Repenting a Coerced Forbidden Pleasure

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

[Click for the audio version].

Let’s admit that not all of us are so enveloped in Torah and mitzvot that we find distasteful that which the Torah prohibits. Shu”t Chatam Sofer 1 (Orach Chayyim); 202, dated 8 Adar 5599 (1839), deals with a man like us, who was forced to violate the Torah and liked it. 

He had been taken captive and forced to eat non-kosher food. It tasted so good that, sometimes, he ate more than required. Now that he’s been freed, he wants to know how to repent, especially since he feels unable to fast and is too poor to give enough charity to serve as absolution.

Saving One’s Life by a Torah Violation

Chatam Sofer opens with a citation from Eruvin 44b, where the Mishnah allows those who leave home to save other Jews to return afterwards (and to ignore techum Shabbat, the limits one is allowed to travel on Shabbat). It’s on that Gemara that Shiltei Gibborim writes that extinguishing fires was a cause that in his days would be included in the Gemara’s permission to return.

That’s new information, because the Gemara saw fire as a financial threat rather than a mortal one; Shiltei Gibborim was telling us that the halachic view of uncontrolled fires had changed, such that it was now recognized as justifiable to extinguish such fires on Shabbat, to travel outside the techum to do so, and then to return.

He adds that no repentance is necessary for putting out that fire, which Chatam Sofer takes to imply that it would be meaningful to repent if one so chose. For repentance to make any sort of sense, Shiltei Gibborim must have followed the view in Yoreh De’ah 157 that one is allowed to refuse to transgress a sin even where halachah permits it, and despite risk to one’s life. If there was no option but transgression, there’s no reason for repentance [there seems to room to suggest that he might have read too much into Shiltei GibborimShiltei Gibborim might have mentioned that there was no need for repentance only to stress how confident he was that putting out a fire on Shabbat was fully acceptable, despite the Gemara’s indications that it wasn’t. But let’s see what Chatam Sofer says].

Repentance That Gives the Wrong Impression

The first kind of repentance we can imagine for this freed captive, too, would be for his not choosing to die rather than eat the prohibited food [there’s more to what he did, asChatam Sofer will discuss]. But Chatam Sofer reminds us that there are downsides to repenting that which was permitted. Yerushalmi Yoma 8;5 speaks ill of those too halachically cautious in saving lives; it says that one who stops to ask whether it’s permissible is to be denigrated, and the person asked about such halachot [there are textual variations of this Yerushalmi which we’ll leave for another time] is akin to a murderer [likely because he should have made clear ahead of time the extent we go to save lives].

That is also why the most important Jews around should involve themselves in any lifesaving situations, to be sure no one infers that this is a lesser form of conduct, that finding ways to avoid Torah violations by outsourcing the lifesaving to “lesser” people) would be preferable. Any act of repentance for saving one’s life runs into the same problem, since it, too, gives the impression that the person could or should have acted differently, and might lead others to hesitate before acting in what is in fact the necessary way.

Enjoying the Prohibited

He has so far ignored the distinction that the man took pleasure in this act, where firefighters do not. The rabbi who sent the question had suggested that the repentance might focus on the pleasure taken in the act despite its having started out as coerced. That topic is a matter of dispute that we do not have the space to discuss. The key piece of it for us is that the questioner rabbi understood Avuha de-Shmuel (the father of the well-known amora Shemuel) to hold that taking pleasure in a coerced act makes that act a full sin, as if the person chose to do it.

Chatam Sofer firmly and sharply rejects that position (he says yishtake’a hadavar, the claim should be sunk into the ground, erased as if it had never been said). No one holds that a coerced act is a sin in Hashem’s eyes. Avuha de-Shmuel’s view depended on his understanding of a completely different (and circumscribed) issue; besides, we do not accept his view for that halachic circumstance, let alone as guidance for how to react to other coerced enjoyments. If there’s no sin, despite the pleasure taken, there again seems no room or reason for repentance.

Regretting Our Ordinariness

Except that Tosafot to Ketubbot 57 notes that Sarah, Esther, and other great women of our tradition who were forced into sexual relations never enjoyed the experience. The idea of intimacy with such evil men was so distasteful that there was no way they could enjoy the act [it’s again not our topic, but I cannot ignore the fact that the Gemara assumed that women could take pleasure in what we today would call rape; whether that’s possible today, or was accurate then, is a discussion for another time].

Chatam Sofer brings them up because they show us what a proper spiritual attitude entails. We might then decide to repent our lower spiritual level, that we are or were able to enjoy that which the Torah told us we should not [he assumes that when the Torah prohibits a certain act, Jews should find it unenjoyable, not just prohibited, and that even when it becomes halachically permitted, such as by coercion under threat of death. Theoretically, we might have distinguished between being forced into sexual relations and other violations of Torah law, but Chatam Sofer takes them all as of a piece].

Yibum was another example where Chatam Sofer thought that our failure to reach a higher spiritual level was itself an issue. His starting point is that the Torah obligated and preferred yibum, a brother marrying his deceased brother’s childless widow. For the Torah, only a brother churlishly unwilling to help continue his brother’s name would take the other option, chalitzah. ere the surviving brother churlishly refuses.

According to Ashkenazic custom, Chazal reversed the priority. The Mishnah mentions the fear that the couple would marry out of ordinary attraction, which looked too much like marrying a brother’s wife, one of the karet-prohibited sexual relationships [in the responsum we saw on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, R. Ovadya Yosef held that Sefardim think the upshot of the Talmudic discussion is to still prefer yibum].

If we’re the ones stopping the yibum, the chalitzah ceremony seems unfair, in that the widow spits at the brother, as if he’s the recalcitrant one. Chatam Sofer suggested[homiletically, I’m pretty sure] that the spitting was to remind him that he had not reached the spiritual level where halachah could be comfortable that he would marry the widow solely for the purest of reasons.

The Extra Food and the Nature of Repentance

In practice, Chatam Sofer was not willing to go that far, does not think it makes sense to ask someone to repent the pleasure taken in eating what he had to eat to save his life. This man’s case differs in that he ate more than necessary, and Penei Yehoshu’a to Ketubbot pointed out that we see separate acts as separate (he was discussing sexual acts, but Chatam Sofer assumes it was true for eating as well—if he ate more than what was forced on him, for all that it’s one meal, each act of eating extra food is his unjustified transgression).

More, the man could have avoided any full-fledged prohibition by eating very slowly. An halachic act of eating involves ingesting at least a minimal amount (an olive’s worth) within a certain period of time (a kedei achilat peras, the amount of time it takes a normal person to eat six or eight olives’ worth). That would have reduced the transgression involved.

Those are two failures he can and should repent. To his plaint that fasting or giving charity are too hard, Chatam Sofer reminds the rabbi asking him the question that repentance is about regret, tells him to tell the man that, make clear to him the exact nature of his sin, and urge him to be clear with Hashem (and his conscience) that he feels bad about that which he did wrong.

Hashem, the Compassionate One, will know his sincerity and will (as Hashem does for all of us, repeatedly) absolve him.

Berachot and Mitzvah Fulfillments

The end of the responsum briefly takes up other aspects of coerced acts. Chatam Sofer ratifies and explains Magen Avraham’s view that one would recite a berachah before eating (ordinarily prohibited) foods for medical reasons, but not when others were forcing a person to do so. Where health issues necessitate a certain consumption, it is appropriate to thank Hashem (before and after) both for creating the food that will save one’s life as well as carving out the exception to Torah observance that allows us to do that which we ordinarily may not.

When we are yielding to coercion, there’s no meaningful sense in which to thank Hashem, since we would prefer not to be acting this way at all.

That leads to the next question, whether a coerced mitzvah observance must count as fulfillment of the mitzvah. Rosh HaShanah 28a discusses a case where non-Jews forced a Jew to observe some mitzvah, and a sefer called Yom Teru’ah wondered why the Gemara did not discuss the simpler case, where a Jewish court forced the Jew to do so.

Chatam Sofer thinks the answer is obvious. Jewish courts apply pressure until the Jew agreed to perform the act (however begrudgingly). Only in such cases does it count as a fulfillment, based on Rambam’s explanation in Laws of Divorce 2;20. As Rambam put it, halachah assumes that Jews want to do what they should, deep down, regardless of how much they oppose it (or how much pressure it took to elicit that pro forma agreement).

Besides, the question of non-Jews’ coercion applied also to Jews who wanted to fulfill the mitzvah, just on their own terms (such as eating matzah with the family at the Seder rather than as a separate act forced upon him by non-Jews; this is the second time in this responsum where Chatam Sofer chooses to read a source as applying to well-meaning Jews where the source itself did not indicate that). The question in the Gemara was whether that Jew could disregard what had happened to him to the extent that he could make the berachah of al achilat matzah, on the mitzvah of eating matzah (as if he had not yet fulfilled the mitzvah)?

Chatam Sofer notes that this question, too, depends on our view of where a coerced act also involves a physical pleasure. While there might be room for repentance in cases of prohibition, he does not think that’s enough to stop the Jew from later fulfilling a mitzvah, in the way that he wanted to, in the way that meets the highest standards of halachah.

Our coercers cannot take away from us our aspirations to fullest performance of mitzvot, he is telling us. But they can lead us to sin, tempt us enough that we do more than we were allowed to do by their coercion (or do it more fully than was necessary). For that, we would need to repent.

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