THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Acharei-Kedoshim – פרשת אחרי-קדושים
April 24, 2021 – יב אייר תשפא
The Bible elevated ancient Israel to a moral plane far above that of its barbaric and savage neighbors (heathen societies all). Rabbinic Judaism, the worthy successor to Bible-centric religion, further sharpened the moral sensitivities of its adherents. Through keen logic and skilled exegesis, the doctors of Judaism applied Scripture’s moral injunctions to more and more complex man-God and man-man scenarios.
“Thou shalt not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but thou shalt fear thy God, I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:14).” Read plainly, this verse seems to be another warning not to deal harshly with underprivileged members of society, in this case the physically handicapped. Fear of the Lord is implicated, because the deaf man will not know that he has been cursed, nor the blind man know the causer of his fall. Only fear of an omnipresent God will dissuade the morally indifferent, cruel prankster from carrying out his designs.
But the sages were dissatisfied with such a limited – because purely literal -- application of Leviticus 19:14. They preferred a reading where the ban on cursing or placing a stumbling-block applied not just to deaf or blind victims, but to people, generally.
Rashbam explains that the verse effects a general ban on cursing and placing stumbling-blocks, but that Scripture uses the example of the deaf or blind simply because those unfortunates are commonly victimized. Ramban explains that, if the maltreatment of physically impaired victims who will not even realize that they have been wronged and thus will react neither with embarrassment nor rage is forbidden, then a fortiori such behavior toward an able-bodied person, who will be emotionally pained thereby, is impermissible. Rabbenu Bachya theorizes that Scripture enjoins the cursing of the deaf to teach us that it is not the hurt feelings of the object of our invective, but rather the content of our character, that should be of primary concern. If we train ourselves not to speak ill of the deaf, then our words in front of those who can hear will – hopefully -- be appropriate.
The Midrash, after noting that Leviticus 19:14 only prohibits cursing the deaf, proceeds to wonder about a textual source supporting a prohibition on cursing anyone. The moral consciousness of the Tannaim led them to make assumptions about what the Torah interdicts. Finding textual evidence for such conclusions was not always of the highest moment to them. The Midrash cites Exodus 22:27, which prohibits cursing the court or the national leader. From that verse alone, it could easily be concluded that one violates halakhah only when cursing an exalted figure. Leviticus 19:14, however, proves that it is forbidden to curse anyone alive, even a deaf man at the low end of the social order. (It is, however, permissible to curse the dead (Sifra Kedoshim 2).) The Talmud posits that the national leadership and the handicapped were expressly mentioned by Scripture to teach the principle that one is forbidden to curse anyone 1) at the high end (exalted personage) of the social order, or 2) at the low end (handicapped) or 3) falling in-between (Sanhedrin 66a).
[Leviticus 19:14 is only one of several examples where the sages extended the reach of a moral law beyond the categories of persons specifically mentioned in the text. Exodus 22:21 states: “Ye shall not oppress any widow or fatherless child.” The Midrash takes for granted that oppressing anyone is not permitted, explaining that Scripture mentioned widows and orphans to teach that God acts especially swiftly to punish those who oppress unprotected social classes. While a wife can turn to her husband for help and a child can turn to his father, the widow and orphan have no recourse save God (Mekhilta d’Rashbi 22). Deuteronomy 24:14 states: “Thou shalt not oppress a hired servant that is poor and needy [by withholding wages].” The Midrash takes for granted that such an act of cruelty by an employer is forbidden regardless of the economic standing of the employee. Yet, Scripture chose to mention the impoverished worker to teach that God acts swiftly to correct injustice committed against the needy (Sifre Deuteronomy 278).]
A literal reading of Leviticus 19:14 prohibits one from placing a stone or other hazard in the path of a blind pedestrian. For the Cutheans, and other sectarian groups that hue to a literalist reading of Scripture, this is the only valid application of the stumbling-block law (Rashi, Hullin 3a). The sages did not deny that the verse could be understood literally. Hence, one is forbidden to dig, or uncover, a hole in the public domain lest an unsuspecting passerby be injured. But the sages insisted that לפני עיר meant much more than physical obstacles in the path of the blind.
The Midrash extends לפני עור metaphorically. One should not knowingly give bad advice to someone seeking his counsel (Sifra Kedoshim 2). Do not instruct someone to set off on a journey at dawn, knowing that if he heeds the advice, he will likely be attacked by bandits. Do not tell someone to sell land at the bottom of the real estate market, so that you can acquire his property more cheaply. Lest such an adviser think that he can get away with such treacherous conduct, Scripture warns that God is watching him, knows full well the evil of his intentions (even if the innocent victim never will), and will punish him accordingly.
The sages further extended לפני עור to mean that one may not facilitate someone else’s violation of the law. It is forbidden to give a glass of wine to a Nazir, or the limb of live animal to a gentile. No one coerces the Nazir to drink the improper (for him) beverage, or the heathen to eat the forbidden meat, yet the act of intentionally creating the opportunity for each to do so is itself sinful. The Talmud notes, however, that a Nazir does not need assistance to break his vow of abstinence from drink. He could purchase wine on his own if he wished to. Accordingly, the argument is that a person is technically guilty of violating לפני עור only if, absent his efforts, the sin could not have occurred. Example: Two people are on opposite sides of a river. Intoxicating beverages are available only on the side where the non-Nazir is. It would be a Biblical violation of לפני עור for the non-Nazir to pass a bottle of wine across the river to the Nazir (Avodah Zarah 6b). Nonetheless, and generally speaking, there is a rabbinic obligation to try to prevent someone else’s sinful behavior even when Leviticus 19:14 technically does not apply (Tosfot Shabbat 3a).
The assumption that handing someone forbidden food will lead to sinful consumption thereof is reasonable as a matter of experience. The vast majority of contemporary Jews do not observe kashrut. Even in Talmudic times, most Jews were not careful on matters of tithing or ritual impurity. That is, they were not fully kosher. Eating a forbidden food is a ritual violation, not a moral one.
Yet, if Leviticus 19:14 means that one must be careful not to supply one’s fellow with an opportunity to sin, this concern extends beyond precepts people typically treat dismissively. In the realm of interpersonal relations and basic human decency, we must be careful not indirectly to cause a breach of the moral code. The Talmud applies לפני עור to one who hits his grown-up son (Moed Katan 17a). The Bible allows parents to hit their wayward children, and certain passages even encourage corporal punishment as a means of parental chastisement. But once a son physically matures and is able to defend himself, there is a real risk that the son will respond with violence and vulgarity to a parent administering corporal punishment. Cursing a parent, or striking a parent to the point of drawing blood, are capital offenses. The angry father who berates and smacks his 17-year-old son for driving recklessly and damaging the car may inadvertently cause him to lash out and commit grievous sins.
The sages went further in applying לפני עור to circumstances of potential moral failing even absent provocation. Rav taught that a person who lends money without the benefit of witnesses has violated Leviticus 19:14 (Baba Metzia 75a). In Judaism, which prohibits usury, a lender is necessarily performing a charitable act for a borrower. Basic morality demands that the borrower not attempt to defraud someone who has done a kindness for him. Yet Rav insists that the lender not give the borrower even an opportunity to be dishonest. The presence of witnesses helps assure lawful conduct. Rav’s dictum appears to contradict the ethical maxim, “Judge others favorably (Avot 1:6).” However, that contradiction is easily resolved. Avot teaches that one should not mentally conclude that one’s fellow has in fact done wrong if the evidence is still inconclusive, albeit circumstantially looks bad. Rav insists that, generally, the potential for unethical behavior by others must inform our own course of action, but not that a particular person should be suspected of having already committed or planning to commit a given crime.
The notion of indirect responsibility is a very advanced form of moral consciousness. It must be noted that indirect responsibility in no way absolves the direct actor from the bearing the burden of his deeds (Kiddushin 42b). The contract killer cannot profess innocence on the grounds that he was hired by someone with a direct personal interest in the victim’s death.
Recent Jewish history reveals a tragic example of indirect responsibility. The massacre of Palestinian Muslims by Lebanese Christian Phalangists at Sabra and Shatila in September 1982 was a dastardly crime. According to the Kahan Commission, Israel bore indirect responsibility for the carnage: “The decision on the entry of the Phalangists into the refugee camps was taken without consideration of the danger - which the makers and executors of the decision were obligated to foresee as probable - the Phalangists would commit massacres and pogroms against the inhabitants of the camps.” Ariel Sharon was criticized for failing in his duties as Defense Minister; he eventually resigned. Not everyone in Israeli society participated in the hand-wringing. Menachem Begin famously remarked, “Goyim kill goyim and they blame the Jews.” In many ways, Begin was right. The Jews were castigated more severely by world opinion than were the killers themselves. The anti-Semitism was palpable. Yet the very fact that the official institutions of the State of Israel reacted with such horror and feelings of guilt to this incident shows the extent to which the high moral standards of Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism have come to guide world Jewry.
About this sensitivity to right and wrong, and to right behavior, we can – and do -- justifiably take pride.