Some Acts of Chillul Hashem Are Worse Than Others

There’s unfortunately a lot of talk of Chillul Hashem these days.   In certain orthodox communities, Jews have not only failed to adhere to masking and social distancing requirements, but they have also engaged in violent protests and rioting.  They have justified their acts of civil disobedience by claiming that politicians have created a double standard when supporting gatherings of protesters over weddings or religious services. However, there have been calls from so many segments of the orthodox Jewish community asserting that this behavior is a clear Chillul Hashem and that we are so embarrassed by this behavior.  I’d like to explore what it means for a behavior to warrant the label of “Chillul Hashem,” and why I believe there is so much outrage here.

Literally, Chillul Hashem means “profaning God’s Name” and Rav Lichtenstein has written that every behavior has the power to cause a Kiddush or Chillul Hashem.  He writes, “Kiddush Hashem means affecting the very essence of that “Shem” (Name), which, as it were, contracts or expands according to our behavior…”  Of course, some of us are quicker to call out certain behaviors as Chillul HaShem, whereas others see different sins as more of a desecration of God’s name. As with so many situations, your opinion depends on your perspective.

I have heard some people employ the term Chillul Hashem when someone intermarries.  They argue that intermarriage is a clear act of rebellion against God, and they cite the Rambam who refers to people who sin as an act of rebellion against God as a mumar l’hach’is and guilty of Chillul Hashem.  Others cite Peter Beinart’s public call for the end of a Jewish state as a tremendous Chillul Hashem because, as a Jew making the claims that the Jewish state should not exist and that Zionism is racism, he brings about the desecration of God’s nation and God’s name.  Still others point to convictions of high-profile Jews (Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and Bernie Madoff) for serious crimes as a tremendous Chillul Hashem because, again, the world looks at these Jews with much disdain.  Particularly because of their high-profile status, their behavior may reflect poorly on Jews in general to the broader public.

While the above examples certainly upset me and I understand the cries of Chillul Hashem in those cases, still, to me, there is something more troubling about the Chillul Hashem caused by the anti-mask protesters than the other cases mentioned above.

As an orthodox Jew, I find it tragic when a Jew intermarries, but I don’t think that I would classify this behavior as meeting the Rambam’s standard of Chillul Hashem, as someone who sins as an act of rebellion against God.  Most Jews who intermarry simply fall in love with someone who is not Jewish and their love for the non-Jew outweighs their commitment to Jewish law.  When it comes to Peter Beinart’s rejection of a Jewish state or serious crimes committed by high-profile Jews, on some level I do think these behaviors reflect a certain type of Chillul Hashem.  When Moshe argued to spare the Jewish nation in the desert after the sin of the Golden Calf, he argued that Jews are God’s chosen nation, so if Jews are destroyed, it reflects poorly on God.  Therefore, when the Jewish state is perceived as a racist state or when Jews are perceived as corrupt criminals, then that perception of God’s chosen people reflects poorly on the Name of God.

However, I believe that there is a critical distinction that must be made in these cases.  That is, that in all these cases we are talking about secular Jews making choices that do not reflect observant Judaism.  When a secular Jew acts in a way that I feel reflects poorly on Jews as a whole, it is easy for me to say that he doesn’t represent my values.  He is Jewish but he doesn’t espouse Torah values, and that is why, as an aside, there is technically no mitzvah to rebuke this individual.  He is not part of my halachic community.  In those cases, the Chillul Hashem is more limited.

It’s an entirely different matter when a Jew who carries himself as a Torah observant Jew engages in violent or otherwise shameful behavior.  In this instance, he does not merely bring shame upon Jews, but he brings shame upon the Torah itself.  Whether intentionally or not, he speaks in the name of orthodox Jews.  He speaks in the name of Torah.  The Gemara in Yoma 86a states that when someone studies Torah but maintains business practices that are not done faithfully and he doesn’t speak pleasantly with other people, people say, “Woe to so-and-so who studied Torah, woe to his father who taught him Torah, woe to his teacher who taught him Torah.  So-and-so who studied Torah, see how destructive are his deeds, and how ugly are his ways.”  We have a halachic responsibility to rebuke these individuals, because they belong to the broader halachic community and they supposedly speak for this community.

So, yes, there are a number of instances when people behave in ways that bring disrepute to our nation and it hurts.  But what hurts most of all is when they bring disrepute not just to our people, but to our holy Torah.  I believe, in that case, it is our responsibility to say that that is not Torah.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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