Monday, February 15, 2010

Striking the Right Balance

Not being a very patient person by nature, I have spent an inordinate amount of time and training developing that all too illusive quality that many of my yoga practicing friends seem to practice as routinely as breathing rhythmically. Patience and respect for those with whom I disagree with when it comes to understanding, appreciating and living their Judaism has paid off. For years I have been reading Jonathan Rosenblum and most of the time disagreeing with him. Those disagreements, while rarely visceral were never the less principled and therefore troubling; and I wondered why, if I disagree so fundamentally with his approach do I read him. I could never answer that question until recently.

Not long ago he ran an article in Mishpacha Magazine (January 20, 2010) entitled “Are We Asking the Right Questions”. Without going into the point of the article, he draws upon an event recorded in the B.Talmud (Yoma 23a-b) as a proof text to an argument he was making. The argument isn’t germane to this essay – what is however, is his interpretation of that tragic story retold in the Talmud. The Mishna tells of how two young Priests were in a race up the ramp of the altar to see who would perform the Temple service. In anger, the one who lost picked up the knife and mortally wounded the victor. Since the victor wasn’t dead but mortally wounded, the father declared that the knife, the “murder weapon” wasn’t rendered ritually impure. The Baraisa notes that apparently the impurity of the Temple vessels was more important in the father’s eyes than the spilling of blood. The Gemara of course trying to make sense out of the episode inquires: was life so cheap that murder was treated lightly or was murder a serious matter but so was their treatment of the Temple vessels.

The inquiry is interesting, and somewhat revealing of the sages dealing with the issue at hand. It is obvious to me that there isn’t much of an issue that really requires analysis and it puzzles me that our sages felt the need to analyze what should have been obvious. Regardless of whether the young priest mortally wounded was dead or not is to miss the point. We are taught that the temple was to be built with tools and instruments not fabricated from the available metals, because it was out of metals that weapons were fashioned. The Temple was supposed to symbolize and stand for peace, tranquility and the worship of god. It would have been an oxymoron therefore to use tools fashioned from the metals that are used to kill to build the Temple. The logical conclusion would be therefore that even if the priest wasn’t dead, the knife ought to be rendered unfit for further use because of the harm it had already caused, not only to the young priest but because the temple had been violated and soiled by a priest unfit to carry out the holy work of avodat hashem.

I am pleased that I practiced patience all these years (even if it is against my grain) and continued to read Jonathan’s articles because here is the ideal essay by which he succinctly makes the point I have been resisting for decades. If a balance isn’t struck between halacha and the spirit of the halacha than we risk distorting the meaning and intention of the law. J. Rosenblum’s article is precisely the example par excel lance to which I refer. It is the locking on to halacha like an android, without passion and without compassion, pilpulizing ad nausea the halacha and robbing it of its intent and purpose. I realize of course that I am treading on dangerous territory and that what I suggest is unacceptable to the Orthodox establishment. It is however, more important to clarify for those passionate about their Jewish practice that in order to keep it relevant and meaningful they can’t allow the intent of the law to be blurred by the ausbergian pilpulism of frustrated rabbis who have lost site of the purpose and intent of the law. When the Spinker Rebbe was sentenced recently, the judge gave him a reduced sentence because it was the judge’s opinion that while the Spinker Rebbe broke the law he did so not out of malice but with the naiveté that application of Talmudic logic was sufficient to guide his decision making. Obviously, his distorted view of the law was a result of pilpulism. The idea that one can intellectualize the law, but keep a clear focus on the intent is misleading. By intellectualizing and pilpulizing over centuries it is likely that we will internalize it individually and communally and ultimately distort the very thing we are trying to elucidate.