Avi Garelick

No Rain Comes From Heaven


The high priest used to ask the Lord to not answer the prayers of travelers. There is a story of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (an early pious person) which illustrates the purpose of this custom. He was going along the way when it began to rain. He looked up to the heavens and said “Lord of the heavens! The whole world should be at leisure while Hanina is in pain?” Sure enough, the rain stopped. When R. Hanina was safe at home, he looked up to the heavens again, and said “Lord of the heavens! The whole world should be in pain while R. Hanina is at leisure?” And the rain began again.

In November of 2010, Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein of the Har Etzion Yeshiva wrote a letter dissenting with the Israeli rabbinate and the other leaders of his yeshiva, in which he argued that the people of Israel should not fast in response to an ongoing problem of drought. In this letter, he outlined several points of disagreement with the prevailing rabbinic consensus. I will make mention of three of the more salient ones here:

  1. The problem of drought, at least in our experience, does not constitute a life-threatening problem for our people. For past societies, rainfall was livelihood, but for us, rainfall is about lifestyle.
  2. We are not at a spiritual level wherein God’s providence can be interpreted in causal relationship with our actions, or as spiritual guidance.
  3. We must be wary of spiritual inflation. “Just as inflation ruins the value of a currency, it has a similar effect spiritually…When in doubt—minimize fasts and prayer rallies and do not allow them to proliferate, for their harm outweighs their good.”

To provide proper context for this letter, first it must be understood that a straightforward reading of the Mishnah and the Gemara offers a clearcut program of action: if the land of Israel has seen no rainfall by the end of the second month of the Hebrew year, the Jewish communities living in Israel must respond with a series of fasts of increasing severity. Beginning with daytime fasts, they progress to full 24-hour fasts. As the drought grows more severe, they also limit other activities: washing, anointing, wearing shoes, sex, labor. In the most severe of the fasts these communities must not even open their markets for business. On these days they would bring the ark from the synagogue into the town square, putting dust on its crown and on the heads of the political leader and the chief of the courts. Then they would pray and offer exhortations. This program of total social crisis is to be discontinued only if it rains.

Why does R. Lichtenstein seek to undermine this paradigm? I suspect that he is trying to defend against a heedlessly simpleminded use of the Law. He is concerned that the rabbinate is prescribing a zealously literal rendering of the Law which encourages a meaningless re-enactment of rites outside context. What motivates R. Lichtenstein is a widespread, if rarely articulated, feeling: that fasting for rain is a stupid, useless, superstitious, and antiquated thing to do (the English website which offers a translation of his letter alludes to this sentiment by citing rabbis praying for rain on boats and hot air balloons). He is trying to offer people with this basic feeling a respectful, traditionally bounded way to say thanks but no thanks to fasting for rain. That was how they did it then, but a lot has changed and we aren’t qualified to do it that way even if a lot had stayed the same.

There are different genres of fasting, with different explicit or implicit purposes. It is important to keep track of what kinds of fasts are doing what. There are fasts of collective repentance (Yom Kippur); there are fasts of collective woeful memory (Tisha B’av, etc); there are fasts of individual repentance (when appropriate); there are fasts of spiritual self-betterment (not often encouraged); there are fasts in response to a nightmare (!). Then, there is fasting for a drought. The primary purpose of this fast is to make the drought stop and to make it start raining.

Why can fasting fix a drought? To understand this, we need to learn a few things about how we think of the One God and His relationship to the heavens. Why do we think of God as being in the heavens? In large part, the heavens and their celestial bodies are unimaginably remote, as with God, so it makes sense to imagine their connection. Also, specifically at night, the heavens are the same wherever you go. In the face of the welter of surprising and disorienting earthly occasions, changes that come of movement in either space or time, you can look up there to the sky if you want to get oriented. This is a basic appealing quality of the universality of God and His eternal order.

Finally, the heavens produce rain. Rain can mean a lot of things in our culture, like the undignified end to your trip to Six Flags, or a nice place for kissing, but within the project of this essay I mostly consider its agricultural dimension: something which is essential to your survival but that you have no control over whatsoever. Metaphorically, we can say that whatever aspect of human life meets these qualifications is like rain (this explains the tight symbolic association with blessing, for which rain is both the sign and the signified). As with nature more broadly, God controls this completely. He withholds and bestows it at will.

Says the complainer: Why should the One God ever be so cruel as to withhold rain? He knows, certainly, that we human beings can barely get it together to achieve success or happiness without being deprived of the basic conditions of our survival!

This is a trenchant complaint, intrinsic to monotheism: why is God doing this to us?

The Deuteronomic answer to this question is that there is a causal connection between human roguery and divine roguery. Basically, when we are righteous we bring God's blessing upon ourselves, but drought happens because we deserve it.

Thus the prevalent refusal to fast amongst modern religious Jews. Nobody these days wants to humor this kind of theological victim-blaming. It is no surprise that modern rabbis would want to explain it away. In an age of rampant outrageous suffering worldwide, it seems not only insensitive but also false. On the other hand, in an age of global climate crisis, it may be more appealing than ever to assert a connection between human moral worth, and, well, the weather.

Contemporary political ecologists claim that there is indeed something motivating climatological suffering that implicates broad social patterns as a cause. Mike Davis, author of Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, defines drought in this way:

Drought is the recurrent duel between natural rainfall variability and agriculture’s hydraulic defenses. It always has a manmade dimension and is never simply a natural disaster…Hydrological drought always has a social history. Artificial irrigation systems obviously depend on sustained levels of social investment and labor upkeep, but even natural water-storage capacity can be dramatically affected by human practices that lead to deforestation and soil erosion. As we shall see, the most devastating nineteenth-century droughts were decisively preconditioned by landscape degradation, the neglect of traditional irrigation systems, the demobilization of communal labor, and/or the failure of the state to invest in water storage.
That is, much more than just rain needs to vanish before disaster strikes. If six weeks of suspension of rainfall brings you to the brink of starvation and social collapse, it really means you've already come to the brink of starvation and social collapse. All the institutional supports, social and natural, which did buttress your existence have withered. This is not only recently true, either. The possibility for collective politics—planning, building, distributing—is an early prerequisite for agriculture, not a blessed intervention. It is a historical naivety to imagine that the human creatures of yesteryear actually lived harvest-to-harvest unless they were already in deep poverty.

This leads first to an anthropological point (in contradiction to R. Lichtenstein) and then to a historical/political point.

The rabbis of the Mishnah were not enacting a ritual of fasting and crying out from an immediate native experience of suffering. It is sometimes thought that the writers of ritual designed it as a natural expression of their own life experiences—feasting out of sheer delight, speaking psalms ecstatically when the feeling moved them, etc.—and that subsequent performers of the ritual are merely re-enacting their vitality. This is misleading. Ritual is a symbolic genre that speaks in especially condensed referential symbols. It is by its very nature a genre of re-enactment, not of free expression. You are always reminded of your feelings by a ritual. Neither you, the ritual writers, nor anyone along the line made use of ritual purely as a tool for expression. Rituals exist as prescriptions or prompts for affective responses, not as their outlets. It is useful to think of them as scripts. The writers of ritual were breaking away from the flow of their own experience to reflect upon and re-inscribe their experience in symbolic form.

Thus, the authors of the Mishnah do not mean to prescribe fasting in the event that it does not rain and you feel like you will starve; they do so in the event that it does not rain so that you feel like you will starve. The ritual’s purpose is to evoke (not respond to) a feeling of utter dependency on the whim of God. It searches for a naked need for divine support, evoking it in order to serve as a reminder that we do ultimately rely on the rain for our survival.

As per Mike Davis and other political ecologists, the deep poverty and starvation of the modern period is not solely a consequence of nature’s savagery. It is a consequence of a globalized system of labor extraction and the erosion of local institutional support structures. Davis makes a thorough case that famine and drought are always due to institutional mismanagement, and that in late colonialism this was a global mismanagement of an economy that was globalized expressly for the benefit of empire. The starving peasants of the colonialized world were ground between the three gears of imperialism, the world economic system, and the world climate. “Suddenly, the price of wheat in Liverpool and the rainfall in Madras were variables in the same vast equation of human survival,” Davis writes. When contemplating the horrors that were inflicted upon peasants in Asia, it seems better to ask not where the rain was when they needed it, but rather why the British were carting off their entire surplus of grain to feed their own people.

Millenarian revolutionary groups in third world countries intuited a basic connection between imperial interference and climate failure. The Boxer rebels in Beijing put up anti-missionary posters that declared: “No rain comes from heaven. The earth is parched and dry. And all because the churches have bottled up the sky.” Mwari spirit media in Zimbabwe said to their warriors: “These white men are your enemies. They killed your fathers, sent the locusts, this disease among the cattle, and bewitched the clouds so that we have no rain. Now you go and kill these white people and drive them out of your fathers’ land and I will take away the cattle disease and the locusts and send you rain.”

For these indigenous revolutionaries, the function of religiously grounded discourse was to proclaim a causal link between the subjective evil of imperialism and the more pervasive non-subjective evils of drought and famine, a link which they did not have the political knowledge to assert. They knew that their natural conditions were cause for riot.

Inflation is what happens when everybody has too much of something, and it isn’t worth so much as a result. This is something that happens to commodities, things with exchange value. Objects with inherent use value, such as food, are immune to inflation. You just have more of them and it is great for everyone. When R. Lichtenstein cautions against spiritual inflation, he is comparing fasting to money, as though it were an object of exchange between the Jews and their Lord. If fasting is compared to a riot instead of money, this logic fails. This makes more intuitive sense: fasting is an event, not a thing. It happens in public and is massively disruptive. The point of a fast, as well as a protest, is to make a public problem of things which would otherwise remain quiet. This is what it means to refuse food when the Lord does not feed you.

There is another genre of speech-act to which it is fruitful to compare a prayer. It is the utterance of a half-believed superstition. The UC Berkeley Folklore Archive yields these two entries on the folk saying “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day”:

I first heard this rhyme while going to my elementary school. It was a common rhyme used among all the children…It was commonly thought if one called this out just as it was starting to rain, the rain would actually disappear until ‘another day.’ I didn’t, as a child, believe in this magic whole-heartedly, but if it started to rain, I didn’t ever want to take the chance of not saying the rhyme.

I still find myself using this rhyme upon occasion when I don’t want it to rain and it has just started to sprinkle. I know perfectly well that this has no effect on the weather, but the habit of using it apparently became quite fixed when I was young.

This relationship of ambivalent belief with folk sayings is not at all uncommon. Furthermore, they are often used as persuasive tactics within human relationships. Think of “You must come down to the basement with me, I’m afraid of the monsters,” said by an adult to her friend, or “It’s bad luck if we don’t meet eyes after we toast.” Nobody in these conversations needs to rationally believe the content of these assertions in order to respond on an affective level. In the former case, for instance, you would still come off as a jerk if you refused to visit the basement with your nervous friend. Unlike what is asserted within the bounds of reason, the reception of these speech acts is conditioned by the nature of the relationship. These sayings vibrate on that specific relational frequency, not on a transcendent truth/reason frequency. They are a realm in which reason does not veto.

I don’t bring this up because I think prayers are foolish; I do think that the dissociation between reason and affect that is so clearly on display when you utter a superstition is also at play in a prayer. A prayer also does not derive its power from the truth claim that it makes.

What do we mean, when we ask the question “Do the Jews believe their prayers?” The juxtaposition of two assertions from the Mishnah produce an interesting possibility: “When do we begin to assert God’s power over the rains? At the end of the holiday of Sukkot” (M. Taanit 1:1); “God judges our yearly measure of rainfall during the holiday of Sukkot” (M. Rosh Hashanah 1:2).

Why would we begin to incorporate rain into our prayers after God has already made His decision? Since, as we know from Deuteronomy, these decisions are based on the merit of our actions, what are praying and fasting for? If they were solely meant to effect change in our own character, then we would have to wait till next year for any changes to our sentence. We must say, then, that prayer and fasting work outside the ledger of providential justice. It is an attempt at affective influence on God, in defiance of what is or ought to be the case. You can say something to God that you don’t reasonably believe God can or will answer to, but which still has affective validity because of the bounds of your relationship to God. R. Hanina b. Dosa was a charmed individual; he could play games with rain because he was beloved by God. His case is unusual, but it is not exceptional. Prayer is a kind of tonic to divine justice. It can’t make it go away, but it can make it easier to swallow.