Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

My recent column on intrauterine devices (IUD’s) sparked criticism, including from Rabbi David Chai HaCohen Shlita, a renowned Rabbi and disseminator of Torah, Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva in Bat Yam, as to why I dealt with such a sensitive and intimate issue in a newspaper column distributed to the general public, including youth, arguing that this violated the value of modesty.

Indeed, from the outset, I did not think to discuss this issue in my column ‘Revivim’, but the reality is that, unfortunately, too often there is pressure that terrifies rabbis from not daring to express their position when it differs from that of the machmirim (stringent halakhic authorities). The pressure comes mainly from zealous students who have not served their rabbis sufficiently; they provoke controversy against the rabbi who they think has strayed from the path.

Such disputes are liable to damage their public standing and embitter their lives with accusations and slander. Who has the energy to devote their time to dispelling them, while having to constantly deal with these bold-faced, contentious malcontents? Consequently, rabbis with lenient opinions are reluctant and retreat, the Torah dwindles and darkens, and Israel’s troubles increase.

Accordingly, I decided for myself that whenever I felt there was a threat against me, I would be courageous and explain my words in the most public context – with the aim of not rewarding the sinners, and to make my meager contribution to ending the pattern of violence and boycotts within the batei midrash (yeshiva study halls), so that deliberations be dealt with pragmatically, and conducted with dignity.

Therefore, when I felt that the reference to my remarks on the subject of IUD’s was accompanied by threats and humiliation, I was required to fulfill the mitzvah “lo taguru” (“Thou shall not fear any man”), and clarify the issue in the most public context I could, namely, in my “Revivim” column.

In my view, the mitzvah “lo taguru” is so essential to the fulfillment of the Torah, that it overrides the unpleasantness of dealing with this issue in public. And if the Torah warned not to be afraid of strong litigants in private law, all the more so it is forbidden to be afraid of contentious people when dealing with clarifying the Torah in its truthful way.

Of course, it is of great value for every Talmid Chacham to clarify his opinions, as Torah prescribes, and publish his words – even if he refutes what I have written, and I will have the responsibility to examine his words, and if they are found to be right, to change my position.

On Modesty

Furthermore, it is important to clarify our habits of tzniyut (modesty), because the minhagim (customs) of tzniyut also depend on the minhag of the generation. There were times when people talked about sexual matters more freely, as quoted in the Talmud in several places.

In recent times, awareness of matters of tzniyut increased, and few parents spoke about these issues with their children. Today, however, it seems there is more of a need to adapt to talking about these matters, for at a time when information in all areas is easily seen by the general public, including youth, it is more important to study with young people in a dignified manner and with refined language the issues and halakhot related to marital relations in all areas, and to talk to them more openly than in the past – for example, the guidings presented in the books of Rabbi Eli Sheinfeld.

Admittedly, someone who grew up in the period and environment in which I did, finds this difficult, and therefore, I did not follow his good guidance. However, they are important, and apparently, young parents find it easier to follow. Therefore, I also felt that when necessary to speak on these matters in public, indirectly, it would also serve the purpose of preparing people to engage more broadly in Torah issues on these important matters.

The Framework of the Discussion

Another argument was raised against my halakhic position regarding the IUD – why such a serious issue was exposed to the public, and not discussed among the rabbis. At first, it must be noted the basic fact is that since the abolition of the Sanhedrin, there is no authorized forum that convenes rabbis for halakhic discussions, and to decide halakha; rather, each rabbi discusses the issue in his own surroundings, and over the years and generations, issues are elucidated – sometimes one opinion is accepted, and other times, differences of opinion remain.

In practice, there are exchanges of views between rabbis, and today this is more prevalent with the help of the Internet and various forums of rabbis. Likewise, there are also Torah compilations in which new issues are clarified. Still, this does not profess to decide halakha, rather, to contribute to the serious halakhic discussion. I learned all the different views on this issue to my full extent, and formulated my opinion as I wrote extensively in my book (Peninei Halakha: Taharat Ha-Mishpacha, Chapter 2), and in a summary, in my column.

If we wish to advance towards the establishment of the Sanhedrin, we need to bring together all the rabbis who have scrutinized these issues for an open-ended discussion, without excluding any rabbi, so we can clarify the issues appropriately. Still, this forum will not obligate all its participants to rule by a majority decision, but the majority position will carry a lot of weight.

The Census in the Desert

There is immense importance to the counting of Israel, and even the second name of Chumash Bamidbar (Numbers) is “Chumash Ha-Pekudim” (‘The Book of Counting’), named after the census of Israel taken in this Chumash. First time, in Parashat Bamidbar (roughly 81 verses) in the second year after Israel left Egypt, and the second time, in Parashat Pinchas (about 51 verses), and as Rashi wrote:

“Because they were dear to Him, He counted them often. When they left Egypt, He counted them; when many fell because of the sin of the golden calf, He counted them to know the number of the survivors; when He came to cause His Divine Presence to rest among them, He counted them” (Bamidbar 1: 1).

Those Fit to Go Out to the Army

Some people ask why women and young people from the age of twenty were not counted. However, the purpose of the count was to organize Israel’s army prior to entering the Land. We were commanded to inherit the Land of Israel, i.e., to conquer and settle it, and therefore, Moshe was commanded to count all the men from the age of twenty and above, so they would serve as Israel’s army.

From this, we learn of the great value of serving in Israel’s army, and the value of the mitzvah to conquer and settle the Land. Parenthetically, some people mistakenly claim that the Tribe of Levi was not a partner in the army, thus, justifying the non-recruitment of yeshiva students to the army.

However, had they studied the Torah properly, they would not have made this mistake. From the Tribe of Levi, the Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) was established, the guard that accompanied the Aron Hashem (Ark of the Covenant) that travelled with the camp, and protected the command that was next to the Ark. They were the Kohanim (priests) who encouraged the soldiers, and they were the police officers who punished those who fled the battlefield. And indeed, yes, they were also the ones who prayed for the warriors to return victorious (see the many sources cited in Peninei Halakha: Likutim A [2020 edition], 12:2, footnotes 1-2).

The First and Second Counting

In the first counting in Parashat Bamidbar, the Torah repeated the number of Israel several times out of joy and dearness (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:19). However, in the second counting in Parashat Pinchas there was less joy, because for forty years the nation of Israel did not increase.

When Israel was enslaved in Egypt – “the Israelites were fertile and prolific, and their population increased”, to the point where in two hundred and ten years they increased from seventy individuals to 600,000 men of military service age, while for all those forty years in which they should have more than doubled, they did not increase at all. Even if we subtract all those who died in plagues, we are forced to conclude that along with the sin of the Spies, they also sinned in being negligent of the mitzvah of pru u’revu (procreation).

Indeed, the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz (settling the Land of Israel) is linked with the mitzvah of pru u’revu, as Hashem said to Yaakov Avinu:

“I am God, Lord of Abraham your father, and Lord of Isaac. I will give to you and your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north, and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants” (Genesis 28: 13-14).

The Consequences of Negligence

Because they were negligent in the mitzvah of pru u’revu for the forty years they wandered in the desert, Israel did not have enough people to inherit both sides of the Jordan River, and consequently, there was no initial intention to conquer the East Bank of the Jordan River, but only because Sichon and Og went to war against us, did we conquer their land. And even then, Moshe did not intend to actually inherit the eastern side, because there were not enough people to settle all over the western side of the Jordan, and the goal was to focus first on settlement of the prime areas of Eretz Yisrael, which is the western side of the Jordan, and from the sacred, prime area, spread out and inherit the eastern side as well.

Only because the sons of Reuben and Gad requested to inherit the eastern side, be-di’avad (after-the-fact), did Moshe Rabbeinu agree, because “along the path a person wishes to proceed, he is led”. The result, however, was that the Children of Israel found it difficult to inherit the entire Land, and many more Gentiles remained in the Land, who afflicted us (see, Bamidbar 21: 21-35, and Ramban Ibid. 21).

The Parting of Moshe

Apparently, the death of Moshe Rabbeinu was also connected to this, since from the words of our Sages we learned that the death of all of the Generation of the Desert, who were of the same generation of Moshe Rabbeinu, was the deep reason why he did not enter the Land:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “With what countenance do you want to enter the land?” The situation is comparable to a shepherd who went out to feed the king’s flock, and the flock was carried off. When the shepherd wanted to come into the king’s palace, the king said to him, “If you come in now, what will the creatures say? That you caused the flock to be carried off.” Here also the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses, “Would it be your glory that you are the one who led sixty myriads out of bondage and buried them in the desert and are bringing another generation into the land. Now they will say, ‘The generation of the wilderness has no share in the world to come.’ Rather, be by their side, and come along with them in the future” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:13).

Nevertheless, Moshe Rabbeinu was indeed referred to as a faithful shepherd, who guarded their number:

“When Israel went out from Egypt the Holy One, blessed be He, delivered them to Moses after numbering them… six hundred thousand, so when he was about to pass away from the world in the Plains of Moab after completing his guardianship, he returned them with a numbering” (Bamidbar Rabbah 21: 7).

However, he was unable to enter with the new generation. All of his generation was gone, even his older sister Miriam, who had always stood by his side, was no longer, and as a result, he became impatient when the Israelites once again sinned in their request for water, and struck the rock. Nevertheless, it seems possible to say that if Israel had continued to proliferate, Moshe Rabbeinu would have renewed himself together with them, and taken part in the next generation as well, and as a result, he could have happily led them in the conquest of the Land and its settlement.

In such a scenario, the nations of the world not have been able to conquer the Land from us, because the Gentiles had no power over the deeds of Moshe Rabbeinu (Sotah 9a).

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