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PARASHAT B'HAR

SUPEREROGATORY OBLIGATIONS

by Yitzchak Etshalom



I

THE "ANTHEM" OF VAYYIKRA: KEDOSHIM TIH'YU

Although the explicit phrase Kedoshim Tih'yu --You shall be holy-- appears in Parashat Kedoshim (see our earlier shiur where we take a different approach than the one in this shiur), it is anthemic to the book of Vayyikra. It is safe to say that the entire book is a clarification and exposition of this two-word command: Be Holy!

Starting from these two words, we will try to respond to a significant question which has always been the topic of deep philosophical discussion among theologians and ethicists: Is uncommanded man ethically neutral? In other words: If God had not commanded us the Mitzvot, would there be an ethical imperative urging us towards certain behavior and leading us away from other behavior? As an example, were we not told "You shall not murder" would we, as Jews, wantonly commit murder "just because it is not prohibited explicitly?" A further extension of this question is: Can a non-Jew be held responsible for unethical acts? Although in our tradition, the rest of humanity are bound by seven laws (actually there are more-see BT Sanhedrin 58), from the non-Jewish perspective, this is not a binding set of rules. Can we hold the rest of the world culpable from their perspective, from a non-commanded ethic?


II

ARE WE COMMANDED TO "ACT ETHICALLY"?

The resolution to this question depends on our attitude towards two other issues.

  1. Is there an ethic independent of Halakhah? Is there behavior which, although the Torah does not prescribe it, is laudable and hallowed in the eyes of the Torah? Clearly, if our response here were an emphatic "no" (which can found in some , chiefly Hassidic, schools of thought), our question would be solved. Since there is no inherently ethical act - and therefore no way for us to behave ethically beyond the letter of the law - it follows that without being commanded, there is no imperative. What could man strive for if, sans Mitzvot, there is no standard of "Good" and "Evil."

  2. Is there an ethical imperative to do "good" built in to the system of Halakhah? Along with commanding us to wear Tefillin, guard the Shabbat and avoid Hametz on Pesach, has God commanded us to live beyond the letter of the law? Once again, if our response is negative, the question is moot. For even if there were an independent ethic, one could argue that by omitting such a command from the corpus of the Mitzvot, God did not intend us to concern ourselves with it.

We will continue this discussion because our sources bear out, over and over again, positive responses to these two questions.

III

RAMBAN'S EXPLANATION OF "KEDOSHIM TIH'YU"

" 'Be Holy...'... The Torah has admonished us against immorality and forbidden foods, but permitted ...the eating of certain meat and wine. If so, a man of desire could consider this to be a permission to be passionately addicted...and be among winebibbers, among gluttonous eater of flesh, and speak freely all profanities, since this prohibition has not been expressly mentioned in the Torah: And thus he will become a sordid person within the permissible realm of the Torah! Therefore, after having listed the matters which He prohibited altogether, Scripture followed them up by a general command that we practice moderation even in matters which are permitted." These words of Ramban, in his commentary on Vayyikra 19:2, are well-known. Herein, the Ramban clearly confirms our two points: There must be an ethic independent of the Torah, for we are commanded to abstain from, or practice moderation in, those areas that the Torah did not expressly forbid.

Ramban compares this imperative with the positive v'Asita haTov vehaYashar b'Einei Hashem (and you shall do that which is right and good in the eyes of God). As we are ethically restricted in that which is permitted by Kedoshim Tih'yu, so we are ethically motivated to go beyond the letter of the law by v'Asita haTov veaYashar b'Einei Hashem.


IV

A CHALLENGE TO THE "NON-COMMANDED ETHIC"

The specter of a "non-Mitzva" imperative will, undoubtedly, invite rebuttal from familiar quarters:

"R. Elazar b. Azariah said: From whence do we know that a man should not say: 'I cannot tolerate wearing Sha'atnez, [or] I cannot tolerate eating pork, [or] I cannot tolerate illicit relations'--Rather that he should say: ' I am capable and willing, but what can I do, my Father in Heaven decreed thus' [that I avoid these things]? Therefore Scripture states: 'I have separated you from the Nations to be Mine' --thus, he avoids the sin and accepts God's Sovereignty." (Sifra Parashat Kedoshim) RABD's reading and comments here seem to strengthen the challenge: "Therefore Scripture states: 'To be Mine'"--in other words, practice this law for My sake and not due to your own consideration. (commentary of RABD, ibid.)

The upshot of the attitude prescribed by R. Elazar b. Azariah is the negation of any value assigned to "Good" outside of the context of Mitzvah. Furthermore, beyond the significance of context, motivation becomes a central factor: "For My sake..."

Although R. Elazar b. Azariah is clearly outlining a maximal ideal, not a legal norm; this aspiration still stands in apparent contradiction to the notion of "Innate Ethics".


V

RESPONDING TO THE SIFRA

There are various ways to categorize the corpus of Halakha: Mitzvot of Commission and Mitzvot of Omission (Mitzvot 'Aseh uMitzvot Lo Ta'aseh); Ritual law and Civil law (Mamona v'Issura); Mitzvot between people and Mitzvot involving God and man (Bein Adam leHavero; Bein Adam laMakom). These categories are familiar to us from the Gemara. R. Sa'adia Ga'on (Emunot v'De'ot 3:1) introduced a novel categorization, one which is not defined parametrically but cognitively: Rational Mitzvot and Disciplinary Mitzvot (Mitzvot Sikhli'ot uMitzvot Shim'iot) . Those Mitzvot which Man would have understood the need for of his own accord, such as not murdering etc. are considered "Rational"; those which Man would never have conceived without God's command, such as the prohibition against wearing Sha'atnez, are considered "Disciplinary." (see also Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2) Although Rambam later rejected Sa'adia's categorization, (Guide III) it is still commonly used among the later Rishonim and Aharonim.

In R. Elazar b. Azariah's exhortation, all three examples belong, classically, to the category of "Mitzvot Shim'iot "-Disciplinary Mitzvot. Failing that grouping, all three also belong solely to the realm of "Bein Adam LaMakom "- affecting God and Man. We could easily interpret his advice as follows: Regarding those Mitzvot whose orientation is Disciplinary, be careful not to habituate yourself to their avoidance, such that it becomes "natural." Your abstention from pork, by way of example, should be a constant battle of will against desire; eating it shouldn't be anathema to you. For better or for worse, those of us who were blessed with being raised in a Torah-observant household are certainly far from this mind-set; for most of us, the thought of eating "hazir" is physically upsetting! Nevertheless, there is no reason to extend R. Elazar's ideal to the realm of Rational Mitzvot, Mitzvot that we would have styled for ourselves were it not for that great day at Mt. Sinai.

It is reasonable that inherent in the Mitzva-relationship between Man and God is the Mitzvah-motivation and Mitzvah-orientation. Must the same, automatically, be said for those Mitzvot which every society values and commends? Should a Jew, ideally, be able to state: "I could easily murder, but God forbade me from it?" Our self-definition as "Compassionate ones and bestowers of kindness" (BT Yevamot 79a; see also MT Issurei Bi'ah 12:24) would seem to render such a statement inherently un-Jewish.


VI

THE SECOND SOURCE:
DOING THAT WHICH IS "GOOD IN THE EYES OF GOD"

"And you shall do that which is good and upright in the eyes of God." (Devarim 6:18)

The Torah has already commanded us, quite explicitly, regarding social, financial and communal obligations and responsibilities. What import and value can be ascribed to this generic imperative? Let us turn to Ramban's comments (Devarim ibid.):

"The intent of this is as follows: At first he [Moses] stated that you are to keep His statutes and His testimonies which He commanded you, and now he is stating that even where He has not commanded you, give heed to do what is good and right in His eyes, for He loves the good and right. Now this is a great principle, for it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man's conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and the ordinances of all societies and countries. But since He mentioned many of them, he reverted to state in a general way that, in all matters, one should do what is good and right, including even compromise and going beyond the letter of the law...thus a person must seek to refine his behavior in every form of activity, until he is worthy of being called 'good and upright'."

Ramban here refers, quite explicitly, to a non-commanded mode of behavior which is "good and upright" in the eyes of God. The obvious problem which this poses is subsumed in our question: How do we decide that which is good and right in the eyes of God? I have had numerous conversations with committed and sincere Jews of non-Orthodox persuasion who are convinced that sacrifices, the stigma of Mamzerut, the exclusion of women from certain religious offices and the like are not "what God really desires." The blatant difference between us belief in Divine Revelation, word for word, at Mount Sinai, serves only to cure the symptoms. To those of us who accept Revelation literally, sacrifices and Mamzerut are as much an expression of God's will as are Shabbat and Prayer. We are, nevertheless, challenged to find a standard by which to define extra-Halakhic "goodness and uprightness."

VII

LIFNIM MISHURAT HADIN: SUPEREROGATORY BEHAVIOR

"...R. Yohanan said: 'Yerushalayim would not have been destroyed, save that they judged Din Torah (by the Law of the Torah).' Should they have judged by the brutal laws?--rather, they insisted upon the law, and did not practice Lifnim miShurat haDin (beyond the letter of the law). (BT Bava Mezia 30b)

One implication which we must note immediately: Since the people were punished for not going beyond the letter of the law, it follows that they are obligated to behave in this supererogatory fashion. For if we are not so obligated, where is the justice in such punishment?

There are two immediate problems generated by the above-quoted Gemara:

  1. How can there be an obligation to go beyond the law? That is tantamount to stating that one must do more than one must do; a definitional impossibility.

  2. Once again, how do we judge Lifnim miShurat haDin? We know the Din (law) --for that we have the Shulhan Arukh. Claiming that Lifnim miShurat haDin means doing more than the Torah prescribed is a misleading oversimplification. First of all, by reductio ad absurdum, one could expand the scope of Mitzvot well beyond their normal parameters. Since Shabbat is so good and blessed, I will not do M'lakhah all week; since Hametz is so bad, I will avoid it all year. Besides the impossibility of performing all of the Mitzvot simultaneously, this also contravenes two Mitzvot: Do not add to, and Do not take away from, the Mitzvot. (Devarim 4:2, see Sifri, Ramban ibid.)

One answer we might attempt lies in the distinction between anthropo-Mitzvot (between man and his fellow) and theo-Mitzvot (between man and God). We could say that all Mitzvot between man and God are dependent upon their God-ordained limitation, unlike Mitzvot of the social and civil order, which are objectively good in all times and places and should be carried to extremes. This distinction falls before it stands: Prayer, we will agree, is a theo-Mitzva; yet R. Yohanan states: "Would that a man pray all day." (BT Berakhot 21a; see MT Tefilla 10:6. See also our shiur in the Rambam archives) The early Hassidim spent nine hours a day in prayer, including preparation, and they are praised in the Talmud (BT Berakhot 30b, 32b, see also JT ibid.) - although this is certainly well beyond the demands of the Law.

VIII

THE GUIDE: S'VARA

The answer lies in the explanation of a famous section of Gemara (BT Sanhedrin 74a): Rava's response to the man who was given a choice of "kill or be killed"--"Let them kill you and do not murder: Who says that your blood is redder than his? Perhaps his blood is redder than yours?" The Gemara, in supporting Rava's decision, does not cite Scripture or transmitted tradition. It is referred to as "S'vara"--literally reasoning. This example alone serves warning to those who would claim that uncommanded is without imperative. On the basis of reason alone, the ultimate ethical demand is made: Sacrifice your life rather than take another. While it is safe to say that "reasoning" here is not the same as pure logic, (many "logical" societies have developed the survivalist ethic of the jungle [notably Nietzsche's "Ubermensch"] and would have advised this petitioner to kill and save his own life) our point still holds.

"Reasoning" here seems to be the reasonable result of ethical and religious norms inculcated in the culture and society. Jewish society has always respected and valued life for its own sake; Jewish tradition has always furthered man from playing "God" with lives. The "reasonable result" of such a heritage responds: Kill rather than murder.

Hence, it is the result of the framework of Mitzvah that non-commanded ethical imperatives are expected, even demanded of us. Lifnim miShurat haDin becomes Din, because it is not enough to be right, we must be good; not just correct, but holy. Holiness is living within the skeleton of the law, and breathing life into that framework with the spirit of God that resides within all of us. As Yerushalayim was destroyed because of insistence on the letter of the law, may we see her speedily rebuilt as we aspire to Lifnim miShurat haDin.

Text Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom.
The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles

 






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