September 14th, 2014


Theodicy and the Daf

A friend once pointed out that there are three main approaches that the Bible takes to the problem of theodicy, what Rabbi Harold Kushner titled the problem of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People".

The Deuteronomic approach asserts that life is fair: If you follow God's mitzvot, you will be rewarded; if you stray, you will be punished.

The Jobian (not Jovian) approach is that God has a Plan, and we don't know what it is, but we should have faith that when bad things happen, it is for an ultimately good reason.

The Kohelet philosophy is that things happen. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, but not always fairly and not always because there's a Plan.

The appeal of the Deuteronomic approach is that we like to feel that things are fair. And so much of the teshuvah literature is based on this: if something bad has happened to you, you should reflect on your deeds and figure out what you did wrong; conversely, you know that you have sinned and you have punishment coming to you, and so you'd better pray for God's forgiveness.

While I admit that this philosophy has some utility in prompting us to examine our deeds, it is dangerous because (a) it can lead people to disregard the needs of the unfortunate, because "they must have deserved it"; (b) it can lead people whose lives are going well to neglect their spiritual growth; (c) it can lead good people who are having difficult times to abandon God.

The appeal of the Jobian approach is that we like to feel that things are fair, even when they don't look like they are. By asserting the existence of a sekkrit Plan, we can explain away seeming incongruities between doing good and doing well. But not everyone has the "faith of Job", and telling a suffering person that their suffering is needed for God's ultimate Plan seems rather patronizing. (As the character Aristophile puts it in Good Omens: "This wouldn't be the ineffable plan, would it?")

Much of the Talmud's dealings with the problems of theodicy follow these two approaches. So I found myself gratified to encounter two passages in the Daf Yomi last week that show that even in rabbinic thought, the Kohelet approach is considered a valid alternative:

Rava said: Life, children, and food do not hang on one's merit, but rather on one's luck. (Mazel in this context probably refers to astrological influences, but I think it's not unfair to treat it as "luck".)

Rava then brings his proof by example: For Rabba and Rav Chisda were both righteous sages; one would pray and rain would fall, and the other would pray and rain would fall. (The fact that God would listen to their prayers demonstrates their righteousness.)

But: Rav Chisdah lived to age 92, and Rabbah to age 40. Rav Chisdah's household had sixty wedding feasts; Rabbah's household had sixty funerals. Rav Chisdah's household had bread made from high-quality flour even for the dogs, and no one needed to ask for some; Rabbah's household had coarse flour even for the people, and there was not enough of it to be found. (Moed Katan 28a)

And then a few days later this bizarre aggadic narrative:

When Rav Yosef reached the verse 'But there are those who are swept away without justice' (Prov. 12:23) while he was studying, he would cry. He said: Who is it who goes (i.e., dies) before his time? Is such a thing possible?

Yes, responds the gemara, citing what happened with Rav Bevai bar Abaye, who was familiar with the angel of death. One time, the angel said to his emissary: go, bring me Miriam who braids women's hair. The emissary went and brought him Miriam the nanny. The angel said to him, I said Miriam who braids women's hair! The emissary said to him: In that case, return her to life. The angel said to him: Since you brought her, she shall be counted among the dead.

Rav Bevai asked the emissary: But how could you take her if it wasn't her time to die? The emissary explained: She was holding a shovel in her hand, and she was lighting and sweeping the oven. She accidentally put it on her foot and burned herself and she had bad luck, and I took her. So again we see the concept that a person's luck (mazal) can be bad, and they can die before their time for no reason at all.

Rav Bevai asked the angel: You have permission to do this?</b> You're allowed to take people who have bad luck before it is their appointed time? And the angel replied by quoting the verse with which this sugya began: He said to him, and is it not written, 'But there are those who are swept away without justice?'" (Chagiga 4b-5a)

As we work our way through Elul, listening to the blasts of the shofar each morning and repairing the breaches in our moral bulwarks, I find this a comforting perspective. Sometimes God's justice is visible; sometimes we express faith in a Plan, but most of the time life seems random because most of the time it is.

That doesn't excuse us from the task of trying to be the best people we can be.

It just means that we should do that not because we expect a reward, but because being the best people we can be despite the vicissitudes of life is God's plan for us.

Coleman 1 = Coleman 2

A while back, I wrote about my cousin Coleman Wertheim, and how I had two sets of non-contradictory non-overlapping records. I just found a chain of records that proves to my satisfaction that they are indeed the same person.

To review: My great-grandfather Leo had an elder brother Hyman (sometimes Herman), one of whose children was born Kalman Wertheim on 29 Oct 1890, and adapted his name to Coleman. I have a paper trail for him until the 1910 Census; and I have a record of his death in 1975 on Staten Island. (The SSDI record links him based on his date of birth.)

Coleman 2 has a consistent paper trail from 1915 to 1948. He was an auto dealer and chauffer.

Here's the trail, starting with Coleman 2:

1920 US Census, from at, gives him residing at 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 1 Feb 1920, p. 9, has the notice of incorporation for Ace Motor Sales Company, one of whose founders is Coleman Wertheim, 477 West St., Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Standard Union, 5 Apr 1921, p. 1, "Convict Dr. Kranzer in Stolen Car Deal", is an article about the conviction of Dr. Leo Kranzer, age 30, residing at 65 Tomkins Ave., for grand larceny. "The complainant against him was his cousin, Coleman Wertheim, of 570 East Second St., who conducts the Ace Motor Sales Company, of 279 Flatbush Avenue."

Dr. Leo Kranzer was the son of Nellie Wertheim Kranzer, the sister of Leo and Hyman, and thus a first cousin to both Coleman (1) and my grandmother Rosalie Wertheim. He was the attending physician on the death certificate of Pearl Wertheim, the grandmother of all these cousins. And indeed, according to the 1920 Census, he lived at 65 Tomkins Ave. (See

So at this point, I am asserting that I have met the Genealogical Proof Standard: Coleman 1 is indeed the same person as Coleman 2.

(In fairness, I should note that although Dr. Kranzer was found guilty, the jury urged mercy because they felt he had been tricked into breaking the law, and he was given a suspended sentence.)