Mordechai Silverstein
Mordechai Silverstein

Better Not to Presume the Worst

The episode where Esau returned from the field, voraciously hungry and tired, to find his brother Yaakov preparing a pot of lentil stew is captured in Esau’s immortal request to his brother for food: “Let me gulp down (haliteini) some of this red, red stuff, for I am famished.” (Genesis 25:30) As Robert Alter notes, the language assigned to Esau in the narrative is that of an uncultured individual. The verb used for gulping down, from the root: “lamed ayin tet” is unique in biblical usage and is used in rabbinic Hebrew for the feeding of animals. In other words, Esau is portrayed in this vignette as a coarse individual, lacking couth, and, in particular, without self-control. (See Alter translation, notes on this verse)

Esau’s use of this crass verb gave rise to the rabbinic idiom: “Haliteihu larasha v’yamut – you may let the wicked stuff themselves with it till they die.” This rather disquieting phrase was considered a legitimate legal response used in a situation where it is clear that the person involved would be unaffected by any attempts to alter his/her bad behavior. (See Bava Kamma 69a) In other words, the involved party was considered incorrigible – a “lost cause”.

Interestingly, this legal principle came into play in discussions over conversion to Judaism for ulterior motives (i.e. for the sake of marriage). The rabbinic debate over the permissibility of conversion (giyur) for the sake of marriage has a long history, going back at least as far as the Mishna (See Yevamot 24b – Mishnah and Talmud), with the Mishnah serving as the basis for a strict ruling on the issue. Among the arguments raised was a sense that such a relationship would likely not lead to an authentic Jewish home. The Rambam (Maimonides), however, opined that permitting such conversions was for the greater good and it is this opinion which has served as precedent for a more welcoming attitude on this question. (See Teshuvot HaRambam 211, Blau ed.)

The rabbinic debate on this issue rages to this day, with strict rulings focusing on the presumption of the “bad will” of the parties involved. In the battle to uphold the more lenient approach of the Rambam, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel, the first Chief Sephardic Rabbi of the State of Israel reinforced the Rambam’s position with these words: “[the decision to convert said individuals] is within the purview of the bet din (court)…One should not apply the principle of “haleteihu” here [and not convert the individual for the sake of marriage] for wherever a Jew desires to live his or her life in a permitted manner, it is better to permit them … and so the non-Jewish party should be converted. (adapted from Mishpatei Uziel 2:53)

The upshot of Rabbi Uziel’s opinion is that, when possible, we should approach those around us looking for the good in them and try to nurture it rather than assuming the worst. This attitude might not always prove true, but it likely will help create a better more friendly Judaism and, in turn, a better world.

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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