When May We Tamper with the World?

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Dichotomies are tidy and self-contained, but the world isn’t. Ran has been showing us some differences between when Hashem intervenes in the world and when Hashem leaves it to the stars or its natural forces. As the Derasha continues, he’s going to point to other elements that complicate the picture.

An Angel Somewhere Between Nature and Hashem

The original time Hashem mentioned sending an angel, Shemot 23:20-22 had been to warn us to be careful about disobeying him, “כי שמי בקרבו, for My name is within him.” Ran turns to Sanhedrin 38b, which is unrelated to our discussion, except that R. Ada mentions an angel called Metatron, whose name is like the name of his Master. Ran doesn’t claim to understand what that means, but notes that it tells us we can refer to and act towards this angel differently than we do to others.

That explains, for Ran, how Yehoshua could bow down to the angel he met outside of Yericho (Yehoshua 5;14). Bowing down to other angels (or anything else) is idolatry, but this angel is close enough to Hashem to make it permissible.

That’s why, Ran says, the passage in the Torah about the angel whose name is Hashem’s moves on to remind us of the prohibition against idolatry. Being allowed to bow to Metatron might lead us to think that this opens the door to bowing to other forces subordinate to Hashem. Hashem has to stress the exceptional quality of this one angel.

As Ran already said, this is an obscure idea. The most I can say is that it suggests there’s a middle ground between pure Divine Providence and pure Nature, and Metatron seems to capture it (many other thinkers knew of the need for some kind of middle ground to bring the completely Other Divine Influence to the world—for Kabbalists, that’s part of what the Sefirot do and, for Rambam, it’s part of the role of angels. I believe Rambam’s idea of the Active Intellect is similar to how Ran is describing Metatron).

Forces of Nature and the Urge to Appease Them

The other reason the Torah stresses the prohibition of idolatry, Ran says, is that it stems from an understandable mistake, to which the Jews are more prone when they are under the supervision of an angel. Given that Hashem has delegated the running of the world to subordinate forces, people can come to think of those as independent agents (which Ran thinks is untrue), and that appeasing those agents can be effective.

In one sense, Ran says, that last point is true: if these forces influence certain types of people in certain ways, our becoming those types of people makes it more likely we will receive that influence. The jump from there to direct worship isn’t so big.

To put it into contemporary terms I think Ran would have accepted: if an angel (or astrological force) controls cardiovascular health, it would be true that the more we prepare our bodies for that angel’s benign impact (such as by eating right and exercising), the more we will enjoy good health.

The danger is that we might then think of other ways to encourage that angel’s giving us what we want, such as by worship. I’m not sure how that would translate—it might be something like deciding that it’s not only if we exercise and eat right, but also if we publicize the value of exercise, that that itself will make us less likely to suffer cardiovascular events. Which is prohibited.

Natural and Supernatural Ways of Averting Misfortune

The distinction for idolatry has broader lessons to teach. For Ran, we are allowed to exploit to our benefit any well-known and articulable connection between action and result. But if we rely on special qualities of the physical world, whose mechanism is unclear, even if they work with regularity, that is essentially appeasing the angels.

Ran’s distinction between known and unknown mechanisms raises interesting questions for our times. Many medical interventions operate in well-understood ways, and Ran would have no problem with those, but scientists also sometimes notice correlations without yet knowing the mechanism that relates the two.

If, for example, an epidemiological study discovers a link between x chemical in our blood and a certain kind of cancer, would Ran accept avoiding that chemical, or taking medications to remove that chemical from our blood? I wonder, because it seems to me Ran might have said that as long as we have not found the connection, we are “appeasing” the angel of the chemical (or of the blood), not operating within the world as we have it.

Meaning, we today sometimes take links to be the same as well-defined cause and effect, when they often are not. Knowing that reducing x aspect of a blood profile reduces the risk of y disease doesn’t always depend on cause and effect, and I think Ran is distinguishing where we know how the world works—in which case we’re allowed to function within it—from where we do not. In those latter cases, even if we see how one phenomenon tends to bring another, Ran seems to be saying that we’re not allowed to “worship” it by doing what it seems to require.

One more example of this dichotomy is witchcraft, which Ran assumes works, and yet the Torah prohibits. Ran refers us to Sanhedrin 67b, where the Talmud says that the Egyptian sorcerers called upon the influence of demons or destructive angels. Since Hashem created those forces to be destructive, Ran says, we’re not allowed to use them to achieve results we find productive.

Take Aways From This Derasha

Ran’s balance between the natural and supernatural translates well to our times, although not necessarily in ways we will find comfortable. That which works directly, which we can explain step by step, is natural, and most of the world operates, mostly, by laws of Nature.

That comes with important limitations. First, when Ran said “the way Nature works,” he meant only processes we can track directly, not where we have correlation without the causation. That latter situation, it seems to me, is what Ran means by operating according to segulot, according to special, hidden qualities. For all that those links might seem clear, they come close to being more of an attempt to appease the forces that control those areas of life, and that’s not allowed.

And then, finally, there’s being sure we only use the world’s forces as Hashem intended; since the forces tapped into by witchcraft were meant only for destruction, we may not use them in any way we find productive.

Ran has taken an interesting and important stand on how to balance a true awareness of Nature along with the supernatural. All of which, as I’ve said, will help him grapple with the Black Death, and continue to challenge us to consider when and where we are and are not allowed to actively work to change the world.

About Gidon Rothstein

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