Partners in Crime
This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Partners in Crime*

In many religions and philosophical systems, our world is perceived as a combination of two elements that are in fundamental opposition: the spiritual and the material.

Jewish thinkers were not always in agreement when it came to defining the human personality. Are we fashioned of two separate elements, an earthly body and a divine spirit, each of which possesses an independent character and existence? Or is it more correct to understand that each of us is a unified entity in which the spiritual and physical faculties are but aspects of a single integrated essence?

Of course, such speculations were not unique to Judaism. According to an Indian tradition from the Samkhya philosophical school, our world was fashioned in such a manner that the opposing poles of “Purusha” (the conscious self) and “Prakrti” (the material world that is perceptible to the senses) were somehow brought together in order to allow the soul to contemplate nature from without. This paradoxical union is depicted metaphorically as a partnership between two disabled people: just as a blind man and a lame man will assist one another to get themselves out of a dangerous forest, so the mindless Prakrti and the immobile Purusha joined forces in order to produce a coherent universe.

This metaphor was also known to ancient European literatures. The compendium known as the “Greek Anthology” preserved four epigrams on the subject of “a blind man who carried a lame man on his back, lending him his feet and borrowing from him his eyes.” This image was understood to teach the lesson that the merging of two incomplete units can result in a perfect whole.

The theory of the dual nature of human personhood provoked some difficult moral questions, as suggested by the fourth-century Christian theologian Epiphanius of Salamis. Epiphanius cited a parable in the name of a lost “Ezekiel Apocryphon”—though it is more probable that his source was a rabbinic homily on Ezekiel’s famous vision of the valley of dry bones. Epiphanius regarded Ezekiel’s vision not so much as a metaphor for the national revival of Israel, but as a foretelling of the final judgment. He understood that since we commit sins as physical bodies animated by souls, justice demands that our ultimate judgment also be meted out to spirits that have been restored to flesh and bone.

In order to illustrate mutual dependence of body and soul, Epiphanius made use of the metaphor of the lame and the blind men, into which he inserted several identifiably Christian motifs. In fact, Epiphanius (who spent some time in Israel and knew Hebrew) was probably adapting a very intriguing rabbinic source that has been preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. In one of their frequent convivial conversations, the Roman leader identified as “Antoninus” quipped to Rabbi Judah the Patriarch that both the soul and the body, when they stand in judgment for their transgressions, will be able to exonerate themselves with the plea that each is incapable of independent activity. The body without an animating spirit is no more than a motionless rock, whereas the disembodied soul can merely fly about like a bird but cannot affect material objects. Therefore neither of them was able to commit the sins with which they are charged.

Rabbi Judah responded to Antoninus’ argument by citing the parable about a king who placed his orchard under the protection of two watchmen, one blind and one lame. Eventually the unscrupulous duo figured out that the lame one, by riding on the shoulders of the blind guard, could direct his accomplice toward the tastiest fruit, and afterward each could greedily eat his fill of the stolen produce. When their master accused each of them separately, each pleaded innocent—the blind one insisting that he was unable to find the fruit by himself, and the lame one that he could not have propelled himself to reach it.

The king’s astute response was not to pronounce his guilty verdict until the lame watchman was mounted on the shoulders of his blind companion as they had been while committing their crime. In precisely this way, Rabbi Judah concluded, when the day comes for mortals to stand in judgment in the next world, the Almighty will restore their souls to their physical bodies so that neither partner will be able to wriggle out of its deserved sentence. This is suggested allegorically by the words of the Psalmist, “He summons the heavens above [that is, the soul], and the earth [the body], that he may judge his people.”

The Talmud incorporated this exchange between the Roman and Jewish leaders into a passage dealing with one of the distinctive dogmas of Pharisaic and rabbinic Judaism, the doctrine of bodily resurrection of the dead. During the era of the Second Temple this belief was opposed by the Sadducee sect—who argued that the scriptures say nothing about an afterlife—and by the Essenes—who (according to Josephus Flavius) believed that immortality is limited to the disembodied soul, not the physical body. Indeed, the concept of bodily resurrection was a difficult one to justify philosophically, and therefore the parable about the blind and lame watchmen furnished the rabbis with a compelling argument for why the body must be reunited with its spirit on the day of final judgment.

The talmudic tale contains at least one puzzling anomaly that it does not explain adequately: why would a king go out of his way (before the advent of “hire the handicapped” campaigns) to employ custodians with disabilities that would have prevented them from carrying out their duties efficiently? Epiphanius provides us with a plausible answer, one that may have been rooted in the realities of a Roman empire that was involved in constant warfare. He suggested that the lame and blind watchmen were the only ones available at that time because the able-bodied populace were all serving in the army.

However, not all of the rabbis were prepared to assign equal responsibility to the lame soul and the blind body. An exposition cited in several midrashic compendia interpreted the Torah’s phraseology “If a soul shall sin...” (rather than "if a person shall sin") as teaching that it is a person’s soul that bears the full responsibility for their sins. This teaching was also illustrated with the help of a parable about a king who came to pass sentence on two wrongdoers. In this story, however, one of the miscreants was a citizen of the metropolitan capital city while t1ahe other was a backward rustic from the provinces. The king pardoned the yokel while throwing the book at the urbane sophisticate. When challenged as to the apparent inconsistency of his rulings, His Majesty explained that there were grounds for exercising leniency toward a bumpkin who might not have been au courant with royal conventions, but this could not be said for a person who lives in proximity to the palace and is expected to know the rules. An alternative version of the parable draws its contrast between a professional soldier and a civilian.

Thus, the Midrash explains, the unsophisticated provincial symbolizes the human body that was fashioned from the dust of the earth, a substance that is inherently profane. By contrast, the cosmopolitan soul originated in the breath of God; it was produced by a pure divine source and therefore it must be held to a higher moral standard. Ultimately, the Midrash teaches, it is the soul that must bear the decisive responsibility whenever a person sins. This is confirmed by the words of Ezekiel, "It is the soul that sins."

It is not altogether clear where the authors of this parable stood with respect to the union of our physical and spiritual components in the future judgment. Just to be safe, if you were contemplating a spree of theft or embezzlement—whether of material or intellectual property—it is probably advisable to cancel those plans, and make sure that both your spirit and your body avoid the eventual retribution.

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, June 6, 2014, p. 9.
  • For further reading:
    • Bauckham, Richard. “The Parable of the Royal Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14) and the Parable of the Lame Man and the Blind Man (Apocryphon of Ezekiel).” Journal of Biblical Literature 115, no. 3 (1996): 471–88.
    • Bregman, Marc. “The Parable of the Lame and the Blind: Epiphanius’ Quotation from an Apocryphon of Ezekiel.” Journal of Theological Studies 42, no. 1 (1991): 125–138.
    • James, M. R. “The Apocryphal Ezekiel.” The Journal of Theological Studies os-XV, no. 58 (1913): 236–243.
    • Malter, Henry. “Personifications of Soul and Body. A Study in Judaeo-Arabic Literature.” The Jewish Quarterly Review 2, no. 4. New Series (1912): 453–479.
    • Meir, Ofra. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch: Palestinian and Babylonian Portrait of a Leader. Sifriyat Helal Ben-Ḥayim. Tel-Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1999.
    • Moore, George Foot. Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era, the Age of the Tannaim. Schocken Paperbacks on Jewish Life and Religion. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
    • Mueller, James R. The Five Fragments of the Apocryphon of Ezekiel: A Critical Study. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 5. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Pr, 1994.
    • Scheftelowitz, Isidor. “Ein Beitrag Zur Methode Der Vergleichenden Religionsforschung.” Monatsschrift Für Geschichte Und Wissenschaft Des Judentums 65, no. 4 (1921): 107–130.
    • Stone, Michael E, Benjamin G Wright, and David Satran, eds. The Apocryphal Ezekiel. Early Judaism and Its Literature no. 18. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000.
    • Wallach, Luitpold. “The Parable of the Blind and the Lame: A Study in Comparative Literature.” Journal of Biblical Literature 62, no. 4 (1943): 333–339.