Who Questions Much, Learns Much

My brother Lawrence, the academic in my family (Sharon has two brothers who also are academics), is a professor of Rabbinics and Jewish Philosophy in the department of Jewish studies of McGill University, with an exceptionally wide range of interests and areas of expertise. In addition to his university role, he’s also a major exponent of the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and has translated two of the Rav’s major essays into English.

Lawrence recently began a weekly series on Facebook of parshat ha-shavu’a divrei Torah. As you might expect from a scholar of his caliber, his essays are quite, well, scholarly, with references not only to the Rav (of course) and all the well-known, and even lesser known, traditional exegetes and rabbis, both ancient and modern, but also to those not commonly found in Orthodox parsha discussions, including such modern Bible scholars as Jacob Milgrom and Jeffrey Tigay, “The Godfather,” R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, William Blake, Malcom Gladwell, Moshe Halbertal, and Machiavelli. But he works hard, most often successfully, at making his weekly analyses understandable to the general reader, though some effort may be required. I highly recommend them.

A few weeks ago, while discussing Parshat Ki Tetzei, he focused on the law of ben sorer u-moreh — the defiant and rebellious son. The Torah tells us (Deut. 21:18-21) that if parents have a son who has committed certain specified acts of wrongdoing, they shall bring him to the town elders, testify to his rebellion, and he is stoned to death. The rabbis, confronted by the problem that the actual acts of wrongdoing do not constitute capital crimes, conclude that the Torah penetrated the ultimate mindset of the rebellious son and based his punishment on actions he would otherwise commit in the future (Sanhedrin 71b-72a). That too, however, is problematic, because as a matter of law and morality it’s wrong to punish people based on future possible, even if highly likely, actions.

Not to worry. Most rabbis, though not all (do all rabbis ever agree about anything?), believe that because of all the rabbinical requirements that need to be met to apply the law, “there has never been a rebellious son, and there will never be one in the future.” That is, the law is theoretical.

This made me think of another law in Deuteronomy that has similar legal and moral problems — ir ha-nidachat (a city of idolaters). The Torah rules (Deut. 13:13-19) that if there is a city in which a majority of the inhabitants practice idolatry, we kill all of the city’s inhabitants, even the minority who were not idolators. (Whether children are to be killed is disputed among the rabbis. See the parenthetical above and Tosefta Sanhedrin 14:1.) Like ben sorer, however, most rabbis believe that there was never an instance of ir ha-nidachat. It too is theoretical.

The question is obvious: If they are theoretical, why are these laws included in the Torah? And as to both, the rabbis have one answer: derosh ve-kabel schar; expound upon it and receive a reward (Sanhedrin 71a).

There’s another Torah law that seems to me to fit into this category of theoretical laws — mechi’at Amalek, the commandment to utterly destroy all individual members of Amalek, men, women, and children (Deut. 25:19). This law, incumbent upon every Jew (R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek (KDD), footnote 25 (trans. Lawrence Kaplan)), was, at one time, actually carried out (1Samuel 15:1-35). As the Rav notes, however, it applies only to genealogical descendants of Amalek, and no identifiable genealogical descendants exist today. Indeed, the Mishna teaches that “Sancheriv, king of Assyria, came up and mingled all the nations” (Yadayim 4:4). Thus, like ben sorer and ir ha-nidachat, this law has become theoretical.

(Note that a separate Amalek-related law — to be ready to do battle as a community against the people of Amalek (Exod. 17:16) which includes their modern-day spiritual descendants who conspire to destroy the Jewish people (KDD, fn. 25) — still applies today.)

To me, all three laws have two things in common. First, they raise serious legal and moral questions that make it inconceivable, in practical terms, to actually carry them out. Second, the rabbis, using their genius and ingenuity, found ways to ensure, on the one hand, that these laws are not erased from the Torah, and on the other hand, that no one is forced to violate basic human morality as we understand it and kill innocents.

In a comment on Lawrence’s parsha post, I noted that all three laws have another commonality; they appear to me to follow the paradigm set by the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. That event, too, recounts, in narrative and not legal form, an almost impossible-to-contemplate command that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac. But Isaac doesn’t die — like the three laws discussed above, the command was only theoretical. (See Rabbeynu Bachya for a very different comparison of ben sorer to the Akedah.)

Thus, notwithstanding the underlying questions that are, despite the numerous answers we were taught, seemingly unanswerable, it remains part of our canon that we can, and should, study, question, and grapple with, though we may not arrive at satisfactory answers. Derosh ve-kabel schar.

In just a day or two, we will be gathering for Rosh Hashanah services, celebrating this yom tov in a manner unlike any in years past. Some of us may be in sanctuaries; others, perhaps, sitting in outdoor tents or backyards, participating over Zoom, or praying at home. We’ll be wearing masks, socially distanced from friends and fellow congregants, listening to blasts of a shofar that itself may be masked, and hopefully having shorter services with no singing and fewer piyuttim recited. Wise rabbis will deliver fewer, shorter, or no sermons, and wiser chazanim will reduce their repertoires drastically. Most of us will share our meals only with immediate family, and tashlich will not be the usual community social event.

But one thing will be the same. On the second day of the holiday, after the Torah is taken out of the ark, placed on the shulchan, and opened, the ba’al koreh will begin reading “vayehi achar ha-devarim ha-eleh, ve-haElokim nisah et Avraham” (And it came to pass after these things, that God tested Abraham) (Gen. 22:1) — the Akedah story. We’ll listen to a tale about God, a father, a test, a son, an angel, a knife, a ram; a story we may find difficult and question.

But it will be read and we will listen. Derosh ve-kabel schar. Expound upon it and receive a reward.

Ketivah ve-chatimah tovah to all. May we be granted a year of health, peace, and the wisdom to question and discuss.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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