Thursday, 06 Aug 2020

Written by  Nicola Feuchtwang


“Eating biscuits makes you ‘pee’…”

We had demonstrated it beyond reasonable doubt.  Consistently, over half a term of seminars, our team had shown that there was a close correlation between the quantity of biscuits students consumed during a morning workshop and the number of times those students needed to excuse themselves for a ‘comfort break’.

If the logic doesn’t quite satisfy you, it may help you to know that this study took place during a course on public health and statistics, and wasn’t intended to be completely serious.  The missing link in the argument – known as a ‘confounding factor’ – was of course caffeine.  The true correlation was between the consumption of biscuits and the number of cups of coffee people were drinking, and it was the coffee not the biscuits which proved so troubling to the postgraduate bladder.

Just because ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are closely associated in time or space does not necessarily mean that ‘X’ causes ‘Y’.  It might just be coincidence, random chance. It could be that ‘Y’ is in fact causing ‘X’, or that a third factor ‘Z’ is causing both.  Even if the link is real, perhaps it is only so in a particular context (in this case, stressful seminars with freely available refreshments).

Our world is big, complicated and frightening. We try desperately to see the patterns in it which make it a bit more predictable – that is at the root of all scientific endeavour and all religion.  We try to understand why things happen the way they do, to make some sense of our experiences.  We develop hypotheses about cause and effect, so that perhaps we can influence the outcome, gain some sense of agency and control over our lives. Depending on the scenario, our tactics may be careful observation and statistics, controlled trials, and a hundred “-ologies”; or assumptions driven by our emotions.  Our responses may be anything from social distancing to vaccines, civil disobedience to prayer.

“Eikev tishm’un…  Eikev lo tishm’un…”[1]

The book of Deuteronomy is strong on cause and effect.  ‘It is because of you that God was incensed with me too’ says Moses to the people.[2]  In this week’s parasha we are told repeatedly that the consequence of obedience ..will be favour and blessing, fertility, good health and military victory;  the consequence of forgetting and of arrogance or idolatry will be destruction.

At one level, the use of this type of language can certainly spur us to do our best, just as a strict but caring parent or teacher would tell us ‘you must work hard if you want to do well in your exams’ or conversely ‘be careful with that or you will get hurt’.  The rationale is clear, even if the mechanism of how a particular behaviour will result in a specific outcome is rather more complex than it appears.

Moses addresses Israel as a collective.  In a mind-frame which accepts the logic expressed by him in Deuteronomy, there is a temptation also to take individual credit for good fortune (“I must have done something good”).  The Torah itself anticipates this, warning us “Beware… lest you say to yourself ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me’…. Remember that it is God who gives you the power to get wealth…”.

The challenge of this approach and this theology is how to understand the ‘bad things’ of life.  We are left to assume that we are collectively culpable when things go wrong, as in the classical refrain of Tisha B’Av which we marked recently:  ‘mipnei chataeinu galinu me’artzeinu’ (it is because of our sins that we were exiled). There is however something toxic in this logic, when it leads to attribution of cause and blame when tragedy strikes individuals –an accidental death ascribed to failure to observe Shabbat or check a mezuzah, Job’s companions telling him that he must have sinned to incur all the misfortunes which befell him, unhelpful feelings of guilt or unworthiness in the face of illness.

The second paragraph of the Shema, which appears in most of our prayerbooks, in mezuzot and tefillin, is a passage from this week’s parasha,[3] very much in the ‘reward and punishment’ style.  Personally, I find it the most theologically challenging piece in our regular liturgy.  There are days when I can read it as environmental wisdom even if its expressed reasoning does not resonate with my thinking, but other days I rail against it or just have to omit it.

The same ‘symptoms’ or situations can arise for different reasons.  There may be situations where ‘X’ really is contributing to the ‘Y’ situation, but as one of multiple predisposing factors.  Or perhaps the route through which it causes ‘Y’ is not what we have assumed and involves other mechanisms which we do not yet understand.  How much does it matter if our attribution of cause is misplaced?  Yet perhaps Jews of all people should know better than to ask that question, as we have throughout history all too often been scapegoats, ascribed blame for disease or disaster. Perhaps we of all people should be careful to distinguish between the connections which we observe, and our thoughts on the possible causal relationships between them.

Nicola Feuchtwang LBC rabbinic student

[1] Deut 7:12 and 8:20

[2] Deut 1:37

[3] Deut 11:13-21

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.