Friday, 26 November 2010

Middah Kneged Middah


Opens with Joseph spreading bad reports on his brothers.


What did he say?

Rabbinic invention[1] two guess

Sons of Leah insult the sons of Bilha and Zilpah and call them slaves.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was sold as a slave to the Midianites.

Ort alternatively

His half-brothers were accused of eyeing up the local ladies.

And because of his tale-telling, the Rabbis say, so Joseph was beset by Potipha’s wife, who cast her eyes upon him, eventually accusing him of rape.


These responses raise, for me, the question of the relationship of reward and punishment.

Do the things we do have direct consequence in terms of how we fare before the cosmologic whole?

Getting right to the heart of religion.


Clearly important doctrineMaimonedes

As in Yidgal

Gomel Lish Hesed CMifalo – notein lerasha ra crishato

And clearly, at least in the Bible sense that works in the here and now – in this world

Second paragraph of the Shema – do good, get a good rainy season and good crops.

Do wickedly, drought, famine.


But there is a problem –

When we look out at the world we don’t see it.

Rabbis shunt time of reward back, into the afterlife.


Faithful is the taskmaster [meaning God] who will pay the reward of your labour but know the recompense of the righteous will be in the world to come. (Avot 2:16)


In the world to come God will reward every righteous man with 310 worlds (Uktsin 3:12)


What do we do about reward and punishment in this world?

Are we prepared to give up on the notion completely?

Incredibly radical – Gemorah in Kiddushin – ‘there is no reward for the Mitzvot in this world.’

Really hard.

Albo –

Decides that it’s OK, Jewishly to believe either there is, or there is not material reward in this world.

He prefers the notion that there is reward in this world – but he can’t say that the opposite position is heretical.


No surprise what the problem is.

One the one hand – Experience - Tzaddik vra lo, rasha v’tov lo.

If there is a simple process of reward and punishment, why is it so easy to find decent people suffering – babies even, and so easy to see crooks and thugs seemingly blessed.

But if there isn’t a system of reward and punishment then we live in a material universe without a material connection between doing something materially good and some kind of material reward.

And that feels anarchistic, chaotic, amoral.

It’s certainly dangerous, creates a bully’s charter .

Clifford Geertz –

The rain falls on the just and unjust fella, but larger on the just, coz the unjust has his ‘brella.

Recently read a bully’s charter world, devoid of any sense that ones material actions were being somehow met, responded to, cosmically, or Karmically

Cormac McArthy terrifying depiction of such a world, The Road. Terrifying.

Who would live in such a world?

And we did live in such a world, a world created by a God who looked down on such chaos and didn’t set order in place – rewarding the good and punishing the bad, then, God forbid would even reflect poorly on God.


Pages and pages of Mediaeval philosophy trying to reconcile what might look like anarchic, amoral chaos with a sense of order,

Trying to suggest that there is logic behind the response to every action.

Careful and mathematical – God as the divine accountant, balancing the scales and apportioning reward and punishment based on a some kind of scale I cannot understand.

But it doesn’t move me.

Never has, and certainly in the context of my Rabbinic work, never wanted to suggest to someone suffering that this kind of logic might be at play.

Feels horrendous, blasphemous even.


Pages and pages of Mussar literature tries to find ways to encourage us to live lives of decency and propriety without suggesting that there will be this world direct reward. My favourite attempt comes from Luzatto’s Mesilat Yesharim where he suggests that since righteous people are righteous they couldn’t be bribed with the offer of this world reward. They are too pious to be bought off, and if there is no enticing the pious with the offer of this world reward, then


I wonder if a Midrash like the one opened with presents a way round.

The technical terms is

Middah kneged Middah

It translates, as Shakespeare put it, as Measure For Measure.

Or as another Rabbincic text[2] puts it

BaMidah she adam moded bah, moddedim lo

With the measure a person measures, they shall mete to him.

Actually, those with an ear for Christian Scripture will recognise a passage from Luke in this – with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.


Commonly game in Rabbinic tradition to connect things back and forth across, partic, Biblical narratives using this Middah KNeged Middah thread.

Samson – who dies with his eyes gouged out – is held to have sinned by eyeing up the women in general – and Delilah in particular. He gets his comeuppance – Midah Keneged Midah.

Jacob, who deceives his blind father by dressing as Esau gets his comeuppance when he is deceived and doesn’t realise he is marrying the sister with weak eyes and not his beloved. Midah Keneged Midah


Suggested that Measure for Measure could serve as an idiomatic translation for Midah Kneged Middah.

But I think there is a better term poetic justice.

And I think this is the point.

It’s poetic, slightly tongue in cheek.

The connection between action and reaction is post-hoc.

First something happens, and then the connection is made.

A bit like the story of the prince who, riding through the forest, comes across a target drawn on a tree, and an arrow right through the very bullseye.

And then another target – arrow through the bullseye, and another and another.

I must be, the prince feels, in the vicinity of the greatest archer in the world.

Eventually he spies a man with a bow on his back and asks him if he truly shot all these arrows.

Yes, said the man.

Then you must be the greatest archer in the world.

Oh no, said the man. I just shot arrows into trees and then drawn on the targets afterwards.

George Foot Moore – perhaps the greatest historian of the Rabbinic period urged us not to read these equations of cause and effect more seriously than they are meant.

Middah Keneged Middah isn’t meant seriously, it’s not about logic, it’s about finidng some way to join up the dots that result in us living in a world not entirely undone by chaos.


Middah Keneged Middah is a kind of game, where connections that might otherwise be invisible are made. They serve to join the dots, to create a veneer of order where without one the apparent randomness of life might get too much to bear. They provide enough of a reminder to behave decently, I hope, to keep up on the path of goodness, without suggesting an overly simplistic relationship between reward and punishment exists when the proof of what our eyes see makes such a belief an impossibility.


The hope, if we understand and embrace the vaguely poetic, vaguely humorous ebb and flow of Midah Kneged Midah, is that things won’t hurt so because they won’t deprive us of any sense making mechanism. We won’t understand them any better.

We won’t often, feel that the response is justifiable, and indeed they Middah Keneged Middah is a dangerous tool, too easily used, as even the Rabbis do on occasion[3], to explain away that which humans should not try and tritely solve.

But I think that there is something to be gained by having a response that is poetic, humourous even.

Even if it can’t always take the pain of suffering away.

The notion that there is some explanation, that in some way fits,

even if it can’t justify, even if it still feels so unfair

is better than the pious, but ultimately unsustainable notion that reward and punishment do really play out in this world in some direct measurable, logical way.

It makes us feel that it is still worth questing for the decent and the good.


Max Gelberg was seventy-two years old when his wife died. After six months of mourning, Max decided life must go on, so he began a strict program of physical fitness.

After a few months of regular workouts, Max felt and looked wonderful. Friends would stop him on the street and ask him, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look sixty!’

With this encouragement, Max continued on the exercise program, he went on a vegetarian diet and arranged some minor plastic surgery. His friends, seeing him on the street would stop and say, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look fifty!’

Max was delighted and decided to move to Florida so he could take advantage of the sun. He took up a permanent spot on the local muscle beach. The following winter he met up with an old group of friends, ‘Max,’ said one, ‘I didn’t recognise you! You look thirty-five!’

That was all Max needed to hear, he started dating and soon won the heart of a pretty college student. They arranged to be married.

Standing under the wedding canopy, Max’s old Rabbi peered out at the groom with astonishment, ‘Max, is that you? I didn’t recognise you! You look twenty-five!’

Max was ecstatic, but as bride and groom were preparing to leave for their honeymoon – wham – Max is struck by a passing car and killed instantly.

Reaching the gates of heaven Max is furious and demands to know who is responsible for this tragedy. Eventually he muscles his way into the office of the Almighty.

‘I don’t believe this,’ Max shouted, ‘I finally get my life together and poof! Tell me, what have you got against Max Goldberg.’

‘Max?’ The Almighty replies, ‘Max Gelberg, is that you? You look terrific, I didn’t recognise you!’


Middah Keneged Middah,


Shabbat shalom


[1] BR 87:3

[2] M Sotah 1:7

[3] Miscarriage based on Peah. Mishnah

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