web analytics
May 28, 2015 / 10 Sivan, 5775
At a Glance
Judaism
Sponsored Post


The Parameters Of Justice

Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers -- how is that compatible with the idea that children may suffer for the sins of their parents?
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

The Talmud (Makkot 24a) raises the obvious question. If Ezekiel is correct, what then happens to the idea of children being punished to the third and fourth generation? Its answer is astonishing:

Said Rabi Jose ben Hanina: “Our master Moses pronounced four [adverse] sentences on Israel, but four prophets came and revoked them … Moses said, ‘He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Ezekiel came and declared: ‘The soul that sins is the one who will die.’ ”

Moses decreed, Ezekiel came and annulled the decree! Clearly the matter cannot be that simple. After all, it was not Moses who decreed this, but God Himself. What do the sages mean?

I think they mean this: the concept of perfect justice is beyond human understanding, for the reasons already given. We can never fully know the degree of guilt. Nor can we know the full extent of responsibility. The Mishnah in Sanhedrin 4:5 says that a witness in capital cases was solemnly warned that if, by false testimony, a person was wrongly sentenced to death, he, the witness, “is held responsible for his [the accused’s] blood and the blood of his [potential] descendants until the end of time.” Nor, when we speak of Providence, is it always possible to distinguish punishment from natural consequence. A drug-addicted mother gives birth to a drug-addicted child. A violent father is assaulted by his violent son. Is this retribution or genetics or environmental influence? When it comes to Divine, as opposed to human, justice, we can never reach beyond the most rudimentary understanding – if that.

Two things are clear from God’s words to Moses. First, He is a God of compassion but also of justice – since without justice, there is anarchy, but without compassion, there is neither humanity nor hope. Second, in the tension between these two values, God’s compassion vastly exceeds His justice. The former is forever (“to thousands [of generations]”). The latter is confined to the lifetime of the sinner: the “third and fourth generation” (grandchildren and great-grandchildren) are the limits of posterity one can expect to see in a human lifetime.

What Jeremiah and Ezekiel are talking about is something else. They were speaking about the fate of the nation. Both lived and worked at the time of the Babylonian exile. They were fighting a mood of despair among the people. “What can we do? We are being punished for the sins of our forefathers.” Not so, said the prophets. Each generation holds its destiny in its own hands. Repent, and you will be forgiven, whatever the sins of the past – yours or those who came before you.

Justice is a complex phenomenon, Divine justice infinitely more so. One thing, however, is clear. When it comes to human justice, Moses, Jeremiah and Ezekiel all agree that children may not be punished for the sins of their parents. Vicarious punishment is simply unjust.

About the Author: Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “The Parameters Of Justice”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
J-Street
J Street: The Jewish Enemy Within
Latest Judaism Stories
Leff-052215

There is a great debate as to whether this story actually took place or is simply a metaphor, a prophetic vision shown to Hoshea by Hashem.

Staum-052215

Every person is presented with moments when he/she must make difficult decisions about how to proceed.

Torat-Hakehillah-logo-NEW

One does not necessarily share the opinions of one’s brother. One may disapprove of his actions, values, and/or beliefs. However, with brothers there is a bond of love and caring that transcends all differences.

Torah

This Shavuot let’s give G-d a gift too: Let’s make this year different by doing just 1 more mitzvah

Question: Should we wash our hands in the bathroom with soap and water, or by pouring water from a vessel with handles three times, alternating hands? I have heard it said that a vessel is used only in the morning upon awakening. What are the rules pertaining to young children? What is the protocol if […]

God and the divine origin of His Torah are facts even though we do not fully comprehend them.

So if we basically live the same life, why should he get eternal reward and not me?”

The question is: What about pidyon haben? Can one give the five sela’im required for pidyon haben to a kohen’s daughter?

In Parshas Pinchas the Torah introduces the Mussaf for Shavuos by describing it as Yom HaBikurim when we bring the new offering.

Rachel was thrown by the sight and began to caringly think whom this person might be.

The desert, with its unearthly silence & emptiness, is the condition in which the Word can be heard

The census focused on the individual, proving each is created as irreplaceable, unique images of God

Jewish survival in a dysfunctional world requires women assuming the role Hashem gave them at Sinai

The Honor Of Reading The Kesubah
‘Witnesses Sign Only After Reading…’
(Kesubos 109a)

Why does the Torah use two different words for “to count,” and what does each indicate?

From Bemidbar on and in Nevi’im, the nation is viewed primarily by its component parts, the tribes

More Articles from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

The desert, with its unearthly silence & emptiness, is the condition in which the Word can be heard

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

This week’s parshah inspired the Jubilee 2000 initiative leading to debt cancellation of $34 biilion

Rambam: Eating blood’s forbidden because connected to idolatry;Ramban: We’re affected by what we eat

There is something quite distinctive about the biblical approach to time.

Why should unintentional sins require atonement? What guilt exists when requisite intent is lacking?

Like Shabbat points to something beyond time, the people Israel points to something beyond history

The Sabbath is a full dress rehearsal for an ideal society that has not yet come to pass-but will

Jewish prayer is a convergence of 2 modes of biblical spirituality, exemplified by Moses and Aaron

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/the-parameters-of-justice/2013/08/15/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: