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 []