Europe was a fraught place to be in the 16th century — and not only because they had not yet discovered penicillin! In 1517, a German priest named Martin Luther published his argument that, according to Christian theology, human beings were saved through faith (right beliefs), not by doing particular kinds of “works” (right actions). The Catholic Church responded that, in fact, human beings were saved only through a combination of faith and works. And thus the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation were born.
While the question of Christian salvation is pretty far afield from our study of the Talmud, it points to the continued relevance of the question posed on today’s daf: What has greater moral and legal force, our actions or our intentions? Christian Europe split in two over this question, but the rabbis are entirely united in their answer.
On yesterday’s daf, Rava introduced the principle that “matters that are in the heart are not matters.” That is, intentions that are unstated have no legal or ritual force. The rabbis on today’s daf ask: From where does Rava derive this principle? They propose a number of earlier traditions as sources. Let’s look at just one of them:
Leviticus 1:3 describes the process of offering an animal sacrifice on the altar. “If his offering be a burnt-offering of the herd, he shall offer it a male without blemish; he shall bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, according to his will, before the Lord.” A beraita (early rabbinic tradition) interprets some of the phrases in this verse:
“He shall offer it” teaches that they coerce him. I might (have thought) against his will. Therefore the verse states: “According to his will.”
Huh? How can someone both be coerced and acting according to his will?
They coerce him until he says: I want.
Now if you want to skeptically raise an eyebrow and ask whether someone who agrees to something under coercion can really be considered as having agreed to it, know that the Gemara too raises some metaphorical eyebrows:
But why? In his heart it is not satisfactory for him!
Let’s be honest. By definition, someone who is being forced to offer a sacrifice didn’t originally want to do it. If they did, they wouldn’t have needed to be forced. So how do we resolve this ostensible contradiction? The Gemara offers two possibilities:
Rather, is it not because we say: Matters that are in the heart are not matters? But perhaps there it is different, since it is clear to us that it is satisfactory for him to atone.
Option one is that intention is irrelevant so long as you are doing the right thing. Even if one only pretends to want to do something because of coercion, that still counts as wanting and their action still counts. Option two suggests that actually, intention does matter, but the intention that matters is not what someone thinks he wants, but what is obviously better for his spiritual health. In this case, that would be offering the appropriate sacrifice. Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that this beraita is not the tradition from which Rava derived his principle and so figuring out which of these options is the right one winds up being irrelevant. They go on to explore other possibilities, though they never resolve their question.
And yet, in the entire discussion, no one disputes that Rava was correct. Ultimately, what matters is what you do, not what is in your heart. For the rabbis, what is in your heart can’t feed the poor, effect a betrothal, or grant a woman a divorce. To make change in the world, you need to act.