Tortious Malediction

For S.B., who is a blessing, not a curse.

Prof. Eugene Volokh:

Prayer as Attempted Murder?

A reader asks an interesting question:

Some Christian Reconstructionists are urging their fellows to pray for the death of John McCain so that Sarah Palin will be become President. [Example here.] Are those who pray for McCain’s death guilty of attempted murder, and are those urging them to do so guilty of incitement? It seems to me that they are. Although I don’t believe that their prayers can have any effect, it seems to me that this falls into the same category as the oft-discussed firing of an unloaded gun or firing a gun into a bed that turns out to be empty. The intent to kill is present and an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal. Christians should presumably be all the more clear that this is attempted murder insofar as they believe prayer to be efficacious.

This, it seems to me, is a good illustration of the limits of analogy. It’s true that asking someone to commit murder may well constitute attempted murder (as well as the crime of solicitation). The test for attempt is generally not just that “an action has been taken in furtherance of that goal” — different jurisdictions require different amounts of conduct, but all require more than just “an action” for an attempt prosecution (as opposed to for a conspiracy prosecution, where an agreement plus an overt act, even a relatively minor one, generally suffices). But when a person has asked another human being to commit the crime, especially when he hopes that the other person will commit the act with no further help from the requester, that would usually qualify. And indeed it generally doesn’t matter if it turns out that the request couldn’t possibly work, for instance because the person asked would never commit the crime, or was accidentally given an unloaded gun, or some such.
But people aren’t the same as God, either to atheists or to religious people. One way of seeing that is that God’s action wouldn’t be illegal. To those who believe in God, as he is conceptualized by most Americans, God’s action wouldn’t even be immoral. (It’s true that some people say “If God killed people for this-and-such, he would be evil,” but usually they are people who don’t believe that God does that.) It would be within his authority as, in a sense, the ultimate sovereign of the world.
In fact, if there is an analogy here, it would probably be to a petition to the President asking him to order an assassination that he could lawfully order (or, as to the other part of the reader’s question, to exhortations to the public aimed at getting people to petition the President to order such an assassination). I would say that it’s even legal to petition the President to order assassinations that are illegal; but, as I said, there’s nothing illegal in God’s hastening someone’s death.
We could try to come up with precise constitutional foundations for this, for instance that the request to the President is protected by the Petition Clause of the First Amendment, and that a request to God is protected by the Free Exercise Clause. Or we could focus on a legal distinction between asking someone to do something that is legal for him (or Him) to do from asking a contract killer to do something that is illegal for him to do. Or we could focus more practically on the relative unlikelihood that a person who tries to cause death by prayer will switch to a gun if prayer fails. (That’s one reason we punish attempted killers even when their attempts were factually impossible, for instance because the gun is unloaded: We figure they are quite likely to try with a loaded gun next time.) But we don’t have to choose, because all these factors strongly point in the same direction, and strongly suggest that asking God to end a person’s life is very far from asking an acquaintance or a prospective contract killer to do the same.
(I should note that there has been a little judicial commentary on attempts to kill by voodoo or witchcraft, as best I can tell unanimously opposing criminal liability in such situations. See Commonwealth v. Johnson, 167 A. 344 (Pa. 1933) (Maxey, J., dissenting); Attorney General v. Sillem, 159 Eng. Rep. 178 (1863). But I’m not sure this is a perfect analogy, either, and in any event there’s not much real law on that.)

I imagine that what little law there is in this area will concern crimes such as attempted murder, as the law will generally not (at least in the modern era) recognize any actual supernatural causation of harm. Halachah, by contrast, has no general crime of attempted murder (עדים זוממין being a notable exception), but on the other hand, mainstream halachists typically do believe in the possibility of supernatural causation of harm. [In fact, contrary to what I assume is the markedly negative direction of the historical trajectory of belief in the supernatural within the secular juridical profession, belief in the supernatural is arguably more widespread among contemporary halachists than it was, say, among their medieval counterparts, during the heyday of Jewish rationalism.]

The question of the halachic liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means was first considered in a terse responsum of Rav Ya’akov Hagiz, which suggests the possibility (“אפשר”) that murder via [the utterance of] a [Divine] Name, or sorcery, is analogous to, inter alia, killing via a fired arrow, as per the Biblical expression “Their tongue is as an arrow shot out”:

שאלה ההורג נפש על ידי שם או כישוף מהו.
תשובה אפשר דכיון דבדבורו עביד מעשה הו”ל דומיא דמימר וכזורק חץ להורגו ועליהם נאמר חץ שחוט לשונם (תלים קכ”ז) [ירמיה ט:ז].1

Rav Yehudah Assad accepts this position unreservedly:

ועל דבר מי שהרג נפש מישראל על ידי שם או כישוף פשיטא מלתא דחייב כמו שהבאת בשם תשובת הלכות קטנות .. וטעמ’ נראה לי דקרא כתיב ומכה אדם יומת.
והנה במרע”ה מצינו שהכה בשבט פיו ובשפתיו המית רשע כמאז”ל ופירש”י הלהרגני אתה אומר כאשר הרגת את כו’ שהרגו בשם המפורש וכתיב ביה לשון ויך את המצרי אם כן גם כה”ג במשמע ובכלל מכה אדם יומת הוא כיון דבדיבוריה עביד מעשה היינו הורגו בידים וחייב עליו כנ”ל.2

Rav Ya’akov Yisrael Kanievsky (the Steipler) has a lengthy discussion of this general question; his conclusion distinguishes between the reliable harnessing of preexisting paranormal forces, where he strongly feels that the causation of harm is considered the invoker’s action, and the request or instigation of the Heavenly Court to impose punishment upon another, which he considers to be merely indirect causation (גרמא):

ונראה דדוקא תפלה או קללה שאינו מובטח שתפעיל [רק בהסכמת הבית דין של מעלה באותה שעה על ידי זה נענש הלה] דכל כה”ג לא מחשב מעשה של המקלל רק מעשה בית דין של מעלה אבל קללה בהאי רגע דאז כביכול זה כבר הובטח מתחילת הבריאה דזה מועיל ומשום הכי נחשב “מעשה דידיה” היינו מעשה של המקלל עצמו ולא רק כגורם שהבית דין של מעלה יענשו …
וממוצא דבר יתבאר שמכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל אין ראיה לנדון הלכות קטנות שהורג על ידי שם או כישוף דכאן כבר נגזר משמים באופן הכרחי שהשבעה כזו או כישוף כזה תהרוג ומתייחס ההריגה לאדם העושה את ההשבעה או הכישוף ומחשב רוצח גמור כדברי הלכות קטנות, ואינו דומה לכל הני דוכתי הנ”ל שהבית דין של מעלה גומרין הדבר על ידי פסק דין של מעלה והאדם הלייט אינו אלא גרמא וכנ”ל, כנלענ”ד בירורא דהאי מילתא.3

I recently gave a lecture which began with a survey of the various opinions in our tradition as to whether Balaam’s curses, and curses in general, actually have any supernatural power to cause harm, and proceeded to a discussion of the above sources on criminal and civil liability for the causation of harm via supernatural means, and related topics; a recording of it, as well as my notes on the topic, are available at the Internet Archive.

  1. שו”ת הלכות קטנות ב:צח – קשר. []
  2. תשובת מהרי”א / יהודה יעלה אוח:קצט ד”ה ועל דבר מי שהרג – קשר. []
  3. קהלות יעקב בבא קמא (הוצאה שניה: בני ברק תשמ”ח) סוף סימן מ”ה (“בדבר מזיק על ידי סגולה”) עמודים קמג-מד. ועיין חבצלת השרון (ירושלים תשס”ו) שמות עמוד לו; עם התורה מהדורא ב’ חוברת י”ג תשמ”ז עמוד יג – קשר. []

A Man’s Word Is His Bond

We have previously discussed the derivation of Halachic and ethical principles from the moral sensibilities of non-Jews and their culture, and particularly the question of whether non-Jewish reprehension of conduct that we consider acceptable means that we must abstain from it to avoid engendering a חילול השם. I recently encountered several additional sources on this topic, which we shall consider in this and several follow-up posts, בג”ה.

The ספר חסידים forbids breaking a promise made to a captor as a condition of regaining one’s liberty, on two grounds:

  • This will engender a חילול השם.
  • The parole of Jews will no longer be trusted in future cases of captivity.

שר אחד היה רע ליהודים שבעירו והיו רוצים לברוח משם ותפשם עד שנשבעו לו שלא יברחו משם

ואם תאמר ישאלו על השבועה ויתירו להם היה חילול ד’

ועוד שלא יאמין ליהודים יותר ושמא יתפוש אחד ולא יניחו עוד בשבועה

אלא יתעסקו עם המלך או עם שר גדול לקחת אותם משם על כרחו.1

Rav Ya’akov Emden raises two objections to the חילול השם consideration:

  • An oath taken under duress is inherently void (and does not even require התרה).
  • There will be no חילול השם, as the non-Jew understands the previous point.

היה חילול השם. באמת חסידות יתרה היא זו כי שבועת אונס לא כלום היא ואפילו התרה אינה צריכה גם אין מקום לחילול השם בכך כי גם העכו”ם יודע שאין שבועה באונס שבועה2

I am somewhat perplexed by R. Emden’s language in his initial point: insofar as he concedes the basic assumption of the ספר חסידים that even in the absence of a Halachic imperative to keep one’s promise, the necessity of avoiding חילול השם can still compel one to do so, what difference does it make whether the oath is valid, requiring התרה, or not? His entire objection to the stance of the ספר חסידים seems to hinge on his latter point, that there will be no חילול השם since the non-Jew understands the illegitimacy of his position, but whether or not the oath is valid and needs התרה, or is inherently void seems irrelevant.

The latter point of the ספר חסידים touches on a moral / game-theoretical paradox with which I have long grappled:

The perpetrator of a crime realizes that his crime has been witnessed, and that his only chance to escape the consequences is by ensuring the permanent silence of the witness. The criminal can threaten to kill the witness unless he promises to remain silent, to which the latter will certainly accede, but both are perfectly aware that the witness may subsequently repudiate his oath, on the grounds that it was entered into under duress, and the criminal therefore has no choice but to kill the witness.

Both players in this ‘game’ would clearly be better off if the witness could somehow render his promise binding, or otherwise guarantee his silence – the criminal would not have to commit a second murder, and the witness would escape with his life – yet there is no apparent way for the witness to irrevocably bind himself to the mutually desired course of future (in)action.

Ultimately, this paradox is the same one that is at the heart of the Prisoner’s Dilemma:

The prisoner’s dilemma is a canonical example of a game analyzed in game theory that shows why two individuals might not cooperate, even if it appears that it is in their best interests to do so. It was originally framed by Merrill Flood and Melvin Dresher working at RAND in 1950. Albert W. Tucker formalized the game with prison sentence payoffs and gave it the name “prisoner’s dilemma” (Poundstone, 1992). A classic example of the game is presented as follows:

Two men are arrested, but the police do not have enough information for a conviction. The police separate the two men, and offer both the same deal: if one testifies against his partner (defects/betrays), and the other remains silent (cooperates with/assists his partner), the betrayer goes free and the one that remains silent gets a one-year sentence. If both remain silent, both are sentenced to only one month in jail on a minor charge. If each ‘rats out’ the other, each receives a three-month sentence. Each prisoner must choose either to betray or remain silent; the decision of each is kept secret from his partner until the sentence is announced. What should they do?

Both players would ultimately be better off if cooperation were the rational strategy – but that indubitable fact cannot make it so, and so cooperation remains irrational, and two rational players will therefore suffer suboptimal outcomes.

In our situation, too, both players would be better off if the witness’s strategy of keeping his promise and remaining silent would be the rational one – but it is not, as once the witness is out of harm’s way, it will typically be in the interest of both himself and society in general to report the crime – and both players therefore end up with suboptimal outcomes: death, in the case of the witness, and the need to further entangle himself in crime and subterfuge, in the case of the criminal. This often insoluble problem is nicely articulated in Nobel Laureate (along with our own Robert Aumann)3 economist and game theorist Thomas C. Schelling’s classic An Essay On Bargaining (the work he “believe[s] the Nobel selection committee considered [his] contribution to “understanding cooperation and conflict”” but which he “completed before [he] had more than a smattering of acquaintance with formal game theory”):

Among the legal privileges of corporations, two that are mentioned in textbooks are the right to sue and the “right” to be sued. Who wants to be sued! But the right to be sued is the power to make a promise: to borrow money, to enter into a contract, to do business with someone who might be damaged. If suit does arise the “right” seems a liability in retrospect; beforehand, it was a prerequisite to doing business.

In brief, the right to be sued is the power to accept a commitment. … The promise is a commitment to the second party in the bargain, and is required whenever the final action of one or of each is outside the other’s control. It is required whenever an agreement leaves any incentive to cheat.

This need for promises is more than incidental; it has an institutional importance of its own. It is not always easy to make a convincing, self-binding, promise. Both the kidnapper who would like to release his prisoner, and the prisoner, may search desperately for a way to commit the latter against informing on his captor, without finding one. If the victim has confessed to an act whose disclosure could lead to blackmail, he may confess it; if not, he might commit one in the presence of his captor, to create the bond that will ensure his silence. But these extreme possibilities illustrate how difficult, as well as important, it may be to assume a promise. If the law will not enforce price agreements; or if the union is unable to obligate itself to a no-strike pledge; or if a contractor has no assets to pay damages if he loses a suit, and the law will not imprison debtors; or if there is no “audience” to which one can pledge his reputation; it may not be possible to strike a bargain, or at least the same bargain that would otherwise be struck.4

The ספר חסידים sidesteps this whole issue by pointing out that our situation is actually analogous to the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which cooperation may indeed be the optimal, perfectly rational strategy; as Schelling puts it:

The tactic of decomposition applies to promises as well as to threats. What makes many agreements enforceable is only the recognition of future opportunities for agreement that will be eliminated if mutual trust is not created and maintained, and whose value outweighs the momentary gain from cheating in the present instance. Each party must be confident that the other will not jeopardize future opportunities by destroying trust at the outset. This confidence does not always exist; and one of the purpose of piecemeal bargains is to cultivate the necessary mutual expectations. Neither may be willing to trust the other’s prudence (or the other’s confidence in the first’s prudence, etc.) on a large issue. But if a number of preparatory bargains can be struck on a small scale, each may be willing to risk a small investment to create a tradition of trust. The purpose is to let each party demonstrate that he appreciates the need for trust and that he knows that the other does too. So if a major issue has to be negotiated, it may be necessary to seek out and negotiate some minor items for “practice”, to establish the necessary confidence in each other’s awareness of the long-term value of good faith.5

R. Reuven Margolis’s characteristically erudite gloss to the above passage from the ספר חסידים includes a reference to an interesting responsum of Rav Yehudah Assad, who was asked about a Jewish barkeeper who sued a non-Jewish customer for a claimed unpaid tab of “one hundred and thirty three gold in money” (!). The customer denied one hundred of the claim, and the court ruled that the Jew could collect if and only if he took an oath to the veracity of his claim, which he was reluctant to do, since it was his family members who had actually served the patron, and his tally was based on their reports, so he could not be quite certain of its accuracy. After an intricate discussion of the laws of oaths taken under undue duress and the possibility of voiding an oath by the instantaneous articulation (either mental or sotto voce) of its nullification, the Mahari Assad rejects any possibility of taking an oath that may not be wholly true, ruling that the plaintiff may only swear to the sum that he is absolutely sure he is owed, even if this will result in the forfeiture of the entire claim. In addition to his technical halachic arguments, he adds that “Regardless, it is prohibited to publicize to an ignoramus any sort of permission in this matter, and a wise man’s eyes are in his head”:

ועל דבר שנשאל שאינו יהודי שתה יין אצל חנוני מוכר ישראל בהקפה וכשבא לתבוע חובו סך קל”ג זהב כסף כפר לו מאה זהב ונתחייב ישראל בדיניהם שבועה והוא ירא מלשבע לפי שב”ב [בני ביתו] נתנו לו והוא כתב על פיהם בפנקס שלו ואולי טעה ורצה היהודי לפשר עמו ואינו רוצה האינו יהודי בשום אופן רק שישבע הישראל …

[ועיין שם שהאריך לפלפל בסוגיא דשבועת אונסין וביטול בלחש ובלב, והעלה:] מכל הלין טעמי אין אני מסכים עם הדר”ג ני’ בדין זה לא למעשה וגם לא להלכה

מלבד זה אסור לפרסם לעם הארץ שום היתר בזה הענין וחכם עיניו בראשו

אלא על סך מה שהוא ישער בעצמו שודאי אצלו ממש בברי גמור ישבע עליו והשאר יפסיד ואם גם יפסיד כל המנה לא יכניס את עצמו בהיתר הביטול

וכבר הוי עובדא בק”ק שאדם גדול בישראל ידוע זצוקלה”ה שנפסקה לו שבועה בערכאות ונתיעץ עמי על רזא דנא ושמע לדברי ועצתי ועלתה בידו לטובה כי ד’ הי’ בעזרו.6

  1. ספר חסידים (ירושלים תשי”ז) סימן תכ”ג []
  2. מגדל עוז אבן בוחן פנה א’ סימן קי”ד – קשר, צויין בשו”ת זכר יהוסף אה”ע סימן נ’ סוף ד”ה והנה מה שנוגע, ועיין בפירוש מקור חסד על הספר חסידים []
  3. The two were awarded the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel in 2005. []
  4. Thomas C. Schelling, An Essay On Bargaining, in The American Economic Review, Vol. 46 No. 3 (Jun. 1956), pp. 299-300 – (PDF), (PDF). []
  5. Ibid. pp. 300-01. []
  6. תשובת מהרי”א / יהודה יעלה יו”ד סימן שכ”ז, הובא במקור חסד שם []