(Part 2 of a two-part essay)
In Part 1 we discussed the issue of human autonomy versus divine commandment. Which is of higher religious value: serving God in a spontaneous outpouring of religious devotion, or obeying the divine imperative? We concluded that it is the divine imperative that makes an ordinary act into a religious one. In the words of Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “Faith is expressed in the act which man does due to his awareness of his obligation to do it and not because of an internal urge” (1).
Perhaps the most glaring proof of this fact is derived from the incident of “illicit fire” which was brought by the sons of Aaron in the Tent of Meeting. Nadav and Avihu paid with their lives when a deeply religious urge overtook their commitment to religious obligation. (Vayikra 10:1-2) Spontaneity, then, seems to have value only when it deepens a mitzvah, not when it tries to replace it.
However, an incident in the life of Avraham makes us wonder whether the earlier observation is indeed tenable. After having been informed that his nephew Lot was captured by several kings, Avraham organized an army of three hundred eighteen men and pursued the kings “as far as Dan.” (Bereshith 14:12-14) Fighting these kings was far from easy and highly risky. Just a few verses earlier we are told that these monarchs had defeated the kings of Sdom and Amorah. Clearly they would be able to defeat Avraham’s army as well; his chances of victory were remote at best. From a halachic-ethical point of view it seems clear that Avraham had no obligation to try and save Lot. One does not have to enter a high-risk situation to save another from death. It may be questionable whether this would even be permitted.
According to the Talmud (Avoda Zarah 25a), our patriarchs were called yesharim—straight, upstanding men. Commentators explain that it was their unusual objectivity and refusal to be influenced by external negative forces that made them yesharim—individuals of outstanding moral character. In fact, they are of the opinion that the patriarchs did not always behave by halachic standards alone but conducted themselves according to even higher moral ideals, especially when interacting with their fellow men. This is well expressed by the Yiddish word menschlichkeit (my apologies to my co-Sephardic religionists!) Avraham felt a special obligation to save the life of his nephew, since Lot’s father Haran had become a martyr for God’s sake, i.e. for Avraham’s very mission. (2)
Ramban adds (Bereshith 19:29) that Lot had gone out of his way to look after Avraham, who was already an old man, and wandered with him from place to place so as to serve him. In fact, this is the reason why Lot went to dwell in Sedom; if not for Avraham, he would have remained in Charan. Consequently, says the Ramban, “it was inconceivable that any evil should have overtaken him because of (his having looked after) Avraham. This, too, was the reason that Avraham risked his life by pursuing the kings in order to save Lot.”
It may be argued that many of the narratives in the book of Bereshith reflect this ideology. Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893) goes out of his way to emphasize that the patriarchs showed the greatest compassion even towards idolaters. His dramatic words are well taken: “Besides the fact that they were tzadikim (righteous) and chassidim (pious) and showed great love towards God, they were also yesharim in that they behaved respectfully towards the most distasteful idolaters; they related to them in a loving way and were concerned about their welfare since this is the foundation of all civilization….This is clearly to be deduced from the degree to which Avraham struggled and pleaded with God to spare the people of Sedom who were thoroughly wicked…and how Yitschak went out of his way to appease the shepherds of Avimelech who caused him great and awful difficulties….The same is true about Yaakov who showed infinite tolerance towards his father-in-law Lavan.” (Ha’emek Davar, Introduction to Bereshith)
These observations by Netziv are surprising once one realizes that the Torah later introduces the law of “lo techanem”—You shall not show them (the idolaters) any favor (Devarim 7:2) – which has far-reaching halachic import for the relationship between Jews and non-monotheistic gentiles. (We intend to deal with this subject at length in future articles.)
Therefore, we may have to conclude that a distinction must be made. In the sphere of relationship between man and God, one must conduct his religious life out of a genuine notion of obligation and not translate spontaneous urges into self-imposed rituals when they have no intrinsic connection with a particular mitzvah. “Extra-religious ritualism” is unacceptable in that case. But when one deals with relationships between man and his fellow man, a spontaneous act beyond the requirement of the law is encouraged and man’s autonomous input is sanctioned. (3)
1. Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, Chemed Books, 1990, tr. Shmuel Himelstein, p.106.
2. (See Emeth LeYaakov by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, page 91.)
3. Whether this conclusion is entirely correct is a matter of interpretation. Many new customs, rabbinical enactments and stringencies in the worship of God have been introduced throughout the thousands of years. They may however be seen as ways to give more substance to the divine command.
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