One hot summer afternoon, as we walked around the old Jewish cemetery of the holy city of Tzefat in the northern Galilee, a small, stray dog would not stop following us. The only thing my friends, with whom my wife and I were traveling, had done was pet it gently when it sidled up to us near the graves of the ancient mystics. The dog was clearly a neglected stray who might also have been abused. They showed it some love, and it was coming back for more.
Our time and resources in Tzefat were limited. We were all traveling back to Tiberias that afternoon, then our friends would return to New York and we would return to Jerusalem for the year. None of us was prepared to take in a needy dog. We spent more than an hour walking back to the central bus station, using circuitous routes through the narrow alley ways of old Tzefat, so that the dog would lose our trail. A young man we had met at the cemetery, a student at one of the prominent yeshivahs in Jerusalem, was walking with us all this time. We all agreed that the dog must possess the reincarnated soul of one of the kabbalists who had belonged to the circle of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who resided for the latter part of his tragically short life in Tzefat. Our acquaintance, a haredi yeshiva man, and we, Conservative rabbinical students, jokingly argued back and forth: could the dog actually be carrying the soul of Rabbi Luria? Had he come back to that cemetery to test the ethical merits of passersby? The Torah forbids cruelty to animals, but the letter of the law does not require you to actively be kind to a stray. The spirit of the law, however, does. Had Rabbi Luria come back from on high to determine how far we would pursue the spirit of the law?
Eventually, the dog lost interest in us and we returned to the bus station. The young man stood talking with us, as one of his yeshiva friends joined him and we all waited on line to board the bus. “What do you do?” he cautiously asked, perhaps titillated by the prospect of having a conversation with authentic apikorsim, knowledgeable heretics. “We are both students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York,” we told him. “We are studying to become Conservative rabbis.” We could tell that this news was unsettling yet interesting to him. One of the world’s greatest Talmud scholars who at the time was a long time senior faculty member of JTS was a second cousin of his. Our young friend knew of our kind. Apparently, so did his traveling companion who stood listening to the conversation. After a few moments of banter about our different approaches to Judaism, the young man trotted out the standard yeshiva disclaimer, “Well, we should all do the right thing,” which often means, “I find your brand of Judaism offensive, but I’m trying to tell you politely so that you’ll do things my way.”
We boarded the bus and began the trip back to Tiberias. We were deep into a spirited, but respectful conversation with our new friend, when all of a sudden, his traveling companion broke into the debate with a shriek.
“You people are destroying Judaism!”
“Excuse me?” I responded, shocked that anyone could be so rude as to start yelling epithets on a crowded bus, especially an Israeli one.
“You’re destroying Judaism! You pull one brick out of the wall of Jewish belief and practice like you’re doing and the entire wall will fall down! Don’t you….”
Sir, please,” I pleaded, “Stop yelling so much.”
The other passengers were getting annoyed at his screeching. Some of them started yelling back in Hebrew, “Tistom et ha-peh!”, “Shut your mouth!”
But nothing would shut him up as his face turned a self-righteous, eggplant purple. (Have you ever actually seen a self-righteous eggplant?)
After being the recipient of his abuse for five minutes, I could no longer stand him.
“You know what?” I screamed, “You are a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah!”
He stopped for a moment, gulped a breath of air, went purple again, then screamed even more loudly, “I’m a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah? You’re a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah!” How dare you call me a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah?”
In a manner uncharacteristic for me, I loudly lacerated him: “You’re a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah because you’re being rude and treating another human being badly. Stop it now!”
He quieted down, sulking all the way back to Tiberias. I never saw him again.
This phrase, naval bi-reshut ha-Torah, literally means, “Someone who behaves basely within the permissible boundaries of the Torah’s laws.” Put another way, it means someone who follows the Torah’s laws technically, but misses the spirit of the law; for instance, this man who accosted us on the bus. He dressed as a religious Jew and I assume he was quite punctilious in following Jewish law; however, when it came to disagreeing with us respectfully, he behaved like a junk yard dog.
The 13th century Torah commentator and mystic, Ramban (Nachmanides), used this phrase, naval bi-reshut ha-Torah, to teach an important point about kedushah, holiness, the main concept of this week’s Torah portion, and one basis for Jewish religion. Ramban argued that holiness doesn’t only mean following the letter of the law, it means acting with refinement even within the realm of what is permitted. For instance, a person could be scrupulous about Jewish laws concerning sex, keeping kosher, and speech, but still be sexually coarse, eat gluttonously, and speak harshly. A person could refrain from cruelty to animals and still not care about helping a stray dog in need of kindness. Ramban advocated an ethic of middot, practices of spiritual and ethical refinement which strive to go beyond the letter and fulfill the spirit of Jewish law. He explained that the Torah’s imperative, “Kedoshim tihiyu,” “Be holy,” is not only about refraining from the forbidden but also sanctifying one’s character traits within the realm of the permitted.
In my opinion, the Ramban’s interpretation could be applied to that screaming yeshiva student and to me as well. He had every right to think I and my approach to Judaism are wrong, but yelling at me belligerently was the wrong way to convince me he was right. I had every right to tell him he was being a naval bi-reshut ha-Torah, essentially a jerk. But looking back, I suspect that losing my cool with him, when he had already humiliated himself on a crowded bus in front of others, was not the right way to teach him those ways of righteousness.
Fierce debate and disagreement without fear of any kind of retaliation are the hallmarks of strong democracies and of a healthy Judaism. Yet Judaism and democracy un-anchored from the basic civilities, which show us how to disagree without disrespect, are not holy, they are holier-than-thou. The world is full of nevalim be-reshut ha-Torah, including people whose sharp tongued self-righteousness is a mask for controlling, mean spirited hatred and fear of others who differ and are different. We Jews are commanded to be active role models of holiness. In a time of so much polarization, let’s be careful not to let this legacy of ours go to the dogs.