Why Should We be Excluded?

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“Why Should We be Excluded?”
A Classic Devar Torah of Rav Yehudah Amital z”l

A recollection by Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

[I would like to thank R. Reuven Zeigler for reviewing this piece.]

Rav Amital had certain favorite divrei Torah, stories, and sayings that he repeated frequently. They formed an essential part of the “core curriculum” at the Yeshiva. No one who spent a significant amount of time there could leave without hearing these lessons multiple times. Some of these were associated with particular Torah portions. If R. Amital was there for one of those shabbatot, more likely than not, by the time he made havdalah in his unforgettable tune, he had already said over his “favorite” devar Torah on the parasha. Rav Amital did not repeat these teachings because, like the apocryphal maggid (preacher) who knew only one derasha, he had a limited repertoire. Rather, I believe it was because he felt that these divrei Torah communicated an essential part of his Torah and that they bore repeating.

One of these favorites was associated with two parshiot, Beha’alotcha and Pinchas. It addressed the stories of Pesach Sheni and the daughters of Zelophehad. In each of these stories, Moshe is confronted with a request which he in turn presents to God. Why, Rav Amital would ask, did Moshe forward these requests to God? In each case, the halacha as Moshe had received it was clear. Those who had been impure at the time of the Korban Pesach, had missed their chance (avar zmano batel korbano). In the case of the daughters of Zelophehad, only male descendants could inherit. Their family had no claim to the Land. Moshe should have rejected these claims as beyond the bounds of halacha, even as challenges to halachic system. Yet, Moshe agrees to take these cases on appeal to the Highest court. Why?

Rav Amital explained that these requests, though not provided for in the halacha as it stood, still reflected a sheifa lekedusha, a yearning for holiness. Lama nigara!? they pleaded. Why should we be excluded, through no fault of our own, from the holy life of the community of Israel? Moshe felt that people who made such a request could not simply be turned down. So he turned to God. In these cases, God responded by revealing entirely new aspects of the halacha which allowed the petitioners to be included in these two fundamental aspects of Jewish identity and Avodat Hashem— the Korban Pesach and Eretz Yisrael.

Rav Amital felt that this lesson particularly applicable to dealing with contemporary women who seek out greater roles in Jewish communal and ritual life. “Of course, I am not Moshe Rabbeinu, I cannot consult God on these matters.” That which is prohibited must remain so. Nevertheless, even when women make requests that fall outside of the bounds of halacha, they should not be chased away as people who seek to undermine the Law. Rather they should be welcomed and encouraged in their desire to be involved in Torah and mitzvot, even as they are told that not everything is possible within the confines of halacha.

I think that this devar Torah encapsulates an important tension in Rav Amital’s thought. On the one hand he unconditionally advocated for the absolute supremacy of halacha not only in determining our behavior, but in defining the very nature of our avodat hashem. On the other hand, R. Amital passionately believed in the importance and significance of each individual’s spiritual and moral intuitions. How are these two values to be reconciled or integrated? To this question I have no doubt R. Amital would have given a simple two word answer, ayn patentim, “There are no easy solutions.”

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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