What is the most important quality for a religious leader – a sharp mind or a
sensitive heart, a commitment to study or a commitment to loving-kindness? This
week’s reading of Emor opens with the laws applying to the kohen-priests, the
religious, ritual leaders of Israel. The prophetic reading from the Book of
Ezekiel provides the quintessential leadership role played by the kohanim; to
direct the Jewish People in areas of the sacred and mundane, the ritually pure
and impure, the teachings and the statutes, the details of the Festivals and the
prohibitions of the Sabbath, one must become expert in Jewish law and
After all, we are called the People of the Book because our
leaders must dedicate themselves to what is written in our great books, the
Bible, talmudic literature, its commentaries and responsa, as well as to our
codes of law.
Hence, one of the greatest transgressions a Jew can commit
is “bitul zman,” wasting or nullifying time.
Conversely, one of the
greatest accolades the Talmud can bestow upon anyone is that “their mouth never
ceased from studying.”
In recent times, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
newspapers and magazines fulsomely praised the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv,
the most respected haredi decisor of the last decade, by citing his family: His
wife reported that she would tear her hair out of her head before attempting to
separate him from his holy books, no matter the seriousness of the family
problem, and his daughter recounted that none of his children would simply
converse with their father, because that would interrupt his studies.
was only at dusk on Shabbat afternoons, when his library was too dark to allow
him to see the small print, that the pious sage would go for a walk and allow
one of the children in turn to accompany him. Even then, the sage was hardly
free for open discussion; he couldn’t be disturbed from his thoughts of Torah,
and the children would have to content themselves with walking at his side and
basking in his glory as the greatest sage of the generation.
Talmud itself recounts a frightening tale: “Rabbi Rahumi would return home [from
the Talmud academy he studied in for a period of years] every Yom Kippur eve.
Once [on the day before Yom Kippur] he became absorbed in study. His wife was
anxiously expecting his arrival. ‘Now he is coming, now he is coming,’ she said,
but he did not come. She became upset and a tear fell from her eye. He [Rabbi
Rahumi, whose name, ironically, means ‘man of mercy’] was sitting on the roof
[apparently engrossed in his books].
The roof fell in underneath him and
There are other biblical and talmudic statements which
strengthen the need for sensitivity as a critical subtext for any halachic
decision. For example, the biblical definition of God’s ways and God’s glory –
insofar as these concepts may be at all understandable to mortals – is “a God of
love, a God of love, a compassionate, powerful One who gives grace freely, is
long-suffering, filled with loving-kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6, and this
passage, as explained by the Mechilta, is the very source for the Oral Law and
way it is to be applied). The Talmud therefore declares, “He who has Torah
learning without good deeds is as if he is bereft of God” (BT Avoda Zara
Our responsa literature, from Rabbi Moshe Isserles to Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is replete with amazing examples proving the
importance of compassion as an overriding factor in halachic decision
Haim Grade, in his moving novel Rabbis and Wives, tells of a
great Torah scholar known as the “porush” (the separated one) of Vilna, who
refused to answer halachic questions. This self-imposed “exile” came about
because when he was a student in Slobodka, his mother had made a long trip to
see him, but he was so involved in extra prayers and talmudic studies that he
had no time to see her. He was haunted by her last words, “I have a son, a
tzaddik [righteous man],” because he feared that these words were said not with
pride, but rather with sarcastic irony.
I believe that the kohanim,
descendants of Aaron, the High Priest, who “loved all creatures and brought them
closer to Torah,” must bless the congregation “with love” in order to stress the
importance of love in meting out religio-legal judgments.
Elyashiv’s path in making halachic discussions is analyzed in Rami Reiner’s
excellent Hebrew article in the Netuim journal (volume 17, 2011, pp 73-103). Is
it possible that Rabbi Elyashiv chose stringent minority opinions preventing
religious court judges from obligating husbands to give their hapless wives
divorces because he was too much a man of the book, and so sometimes blind to
the tears of the agunot, or “chained wives”?Shabbat shalom The writer is the
founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone colleges and graduate programs and
chief rabbi of Efrat.
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