthy; according to Mishnah Sukkah 4:9, they stoned a Kohen Gadol with their etrogim one Sukkot when he seemed to be following Sadduceean halakhah.

The ritual involves an incense offering, which is mentioned twice.  In 16:2 we read:כי בענן אראה על הכפרת which can be read as requiring the cloud of incense to be present from the moment of entrance, but in 16:13 we read:

ונתן את הקטרת על האש לפני יקוק וכסה ענן הקטרת את הכפרת אשר על העדות ולא ימות

which indicates that the incense was set on fire in the Holy of Holies itself.

Rabbinic law understands verse 13 as primary, and thus requires the incense to be brought into the Holy of Holies still unlit; Sadducee law took verse 2 as primary, and required it to be lit before entry.

All this is necessary background for a fascinating and surprising narrative found on Yoma 19b

This happened: A Sadducee (High Priest) prepared (the incense-offering) outside (the Holy of Holies) and then brought it in (already lit).

When he exited, he was greatly joyous.

His father met him and said: “My son, even though we are Sadducees, we are in fear of the Pharisees[1]”.

He said to him: All my days I was pained by this verse: “For in a cloud I will be seen above the ark-cover” – when would it come to my hand that I might fulfill it?  Now that it has come to my hand – should I not fulfill it?!

They said: It was not many days until he died, and was thrown on a trashheap, and maggots came out of his nose.

Some say: He was struck down as he exited,

for R. Chiyya taught a beraita: Some sort of sound was heard in the Courtyard, for an angel came and smacked him on his face, and his brother kohanim entered and found a palm(print) like that of a calf’s foot between his shoulders, as Scripture says: “and their feet – a straight foot, and the palm of their feet like the palm of a calf’s foot”. 

On its surface this narrative is just straightforward propaganda.  The Sadducee’s devotion to his law is contrasted negatively with his father’s caution/respect, and leads to his horrible, possible supernatural death.  There seems no basis for sympathy.

However, this story is a linguistic echo of a more famous story from Berakhot 61b.

When R. Akiva was taken out to be executed it was the time of Keriat Shema.  They were combing his flesh with metal combs while he accepted the Yoke of the Government of Heaven. 

His students said to him: Rebbe, thus far? 

He said to them: All my days I was pained by this verse: “with all your life-force” – even if He takes your spirit – when would it come to my hand that I might fulfill it?  Now that it has come to my hand – should I not fulfill it?!

 He extended the word “echad” (one) until his life-force departed on that word.

A voice emerged from Heaven saying: Fortunate are you, R. Akiva, whose life-force departed with “echad”.

The ministering angels said before the Holy Blessed One: This is Torah, and this is its reward?  “From the dead, O Hashem, from the dead . . .”?!

He replied: Their portion is in life.

A voice emerged from Heaven saying: Fortunate are you, R. Akiva, who is reserved for the life of the World to Come.   

I suggest that the story about the Sadducee is deliberately framed as a response to the Rabbi Akiva story.  Here are three possible implications of the parallel:

  1. (PreModern) – Rabbi Akiva and the Sadducee both die horrible deaths for the sake of their understandings of Torah.  Rabbi Akiva is praised by the ministering angels; the Sadducee is killed by an angel.  Blessed are those who have the character and will to understand Torah properly.
  2. (Modern) – Rabbi Akiva and the Sadducee have identical characters; they are equally virtuous.  What a pity that and tragedy that the Sadducee was trapped by circumstances into believing in falsehood, so that a man with the potential to be Rabbi Akiva was instead tossed onto the trashpile of history.
  3. (PostModern) – Who killed the Sadducee, and who reported hearing the Heavenly voices at Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom?  Since the Rabbi Akiva story proves that dying a horrible death is no evidence of Divine disfavor, why is it significant that the Sadducee was left unburied (and wasn’t that a human choice, just as the Roman chose to torture Rabbi Akiva?)

I suggest that a viable Modern Orthodoxy needs to be able to hold all three of these readings in mind. We need

  1. firmness in our truth, with gratitude to G-d for having allowed us to see that truth;
  2. the ability to appreciate that many of us deserve little or no credit for recognizing that truth, and that belief is not evidence of individual character, nor is lack of belief evidence of individual lack of character; and
  3. the ability to avoid triumphalism and confirmation bias when evaluating interpretations of Torah.

We need to be grateful for our spiritual luck, to believe in Divine justice, and to leave it to G-d to resolve the tension between our gratitude and our belief.  Shabbat shalom!

[1] In context, the father seems to be saying that the son should be cautious lest the Pharisees physically assault him.  However, see Niddah ??, which opens the possibility that thefather was suggesting that the Sadducees respected the Rabbis and would not necessarily follow their own positions when they conflicted with Rabbinic law.

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