Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedPR photo

Every public issue needs to be examined on three levels: Torani, educational, and political

Recently, after reflecting on a number of public-interest issues, I reached a fundamental understanding that can contribute to public debates facing us: In every public issue, there are three considerations: 1) Torani, 2) educational, and 3) political.

The Torani Consideration

The Torani consideration is the essential one, and is the main consideration by which all public questions ought to be discussed. For indeed, the Torah encompasses all values – it is what determines what is chova (obligatory), what is a mitzvah, and what is a hiddur (enhancement of a mitzvah); what is of Biblical status, and what is from Divrei Chachamim (rabbinical). Conversely, what is forbidden from the Torah, and what is forbidden rabbinically; what is not appropriate halakhically, but permitted be-di-avad (after the fact), or be’sha’at dachak (in times of distress).

In order to clarify the Torani consideration, one must delve into the Written Torah, Divrei Chachamim, Geonim, Rishonim, and Achronim.

The Educational Consideration

After the Torani consideration, sometimes an educational consideration is taken into account when it appears that if the Torah instruction is observed, it will have a negative educational effect on other values ​​and mitzvot in the Torah; and then, when the Torani position is not based on an important Torah principle, the educational consideration occasionally outweighs the Torani one.

For example, in relation to minhagim (customs) that are not halakhically precise but are kosher, sometimes the instruction is they be preferred because of the educational value of Masoret Avot (ancestral tradition). As Rabbi Yossi said: “Although we have sent you a Seder Mo’adot (an exact wording of prayers), do not change the custom of your ancestors, may their memory be for a blessing” (Yerushalmi Eruvin 3: 9).

Similarly, according to strict halakha, sometimes it is possible to be maykel (rule leniently), however, we refrain doing so, lest one learn from it to be lenient in other matters – today, what is known as “fear of the slippery slope”. At times, the opposite is true – although halakhically something is forbidden, we refrain from telling the public because it is better for them to be shogag’im (transgress inadvertently), and not be meyzid’im (transgress intentionally), for if they get used to transgressing one thing be’meyzid, they will falter, and transgress in other matters.

The Political Consideration

In addition to the Torani and educational considerations, occasionally there is room to take into account group/social considerations, which in the social sciences are termed “political considerations”. For instance, to refrain from joining an honorable initiative when its leaders are people undeserving of support because they hold positions that can be harmful. Somewhat similarly, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel decided to omit the names of Rabbi Natan and Rabbi Meir, because they challenged the status of the Nesiyut (presidency) (Horayot 13b).

The Difference between Torani Considerations and Educational and Political Considerations

These three considerations are inherent in the Torah itself. The most fundamental values ​​are expressed in the general and basic mitzvot of the Torah, such as belief in God, Talmud Torah, love of mankind, carrying out justice and law, Shabbat and Festivals, Yishuv ha’Aretz (settling the Land of Israel), building the Holy Temple, and adding goodness and blessing to the world.

Encircling them are mitzvot with an educational objective as well, such as the mitzvah to educate children to Torah, to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, tzitzit, tefillin, and mezuzah. And then there are mitzvot that also have a political objective – to build society as a framework that supports and strengthens Torah study and observance of mitzvot, which include the mitzvah to appoint a king, rules of law, and the status of Kohanim and Levi’im.

However, since all these mitzvot are included in the Written and Oral Torah in all their details, they are actually an integral part of the Torah consideration. Nevertheless, apart from the Torani considerations, sometimes additional educational and political considerations arise as a result of societal circumstances. Since they do not express eternal values ​​included in the Torani consideration, their status is lower and less than that of the principle Torani consideration.

In Recent Generations, the Political Consideration Has Prevailed

Regrettably, although the political consideration is the lowermost of the considerations – for some rabbis the order has been reversed, and in many issues the political consideration outside of the Torah has become most important, followed by the educational consideration, and only at long last, the Torah consideration. Thus, we find numerous times Torah positions are related to on a political scale – in other words, whether it will help strengthen the position of our religious group, or not. Allow me to mention a few examples.

Yishuv Ha’Aretz

From the viewpoint of the Torani consideration, the mitzvah of Yishuv ha’Aretz is of the highest order, to the point where our Sages said that it is equivalent to all the mitzvot (Sifri, Re’eh 53), and that a Jew who lives abroad is like one who worships idols (Ketubot 110b); also, it is a mitzvah to give up one’s life for the conquest of the Land as explained in the Torah, and our Sages permitted to transgress the rabbinical decree of ‘shvut’ on Shabbat in order to redeem a small house in the Land of Israel (S.A., O.C. 306:11).

In spite of this, there were rabbis who vehemently opposed the Zionist movement, since its leaders were secular Jews. Their educational rationale was – lest participation in Aliyah (immigration to Israel) and settlement result in a religious weakening. No less than that – a political consideration: lest participation in Zionist activity grant status to the Zionist movement, whose leaders were mostly secular.

The price was heavy. In addition to the fact of neglecting the great mitzvah itself, in practice, it turned out that the educational and political considerations were wrong, for on average, among the immigrants to Israel precisely, the percentage of those weakened in religious observance was lower than among those who remained in the Diaspora. Even the various religious and Haredi movements themselves became stronger in Israel than in the Diaspora.

The Mitzvah to Serve in the Army

From the viewpoint of the Torani consideration, it is a great mitzvah to serve in the army and protect the Nation and the Land, because someone who serves in the army performs two mitzvot that are equivalent to all the mitzvot: 1) the mitzvah of Yishuv ha’Aretz, and 2) saving Clal Yisrael from its enemies (Peninei Halakha: Ha’Am ve’Ha’Aretz 4:1). However, for educational and political reasons, some rabbis say it is forbidden to enlist in the army.

Admittedly, the educational claim can be of great significance, for if as a result of enlistment in the army a person stops observing mitzvot, there is room to understand the position not to enlist. But if one accepts that the Torah consideration is the main factor, a solution can be found to the educational problem by means of the Hesder yeshivas, and the Nachal Haredi.

However, the political consideration – to strengthen Haredi society and not to strengthen the state, prevailed, and as a result, Torah mitzvot are abandoned.

And the price paid is heavy – a distortion of the basic morality of honesty, mutual responsibility, and abstention from Clal-Yisraeli mitzvot. And as a continuation to this – factionalism, quarrels, and altercations in Haredi society.

Science – Ma’aseh Breishit (Work of Creation)

According to the Torah, it is a mitzvah to study the sciences which are the wisdom of the Creator, and are called “Ma’aseh Breishit,” about which our Sages said (Shabbat 75a) one who has the ability to understand science but does not, the verse says: “They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the work of his hands”. This is also what Rambam, Maharal, the Gaon of Vilna, and others wrote.

Nevertheless, for educational reasons – lest students of science be weakened in their adherence to tradition and mitzvot – there were those who instructed not to teach science. However, if the problem is educational, an effort can be made to establish institutions in which science would be taught out of emunah (Jewish faith). For certain rabbis’, the political consideration still prevailed. In other words, because science is affiliated with modernity, and many of the modernists are secular, it must be vehemently opposed.

And the price is heavy – the creation of a society that alienates science and diminishes the understanding of Torah, as the Gaon of Vilna said, to the extent an individual lacks knowledge in secular wisdom, conversely, he lacks one hundred-fold in Torah wisdom. In addition, this situation causes contempt for Haredi society, and harms the livelihoods’ of the Haredim and increases their need for charity from public coffers.

When the Political becomes Primary, Torah is Uprooted

If they were to say, temporarily, for the coming years, we will postpone observing the great mitzvot because of what appears to us to be an educational danger and a threat to the society of the Torah observant, it would still be possible to understand their position. For sometimes there is room to consider educational and political considerations that are not included in the Torah – provided, however, it is a temporary order due to be repealed soon afterward, just as human considerations should be cancelled before the Divine Torah.

However, when generations have passed in which these great mitzvot have been neglected – to the point where passages from ancient texts are censored in order to serve their position – behold, the political consideration that runs contrary to the Torah consideration has prevailed.

In doing so, they choose to emphasize the mitzvot according to the petty, human consideration, namely, according to the degree of reinforcement they give to their society, and not according to the Torani consideration we received at Mount Sinai. Similarly, minhagim that strengthen their society in their opinion are exalted, at the expense of the foundations of Torah and morality.

Political Consideration is the Basis of the Controversy

Those who prefer the political consideration claim that it rests on the need to hate the wicked, as the verse says: “Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord, and abhor those who are in rebellion against you? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies” (Psalms 139: 21-22).

However, this Torani position was said in relation to wicked individuals, such as minim (heretics), meshumadim (apostates), and mosrim (Jews who betrayed their community), and not about Jews at large (see, Avot d’Rebbe Natan 16).

This is the general rule: whenever there is a conflict between love and hate, love and peace should be given the central place, and hatred should be confined to evil deeds only. Thus, we have learned in Rabbi Kook’s “Middot HaRayah” (Ahava 5), that when there is a conflict between the value of love and hate, love prevails, because its value is greater and more general, whereas hatred should be focused only on the external evil. An allusion to this is the right taking precedence over the left, as right expresses chesed (kindness).

However, when political considerations are preferred hatred is heightened, and the most difficult controversies are reached. This is because as long as the argument is Torani, the controversy is matter-of-fact. However, when the debate is political – whether we will beat the rival group or they will win – then it is a “mitzvah” to avoid seeing the virtue of the rival groups’ members, and a “mitzvah” to paint them in the worst possible way, because their very existence is invalid.

Thus, political considerations become paramount, and nullify the foundations of the Torah. The main arguments and discussions are not about Torah and values, but instead about the question of who comes first, which group will lead – and the Torani questions are neglected.

Correct Politics

The correct situation is that political calculations serve Torah principles, and not repress them. In this way they are of immense importance, for if one knows how to act properly in the public arena, affection and respect for the Torah can be strengthened, and hence the desire to observe its’ mitzvot. However, when political consideration is paramount, and stems from human considerations of strengthening one’s own group, then politics harms Torah values.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper and was translated from Hebrew.