Friday, October 16, 2015

Punishment without Prohibition? Ramban on Noach’s Generation

Rav Yehuda Turetsky

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a, cited by Rashi on Breishit 6:13) teaches that while the generation of the flood had sinned in various ways, they were ultimately punished because they stole. Ramban (ad loc) is bothered by a simple question. How could that generation have been punished for thievery? They never received a divine command against stealing, yet they are still considered responsible for their actions.  Can God really punish them for doing something He never told them to avoid?

Ramban answers that certain Mitzvot are logical and do not require an explicit command. Stealing from others is such an obvious prohibition that God had no need to tell them to avoid it; they should have figured that out on their own and refrained from such activities.

Ramban’s idea has several important implications.

1. Be’er Shevah (Sanhedrin, ad loc) notes that the generation of the flood violated other prohibitions that are logical, yet specifically this one is what generated such a harsh punishment. He explains that God is willing to forgive those sins that are purely between man and God. God, though, is unwilling to overlook those that negatively impact others. For that reason, they were punished for stealing, not for violating those prohibitions that are between man and God. 

This may be part of a larger discussion regarding the severity of interpersonal sins. Certainly, it expresses a fundamental point about our relationship with others. Hashem views the manner in which we interact with other people as critically important and very significant in determining the status of a person. Certain activities cannot be tolerated, and all people are supposed to hold themselves to certain standards. 

2. Ramban assumes there are Mitzvot  for which one can be responsible even in the absence of a divine command. This has important implications for a larger discussion regarding the existence of ethics and morality independent of Halacha. [See Rav Nissim Gaon’s introduction to the Talmud and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein’s well-known article on this topic. This also relates to several other comments of Ramban on Chumash]. For Ramban, the generation of the flood should have carefully thought about their actions and recognized the immorality of thievery.  They should have refrained from stealing even though no one had explicitly told them it was wrong. 

Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Shiurim on Chumash ad loc) even notes that Ramban’s view assumes that sins we should have recognized on our own are treated even more severely than those God commanded us explicitly.  

Within this perspective, there is a clear expectation to be “thinking people” and aware of our actions. We are expected to engage in certain forms of introspection and to develop an internal moral compass of right and wrong. This is all the more so true when it comes to compassion and sensitivity towards others and their property. It is so basic and fundamental; all are obligated and expected to follow certain standards of appropriate behavior.

No comments:

Post a Comment