Does Judaism Believe That Impact, Not Intention, Is What Matters?
I have heard some people say that when it comes to making a mistake, “impact not intention” is what counts. But is this a Jewish idea?
Thanks for your question. I think this goes to the greater question of the complicated interplay between actions and intentions. Do results count without intentions? Do intentions count without results? Are both necessary? There’s no one-size-fits-all scenario.
Throughout Talmudic and halachic literature, there’s a debate on the subject of whether mitzvos tzrichos kavanah, i.e., whether one must have specific intention when performing a mitzvah in order to fulfill it (Talmud Rosh Hashana 32b, Shulchan Aruch OC 589:8, et al.). Prototypical examples include whether one just happened to eat matzah on Passover, or just happened to blow shofar on Rosh Hashana, with no thoughts about fulfilling these mitzvos.
While there are different opinions on these matters, the ultimate rule is that mitzvos do require intention. Accordingly, if one performed a mitzvah without intention, he should repeat it. However, actions without intentions aren’t absolutely nothing; upon repeating the mitzvah, one should not recite the bracha again (see Magen Avraham 489:8).
Consider also the debate of Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Shimon throughout tractate Shabbos (though it applies in many other areas of halacha as well). Their point of contention is the question of davar sheino miskavin, something that is unintended.
The prototypical case of davar sheino miskavin is as follows: plowing is a prohibited form of labor on Shabbos. Let’s say that you want to drag a heavy bench across your yard on Shabbos, with the result that it will dig furrows into the earth. This is effectively plowing but plowing isn’t your intention – sitting in a bench on the other side of your yard is. In such a case, Rabbi Yehuda says that dragging the bench is prohibited because one’s intentions are immaterial. Rabbi Shimon, however, says that dragging the bench is permitted because intentions matter. While we can only follow one opinion in practice, the idea of eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim – that both positions are equally valid – informs us that either position is an authentic “Jewish idea.”
I would just like to diverge briefly in order to underscore the consistency of our Sages. There’s a familiar story found in the Talmud on Shabbos 33b. Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together, talking about their Roman occupiers. Rabbi Yehuda praised the Romans for building markets, bathhouses and bridges; Rabbi Yosi kept silent and Rabbi Shimon criticized the Romans saying that everything they built had an ulterior motive – the markets to promote prostitution, the bathhouses to pamper themselves and the bridges to collect tolls. An informer reported their words to the authorities, who rewarded Rabbi Yehuda, exiled Rabbi Yosi and sought to kill Rabbi Shimon. (Yes, Rabbi Shimon is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who hid in a cave from the Romans and is credited with writing the Zohar.)
What’s the relevance of this story to our topic? You’ll notice that Rabbi Yehuda is consistent in that he credits the Romans because he believes that impact matters regardless of one’s intention. Rabbi Shimon criticizes the Romans for the same accomplishments because he’s consistent in his position that intentions matter.
Thus far, we’ve been discussing actions in the absence of intentions but there is also the matter of intentions in the absence of actions. The Talmud in Shabbos, commenting on a Biblical verse referring to “those who thought of His Name” (Malachi 3:16) explains that if one intended to perform a mitzvah but was prevented by circumstances beyond his control, God gives him credit as if he had actually performed it.
Along similar lines, the gemara in Sotah tells us that Moshe wanted to enter Israel not to eat of its fruits and to enjoy its goodness but rather to fulfill all the mitzvot that can only be performed there. Because of the purity of his intentions, God credited Moshe as if he had performed all those mitzvot.
I found many more examples of this type so let’s just share one more: by reciting the sections of the korbanos and studying the laws of the Temple sacrifices, we are credited by God as if we had actually brought those offerings (Menachos 110a).
We see from all this that both intent and impact have a role and neither is the end-all and be-all. But none of our cases exactly parallels your question, which asks about “making a mistake” with “impact (but) not intention.” The closest parallel to that scenario, I think, is the korban chatas (sin offering).
The korban chatas was only brought for an act that was committed unintentionally. If one accidentally violated Shabbos or Yom Kippur (for example), it’s still a “sin” and there is a consequence, it’s just not as severe a consequence as it would be for one who acted intentionally. The Sefer HaChinuch explains the underlying reason why one who “sins” accidentally should have any consequence at all: it’s to condition us to act more carefully in the future.
I think there’s an important lesson here for our “cancel culture.” If someone sinned accidentally, he wasn’t “canceled” forever. He brought his sacrifice, he learned his lesson and his slate was clean. There’s a huge difference between a faux pas and actual malice.
Similarly, if a celebrity or a politician accidentally invokes an anti-Semitic trope, I think that’s very different from an avowed Nazi or White Supremacist doing it on purpose. While we’d rather it not happen it all, I think the accidental offender should endure their fifteen minutes of shame but then be judged by their words going forward.
I’d like to think that other groups would be as forgiving when we make a cultural faux pas – educate us when we say something stupid so that we can improve. Why “cancel” a well-meaning ally over a gaffe?
On the subject of overlooking well-intentioned errors, I’d like to share a story from the life of Rabbi Tanchuma (fourth century). There was once a drought and fasting didn’t alleviate it so Rabbi Tanchuma advised his community to engage in acts of chesed. It came to people’s attention that a certain man was bringing money to his ex-wife. (This is technically against halacha: a divorced couple shouldn’t be together, out of concern that they might fall into their familiar habits of intimacy.) The people complained to Rabbi Tanchuma that they were all trying to arouse God’s mercy but this man was bringing down their efforts by violating the law. Rabbi Tanchuma asked the man about his motivations and the man replied that it broke his heart when he saw that his ex-wife was in distress.
Upon hearing this, Rabbi Tanchuma exclaimed that this man had no obligation to support this woman but he saw her in distress and was filled with compassion for her. Similarly, he continued, God should be filled with compassion for his children who are suffering! As a result of Rabbi Tanchuma’s plea, rain finally fell.
Was the man technically in violation of some halacha? Yes. But he was trying to do the right thing. While Rabbi Tanchuma no doubt advised the man as to the proper halachic course of action going forward, that did not preclude using the man’s motivations as an example for others, and to approach Hashem.
Actions count. Intentions count. The proportion of importance assigned to each of these factors can vary from circumstance to circumstance. In no case, however, does Judaism “cancel” a person over a well-intentioned faux pas. We educate, we learn, and we use our mistakes as opportunities to improve.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
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1. There are a variety of additional factors that go into actual practice, including whether the unintended result is inevitable or merely possible, and whether the result is beneficial for the one performing the action, bad for him, or a complete wash.
2. “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python’s Life of Brian
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