Is Anyone A Sinner?

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Unpacking Hazon Ish: How Do We View the Formerly Observant?
Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein

Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel.

During a recent discussion of inclusivism, Hazon Ish’s view of the nonobservant was raised as a possible guidepost, as was that of R. Kook. Their views, it was argued, suggest ways to justify treating the nonobservant differently from the harshness the Talmud seems to prescribe.

I have nothing to add to the conversation regarding those born nonobservant, but I continue to be curious about the extension to Jews raised in observant homes (with no known stressors or mitigating factors, such as abuse), who then left. Is there room to treat such Jews the same way as those born without any awareness of the Orthodox view of Hashem, Torah, and its dictates? Wouldn’t we have to treat these formerly Orthodox[1. In modern Hebrew, datlashim—the acronym for datiyim she-le-avar, Orthodox in the past—or chozrim bi-she’elah, those who have returned to question, an ironic or sarcastic twist on the term for those who become observant, chozrim bi-teshuvah] with all the prescribed Talmudic severity?

Both R. Kook and Hazon Ish made relevant comments on the issue. I won’t deal with R. Kook here; interested readers can see a brief discussion (part of a larger analysis) by R. Avraham Wasserman and a lengthier one, more directly focused on the nonobservant, by R. Yoel Bin Nun.

In addition to analyzing R. Kook’s view, R. Bin-Nun builds his own interesting theory, based on a comment of Ramban on Chumash, that instead of referring to the nonobservant as “תינוקות שנשבו, captive children,” a term many experience as paternalistic, we should consider them a community in error. He had the intellectual courage and honesty to post, on his own website, a critical response by Rabbi Dr. Michael Avraham (PDF), and that, too, makes for illuminating reading.

I note that R. Yuval Cherlow, a student of R. Bin-Nun’s who adopts his teachers’s concept of an erring community (R. Bin-Nun, in turn, accepts much of R. Kook’s approach), finds it difficult to apply this view to those who grew up observant.

Here, I want to discuss Hazon Ish, whose ideas are widely quoted without, I think, considering their full ramifications. In the second essay of Yoreh De’ah[2. For sticklers: the current 7 volume Hazon Ish has been collected and re-ordered from the original, more piecemeal publication.], Hazon Ish makes two celebrated comments about contemporary sinners, one in section 16 and the other in section 28.

The Context—Sinners Are Different

These comments appear in the course of a lengthy and detailed analysis of the halachic ramifications of various ways and motives of abandoning observance. One of Hazon Ish’s main points is that there are two kinds of מומר להכעיס, people who abandon observance of a particular commandment for “spite,” for reasons other than yielding to temptation.

In other words, the Talmud and Hazon Ish were aware of the difference between surrender to temptation and malicious sin. Even so complete a surrender that a Jew no longer attempts to avoid a certain sin is seen as a localized problem, and only damages that Jew’s status regarding that area of halachah.

Other sinners, however, are not simply weak; they are unconcerned with observance. Such sinners are categorized as להכעיס, le-hach’is, as violating the Torah to anger God, as it were. One definition of להכעיס is שביק היתירא ואכיל איסורא, shavik hetera ve-achil issura, that the person gravitates to prohibited items or actions even when permitted ones are available. To choose the nonkosher of two fundamentally similar foods (“fundamentally similar” obviously requires further definition, but not here), is to act so as to anger God, in one sense.

Hazon Ish points out a debate about the status of that sinner, and concludes that the majority opinion is that such a person is a mumar, someone whose connection to the religion has been damaged (with certain halachic consequences), but not a min, a Jew who has written him or herself out of the nation almost entirely. One example, which we will come to in a moment, is that a min is someone whom halachah calls for us to be מורידין ולא מעלין, moridin ve-lo ma’alin, to find ways to put them in life-threatening situations, and not to help them out of such situations.

Hazon Ish does think that a person who specifically chooses to sin because it’s a sin—one example is eating prohibited food that no one eats; the only reason to eat it is to sin—would qualify as a min, writing himself out of the religion.

I mention this to note that Hazon Ish does not betray any discomfort with the idea that under some circumstances (even if this is completely theoretical today), Jews would arrange for other Jews’ deaths. Hazon Ish himself notes that where a court could administer punishment, we would not enact this rule. In addition, a functioning rule of law likely also rules out bringing about anyone’s death, since we are required to follow the law of the land. In practice, we aren’t going to be enacting this rule. In theory, however, Hazon Ish has no problem with it.

To accept his view, then, involves accepting the basic validity of acting this way towards some sinners in some eras, although specific technical aspects of these laws rules out applying them in our times. Contrast that with contemporary discussions of the obligation to wipe out Amalek, which also only applies in very different eras than ours, and the angst it nonetheless arouses among many Jews. I find it problematic when people latch on to a detail of Hazon Ish’s view and trumpet it, since his overall theoretical stance would, I suspect, cause them discomfort.

Revising His Earlier View

That leads to the second interesting point about this essay. Hazon Ish notes, at the very end, that he had previously ruled differently. In Even ha-Ezer 118, he had pointed out opinions that said that anyone who was halachically unfit to perform שחיטה, shechitah, ritual slaughter, would also not be relevant to יבום, yibum, levirate marriage. That is, if this sinner were the only living brother of a man who passed away with no children, the widow would not have to seek a חליצה, chalitzah, to be freed of him, since he is so distant from the religion.

In that essay, Hazon Ish had concluded that a sinner who transgresses a particular sin where there’s an available permissible option, would be included in that category, and is now correcting himself. In other words, earlier in his life, Hazon Ish had been at peace with the idea that someone who reaches for the shrimp at a buffet instead of the lox would not count as a Jew in terms of ritual slaughter, yibum and chalitzah. While he ended with a different view, it shows that the question was how and when to apply certain categories, not a discomfort with the categories themselves.

The Need for Obvious Providence

With that background, we can look at the two crucial comments and ponder their implications. In Paragraph 16, as part of a discussion of מורידין ולא מעלין, bringing about a sinner’s death indirectly, Hazon Ish writes (with my rough translation):

ונראה דאין דין מורידין אלא בזמן שהשגחתו ית’ גלוי’ כמו בזמן שהיו נסים מצויין ומשמש בת קול, וצדיקי הדור תחת השגחה פרטית הנראית לעין כל, והכופרין אז הוא בנליזות מיוחדת בהטיית היצר לתאוות והפקרות, ואז היה ביעור רשעים גדרו של עולם שהכל ידעו כי הדחת הדור מביא פורעניות לעולם ומביא דבר וחרב ורעב בעולם, אבל בזמן ההעלם שנכרתה האמונה מן דלת העם אין במעשה הורדה גדר הפרצה אלא הוספת הפרצה שיהי’ בעיניהם כמעשה השחתה ואלמות ח”ו וכיון שכל עצמנו לתקן אין הדין נוהג בשעה שאין בו תיקון ועלינו להחזירם בעבותות אהבה ולהעמידם בקרן אורה במה שידינו מגעת

It would seem that the rule of “lowering” [into a pit so he’ll die] only applies at a time when God’s Providence is obvious, as in the time when miracles were common, and Divine Voices appeared, and the righteous of the generation were under individual Providence that was clear to all eyes, and the heretics acted with particular malice, diverting their desires to lusts and wantonness. It was in such a time that eliminating the evildoers was the proper way of the world, since all knew that the leading astray of the generation brought punishment to the world, pestilence, sword, and famine. But in a time when all that is hidden, and faith has been cut off from the impoverished of the nation, the “lowering” has no power to close up the breach, but only to add to the breach, because it will seem in their eyes [the spiritually impoverished] like a destructive act and use of coercive force, God forbid. Since all we are seeking is to improve and perfect, this rule does not apply when it wouldn’t produce improvement, and we should bring the sinners back with chains of love, and bring them under the light of Torah to the extent we are capable.

The upshot of the passage is that we would not apply moridin to today’s sinners, since our times are so different from those of the Gemara. As simpatico as we find that conclusion, I think we need to notice its’ underlying assumptions, because we can’t take one without the other.

Is That How It Used to Be?

First, the historical. Hazon Ish views Talmudic times as ones when Providence was obvious, miracles and the Divine Voice were common, the righteous of each generation were under clear individual Providence, and all people understood that the actions of evildoers led to punishments such as plague, war, and famine.

Without even questioning how literally to take the Talmudic stories that feature a bat kol (a Divine Voice) or miracles that happened to individual rabbis (both of which, I suspect, rationalists such as Rambam and Meiri would have read differently than does Hazon Ish), we can note that he is presuming not only that the stories happened, but that they happened often enough that all the Jews of that time recognized them, took them for granted, and learned from there that sinners were the cause of all the evil that came into the world.

Those who accept that rendering of the Talmudic period would have to apply it further as well, since later scholars, into Hazon Ish’s lifetime, discuss moridin without ever implying that the change in the operation and obviousness of Divine Providence might affect its applicability.

In addition, Hazon Ish makes no room for whether we might consider Divine Providence to have reappeared in our times. I have no reason to believe he saw either the Holocaust or the State of Israel as reflections of a more obvious Providence than in generations gone by, and we cannot know how he would have reacted to the Six Day War or the remarkable resurgence of Orthodoxy in recent decades. But I do know some who cite Hazon Ish and yet subscribe to a view of those events that sees in them the open experience of Divine Providence.

One last assumption that adherents of this view have to accept is that moridin is designed to stimulate others positively, by learning from what happens to that sinner. It seems equally possible that moridin was a way to remove evildoers from the world, regardless of how witnesses would experience or learn from it.

I stress that without accepting these perspectives, Hazon Ish’s comments become irrelevant. If we don’t accept his characterization of earlier eras, we can’t see those as the crucial issues regarding applying moridin to today’s sinners. So, too, if moridin wasn’t meant as a deterrent or a way to bring others closer to Hashem’s service, the way people might react is also less important. It’s a linked chain—if you want to accept his view that moridin does not apply to today’s sinners, you have to accept the foundation upon which he built that view.

Rejecting Tochachah

The ins and outs of bringing about the death of evildoers are mostly of academic interest in our times. I introduced it as a warm-up, really, for a second comment, built on equally surprising foundations and yet often quoted without recognizing the corollaries that come with it.

In the last paragraph, after noting and walking back his previous view that even a sinner who chose prohibition over permitted materials would be irrelevant to yibum, Hazon Ish adds several more caveats. The first is Rambam’s well-known claim that the descendants of Karaites are not rebellious sinners, since they were raised in that environment, and are thus somewhat coerced into their position. Hazon Ish makes clear that we accept sacrifices from such Jews, work to keep them alive if they are in danger, violate Shabbat to save them, and so on.

That is well known, and I began this essay by saying I find it and other justifications for seeing those born nonobservant as different.

Hazon Ish then notes the statement of the Hagahot Maimoniyot, in the sixth chapter of Hilchot De’ot, Laws of Character, that one cannot hate a fellow Jew as a rasha, an evildoer, unless he or she rejects תוכחה, rebuke or remonstration. Let me pause to analyze this crucial building block to the next view Hazon Ish cites.

Hazon Ish doesn’t say which gloss he was referencing, but the most obvious one seems to be the first in the chapter, where Rambam says Jews are obligated to love each other, and Hagahot Maimoniyot says that’s only for a Jew who shares our observance. We are commanded, however, to hate an evildoer who rejects remonstration. In the third gloss of the chapter, by the way, Hagahot Maimoniyot assumes that if it is perfectly clear that a sinner will reject any efforts we make to encourage him to change, the commandment to remonstrate is suspended.

From that gloss, Hazon Ish seems to conclude that Hagahot Maimoniyot meant we cannot categorize a sinner as an evildoer until and unless he or she rejects remonstration. But that bears questioning: Did Hagahot Maimoniyot say we can’t categorize a rasha until tochachah was rejected, or did Hagahot Maimoniyot say we are supposed to hate an evildoer who rejects remonstration?

The latter seems to me more likely, especially considering Hagahot Maimoniyot’s allowing refraining from remonstrating with those we know will reject it anyway. It is true that we are not supposed to hate a sinner before we remonstrate, but that is only because we hope to have some impact. If we know we cannot or will not, Hagahot Maimoniyot seems to say, we would already be required to hate them, or at least view them as evildoers.

Implications of the Impossibility of Remonstration

Hazon Ish then notes a passage in an addendum to Ahavat Chessed labeled Marganita Tava.[3. This is a small work Chafetz Chayim appended to his own, by R. Yehonatan Volinar; a brief biography appears here. Chafetz Chayyim reports that he secured the manuscript from one of R. Yehonatan’s students.] In paragraph 17, the author notes that we cannot hate sinners until they’ve rejected remonstration, as we discussed above. He then cites Maharam of Lublin as holding that that obligates us to love all sinners, since we no longer know how to administer proper תוכחה, remonstration. That turns those sinners into אנוסים, coerced sinners.

This passage takes for granted that without remonstration, a person is considered a coerced rather than willful sinner. It is true that Jewish courts do not punish unless witnesses warned the sinner ahead of time, but that warning is assumed to differentiate between willful and unintentional sins, not coerced.[4. Sanhedrin 8b.]

That might have made room, in other words, to say that in the absence of proper remonstration, we have to treat all sinners as שוגגין, shogegin, acting without full intention. Even that, though, makes an unprecedented assumption; that תוכחה is not only an obligation Jews bear to each other, not only a prerequisite before rejecting a sinner as having placed himself outside the community, but is necessary even to consider sins willful!

There’s more. The idea that we have lost the ability to effectively remonstrate—which led to the Marganita Tava’s claim that all sinners today have to be considered pre-tochachah, not fully liable for their sins– stems from a statement by R. Elazar b. Azaryah in Arachin 16b. To accept this view, then, is to believe that ever since the time of the Mishnah, all sinners have been halachically considered coerced, since they were pre-tochachah, a fact we might have expected to see mentioned before the nineteenth century.

The Complications of Generosity

Hazon Ish’s thrust was that sinners today are not like sinners of old, in two ways. First, the historical context, the lack of obvious Divine Providence, makes their sins less of a rebellion than it would have been back then. Second, the lack of skilled remonstration makes the sinners less liable for their actions than they would have been in times gone by.

What I have tried to show here is that the temptation to accept that view because of the room it allows for refraining from the difficult process of rejecting or hating fellow Jews brings with it other commitments– to a particular view of the nature of Divine Providence in Talmudic and medieval times, a particular view of the goals of bringing about certain sinners’ death, and the view that not just remonstration but effective remonstration is necessary before a sinner can be considered responsible for his or her actions. None of those are well-established.

The challenge here, the reasons I felt this topic worth considering at some length, is that my experience is that many people are happy to accept results they like without grappling with whether those results reflect a convincing construction of how tradition viewed those same ideas. If a considered contemplation of Jewish tradition tells you that Hazon Ish is right about these various claims, then his view of the formerly observant is right for you.

But those who see those assumptions as problematic or overstated need to search elsewhere for guidance on how to react to the formerly observant. There may be other convincing opinions on the question that allow for the same kind of gentle approach Hazon Ish recommends. But they have to be found, and found convincing for their representation of what Jewish tradition says on this issue, before we can rely upon them.

About Gidon Rothstein

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