Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Booknote: The children shall die for the father's sins

I dug up a small treatise written by Rabbi Solomon Rappaport entitled "Fathers and Children: Collective and Individual Responsibility in Jewish Thought" published in 1963. The main theme running through the book is the contradiction between Exodus 20:5 "visiting the iniquity of the fathers unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" and Deuteronomy 24:16 "the fathers shall not be put to death for the children, nor the children for the fathers, but every man shall be put to death for his own sin".

These two verses reflect the tension between individual and collective responsibility in Jewish thought and practice, there being ample source material for both ideas in Biblical and Rabbinic thought, as well as other classic and oriental systems that the author surveys.

Some Bible critics resolved the conflict in the Bible by claiming that the original collective viewpoint gave way to the concept of individual responsibility. The author claims there is no systematic approach that can fully resolve the two concepts of retribution. The most rational explanation is one where individual responsibility is applied mainly to crime, while collective responsibility is generally the result of sin. However there are Biblical situations which do not fit into this pattern.

Some fascinating Midrashim and statements are brought to support or explain both individual and collective responsibility.The discussion incorporates the concepts of the merit of the fathers, zechut avot, merit of the children, original sin, as well as Rabbinic attempts to mitigate the harshness of the verse in Exodus by interpreting it to apply only to those children who follow in the ways of their parents in sin, or that the death of minor children comes to atone for the parents. The Talmud brings the incredible viewpoint that the prophets actually abolished this concept in Exodus!

In conclusion, this issue is one that has troubled me and continues to do so. Should innocent children perish for their father's sins? Yet children are directly affected by their parent's lifestyle choices, behaviour patterns and education. The author has done a good job drawing together an abundance of sources on this topic, and concludes that "it is difficult to present a normative biblical-rabbinic doctrine on the question of collective and individual responsibility ... The dominant trend constitutes a synthesis between individualism and collectivism ... A healthy society harmonises the mutual responsibitity of individual and community to each other."

May we merit to live in such a society soon.



At 9/13/2005 11:16 AM, Blogger LTF said...

Great post. Please keep similar entries coming!

At 9/17/2005 11:07 PM, Blogger The Rabbi's Kid said...

thanks TN


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