Conservative JudaismHuman RightsNaso

Naso 5766 — Radical Rabbis

The rabbis of two thousand years were a real bunch of radicals.

When they were confronted with something in the Torah that conflicted with the sense of values and ethics they learned from the Torah itself, they resolved the issue by deciding in favor of the values over the explicit law found in the Torah.

If the Torah said something that was deeply troubling, or that didn’t work, they either interpreted the troubling passage out of existence or they found a way around it.

This week’s Torah portion, Naso, contains an example of this.

One of the most troubling rituals in the Torah is found in this week’s reading, Naso. The Torah tells us that if a spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he suspects his wife of infidelity, he can bring her to the priest and force her to undergo a degrading ritual designed to determine whether or not she had committed adultery.

The Torah tells us if a man suspected his wife of having gone astray, and he was caught up in a ruach kinah, a jealous spirit, he was to bring his wife to the priest.

The woman was told to bring an offering of barley—the lowest category of offering, the most plain, most worthless possible offering. The priest would then take the woman, loosen the hair of her head—the Talmud tells us he would also expose her breasts, in public, for everyone to see—very much against the values of modesty. He would then take a mixture of water and dust from the floor of the Temple. The priest would tell the woman that if she had gone astray, drinking the bitter water would cause her belly to swell and her thigh to fall, and she would die. She was forced to say “amen” to this curse. The priest would write the name of God on a piece of paper, dissolve it in the water, and make the woman drink the water.

In other words, the woman was being told that if she was guilty of infidelity she would die a gruesome death by the hand of God, after being shamed in public.

One might argue that if a woman had gone astray and slept with someone else she was getting what she deserved. I wouldn’t argue you that, mind you, but some might. But how about the innocent woman?

The Torah “And the spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is defiled; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is not defiled (Numbers 5:14);”

If a spirit of jealousy comes over a man “and she is not defiled”—she is innocent of the charges—she has to go through this ritual, ostensibly designed to clear her name.

One could take the approach of being an apologist for this strange ritual – and say that it provided a way to purge the ugliness of jealousy from a relationship. If the woman didn’t die, the husband had to keep his mouth shut, and the Torah tells us the woman would get pregnant. End of story.

But why should an innocent woman be made to suffer through this degrading and scary ritual just because her husband was overcome by a sense of jealousy?

The rabbis two thousand years ago asked themselves that same question. To start with, the Mishnah puts in place a lot of procedural barriers to make it more difficult to subject a woman to the procedure. While the Torah makes it sound like any guy who is suddenly overcome by a fit of jealousy can send his wife through the procedure, the Talmud specifies that the husband must first warn her not to be secluded with a particular man, and she must then ignore than explicit warning. The rabbis argue at great length about whether the warning and or the seclusion need to be witnessed by one or two witnesses, or just the word of the husband.


After an entire tractate of the Talmud deals with all of the arcane details of this strange ritual, at the end of the day we are told the rabbis discontinued it because it wasn’t fair: it punished the women, but not the men who were guilty of the same crime.

The Torah gives us an explicit procedure to follow with detailed instructions. Yet those radical rabbis analyzed it, and they found the procedure to be out of synch with the values they learned from the Torah: values like every person is created in the image of God, and deserves to be treated with respect. Values like “justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Values like “there shall be one form of law to you.” Finding this explicit commandment in the Torah out of synch with the values we learn from the Torah, the rabbis voted in favor of the values instead of in favor of the explicit commandment of the Torah. Pretty radical!

There are many other examples throughout the Torah where the later rabbis used the values they derived from the Torah to trump something written in the Torah itself. The Torah commands us to stone to death the “rebellious son.” The rabbis couldn’t imagine how such a thing could be done, to put someone to death who has not yet committed a capital crime. They put so many restrictions on it that it was made impossible to administer. One rabbi argues that there never was a rebellious son put to death in accordance with this law in the Torah – it’s only there for us to accrue merit through studying the passage.

The rabbis were uncomfortable with capital punishment, so they put so many restrictions around implementing capital punishment that the Talmud concludes “a Sanhedrin that executed one person in seven years – and some say one in seventy years – is called a ‘bloody court.’”

We read the Torah’s commandment “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and it sounds barbaric. The rabbis of old agree – they insist, that despite the seemingly very clear statement in the Torah, that the pshat, the plain or simple meaning of the text, is that it calls for monetary compensation when a person injures another. They say that anyone who says the verse means you should poke out the eye of someone who pokes out your eye is distorting the Torah!

Last Shabbat among the different things we read was the commandment of the remission of debts during the shmittah year, the seventh year, when the fields were to lie fallow and Jewish slaves were to be released.

Of course, one problem with having a general release of debts in the seventh year is that when year six comes along, people will be reluctant to make loans, since they figure they might not get paid back. The Torah in fact explicitly warns against having that attitude: “Beware that there be not a thought in your wicked heart, saying, The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand; and your eye be evil against your poor brother, and you give him nothing; and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin to you.”

Despite that explicit warning in the Torah, human nature is human nature, and people stopped making loans when the shmittah year was approaching. The rule in the Torah that was designed to make life easier and more bearable for poor people – the rule about forgiving debts – was in fact making life HARDER for poor people. So the great radical rabbi Hillel devised a way around the Torah. He instituted what is known as the prozbul, a mechanism whereby the debt is transferred from a person to a beit din, a rabbinic court, and the debt is NOT wiped out by the seventh year.

Here was an explicit rule in the Torah – debts are to be forgiven in the seventh year – and yet a rabbi came up with a way around the rule because it wasn’t accomplishing the goal of the rule, and the result was not in keeping with the values he learned from the Torah.

So where are the radical rabbis of today? The rabbis who strive to live lives informed by not just the details of the Torah, but the values of the Torah?

Earlier this week I had the great zchut, the great merit, of attending what was one of the most unusual, and most illuminating, board meetings I have ever attended.

I have over the years served on three corporate boards, a university board, a trade association board, and a synagogue board; in addition, in my capacity as rabbi, I’ve been a non-voting participant on two additional synagogue boards.

Boards are usually all business. That includes the synagogue boards I’ve been involved with. Yes, the synagogue board starts the meeting with a d’var Torah. But then it’s off to budgets, committee reports, personnel issues, and perhaps at a special occasion like a board retreat a review of our vision and mission statements and consideration of what we’re about.

Earlier this week I participated in Rabbis for Human Rights once per year in person board meeting. We talked about business – I probably talked about business more than anyone else in my role as chair of the development committee and soon to be Treasurer – but we also integrated spirituality into our meeting.

We started our day on Tuesday with an hour of serious text study with an Orthodox rabbi on issues of human rights which transformed into a discussion of why we seem to have trouble getting Orthodox rabbis in America involved in human rights issues. We had a meditation which led into the afternoon prayers. We had a guided visualization before saying the motzi about the chain of suppliers who had brought the food to our table. We took a meditation break in the middle of a long afternoon discussing human rights issues like torture. We closed with a chant from Psalm 145, each board member making a statement about what they commit themselves to regarding our cause while everyone made physical contact with others representing our connectedness.

I know that to any of you who serve on community or other boards this may sound just over the top touchy feely. And the meeting was in New York, NOT California! But we did also discuss budgets and fundraising, our programmatic priorities, we heard committee reports, we revised our bylaws and elected new members to the board– in other words, all the normal business of a board. But all that spiritual stuff helped us remember that God was a presence in the room with us, and even when we were discussing budgets we were doing holy work.

Rabbis for Human Rights are rabbis who are concerned not just with the detailed halacha of the Torah, but also with the values of the Torah. The Torah tells us that everyone—Jew and Gentile—is created in the image of God. The Torah tells us “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” The rabbis of the Talmud tell us “dina d’malchuta dina,” the law of the land is the law. So how could the Jewish community stand by idly while the American government abuses prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, in violation of international law? How could we stand by while people are held for years without being charged with any crime, with no access to their families?

To be opposed to this kind of treatment of prisoners does not mean one is “soft” on terrorism. I think it’s great that Al-Zarqawi was killed in a recent airstrike. I favor taking aggressive action against terrorists. But even in a time of war – I would say especially in a time of war – we need to be faithful to the values that make us the “good guys.” Rabbis for Human Rights North America has been prominent among Jewish groups opposing abuse of prisoners.

Rabbis for Human Rights is an organization dominated by Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis, with growing representation from Conservative rabbis. We have no representation on our board whatsoever from Orthodox rabbis in North America. Why not?

The Orthodox colleague who came and spoke to us shared an important insight. He said Orthodox Jews live their lives dominated by halacha. They strive to follow halacha in all its details. There are detailed laws about the separation of meat and dairy. But regarding something like protesting abuse of prisoners, there are no detailed halachot to follow. Following the VALUES of the Torah has too often become totally secondary to following the details of the halacha. Even though there is a principle in the Torah which says we should remember to be kind to the stranger, and the Talmud tells us we support the poor of the Gentiles along with the poor of Jews, since there is no detailed halacha that tells us how much money we should give to non-Jewish victims of a tsunami, all too often in the Orthodox community it doesn’t happen.

There is also a sense in the Orthodox community that issues of social action and social justice have somehow been taken over by Reform Jews, and to participate with Reform Jews would be to lend them credibility. Some Orthodox rabbis are afraid that if they participate in organizations with the Reform or Conservative they will lose credibility among their flock or among their colleagues for daring to “recognize” us.

I see a similar schism in ritual issues. Because of the demands of the times we live in and because of our understanding of the values we derive from the Torah, the Conservative movement has made some changes that the Orthodox consider very radical, and not permissible – allowing mixed seating and allowing women to not only count for a minyan but to even lead services and be rabbis. Why are Conservative rabbis so much more radical in these and other areas?

I’ve been having an email exchange with an Orthodox Jew on this subject. It’s because the Orthodox rabbis have great humility. They feel they have nowhere near the knowledge, insight, and piety of the rabbis of old. Hillel could do something radical like institute the prozbul. But in our times, we are not so great, and all we can do is follow the decisions of the great rabbis who came before, perhaps applying the details to the times we live in, but certainly not coming up with any radical changes ourselves.

Humility is certainly an important Jewish value. Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest teacher, was also said to be the humblest man that ever lived. So isn’t it chutzpadik, isn’t it a sign of lack of humility, to think we could come to a different conclusion halachically than the great rabbis of yesteryear?

Humility is a very important and valuable trait. But we should not allow it to paralyze us, or to cause us to lose sight of the values of the Torah. The Torah commands us “If there arises a matter too hard for you in judgment…you shall come to the judge who shall be in those days, and inquire.”

The Talmud actually cautions us against paralysis by humility. The Talmud teaches (Bavli Rosh Hashanah 25b) “’It says also: Moses and Aaron among his priests and Samuel among them that call on his name (Psalm 99:6).’ We see therefore that the Scripture places three of the most questionable characters on the same level as three of the most estimable characters, to show that Jerubaal in his generation is like Moses in his generation, Bedan in his generation is like Aaron in his generation, Jepthah in his generation is like Samuel in his generation, [and] to teach you that the most worthless, once he has been appointed a leader of the community, is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty. Scripture says also: And you shall come to the priests the Levites and to the judge that shall be in those days. Can we then imagine that a man should go to a judge who is not in his days? This shows that you must be content to go to the judge who is in your days. It also says; Say not, ‘How was it that the former days were better than these (Ecclesiastes 7:10).’”

The Talmud tells us not to say the judges of long ago were better than the judges today. We are told even someone who is a questionable character, o nce appointed a leader of the community is to be accounted like the mightiest of the mighty. We can’t function as a society if we continually second guess our leaders and compare them unfavorably to ones of days gone by.

I am humbled that I have been accepted as a part of two groups of “radical rabbis,” rabbis who are the authentic banner carriers of the rabbis’ of old long-standing commitment to the values we learn from Torah even when those values collide with the explicit words of the Torah—Conservative rabbis and Rabbis for Human Rights.

Ribono shel olam, Master of the Universe, please help us all to lead lives guided by the wisdom of Your Torah, both in its details and in its values, and when those values seem to collide with those details, please God, grant us the wisdom to be able to truly discern Your will. When in doubt may we remember to be guided by that important principle in Your Torah, v’ahavta l’ra’acha k’mocha, love your neighbor as yourself.


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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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