One of the books that I particularly enjoy reading during this festive holiday season is called “Har’rei Kedem”, a collection of talks given by Rabbi J.B. Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry during the latter half of the previous century. “Har’rei Kedem” merges Jewish law (halacha) and Jewish philosophy, presenting complex issues in a way that is intellectually challenging and satisfying. “Har’rei Kedem” comes in three volumes: the first two volumes cover the Jewish holidays and the third volume pertains to Shabbat.
In Chapter 42 of Volume 1, Rabbi Soloveichik analyses the Rambam’s (Maimonides) Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance). In the fourth law of the first chapter, the Rambam categorizes sins as a function of their process of atonement: “There are sins that can be atoned for immediately and other sins which can only be atoned for over the course of time.” Absolution for certain sins requires only repentance while for others an additional ingredient is required, either Yom Kippur or suffering (yisurin). One category of sins stands out: “When does the above [categorization] apply: When the desecration of G-d’s Name is not involved in the transgression. However, a person who desecrated G-d’s Name, even though he repented, Yom Kippur arrived while he continued his repentance, and he experienced suffering, will not be granted complete atonement until he dies.” Rabbi Soloveichik asserts that there are two ways in which a person can desecrate G-d’s Name:
- One way is by committing a particularly heinous sin that reflects badly on Jews. When Bernie Madoff is caught running a 65 billion dollar Ponzi scheme and ruins the lives of hundreds, it reinforces the trope of the thieving Jew, willy-nilly dragging G-d’s Name into the dirt. When the person who commits the sin is a discernably observant Jew, the resultant desecration of G-d’s Name is amplified.
- The second way does not even involve sin. The Rambam writes in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Basic Laws of Torah) [5:11] “There are other deeds which are also included in [the category of] the desecration of [G-d’s] Name, if performed by a person of great Torah stature who is renowned for his piety – i.e., deeds which, although they are not transgressions, [will cause] people to speak disparagingly of Him. This also constitutes the desecration of G-d’s Name.” The Rambam brings a number of examples: “A person who purchases [merchandise] and does not pay for it immediately, although he possesses the money, and thus, the sellers demand payment and he pushes them off; a person who jests immoderately; or who eats and drinks near or among the common people; or whose conduct with other people is not gentle and he does not receive them with a favorable countenance, but rather contests with them and vents his anger; and the like. Everything depends on the stature of the sage. [The extent to which] he must be careful with himself and go beyond the measure of the law [depends on the level of his Torah stature.]” This “sage” has committed no sin per se. The problem is in the optics. The desecration is a result of a misconception of actions that are in and of themselves completely benign. The Rambam’s message is clear: While we are not responsible for what others say about us, we are not permitted to give them ammunition with which to denigrate our good name as long as it impinges on G-d’s Good Name.
Rabbi Soloveichik makes a striking inference (diyyuk), noting that the Rambam, when discussing expiation of sins, refers to a situation in which “the desecration of G-d’s Name is not involved in the transgression”. In this case, the sinner is not absolved of his sin until he dies. Rabbi Soloveichik infers from the Rambam’s use of the word “transgression” that he is referring only to the first variant of the desecration of G-d’s Name – via a heinous crime. Only in this case is atonement deferred until the death of the sinner. If, however, the desecration of G-d’s Name is caused by an action that does not involve sin, such as the Chief Rabbi purchasing something on his Amex, atonement is attained via the usual channels.
Rabbi Michal Zalman Shurkin, who edited “Har’rei Kedem”, has great difficulty with Rabbi Soloveichik’s inference. Rabbi Shurkin points to the Talmud in Tractate Yoma [86a] that discusses the categorization of sins as a function of their atonement. The Talmud states “But in the case of one who has caused desecration of G-d’s Name, his repentance has no power to suspend punishment, nor does Yom Kippur have power to atone for his sin, nor does suffering alone have power to absolve him. Rather, all these suspend punishment, and death absolves him.” Now here is where our problems begin. The Talmud then asks, “What are the circumstances that cause desecration of God’s Name?” The Talmud answers its question by mentioning every single one of the examples that the Rambam mentioned in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah, those actions which might seem to the casual observer to be in direct violation of Jewish law, but in reality are fully permissible. But wait a minute – didn’t Rabbi Soloveichik just teach that these kinds of misconceptions do not require the death of the sinner and that only actual crimes warrant this punishment? Rabbi Soloveichik leaves us in the lurch. Did he not know of the Talmud in Tractate Yoma that clearly refutes his thesis? Given the sheer breadth of Rabbi Soloveichik’s knowledge, this argument is untenable. So how are we to understand what he was thinking? Rabbi Shurkin leaves his question unanswered but we will nevertheless try ever so carefully to tread where others before us have not.
The foundation of Rabbi Soloveichik’s thesis is the Rambam’s mention of the word “transgression” in the context of the desecration of G-d’s Name, meaning that when the desecration of G-d’s name results not from sin but from misinterpretation then death is not a precondition for absolution. The Talmud seems to rule otherwise. But perhaps the Talmud is talking about a sinner – it is just not the person we think it is talking about. Our assumption so far has been that sin or lack of sin relates to the person who commits the questionable action. Perhaps not. On Yom Kippur, we confess our sins (viduy) no less than six times. One of these confessions is “Al chet she’chatanu lefanecha bif’lilim” – “For sins we have committed before You in court matters”. A pamphlet first printed in 1975 by the Krohn Brothers and now in its seventh edition, explains that “This particular confession is primarily for judges and others who must render correct decisions for litigants. Also included, however, is not giving someone the benefit of the doubt.” Writing in the Sefer HaMitzvot [Positive Commandment 177], the Rambam teaches “One should judge one’s fellow favorably and only interpret his actions and words positively and benevolently.” Rabbi Jonah ben Abraham, better known as Rabbenu Yonah, who lived in the thirteenth century in Girona, Spain, writes in Shaarei Teshuva  “If you see a man who says something or performs an action, one must judge his words and actions positively and favorably. If he fears G-d, you are obligated to judge him favorably as the truth – even if intellectually, the matter is close and tends more towards the inauspicious.” I suggest that the Talmud in Tractate Yoma is referring to the desecration of G-d’s name that results not from the action that caused a misconception, but from the response of the observer who misconceived that action. It was he who concluded that a sin had been committed. It was he who dragged G-d’s name into the dirt. Rabbi Soloveichik teaches that he cannot achieve atonement for this sin until his death.
The Talmud in Tractate Shavuot [30a] teaches that it is a positive commandment to judge others fairly. My wife, Tova, has always told our children – and her husband – that the best way not to judge someone unfairly is not to judge him at all.
Shabbat Shalom and Gmar chatima tova,
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.
 The day of Yom Kippur has powers of atonement that require no positive action from the sinner.
 Rabbi Shurkin writes “Tzarich Iyun” – “This requires further study”. He does not assert that Rabbi Soloveichik is wrong, but only that he does not sufficiently understand Rabbi Soloveichik’s point. The phrase “Tzarich Iyun” is a mark of humility that is, sadly, rarely seen outside the realm of Torah study.
 The pamphlet is available freely online at http://www.vidouy.fr/resources/VIDUY.pdf. While the site is French, the PDF file is in English.