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The Monsters Among Us: You’ve Been Warned

May 15, 2014

I see it that in the past decade, American pop culture has become obsessed with vampires and zombies and the like. Why is that people use their fertile imaginations for such things? Why do they spend so much time and money creating and all those movies and TV shows? Why should the horror genre be so popular?

Here’s my take (It has to do with the Talmud): It helps us deal with the real life monsters we have trouble detecting, the ones that for the most part look and act like regular people but are capable of much more evil. The vampires who stalk the night are a much better explanation for the senseless murders perpetrated every day. Vampires look and act viciously, and they are animated by a palpable evil. Although the truth is much more misleading, it is ultimately more comforting to think that way(, although we shouldn’t, because it implicitly absolves criminals for their wrongdoing). This is related to the fantasy fix I described earlier. It is an escape. The upshot of this is that it also means that human monsters are real, to a certain extent. And they are among us.

We come to the talmudic concept of hathra’a, or warning a potential sinner. One of the conditions for the court being able to inflict corporal punishment is that the witnesses have to properly warn the offender by telling him that his action could be considered a sin, and they need to delineate that sin. As the sages put it, “We do not punish unless we first warn.” Note that in the Jewish system, like in common law, ignorantia juris non excusat, ignorance of the law does not excuse it. All adult members of society are assumed to know that murder is wrong and punishable. It is also true that according to the Torah, secular and gentile systems of law may punish even if the witnesses did not warn the perpetrator.

Now, let us compare two cases. In the first, the witnesses see one man murder another, but they had not warned him not to. They had not had the chance. In the second case, the witnesses had time to blurt out that his act would be considered murder, but he still went through with it. Now, why should their penalties be any different? After all, both men have committed murder with obvious intent, and both have been witnessed by two adults!

The answer, I believe, is that in the first case, the perpetrator can claim that he acted on the spur of the moment, or that he was not in his right mind, or that he was overcome by his yetzer, or something along those lines. The second perpetrator, however, decided to sin even after he was specifically told not to do so.

Here is the law as described by Maimonides (Sanhedrin 12:2):

Both a Torah scholar and a common person need a warning, for the obligation for a warning was instituted only to make a distinction between a person who transgresses inadvertently and one who transgresses intentionally, lest the person say: “I transgressed inadvertently.” How is a warning administered? We tell him: “Desist…” or “Do not do it. It is a transgression and you are liable to be executed by the court…” or “to receive lashes for it.” If he ceases, he is not liable. Similarly, if he remains silent or nods his head, he is not liable for punishment. Even if he says: “I know,” he is not liable for punishment until he accepts death upon himself, saying: “It is for this reason that I am doing this.” In such a situation, he is executed. He must commit the transgression directly after receiving the warning, within the time to offer a salutation. If he waits longer than that, a second warning is necessary. The warning is acceptable whether it was administered by one of the witnesses or by another individual, even a woman or a servant. Even if the transgressor hears the voice of the person administering the warning, but does not see him, and even if he himself administers the warning, he should be executed.

Most of us, if we have not become habitual sinners, can be dissuaded from doing something wrong. If, however, we actually do something after being reminded by another that it is wrong, then we have actively demonstrated that we want to sin. I have met two people acting under the influence of the “spirit of foolishness” that the sages described as entering an individual before he sins. Both were caught almost in the act, and were rebuked. The first acknowledged that what he sought to do was wrong, and then justified his actions by declaring that the sin in question was actually one that he performed regularly, it was “his” sin, and that he knows he’s not a perfect person, but that is how he is, and he can not be told what to do. There is a school of thought in the talmud that claims that the mitzwa of reproof, tochaha, only applies if the reprover knows that the reproved will heed (Y’vamoth 65b and Rashi ad loc.). While Maimonides might not have ruled that way, it could be that in practice he would agree with such a tactic, because there is no sense in trying to reprove a habitual sinner; he will not only not take heed, he will also add to his iniquity. I have seen how how when the decision to do wrong is coupled with a warning not to proceed, it only made them try to do worse, like by victimizing others in attempts to cover up their initial actions. Such men, if outward representatives of the Torah, thereby commit an even greater sin when they are made aware of their guilt: they disgrace God’s name, and have no share in the World to Come. The man I saw never seemed to feel the discomfort and disgust that besiege the spiritually healthy man who is tempted. He is the charming and charismatic monster that we wish looked more like a monster should. The second man, however, did appear uncomfortable and disgusted. He acted as though he was crying out, and he was easily dissuaded when another heard of his desires. Such a man, though not to be commended for occupying his thoughts with evil, was ultimately saved from actually sinning.

This, then, is the key: he who has been warned and does not heed, thereby verifies his own guilt, and is thus on a level altogether different from the one who was not warned, from the one who was not given the chance to reflect on his intended crime, and then abstain.


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