The Repentance of a Rebellious Child
Shmuel Herzfeld, 5777
After Jews in the middle ages were forced to convert the Inquisition made certain that they remained true to their Christianity and did not relapse. Many holy souls tried to worship their Judaism secretly. But there was only so long that it could on for. These Jews who converted under duress were called anusim.
But after they have been living open as Christians for one or more generations should they still be considered Jews?
In the 16th century this question was brought to the holy, Maharshdam (R. Shmuel b. Moshe of Modena, 16th c. Salonika). He was asked about betrothals that were made by the anusim of Portugal (Even Haezer, 10). Should we consider their kiddushin to be valid like that of a Jew and their witnesses kosher for a wedding, like Jewish witnesses? Or should we invalidate them because they seem to have entirely abandoned their faith as they were now publicly worshipping a different faith?
The Maharshdam noted that there was a dispute about this that was recorded in the great code known as the Tur (Even Haezer, 44). The Tur ruled, “Yisrael mumar she-kiddesh, kiddushav kiddushin, vetzrichin mimmenu get, a Jew who has sinned, his betrothals are valid, and if he wishes to divorce, a divorce is required.” And then the Tur continued, “And there are those who say that if one is a sinner to violate the Shabbat publicly and to worship idolatry, that his status is that of a Gentile. And I don’t agree with that approach.”
Thus, the Tur rejected the approach that viewed a Jew who worshipped another faith as no longer legally a Jew. The Tur ruled that this person was still a Jew.
The Maharshdam, however, disagreed with the Tur, and ruled that these anusim were no longer to be considered Jews.
Maharshdam argued that the basis for the Tur was a Talmudic text, which stated, “yisrael af al pi she-chatah yisrael hu, a Jew, even though he has sinned is still a Jew” (Sanhedrin, 43a). But Maharshdam claimed that that text was referring to Jews who only violated one sin, i.e. Shabbat or idolatry, but these anusime were now violating every sin and therefore should no longer be considered Jewish. Thus he ruled that their betrothals were not valid and a formal get would not be needed to terminate the marriage.
Comes along R. Moshe Feinstein and in a responsum written in 1974 he expressed astonishment at the ruling of Maharshdam (Even Haezer, 4: 83). It is rare for a rabbi to challenge the ruling of a rabbi who preceded him by four hundred years, but Rav Moshe nonetheless disagreed with Maharshdam. He said, this phrase “yisrael af al pi she-chatah yisrael hu,” demonstrates the great love that Hashem has for the Jewish people. It demonstrates the idea that no matter how we have sinned we can return to our Creator. And said Rav Moshe, while the Torah does allow someone to convert to Judaism, the Torah does not allow someone to leave the Jewish faith. And so, Rav Moshe ruled that even though a person has publicly violated every commandment, they are still Jewish. Once a Jew, always a Jew.
Clearly, the Maharshdam and Rav Moshe were dealing with two entirely different historical circumstances. Maharshdam was dealing with an entire class of people that had embraced Chrisitanity under duress and were living as Christians. He also wanted to strengthen those who did not succumb to the pressure of becoming outwardly a Christian. Rav Moshe on the other hand was looking at an American Jewish community facing an overwhelming assimilation. His ruling allowed made space for thousands upon thousands of Jews to return to the holiness of their ancestors and embrace the traditions of their parents.
Personally speaking, I find Rav Moshe’s ruling inspirational. It speaks to a powerful theme of chazal that we never give up on a person – there is always room for redemption.
If we would just read the written Torah without the Torah she-baal peh, we wouldn’t know this.
This week’s portion teaches us about the ben sorrer umoreh, the rebellious child (Devarim 21:18-21).
Taken at literal value, the written text is the opposite of what I believe. The Torah tells us that if one has a rebellious child, who does not listen to his father or mother –ben sorrer umoreh einenu shomeah be’kol aviv u’vekol imo—he should be taken out and stoned. The written Torah just tells us that this child doesn’t listen and he is zollel ve-soveh, gluttonous.
Even as a young boy I loved reading the Torah, and I confess that this passage scared the heck out of me. I wasn’t exactly always listening to my parents and I wasn’t sure what gluttonous meant, but I was pretty sure that whatever it was I had done it.
The written passage tells us to give up on a rebellious child who just isn’t listening. No hope for such a child. Take him out and stone him. Can you imagine?
I need not have worried because Chazal were looking out for me and all of us and legislated this passage out of existence.
Chazal limited the time of when this could apply (a very short period in a teen-ager’s life), and the circumstances, and the requirements necessary to such an extent that the Talmud states that there never was and never will be a ben sorrer umoreh, “lo hayah velo atid lehiyot” (Sanhedrin, 71a). So if there will never be such a rebellious child, why do we need to have an entire passage about it in the Torah, and an entire chapter in the Talmud? Says the Talmud, “Derosh ve-kabel sechar, in order to study it and receive reward.”
This is a strange answer. There aren’t enough things to study in the real world, so we have to make up something else to study.
Here is what the Talmud’s answer means to me: It means that chazal wanted us to study this passage in order to learn the basic lesson that chazal will ever allow for a case of ben sorrer umoreh. Chazal want us to learn this lesson that we can never give up on a person—any person at all, and for sure not, a child.
Right now we are in the middle of studying Tractate Sanhedrin as part of our daf yomi cycle. At first glance tractate Sanhedrin is all about criminal procedure, and how we convict a criminal. But that’s not what its really about. What its really about is how we don’t convict a criminal. How we always allow space for redemption. How no matter what the criminal has done we do not give up on him.
The Talmud tells us that there an extraordinary number of regulations that are necessary to pass in order to convict a criminal (for example, the witness needs to be warned with great specificity immediately before the crime is committed and then the witness needs to acknowledge the warning and commit the crime within seconds of the warning). So only an incredibly dangerous person can ever be convicted of a crime according to the strict definition of Jewish law. And yet, the Talmud tells us that as this person is being brought out to be executed, the special women of Jerusalem (nashim yekarot) would bring out to the convict a “koret shel levonah” mixed into a cup of wine.
A koret shel levonah translates as a grain of frankincense, i.e. this was some sort of spice that was mixed into the wine in order to calm the convict.
At first glance we might think that this was just a typical thing done to calm down a prisoner so he doesn’t give us any problems. But if we look closely it was so much more. This was a spiritual gift from the precious women of Jerusalem. The levonah is a special spice that was included in the sacrificial minchah offerings and it was also reserved for the special lechem hapanim, which was only eaten by the kohanim. In other words, the criminal is being given a gift of a spice that otherwise (in a ritual context) only a kohen would eat. The fact that the precious women of Jerusalem came forward to give this spice specifically to the criminal tells us that even as this person was being brought out to be executed we still did not give up on him. Sure we are going to punish him, but we still think he can repent and come closer to God.
The Mishnah tells us that as this convicted criminal is being brought out to be executed we say to him, “Confess your sins, because anyone who confesses his sins has a share in the World to Come.” And if he doesn’t know how to confess we teach him at that moment. We say to him, say, “tehei mitati kapparah al kol avonatai, may my death be an atonement for all my sins” (Sanhedrin, 43b).
As the man is being brought out to be executed we are promising him a share in the world to come. Not only that, we help him repent.
No matter the person, no matter the crime, we don’t give up on people.
This is the month of Elul. The month of repentance.
Repentance is not only what other people have to do. It is also how we treat other people.
Repentance means we don’t give up on people – not prisoners, and not people who have wronged us in the past.
Repentance means that there is always a chance for redemption.
There is always a chance for redemption. We can’t wipe away the past, but we can do better in the future.
Repentance doesn’t mean that are absolved for all of our previous actions.
Repentance doesn’t mean that we don’t have to take responsibility for what we have done in the past.
Repentance means that no matter who we are and what we have done, we can improve. We can be better tomorrow than we were today. We can come closer to God than we were yesterday.
That’s what he month of Elul is about.
The Talmud tells us that forty days before a person is brought to judgment by the Sanhedrin a person is appointed by the court to walk in front of him proclaiming his actions (Sanhedrin, 44a).
The great blessing that Hashem has given us is the month of Elul, which arrives forty days prior to Yom Kippur.
We have these forty days. It is our time to remind ourselves that –no mater what we have done, no matter how badly we messed things up, no matter how much we have to fix -- we can’t wipe away the past. The past is the past, but the future can still be better. This year we can all be better.
Sign Up for Weekly Torah Email!