Be a scholar, not a prophet

Why is it that when faced with catastrophe, many Torah scholars set aside their knowledge of Halacha.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It did not take long for the all-knowing, selfenthroned prophets of Jerusalem to let us know exactly why the fire has consumed some 7,000 acres of forest and taken the lives of 42 people – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of Shas, has declared in the name of the Talmud that an outbreak of fire only happens in a place where Shabbat is desecrated. In the same lesson, delivered this past Saturday night while the fire was still raging and firefighters were continuing to risk their lives to prevent it from reaching into Haifa and other nearby communities, he called upon everyone to “study Torah, engage in good deeds, repent, observe Shabbat, and know the entire Halacha, and thanks to this God will provide a full recovery.”
A haredi newspaper (Hamevaser) carried the story and wrote that an investigating committee would probably be set up, but said we must not forget that there are things beyond human control. The editorial noted that in legal language it is known as force majeure, and that “we know there is a directing force from above without whom it is impossible to even lift a finger here below.
The heavens caused the events and lead them to such disastrous levels,” the editorial claimed.
Why is it that when faced with catastrophe many Torah scholars set aside their knowledge and study of halakhah, which I would assume fills up the majority of their study time, and resort to feigning some sort of pseudo-prophetic knowledge based on Talmudic or midrashic homiletics (often cited completely out of context!)? In his lesson to his his students, Yosef was citing the following passage from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b: Rav Judah son of Rav Samuel said in Rav’s name: An [outbreak of] fire occurs only in a place where there is desecration of the Sabbath, for it is said, “But if ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day and not to bear a burden ... then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched” (Jeremiah 17:27).
A closer look at this passage from Jeremiah in its context makes it clear that the prophet was castigating the Jews of Jerusalem for their lax approach to observance of Shabbat, and promising them that if they did not change their ways, Jerusalem, its gates and its palaces would be destroyed – this is just one small section of a book filled with warnings against the people living in the years leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE. This is not an eternal catch-all prophecy and should not be read as such.
The interpretation offered in Rav’s name and cited here serves to introduce a full page of theories as to why the First Temple was destroyed, each theory presenting an interpretive reading of a different biblical passage. It is completely inappropriate to apply this teaching of Rav to the Carmel forest fire.
WHEN A fire is started and spreads to thorns, so that stacked, standing, or growing grain is consumed, he who started the fire must make restitution. (Exodus 21:5) The catastrophic fires in the North should direct us rather to an important practical discussion that begins with the verse from the Torah cited above, and moves onto the pages of a different tractate of Talmud.
The Talmud records a discussion about the liability of one who lights a fire that gets out of control causing damage to another‘s property. Rabbi Yohanan states that isho mishum chitzo – one’s fire is like his arrow (Baba Kama 22a). He means to say that lighting a fire that is caught up by the wind and spreads to cause heavy destruction is the equivalent of pulling back a bow, taking aim and shooting an arrow; in both cases the perpetrator is responsible for all the damage caused by his actions.
And even though in the case of the raging inferno, we might want to say that it was exacerbated by heavy winds, nonetheless the person who struck the match is considered to be responsible for all the damage done, and if death is involved, according to some opinions, he is even to be considered a murderer for lighting the match irresponsibly. While a differing opinion is recorded as well, ultimately Halacha follows the opinion of Rabbi Yohanan.
Shame on all those who would be so smug and selfrighteous to remove the ultimate blame from those human beings who lit the fire. How dare they have the brazen nerve to place the responsibility for this national catastrophe squarely on the shoulders of God. How absolutely reckless and irreverent! When is a fire the work of the heavens? Rambam, when citing the Halacha writes the following: If one were to light a fire in on his own property, he needs to distance it from the boundary to ensure that the fire not pass over to his neighbor’s field, and how much that distance is will be determined relative to the height of the flame he lights. And if he does not distance the fire as necessary and the fire passes over and causes damage, he is culpable for paying for the full damages caused. If he did take proper precautions by distancing the fire and nonetheless it passed over and caused damage, then he is exempt from payment for that is a blow from the heavens (Laws of Monetary Damages, 14:2).
In other words, negligence, and all the more so arson, is not a blow from the heavens, it is not the hand of God.
ACCORDING TO Jewish law, the issue here is the question of what combination of human error is responsible for this tragedy, and how can it be prevented in the future.
Was it arson? Was it negligence? Who was responsible? If there is any soul-searching to do, it will be related to the question of how a country so committed to forestation of the barren land can be so ill-prepared for forest fires.(You can’t have it both ways.) Lessons will be learned, changes will most definitely be made.
All of the prophet-wanna-be’s would do well to go back and review the beginning of the first tractate of the Babylonian Talmud where it is written: Rav Hiyya son of Ammi said in the name of Ulla: “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Halacha” (Brachot 8b).
God’s interaction in our world today is manifest as an extension of our application of the Torah that He gave to us. Ours is to study its teachings and apply its wisdom to our behaviors and interactions, not to attempt to interpret current events as the manifestations of God’s anger or disappointment. We know what we need to do, and we will suffer the natural consequences of our actions should we choose to do otherwise.
As Rabbi Yohanan is also quoted as saying, “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children” (Baba Batra 12b).
We would do well to stick to what we know and stop looking for messages in bottles.
The writer is the author of Where’s My Miracle, Exploring Jewish Traditions for Dealing with Tragedy.