Sign In Forgot Password

Emor 5784   | Rabbi David Wolkenfeld

05/20/2024 10:22:42 AM


Being Strict and Being Lenient

I know two jokes about kohanim. This is the good one:

A man walked up to his rabbi and said, “Rabbi, make me a kohen.” 

The rabbi responded, I’m so sorry, I can’t make you a kohen. 

The man then said, “I’ll give you $500 if you make me a kohen.”

The rabbi just shook his head and said it was an impossible request. 

The man then said he would pay $1000 to the rabbi if he could become a kohen but the rabbi still refused.

The wannabe kohen was getting more and more agitated. “I’ll offer you $50,000 if you make me a kohen,” he said. The rabbi was quiet for a moment. And then said, “fine.” “By the powers vested in me as the rabbi of this congregation I hereby declare you to be a kohen.”

The man was very relieved, wrote out a check right away to the rabbi and started to gather his things to leave. 

As this new kohen was leaving the shul the rabbi said to him, “just before you leave, I have to know, why is it so important to you to be a kohen?”.

“Oh that’s easy,” the man replied, “you see, my father was a kohen, his father was a kohen, and his father too was a kohen…”

The opening of Parashat Emor details some of the laws of the kehuna, the kohen status, namely the prohibition, that endures even today, that forbids a kohen from having proximity with a corpse and thereby contracting ritual impurity. 

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃ 

“The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin.”

But, just as in the joke, a kohen’s status is intimately connected to a kohen’s family. The Torah immediately clarifies that kohanim can become impure for their closest relatives כִּ֚י אִם־לִשְׁאֵר֔וֹ הַקָּרֹ֖ב אֵלָ֑יו 

“... except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a never-married sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself.”

In just a few words the Torah presents a simple dynamic There is a prohibition related to the unique role and status of the kohanim - in order to serve in the beit hamidkash kohanim cannot have any contact or physical proximity with death.  To be a kohen is to remove oneself from an intimate connection with death so that one can serve the Living God. But, the Torah itself shares some important exceptions. The kohen is allowed to prioritize his relationships with his closest relatives and care for their burial despite his kohen status.

The Talmud records one kohen whose wife died on Erev Pesach. He did not want to miss out on serving as a kohen on such a special day and refused to take part in preparing her for burial. He didn’t want to take the time off from serving as a kohen during such a busy season. Let others take part in the burial. It’s not as if he had any real experience with funerals. 

But the Talmud tells us that the other kohanim did not allow this to occur. They forced him to become tamei through direct involvement in the burial of his wife. The Torah did not give an option to kohanim. The Torah mandates that kohanim care for their dead family. Being strict about one’s kohen status must not lead to leniency about the obligation to bury a dead relative.

Rabbi Chaim of Brisk was known for his insistence that sick individuals who cannot fast, even on Yom Kippur, should eat and drink regularly rather than eat only minimal quantities below the threshold for being liable for eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. On occasion he would be asked why he was so lenient about the restrictions of Yom Kipput. 

“I am not lenient about the restrictions of Yom Kippur!” he would explain. “Rather, I am strict about the mitzvah of saving human lives.”

And, indeed, this is true in every element of a life of Torah and mitzvot. “Humra” or stringency and “kula” or leniency are a false dichotomy. There is no such thing as a stringency, a humra, that does not entail a leniency in some other mitzvah or value that is at that point in opposition. There is no such thing as a leniency, a kula, that does not open up the possibility of investing in a humra in some other mitzvah or value. 

Because mitzvot and values exist in dynamic tension and create a web or network that encompasses all human experiences, we know that we are mistaken whenever we think about mitzvot or mitzvah observance in one-dimensional ways. There should be no strict or lenient approach to Judaism. There should be no liberal or conservative approach to Judaism. Every investment in one direction puts at risk the neglect of a competing value. Every time we relax the intensity of our devotion to one mitzvah, we have the opportunity to reinvest our energy someplace else. 

I like to quote Rabbi Yehuda Brandes who wrote on numerous occasions that “Judaism is a religion for grownups.” In children’s stories there are clear heroes and clear villains. If you do what you are supposed to do, you will face no difficult dilemmas and all will turn out well in the end. But Judaism is not a children’s religion. We have to choose, not between right and wrong, but often enough, between right and right. Are we going to be machmir about Yom Kippur or about saving lives? The best outcome is not the result of identifying and distinguishing good from bad, but from deriving the best compromise between multiple competing values. 

In 1953 when Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was asked to endorse the creation of the first co-educational day schools in the United States which were the first institutions in Jewish history where girls and young women were taught Talmud in an organized formal way, he wrote in a letter to a school administrator: 

"We have reached a stage at which party lines and political ideologies influence our halakhic thinking to the extent that people cannot rise above partisan issues to the level of Halakhah-objectivity. Some are in a perennial quest for the “liberalization” of the Law and its subordination to the majority opinion of a political legislative body, while others would like to see the Halakhah fossilized and completely shut out of life. I am not inclined to give any of these factions an opportunity for nonsensical debates."

If we find ourselves thinking about Judaism along a  one dimensional axis between  liberalization of the law or the fossilization of Judaism, then we are doing something wrong.

Because mitzvot exist in an ecosystem, the only way to correctly navigate a dilemma is to strive for balance. Meticulous observance of kashrut, must exist in balance with creating loving bonds of friendship and community among Jews. 

If we decide to be strict on ourselves by mourning the deaths of distant relatives, we risk being overly lenient in the prohibition of wastefully destroying the clothing that we tear in our mourning. 

High standards for Torah reading or leading tefilot in shul must exist in balance with avoiding embarrassing someone who is still learning how to meet those standards. There is a story of one occasion when the Bluzhever Rebbe was visiting a bungalow colony and a fellow leading tefilot used melodies that entailed a lot of repeated words. The congregation was upset and banged and yelled out “nu” to indicate their displeasure at the repeated words. As soon as tefilot ended, the chastened ba’al tefilah left the shul in a hurry. The rebbe called together the rest of the congregation and said to them, “I don’t know what the punishment is for repeated words in davening but surely it is not as severe as the punishment for embarrassing someone in public.”

The huge amounts of resources we pour into sustaining Jewish life, building beautiful shuls and eruvin and expanding day-schools and yeshivot with trained faculty and support staff, have lead to a strange and unexpected outcome wherein Modern Orthodoxy is the wealthiest subcategory of American Judaism, in part, because so many working class and middle class Jews are priced out of our communities and our children are wary of choosing careers in the arts or education lest they be unable to afford to raise their own children in our affluent communities. 

The high sums of money that we invest in sustaining our vibrant Jewish communities can even tempt us to cut corners on our business ethics, something you can see by institutions of Torah learning named after white-collar criminals. . I have received hundreds, perhaps thousands, of halakhic questions in the years that I have served as a rabbi. I can count the number of people who have asked me about whether a certain business venture was ethical on the fingers of one hand and still have three fingers to spare.

Halakhic life is a life of balance and careful weighing of advantages and disadvantages that are inherent in any choice. There are no shortcuts, “ein patentim” as my teacher Rav Amital z’l would repeat time and again. 

The harder times become pressure grows to distort our halakhic thinking in pursuit of a short - cut that can make this hard work of balance unnecessary. Rav Ovadia Yosef, zechuto yagen aleinu, wrote about Rav Chaim Brisker and his devotion to the value of human life. 

והנני להזכיר כאן מה שכתב הרה”ג דב כ”ץ בספר הגות ודעות בשם הגאון האדיר רבי חיים סולובייצ’יק מבריסק זצ”ל, שבימי מלחמת עולם העולמית, אשר רבים חללים הפילה ועצומים כל הרוגיה, ונהרגו גם כן הרבה מאחינו בית ישראל, אמרו לו להגר”ח בתוך כדי שיחה, שאילו לפחות המלחמה הזאת היתה מביאה את הגאולה אולי כדי היה הדבר. גער בהם הגר”ח ואמר: מוטב שידחו כמה גאולות מישראל, ואל תאבד נפש אחת מישראל. ואילו היתה באה שאלה לפנינו, שאם על ידי קרבן של אדם אחד מישראל יבוא המשיח, בודאי שהיינו פוסקים, שמוטב שלא יבוא המשיח, ולא ימות אדם אחד מישראל. כי הלא פיקוח נפש דוחה כל מצות שבתורה ובכלל זה אף משיח והגאולה

During the First World War, when the death and destruction, among Jews and Gentiles alike was overwhelming, someone said to Rav Haim, in the midst of a conversation, that, at least, this war could bring redemption and thus, in some way be worth the losses. Rav Haim roared in outrage and said, “it is better to push off many potential “redemptions” for Israel rather than lose one single life

. מוטב שידחו כמה גאולות מישראל, ואל תאבד נפש אחת

 מישראל. ואילו היתה באה שאלה לפנינו, שאם על ידי קרבן של אדם אחד מישראל יבוא המשיח, בודאי שהיינו פוסקים, שמוטב שלא יבוא המשיח, ולא ימות אדם אחד מישראל.

And if the question were to be posed before us, that if, through the sacrifice of one Jewish person, we could bring Mashiach, we would of course rule that it would be better for Mashiach not to come, rather than have one single Jew die. For after all, does not Saving a life push off every mitzvah in the Torah, and certainly bringing redemption and Mashiach is included.

I doubt any of us will have to decide between bringing redemption and saving a life. But even questions that seem small from the outside - the time of davening, the location of a minyan, can arouse people’s passionate  opposition such that they fail to realize the value on the other side of whatever the matter under discussion may be. 

Every religious value we embrace means there’s another one that we aren’t prioritizing at that moment. The trick of living in a community is to try to make sure that different communal decisions prioritize different values, so that we can live out as many of them as possible. 

Like the Gemara about the kohen, you can sometimes decide to prioritize one value over another, but there are mandates that we can never entirely ignore. Maybe that is the larger message of Emor - being holy - which is not actually a life of extremes, but a life of balance. 

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784