6. On the Drafting of Yeshivah Students

This post is based on a session held on Erev Shabbat Parshat Yitro, 21 Shevat, 5773, February 1, 2013, shortly after the Israeli elections.  Unfortunately, it took longer to post this than it took to form the government, but I trust that the issues discussed herein remain very pertinent and relevant.

Thanks to Yonatan Shai Freedman for his assistance in preparing this post.

Kayitz tov to all.  Hope to have more posts in the coming weeks, iy”H.  Just a reminder: the best way to follow the blog is to subscribe (click on the link on the right side of the page).

Kol tuv and Shabbat shalom,

Dov Karoll

Question: In the recent Israeli elections and in current coalition discussions, there has been much talk of how to supplant the expired Tal law.  How does Rav Lichtenstein think that Israeli society should move forward and how can we respond practically and productively?  If they come to you, what would be a good solution to problem?

I will begin by discussing how significant individual issues should be in setting up the government per se. I would primarily advise people with regard to setting up the government what I advise them with regard to selecting their curriculum when going to any university or to any Yeshivah, when selecting the people in whose shiur they want to be, etc.  I tell students, repeatedly: if someone comes to me who wants to study history, but he enjoys 18th century French history more than the British history which is being offered by the department within which he is enrolled – I often tell people to go for the man and don’t go so much for the course.  If you want to learn how to be a good historian, you’ll be a better historian if you develop historical methods, and have the techniques, the insights, the approaches, the sense of what it means to be included or excluded from the body of material, of a subject – that is far more important than what you know about Louis XIV, or someone else XIV – that is relatively unimportant.  For the long term, for the young person starting out and involved in presenting the bounds and the limits of the historical method, getting the method, seeing how a master develops it, is more important, to you and, in the same manner, is more important to the people building a coalition.

That is not to suggest that specific topics are of no significance.  Certain things can be done, and you can deal with social issues, sociological issues, in terms of the specifics of a particular government decision, a particular policy – that can be brought into play.  But, for the long term, it is more important for society to have people who have the capacity for evaluating situations, when and where certain errors were made, when and where more palpably proven methods could have been suggested.  It’s those two.

In elections, you’re voting for the person and you’re voting for the policy, for the values.  Which is more important to you?  That’s something that you have to work that out with the people, the masters, who provide guidance and direction.

Just who would be ideal to lead us in dealing with the coalition, that admittedly is a formidable and difficult thing to do because there are very few people who have put their stamp on areas of socio-political life over the last generation.  I say this with regard to the Israeli scene, and similarly with regard to the situation in the Western world generally.  By and large, you deal with people who may be good people, but who might not be first rate people, who are putting their גושפנקא [literally: seal; authorization] on the role, the character, and the contours of government and governmental policy.

With regard to the specific question, I think there’s a legitimate basis for having a certain number of people, who contribute in a meaningful way to the discourse of the beit midrash, who are exempt from army service.  As I would agree that some individuals should be exempt because they are great artists, great thinkers – perhaps, even if you are dealing with a population within a given society, if they contribute meaningfully to the quality of life within it, and they deal with a certain dimension of life – which may not be the very top of the needs and the priorities of that particular community but certainly contributes to it.  On more than one occasion, I have been called upon to discuss the values and the importance of a range of interests and a range of abilities in trying to limn the contours of any given society.

There’s a gemara in Ta’anit (22a) that says that two amoraim who had the privilege of being invested with a gilluy Eliyahu – and Eliyahu would give them an idea of the nature of people that he was able to trust and evaluate in a meaningful way.  The gemara relates that these amoraim were walking with Eliyahu and he pointed out two very average looking people to them, indicating that these men have a share in Olam haBa [the World to Come].  They come over to the men, and ask them what they do.  The answer which is given is: we are comedians, and when people are in pain, we provide solace and relief.  By what?  By dint of our stories.  What you have over here is something which enriches the life of the community in general, but it is not something which can be viewed as being high up on the scale – but the diversity itself enriches your perceptions.

What is needed is the שאור שבעיסה [literally: the yeast in the dough], the virus that society requires in order that the full range of its energies and interests be addressed.  My wife relates that her maternal grandmother was living with the family in Boston, just after they introduced televised programming of baseball games.  They were watching a game, and the grandmother, who had certain memories of what happened in Europe, came running into [my wife] Tovah’s room, and she said: Tovah, come look – grown men are chasing after a ball.  I can understand her [bewilderment].  But on the other hand, if one understood more fully what professional sports are all about, it would lend a range of sensibility and a sense of a certain joy of creative competitiveness that her grandmother could not understand.  As someone who is aware of what is involved in this area will understand – though it’s perfectly true that you could have attained the same sense of effort, competitive values, etc., of each person doing his or her utmost to enrich the quality, of the fabric of life, in a community, otherwise.  It didn’t have to be chasing a small ball, it could have been chasing a big ball, like a basketball, or a volleyball….  The competitive urge and the ability to try to compete to the best of one’s ability – that finds expression somewhere.

The question is: what are the priorities for a given community.  Remaining with the sports metaphor, note that there are two answers to that: one is the flat answer, they need to understand what competition is all about and what effort is all about, etc. – this is something that every community needs to learn, and every set of citizenry needs to absorb.  On the other hand, one might argue that you can’t give a flat answer to all questions – there are some communities which have already absorbed that lesson, they know all about that, and they need to absorb a different lesson – they need to learn to be aware of the excesses of too much competition, and they have already learned to understand and to absorb the lessons of Grantland Rice: it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.  But you can’t deal in the same way with two communities, each of which is in need of a balanced approach to public life, and to the growth and development of the public square – each of which needs that but they don’t both need them at the same time and to the same extent – because some have learned lesson a and need to be taught lesson b, and others have precisely the reverse.

I sat this week with a certain rav, and I was trying to explain to him how you need to balance these different needs.  I said to him that I come from the world of sports, and you need to understand that if you’re running a sports team – there are different functions with regard to that.  You may need someone who is very good on defense but not on offense, or vice versa; you may need someone who is very good as a center, while someone else is much better at covering the field in general.  I tried to explain that it is the same thing in the world of chinnukh and the world of Torah.

Returning to the question of recruiting all Yeshivah students, I cannot imagine a Jewish world within which there is no recognition for Torah – not as a prize for excellence in Torah – though there may be a justification for a certain prize as well – but as supplying a certain quality and a certain character to the community.  How much of that a community or a society can absorb depends on other pressing needs it has.  Obviously, if you live in a town which has no firemen, and you’re the only one who’s learned how to douse fires, and the question comes up: we have a fireman here, he’s very good at dousing fires, but let’s deal with another issue, let’s let him sit and learn for a while.  His learning is as valuable as the learning of someone else who is performing other functions in society, but as long as there is no fireman available, the community cannot afford to let this fellow go and do something else, even if it is very important.  You can’t afford that.  If you have already five firemen and you’re talking about the sixth – then, if you are talking about it on the basis of justice, it’s still not fair to let one off but not the other.  Alternatively, do you say, in due time we’ll find a fireman, but meanwhile we have someone who is a budding Rav Haym – let’s train him to become a talmid chakham – I think that is a legitimate position that I could very well, in good conscience, espouse.

It’s comparable to the question which people sometimes ask me: can Kohanim go to medical school?  I tell them that if you told me you are going be a crackerjack doctor, and there is no other doctor in the community who can approach your abilities, and if you don’t go to medical school there is no one else in the area who is willing to do it and who can do it – of course I would have no question whatsoever about your going to medical school.  If the physical health of your community is dependent upon your abilities – of course you can do that.  But, it’s unlikely that that is the situation, and to a great extent, you need to ask yourself, and ask people like me: is that an accurate account?  Well, that depends what you’re dealing with.  If you are living in a country where there are five applicants for each spot in the medical school, can you honestly say: if I don’t go to medical school, the whole community is going to be full of people who are sick, some of whom will die?  If one can say that honestly, I think we would certainly have to let him go.  But, inasmuch as very few people take that position, subscribe to that situation – we’ll tell him: you, go sit and learn in a Kollel, or become a comedian or become a sociologist – or do whatever else will enrich, enhance, enliven the community.  Ay, they need a doctor?  בסדר, someone else will be a doctor.

Here you come upon a question, which the gemara’s formulation appears in various contexts, with regard to kibbud av va’em [honoring parents] (Kiddushin 32a) and with regard to talmud Torah.  Taking the question as formulated regarding the latter: when does a person abstain from learning, and when does he say that there is a normative demand that he sit and learn?  The gemara (Mo’ed Katan 9b) cites, with regard to these realms, the factor of: אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים [it can be performed by others], in which case it is not set aside, or אי אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים [it cannot be performed by others], in which case it is.  The gemara quotes two pesukim [verses] – one pasuk [verse] says: כל חפציך לא ישוו בה [None of your matters can be compared to it] (Mishlei / Proverbs 3:15), implying that your personal interests, like to advance your standing and your investments – that’s לא ישוו בה [incomparable to learning], and the other pasuk says – כל חפצים לא ישוו בה [No matters can be compared to it] (Mishlei 8:10) – all your interests, in comparison with talmud Torah, with learning and with growing in learning, fade into insignificance.  And to resolve this contradiction, the gemara raises this distinction, namely that it depends on אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים or אי אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים.

The problem here is, apart from what some people feel that they have a problem about the inequity on the social scene, hollering the issue of שוויון [equality], pounding away at that, as was done in the previous election campaign, what does אפשר [generally: possible – see below] mean?  Assuming that, in principle, it was decided that אפשר לעשותה על-ידי אחרים is a good criterion, how do you define אפשר?  The term אפשר in the gemara is so simple, so clear, and a definitive category, and yet, at the same time, it is perfectly clear that it is an inequitable criterion.

The term אפשר appears in Chazal in various connections, meaning: is it possible.  What does that mean is it possible?  Very few things are impossible – most things are indeed possible, but how possible is the question – is there easy access to alternatives?  Secondly, assuming there is easy access, does it depend upon the will, the agreement and the consent of other people?  Let’s say you really want to be a doctor, so you think it’s very important to have doctors, and you build up a whole case that is going to determine who gets into medical school based on the consent of other people.  But those other people may have decided a long time ago that they don’t want to be doctors, they want to be soccer players, or they want to be musicians – is that אפשר לעשותה or אי אפשר לעשותה.

This is the fallacy in the kind of issues which were raised by people from the Yeshivah community – arguing אפשר לעשותה – you can let people who are now university students – let them go to the army, and we will take care of the spiritual needs.  For someone who is convinced of the value of Torah and its critical need for being a שאור שבעיסה, of giving vibrancy, spirituality and continuity to the life of Torah for the community as a whole, there’s no problem about that, we understand it fully.  People who don’t have that conviction will have a very difficult time with it, they consider it very unjust and unfair, and, from their point of view, they are right.

The term אפשר appeared in other contexts; in the example we are dealing with here it’s אפשר in terms of whether it’s possible because other people could fill in the gap.  But אפשר comes up in contexts which have to do with physical limits.  The gemara talks in Pesachim 25-26 about whether it’s mutar [permissible] to be “oveir” [“violate”] various issurim [prohibitions] in order to make life easier or simpler.  There is a machloket [dispute between] the amoraim Abaye and Rava, parallel to a dispute between the tanna’im Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shimon, when do you say that אפשר וקמיכוין [it is avoidable but you intend to benefit] is mutar [permitted] and when do you say it’s asur [prohibited].  There’s a de’ah [view] in that gemara that it depends, where it’s אפשר to travel in a certain way – then follow that route, and even if that entails a greater effort, but it also obtains in letting you follow a certain route in life which will determine, for you personally and for the community generally, what can or cannot be done.

Now what does אפשר or אי אפשר mean in that context?  It means that if you live at point x and need to get to a store, to a beit midrash, to a bathroom – to anything which we acknowledge as a need, and there are two ways of reaching it.  You have a more circuitous route which will entail a certain effort for you – you’ll have to walk 3 km to get there, and another alternative route is one for which 1 km of walking will suffice.  Is that אפשר לעשותו or אי אפשר לעשותו?  It’s אפשר לעשותו – you can walk 3 km, you’re a young person – but the question is, at what cost?  ‘Cost’ has a very commercial ring about it, but it’s a very real question, and we use the term cost in many different contexts.  When I say at what cost: first of all, the cost varies – is it a warm, sunny day, is it a hot summer day?  It might be one, it might be the other.  Is it crucial for you to be home by a certain time, and if not your wife will be angry and your children will be at their wits’ end?  In another case, your children – they are watching some TV program, it has them at bay – that’s a different cost.  That’s one variation.

To take the gemara in Chullin (11b-12a), which says that according to Rabbi Mayer (who takes that position that we don’t go בתר רוב [follow the majority] – חיישינן למיעוטא [we take the minority into account]) – the gemara wants to know, according to Rabbi Mayer what do you with regard to consuming meat – if you don’t follow the rov [majority], you don’t know whether the animal might have a problem of tereifah or not.  Here, two issues come up: one issue comes up – what are the chances for it being a tereifah, which depends on a variety of factors.

The issue came up some years back, Rav Hershel Schachter decided to stop drinking milk.  Why?  Because he understands that there is a mi’ut [minority] which have a tereifah-punctured lung – and, while there are poskim who are meikeil [lenient] but still, you can manage without the milk, drink something else, you have other options.  That’s one issue.

The other issue is – to what extent can we strain our resources – take a situation where you can get chalav Yisrael but it costs 3 times as much as ordinary Borden’s milk – the gemara says that Rabbi Mayer admits that where it’s אי אפשר, then you let that rov determine.  What happens in that case is you allow an economic consideration – the cost of milk – to define for you the halakhic parameters of the risks you take regarding eating tarfut [non-kosher food].  Why, because of אפשר and אי אפשר.  What do you mean אי אפשר?  I said before, you don’t need to drink milk, or maybe you can spend more money on milk and less money on meat – there are all kinds of options available, and the gemara calls it אי אפשר – which means that there is a recognition of the need for a balanced approach to life.  You can’t ask just one question: the question is, for heaven’s sake, will my kids get milk or not?  That may be a question.  Is it the question?  No.  Is it a major question?  Probably not.

When dealing with social issues, economic issues, you cannot, as I think the charedim tend to do at times, focus on certain issues as if they are so central to human life, and others, which, for them, are not issues at all – for other people they can be.  If you come to a charedi and tell him: listen, don’t buy this milk, it’s very expensive, buy other milk.  He’ll say: מילא, never mind.  You say: no, don’t buy this expensive milk, because if you buy the expensive milk you won’t have money to buy a car or to buy a TV set.  He’ll say: TV set?  Phuy!  I’m glad not to have a TV set in my house.  But your neighbor thinks that life without a TV set is a fractious kind of life.  There’s the interlocking relationship between many needs, many priorities, and to plan life, at the individual or public level, can only be done intelligently if you have an overall view of a general perception of the facts and the details, and a clear sense of priorities.

That is true for making a government coalition, it is true if you are deciding what to buy, whether a TV set or a new camera, and it is true regarding the question of Yeshivah students entering the army.


5. Non-Orthodox Prayer Groups at the Kotel

Hello again.  I sincerely apologize for the fact that I have not posted in so long but I am glad to be able to share this with you. Thanks to Rav Mordechai Friedman and Rav Doniel Schreiber at the Yeshiva for their assistance in preparing this post.

I should take this opportunity to wish Moreinu Harav Lichtenstein a well deserved mazal tov on being honored at the Etzion Foundation’s dinner, in advance of his upcoming 80th birthday iyH, this coming Sunday in New York.

I wanted to preface the post by noting that Rav Lichtenstein focused largely on the halakhic issue of tumah and taharah vis-a-vis Har haBayit (or purity and impurity on the Temple Mount), applying the concept to the Kotel in a novel way, despite the fact that those halakhic strictures do not generally apply there.  I hope this is clear in the post itself but I wanted to try and prevent any misunderstanding in that regard.

Finally, if you choose to quote or excerpt from this post, please utilize the “reason, care and sensitivity” Rav Lichtenstein refers to at the end of the piece in doing so.  Thank you.

Kol tuv,

-Dov Karoll

Question: There has been support recently from some rabbis in the dati-leumi world for the permitting of non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel. Does Rav Lichtenstein think that this type of attitude would increase harmony and be beneficial for the Jewish People, or would the de-facto legitimisation of these groups be too high a price to pay?

Rav Lichtenstein:

Does anyone imagine that if a person wants to daven [pray] at the Kotel, as a yachid [individual], לפני ה’ ישפוך שיחו (“He shall pour forth his plea before God,” Tehillim/ Psalms 102:1), that people will prevent that?  On this issue, the question is to what extent we will bar prayer groups, not individuals.  One needs to distinguish, as prayer groups that want to daven at the Kotel could do so in one of two ways.  One is that they come to the Kotel deferentially, reverentially, respecting what the Kotel means to a great many people and what it means in terms of milei diShmaya [matters of religious import].  If that is what happens, then the difference between an individual and a group is fundamentally a numerical one; I think that with regard to anyone who does not flout the halakhot concerning it, one could not prevent them, nor would one want to prevent them.  Whatever differences we have, and to whatever extent we are involved in power struggles, I don’t believe that the proper place for that is smack in front of the Kotel, and to the extent that a person, or a group, feels that there is a degree of the presence of Shekhinah [Divine Presence] at the Kotel which you would not have if you would daven at a shul in Katamon, then I certainly think that from his point of view, without getting involved in political horse-trading, it would be in his interest, and in the interest of other groups, to be respectful, to daven there, but not to use that as the opportunity for demonstrating or flexing one’s muscles.

In order to better understand what is expected of us at the Kotel, at the foot of Har haBayit [the Temple Mount], let us turn to the basic sources of proper practice in the vicinity of Har haBayit. There are certain issues which would possibly pose a test case, of sorts, but those that are the most prominent in this respect are those which are probably beyond recall or beyond the ability to have control.  Basically what is involved is not just the davening but presence there altogether: one area is that which is addressed in the mishnah in Berakhot (54a/ 9:5) about how a person should be dressed in the mekom haMikdash [the Temple area], i.e., respectfully.  But the more prominent, basically fundamental area in terms of the halakhot having to do with bi’at Mikdash [entering the area of the Temple], and bi’at Mikdash is fundamentally involved with areas of tumah [ritual impurity] and taharah [ritual purity].  The halakhot concerning how a person should relate to Mikdash are strewn throughout the Rambam in various places; of these, the most prominent is Bi’at haMikdash (which is not concerned only with presence in Mikdash, but with the appointment of kohanim, but the most important is the area of tumah and taharah).  The area of tumah and taharah is one which, were it possible, were it feasible, it would certainly be an important avenue for those of us who are shomrei [observant of] Torah u’mitzvot to try to protect. I say this at two levels: first, it could be, in terms of the status and the response of our contemporary community which would want to maintain the integrity, the purity, על פי הלכה [halakhically], for a מקום קדוש [sacred place].

But that’s only part of it.  The other part has to do with the nature of the mitzvah of Mikdash and shemirat Mikdash [guarding the Temple area].  Shemirat mikdash has two facets: one is that which is mentioned in the baraita (Sifrei Zuta 18:4) and which the Rambam quotes toward the end of Hilkhot Beit haBechirah (8:1) – that it’s not out of fear that thieves will come, but rather, out of the sense of reverence that one feels by the very presence of guards, as the baraita explains: אינו דומה פלטין של מלך שיש לו שומרין לפלטין של מלך שאין לו שומרין, there’s no comparison, between a palace which is guarded, even if the guards are only there symbolically, and one which is not guarded.  The very presence of guards, even if they are only symbolic guards as if it were Buckingham Palace, is a demonstration of the esteem, of the awe, etc.  There are halakhot, also in the Rambam, in Hilkhot Beit haBechirah, concerning one’s mood when he is there – it’s not only a question of a physical appearance, how a person is dressed, but how he feels, what he experiences, and it’s here that the mishnah in Berakhot and the sugyot which deal with bi’at Mikdash converge.

I mentioned that there are two facets: one is trying to create a sense of awe surrounding Mikdash, the other has to do with protecting Mikdash from a public standpoint.  Again, I’m not talking about protecting it from thieves, but protecting in terms of the basic halakhot concerning tumah and taharah.  This comes into play, particularly in the parashah in Naso, in several pesukim [verses], located just before the parashiyot of nazir and sotah (Bemidbar/ Numbers 5:1-4).  Secondly, we’re dealing here with what has a personal aspect but for which there is public responsibility.  A person who is not in a status of taharah should not enter the area, the space, of Mikdash.  There’s a relationship in Halakhah between the degree of tumah and the degree of kedushah [sanctity] – the greater the element of kedushah, the greater are the limitations concerning one’s presence if he’s not willing or able to conform to the halakhot of tumah and taharah.  The gemara delineates three different areas of kedushah: Yerushalayim itself is kadosh, Har haBayit is kadosh, and the azarah [Temple courtyard] is kadosh, those are the three basic machanot, encampments, as it were.  In contrast to these, there are three different levels of tumah: the tumah of a metzora, a leper, who is proscribed from entering Yerushalayim; there are those whose טומאה יוצאת עליהן מגופן, whose tumah originates in their own physical locus, in their own body, and not in contact with the outside world – they are proscribed from entering Har haBayit; and then there is the azarah – the heart of the Mikdash itself, where anyone who is tamei, at the minimal personal tumah, even through physical contact with something else, is also prohibited from entering.

The parshah which deals with this is formulated in the plural, with regard to בני ישראל [the children of Israel] (5:2) – ולא יטמאו את מחניהם – “they should not defile their encampments” (5:3), and defilement refers to failure to purify oneself through the various means available for that – if one fails to do that, that’s a personal aveirah, it’s like eating non-kosher food.  But, quite apart from that, the pasuk speaks in the plural and addresses itself to the community as a whole – the general community has a responsibility to maintain the purity and the integrity of Mikdash, and that purity and integrity is one which is partly related to one’s physical condition, that kind of tumah, and partly to one’s moral purity – the first perek [chapter] of Yeshayahu [Isaiah] which we read as the haftarah for Shabbat Chazon (1:12) – מי בקש זאת מידכם רמוס חצרי – if you lack moral integrity, ethical and religious purity, who wants you there?

That being the case, notwithstanding the halakhic difference between Har haBayit and the Kotel, if we had the authority and the ability to convince our brethren and our sisters to conform their presence at the Kotel, even if they would have their own minyanim and their mode of tefillah [prayer], that this be done with cognizance and sensitivity to the unique character of Mikdash, that would be very positive, both in terms of maintaining the unity of Klal Yisrael [the Jewish people] and in terms of maintaining the kedushah of Mikdash.

With regard to ascending Har haBayit itself, there are communal responsibilities of maintaining the proper kedushah.  This has ramifications in certain areas of Halakhah (for those who are interested, the gemara in Makkot 14-15 is the proper locus for this), but without getting involved in the details and the specifics – in principle – that this is not only an area where a person is addressed as an individual, and demands are made upon him, to be sensitive to Mikdash and its sanctity, but that this is something which we want – as a community we want the streets to be clean, so we want the Mikdash to be clean.

However, it would be palpably impossible to enforce, not only because of questions of religious liberty, but even leaving that aside, in dealing with this as a personal and communal sensibility – to post a guard at the approach to Mikdash, to Har haBayit – to have people undergo some kind of a test before you can determine whether their presence is permissible or not – so that, which would be the most meaningful in halakhic terms, is not feasible.  There’s no preventive way that one could have, either for men or for women, before a person is allowed to pass through a certain gate, to see whether the woman is presently menstruating [niddah] or not, whether the man has defiled himself as a temei met, has come in contact with sources of mortal tumah – so once you’ve given that up, the issue becomes no longer a narrow halakhic issue, but, what was mentioned before, one of legitimization.

As for the Kotel, I don’t believe that, under circumstances where the halakhically prominent and serious repercussions are clearly and palpably beyond reach, that there’s so much to be gained by barring people from having access to the Kotel.  I’m not one of the frequent goers to the Kotel.  I know some very significant talmidei chakhamim [Torah scholars] who similarly have expressed certain restraint about visiting frequently: Rav Gustman once told me that he went to the Kotel only in the evenings when there weren’t so many people around (in his day there weren’t, now there are many more) when he would want to daven in Yiddish.  (That says something about Hilkhot Tefillah and something about Rav Gustman.)  Rav Berel Soloveichik used to go, he told me, every Shabbat, after he finished davening.  I’m not in the habit of doing that either.  When I’m there, I sometimes see someone with a makeshift yarmulke, standing at the Kotel itself, at the outer wall, crying his heart out, experiencing that which many people more devoted, more halakhically disciplined, perhaps don’t feel.  I don’t think that by challenging the sincerity of Conservative or Reform individuals, or as groups, we gain very much religiously or even, for that matter, politically.  However, if you are dealing with groups who want to come and to use that as the place to make demonstrations, be they even demonstrations which have a religious character, I would much rather sit down with them and ask them: let’s start with respect as a common value, with sanctity of place as a halakhic category, and even those of you who you don’t respect Halakhah, you can respect what Halakhah stands for.

If you ask me how I relate to this: I would hope that we could have some degree of comity – trying to maintain what Coventry Patmore called “the traditions of civility” – even in more general terms, as human values which have religious content and religious substrata.  Now, of course, I understand that some people resent this, but nonetheless I would want to maintain halakhic standards; I don’t think that having mixed congregations, men and women together, that that’s the place to fight it out.

If you ask me how I think, personally and communally, my approach would be to apply, to the extent possible, the categories of halakhic approach and norm.  I don’t think we should try to have every possible restriction in place in order to manifest and to demonstrate our authority and our power.  There are certain things which can only be done at the Kotel, and precisely for that reason, care and sensitivity should be the order of the day.

4. On the Afterlife

Greetings to all from snowy Allon Shevut.  I am glad to be able to present the next installment to the larger following the blog has picked up recently.  I apologize for the delay since the last post.  There has been a lot of feedback on the topic of homosexuality, and a follow-up post, a response to one of the questions raised with regard to the homosexuality post, will be forthcoming soon, be’ezrat Hashem.  Unfortunately, due to logistical considerations, we will be unable to address all the responses in this forum.  For those who are interested, there are links to media coverage of that recent post (and any other media coverage generated by the blog) along the side of the page of the blog.

Other topics on which I hope to post in the coming weeks: non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel, community responses to scandal, and receiving berakhot from rabbis (and related topics).

While the topic of this post is truly timeless, I think it is particularly appropriate for a week blessed with so much precipitation here in Israel, as the gemara in Ta’anit compares a day blessed with rain in Israel to the day of techiyat ha’meitim, the resuscitation of the dead.

This post was adapted based on a sicha or discussion with Harav Lichtenstein held on 23 Kislev 5773, December 7, 2012.

Kol tuv,

-Dov Karoll

Question: I have found very little discussion of the afterlife in Modern Orthodox literature and I would appreciate guidance on how to think substantively and seriously about this issue. Even if, as some have suggested, the afterlife is not central to Jewish thought and existence, are there aspects of it that are significant or worthy of consideration?

It is true that in Modern Orthodox circles there is less discussion of the afterlife than in charedi circles.  What one needs to ask is: first, why, and, second, is it a good thing or a bad thing?  Some people will tell you that indeed the statement about discussion is true, but that this is the result of a weakness of faith.  To speak with certainty about the factual situation that you have in the afterlife includes two components.  Chazal were very severe about a person who is a כופר בתחיית המתים [denies the resuscitation of the dead], which is one kind of afterlife, and while, with regard to other doctrines, they don’t take a rigorous stance at every point along the line (there is no clear evidence that every jot and tittle of the Rambam’s 13 ikkarim [principles of faith] were part of the faith content of Jewish life), but with regard to תחיית המתים [the resuscitation of the dead] – whoever is kofer [denies it], the mishnah in Sanhedrin takes him to task very severely.  Now if one is not talking about תחיית המתים, but one is talking about details of the afterlife, how long people are punished – in one kind of a pot or in another kind of a pot – if a person does not accept fully all the details which the Ramban put together from the various gemarot, in Rosh haShanah and elsewhere – and arrived at a picture of a schedule, how long, י”ב חודש [twelve months], more than י”ב חודש, etc., I don’t see in the gemara that a person who does not accept that as such (unless you just make a blanket statement – anybody who does not have full conviction with regard to every single ma’amar Chazal describing what is a largely amorphous situation) – that anyone like that is outside our camp.  But if one doesn’t go that far and one says alright, Chazal also did not present a picture of total detailed knowledge, you’re talking about a conjecture – what you have in the gemarot there which the Ramban quotes are a picture of how Chazal understood and imagined different standards of punishment.

It should be noted that indeed if a person accepts every detail of this account, he encounters certain difficulties.  One of the great difficulties rishonim grappled with arises from the sugya in Kiddushin and the Rambam’s pesak following that, which addresses how sakhar va’onesh [reward and punishment] works.  At the beginning of the third perek [chapter] in Hilkhot Teshuvah, the Rambam, following the gemara in Kiddushin, says: how is a person judged?  You balance how many zekhuyot [merits] and how many chovot [obligations] he has, you check the scales – you see what’s more, more weight on one side or more weight on the other side – if the most are chovot, so he, for that year, will die for sure.  If it’s not just the individual but the community, and you take all the zekhuyot of the community and put them on one side of the scale and all the chovot on the other side of the scale, and the majority is chovot, then, for sure, that community, that year, will be decimated.  If a whole country is like that – the whole country goes down the tube; if the whole world is like that – the whole world goes down.  That’s what the Rambam puts down, based on that gemara.  You ask yourself: doesn’t the Rambam know that there’s not going to be second mabbul [deluge]?!  The Rambam himself, when he describes the nature of his time, in Hilkhot De’ot (6:1), says that if most of the world is immoral or amoral, as is the situation in our time right now – that’s how the Rambam speaks – then, what should you do?  You should lock yourself up, don’t go out in the street, you don’t want to be found amongst all those people, etc.  If that’s the view the Rambam had of his generation, how can he write what he writes in Hilkhot Teshuvah?

So the Rambam was aware of that, and he has resort to a fairly standard technique – he starts out with a purely quantitative approach – how much, or how heavy.  By the time he gets to halakhah 3, he realizes that any one of us is going to say: how can this be?  So his answer will be, indeed, if the calculation was only counted quantitatively, then so many cities should have been destroyed, but you need to look qualitatively – and, qualitatively, in light of this scale, the Rambam can maintain that a single aveirah [sin] committed by one who has presumably been trained in world of avodat Hashem [service of God] may outweigh a multitude of sins transgressed by one whose training has been seriously deficient.  Because it’s qualitative you are going to maintain your principle that people are subject to this cheshbon [calculation], but the count, or the scales, are different from the way you and I perceive it.  And who knows this cheshbon?  Only one source: the קל דעות [God of Understanding], the Ribbono shel Olam [God] knows.  This is the way the Rambam can maintain his commitment to the sugya in Kiddushin and not be overwhelmed by its problematic aspects

If someone takes the position that when the gemara speaks of what happens to resha’im [the wicked] after a year, that’s with regard to ordinary resha’im.  But there are some resha’im – only the קל דעות knows who they are, and how wicked they are; on the other hand, He knows that they give tzedakah [charity], they help out almanot and yetomim [widows and orphans], so they’re not totally bad, and the way He jots it up, on His computer, the cheshbon comes out differently.  Which, in a sense, means that a person does not follow the prescribed formula of the gemara in Rosh haShanah down the line, and does not follow the Ramban in Sha’ar haGemul down the line – does that mean he’s an apikores [heretic]?  I doubt it.

Someone could still say: let’s face it, the charedi world is, some would say more naïve, others would say not naïve but trusting, it’s a simpler kind of faith, and therefore, whatever they see written black on white in the gemara, that, for them, is absolutely certain.  That includes things which, admittedly, Chazal had no way of knowing.  The afterlife, as Hamlet described it, is that land from which no traveler returns, so there are no reports.  That being the case, maybe we could understand that gemara as being assertions of Chazal with regard to the afterlife but not news reports of just what happens over there.

That might still leave him, in our perception, short of the degree of emunat chakhamim [trust in the Sages] which the charedi world has, but not at a deep, broad level.  It may be that this is not the kind of issue that this person [the questioner] has in mind, which has to do with sakhar va’onesh.  But talking about the afterlife, leaving aside the issue of sakhar va’onesh, also has to do with questions of what is the nature of that existence.  What if one takes the following: Boswell reports that Dr. Jonson quoted an English clergyman who said that in the afterlife, a great many people are judged equally.  This is said not of the moral life but of the intellectual life: if there are two people, one of whom is born with a brilliant mind, and the other one is born with a very limited mind, do you have the same expectations for both?  That doesn’t seem very fair.  So, this clergyman said, the afterlife is like a glass: you have two people, you have two glasses, and both glasses are full.  But one glass is full with 8 oz. and the other glass is full with 4 oz. The quantity of Coca Cola you get in either glass is different, but being full, and having your desires satisfied, so you enter the עולם האמת [afterlife], as the Ramban says [based on Bereishit 35:29], זקן ושבע ימים, all your ambitions have been fulfilled, that’s true equally if you’re the Rambam or if you’re a shoemaker.

If a person would adopt such a position, I would not necessarily conceive his view as a problematic perception.  In effect, his view entails a differential conception of the afterlife, depending on whether judgment is here applied with respect to moral failings or to ethical flaws, as opposed to the amoral.  If the reason that a person from one camp has a different attitude from a person from another camp is indeed because of a lack of faith, and that one person, perhaps, would be glad to get this albatross off his neck, and not to be bound to תחיית המתים and being defined as a kofer [heretic] if he lacks that faith, and another person doesn’t regard it as an albatross, he regards it as a yesod in emuna [principle of faith] – that’s quite possible.  It’s true that people who are Modern Orthodox, if they are modern, they are generally less dogmatic; that’s part of what being modern is, meaning that you may have a bit more skepticism.  Not only about the afterlife.  Modern people, many of them have more skepticism, and are less easily manipulated in faith content than people from 1000 years ago.

But one needs to bear in mind that even if one assumes that to be the case, it’s not all a win-win situation for the charedim – some of the people who have this simple faith, this is just what happens to them after י”ב חודש [12 months] in Gehinnom, may tend to relax or to change their standards of truth, of probity, of morality – they might, and then again, they might not.  But I don’t think automatically, that once a person has determined or established the apparent fact that Modern Orthodox people are less inclined than charedi people, it’s all a loss for one side and a gain for the other side.  But, certainly, we have expectations of ourselves and of people in our community, that those elements which Chazal regarded to be yesodot [fundamental principles], and which, by and large, the Rambam regarded as yesodot – that this is part of the fabric of emunah.  At issue in this context is not only the afterlife as such, but rather the interface of our present life, within which the problem, inter alia, of remolding ourselves in the world which Chazal regarded as the prelude to the next.

3. Perspective on Homosexuals

This post is based on the second part of a session held with Rav Lichtenstein on Friday, 17 Marcheshvan, 5773, November 2, 2012.  In response to some of the feedback following the last session, I decided to integrate [bracketed] translations into the text rather than marking them as notes.  Once again, I tried to maintain the original formulations whenever possible [any bracketed comments are my insertions].  While I consulted and confirmed with Rav Lichtenstein on a few of the details, he did not review the text.

-Dov Karoll

Question: There has some discussion recently concerning what our attitude as Orthodox Jews should be toward homosexuals in our community.  Some of the debate revolves around the meaning and significance of the Torah’s designation: to’eivah [abomination].  Could Rav Lichtenstein relate to these issues, addressing both the individual and communal levels?

This, as you know, is a hot issue, and one which has surfaced in our world as, simultaneously, it has surfaced within the general world.  There was a time when it was taken for granted that if you were homosexual you couldn’t be in the army, you couldn’t run a business, you obviously couldn’t set up a home, and you obviously couldn’t apply for getting whatever money is distributed by the government for a mate.  All of that was taken for granted.  In the background was a judgment, which is grounded in the Western adherence to Biblical tradition, that there’s something wrong with this morally and spiritually.  While the opinion divided between two poles [the Euthyphro argument] about whether things are good because the Ribbono shel Olam [God] wants them, or He wants them because they’re good, and that works the other way as well with regard to things that are not good.

Some people have said that homosexuality is something which is a distortion of nature, it’s not the way the Ribbono shel Olam built the world, it’s no good – and because it’s no good, there’s a pasuk [verse] in Acharei Mot which tells you to stay away from it.  Others say no, it’s a neutral phenomenon, but neutral things, once the Torah “deneutralizes” them, so to speak, and set it up as an issur [prohibition], even if it’s a chok [non-rational law] and not something beyond that – we have to subscribe to it if we are believing Jews, or, להבדיל, believing Christians.

There is some discussion in the time of rishonim, and later – about the whole world of arayot [sexual prohibitions] in general – is it a chok or a mishpat [rational law].  It’s an old question.  Aquinas deals with this issue in Summa Theologica, and, להבדיל, the Ramban deals with this issue: is it chok or is it mishpat.  That would probably make some difference in terms of how you relate to it.  If you relate to it as mishpat, it has a rational basis: somebody who engages in it, you are doubly severe in judging him – first of all, he’s doing something which is inherently wrong – and which, without the Torah – in the same manner as the gemara in Eiruvin says that if arayot were not written in the Torah, we would have learned tzeni’ut from the cat – we would have learned heterosexuality from the dog or the cat, or some other animal – one who engages in homosexuality is: 1) violating the natural order and 2) violating the parsha in Sefer Vayikra.  If you think it’s a chok – the first element falls out, but it’s [still] out of line, it’s part of the issur.

The question you raise is not just a question with regard to a particular ban, but the label of to’eivah, does that add a more serious dimension.  To make that judgment you need to do two related things: 1) check a computer or a concordance for wherever the word to’eivah appears – and see, to what does it apply.  So you discover that to’eivah,in the pasuk in Yechezkel, refers to people who don’t feed עניים [poor] properly (Ezekiel 16:48-50), or, you open up a chumash in Ki Tetzei – if you are dealing with weights and measures, and you cheat a little bit on the weights and the measures, that’s to’eivah also (Deuteronomy 25:13-16).  Having done that, find for me a community which responds and relates to homosexuality as if you are doing something terrible – just like it responds to those who are cheating a little bit on weights and measures.  But that’s not the case, and that is because of the revulsion which, apart from its being called to’eivah – the revulsion which is felt by the Western world toward homosexuality probably would have existed in large measure nonetheless.

If you ask me: should the term to’eivah be meaningful to us?  Of course it should.  We are מאמינים בני מאמינים [believers].  We think that if the Torah refers to something as to’eivah, the Ribbono shel Olam regards it as to’eivah.  But to be fairer and more honest with ourselves and with our communities, let us understand that if you deal only with the use of the term to’eivah, you can only push that particular envelope as far as you push the cheating on the weights and the measures – so all the revulsion, the moral energy, that you bring against that, you should bring against this, too.

That’s not what happens today.  I have an argument with some people about this.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not in favor of homosexuality, חס ושלום. But we do need to agree to abide by a greater measure of honesty in dealing with that community than I think at present applies.  Let me give you one example.  Some years back – with regard to an annual event in NY – there is the Israel Day Parade – it’s a big event – they bring people from all over, all the high schools in the NY area, boys and girls, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secularists – they all come to the big parade.  It’s been, for many people, a very positive force, a binding force, bringing Jews together – for some it’s a bit divisive – but they always manage to get over their divisions and march together on a given Sunday during sefirah.

A few years back, as part of the ferment which you have within the Jewish community in general and the homosexual community in particular, the gays said they want to get in on the action too – so everyone else walks around with big signs: we are A, B, C, D of America – so we are the Jewish gays and lesbians of America.  The response was a threat – they didn’t use the word threat, they called it an advisement, or something to that effect – by the religious high schools – if the gays are going to be part of the parade, we’re out.  That was more than the Jewish community could swallow – an event which always served to bind, to unify, for it to be divisive – there was some give and take and some friends of mine were involved in this, I know this from the inside, and finally, they worked out an arrangement where the homosexuals did not march, the threat worked – no one could bear the thought that all the high schools were going to be out.

You ask yourself, wait a minute: we don’t like homosexuality, but we don’t like chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] either – all the mechallelei Shabbat [Shabbat violators] of America could have marched in that parade and no one would say boo, because we are very liberal Jews, and we like to not be judgmental, and be friendly to people to the right and the left of us.  So, mechallelei Shabbat – we wish they would be shomrei Shabbat [Shabbat observers], but if that’s what they are, that’s what they are,we accept them as they are and we don’t pass judgment.

If I open a gemara in Sanhedrin, or if I open a chumash, for that matter – leaving aside the term to’eivah – what is a more serious aveirah, chillul Shabbat [Shabbat violation] or homosexuality.  Or, for that matter, there are people who worship avodah zarah [idolatry] who march in the parade, too.  Is it proper, is it fair, and I say this without relenting in our position to homosexuality – to decide that all the sins which the whole entire Jewish community has – all of that we can swallow and march with them, with pride and with their flags and everything that they want, but this is the שעיר לעזאזל[scapegoat] – dispatched to ארץ גזירה, that’s what happens to the שעיר לעזאזל (Leviticus 16:22).  I discussed this point with people for whom I have the highest regard and I asked them this question.

I’m not so nimble-minded not to know the answer.  Much of the answer is: the mechallelei Shabbat of America don’t want to march in the parade under the banner of mechallelei Shabbat of America – they are going to march as the Kiwanis club or the Rotary club, the junior high school of Great Neck, or whatever you have, and that will pass muster – they will not flaunt.  The homosexual community today has created such a ferment because it is very aggressive.  The response to that has been – on our part – many people have also been aggressive.  That’s something which I think should be avoided.

In terms of how you respond to it: the term response has at least a dual meaning, and maybe more than two meanings.  One is, what your response is emotionally, psychologically, spiritually – how would you feel, not necessarily that you would do anything or could do anything.  If you were walking down the street and saw someone breaking into a bank – so that, מהיכי תיתי.  If you were walking down the street and saw someone raping a girl – the disgust, the revulsion – the feeling of uch – would be overwhelming.  That’s a response of one kind even if you could do nothing, all you could do is go home and discuss it with your wife, and tell her: what a terrible neighborhood we live in, it’s time to move.  But then, there is a response which is at the active plane: you can respond by going to the police station and getting the license number of the car the attacker is driving around in, and hope that the police get there before you.

When we talk about response, are we talking about: feeling warmly and with sympathy to that community, or are we talking about steps actually to be taken?  The question of steps to be taken is also a more recent phenomenon.  Fundamentally, the issur of homosexuality is a personal aveirah; I don’t know – maybe I’m wrong – of places in Tanakh or in Chazal which single out, as a communal sin, homosexuality.  I know where failure to give enough tzedakah [charity] is singled out – even with regard to gentiles – I discussed it in the shiurim on tzedakah [in the Friday morning מעגל החיים series] – that’s part of Yechezkel’s diatribe against them.  There is chillul Shabbat – all kinds of things which are singled out in nevi’im – not just that there are x number of individuals sleeping with each other in Yerushalayim – they have their own bedroom.  And historically, I think that’s how it’s been treated, as far as I know.

Today it’s become a public issue and it’s part of a public debate.  What you do in relating to a homosexual – beyond either feeling revulsion or feeling sympathy – do you let him into shul, do you give him an aliyah, do you let him daven for the amud, if he adopts a child, do you let the child attend your yeshivah.  You could give many other examples: job discrimination: is it fair, is it honest, if a person is a homosexual – I’m not talking about the army, where you may be afraid that you’ll be seduced, or whatever you’re afraid of – he wants to be a teller in a bank.  These are all issues which can be part of the public arena, the public scene.  There, different people have different emotional responses and different practical responses.

If you ask me for my own response: obviously, I don’t approve in any way, but emotionally, the fire that burns in many hearts today, and the fears which go beyond the revulsion, are beyond what I think is proper, and particularly, as the phenomenon becomes more prevalent, which is unfortunate in itself, but at the personal plane it has become a more common aveirah, it is less of an aveirah on the part of the particular individual.

My own feeling is: it’s a very unfortunate development and one that will hopefully pass, though that’s hard to say.  But, for people involved: I have a combination of – I wouldn’t say revulsion, that may be too strong a term – I certainly have criticism, disapproval, but tempered with an element of sympathy.  These are people who are very unfortunate.  I said to one of them who came to talk to me: you are thrice punished.  First of all, you are punished in that you can’t have a normal life: one of the great joys of my life is my children, my family, my wife, and children you can’t have.  Secondly, you are punished in that you have no one to whom to turn – you come out, risking your own situation, taking a position.  Thirdly, the disapproval generates further disapproval.  Particularly, if one acknowledges that many of the people who are caught in this situation feel that they are אנוסים [coerced], not שוגג [accidental], not מזיד [intentional].

From what I gather psychologists are divided on this issue, as to whether it is something which is controllable or not.  But the material which they send me – I’m not singled out for anything – reflects a readiness on the part of many, and they would be very happy if you could cure them.  There are some, who are very militant, who wouldn’t want you to use the term cure – they are not sick any more than the heterosexual people are sick – that’s how they regard it – that, I think, is pushing it a bit too far.  You might assume they are not to be held fully responsible if it’s a genetic development, but, certainly it is not something which we want to see become more rampant.

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2. On Appropriate Religious Responses to Hurricane Sandy

This post is based on a session with Rav Lichtenstein held on Friday of Parshat Vayera (17 Marcheshvan 5773, November 2, 2012), at the end of the week in which Hurricane Sandy took place.  While original formulations were generally maintained, I tried to include translations of some phrases in endnotes, and a few in the text, as well as providing many of the sources in English, to enable those whose Hebrew is more limited to follow the basic gist.  The text was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.

-Dov Karoll

Question: Just a few centuries ago, a cataclysmic event like Hurricane Sandy would have been viewed as the direct hand of God in nature.  Contemporary Jews seem less inclined to adopt such a view.  Could the Rosh Yeshiva relate to appropriate religious reactions to Sandy in particular, and to the changed perspective of modern Jews in general?

The response to this question is partly a more specific one, relating to either the specific event of this particular storm, or, in a more generic sense, natural disasters, which are here described as cataclysmic, and indeed not only that but catastrophic.  Consequently, to a great extent, one’s response to this kind of an event is a function of one’s general view: a) of the interaction between מלכותא דשמיא[i] and מלכותא דארעא [ii] – of natural events within a supernatural context, and: b) one’s right, and, some would say, one’s duty, to reflect upon the events themselves, to try to gauge and to delineate the dimensions, the roots, of events of this kind.  That could take a number of forms.

Some people, who are not to be counted amongst the believing modern Jew, but to deal with humanity in general, find the events so terrifying that they find it, for themselves personally, virtually impossible to digest the enormity of the events, so that it becomes, to them, beyond comprehension, and in the extreme case, it results in people who lose their religious faith in general, whether Jews or gentiles.

Here, for Sandy, I imagine that this response has been more limited, because while it’s a storm with enormous force, it is one that, at the human plane, has taken relatively few lives.  I say relatively, because obviously we can’t speak lightly of the life of one person or 100 people, but when you look at historical events which had that effect – Voltaire lost his religious faith in the terrible earthquake in Lisbon in the middle of the 18th Century, and there, thousands perished; looking back to the tsunami of recent memory, that happened likewise, and people responded likewise.  That is the kind of response which, to a certain extent, we can understand, and, if we are very tolerant and very liberal, even sympathize with, and try to avoid being judgmental with regard to people who are making that response.  But it is a response – I don’t know how widespread it is, but it certainly exists.

To move from that to responses which are within the purviews and within the parameters of religious faith: here, you could move to the extreme, from the losses of one’s faith which I mentioned earlier, to the various poles of response which entail, not the rejection or denial, whether blasphemy or not, but, to the contrary, to move to responses which are viewed as a manifestation of the divine, breaking through, as it were, the crust which, imaginatively, encompasses the human orbit, of the natural world, and to see this, in a most fiery way, as an expression of divine anger, and the manifestation of one’s view of the רבונו של עולם,[iii] particularly in view of that aspect of מלכות שמיםi which is not, of the י”ג מידות,[iv] ק-ל רחום וחנון,[v] but rather that which many נביאים [vi] saw in terms of their perception, their vision. ישעיהו and יחזקאל [vii] both were privileged to be able to see מלכות שמים,i but one saw the beneficence of קדוש, קדוש קדוש [viii] while one saw הקרח הנורא.[ix]  But people who have no limitations in any way of making statements affirming what they presume to know about the ways of the רבונו של עולם,iii and who say, not as ישעיהו did, נסתרה דרכי מה’ (40:27) but לא נסתרה דרך ה’ ממני, who audaciously ascribe a cause and effect relationship to a tragedy which befalls mankind, and, on the other hand, is an expression of a message being addressed to us by the רבונו של עולם.iii

Some people will not speak in terms of an actual message which sounds very direct, and, from a certain point of view, is not an expression regarding anger but, on the contrary, of divine beneficence, that the רבונו של עולםiii is taking us under His wing and relating to us.  The worst possible thing that can happen to an individual or to humanity as a whole is that the רבונו של עולםiii should simply leave us all to our devices – and, from a certain point of view, even if that does not occur and we are collecting the victims – being a victim is better than being ignored completely.  Rav Nachman says in the gemara in Sanhedrin (105a) – כל כי האי ריתחא לירתח רחמנא עלן – may the רבונו של עולםiii take such drastic steps as He sees fit, ולפרוקינן – but keep us in mind and redeem us.

That there have been people who were entitled to speak in that vein, I think, goes without question, within the parameters of our אמונה.[x]  We believe that there are certain individuals – נביאיםvi as a category – who have been blessed – sometimes they are not blessed they are tortured – but, in any event, have some kind of mystical contact with the רבונו של עולםiii through נבואה.[xi]  In תנ”ך we have many different “faces,” so to speak, of the רבונו של עולםiii – המשילוך ברוב חזיונות, הנך אחד בכל דמיונות – and the same themes that you have in שיר הכבוד, Chazal speak of the רבונו של עולם’s different faces: one is in מתן תורה, where it is כזקן יושב בישיבה, קריעת ים סוף, there it is כגבור ואיש מלחמה, ה’ איש מלחמה ה’ שמו.[xii]  But that there is a “face” which, in terms of our immediate response, seems to be assuming that the רבונו של עולםiii is pulling out all the plugs, an expression of His response to, one form or another of action which is unbearable, then one can say: this is the רבונו של עולם’s response because we are sinning this way or that way.  מפני חטאנו[xiii] – transmitted at the national, super-national, not simply at the personal, vein.

It’s a very difficult response to digest, but some people glory in it; it gives them an opportunity to reflect upon their own virtue, as opposed to the infamy which they see in those around them in other communities, in other people.  And apart from asserting their own virtue, it gives them an opportunity to serve as a shofar of the רבונו של עולםiii – כשופר הרם קולך[xiv] – now that is very flattering to many [about themselves].

But whether it’s flattering or not is not the only issue here.  Let’s assume you are dealing with people who are not flattered but are pained – the other question is: does one have either a right or a duty to speak that language?  Here there certainly are differences between a more modern temperament, and the earlier – some would say more primitive, others would use alternative terms – the older forms of response and relation – both in terms of how one feels himself and in terms of what he communicates to others, in the broad community within which he finds himself.

As you probably know, I come from a school of thought which reacts very strongly against statements, assertions, defamations, made by people who claim to have, or who speak as if they think they have, some direct hotline to the רבונו של עולם,iii so that they are able to contemplate events, and interpret the events in accordance with their philosophic orientation, their spiritual stance, and say: ah hah, I told you so.

I take my tact from a different world, particularly the gemara in Sanhedrin (105b) – the gemara says with regard to Bilam – יודע דעת עליון [xv] is the way he described himself, and Chazal comment: יודע דעת עליון? השתא דעת בהמתו לא הוה ידע, דעת עליון הוה ידע?  The message the אתון (donkey) communicated to him, that he couldn’t understand; the will of the רבונו של עולםiii he could understand?  This is partly a problem of folly – and it would be foolish of me to pretend to read cuneiforms or picture languages, and it’s folly for a person to imagine that he is יודע דעת עליון.xv

Apart from the folly, there’s a certain arrogance involved in this, and a certain self-confidence, which one finds very repugnant.  A person lives through a period of tragedy; hopefully one would expect a response which, on the part of the person, does not focus upon his understanding and perception of why and how the רבונו של עולםiii is running the world.  Theoretically speaking, one could, of course, ascribe a certain result to the רבונו של עולםiii primarily regarding the result as a punitive, or as a neutral, act – when I say neutral, I don’t mean that the results are neutral; many people being killed of course is not neutral at all – but neutral in the sense that the Ramban and, to some extent, the Rambam, when they speak of השגחה פרטית[xvi] – they speak of it being limited to a small number of people – whether the virtues which qualify a person for that are the moral-religious virtues of the Ramban or the intellectual virtues of the Rambam – but jointly, taking the position that השגחה פרטיתxvi varies, is a noble and lofty station, and it is not something which guards the [ordinary] individual.  What happens to the individual, is that he and – with regard to the individual I don’t just mean one person, his whole community – [possibly even] the universal community of his time – is left to the devices of natural forces.

In connection with this I once mentioned, and I published this too, I once went to see Rav Hutner z”l and asked him about the Ramban and the Rambam – and he said, no, חס וחלילה, it doesn’t mean that השגחהxvi has no way of dealing with those who deserve to be punished – it means simply that he is left to his own devices and to natural forces – and it’s a way of the השגחהxvi dealing with those who defy מלכות שמייםi – he’s dealt with, He is now taking someone – throwing him into the lion’s den, and the lions do what they naturally do….

In either case, whether it’s simply with regard to being ignored, and his pleas and prayers also being ignored, or whether it’s an active, punitive act, the assumption that one is able to make such statements – both that he has the right, because he has a sense of his own virtue, and feels it’s his duty – he’s hoping to save his generation – terrible calamities occur because of their sins, and as יחזקאל was able to explain the churban (destruction) of ירושלים, the בית המקדש, etc. – it’s their duty to help humanity mend its ways and restore contact and communication with the רבונו של עולםiii and the י”ג מידות.iv

For all of this, people like myself have no stomach.  First of all, the arrogance implied in יודע דעת עליוןxiii is frightful.  Secondly, even if a person were a יודע דעת עליון, the assumption that his priorities are not to mend himself, his ways, to have teshuvah (repentance) which is focused upon his own misdemeanors or worse, but his primary duty is, assuming that he’s already in good shape, he is out to put the whole world in good shape.

This is a total misconception of what teshuvah demands of a person.  Occasionally – there are נביאיםvi who are נביאיםvi – Yonah could have entered Nineveh and given that message – and then you ask yourself, is that all he has to do?  Why not do something first to amend himself?  The answer could be that there was nothing to mend, that he was a perfect person; that was his self-image.  But if you read the last perek in Yonah, what you get over there, if you have my sensibility – is anything but perfection – there is so much in Yonah’s ultimate station and ultimate mode of expression which requires mending and teshuvah.  It’s not for naught that we read Maftir Yonah on Yom Kippur – because Yonah is there not simply to communicate to us, but to give you an example, of what a person who sets himself up as a navi la’goyim (prophet to the nations), where he stands himself.  Chazal were aware of that – Chazal speak of the fact that Yonah was addressed by the רבונו של עולםiii twice – שנית – twice he was addressed, and a third time he was not addressed – part of that self-centered selfishness which comes to expression later.

All of this relates to a religious response, as opposed to the earlier responses that I mentioned, of Voltaire and others.  We live in an age which is after the Shoah, and that is something that we cannot get off our backs, nor something that we should get off our backs.  There are people who speak of the Shoah itself in the vein of מפני חטאנו:xiii why did the Shoah happen, a phenomenon which is much worse from our point of view.  First of all, it is quantitatively, such an enormously larger number group of people.  Secondly, it is focused upon Klal Yisrael, and here, Amos’s message (3:2) – רק אתכם ידעתי מכל משפחות האדמה על כן אפקוד עליהם את כל עונותיכם is there.  Thirdly, the part of Knesset Yisrael which presumably sinned the most was relatively not affected – Western Europe, which is where the sins of that generation were focused – was hit much more mildly, if you can speak in that way, than Eastern Europe, where traditional Yahadut,held sway amongst many.  Nonetheless, there are people who say, no: מפני חטאנו.xiii  That kind of response to the Shoah has elicited terrible responses.

I’m a talmid of Rav Hutner’s, and some of my friends are as well, and one of the things which we, people of my persuasion, and some of my colleague’s persuasions, find it impossible to digest, is the kind of position which the Rosh Yeshivah took – he was interviewed and was asked about the Shoah and he gave a disquisition to explain, based on the Parshiyot in Vayelekh and Nitzavim respectively, and with some analysis of modern European history, primarily focused upon the sinful stance which Western Europe adopted after the French revolution – it was all מפני חטאנו.xiii  With all my respect and admiration, in many aspects, of the Rosh Yeshivah, that is something which I could absolutely not begin to fathom, how one could make that kind of a statement.

What all this adds up to is: one cannot assert that the מפני חטאנוxiii theory is not correct objectively.  But what it does mean is that you have no way of knowing that, and when you don’t know, and you have two options: one is to focus upon your own spiritual needs or the needs of your community, and try to somehow mend our collective ways, and the other option is admitting you don’t know, we will never know, עד ביאת גואל צדק – and therefore, our priorities need to be teshuvah – which includes in it an element of הכרת החטא,[xvii] but that’s not the only element.  Most simply, it’s much better to admit you don’t know rather than to give answers which are, in every way, unsatisfactory from a spiritual point of view.

Emil Fackenheim, who started out as a reform rabbi in Germany, ended up as a ba’al teshuvah in our camp, in the middle of that period, in Reflection and Return, he quoted someone as having asked somebody else, do you think we’ll ever know the explanation for the Shoah.  And the answer that person gave, to which Fackenheim subscribed: I hope not.  I hope not.  I don’t think that anyone can speak in a vein of certainty, or even of likelihood, probability, and then turn around and explain that everybody else was swept aside because they were good for nothing, but he should be saved because he is very good for everything.

I am aware that there are people who don’t think as I do.

It’s frightful to contemplate, but a religious response has to be religious, spiritual, submissive, and not supercilious in any way.  This is not to push – I do push one particular response, religiously speaking – but this is not to bar any number of other possibilities – it’s not for us to limit the רבונו של עולםiii in terms of what he can or can’t do.  We live by a faith, which is manifested in this week’s parshah, that the רבונו של עולםiii is guided by moral principles, by principles of justice, as Avraham Avinu questioned: השופט כל הארץ לא יעשה משפט.[xviii]  We assume there is משפט (justice).  Assuming that, there are questions, admittedly: could the Jews of Eastern Europe have done anything so terrible in terms of violating Shulchan Arukh or violating Shabbat or anything else to deserve the fate which befell them – we can’t begin to imagine that, and we shouldn’t want to imagine that.  So, we need to be submissive and, to some extent, hope for the better, but at the same time that we weep, as it were, for the worst.

There’s another point which comes up in connection with this matter, and that is: some people use such an event as a base for solidifying their religious faith, just the opposite of Voltaire, and they like to talk about human weakness, etc. – just see what the רבונו של עולםiii can do – with the flick of a stick, to upset the whole equilibrium of nature, etc.  Now why someone who is aware, at the most superficial level, of what the modern world knows, which earlier generations did not know, simply in numbers: Einstein, with all his חשבונות (calculations), arrived at the conclusion that the world: 1) is finite, and 2) that its diameter is 35 billion light years.  Now, we believe that ה’ א-לוקינו ה’ אחד – the whole shebang is run by the רבונו של עולם.iii  So, this is something which we need, knowing there is a world out there which is 35 billion light years, which is, perhaps, unfathomable; so that, the רבונו של עולםiii runs every day – in that we believe – המחדש בטובו בכל יום תמיד מעשה בראשית – but whether He could have the waters of Long Island 10 feet high or 15 feet high – that we need in order to believe that the רבונו של עולםiii in running the world?!  It makes no sense logically or psychologically – but some people use this as a stick to bang over the heads of the secularists – ah hah, you see, you’re getting it in the neck now.

If one had to have some link between this and hashgachah – better to feel sorry for the resha’im (wicked), to respond in that vein in Chazal: מעשי ידי טובעים בים ואתם אומרים שירה,[xix] and tell someone speaking in this vein: מעשי ידי טובעים בים and you are delivering sermons?

I don’t suggest all of this to be something which is satisfying: when all is said and done it’s very sad.  And, as I said, when there is loss of life involved, I don’t know how much money is involved, what the losses are.  One day they put in the press $10 billion or $20 billion, yesterday I saw someone who said that they are putting a cap on it of $50 billion – so you and I think $50 billion is a lot of money.  I assumed, as a דבר פשוט, that the stock market would crash the following day – גארנישט – $50 billion rolled off the cap – and I realized why it didn’t crash: because the sum total of the value of the companies which are listed on the NYSE is way in excess than $50 billion – so if you take the $50 billion divided amongst a lot of people in this world, so it is $10 per person, they can manage, but that’s a separate matter.

Follow-up Question: It seems that Chazal instruct us to find specific reasons and to be תולה the יסורין[xx] which befall us on that specific reason.  For example, in the gemara in Berakhot which says of ראה יסורין באין עליו, יפשפש במעשיו, [xxi] eventually, if you don’t find anything, you are תולה on ביטול תורה.[xxii]  How do we relate to that?

Answer: I fully subscribe to that, but that statement, in the gemara itself, does not state with any degree of certainty, much less speak categorically, of why something happened to him.  We once had a discussion here, in Rav Amital’s days – I remembered Rav Amital speaking, if you come home and you can’t find your key to get into the house – it’s nothing tragic but very disconcerting, and then you can ask yourself – what happened?  Everybody else got home ok.   This one got home ok, that one will get home ok and poor you – you don’t get home ok.  So you don’t know –it could be an accident – is the Ramban or the Rambam being acted out on your entering your house, or maybe there are other issues: maybe you didn’t daven minchah with kavanah, maybe you spoke a little lashon hara with your wife, וכדומה with other things – you need to take everything into consideration, and the consideration and response needs to be a spiritual response of mending your ways by reducing, massively, the possible grounds for what happened to you.  That is clearly a desirable and feasible response, but it doesn’t mean that you can say for sure that you are important enough to have such a message addressed to you.

The Rambam in the beginning of Hilkhot Ta’aniyot addresses himself to this question – והלכתם עמי בקרי והלכתי עמכם בחמת קרי – קרי is exactly accident, force of nature, being left to our own devices.  We are, particularly with regard to what happens to Knesset Yisrael, we are commanded not to ascribe it to accidents, but it doesn’t mean that you can say with certainty what the answer is, since you don’t know, take care of the eventualities, and raise possibilities.

I do not question the fact that there are many statements in Chazal which speak of a cause and effect relationship between different things, and which, very often, are troubling to us because of what seems to us an imbalance between the crime and the punishment.  Take the gemara in Nedarim (32a), which has to do with our Yeshiva too, in a sense: why was Avraham Avinu punished – being punished for him meaning that his generations, his progeny, were punished – שעשה אנגריא בתלמידי חכמים – he drafted Yeshivaleit into the army.  You ask yourself, מרא דעלמא כולה – let’s assume it was a weakness on Avraham Avinu’s part, and you and I wouldn’t say that, we are very humble before Avraham Avinu, we should be, but Chazal had the authority to say that – is it a statement which we can digest with moral comfort?!  We open up another gemara in Sanhedrin, where Mosheh Rabbeinu addressed the רבונו של עולםiii – למה הרעות לעם הזה[xxiii] – and Chazal explain – what he was talking about, למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – he wasn’t talking about a little discomfort – he couldn’t find the key to get into the house – למה הרעות לעם הזהxx – these are thousands of people drowned – כל הבן הילוד היאורה תשליכוהו[xxiv] – its infants being put to death as part of the bricklaying of building a city – enormous suffering – so all of that because Avraham Avinu drafted תלמידי חכמים as soldiers?!  בסך הכל he didn’t do it for no reason, עשה אנגריא as we make אנגריא – we send people to the army because we feel that’s what needs to be done morally, halakhically.  So let’s assume it was a mistake – generations need to suffer because of that one mistake?

So here and there we read such statements – we find them – I’m not denying that.  But the question is, not can we figure out – to say we are not only יודע דעת עליון,xv but also יודע דעת אברהם אבינו.  To some extent, we live in a world, we must presume to understand certain things – soon we’ll have elections, we need to pass judgment on why Bibi does this or why Bibi does that – you can’t assume to be יודע דעת ביבי.  There are statements which presume judgmental authority – but Chazal are Chazal, and you and I are just you and I.

For us, it behooves us to be modest, to be chozer bi’tshuvah, and hope for the best.

[i] Literally the Heavenly Kingdom, i.e., the Divine realm

[ii] Literally the earthly kingdom, i.e., this world, or, in this case, the natural order

[iii] God

[iv] The Divine attributes of Mercy (see Exodus 34:6-7)

[v] God who is merciful and graceful

[vi] Prophets

[vii] Isaiah and Ezekiel

[viii] Isaiah 6:3

[ix] Ezekiel 1:22

[x] Faith

[xi] Prophecy

[xii] At the giving of the Torah, God was manifest as a teaching elder, while at the Red Sea, He was manifest as a warrior

[xiii] Due to our sins, an expression from the musaf prayer

[xiv] Isaiah 58:1

[xv] Numbers 24:16

[xvi] Divine Providence on the individual level [השגחה alone: Divine Providence]

[xvii] Literally recognition of sin

[xviii] Genesis 18:25

[xix] My creations drown in the sea, and you sing?

[xx] Attribute his suffering

[xxi] Berakhot 5a: If a person sees that suffering has befallen him, he should examine his actions….

[xxii] Attribute his suffering to dereliction in the study of Torah

[xxiii] Exodus 5:22

[xxiv] Exodus 1:22

Session 1: Parenting and Children “Off the Derech”

This post is based on a session with Rav Lichtenstein held on 20 Elul 5772, September 7, 2012.  We have tried to maintain the original formulations and flavor as much as possible, including original Hebrew (and Yiddish…) phrases.  The text was not reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.

-Dov Karoll

General introduction

I will try to relate to issues and questions you will raise.  Let me make a general remark: the older one gets, the more people imagine that he has accumulated knowledge of the years, and all the issues with which he had difficulty and with which the audience has difficulty, these are to become part of an exchange, and he can provide resolutions to whatever questions you want to raise.  In my mind, this role always is associated with Coleridge, who, when he was young, wrote some good poetry and some good philosophy.  When he was old, he became the Sage of Highgate, and people were עולה רגל to his home to ask and ask and ask.

I don’t have any illusions about being the Sage of anyplace and, in any event, trying to don that mantle, the איצטלא דרבנן in Chazal’s language, is sometimes morally problematic, as it gives one a self-image of being the source of knowledge and wisdom to all those who seek it.  I am as much of a מבקש as the people who come to seek it.

Over the years, a high proportion of questions likely to arise over here probably have been asked elsewhere, and, in that respect, maybe the experience of the past may be of assistance in the present, and, beyond that, in the future.  But I really don’t want to present myself – maybe it would be better if I were – as that which I am not – as a person who – Chazal said: בנוי לתלפיות: תל שכל פיות פונים אליו – that’s the Mikdash, and Mikdash has a multiple role in our lives – apart from being a source for inspiration and a source of knowledge – we think of Mikdash, in one respect, as a place where one is מתפלל, one brings קרבנות, עבודת ה’ in that respect, and rightly so. But just two weeks ago, in פרשת שופטים, we read about the Mikdash as a source of knowledge – the בית דין sat there – the function of the בית דין comes to the fore with regard to תקיעת שופר בשבת – which is performed in כל מקום שיש בי”ד.  Apart from that, there are certain areas of Halakhah which are only malleable and applicable in Mikdash – both that for certain halakhot you need to have the presence of a kohen, to be דן דיני נפשות, for others you need a בי”ד הגדול sitting smack at the gateway, as it were, to Mikdash.  We are convened in a more modest setting.  In any event, a person who tries to respond to issues and questions needs סייעתא דשמיא, and for that I am מתפלל, not only for this particular group, but in general.  It will serve our collective purposes better if we put what we are doing here in the proper spirit.

Question: What recommendations does Rav Lichtenstein have for parents who struggle to infuse their children with religious commitment while trying to allow them the freedom to think, develop and choose their own path?

It depends what you mean by allowing freedom and at what stage this issue arises.  Clearly, a person desires, very strongly, that his children subscribe, basically, to the tenets, the lifestyle, the beliefs, the mindset, of the world of תורה ומצוות.  It’s part of what we would want even if we had not been commanded to seek it and to nurture it, and על אחת כמה וכמה since we have been commanded.  The major concern of משה רבנו in ספר דברים as you read straight through has to do with the future – the near future and the long future.  The near future: this is משה רבנו’s farewell speech, and, that being the case, he keeps talking about כי תבא אל הארץ, and what will happen at a broad social scale in terms of personal שמירת המצוות, in terms of the collective, communal, social structure and fabric of society.

To all of that, we do not subscribe to a kind of indifference: to say, well, we are very liberal, and we certainly do not subscribe out of liberalism to any more radical formulation.  The president of one of the Ivy League universities in America defined the purpose of a liberal education as to make you think differently than your parents thought.  That’s an aim.  Part of the problems which we encounter, sometimes as parents, sometimes as spiritual parents, have to do with the clash between that kind of ethos and our ethos.

Our ethos is one which speaks, as it says in ספר דברים – ושננתם לבניך, השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך… והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך.  So one generation is not enough – בני ובני בניך.  And there are many rishonim who think that בני בניך is not just two generations.  With regard to the פסול עדות – a child is פסול לעדות for his father, for his grandfather.  There’s a מחלוקת in the sugya in בבא בתרא קח if one is פסול לעדות for his great-grandfather, the idea being, according to some rishonim, that there’s a certain distance.  Buber made a point of noting that the Torah speaks of עונשין, punishments, etc., rewards, for subsequent generations – the Torah stops the former at רבעים – there’s still a possibility of seeing great-grandchildren; great-great-grandchildren is already borderline, to say the least (although Rav Elyashiv, of course, made it, big).

So the sense of continuity is part of the responsibility we have as parents, for our children; we seek their welfare, we want to encourage and develop their welfare in every area of life which is significant. If Freud tells us that to be a viable person we need to able to work and to love, so I don’t know whether we read Freud or rely upon him.  But those are certainly among the important functions in our life.  If we are concerned about developing an ability to work, have a career, develop skills; על אחת כמה וכמה we need to be concerned about developing personality and developing character, in the spirit of the mishnah in בבא מציעא.

The mishnah in בבא מציעא speaks with regard to השבת אבידה: if your friend, and your father or rebbe, lost objects, the latter take precedence. If it is your rebbe on the one hand, and your father on the other hand, so here it breaks down.  Ordinarily speaking, if the rebbe is one person and the father is another person, and the mishnah states that the אבידה which you are to recover of your father’s is secondary to that of your rebbe – because זה מביאו לחיי העוה”ז and the rebbe מביאו לחיי העוה”ב.  I am not getting involved in the question of emotionally where a person is going to be – these issues are raised by some people, and we generally find it difficult, and we don’t want, to get involved in that priority.  Godwin, a famous Catholic philosopher-theologian from 18th century: if there’s a fire burning and your mother’s in the house as is Fenelon– it’s important for humanity that Fenelon survive rather than your mother.  But there’s so much truth in Rav Yisrael Salanter’s statement: he wanted to speak of the significance of natural instincts: a person has a son and he has a talmid, the son is, religiously speaking, a scapegrace, a good for nothing, a sheigitz of the first order.  The talmid is absolutely devoted, follows the path of the rebbe, pursues all his avenues.  And then, in the middle of the night, you’ll wake him up because there’s a fire in the house and both are there, he will save his son.  That’s probably truer to psychological reality.  I’m not getting involved in that.  Simply relating to the debt that one owes a rebbe and a parent, optimally, the conclusion of the mishnah in Bava Metzia – if the father is also his rebbe, then one should save the אבידה of the father – that’s the more optimal situation [where the parent is also a rebbe] – for many reasons and in many ways.

Mosheh Rabbeinu was very worried about this, we have it to some extent in Ki Tavo, more so in Nitzavim.  The concern that someone in the future – there is going to be someone פורה ראש ולענה – it’s hard to say whether Mosheh Rabbeinu felt this pressure on his own.  The Yerushalmi says that Mosheh Rabbeinu’s grandsons were priests for עבודה זרה!  עבודה זרה!  But, we are talking about Mosheh Rabbeinu, presumably the ability to transcend personal worries was very characteristic of him, but still, whether one is to speak in the personal or collective vein, we have a responsibility to our children, we have a responsibility to ourselves, we have a responsibility to Klal Yisrael, and we have a responsibility to the Ribbono shel Olam.  All of that, each taken individually, and certainly taken collectively, is an impressive collection, and the pressures of this are many.

That is a primary duty of a person, it is through that that education begins – ושננתם לבניך – it’s partly out of one’s commitment to the values, if a person believes in a certain lifestyle, if he has a certain picture of reality, he has a certain scale of values and ideals, one is very much concerned with transmitting those, and it’s a source of great joy if that has taken place at some level, and of terrible anguish if it has not.  So that’s not something that can be viewed from a liberal standpoint with indifference.  While it very well may be that the university president that I mentioned before has his own values: if his son would become a dogmatic Moonie or if his son would run to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, he would be upset, but he plays the liberal.

There’ s a mitzvah of chinnukh, and chinnukh has multiple significance for us.  To be מחנך one’s child is to communicate knowledge, at one plane, first and foremost to communicate values, to communicate beliefs.  There are certain tools to that and certain levels of responsibility.  That’s a major concern.  If it goes well, fine, it’s a source of great joy and fulfillment.  But when things go awry, there are different levels of response.

It is partly a question of different stages, when it happens, and to what extent it happens, how distant, how great is the gap.  One response is: if the child is not שומר תורה ומצוות and has abandoned his faith, abandoned his people, and abandoned the Ribbono shel Olam – we don’t want you in the house, etc. – that’s one extreme.  Not wanting him in the house can have all kinds of different motivations.  If it happens to an older child and there are younger children there, many parents, in that situation, are concerned – this older child – they realize they made some mistakes in bringing him up, and they are full of anguish and remorse, perhaps – or perhaps pain, and they are afraid that the influence will filter down, particularly if, as is often the case, the kind of values which the older, free-thinking child will have may be buttressed to a great extent by everything else that the younger children absorb – that’s what comes off the internet, that’s what comes off the newspapers, the street, and all that.  So they’re worried about that, and there’s a possible reaction.

It’s not limited to that kind of situation: sometimes there’s a certain degree of self-flagellation, of pain – if the child would become a bank-robber, the chairman of Murder, Inc., how would a person respond.  Rabbeinu Gershom Me’or haGolah had a son who became frei – I don’t know, I don’t recall if it’s mentioned whether it happened under duress, but given the response – probably not.  Poskim record that he sat shivah – that’s not a correct formulation – he sat two weeks, not one week.  The pesukim at the end of Parshat Beha’alotekha mention: ואביה ירוק ירק בפניה, הלא תכלם שבעת ימים – the Gemara relates that this is a קל וחומר – if her father had revoked the relationship with her (or, had it been the other way, but the pasuk has it this way) then it would be one week, so this should be too, but דיו לבא מן הדין להיות כנדון – we never go beyond the halakhah from which you are deriving – so a week suffices, but optimally two weeks.  There’s a מחלוקת פוסקים – as to when he sat twice: did he sit two weeks when the son died or when the son became frei.  That’s one response.

Sometimes a person will go through with this response out of fear that the house itself will be infiltrated and polluted by this child.  Bear in mind that in all likelihood, very often what happens when there is tension between parents and children, the response comes from one of two directions.  Sometimes the child adopts things which he knows are going to hurt his parents, that’s his way of beating them over the head: I wanted to do this and do that and you didn’t let me – subliminally, I’ll show you, I’ll be מחלל שבת, I’ll have the final word.  Many children today know, subliminally, and in some cases clearly, obviously, that they have the last word – they have the stick with which they can beat their parents over the head and there’s nothing the parents can do and in many cases that they want to do.  And sometimes it’s the reverse – sometimes parents use religion in order to impose – if the child is a shomer mitzvah but they have other issues with him – they use the frumkeit against him.  So it becomes a bit of a morass.

Practically, in terms of what should be done.  One of the greatest leaders of the Torah world of the past generation had two granddaughters who went to Bais Yaakov to receive the proper training that a good Jewish girl should get.  At some point they went, as in the slang of the public is called, off the derech, and this person that I am talking about (I’m not going to tell you who it is) sent a message to his daughter (his son-in-law had already died) that, בשום פנים ואופן, she should not reject them, should not cut off relations with them, and do anything possible to maintain the relationships.  I heard this from a reliable source, a person close to that family.  I don’t know, but I imagine there are two versions of the motivation behind this: whether it’s a hidden hope, while if you throw them out, that’s it; if you keep them in the house, then there’s some hope that, through the relationship, maybe they’ll have second thoughts; I know some cases in which that has happened, though it’s unlikely.  Then there are others who feel, and I think, in the case I am talking about, that was the case, that the religious aspect is beyond recovery, but there’s value in interpersonal human relationships between a child and parent per se.  It’s not something which is neutral – it’s something one wants to maintain and develop, and that loss is painful in itself.  There you would have an attempt to sustain the relationship for either one of two reasons.

Sometimes there are situations which are very difficult to resolve.  At one time, the question would arise about חילול שבת – what do you do if someone is not observant on Shabbat – do you tell him: on Shabbat go to your friends or keep him in the house.  Today, in many instances, other kinds of issues come up.  A son who may have started as a yeshiva-man but the yeshiva is long behind him, but he may feel some connection still, and he may think it’s nice to bring a girl home for Shabbat.  Of course, they don’t want two separate bedrooms, a room for him and for her – obviously, there are halakhic issues of לפני עור.  There are also human issues.  Today, many liberal people don’t take this as being a terrible thing.  But people of earlier generations, the parents and the grandparents, are shocked.  So what do you do?

To take another example, with regard to Shabbat, which can come up in one of two respects: a lack of synchronization between parents and children: it could be case where parents who are not observant and the children are ba’alei teshuvah.  Or the reverse, what you are talking about: parents who are observant and the child is off the derech.  What do you do in that situation?  Do you invite them for Shabbat or not?  A close friend of our family has a son who, despite a Yeshivah education became totally frei, and he has two children who barely know that they’re Jewish.  For years this woman would not invite the son for Shabbat because he would drive home Friday night, so she was concerned, at the gut level, about לפני עור, and she didn’t invite him.  At some point it began to pain her and she spoke to me.  I said to her: listen, I’ll tell you what Rav Shlomo Zalman would tell you if you went to ask him.  He would tell you to invite them for Shabbat, and tell them they are invited without telling them that you expect them to leave Friday night, but you are not fooling yourself or anybody else – you know they will drive home.  But the choice is – and it’s a cruel choice – between having them lead a totally secular life, without any window upon יהדות – and then you kept your hands clean but your children’s hands are much dirtier.  Or do you, in a sense, lend a hand to this chillul Shabbat.  Rav Shlomo Zalman’s psak was: invite them, give them an option to stay for the whole of Shabbat, don’t pressure them, and when they leave – they leave.  It’s better than nothing.  When I told her this, she was overjoyed – she thanked me, she didn’t know what to do for me – I told her: it’s not my psak, it’s Rav Shlomo Zalman’s psak.

With regard to leading that kind of life – for some it’s a question of embarrassment from the neighbors.  It depends on where you live.  In some places, they assume, everybody knows, that there are people whose children don’t follow what they want.  If you ask me, and barukh Hashem I don’t have that situation, if you would ask me, absolutely don’t break off relations, try to maintain a certain degree of warmth and rapport, try to avoid as much as possible throwing any spots and the confrontations.  Try to salvage whatever you can; but even if you’re not salvaging much for Shabbat, something yet may be salvaged.  This is a very painful situation; we all know people who have had this experience, but if you are asking, הלכה למעשה, what to do, I think that doing what Rabbenu Gershom did may have been good in his time, but it has little constructive impact in our own.  To a great extent, certain segments of our world – charedim have it much better on this now – although at times they had disasters with this – the Jewish world in Eastern Europe between the World Wars – the decline in שמירת שבת was frightening – today they have a strong hold on their people, but in the Modern Orthodox world it’s more common.  Sometimes people then draw the conclusion – why didn’t I become charedi 30 years ago – but usually when that conclusion is drawn it’s too late, and that doesn’t always work, either.

Follow-up question: How does one make sure that the children pick up the values of the parents?

The desire to make sure is a very natural one, and some people, depending on where and when you live, needed to cope with this situation, where they wanted to make sure, and they realized that you can’t make sure.  To make sure, you need to do one of two things: either total discipline, clamp down hard, try to prevent any exposure to anything which is not part of the world of Torah u’mitzvot, but to do that, for many people, means that you lead a bifurcated life, a life where they are lawyers or have some other career which leads them out into the general world and take the risks, but if they don’t want to take the risks, and they’re raising their children to be charedim, to some extent they need to be charedim themselves.

In America today, for example, אין בית אשר אין שם מת – there’s hardly a family where at some point, to some degree, someone is not following what the parents would want.  I went to the Rav once with regard to a relative of mine where a daughter had gone off the derech, and her parents had a question as to whether they should try to work out a compromise – they give up Shabbat for kashrut – to work out such a deal.  One of the parents was in favor, and the other was in favor of trying to fight an all-out battle, to maintain the whole front.  I was in Boston at the time, going to school, and they called me and asked me to speak to the Rav about it.  I went to speak to the Rav, and explained the situation and I was sitting right next to him when he spoke to the parents.  And his response was: הלכה לא כדברי מר ולא כדברי מר: don’t try to fight the whole front and don’t try to fight half the front – don’t fight.

He told the following story, which I have put into print on several occasions: when the Rav was in Eretz Yisrael in 1935, he went to visit a number of places.  He came to a frei kibbutz, where some of my mother-in-law’s relatives lived.  (Incidentally, Rav Dovid Lifshitz also had close relatives who came out of Eastern Europe totally frei, and he insisted on maintaining a warm, close relationship with them.)  To return to the earlier story – they sit down and the host, the relative, put some food on the table.  Naturally, the Rav couldn’t eat it, out of concern that there were probably problems of תרומות ומעשרות, טבל.  The man turns around and says to the Rav – I know why you don’t want to eat; you’re afraid of the kashrut, but you should know that our kitchen is totally kosher.  The Rav was absolutely thunderstruck.  How did you come to that?  He told the following story: Rav Kook once came to the kibbutz for Shabbat.  Naturally, he couldn’t eat their food, so he brought his own food and sat down with them in the dining hall Friday night, same thing Shabbat morning, same thing for se’uda shelishit – he came and ate with them – he’s eating his food and they’re eating their food.  Motzaei Shabbat they have a kumsitz with a bonfire and he sits with them there.  Sunday morning, he’s about to leave, he said: thank you very much, it was very nice to spend Shabbat with you; I hope that next time I’ll be able to eat your food.  They were מכשיר the kitchen.  I’m not telling you that in the case I discussed with the Rav that happened, but this relative of mine has kept a strictly kosher kitchen for years, and I eat there.  In so many families there is something has gone amiss.  There’s a book: Off the Derech; you might want to look at it.

You ask about making sure.  I wish you the very best in everything.  I have the same wish for every bachur at this yeshiva, and in every other yeshiva, but to make sure?  There are bachurim who learned in this yeshiva who became frei when they left – though it should be noted that there was a higher percentage at Volozhin who became frei than at Yeshivat Har Etzion – we live in a world which is more complex, more problematic, than we like to imagine.  One way to try to avoid that is to lead a life in which one doesn’t have such tensions and such conflicts, but it’s very difficult.  Read Chaim Grade and what he writes about Novardok.  Rav Kroll, who was an adam gadol in Yerushalayim who knew כל התורה כולה בעל פה and went through the Shoah – he grew up in Warsaw, and he said that in the Gerrer shtiebel in Warsaw 80% were mechallel Shabbat – that sounds incredible but he was a very credible person.

One can do many things in order to try to ensure that your children will adopt your values, but I can’t say that you can make sure.  My daughter Esti once attended a session here in Alon Shevut which dealt with issues of chinnukh – she reported back to me that someone there (Rav Tabory, I think) quoted me as saying that a father has two responsibilities to his children – to learn with them and to play ball with them, and if you want them to learn you need to play ball.  Of course, playing ball is only a metaphor – it’s a metaphor for: if you want the child to share your values, to share your world, you need to take part in his world.  I cannot tell you that there are not people did not share their children’s values at all and their children grew up ok nonetheless, but that’s a risk.

I think it’s important try to find a balance in terms of who’s sharing whose world.  The temptation to bar all the doors, to avoid any possible contact with things we don’t approve of, is great, and people imagine that it will work, even though it didn’t work for this one and it didn’t work for that one – sometimes it does – and the culture in which they find themselves is important for that.  But so much is dependent upon the variables.  One of the variables needs to be the flexibility with which you approach this.  You can be Bismarck in your home – but, first of all, I don’t want to be Bismarck, even if it had nothing to do with Yiddishkeit.  Secondly, it is not the best way to increase desire on the part of the child to be what the father wants him to be.  The Sifri which says: ושננתם לבניך, ואהבת את ה ‘א’ – we think that ואהבת means that you should love, but the Sifri says that it is not that you should love but you should engender love – you should make people want to love the Ribbono shel Olam, as, and this is the model for this, Avraham Avinu did – Avraham is described in the pasuk as: אברהם אוהבי.  If that is the counsel which is offered vis-à-vis the general world, with regard to your own home, על אחת כמה וכמה.  In every case in which someone goes off the derech it is a tragedy for the parent.  There is, partially, a way back.  I mentioned this relative of mine before, and she has come back a long way – she davens in a Conservative shul, etc. – much better than it could have been, and much better than it was, but it’s not what the rest of the family wanted.

Coming back to that story with the Rav – it’s one of the things which is a significant way of pursuing these issues – and that’s to avoid playing “double or nothing.”  That’s been tried, and in many cases it didn’t work.  To some extent, one needs to share one’s own life with his children and hope for סייעתא דשמיא.

I will end on this note: I have quoted this episode on a number of occasions.  In 1973 we met a person, while watching the Tzahal parade on Yom haAtzma’ut, man who came from Cardiff, Wales, which is not exactly Volozhin, not Yerushalayim and not Bnei Brak.  And we talked to him, and it turns out that this man raised a family in Cardiff, Wales, all his grandchildren are frum, the boys came to learn in yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael.  I went over and asked him: Mr. Cohen, in Cardiff, Wales, how were you able to raise such a family?  He said to me: in order to raise children properly, you need two things: you need to have sechel and you need to have siyata di-Shmaya.  In order to have sechel, for that you also need siyata di-Shmaya.  That remained in my memory and I think it’s a wise thing.


Welcome to “Pages of Faith”. This is a blog dedicated to the thought of HaRav Aharon Lichtenstein. Contained within it will be periodic blog posts recording conversations between talmidim and Rav Lichtenstein on a variety of contemporary topics. Other ideas and thoughts of Rav Lichtenstein will also be posted, and anyone is welcome to comment and add to the discussion. If you have any thoughts or ideas regarding Rav Lichtenstein’s views and opinions, please post them in the “Thoughts and Ideas” section. If you have a question which you would like forwarded to Rav Lichtenstein for public discussion, please enter it in the “Questions” section. We aim to forward at least one question once every few weeks.