Beyond the Law

One of the most provocative interpretations of the fundamental distinction between Misnagdic and Hassidic theology I have ever seen appears in R. Yehoshua Mondshine’s Letter To A Friend:

“מתנגדישע פרומקייט”

מדרכי החסידות הוא שלא לנטות מדרך ההלכה ימין ושמאל, להזהר עד קצה האחרון אפילו בדקדוק קל של דברי סופרים, לבטל את השכל אל ההלכה ורצון ד’ שאינו משתנה – בקיצור: מ’דארף זיין פרום. מאידך גיסא הכל יודעים כי החסידים לא גרסו את ה”פרומקייט”, וה”פרומער מתנגד” הי’ לגנאי. מה פשר הדבר?

מובן שהחילוק בין חסידישע פרומקייט ומתנגדישע, מתבטא בגמישותו ופקחותו של החסיד, לעומת המתנגד הנוהג בטמטום מרובע והולך עם הראש בקיר – מתוך הרגשה שהוא עושה בדיוק מה שנצטווה לעשות, ללא התחכמויות חסידיות.

ולכן לא יעלה בדעתו של המתנגד לאחר את זמן התפלה כפי שלא יעלה בדעתו לאכול מצה בסוכות. הוא יקום ויעמוד להתפלל מיד בקומו משנתו, ח”ו לא ילמד קודם התפלה כדי שתהא סמוכה למטתו, ולא יבטל תפלה בציבור אפילו אם לשם כך יצטרך לוותר על טבילת עזרא. ואם מן המהדרין הוא המשכימים ל”ותיקין”, הרי שתפלתו תהי’ בתכלית השלימות ההלכתית כשיעמוד לשמו”ע ושעון בידו לקבוע מתי בדיוק יתחיל בתפלה.

באים החסידים והופכים את הקערה על פיה: לומדים וטובלים קודם התפלה – אפילו אם יאלצו בשל כך להתפלל אח”כ ביחידות, אוכלים קודם התפלה אפילו אם ה”תענית” הקלה לא תזיק לבריאותם, ולבסוף אפילו מאחרים תפלתם אחר הזמן שנקבע בדברי חז”ל והשו”ע וברצונו וחכמתו של הקב”ה שאינו משתנה!

וכל כך למה? כדי לקיים את רצונו של הקב”ה! אמנם כל צעדיו של המתנגד ספורים ומדודים ומכוונים לדברי הש”ס והפוסקים ולדברי הבורא ית’ עצמו, אבל החסידים שואפים לקיים את רצונו של הקב”ה ולא את דבריו. ובלשון משפטית: קיום רוחו של החוק עדיפה על קיום לשונו. החסידים משוכנעים כי רצונו הפנימי של הקב”ה הוא שהתפלה תהי’ ע”ד ואשפוך את נפשי וכד’, וכדי להגיע לכך הם מוכנים לעבור אפילו על הלכות מפורשות, ללמוד, להאריך בהכנות, לאכול – והעיקר שתהא זו תפלה אמיתית, גם אם אינה בזמן וגם אם לשון החוק מעדיפה את התפלה המיכנית והמדוקדקת על תפלה שאינה עומדת בקריטריונים הברורים של ההלכה.

זו דוגמה אחת מני רבות שבה החסיד שופט בשכלו כי עליו לנטות מן ההלכה הפסוקה כדי לקיים את רצון בוראו. אותו חסיד גם יתן צדקה יותר מאשר מותר לו ע”פ לשון ההלכה, יהי’ מוכן לעבור על שבות דרבנן כדי לזכות במצוה (כידוע מר”ז ווילענקיס – מחסידי אדמוה”ז – שנסע בסוסו ועגלתו אחר התקדש ליל ראש-השנה כדי שיגיע למקום ישוב וישמע קול שופר), ומאידך גיסא יוכל לבטל תלמוד-תורה ומצוה כדי שלא יראוהו עוסק בהן ויכבדוהו (או שרצונו שיזלזלוהו), ויוכל לעבור איסור דאורייתא למען כבוד שמו – ככל הני עבירות לשמן שבדברי חז”ל, וכאותו א’ מאנ”ש שהרים מהקרקע בש”ק דף סידור וטלטלו אמות רבות ברשות הרבים דאורייתא, כדי ששמו הק’ לא יהא מונח בבזיון.

I recently encountered the delicious irony that this incredibly provocative Hassidic doctrine that fulfilling G-d’s will by following the spirit of His law can be preferable to a slavish adherence to the letter of His law is apparently also espoused by a leading contemporary Maimonidean rationalist, Rav Nahum Eliezer Rabinovitch! Here is R. David Silverstein’s description of R. Rabinovitch’s view:

According to [R. Rabinovitch’s] approach, non-halakhically sanctioned behavior (aveirah) can never serve as an ab initio legal solution to a state of halakhic ambiguity. The context of R. Rabinovitch’s interpretation is an attempt to solve a contradiction in Maimonides’ position regarding the permissibility of giving up one’s life in circumstances not required by the Talmud. As noted above, the Talmud states that there are only three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than violate. What if an individual chooses to accept death rather than violate a religious norm not listed in this group of three? Tur rules that if done in a private setting, such behavior is permissible. Maimonides disagrees and argues that it is forbidden to give up one’s life in such cases. In fact, he claims that if one were to give up his life in cases not sanctioned by the Talmud, the individual would be legally liable for his unlawful behavior.

Maimonides affirms his position in a famous letter known as Iggeret Ha-Shemad. Trying to pacify a community threatened by forced conversion to Islam, Maimonides rules that there is no requirement to die in order to avoid declaring allegiance to the Islamic faith. Additionally, he makes it clear that if one decides to act beyond the letter of the law and give up his life, he is held accountable for his behavior. In an apparent change of tone, Maimonides adds a seemingly contradictory qualifier. While he concedes that a court would never sanction the act of martyrdom where not formally required, if an individual decides to do so nonetheless, he has “performed a mitzvah” and receives “great reward” before G-d since he has sanctified G-d’s name.

How can we reconcile these conflicting positions of Maimonides? Both in Mishneh Torah, as well as in his initial formulation in Iggeret Ha-Shemad, he is clear that under no circumstances is one to give up their life unless specifically granted license by the Halakhah. However, in the same letter he renders those who do give up their lives when not formally required as having performed a mitzvah and acted in a way that is religiously virtuous?

R. Rabinovitch argues that there is no contradiction within the view of the Rambam. He notes that Rambam consistently maintains throughout the letter that if asked, no court would ever legally sanction giving up one’s life when not required. Maimonides’ positive words for those who gave up their lives is directed at individuals who already chose death in order to avoid conversion. These people were in no way rebelling against the law. Rather, they were motivated by a love of G-d. Why else would they sacrifice their own life to avoid violating what they perceived to be a halakhic prohibition? It is only post facto, that Maimonides is able to evaluate their behavior and claim that given the purity of their motivation, they will receive great reward. From a strictly legal perspective, their act itself is defined as a sin. Since it was performed with pure intent, however, it has the status of an aveirah li-shmah.

Applying this theory to the case discussed by the Talmud,1 R. Rabinovitch argues that had Yael asked a court how to behave in the case of Sisera, they would have told her not to violate the law of sexual impropriety since it is one of the three cardinal sins that one must die for rather than transgress. However, once the action was already done, the Talmud is able to evaluate her behavior with the perspective of hindsight. Since the Torah equates her conduct with the religiously virtuous actions of the matriarchs, we see that G-d considers her actions praiseworthy. While her behavior is sinful from a legal standpoint it is still meritorious when seen from a broader religious perspective.

R. Silverstein proceeds to explore the theology of this approach and to situate it within the broader framework of R. Rabinovitch’s theology of halachah.

Now there is obviously a vast difference in emphasis and tone between R. Rabinovitch and R. Mondshine, with the former limiting עבירה לשמה to extreme and extraordinary situations, and the latter justifying antinomian conduct even as a daily occurrence, such as the failure to scrupulously abide by זמני תפילה. (Although R. Mondshine’s essay does not explicitly invoke the concept of עבירה לשמה, as noted below the Seer of Lublin does explicitly apply it to the disregard of זמני תפילה.) But the essential theological doctrine involved certainly seems quite similar – surely R. Mondshine does not mean to say that if the Hassid who saw a siddur on the ground would have “asked a court” whether he should carry it “many cubits in a Biblical public domain so that His Holy Name should not remain in a situation of disgrace,” he would have been told to do so!

My weekly parashah lecture for פרשת וירא four years ago discussed עבירה לשמה; it is available, along with accompanying handout, at the Internet Archive, and here is my cognate weekly halachah column:

Parashas Vayeira contains the account of Lot’s daughters, who, believing themselves along with their father to be the sole survivors of the human race, took the desperate step of procreating with him. Although such an act would ordinarily be inappropriate, and possibly even a violation of the Noachide Laws (see Sanhedrin 58b), the Torah expresses no criticism of the girls, and the Talmud even seems to approve of their conduct, due to the purity of their intent, applying to them the verse “for the ways of Hashem are right, and the righteous shall walk in them” (Hoshea 14:10 – Nazir 23a).

Elsewhere, the Talmud declares that “great is aveirah lishmah” (sin for a pure motive), but the scope of this dispensation is unclear. Acharonim debate the case of a group of Jews who were accosted by a band of cutthroats and faced imminent death. One of the Jews, a married woman, seduced the murderer(s) and thereby saved the Jews’ lives. The Shevus Yaakov (2:117) approves of her conduct, citing (inter alia) Esther’s decision to willingly consort with Achashverosh as part of her plan to avert Haman’s genocide (see Megillah 15a). The Noda Be’Yehudah (2:YD:161) disagrees, arguing that Esther was a special case since she acted to save “all of Israel, from India even unto Ethiopia” and we cannot infer from this a dispensation for the saving of mere individuals. Additionally, she acted at the direction of Mordechai and his Beis Din, and perhaps according to ruach ha’kodesh (“the holy spirit”, a form of Divine communication).

R. Chaim of Volozhin (Keser Rosh #121) insists that aveirah lishmah is no longer permitted, at least for Jews, subsequent to the giving of the Torah. In the same vein, he strongly rejects the idea of disregarding the proper times for the recital of the Shema and prayer for the sake of performing these rituals with greater concentration (Nefesh Ha’Chaim, “Chapters” #4). The Seer of Lublin, on the other hand, approves of doing precisely this, “for in truth, Hashem desires the heart, and great is aveirah lishmah, and this is what is meant by ‘all your actions shall be for the sake of Heaven’” (Zichron Zos, Pinchas, p. 124).

I also discussed the aforementioned responsa of the Shevus Yaakov and Noda Be’Yehudah in a recent Reading Responsa lecture, an incomplete recording of which, along with (the complete) accompanying handout, is also available at the Internet Archive.

  1. See our previous discussions of episode of Yael and Sisera here and here. []

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