Seeing Is Believing

R. Shlomo Aviner

A while ago, we noted

Rav Shlomo Aviner’s rejection of [the] admissibility [of tissue forensics] for the determination of bastardy, due to the fact that in spite of their undeniably high reliability, the evidence is imperceptible to the naked eye, and can only be analyzed via microscopes and scientific technique

R. Mordechai Willig and R. Chaim Jachter

I subsequently saw that a similar suggestion was made by Rav Mordechai Willig, as reported and analyzed by R. Chaim Jachter:

In line with the rulings of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Rav Eliashiv, Rav Shemuel Wosner, Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rav Mendel Senderovic, the Beth Din of America utilized DNA evidence as an important (but not exclusive) consideration in identifying the remains of husbands who were missing as a result of the World Trade Center terrorist act (as reported in my Gray Matter 2:123).

A potential problem with this ruling is that it opens a proverbial Pandora’s Box, since once Batei Din admit DNA as evidence of a husband’s demise, they seemingly must accept DNA as evidence of parentage. This could (God forbid) potentially open a floodgate of Mamzeirut cases (especially in Israel where even non-observant Jews are married under Orthodox auspices) in which DNA evidence indicates that a husband is not the father of his wife’s child. …

Rav Mordechai Willig (Kol Tzvi 4:12) grapples with this problem and at first argues that we should permit an Agunah to remarry based on DNA identification despite concern that it might cause others to be declared Mamzeirim. He notes the celebrated Mishnah (Ohalot 7:6) that states, “Ein Dochin Nefesh Mipnei Nefesh,” we do not sacrifice one soul in order to save another.

Rav Willig presents another potential distinction that may solve this problem. In a wide variety of Halachic areas, we do not attach any significance to that which is not visible to the naked eye. The Chochmat Adam (Binat Adam 38:49), Rav Shlomo Kluger (Teshuvot Tuv Taam VaDaat 2: Kuntress Acharon number 53), the Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Deah 84:36) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Teshuvot Yechave Daat 6:47) rule that we need not be concerned with insects that can be seen only with the aid of a magnifying glass. Rav Moshe Feinstein (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Y.D. 3:120:5) rules that we need not determine that Tefillin are square using a microscope. Teshuvot Doveiv Meisharim (1:1) rules that we do not rely on a magnifying glass to determine that letters in a Sefer Torah do not touch each other (Mukaf Gevil). Tiferet Yisrael to Avodah Zarah 2:6 (Boaz 3) rules that a fish whose scales are visible only when viewed with a magnifying glass is not kosher. He similarly rules that an animal with a hole in its lung that can only be seen with a magnifying glass is not a Tereifah. Teshuvot Even Yekarah (2:33) rules that a Tanach whose tiny letters are visible only if viewed with a magnifying glass is not endowed with Kedushah (holiness). Rav Yosef Massas (Teshuvot Mayim Chaim 259) permits an Etrog whose blemishes can be detected only when examined with a magnifying glass.

Accordingly, one may ask how we can rely on DNA evidence if DNA strands are not visible to the naked eye. Rav Willig suggests that a distinction can be drawn between evidence to prove the death of a missing husband (Eidut Ishah) and other areas of Halacha. Classical Halachic sources relax the rules of evidence in many aspects regarding Agunot, such accepting hearsay evidence and the testimony of those who are normally considered invalid witnesses (such as women; see the sources and explanation presented in my Gray Matter 2:118). Contemporary authorities continue this tradition by accepting the testimony of non-observant Jews who were raised in an environment of non-observance (see Gray Matter 2:119). Similarly, we can argue that even though DNA evidence does not constitute evidence regarding other areas of Halacha, it does carry weight in the context of permitting an Agunah to remarry.

Rav Mordechai Willig also suggests that DNA evidence would merely prove another man to be the father, not necessarily that the child is a Mamzeir, since it is possible that the child was conceived through artificial insemination. According to Teshuvot Igrot Moshe (E.H. 1:10), Teshuvot Chelkat Yaakov (1:24), and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (cited in Nefesh HaRav p. 255) a child conceived via artificial insemination is not a Mamzeir, even if the sperm donor is not the husband (many Poskim, however, disagree; see, the ruling of the Satmar Rebbe that appears in HaMaor 5724, Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 4:5 and Teshuvot Minchat Shlomo 3:98). We noted last week that if a husband was overseas and his wife gave birth to a child up to twelve months after he left, we do not consider the child to be a Mamzeir. Thus, we see that Halacha will rely even on remote possibilities (in combination with the Gemara’s assertion that Rov Be’ilot Achar HaBaal, that we explained last week) in order to avoid problems of Mamzeirut.

A problem with this approach is that it has never (to my knowledge) been suggested by any of the great Poskim of the modern period who have been forced to grapple with a large number of potential Mamzeirut situations. It was also not mentioned as a viable option in the responsa regarding the admissibility of blood tests as evidence of parentage. We should clarify that it would seem that even according to Rav Willig’s suggested approach one cannot solve every case of Mamzeirut by assuming that the child was conceived by artificial insemination. It seems that this line of reasoning is appropriate only in combination with the assumption of Rov Be’ilot Achar HaBaal (see TABC’s Bikkurei Sukkah number 53 where we cite the insights of my student Eitan Ehrenfeld).

We should note that R. Jachter is expanding greatly on a brief and tentative suggestion of R. Willig, who is not even necessarily presenting his own view, but merely including this idea in a list of several objections that have been raised against the admissibility of DNA (in the context of the עגונות of the World Trade Center):

בענין DNA הועלו כמה פקפוקים: …

  • ב) הDNA לא נראה לעין, וההשואה נעשית במעבדה מיוחדת, על פי הכפלה והוספת חומרים ושינוי צבע על ידי הקרנת אור מיוחד (ליזר) וכדומה, ואולי אין לסמוך על מה שאי אפשר לראות בחוש אף על ידי מיקרוסקופ. אכן נראה דידיעה על ידי המדע מהני בלי ראיה, על כל פנים לעדות אשה שמצינו דתה”ד סומך על אומדנא שאין בה ודאות כDNA.
  • ג) אם נקבע שאפשר לסמוך עלDNA לגמרי, ניצור בעית ממזרות שהDNA יוכיח שהולד איננו מהאב. אכן אף אם נאמר כן, נראה דאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש, ויקוב הדין את ההר. אבל לאמתו של דבר, הוכחה מהDNA שבעל האם איננו האב איננה ראיה שהולד ממזר, דאולי האב נכרי, ואף אם מוכיחים מהDNA שהחשוד היהודי הוא האב הביולוגי, יש לדון אם אפשר לתלות בהזרעה מלאכותית אשר לדעת האגרות משה ועוד אין ולד הנוצר ממנה ממזר, וצ”ע.1

R. Shlomo Riskin

Several weeks ago, I came across the preposterous claim by R. Shlomo Riskin that:

the Oral Law made it virtually impossible to have a practical instance of mamzerut: not only would there have had to be two witnesses who gave warning to the transgressing couple prior to their act of adultery, which would have had to take place in front of those witnesses …

Perhaps the proverbial תלמיד טועה wrote this, or the nefarious ידי זדים have once again tried to be תולה בוקי סריקי ברב גדול בישראל, for R. Riskin certainly knows better than to make such a ludicrous assertion. In any event, here’s the surrounding context:

One of the most difficult biblical laws to understand is that of the mamzer, the product of an adulterous (or incestuous) sexual liaison, who may never enter into a marriage relationship with another Jew.

We can readily understand why the adulterers themselves are forbidden from marrying each other, even after they become divorced from their previous spouses; they, who showed such disdain and disregard for the exclusive and sacred marital relationship by betraying their marital partners, dare not enter together into matrimony, since God “has sanctified His nation Israel by means of the nuptial canopy and the marital ritual of kiddushin” (the initial blessing, along with the blessing over the wine, at a wedding ceremony). The glory of the Jewish people has always been the purity of our family life.

But why punish the innocent product born of such an adulterous act? He/she has done nothing wrong; he has certainly not controlled the nature of the act which led to his/her birth. Why forbid him/her to ever become married in Israel? In order to understand the meaning behind this law, I believe it is necessary to understand the difference between the Written Law (Bible), which the sacred Zohar calls “the harsh law” (dina de’takfa), and the Oral Law (Talmud and Responsa) which is called in turn “the soft and compassionate law” (dina de’rafiya). The interpretation I am now expositing in differentiating between these two corpora of legal doctrine is hinted at both in Maimonides’s Mishne Torah, Laws of Blows and Damages (1, 3) and Guide for the Perplexed (part 3, chapter 41).

Even a cursory glance at the Bible will reveal the many instances in which capital punishment is called for, the Bible declaring that the offender “must surely die, is certainly to be stoned to death” (mot tamut, sakel yisakel). The Oral Law, however, greatly limits these extreme punishments, insisting that a trial can take place only if two knowledgeable and objective witnesses give testimony that they saw the actual crime being perpetrated (circumstantial evidence not being admissible in a Jewish courtroom), and took the opportunity to give proper warning to the assailant, determining that he was aware of the action he was about to commit and its punitive consequences; hence R. Akiva and R. Tarfon both declare that if they had been on the Sanhedrin, no human being would ever have been tried for a capital crime. And our Sages declare that if a culprit was put to death once in 70 years, the court would be declared “a murderous court” (Mishna Makot 1;10 ).

The difference in punitive attitude becomes clear when we remember the different purposes guiding each legal code: The entire Pentateuch is heard each year by every Jew who attends Sabbath services, so that the goal of the biblical readings each week is to inform and inspire the consciences—first and foremost of the Jewish attendees—by inspiring them to understand the critical importance of ethical and moral actions.

The Oral Law, however, which sets down the actual punishments, must mediate the law with life, taking into account that if, God forbid, the wrong person is put to death for a crime he did not commit, there is no judicial recourse to bring him back to life. Hence the Oral Law softens and even sweetens the penalties, even bending over backwards to be lenient with the defendant.

For example, the Written Law warns “an eye for an eye,” since the only way an individual can understand the enormity of his crime of taking out a person’s eye is for him to have his eye removed; the Oral Law then explains that, since different people have different levels of eyesight and some professions require greater use of the eyes than do others, the actual penalty must be monetary remuneration rather than the removal of the eye.

The Bible, since it wished to inspire Israel to respect and protect the moral integrity of the marital union, teaches that if one degrades the marital fidelity, the product of such a liaison would never be able to enter a marital union, for all subsequent generations. However, the Oral Law made it virtually impossible to have a practical instance of mamzerut: not only would there have had to be two witnesses who gave warning to the transgressing couple prior to their act of adultery, which would have had to take place in front of those witnesses, but the halachic presumption is always that since the majority of sexual acts are between husband and wife, every child is presumed to be the child of that husband (and since paternity tests are not 100% accurate, they are not sufficient proof of adultery). When the case of a woman whose husband went overseas twelve months before she gave birth was brought before a religious court in talmudic times, the judges declared the child to be “kosher,” assuming that the fetus had gestated in the woman’s womb for 12 months! And in a similar incident they ruled that the husband had secretly returned for a night unbeknownst to anyone.

In more modern times, I do not know of a single case of mamzerut for which Hacham Ovadia Yosef or Rav Moshe Feinstein did not find a positive solution enabling the person in question to marry into the Jewish community. Unfortunately, the present religious establishment is not as bold as the decisors of previous generations.

The closing assertion about Rabbanim Feinstein and Yosef is fascinating and provocative; while a cursory perusal of the indices to יביע אומר and אגרות משה did indeed not yield a single instance of a stringent ruling in a case of ממזרות, I suspect that this does not tell the whole story, and that they may have simply not composed and published rulings in cases where they could not find sufficient basis for leniency, perhaps in order to allow other authorities the chance to issue a lenient ruling.

In a follow-up to this post, however, we shall, בג”ה, consider the stance of one of the leading halachic thinkers of our generation that appears quite close to that of R. Riskin (at least with regard to the applicability of the evidentiary standards of דיני נפשות to ממזרות – not, of course with regard to התראה).

  1. קול צבי, חוברת ד’ עמוד 12 []
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Price Gouging the Desperate

A famous scene from Shakespeare’s Richard III:

ACT V SCENE IV. Another part of the field.

Alarum: excursions. Enter NORFOLK and forces fighting; to him CATESBY


Rescue, my Lord of Norfolk, rescue, rescue!
The king enacts more wonders than a man,
Daring an opposite to every danger:
His horse is slain, and all on foot he fights,
Seeking for Richmond in the throat of death.
Rescue, fair lord, or else the day is lost!



A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


Withdraw, my lord; I’ll help you to a horse.


Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And I will stand the hazard of the die:
I think there be six Richmonds in the field;
Five have I slain to-day instead of him.
A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!


We have previously posted a detailed analysis of whether the trade King Richard proposes would constitute אונאה; the issue is whether one who pays more than the normal price out of desperation subsequently has a claim of אונאה. I recently encountered discussion of this case in R. Dr. Aaron Levine’s Case Studies In Jewish Business Ethics:

While a complaint of overcharge is not given validity when the reference price is anything but the current market norm, an exception to the rule can be identified: “It has been taught, R. Judah b. Batera [mid-1st. cent.] said: The sale of a horse, sword, and buckler on [the field of] battle is not subject to ona’ah, because one’s very life is dependent upon them.”

Given the life-threatening environment of the battlefield, the vendee would pay, if he had to, any sum to acquire the implements of war. Economists describe a desperate need of this sort with the phrase “perfectly inelastic demand.” Consider, too, that the buyer, for all intents and purposes, will not hazard to investigate market alternatives during a raging battle. The vendor therefore enjoys a monopoly position here.

Since the vendee’s demand for a horse or weapon in the battlefield zone is perfectly inelastic, he certainly receives subjective equivalence for whatever price he agrees to pay for these articles. This is the reasoning of R. Judah b. Batera. Whether his ruling represents mainstream talmudic thought is a matter of dispute among the early decisors. [R. Dr. Levine proceeds to cite various poskim who address this question, whom we have cited in our previous post.] …

The acceptability of R. Judah ben Batera’s opinion, according to R. Moses ha-Kohen of Lunel, a thirteenth-century French decisor, hinges heavily upon the validity of assimilating his battlefield case with the fugitive-ferryman case discussed at Bava Kamma 115a. Here, the Talmud relates that if an absconding criminal agrees to pay a ferryman an above-market price to provide him with conveyance across a river, he is entitled to recoup from the ferryman the differential involved.

The point of similarity between the two cases is that in both instances the buyer’s interest in the product involved is price-inelastic; i.e., he would agree, for all intents and purposes, to pay any price the seller insists on. In the ferryman-fugitive case, since the conveyance averts the fugitive’s imminent capture, the latter certainly receives subjective equivalence in his transaction with the ferryman. Nevertheless, if his fugitive status were removed, his demand for the conveyance would probably be described as price-elastic, and he would presumably not value the service above market price. With his price-inelastic demand reflecting transitory subjective value, the fugitive is entitled to recoup from the ferryman any amount he paid him above the competitive norm. Similarly, remove the condition of war and the vendee would presumably not agree to pay the asking price at hand for the implements of war.

Though R. Moses ha-Kohen advances no specifics to explain why this assimilation should be rejected, two points of dissimilarity stand out. First, whereas the demand-inducing factor in the battlefield case affects all market demanders equally, causing the aggregate demand schedule for implements of war to shift upward, no such upward shift in demand occurs in the fugitive-ferryman case. The demand-inducing factor uniquely affects the fugitive’s subjective evaluation of the ferryman’s services, leaving everyone else’s demand for the service unaffected. Second, whereas a competitive norm exists for the services of the ferryman at the time the fugitive struck his bargain, no competitive norm exists at the time an individual buys implements of war on a battlefield. While the commercial market for horses and weapons is normally subject to a competitive norm, the marketplace for these articles completely collapses within the framework of the battlefield zone. The economic environment that prevails in such a scene effectively precludes the emergence of a competitive price for these articles. Resource mobility and knowledge of market alternatives are conspicuously absent here, as the movement of market participants is severely restricted. With economic activity characteristically unorganized and sporadic, the market for these articles becomes minutely fragmented. Within this framework, price is determined by the individual bargains buyers and sellers reach. Since the buyer’s bid determines value here, his ona’ah claim should be denied, notwithstanding the circumstantial nature of his demand in this case.

What proceeds clearly from the school of thought that accepts the analogy between the fugitive-ferryman case and the battlefield case is the general principle that exercise of monopoly power, when the relevant aggregate demand schedule is perfectly inelastic, is ethically immoral.

Selling at whatever price the market will bear when the relevant demand the monopolist faces is price-elastic, however, presents no moral issue in Jewish law. This is evident from the long-standing sanction given to the communal practice of auctioning the privilege of performing a public ceremonial function of a religious character to the highest bidder. With the ceremonial honor put up for sale unavailable elsewhere, the competitive bidding among the auction participants determines value. Hence, no moral issue is raised here. Capitalizing on “site value”, auctioning a rare painting, and selling the patent rights of a new invention to the highest bidder provide other examples of monopoly pricing under conditions of elastic demand.2

The basic inference from the case of the fugitive and the ferryman of the general principle that a deal made by someone “under pressure” to pay an unfairly high price need not be subsequently honored is also articulated by Ritva:

גמרא קידושין

רב כהנא שקיל סודרא מבי פדיון הבן אמר ליה לדידי חזי לי חמש סלעים אמר רב אשי לא אמרן אלא כגון רב כהנא דגברא רבה הוא ומבעי ליה סודרא ארישיה אבל כולי עלמא לא כי הא דמר בר רב אשי זבן סודרא מאימיה דרבה מקובי שוי עשרה בתליסר:3


פירוש וקים לן ודאי דשוה חמש לדידיה, אבל כולי עלמא דלא שוי’ ליה לא, ואף על גב דקבלי’ עליה לאו כל כמיניה.
ושמע’ מהכא שהמוכר חפץ לחבירו בשית ובשוק לא שוו אלא חמשה, אי להאי לוקח שוי שיתא אין בו אונאה, דבתר דידיה אזלינן, כי היכי דחשבינן ליה הכא דשוי חמש סלעים,
מיהו בדשוי’ לזבונא שיתא כי אורחיה, אבל אי לדידיה לא שוי’ אלא מפני שהוא דחוק בדבר, האי ודאי קציצה מתוך בדחק לא שמיה קציצה, ואפילו נתן לו הדמים חוזר וגובה אותם ממנו, והכי מוכח ביבמות … ושמעינן מינה שכל המתנה בשכירות יותר מכדי דמים מפני האונס ודוחק השעה שלו, יכול לומר משטה אני בך, ומכאן ללוקח סמנין הרבה בדמים יקרים מפני חולי הדוחק, דלא מחייב אלא בדמיהן וכן כל כיוצא בזה, מיהו אם התנה בשכר הרופא הרבה, חייב ליתן, שחכמתו מכר לו ואין לה דמים, וכן כתב אדונינו הרמב”ן ז”ל, וכן שמעתי מפי מורי נר”ו.4

It is worth noting that among contemporary secular economists and philosophers there is also no consensus on whether taking advantage of the misfortune of others to profit by raising prices constitutes immoral “price gouging” or is merely the standard and legitimate business practice of “charging what the market will bear”; here’s how Prof. Michael J. Sandel, an expert on the subject of justice, describes the debate (h/t: Minds and Discourse):

In the summer of 2004, Hurricane Charley roared out of the Gulf of Mexico and swept across Florida to the Atlantic Ocean. The storm claimed twenty-two lives and caused $11 billion in damage. It also left in its wake a debate about price gouging.

At a gas station in Orlando, they were selling two-dollar bags of ice for ten dollars. Lacking power for refrigerators or air-conditioning in the middle of August, many people had little choice but to pay up. Downed trees heightened demand for chain saws and roof repairs. Contractors offered to clear two trees off a homeowner’s roof — for $23,000. Stores that normally sold small household generators for $250 were now asking $2,000. A seventy-seven-year-old woman fleeing the hurricane with her elderly husband and handicapped daughter was charged $160 per night for a motel room that normally goes for $40.

Many Floridians were angered by the inflated prices. “After Storm Come the Vultures,” read a headline in USA Today. One resident, told it would cost $10,500 to remove a fallen tree from his roof, said it was wrong for people to “try to capitalize on other people’s hardship and misery.” Charlie Crist, the state’s attorney general, agreed: “It is astounding to me, the level of greed that someone must have in their soul to be willing to take advantage of someone suffering in the wake of a hurricane.”

Florida has a law against price gouging, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, the attorney general’s office received more than two thousand complaints. Some led to successful lawsuits. A Days Inn in West Palm Beach had to pay $70,000 in penalties and restitution for overcharging customers.

But even as Crist set about enforcing the price-gouging law, some economists argued that the law — and the public outrage — were misconceived. In medieval times, philosophers and theologians believed that the exchange of goods should be governed by a “just price,” determined by tradition or the intrinsic value of things. But in market societies, the economists observed, prices are set by supply and demand. There is no such thing as a “just price.”

Thomas Sowell, a free-market economist, called price gouging an “emotionally powerful but economically meaningless expression that most economists pay no attention to, because it seems too confused to bother with.” Writing in the Tampa Tribune, Sowell sought to explain “how ‘price gouging’ helps Floridians.” Charges of price gouging arise “when prices are significantly higher than what people have been used to,” Sowell wrote. But “the price levels that you happen to be used to” are not morally sacrosanct. They are no more “special or ‘fair’ than other prices” that market conditions — including those prompted by a hurricane — may bring about.

Jeff Jacoby, a pro-market commentator writing in the Boston Globe, argued against price-gouging laws on similar grounds: “It isn’t gouging to charge what the market will bear. It isn’t greedy or brazen. It’s how goods and services get allocated in a free society.” Jacoby acknowledged that the “price spikes are infuriating, especially to someone whose life has just been thrown into turmoil by a deadly storm.” But public anger is no justification for interfering with the free market. By providing incentives for suppliers to produce more of the needed goods, the seemingly exorbitant prices “do far more good than harm.” His conclusion: “Demonizing vendors won’t speed Florida’s recovery. Letting them go about their business will.”

Attorney General Crist (a Republican who would later be elected governor of Florida) published an op-ed piece in the Tampa paper defending the law against price gouging: “In times of emergency, government cannot remain on the sidelines while people are charged unconscionable prices as they flee for their lives or seek the basic commodities for their families after a hurricane.” Crist rejected the notion that these “unconscionable” prices reflected a truly free exchange:This is not the normal free market situation where willing buyers freely elect to enter into the marketplace and meet willing sellers, where a price is agreed upon based on supply and demand. In an emergency, buyers under duress have no freedom. Their purchases of necessities like safe lodging are forced.The debate about price gouging that arose in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley raises hard questions of morality and law: Is it wrong for sellers of goods and services to take advantage of a natural disaster by charging whatever the market will bear? If so, what, if anything, should the law do about it? Should the state prohibit price gouging, even if doing so interferes with the freedom of buyers and sellers to make whatever deals they choose? …

Sandel continues with his analysis of the issue.

I recently gave a brief talk on the possibility of rescission of a deal made by someone under pressure, in the context of the broader question of the halachic valuation of something that is worth more to a specific individual than the price assigned to it by the market; the lecture is available, along with some brief notes on the general topic, at the Internet Archive.

  1. Richard III, Act V Scene IV []
  2. R. Dr. Aaron Levine, Case Studies in Jewish Business Ethics, pp. 158-60. []
  3. קידושין ח.‏ []
  4. חידושי הריטב”א (מוסד הרב קוק) שם עמודים עד-עה ד”ה לעולם. []
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The Or Sameah’s Ouroboros

Our previous post cited Rav Ya’akov Emden’s barb that “it seemed to us, in our tranquility in the Diaspora, that we have already found an alternate ארץ ישראל and ירושלים …”. This foreshadows a famous passage of Rav Meir Simha of Dvinsk, in which he warns against thinking that Berlin is Yerushalayim. R. Meir Simha’s point is actually rather more complex and sophisticated than that brief quote suggests; he’s positing the existence of a national spiritual cycle where once the development of Torah culture reaches its apex, nothing is left for the new generation to contribute, and so the natural human desire to innovate engenders sophistical criticism of the tradition, resulting in its eventual rejection as falsehood and the forgetting of one’s roots and the abandonment of one’s religion for the study of alien languages, “and he will think that Berlin is Yerushalayim …”:

כך היא דרכה של האומה, שכאשר יכנסו לארץ נכריה, יהיו אינם בני תורה, כאשר נדלדלו מן הצרות והגזירות, והגירוש, ואחר כך יתעורר בם רוח אלקי השואף בם להשיבם למקור חוצבו מחצבת קדשם, ילמדו, ירביצו תורה, יעשו נפלאות, עד כי יעמוד קרן התורה על רומו ושיאו, הלא אין ביד הדור החדש להוסיף מה, להתגדר נגד אבותם, מה יעשה חפץ האדם העשוי להתגדר ולחדש, יבקר ברעיון כוזב את אשר הנחילו אבותינו, ישער חדשות בשכוח מה היה לאומתו בהתנודדו בים התלאות, ויהיה מה, עוד מעט ישוב לאמר שקר נחלו אבותינו, והישראלי בכלל ישכח מחצבתו ויחשב לאזרח רענן, יעזוב לימודי דתו, ללמוד לשונות לא לו, יליף ממקלקלתא ולא יליף מתקנתא, יחשוב, כי ברלין היא ירושלים, וכמקולקלים שבהם עשיתם, כמתוקנים לא עשיתם ואל תשמח ישראל אל גיל בעמים.
אז יבוא רוח סועה וסער, יעקור אותו מגזעו, יניחהו לגוי מרחוק, אשר לא למד לשונו, ידע כי הוא גר, לשונו שפת קדשינו, ולשונות זרים המה כלבוש יחלוף, ומחצבתו הוא גזע ישראל, ותנחומיו ניחומי נביאי ד’, אשר נבאו על גזע ישי באחרית הימים, ובטלטולו ישכח תורתו, עומקה ופלפולה. ושם ינוח מעט, יתעורר ברגש קדש ובניו יוסיפו אומץ ובחוריו יעשו חיל בתורת ד’, יתגדרו לפשט תורה בזה הגבול, אשר כבר נשכחה. ובזה יתקיים ויחזק אומץ. …1

While the basic theme that success carries within it the seeds of its own destruction is a common one, R. Meir Simha’s take on it is original, fascinating and provocative:

  • It is usually material success that is considered dangerous, as it causes one to become comfortable, complacent and arrogant (וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשֻׁרוּן וַיִּבְעָט, שָׁמַנְתָּ עָבִיתָ כָּשִׂיתָ; וַיִּטֹּשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ עָשָׂהוּ, וַיְנַבֵּל צוּר יְשֻׁעָתוֹ.); R. Meir Simha is asserting the fatal danger inherent in spiritual success.
  • Contrary to the common idea that spiritual growth is basically a never-ending journey, R. Meir Simha seems to assert the reality of a spiritual plateau, beyond which it is difficult if not impossible to progress.
  • R. Meir Simha seems to understand that the ultimate motivation for criticism and rejection of tradition and religion, and their abandonment for foreign culture is not an inherently wrong-headed attitude, but merely the double-edged natural human desire for spiritual creativity and innovation; in the initial phase of the spiritual cycle, this desire is constructive and fosters religious progress, and it is only once the spiritual plateau has been reached that the urge becomes destructive and engenders spiritual regression.

The language of R. Meir Simha’s eloquent expression of the human need for creativity and innovation, which I have emphasized above, is a clear allusion to the classic Talmudic treatment of the legitimacy of religious innovation:

העיד רבי יהושע בן זרוז בן חמיו של רבי מאיר לפני רבי על ר”מ שאכל עלה של ירק בבית שאן והתיר רבי את בית שאן כולה על ידו
חברו עליו אחיו ובית אביו אמרו לו מקום שאבותיך ואבות אבותיך נהגו בו איסור אתה תנהוג בו היתר
דרש להן מקרא זה וכתת נחש הנחשת אשר עשה משה כי עד הימים ההמה היו בני ישראל מקטרים לו ויקרא לו נחושתן אפשר בא אסא ולא ביערו בא יהושפט ולא ביערו והלא כל עבודה זרה שבעולם אסא ויהושפט ביערום אלא מקום הניחו [רש”י: כשיבאו בנינו אחרינו אם לא ימצאו מה לתקן במה יגדל שמם] לו אבותיו להתגדר [רש”י: להתגדל] בו אף אני מקום הניחו לי אבותי להתגדר בו
מכאן [רש”י: שראינו שקבל רבי עדות זו ולמד הימנה אע”פ שדבר תימה הוא שהרי מעולם היו נוהגין בו איסור למדנו שאין מזיחין תלמיד חכם האומר דבר הלכה חידוש לאמר לא שמעת] לתלמיד חכם שאמר דבר הלכה שאין מזיחין אותו ואמרי לה אין מזניחין אותו ואמרי לה אין מזחיחין אותו מאן דאמר מזיחין כדכתיב ולא יזח החשן ומאן דאמר אין מזניחין דכתיב כי לא יזנח לעולם ה’ ומאן דאמר מזחיחין דתנן משרבו זחוחי הלב רבו מחלוקות בישראל2

A lecture I recently gave on this topic of the legitimacy of religious innovation is available at the Internet Archive.

  1. משך חכמה בחקתי ד”ה והנה מעת היות ישראל בגוים []
  2. חולין ו:-ז. []
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