Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Who Is a Jew? Torah Temimah Edition: Thoughts for Parshat Korach

Editor's (who's also the author) note: In the original version of this post, I wrote that the Netziv was the author of the Tosefet Brachah. Several readers took the time to correct me, noting that Tosefet Brachah was written by Rav Baruch Halevi Epstein, also the author of Torah Temimah. Thanks!)

With a recent government decision to pay the salary of non-Orthodox rabbis serving their communities in Israel, the Jewish State raised, yet again, the troubling and difficult issue of "What is Judaism?", and, by extension, "Who is a Jew?" Next week, rabbis from across the country will gather for an emergency meeting, "to discuss the implications of the decision to fund Reform and Conservative clergy, and to propose ways to bring about a reversal of the ruling." Rav Shlomo Amar, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel told Kol B'rama (a Sephardic Radio station) that,
“We will come out loud and clear against this matter. The greatest danger for our generation is the danger of assimilation, and we need to be strong and steadfast in our fight. It is forbidden to remain silent, because there is nothing more serious than this measure."
He said that the government's "reckless" decision "could uproot the all foundations of the Torah."
Is he right? Does this crack in the Orthodox monopoly in the Israeli rabbinate present the grave threat that Amar and many others fear? I'm not sure. After all, when they find out what Reform Judaism really is, most Israelis don't find it compelling at all, preferring not to attend Orthodox shuls over attending Reform services.
Yet, the knee-jerk reaction of rabbinic leaders from across the ideological spectrum to the potential inroad of non-Torah Judaism to Israeli society should not surprise us. After all, rabbis have been articulating similar responses for hundreds of years. We find just one such response in a comment of Rav Baruch Halei Epstein to Parshat Korach in his work Tosefet Brachah. (you can download the sheets here)
When Korach and his group gang up against Moshe and Aharon, representing a real physical threat to them, God appears to Moshe and tells them,
הִבָּדְלוּ, מִתּוֹךְ הָעֵדָה הַזֹּאת; וַאֲכַלֶּה אֹתָם, כְּרָגַע
'Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may destroy them in a moment.'
Moshe and Aharon respond by begging God for mercy asking,
קל, אֱלֹקי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל-בָּשָׂר:  הָאִישׁ אֶחָד יֶחֱטָא, וְעַל כָּל-הָעֵדָה תִּקְצֹף?.
O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?
In essence, Moshe and Aharon wonder: why should the entire congregation suffer for the sins of a single individual? Punish Korach, but why punish everyone else because of his actions?
Netziv, noting this interpretation of Moshe and Aharon's question to God, asks an obvious question. If we look throughout Jewish history, we find that in fact, people have always suffered for the actions of a single individual. Among the long list of examples he provides we find that
  • According to Ramban, Jews have suffered throughout our history for Sarah's treatment of Yishmael
  • The Jewish nation continues to suffer for the sale of Yosef at the hands of his brothers
  • We're still paying for the Sin of the Golden Calf
  • We still suffer for the Sin of the Spies
The list goes on and on. R' Epstein also notes that it's not just a rule in the negative; rather, we also benefit as a community from the merits of individuals.
Yet, if this is true, why is Moshe so surprised when God threatens to punish the entire nation for Korach's actions? After all, this is just how things work. Of course the nation suffers when an individual sins; we affect one-another, and sometimes our actions really do cause everyone else to suffer. Why are Moshe and Aharon so surprised?
In his second answer to this question (He first suggests that Moshe wasn't asking God a question at all; Rather, he was making a statement of exasperation and frustration.), R' Epstein makes a sweeping comment about who is in and who is out of the Jewish community - a distinction that has critical meaning for us today.

ואמנם נחמתי כי אפשר לפרש המאמר "האיש אתה יחטא ועל כל העדה תקצוף" באמת בתמיהה ובפליאה, ולא קשה מכל מה שהערנו מעונשים כללים עבור חטא יחיד, יען דעיקר טעם עונש כללי הוא מטעם ערבות, כמבואר בסנהדרין (כ"ז סע"ב) על הפסוק בפרשה בחקתי (כ"ו ל"ז) וכשלו איש באחיו, איש בעוון אחיו, מלמד שכולם ערבים זה בזה ע"כ. ואמנם זה שייך רק בחטאים הבאים לרגלי סבות גשמיות כמו בעקב היצה"ר ותאוות, או לרגלי עושר או עוני כי שניהם עלולים לסבב חטא ועוון כנודע, אבל בכל זאת החוטא הזה אף כי פרץ גדר בדרכי התורה והמצווה, אעפ"י כן נשאר בכלל היהדות ונחשב רק לפגום ולחוטא, וכמו שאמרו (סנהדרין מ"ג א') ישראל אעפ"י שחטא ישראל הוא, וזה הוא מפני שבידו לשוב בתשובה ושב ורפא לו. ובמצב כזה שייך ערבות כי מכיוון שישב הרי הוא ככל ישראל.
ולא כן זה הפורץ גדר עפ"י רוח כפירה בעיקר, ואינו מודה לא בתורה ולא במצות ולא בכל יסודי ועקרי הדת, ועל כזה נאמר (משלי ב' י"ט) "כל באיה (למינות ולכפירה) לא ישובון" (עיין ע"ז כ"ז א'), ואיש כזה נחשב כמו שיצא מכלל האומה וכאבר הנחתך מן הגוף, ואין עוד לגוף כל יחס לה. ולכן בחוטא כזה אין שייך ערבות אך הוא לבדו עונו ישא.
But, I was consoled, for it is possible to explain the phrase, "shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation" in truth as a question and a wonder. And it is not difficult - all that which have noted from the general punishments for the sin of an individual. This is because the main reason for communal punishment is derived from the principle of guarantorship. as it is explained in Sanhedrin (27b), which explains the verse in [Parshat] Bechukotai (26:37) "and a man shall stumble upon his brother", [which the Talmud explains to mean that one will stumble] on the sin of his brother, "and this teaches us that all of Israel are responsible for each other."
Yet, this is only relevant to sins that come at the heels of physical causes, such as those sins resulting from the evil inclination or physical desires, or due to wealth or poverty - for both of these forces are liable to cause sin and iniquity, as is known. Still, this sinner - even though he broke through the fence of the ways of the Torah and the Mitzvot - nonetheless he remains in the category of Judiasm, and is considered a blemished and sinful [Jew], as [the rabbis] said, "an Israelite - even though he sins is still conisdered an Israelite." This is because it remains within his power to return and repent, "And he shall return and be healed." And in this type of situation, mutual responsibility is relevant, for should he repent he would be like all of Israel.
But this is not true of one who breaks the fence with a spirit of heresy by denying the essential truth [of God and Judaism], and he does not admit to the truth of Torah or Mitzvot nor any of the foundations and basic principles of [Jewish] religion. And about this [type of person] it is written, "All who come (to apostacy and denial) shall not return" (See Avoda Zara 27a) And a person like this is considered as if he has exited from the nation, like a limb amputated from the body - to which the body has no more connection. For this reason, there is no notion of communal reasponsibility for a sinner such as this. He alone shall bear the burden of his sins.

Sure, we pay for the sins of a "normal" sinner; one who lost control and sinned due to impulse, desire, or any other physical cause. But what about someone who, God forbid, has abandoned Judaism, and no longer subscribes to the tenets of traditional Jewish faith? That person, says R' Epstein, is not Jewish - like a limb amputated from a body.
R' Epstein wrote these words in Europe about 150 years agon. But it's clear what and who he's referring to. And it shines some light on the rhetoric of Israeli rabbis, who are simply taking their cues from an extensive literature that harshly denigrates any form of Judaism that rejects the principles we hold dear.