Proportionality and Disproportionality in Meting Out Punishment

Parshat Bechukotal Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34


Howard Adelman

In the first book, Either/Or, of the great nineteenth century philosopher (and theologian), Sőren Kierkegaard, he contrasted a hedonistic aesthetic with a moral one of a particular Protestant kind in which humans are governed by moral imperatives developed in a mature conscience. Parshat Bechukotal is also based on an either/or dichotomy, but of a very different type. In the first two verses of Leviticus 27 leading into the segment of the Torah, the bad, idolatry – including making idols (physical objects treated as God), rearing up graven images (representations of God) and placing figured stone (statues of humans) in your land – is not bad because it is hedonistic, but because all these expressions are attempts to represent God physically. Idolatry is contrasted with the good, keeping Shabbat and reverence for God’s sanctuary. What is God’s is golden; what is an attempt to represent the corpus of God physically is dross.

This is the contrast that the opening two verses of chapter 27 of Leviticus present. What is not as clear, given Kierkegaard’s contrasts between bad aesthetics and good ethics, is what the consequences are of making one choice rather than another in one’s lifestyle. Leviticus makes that abundantly clear. Choose to follow God’s commandments – not because they are dictated by your conscience, but because they are commanded by God, you get great weather for your crops and tremendous yields from your land and trees. The presumption is now that you are a farmer and not a hunter, you are settled, so the prerequisite of successful farming, not only good weather and great soil, but security for yourself and your land, will also accompany this guarantee.

And I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will cause evil beasts to cease out of the land, neither shall the sword go through your land. (verse 6)

The guarantee will be fulfilled, not through divine intervention, but because of the military superiority of the Hebrew warriors – five will pursue a hundred and a hundred will chase ten thousand. Though the military odds may be stacked very disproportionately against your side, you will nevertheless prevail and your enemy will fall by your sword. (v. 8) God’s guarantee works through human effort, courage and accomplishment. And because that earns God’s respect, the Hebrews will be fruitful and multiply. Because you learn to store up for the bad days, and eat what is stored before the fresh produce, God will be the God of the Hebrews. The Hebrews will be proud and worthy of respect because they will be in bondage to God and not any other human.

Those are the good results of good behaviour. But what if you follow an aesthetic mode that tries to bring God down to the level of humans and raise humans to believe they are living among the Gods? What if you do not make an ethic of obedience to God’s commandments (not your personal conscience) the priority of your individual and collective life? Fire and brimstone!

I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish; and ye shall sow your seed in vain, for your enemies shall eat it. (v. 16)

And I will set My face against you, and ye shall be smitten before your enemies; they that hate you shall rule over you; and ye shall flee when none pursueth. (v. 17)

Not only will you be smitten by your enemies, but you, the Hebrews being addressed by God, will turn into cowards, ironically fleeing their own shadows. Rather than walking with dignity and pride, their physical strength will drain away as they are assaulted by famine, pestilence, plagues in their own land and beasts of prey that will devour their children. There is no prohibition about punishing the innocents, for the sins of the fathers are bestowed on the next generation. If that were not enough, God Himself will smite the Hebrews. They will never again enjoy the satisfaction of eating, even when bread is in abundance. (v. 26). If that were not sufficient, the Hebrews will be condemned to cannibalism, feeding off the flesh of their own children.

And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your sun-pillars, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you. (v. 30)
And I will make your cities a waste, and will bring your sanctuaries unto desolation, and I will not smell the savour of your sweet odours. (v. 31)

So the land of the Israelites will be laid desolate and the Hebrews themselves will become refugees and will be scattered over the whole earth. The few left in their homeland will cringe at the sound of a falling leaf. The many scattered abroad will pine away, immersed in their iniquities and nostalgia. But not forever. For God will remember the deal he made with the founding fathers, with the patriarchs. Even though the Hebrews are being punished for the sins of their forefathers and their forefathers before them back for a hundred generations, God, like a loving parent, will not forget His children.

After all this horror show of threats, in the next chapter we are thrust into an entirely different universe, not the universe of rewards for obedience and dire punishments for disobedience, but a universe of economics. And it is not an economics of the market, but one based on functionality according to age, gender, state of health and capacity for productive labour. God fixes the tax rate. You pay taxes on your cattle in accordance with its health and on your land in accordance with its utility. And a 10% commission goes to God, or, at least, to his priests and upkeep of His sanctuary.

What are we to make of all this? We shift from radical disproportionality when it comes to moral behaviour, that is, when it comes to obedience and disobedience of God’s commandments, but strict proportionality when it comes to economics and self interest. In 2000, Alan Dershowitz published a book entitled, The Genesis of Justice: Ten Stories of Biblical Injustice that Led to the Ten Commandments. It is a book about measure for measure, between harm caused and punishment inflicted. But these chapters of Leviticus are about disproportionality when it comes to the meting out of punishment for disobedience to God’s commands. That is why chapter 26 stands in such stark contrast to chapter 27. The injustice of it all is appalling.

Dershowitz argues that this was the nature of the ethical world before the Hebrews received the ten and all the other commandments. But chapter 26 suggests otherwise. For the punishment for disobeying those commandments is so out of proportion to the alleged crime – if there is any crime at all since the issue is not criminality or harm caused, but disobedience to God. It is not as if people reap what they sow, but that, if they obey, they reap far more than they sow, and, if they disobey, the punishment is a hundredfold, a thousandfold worse. We have asymmetry, not symmetry.

Dershowitz is a believer in historical progress and suggests that the Biblical text offers a tale of progress from gross injustice to a system of fairness under the rule of law. But these chapters suggest the opposite is the case. Whenever it comes to the issue of disobeying God, fairness and proportionality are thrown out the window. While Dershowitz would read into the text ten pivotal moments of the development of justice, I find the evidence points the other way – to a system of proportionality whenever obedience to God’s commandments are not in play, but radical disproportionality when they are in play. We do not move from an ad hoc world of meting out punishment, but into a dichotomous world in which proportionality reigns on the horizontal earthly plane, but when we move to the vertical plane, the issue of fairness becomes irrelevant. Rather than a common law of justice, we are presented with two radically different realms.

Why? Why didn’t God follow the dictum, “Let the punishment fit the crime”? My suggestion is that there are two realms. When it comes to interaction with God, disproportion reigns whether one tries to import God into the material realm, whether one tries to disobey God on the early level or whether one aspires to be God in the heavenly realm. There is no plea for mercy available. Even when one’s enterprise is not an ethical one but an aesthetic one, if one transgresses, there will be punishment, and in inordinate abundance.

Christianity reverses this configuration. Grace is rendered even when unmerited. God’s benevolence comes into prominence rather than His wrath. We are then not rewarded for our works. The value of the proffered blessing far outweighs the value of an act of service. So we still have disproportionality, but turned on its head. Bill Clinton understood this when he got into an argument with Dershowitz over his book. As Clinton put it, “When we are discussing prospective policy, I invite argumentation and debate. When I am commander-in-chief, I want my orders obeyed.” And God wants His orders followed in spades.

The question then is what happens if you do not want to bow down before such an authoritarian figure and, further, know that you can get away with it?


One comment on “Proportionality and Disproportionality in Meting Out Punishment

  1. BG says:

    Comments by BG to HA

    HA says there are two realms depicted in this segment: the material and the heavenly, and that these are in a disproportionate relationship. “When it comes to interaction with God, disproportion reigns whether one tries to import God into the material realm, whether one tries to disobey God on the early level or whether one aspires to be God in the heavenly realm.” HA points out that this disproportionality is present in the Christian view as well. “Grace is rendered even when unmerited. God’s benevolence comes into prominence rather than His wrath. We are then not rewarded for our works. The value of the proffered blessing far outweighs the value of an act of service. So we still have disproportionality, but turned on its head.” The disproportionality between the heavenly and the material realm is interpreted in terms of reward and punishment.

    Here follow a few comments from BG, a non-religious agnostic, a mere observer of human behavior, who is sadly largely ignorant of the contents of both the Torah and the Bible, but is eagerly interested to learn from the learned, in order to become a better person.

    As soon as we see god as the authority and its (I use a minuscule initial in ‘god’ and the neutral ‘it’ when referring to god, to indicate my agnostic stance) relation to humans expressed in terms of rewards and punishments, the idea of fairness will automatically arise. HA’s emphasis on disproportionality is especially strong when it comes to the punishments meted out by the Jewish god, and/or the blessings proffered by the Christian god. The disproportion arises between the human deeds and the heavenly response to it. I agree with HA’s observation here, although I have yet to meet a true Christian who finds their god’s blessings disproportionately undeserved, or extreme…..Christians smugly take what they can get…

    And what about the Jews: reading the relevant passage by Leviticus, I find, as long as Jews obey their god, their rewards do not seem to me that extreme; the life offered in reward for obedience is just pleasantly normal and carefree; a manageably safe and secure life. I ask, is this fair? Obeying is hard: should not the Jews get more in return for obedience to such a difficult master? There is an imbalance within the reward and punishment system of the Jewish god (too little reward, too strong punishment) which the Christian god managed to even out (rewards and punishments equally extreme). Perhaps this is how and why Dershovitz sees progress in the justice system.

    Several examples from our current earthly life come to mind: in North America we have all learned in our Psych 101 courses that reward and punishment systems must be balanced: parents, teachers and bosses (i.e., authority figures) should praise/reward good behavior just as much as criticize/punish bad behavior. There is even a school of thought to emphasize the positive reinforcement of good behavior while remaining silent on undesirable behavior and then the latter will simply go away (the gushy authority). Interestingly, German and Chinese parents, teachers and bosses in general don’t seem to have taken the North American Psych 101 course, as they tend to remain silent when dependent persons do what is expected of them, but tend to become more or less harshly critical/punishing when one “disobeys”, (the harsh authority) akin to the Jewish god of Leviticus. On the contrary, French parenting is said to be sober and balanced. There is a lot of literature generated these days by desperate American parents and educators who study these various reward/punishment systems from other cultures, to find a way to regain control over their wayward youth. Then again, in my former counselling practice, a number of Chinese students sobbed uncontrollably on my couch about their harsh, unforgiving parents, and their feelings of anger and even hatred, and the trauma of utter powerlessness they experienced.

    Currently, most of my clients are dependent staff from Germany, suffering from burn-out, who are shocked to learn from me that maybe they are just not getting enough praise for their hard work. They have been so used to the silence of authority figures they did not even know they could and should be rewarded. It is a case of learned helplessness, when your expectation for reward is completely eroded, and you begin to consider punishment (no matter how disproportionate it may be) as deserved, and accept this imbalance as an unalterable given. Some of my clients are in leadership positions and so they see the situation from the authority’s point of view: “Why should I praise them? I pay them, don’t I?” The Jewish god might be saying the same, as far as I understand Leviticus. Some of my manager types add that if they were to praise their reports, these would see their praise or approval as bound to be followed by promotions and raises which the manager’s budget system does not allow. So, it is safer for the authority to remain simply silent altogether in case of a mere verbal expression of approval.

    When as the devil’s advocate I use this argument vis-a-vis the staff, most say promotion and raise are of course great, but they would gladly take just the praise, when deserved, without the former: it would create a better environment to work in, a better relationship to the authority.

    German workers in general are undergoing a huge transition in company culture due to globalization and frequent takeover of their traditional German-style companies by American concerns (e.g., Braun was taken over by Procter & Gamble). The employees of the old guard are used to expectations of a solid, predictable, safe and secure long-term employment with rewards expressed exclusively by regular promotions/raises; their relationship to the management is characterized by mutual loyalty between staff and management, but also by a non-negotiable, blind obedience to the authority (pretty much the system depicted by Leviticus). These employees cannot understand that their long hard work and loyalty will count as nothing, when the company decides to lay them off or reorganize them, for purely economic reasons (which is currently very much the case across the board). They view this move as a disproportionately harsh and unfair punishment, and are unable to see it as a purely economic move on part of the authority (luckily for these employees, there is a rather generous system of protection from and compensation for job loss in the German labor law). But is such a lay-off a punishment at all, as it is viewed and feared by the employees, and if it is, is it disproportionate or unfair?

    The management looks only at the bottom line: maintaining and increasing the profit is their task, and anything deemed unprofitable must be avoided and eliminated. Lay-offs are not a means of punishment (curiously, I must teach and constantly correct all my German students, no matter how advanced in English, not to refer to lay-offs as “being fired”, as there is a significant difference morally and legally between the two processes – they don’t see the difference, and keep misusing the term). Yes, lay-offs are dehumanizing (the worker is just a number) and seem unfair from the worker’s but not from the management’s point of view: but then the concept of fairness is often viewed wrongly by the non-philosophical lay person only from a subjective point of view: if x benefits me, x is fair to me: if not then not. It is very hard to examine a process from the heightened perch of a neutral point of view. I purposefully did not use the usual term “from god’s eye view” as god is not neutral in Leviticus’ system of rewards and punishments – it is the boss. It seems clear to me that the notions of rewards/punishments and fairness would require a superhuman ability and effort to render them universally applicable. I am not saying these notions are meaningless; I am just issuing a warning that they not be used lightly.

    So, must the scene depicted by Leviticus be seen as a matter of rewards/punishments, of fairness and justice, of a dichotomy between two realms, of a relationship between the authority and its dependents? Perhaps one could see it as a depiction of a functional vs dysfunctional life in one single realm. The realm we humans live in. To put it crudely simply, when things work, that is good in itself. Good enough. Good enough to live a life of contentment. When things don’t work, that is bad in itself. It results in discord, discontentment, struggle, injury, loss, pain and suffering, and ultimately a threat of annihilation. Luckily for us, we, humans, have a notion, an understanding of what a functional life would or ought to be. Since we can conceive of it, we can also work towards achieving it. Maybe our notion of (Leviticus’) god stands for this functional life: things work, life is good. Life is godlike.

    We humans also have the ability to render life dysfunctional (as history amply demonstrates). Things do not work; life is chaotic, a threat of annihilation is clear and present. Life is ungodly, or contrary to a godlike life. Leviticus is not talking about rewards and punishments meted out by an authority outside ourselves: he depicts our options within our realm: we can create and live godlike vs an ungodly life by ourselves. The choice is ours. Niemand muß müssen. But we shall live with the consequences of our own choices and actions as depicted in the relevant lines in Leviticus. It is not a punishment from without, but a consequence of our own doing.

    HA ends his commentary (consistently with his view on god as authority external to us humans with): “The question then is what happens if you do not want to bow down before such an authoritarian figure and, further, know that you can get away with it?” I would like to end with another question, consistent with my last paragraph: “The question then is what happens if we do not follow our notion of a godlike life, and, further, think that we can get away with it?” The short answer is in the six-o’clock news on every broadcasting media. The long answer takes a whole life worth of effort.

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