by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 22, 2010
The Torah portion of Acharei begins with a reminder of the death of two of Aaron’s children, referred by G-d Himself as “those who are near me” (Vayikra 10:3) but who overstepped their bounds deciding to bring “an alien fire that He did not command” (Vayikra 10:1). As a result they were consumed by a “fire [that] went out from before G-d” (Vayikra 10:2). These were special individuals with unique qualities and capabilities who lost control over their qualities and let their capabilities get the better of them, upon which G-d saw to it to remove them from the scene, so to speak (see commentaries ad locum). Later on in the Torah portion of Kedoshim, G-d tells us “You shall be holy for holy am I”. We are to be holy, but our holiness hinges upon the holiness of G-d, and we, unlike Nadav and Avihu, should not lose site of that. G-d defines holiness, with no need for embellishment on our part – as well-meaning or intelligent as we may think we are.
In bygone days, several generations ago, as some of us were able to glean from older teachers and family members, Torah education was comprehensive, thorough and intense. Just as the average school boy today, when taught basic algebra or chemistry or geography, will not be allowed to suffice with just being taught a small portion of the subject – he must be provided all the relevant material to offer him a command of the subject – so the average Jewish school boy in bygone days, when taught, and its commentaries, would not be allowed to suffice with a sparse, superficial smattering of the subject at hand. One would be able to find older Jews, even Jews who for one reason or another forsook their faith and had not opened a Torah-related book in tens of years, who because of the firm education that they had as children, could still, after so many years, recite verbatim copious pages of the Talmud and verses of the Torah and even hold an informed discussion on many a Torah topic. A Jew would be either ignorant – and admit to it – because of not receiving, for whatever reason, a as a child, or a Jew would have a strong command of the Torah, Talmud and its commentaries. If a Torah-knowledgeable Jew would make a statement that contradicted the Torah, it would usually be a conscious abrogation of the Torah. If a religious Torah-knowledgeable Jew would mistakenly say something in contradiction to the Torah, his intellectual honesty, his otherwise serious command of the sources and his respect for truth would impel him, perhaps embarrassed, to eventually admit to his mistake, after the truth was pointed out to him.
But those are, for the most part, bygone days. In today’s day and age and over the past few generations in various locales throughout the world, Jewish children have become accustomed to suffice with Torah-based education that barely scrapes the surface, where even some of today’s orthodox “Rabbis” are incapable of holding a candle to yesteryear’s simple Torah educated Jew. As a result, to supplement their ignorance, these perhaps well-meaning religious Jews resort to conclusions based on partial quotes, statements taken out of context and smatterings of thoughts from other ideologies. As time goes on and more poorly educated Jews hear the conclusions of their poorly educated peers or of some somewhat less poorly (but still poorly) educated rabbis, more Jews begin to accept these conclusions and begin to adopt positions based on them. Soon, many of these perhaps well meaning but poorly educated Jews begin to express their conclusions and positions as that of the Torah and Judaism. As the great Amora Rav Huna points out in the Babylonian Talmud (Yoma 86b et al), “Once a person transgresses and repeats it…it becomes for him like a permissible act.” And as the great 19th century leader of the R. Yisrael Salanter (1810 – 1883) adds, “And when he does it a third time, it becomes for him like a commandment.”
On the tails of the rampant ignorance in today’s day and age and its widely extant poor Jewish education, many Jews today will quote verses in the Torah to verify and establish their “Torah” viewpoints, as it were. These very same Jews who hardly read through the entire Tanach (Holy Scriptures) once, never thoroughly studied even half of the Babylonian Talmud, let alone the , barely perused even a quarter of R. Joseph Caro’s Shulchan Arukh or ’ Mishne Torah, let alone the thousands of commentaries and responsa of our great Jewish commentators who themselves did not write a letter of comment without a firm command of every single statement found in the Torah and Talmud, think themselves worthy to cite and quote ad hoc phrases and partial phrases from all over the Torah and Talmud that they so scantily know and so superficially understand. If any one of these very same “mavens” were to be a professional, whether lawyer or accountant or dentist, and another not fully educated in his choice of profession would offer an opinion related to that profession, he would laugh, chuckle or scream. To make matters worse, many of these well meaning Jews are innocently misled into standing behind their views by some supposed rabbis who are not too much more educated than they but who know how to couch their ignorance of basic sources in flowery and esoteric musings.
The aforementioned phenomenon is especially apparent when various Jews, even religious ones, well meaning as they may be, espouse ideas of universal unconditional love of one’s fellow man or abject recoil upon the thought of war or hostility against anyone. Their own tendencies towards utopian idealism, pacifism and docility becomes in their mind Torah mandated Judaism. Verses and phrases come flying from all directions. They quote “And you shall love your friend as yourself [Veahavta le-reakha kamokha]“ (Vayikra). They will cite “Do not stand on the blood of your friend [Lo taamod al dam reakha]” (Vayikra ). They will mention “You shall be holy [Kedoshim tihyu]” (Vayikra 19:2) and “Be from the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace [Heve mitalmidav shel Aharon, ohev shalom ve-rodef shalom” (Avot 1:12). Or even “Justice, Justice shall you pursue [Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof]” (Devarim ) and “Do not hate your brother [Lo tisna et achikha” (Vayikra ). And many a “scholar” will offer the Talmudic anecdote wherein G-d rebukes the heavenly angels for wishing to sing when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea by telling them, “The work of my hands are drowning in the sea and you sing?!” (Megilla 10b). All to bolster their purported view that we all are supposed to be unceasingly peace-loving, passive, docile beings, always ready to stretch out our hand in friendship to anyone and everyone and bending over backwards to avoid any form of hostility whatsoever. This is thought, even among many religious Jews, to be the view of the Torah and Judaism. Well, for those with a command of the basic sources of Judaism it is apparent that, while this may be the view of Mr. Frankel or Mrs. Katz and can be termed Frankelism or Katzism, this is certainly not the view of the Torah nor is this Judaism.
First of all, the command to be holy or to pursue justice has no connection whatsoever to loving or peacefulness. Holiness denotes a call to Jews to train themselves in G-d’s statutes (Sifre, Shelah 115), separate from impurity (Seforno, Devarim ) and rise above materialism towards spiritualism (Sifra, Shmini 12). Pursuing justice (or righteousness, as tzedek is sometimes translated) simply demands establishing an honest judiciary (Rashi ad locum; Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 32b). The injunction against hating one’s brother too, when read carefully and in context, does not forbid hatred – just limits it. It refers to holding an unexpressed grudge in one’s heart (as the verse continues), but if another has done wrong, depending on the gravity of the offense, one may even hit or curse him and one may be required to hate him (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 113b and Arakhin 16b).
The commandments to love “your friend” or refrain from standing by on the blood of “your friend” also have been distorted. “Your friend”, as understood by our Jewish tradition, refers to someone like you who is respectful of your heritage – the Torah and its values – while one who is clearly disrespectful of the Torah and its values deserves our hate (Sifra, Kedoshim 8:4; Avot de-Rebi Natan 16:5; Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Deot 6:3). Moreover, the idea of pursuing peace like Aaron has also been understood superficially and, therefore, incorrectly. Like Aaron, we are to understand when to pursue peace. He did not carte blanche pursue peace with Pharoah! He and Moses presented Pharoah with an option. Pharoah did not accept. So they hit him – hard. As the wise King Solomon so succinctly puts it: “For everything there is a time…There is a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (Kohelet 3). When our Torah tells us, “When you go out to war against your enemies” (Devarim 20:1), our sages expound: “G-d says, ‘Go out against them as enemies, as they will not have pity on you, so you should not have pity on them’” (Tanchuma, Shoftim 15), to the exclusion of your brothers who will have pity on you, but when it comes to your enemies, “If you fall into their hands they will not have pity on you” (Sifre, Shoftim 192). Even the seemingly innocuous and irrelevant warning to “wipe out the remembrance of Amalek” (Devarim 25:19) has been explained by one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 19th century, the world-renown rabbi of Brisk, R. to apply not only to genealogical descendants of that ancient people but includes all who embrace the ideology of Amalek and seek to destroy the people of (Torah she-Baal Peh annual of 5731 and Or Ha-Mizrach, Tevet 5731).
Last but not least, the oft quoted divine rebuke of the heavenly angels for wishing to sing upon the sight of the Egyptians’ drowning in the sea is woefully distorted and taken out of all context. The passage points out that G-d does not rejoice upon the downfall of evildoers nor does He permit His angels to do so because evildoers are His creation and the angels are simply bystanders, but the people of Israel who suffered at the hands of the wicked should rejoice and be merry (Babylonian Talmud, Megilla 10b; Mekhilta, Beshalah). We Jews are to be content upon the downfall of our enemies – certainly not show compassion towards them. Our Sages say that each and every Jew led his dog to an Egyptian, placed his foot on the Egyptian’s neck and instructed the dog to “eat of this hand that enslaved me, eat of these intestines that did not care about me” ( 22). When Haman was forced to help up Mordekhai unto the horse that he was supposed to lead him around on, as Haman was crouched, Mordekhai kicked him. Then Haman inquired, “Does it not say (Mishle 24:17), ‘Upon the fall of your enemy, you shall not rejoice’?.” Mordekhai responded, “Those words refer to [the people of] Israel, but as regards you [a sworn enemy of the Jewish people] it is written (Devarim 33:29), ”And you shall trample their high places.” This is reported in the Babylonian Talmud (Megilla 16a).
The view of the Torah and of Judaism, therefore, as handed down to us by our Sages, is not one of blind unconditional love for everyone. We are not enjoined to be docile, passive “nebs” valiantly chasing a utopian fantasy. That may be Frankelism or Katzism. As demonstrated above, it certainly is not Judaism. We, as Jews, are instructed by G-d to be rational, practical pursuers of truth according to His guiding hand and blueprint without personal embellishment. And the one to whom we are to show unconditional love is G-d alone.