Holy heresy

Everything is for the service of G-d. What about heresy?

Daniel Pinner

OpEds Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

It is related that the Ba’al Shem Tov (literally “the Master of the Good Name”, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, c.1700-1760, the founder of Hassidism) was telling his disciples that every character-trait that G-d created, He created for a Divine purpose. We must use even the most negative traits, he expounded, in the service of G-d.

His disciples were intrigued: how can we use jealousy or hatred, for example, to serve G-d?

Jealousy? – Be jealous of the great learning of the great rabbis, and use that jealousy as an impetus for your own learning.

Hatred? – Have hatred for G-d’s enemies, for Israel’s enemies.

And then one of his disciples challenged him: Why did G-d create heresy? How can we possibly use heresy in service of G-d?

To this, too, the Ba’al Shem Tov had an answer. When you see a poor person, then giving tzedaka (charity) demands a certain level of heresy and unbelief. After all, if G-d has decreed that this person be poor, then who am I (you could argue) to subvert His decree?

And furthermore, if G-d wants him to receive money, then he will receive it: after all, the Talmud says explicitly that “a person’s income [for the] entire [year] is determined from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur” (Beitzah 16a). So whatever income G-d has decreed for this poor man this year, he will receive with or without my assistance. So why give him?

These are ostensibly logical arguments against helping a poor person. But, said the Ba’al Shem Tov, this is precisely the reason that when confronted with a poor person who asks for help, or who doesn’t ask for help but clearly needs it, you have to exploit that tiny measure of heresy, of unbelief in G-d’s ability to sustain him, of non-acceptance of G-d’s decree.

But now, hesitantly, with great trepidation (for, after all, who am I to debate with the great Master?), I question this. Because G-d Himself has told us that “the poor will never cease from among the Land, which is why I command you, saying: Generously open your hand to your brother, to your poor and to your destitute in your Land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

So it would appear that helping the poor and destitute does not require any disbelief. G-d Himself has commanded us to help the poor.

And so we return to the earlier question: How can we possibly use heresy in service of G-d?

And – again hesitantly, again with great trepidation – I attempt to answer this conundrum with a parable:

The bride was deliriously happy. This was the happiest day of her life. She had met the young man several months earlier, and he was her perfect soul-mate. A talmid chacham, yet worldly enough to have a well-paying job, he was still young, but mature enough to be sensitive to her needs. He was physically handsome and muscular, a strong man who could look after her. And he was gentle in words and actions.

From the moment they had first met she had felt safe with him, spiritually, physically, and emotionally. And when he had posed the question: Will you marry me? – she had answered “Yes” without a moment’s hesitation.

And now, a few months on, she was on the coach on her way to the wedding-hall. She had had her hair styled by the best hairdresser in the neighbourhood, her wedding-dress had been pinned to perfect shape.

She sat on the coach in happy, excited tension, surrounded by her parents and grandparents, cousins, relatives, and her best friends – people she had known since earliest childhood. Everyone was rejoicing with her: in another hour or two, she would be married! Every second brought her closer to the chuppah (the wedding-canopy) that was waiting for her and her beloved groom.

And as she chatted excitedly, her cell-phone rang. Looking at it, she saw her groom’s number. She smiled unconsciously as she hit the button, with a “Shalom, darling.”

And the words she next heard devastated her. “It’s off. I’m not coming to the wedding-hall. You can do whatever you want with the caterers and the meals, the wedding-presents, the guests, and whatever else. Good-bye.”

And the phone went dead in her hands. And her hands went dead, her heart went dead, her world turned black.

In a moment, she went from ecstatic to devastated. She was betrayed by the man she loved. Her world was destroyed.

How long would it take for a bride to recover from such a horrible experience? Weeks? Months? Years? Ever?

Sure, one day she would agree to meet another man. She might go out with him, she might fall in love. If he proposed, she might agree. But would she ever again have the same level of trust? Would she ever again allow herself that same level of ecstatic joy of expectation at her swiftly-approaching marriage?

– Probably not. Having been so terribly crushed once, she would likely never fully recover her ability ever to trust a man.

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Spain, Morocco, Israel, and Egypt, 1135-1204), in his Commentary to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1), defines the Thirteen Principles of Faith, the principles which are summarised in the Ani Ma’amin (“I believe with prefect faith...”) which generally appears in Siddurim (Prayer Books) following Shacharit (the Morning Service).

The twelfth Principle of Faith is summarised: “I believe with perfect faith in the Coming of the Mashiach (Messiah); and even though he tarries, nevertheless I will wait for him to come every day”.

If you believed – if you really believed with perfect faith – that the Mashiach will come today; if you really expected Israel’s final redemption this very day; if for you, the Coming of the Mashiach today really was as certain as the bride’s wedding was supposed to be when she was already on the bus on her way to the wedding-hall –

– then how would you feel when the sun sets, the day has finished, and the Mashiach has not come?

Devastated. Destroyed. Distraught. Betrayed.

Would you ever again have the same level of trust? Would you ever again allow yourself that same level of ecstatic joy of expectation at the swiftly-approaching redemption?

– Probably not. Having been so terribly crushed once, you would likely never fully recover your ability ever to believe in the Coming of the Mashiach.

The only way that you can possibly live a normal, healthy life is to maintain that tiny amount of disbelief. Yes, for sure I believe with perfect faith in the Coming of the Mashiach; and even though he tarries, nevertheless I will wait for him to come every day. But that in order to preserve that perfect faith without being devastated day after day, you must have that tiny doubt somewhere deep down: Though I believe, maybe he will not come today...

This is more immediate than ever during the Three Weeks, and even more so during the Nine Days, and reaches a crescendo on the Ninth of Av.

The Ninth of Av is the bleakest, the most depressing day of the year. The day on which G-d decreed that our ancestors would not enter the Land of Israel, and instead condemned them to forty years in the desert (Numbers 13:1-14:39); the destruction of both Holy Temples; the destruction of the great city of Betar by the Romans in 135 C.E., the final defeat of Judæa and the end of the final vestiges of hope of independence; the expulsion of all the Jews from England in 1290; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492; the destruction of Gush Katif in 2005.

The one tiny, almost pathetic spark of hope which makes the Ninth of Av survivable at all is the belief that this day is the day of redemption. To understand this, we go back to that primordial Ninth of Av, the one on which God decreed that our fathers would not enter the Land of Israel.

The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates the Torah’s chronology: on the 20th of Iyyar we left Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11). This was followed by a 3-day journey (v.33) concluding on 23rd Iyyar, a 30-day sojourn in Kibroth-hattavah (ibid. 11:20, 34) concluding on 22nd Sivan, and finally seven days in Hazeroth (11:35, 12:15-16) before reaching the Paran Desert (ibid. 12:16) on 29th Sivan.

Hence Moshe sent out the twelve spies on the 29th of Sivan (compare Targum Yonatan to Numbers 13:20), and they returned forty days later on the 8th of Av.

The original plan was that they would be debriefed, and the next day, the Ninth of Av, Israel would enter its Land in joy and holiness, and take possession of its inheritance. The Ninth of Av would become a celebration for the generations, a festival of redemption.

But the plan went wrong. The spies indeed returned on the 8th of Av, but gave an evil report of the Land; and when night fell and the nation cried, it was the evening of the 9th of Av.

That was when the Ninth of Av became a day of disaster and tragedy and mourning. Yet though this has been this day’s identity ever since that terrible night 3,328 years ago, which means it has been a bleak day of mourning for the majority of our history, nevertheless this is an aberration. The Ninth of Av is supposed to be a day of redemption and rejoicing. That is its true identity – the identity which will yet be restored to it.

Hence, even in the deepest grief and mourning of the entire year, there is yet that one tiny spark of light of hope: The Ninth of Av will one day revert to its true identity.

Of course we believe this, and of course we believe that it will be this year.

Yes, Mashiach will come, and we believe that by the end of the Ninth of Av, this coming Tuesday night, we will be rejoicing.

Yes, we believe this. But in order to survive the despair of the Ninth of Av without losing all hope, in order to avoid literally going mad from grief and despair, we nevertheless have to maintain that tiny speck of doubt, that holy heresy without which we could not possibly survive this day of despair...