147/929 The Real Role of the Rabbinate. Bamidbar 30.

A man comes to his rabbi with a difficult halachic quandary. There is a prohibition that he’s struggling with upholding, and it’s not a minor one. It’s mentioned numerous times in the Torah, and the rabbis have the harshest words for he who violates it.

Pop quiz: is the rabbi’s role:

A) to chastise him for daring to put his own struggle up against the word of God

B) to strengthen and encourage him to overcome his temptations, overcome himself, to see this as a test from God of his commitment,

C) to emphathically, sensitively, lovingly tell the man that he hears his struggle…but there’s nothing to do,

D) to creatively find him a way out?

(For bonus points, play that Jewish favorite- the label game- and suggest which stream of Judaism supports each approach? And for double-bonus, special for the three weeks, add pejoratives like ‘dangerous’, ‘outlandish’, ‘boundary-breaking’ to the answers you don’t like.)

In the world of vows introduced in Bamidbar 30, the answer is D.

In Jewish thought, repeated several times throughout Tanach, and emphasized by the rabbis, a promise is a promise.  Vows are serious business; on the Day of Atonement, it’s the very first sin we try to deal with. Our words and commitments are holy, and a prohibition we create for ourselves is binding; breaking your word is considered hillul– a profaning of the sacred.

And so, the mishna in Chagiga seems to relate harshly to the idea of permitting vows, saying that it is an endeavor which “flits in the air, and has nothing to rely on.” But Shmuel, one of the most important rabbis of the Gemara, disagrees. The idea that ‘he shall not profane his word’ he reads with creative minimalism- he cannot profane it, but others can for him. This process is known as ‘hatarat nedarim’, and it is entrusted, first and foremost, to the experts. A person who ignored all the rabbinic warnings about careful speech, and foolishly made a vow that he now finds he cannot keep is not chastised for his carelessness, he isn’t encouraged to valiantly try to live up to his vows, or empathized with. The role of the expert is to help him, by creatively finding an ‘out’.

Once, it was lay people who added prohibitions, who demanded of themselves greater stringencies, and it was the role of the expert rabbis to make their lives livable when they got out of control.  Somewhere along the way, rabbis and lay people seem to have gotten their roles reversed, and it is the rabbis who are always demanding stringencies that put people to the test and push them past the breaking point, and the people who desperately search for ways out. This reversal causes great anguish for all parties.  Instead of helping to keep people from profaning their word, and preventing hillul, this type of rabbinate is the cause of great hillul.

But there is hope. Rashi, based on the Gemara, reminds us: “If there is no expert [willing] to allow the vows, they can be allowed by convening an alternative court [even] of the lay-people.”

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This is a daily blog following the 929 journey with daily reflections in English. Learn more about the journey at 929.org.il

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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