ההכרח לא ישובח ולא יגונה?‏

R. Ysoscher Katz writes:

Apologizing For Our Necessary Collective Evil

Sometimes we have to repent for transgression we commit even if they are perhaps justifiable. For example: when I fight a war of self-defense and people get killed in the process, the killing is justified, but I still took a life. For that I need to repent.

Those charged with ensuring the security of Israel’s airports have to be hyper-vigilant, to not let anything slip under the radar. If something in Meyer’s bags looked suspicious, they had every right to question him and make sure that it did not pose a security threat. That, however, does not take away from the fact that in the process Meyer was degraded.

Our challenge is to hold on to both feelings simultaneously; to unequivocally support Israel’s security apparatus but, at the same time, not allow our sensitivities to go numb in the process. Israel, on behalf of us, hurt another human being (albeit rightfully) and we need to repent, and also ask for forgiveness from the aggrieved person; we as individuals, and the state as a collective.

As an orthodox rabbi, that is the mode in which I operate all the time. I constantly remind my congregants: Orthodoxy is by definition discriminatory. People are denied full entry based on their gender, or various other factors. I love Orthodoxy and appreciate tremendously all that it gives me, but that does not absolve me of my complicity in its exclusionary ethos. I remind my community every Yom Kippur that we need to add this to our list of al cheits. We need to plead for forgiveness for the discrimination inherent in being orthodox. Justified behavior does not necessarily diminish the criminality (albeit without malice) such behavior sometimes entails.

R. Avrohom Gordimer (unsurprisingly) disagrees:

No Apologies Necessary

Rabbi Ysoscher Katz’ Apologizing For Our Necessary Collective Evil sends some troubling messages. …

While we have all been subjected to zealous and seemingly harsh security practices at one time or another, we are aware that such is the nature of things – there are wicked, bloodthirsty people in the world, who have caused governments to invest countless billions of dollars and ordinary citizens to lose countless billions of hours by being unduly inconvenienced, harassed and downright humiliated in the interests of safety. Intrusive and dehumanizing security protocols are sadly part of life, and I do not think that apologies are necessary. On the contrary, it is the terrorists who owe the world an apology for necessitating the enactment of these extremely imposing security measures (as well as, obviously, for the vicious acts of violence and murder that have shaken humanity to its core). Security should be as civil and sensitive as possible, and never cruel, but unfortunately, nations have been quite understandably forced into very tough positions in order to defend lives, for which apologies seem out of place and perhaps even counterproductive. One can disagree, but I think that we must be very careful before introducing apologies into the realm of security procedures.

Rabbi Katz then takes his theme of apology for necessary evils to a theological level …

God does not need to apologize for His Torah, nor do we need to apologize for heeding the Torah. Heaven forbid to declare that adherence to the Torah makes one complicit in criminality, with or without malice. The Al Chet prayer for forgiveness is prescribed for those who violate the Torah and not for observance of the Torah. …

R. Katz’s basic idea that a course of action can be both necessary and permissible, but simultaneously sinful, while certainly not a common one in our tradition, does have apparently solid precedent in Tosafos:

אמר שמואל כל היושב בתענית נקרא חוטא. וקשיא דאמרינן בפ’ החובל (ב”ק דף צא: ושם) החובל בעצמו רשאי אבל אחרים שחבלו בו חייבים ומפרש התם הא דקאמר החובל בעצמו רשאי אמר שמואל ביושב בתענית אלמא משמע דשמואל קאמר דיושב בתענית לא נקרא חוטא
ויש לומר דודאי הוי חוטא כדאמרינן הכא מקל וחומר מנזיר ומה נזיר שלא ציער עצמו אלא מיין וכו’ אבל מכל מקום המצוה שהוא עושה התענית גדול יותר מן העבירה ממה שהוא מצער נפשו דמצוה לנדור כדאמרינן (סוטה דף ב.) הרואה סוטה בקלקולה יזיר עצמו מן היין ומכל מקום יש קצת חטא מידי דהוה אמתענה תענית חלום בשבת דקורעין גזר דינו ונפרעין ממנו תענית של שבת ומאי תקנתיה ליתב תעניתא לתעניתיה:1

[We have previously touched on the remarkable implication of this Tosafos here.]

An even closer parallel can perhaps be found in the Mishnah and Talmud:

מתני’ מסרוהו זקני בית דין לזקני כהונה והעלוהו בית אבטינס והשביעוהו [רש”י: שלא יהא צדוקי לתקן מבחוץ ולהכניס בפנים כדאמרינן בגמרא] ונפטרו והלכו להם ואמרו לו אישי כהן גדול אנו שלוחי בית דין ואתה שלוחנו ושליח בית דין משביעין אנו עליך במי ששכן שמו בבית הזה שלא תשנה דבר מכל מה שאמרנו לך הוא פורש ובוכה והן פורשין ובוכין2

גמרא … הוא פורש ובוכה שחשדוהו צדוקי [לתקן הקטורת ולתת אותה על מחתת האש בהיכל ולהכניסה אחרי כן לבית קדשי הקדשים שכן אומרים הצדוקים כדלקמן] והם פורשין ובוכין דא”ר יהושע בן לוי כל החושד בכשרים לוקה בגופו וכל כך למה שלא יתקן מבחוץ ויכניס כדרך שהצדוקין עושין3

Just as Israelis have ample reason to suspect arbitrary Palestinians of nefarious intentions, the elders of the second Commonwealth Era certainly had ample reason to suspect High Priests of Sadducee sympathies – and yet they felt great distress at the possibility of having suspected a blameless individual.

A truly provocative comment ostensibly on our topic is the Talmudic assertion that G-d requires atonement for having diminished the moon and thereby hurt its feelings:

רבי שמעון בן פזי רמי כתיב ויעש אלקים את שני המאורות הגדולים וכתיב את המאור הגדול ואת המאור הקטן אמרה ירח לפני הקב”ה רבש”ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך …

חזייה דלא קא מיתבא דעתה אמר הקב”ה הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי את הירח והיינו דאמר ר”ש בן לקיש מה נשתנה שעיר של ראש חדש שנאמר בו לד’ אמר הקב”ה שעיר זה יהא כפרה על שמיעטתי את הירח4

But of course, despite academic scholarship that takes such Rabbinic statements at face value:

[Prof. Dov] Weiss shows that God in the Tanhuma-Yelammedanu literature becomes humanized and shares a life of Torah with Jews. God even goes into exile with the Jewish people, and needs redemption by Israel and through history. God recognizes that His past act or decision does not comport with the moral ideal and makes a concession of his fault; God is able to concede and thereby acknowledge faults and mistakes.

traditional Jewish theology considers the very ideas of G-d erring or requiring atonement unthinkable, and reinterprets the problematic aggadic passages accordingly, e.g.:


אמר לה הקב”ה הנני עושה לך כבוד שמישב דעתך תחת שמיעטתיך ומאי ניהו שיהו ישראל בכל ר”ח מקריבין קרבן לפני לכפר עונותיהם לפיכך אמר הקב”ה הביאו כפרה לפני בר”ח לכפר עליכם כדי שתשלימו עלי בקרבן כפרה זה את הכבוד שאמרתי לעשות לירח בשביל שמיעטתיו וזה הוא פירוש הביאו כפרה עלי שמיעטתי וכו’:5

  1. תוספות תענית יא. ד”ה אמר שמואל []
  2. יומא יח: []
  3. שם יט: []
  4. חולין ס: []
  5. רי”ף שבועות דף א: בדפי הרי”ף, ועיין עוד פה ופה []

Ascetics, Aesthetics, and Cosmetics

My halachah column for this past year’s פרשת נשא:

In Parashas Naso (6:11), a Nazarite is commanded to bring a sin-offering. As we have noted in previous years, the Talmud (Bava Kama 91b) cites an explanation that this is to atone for the sin of having (unnecessarily) deprived himself of the enjoyment of wine. Elsewhere (Nedarim 10a), the Talmud derives from this that one who engages in (discretionary) fasting is called a sinner.

But in yet another discussion of the topic, the Talmud (Taanis 11a-b) again begins by citing the opinion that the Nazarite and the faster are considered sinners, but then proceeds to cite two other opinions: one that considers them both ‘holy’, and one that invokes the term ‘pious’ (although Rashi and Tosafos actually disagree whether it is the faster, or the one who refrains from fasting, who is termed pious).

The Tosafos complicate matters even further, noting that the same sage (Shmuel) who maintains that the faster is considered a sinner, elsewhere maintains that fasting is permitted, and even a mitzvah! They explain that although fasting is inherently sinful, the mitzvah involved outweighs the sin. This is obviously difficult to understand.

R. An-Shlomo Astruc in his Midrashei Ha’Torah adopts a similar position, elaborating that the ‘sin’ requiring ‘atonement’ is not the Nazarite’s abstemiousness itself, but the underlying fact that his urges have become so powerful that he is compelled to become a Nazarite and renounce wine “which cheereth G-d and man” (Shoftim 9:13) in order to subdue his base nature and evil characteristics and eliminate his carnal lusts. He explains that just as some substances are good for the physically healthy but harmful to the ill, so, too, is wine good for the morally healthy but abstention therefrom a tonic for the morally deranged (cf. Gilyonot Nechama year 5710).

The Ramban in his commentary to our parashah sides with the view that Nazarism is praiseworthy. He explains that a Nazarite ideally ought to maintain his elevated status permanently – “he should remain all his days a Nazarite and holy to his G-d” – and that by declining to do so, he commits a grave sin, “and he requires atonement as he returns to becoming defiled by the lusts of the world”.

My parashah lecture, on the same topic, along with accompanying handout, is available at the Internet Archive. [See also our previous posts here and here about the permissibility of cosmetic surgery.]