As the Israeli Chief Rabbinate and some of our halachic authorities seem to have taken a path that results in causing people great pain, thereby making Judaism repulsive in the eyes of millions of Israelis and Jews around the world, it may be worthwhile for them to take notice of a remarkable observation made by our Talmudic Sages.
The Talmud discusses the identity of a Gavra Rabba, an exceptionally great person or Torah Sage. It quotes a most remarkable observation made by the well-known Sage Rava, who states:
“How foolish are some people who stand up [out of respect] for a Sefer Torah but do not stand up for a Gavra Rabba” (Makkot 22b).
When asked what is so exceptionally great about these men, Rava ignores their astonishingly vast knowledge of Torah, and even their outstanding ethical and religious qualities. Instead, he notes their power and courage to change the obvious and literal meaning of a commandment as mentioned in the Torah. This is, to say the least, most remarkable!
The example that Rava gives is very telling:
While the Torah commands the Beit Din (Jewish court) to administer 40 lashes for certain offenses (Devarim 25: 2-3), the Sages reduced them to 39. This courage, says Rava, to change the literal meaning of the text, is what made them into extraordinarily great people. They recognized the authority vested in them to interpret the biblical text in accordance with the spirit of the Oral Torah. This authority gave them the right, even the obligation, to change the literal meaning of certain biblical texts if it became clear that a deeper reading, as well as the spirit of these texts called for such a move. In our case, they concluded that the number 40 could not to be taken literally and should therefore be reduced to 39.
For this reason, Rava maintains that these Sages should be respected even more than the actual Sefer Torah, the biblical text. After all, the text is only the frozen aspect or outer garment of the living organism, the essential Torah. It is only in the Oral Torah as explained by the Sages that the real meaning of the text becomes apparent (See Thoughts to Ponder 514 – https://www.cardozoacademy.org/thoughts-to-ponder/deliberately-flawed-divine-torah/ ).
Still, this cannot be the full meaning of Rava’s statement. If the power of the Sages is revealed in their willingness to change the meaning of a text (such as in the case of the number 39 instead of 40), one should ask the following: Why didn’t Rava quote the first case ever mentioned in the Torah, concerning which the Sages changed the specific biblical number to a smaller one, and use that to prove that they are great people?
It is well known that earlier, in the Book of Vayikra (23:16; Torat Kohanim ad loc. 7), the Sages changed the number 50 to 49. This was in the case of the Omer period, during which the Torah requires counting a full 50 days between the first day of Pesach and the festival of Shavuot, which would then fall on the 51st day.
After carefully studying the text, the Sages reduced the number of these days to 49 and stated that the 50th day, not the 51st, should be Shavuot.
It is remarkable that Rava didn’t bring this case to point out that their willingness and courage to reduce the number of days earned them the title of Gavra Rabba. This is especially surprising because the Talmud always brings proof for a specific teaching from the earliest biblical source possible, never a later one. In our case, however, the proof of the Sages’ courage is learned from a verse mentioned in Devarim, toward the end of the Torah! This is perplexing. Why didn’t Rava use the earlier verse, in Vayikra?
The answer is obvious. Changing the meaning of the biblical text, or reducing a number, is not enough for a Sage to warrant the title of Gavra Rabba. It may show great courage, but it does not reflect the essential component of an exceptionally great person and Torah Sage.
One becomes a Gavra Rabba when one discovers a way, by hook or by crook, to reduce the pain of fellow human beings! When a Sage finds the means, through biblical interpretation, to mitigate the legal punishment of another human being, only then can we speak of a Gavra Rabba, an extraordinarily great person. This is especially remarkable when the person being punished is not a righteous man but a sinner, or a criminal, who deserves lashes!
In our case of 40 lashes prescribed by the Torah when certain offenses have been committed, it is an act of mercy to find ways to reduce the offender’s sentence and administer only 39. Such initiative and courage shows absolute moral greatness.
But in the case of reducing 50 days to 49, so as to make Shavuot fall one day earlier, there is no alleviation of human pain, so neither the Talmud nor Rava characterizes the Sage in question as a Gavra Rabba, however brilliant he may be.
The message is clear: Only when making a sincere effort to reduce the pain of one’s fellow human beings can one be called a great person!
Chief Rabbis, as well as other halachic authorities who do not apply this approach, are not only inadequate religious leaders, but they also become an obstacle to Judaism and should step down. Allowing them to maintain their authority is a sheer disgrace.
 A few examples: 1) Get Zikui – http://blog.huc.edu/freehof/2016/12/22/the-get-from-safed/ ; 2) forbidding a man to serve in the capacity of chazzan if he owns a Smartphone – http://www.vosizneias.com/212849/2015/08/20/chief-rabbi-yosef-if-cantor-has-smartphone-find-another-prayer-service/ ; 3) rejecting conversions by prominent Orthodox Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz – http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.743890 , and undermining an Orthodox conversion by New York’s Rabbi Haskel Lookstein – http://www.timesofisrael.com/chief-rabbinate-clarifies-we-recognize-conversions-by-top-ny-rabbi/ ; 4) not allowing religious girls to do national service – http://www.jpost.com/Israel-News/Sephardic-Chief-Rabbi-Women-can-do-the-laundry-in-the-army-not-serve-in-combat-475125 ; 5) not allowing women to don tallit and tefillin or read from the Torah at the Kotel – http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/.premium-1.700782
 Makkot 22a. In earlier days, Jewish Law would sometimes demand physical lashes under very specific circumstances, but only if offenders would be able to endure them without risking their life or health. It therefore could have happened that the court would administer only a few lashes, since more would have created a health problem. Tormenting anyone, even a criminal, is absolutely prohibited.
 This idea is based on an oral teaching that was transmitted to me in the name of one of the pre-Holocaust Chassidic leaders whom I’ve been unable to identify.
Questions to Ponder from the David Cardozo Think Tank:
We suggest printing out and discussing at your Shabbat table, if you like.
1) R. Cardozo emphasizes that in order to be considered a great man, a sage must have compassion for human suffering. However, one could as well argue that a sage ought to possess qualities pulling in the opposite direction.
The Talmudic Sages state that “any Torah scholar who is not hard as iron is not a Torah scholar” (Taanit 4a); and some Rabbis read the story of the Akedah (the binding of Isaac) as Abraham passing God’s test because he was willing to suppress his natural compassion and parental love in order to obey God’s word. Moreover, some would argue that the job of a posek (halachic decisor) or dayan (rabbinical judge) is to apply the halacha objectively, without consideration of the human costs, “and let the law bore through the mountain” (Sanhedrin 6b).
a) Which seems more appropriate in your eyes when it comes to a great individual – compassion or iron will?
b) Which of the two approaches do you think is truer to the spirit of the halacha?
c) What role, if any, do you think human emotions such as compassion play in the interpretation and application of halacha?
2) Even if we grant that a wise halachic judge must, in general, be attentive to human suffering, are there broader halachic considerations that might override such concerns in specific situations? For example, when Rabbi Tarphon and Rabbi Akiva declared that, had they sat on the Sanhedrin, they would never have sentenced anyone to the death penalty, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel retorted that they would have thereby increased the number of murderers (Mishnah, Makkot 1:10). Can you think of other examples and cases where maintaining a social or moral norm, or upholding a different value, may require suppressing one’s instinct for compassion?
3) One often hears invoked, in response to the demand for halachic innovation, the claim of “yeridat ha’dorot”, the decline of the generations, meaning that while the ancient Rabbis could engage in bold and innovative interpretation of the Torah, we are no longer permitted to do so. The rabbis of our generation, being spiritually and intellectually inferior to those of ancient times, lack understanding of the deeper meanings/intentions of the Torah and Talmud, and therefore have no choice but to hew to a more literal and conservative approach.
Do you view this argument as a meritorious form of halachic humility? Or do you rather think that each generation of rabbinic leaders is granted the right to halachic innovation, and should utilize it fully, since it must respond to the needs of its generation?
(To suggest a third, perhaps provocative, alternative: might we even consider today’s rabbis greater in some way than leaders of former times? If so, how? And is this indeed a provocative/risky question?)
4) According to R. Cardozo, we need rabbis and halachic authorities who are not “inadequate”: not limited to legal expertise, showing compassion for human suffering. If you were designing a curriculum for a rabbinical college, what would you include in your course of study in order to encourage your future rabbis to become “large minded”?
(Contemporary legal and political philosopher Martha Nussbaum teaches law school students that one very good way to broaden their imaginative sympathy is to read novels. Should rabbinical students be given a literary reading list, or required to broaden their sympathy by being shown, for example, the film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem?)
5) In present day Israel and elsewhere, rabbinical courts frequently comprise haredi rabbis hearing cases brought by non-haredi or even non-religious parties. Can a rabbi be capable of effectively judging persons if he does not understand or sympathize with their lifestyle or values? Is such understanding or sympathy a necessary precondition for hearing such cases, or is expertise in the law sufficient?
6) One solution to the problems highlighted by R. Cardozo could be to restrict the scope of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s jurisdiction, for example, by introducing civil marriage into Israeli law or by removing the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over various religious matters (marriage and divorce, kashrut and so on). What do you think of this suggestion? Would it dampen the hostility currently felt by many Israelis towards halacha and Judaism? Would the increased freedom of choice, and competition between different rabbinical courts, lead to an improvement in the quality and responsiveness of the courts—or would it merely create chaos?
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