Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Behar-Behukotai – פרשת בהר-בחקתי
May 12, 2018 – כז אייר תשעח
This essay is dedicated in memory of Arthur Markowitz Z”L.
Confessing the Sins of Earlier Generations
Leviticus 26, the Execration, is a stern warning about the horrible travails that will befall Israel if it treats its covenantal relationship with God casually and neglects His precepts. The turning point of the chapter is verse 40. The surviving people of Israel, living in the lands of their dispersion, finally will recognize that their suffering has been a Divinely-imposed punishment for covenantal waywardness. In seeking a way out of their misery, “They shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me.”
The need to confess one’s forebears’ sins might seem in conflict with the later Scriptural notion that each person is punished only for his own transgressions and that a father and son are not accountable for each other’s deeds (Deuteronomy 24:16). This theological objection can be dismissed by distinguishing between the judicial prosecution of individual offenders and the collective suffering of the Israelite Nation. In the latter case, Israel merits God’s salvation only if the present generation is willing to admit that, for a multi-generational period, the nation has been iniquitous and deserving of its miserable lot.
But are people willing to acknowledge that their fathers and grandfathers were wanton sinners? The Judaic tradition militates against such a verbal recognition, even in cases where the historical facts indicate that it is entirely warranted. We are commanded to honor (Exodus 20:11) and fear (Leviticus 19:3) our parents. The latter precept, as interpreted by the sages, includes a ban on contradicting one’s parents (Kiddushin 31a). To posthumously reject the legitimacy of their overall lifestyle, effectively besmirching their reputations, is not easy after decades of our having being trained to the contrary. We are forbidden to curse our parents (Exodus 21:17), with the threat of capital punishment extending even to imprecations uttered after the parent’s death (Mekhilta d’Rashbi 21). The tendency is to offer an even more charitable assessment of our predecessors’ moral worth upon their passing than we were willing to articulate while they were alive. This social phenomenon is jokingly identified by name of the double-Parashah Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, “after they die they are reckoned as being holy.”
Moreover, pre-modern Jewish society was, in the words of Jacob Katz, a “traditionalist society.” It collectively believed that the solutions to its problems were to be found in the received tradition and through emulating the past. The Biblical slogan “renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21) became a beloved liturgical refrain. Every silent Amidah ends with the plaintive cry for the restoration of Israel’s relationship with God as it existed “in days gone by, as in former years” (Malachi 3:4). In popular imagination, there is a perpetual “decline of the generations”; each generation — necessarily further removed from the Sinaitic Theophany – is considered to be spiritually inferior to the one preceding it. With such cultural baggage, it is not easy for Jewry to turn against its immediate or distant forebears and castigate them for religious and moral failings. Those willing to confess the sins of earlier generations would come across as presumptuous and haughty.
Sometimes, however, the iniquity of the previous generation, and the dreadful consequences of that behavior, are too obvious to ignore. The Elegist, writing at a time of extreme national disruption, remarked: “Our ancestors sinned and are no more, and we bear their punishment (Lamentations 5:7).” A century earlier, King Hezekiah led a religious revival in Judah. The Yahwist cult was restored and the pagan influences that had crept into society under the reign of his father, Ahaz, were removed (II Kings 18:4). The rabbinic tradition claims that Hezekiah had his father’s bones dragged by ropes in the public thoroughfare (Mishnah Pesahim 4:9). Intentionally degrading the physical remains of one’s father, even if in an attempt to achieve a measure of Divine expiation, would seem to be an unimaginably cruel and repulsive gesture. Yet, as recorded in the Mishnah, the “sages” agreed with Hezekiah.
Nearly two decades ago, my teacher Professor Jeffrey Gurock wrote an article for the Torah U-Madda Journal entitled “Twentieth Century Orthodoxy’s Era of Non-Observance 1900-1960.” His key assertion was that, during the era covered by the study, an overwhelming majority of American Jews affiliated with Orthodox synagogues were themselves not pious observers of the commandments. Shabbat, kashrut, laws of family purity, and daily prayer were all observed more in the breach than in consistent practice. Despite its being an excellent piece of scholarship, the article was criticized by those who felt that Gurock underemphasized the phenomenon of devout American Jews’ suffering privation for the sake of scrupulous halakhic observance. Gurock had, however, told stories of mesirut nefesh in several of his other articles on the history of American Orthodoxy. But the fact that some people were discomfited by Gurock’s historiographical account of past non-observance itself shows how ingrained is the notion that the olden days were religiously pristine.
The willingness or unwillingness of Jews to confess the sins of their fathers can be gauged by the wording of the preamble to the “Ashamnu” confessional, repetitively recited throughout the Yom Kippur liturgy. Some prayer books, including Artscroll and Koren, read אבל אנחנו ואבותינו חטאנו “but we and our ancestors have sinned”; other machzorim, notably Birnbaum, glaringly omit the word ואבותינו “ancestors.”
Filial piety is an important aspect of Judaism. Reading the record of the Jewish past with a benign hermeneutic and a charitable eye is, generally, the preferred method of exploring the history of our faith group. However, in those instances when the fate of Judaism hangs in a precarious balance because of prior neglect, ignorance, and impiety, the truth should not be ignored. An earlier location on the vector of the arrow of time does not necessarily entail religious superiority, let alone spiritual perfection.
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