Is it all right to allow someone to live in benign ignorance if the result is somehow beneficial?
There is a story I have heard in many versions that illustrates my question. It likely originates about 250 years ago with a rabbi named Moses Hagiz, who claims to have heard it from a disciple of the 16th-century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria. Scholars consider the claim unlikely, but the story is the story.
A Portuguese converso (a Jew forced to convert to Catholicism but still secretly practicing Judaism) made his way to Safed and sought to find his way back into Jewishness.
He attended a synagogue where he heard the rabbi bemoan the loss of the devotional practice of the showbread – loaves left in the inner sanctum of the Temple for each shabbat.
The man, believing he could reclaim his place in God’s eyes, instructed his wife to bake two loaves of challah each Friday, which he surreptitiously placed in the ark of the synagogue where the Torah scrolls were kept.
Each Friday afternoon, the synagogue’s gabbai (attendant), a poor man, would come to make certain the Torah scrolls were set for the week’s reading.
Each week, he discovered the two loaves and, believing them to be a blessing, took them home.
When the converso came to synagogue the next day and saw the loaves missing, he believed God had accepted his gift.
One week, the rabbi happened into the synagogue as the converso was delivering the loaves.
After hearing the story, the rabbi berated the man for having such a foolish notion of God.
Hearing the commotion, the gabbai entered and realized where the weekly gift originated. The rabbi berated him as well. Both men left humiliated.
As all of this transpired, an emissary from Rabbi Luria arrived and informed the rabbi that he would die the next day; his behavior had deprived God of the enjoyment unknown since the original showbread in the Temple.
I have always had two reactions to the story.
Part of me finds it sweet and uplifting – a sort of “the Lord moves in mysterious ways” lesson in how good intentions can produce great results, even if they are not the results intended.
Part of me finds it insulting – even if I excuse the converso’s naiveté (or, perhaps, his confusion of the showbread with communion), you don’t have to be a genius to know there is no such thing as magic bread.
But in both of my reactions, the rabbi is the biggest loser. His impatience with both characters deprives them both of what they need most.
The converso needs to return to his identity, and the gabbai needs to eat. But is it such a heinous sin that the rabbi needs to die for it?
And please note the story attributes the death decree to God’s disappointment, not the humiliation of the two men.
This story has been reworked in many different ways over the years. Like Grimms’ fairy tales, modern tellings remove all the nasty results and end in a group hug and extended family meals.
I don’t like the happily-ever-after ending either. I much prefer the tension between the mystical and the rational, and the way to preserve both.
It helps to know that Rabbi Hagiz spent much of his career promoting rabbinic authority in European and Holy Land Jewish communities.
In some ways, this story reminds me of the tensions present in our discussions about immigration in this country.
Some of us wish to repeat in contemporary circumstances what we imagine occurred back in the day when our ancestors first came to America.
Looking for a better life, people show up at our border hoping against hope that their two loaves will be there to sustain them.
And, of course, there is an angry authority figure humiliating everyone for imagining a way to satisfy each other.
The authority figure may be right – just as the rabbi was. But the rabbi, for all his rightness, is the biggest loser.
Maybe for the sake of the story, the rabbi had to die in the end for betraying the God he sought to defend.
When a story ends, it ends. But when a real situation presents itself, there is a story beyond the story.
If the converso and the gabbai were real, the former would be shattered spiritually, and the latter would go hungry.
Maybe the consequences would not have been fatal, but joy and sustenance would have given way to sadness and deprivation.
And if the rabbi in fact did not die, then that suffering would have been on his hands. Same thing today.
Editor’s note: This article is the first in a monthly column series.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi.