Thursday, February 20, 2014

Relying on Miracles

One of the more widely-quoted rabbinic adages, ein somkhin al ha-neis, has never sat quite right with me. Its literal meaning is clear enough—it means unambiguously that one must “never rely on miracles”—as is its obvious implication that it would be sinful consciously to put oneself in danger and then to challenge God to alter the normal rules of nature to prevent what would otherwise be the natural consequence of one’s actions from ensuing.  Nor is that an idea that I have trouble justifying in terms of the way I perceive the world actually to work: only a fool would attempt to “prove” the existence of God by jumping in front of a speeding train so as to create a good context for the wary to come to faith by seeing a clear example of God’s saving power.

Nor is this just an obvious observation, but rather one with clear biblical and talmudic bona fides. The Torah itself could not be clearer, formally designated as one of its negative commandments the obligation never to “test” God. The Talmud spells this out with even greater clarity, however. “One must never intentionally put oneself in danger,” the talmudic master Rabbi Yannai warns, “on the supposition that one will be miraculously saved, lest such a miracle fail to occur.” But then Rabbi Yannai goes on to deliver the real zinger: “And,” he adds sharply, “if such a miracle somehow were somehow to take place, then there would be a real price to be paid by the saved individual.” I’m translating loosely here—the literal meaning of that last phrase is that the store of merit that such a person might well previously have stored up through a lifetime of good deeds and piety would be docked accordingly in the wake of such an unexpected (and otherwise unpaid-for) gift of divine beneficence—but the meaning is clear enough either way: God may occasionally deploy a miracle or two to save the dunce who intentionally puts him or herself in danger, but there will nevertheless always be a price to pay if said dunce has intentionally created the scenario from which he or she needed to be saved with the specific idea of testing God…which is precisely what the Torah says one may never do. Even Samuel, Israel’s last judge and among the greatest of the prophets, thought twice about anointing David as king even though God specifically commanded him to do just that…because he feared Saul would kill him for doing so—an entirely reasonable fear, since he was in effect firing Saul by anointing his replacement on the throne—and he, Samuel, apparently was disinclined simply to suppose that God would necessarily step in to save him if he intentionally placed himself in danger…even if it was God Who had commanded him to do exactly that!

And that brings me to the late Pastor Jamie Coots, star of the National Geographic reality show “Snake Salvation.” Pastor Coots, probably America’s best-known snake handler, was bitten last Sunday by a snake in his church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, but insisted just on going home instead of seeking medical treatment. Apparently, someone called 911 anyway, but when EMT workers arrived at his home later in the day, the pastor again declined treatment. An hour later, he was dead.  Pastor Coots knew perfectly well the risks—the whole idea of handling poisonous snakes is to risk everything for the sake of “proving” one’s faith and he spoke openly and proudly about his involvement in this specific variety of Christian worship repeatedly and forcefully, both on television and elsewhere.  “To me,” he once said, “it’s as much of a commandment from God when He said, ‘Thou shalt take up serpents’ as it was when He said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’”

For their part, the National Geographic people waxed proud of having provided Pastor Coots with the televised reality show that served as his national platform. "Those risks were always worth it to him and his congregants as a means to demonstrate their unwavering faith," an NG spokesman said. "We were honored to be allowed such unique access to Pastor Jamie and his congregation during the course of our show, and give context to his method of worship. Our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time." 

Several New Testament verses appear to say that true believers will be safe from the venom of poison snakes. Jesus is cited in the Gospel of Luke, for example, as saying “Behold, I give unto you the power to tread on serpents.” And in the Gospel of Mark, the resurrected Jesus promises his followers as he sends them forth into the world that they shall cast out devils, speak in tongues, be impervious to poison snake bites and to poison, and be able to heal the sick by placing their hands upon them.  In a sense, the Book of Acts goes even further when it reports that Paul of Tarsus actually was bitten by a poison snake on Melita, an island in the Adriatic Sea off the Croatian coast, and yet came to no harm.  How that translates into feeling commanded to handle poison snakes and then decline medical treatment when bitten, I’m not sure. It doesn’t read that way to me. But I don’t write today to analyze, much less to critique, other people’s religions! Instead, I want to think along with Pastor Coots’ most interesting statement on the matter. 

He published it, of all places, in the Wall Street Journal last October under the heading, “The Constitution Protects My Snake Handling” and it is a piece of unexpectedly compelling writing. The pastor mentions the New Testament verses mentioned above. He points out that the custom of “proving” one’s faith by handling poisonous snakes, mostly copperheads and rattlesnakes, is more than a century old and had been a feature of Christian worship in Appalachia from southern New York to northern Alabama for all those many years. He also admits freely that he understands that the practice is illegal. In his own state of Kentucky, for example, the use of any kind of reptile as part of religious worship is prohibited, which is why the pastor was arrested in 2008 after the authorities found seventy-four snakes on his property. But the pastor remained unrepentant. In fact, all the incident, and several similar ones that followed, served to do was to bring him to question the meaning of religious freedom in America, which is what the main portion of his WSJ piece is about.

In that article, Pastor Coots compares his faith to Christian Science (in which adult church members are deemed to be behaving legally when declining medical treatment for illness) and to Judaism (in which, he notes, stretching the point just a bit, adults are legally permitted to withhold food and water from their post-bar/bat-mitzvah, but strictly speaking underage, children on Yom Kippur). The article ends with the strongly-put reminder that religious freedom is one of the cornerstones of American culture and should be an absolute right. He quotes President Obama’s 2010 remarks regarding the rights of Muslims to build a mosque near Ground Zero and endorses the president’s promise that the government will never treat different religious groups differently. But, he laments, Pentecostal churches are often in poor, rural areas and the reality in America today is that freedom to worship according to one’s wishes and principles is a luxury only always offered to the well-heeled members of well-known faiths, but not invariably to those who adhere to smaller faith groups that promote unfamiliar rituals or ideas. Today, the only state in which snake handling is legal is West Virginia, and that only because Article III of that state’s constitution specifically prohibits the passage of any law of any kind that “promotes or prohibits a religious practice.” The situation in the other forty-nine states, in the pastor’s opinion, constitutes a shameful infringement on the freedom of religion offered to all citizens without distinction or prejudice. 

I read of Pastor Coots’ demise as an outsider. His way was not my way, nor were our spiritual paths forward in life even remotely similar.  To me, the prospect of wrapping a copperhead around my chest and then trusting in God to keep the snake from killing me seems to be a direct violation of the Bible’s injunction not to test God. And Rabbi Yannai’s lesson—that it will be occasion divine displeasure, not favor, if the snake somehow fails to inject its lethal venom into me—also stays with me as I contemplate the concept of attempting to strengthen faith by flirting with death.  And yet, even despite my own disinclination to court the near-death experience as part of my own religious path, there is something I find in Pastor Coots’ story to admire. 

We speak about faith all the time as though it were an elusive property, something to be sought after but never quite acquired absolutely or fully definitively. We say ein somchin al ha-neis, but by those ancient words we mostly seem to mean that it feels unwise to test our faith in the cauldron of actual day-to-day reality by seeing if it actually works, if God can actually rescue us from peril. (For post-Shoah Jews, the notion of testing God in that way moves easily from the absurd to the grotesque.) Nor is there any indication in the Torah that God will save the faithful from snake bites as once long ago when the Israelites were led through a “great and terrible wilderness where were venomous serpents and scorpions.” If anything, in fact, the implication of that remark is that the safe passage of the Israelites through the wilderness was a forty-year-long miracle…and miracles are something upon which we are formally forbidden to rely. And yet…to read the words of a man of faith who, having perceived the true test of belief to be the willingness to risk death, actually put his money where his mouth was…and who then paid the big price for having refused, even at the last minute when his point was already made, to pull back and let doctors keep him alive to preach another day—that kind of example both unnerves and also attracts me.

I don’t see myself risking death for the sake of faith. But I see the pastor’s point about the specific way that freedom of religion is doled out to some in our country but not always to all. (Catholics and Jews got a pass during Prohibition with respect to the use of sacramental wine, for example, but even today Rastafarians—other than in Washington and Colorado, I suppose—are prohibited from using cannabis as part of worship.)  I never saw “Snake Salvation,” although I’d like to see a few shows if they’re ever re-run. I find the concept itself of testing God to be, to say the very least, spiritually counterproductive and theologically unappealing.  His way was not mine, nor do I wish it was. But I find it impossible not to admire an articulate man of faith who risked everything to keep faith with faith as he understood it. And I agree with the pastor’s main point in his newspaper column: if freedom of religion is to mean anything, it must be extended wholly and without exception to all groups…even those who promote practices that seem weird or alien. If no one is affected but the worshiper him or herself, who (to quote the Pope) are we to judge?

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