Parasha / E-Letter

Weekly parasha: On Religious Innovations

0 Comments 20 April 2017

In his commentary to Parashat Shemini, Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg examines what motivates us to action.  We must always check ourselves to ensure our motivations come from a place of honesty.


The sin of Nadab and Abihu. By the publishers of Bible cards, Public Domain

By Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg

The article is based on an article by Aviad Stolman in the weekly “Shabbat Shalom”, Parashat Shemini 2009. Sections have been quoted directly from there.

In our parasha, we read the story of the terrifying sudden death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, on the festive day, the eighth day of their consecration ceremony as priests. The verses themselves do not explain in depth the reason for their death. It appears to have been a punishment for some sin that they had done. The only words explaining their sin are: “They brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them” (Leviticus 10:1). These words also appear in the two other places that the Torah mentions their death (Numbers 3:4, and 26:61). The punishment seems very severe in relationship to their sin, which was maybe a slight deviation from the order of the service. Because of this, there are a number of Midrashim and commentators who have suggested more serious sins, based on other verses in the story. (For example, that they had entered the Sanctuary under the influence of wine.) But really, there is no need to look for an explanation aside from that already offered by the Torah:  “an alien fire that He had not commanded them.” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 1808-1888) explains:

“No place is allowed in the whole service of the offerings of the Sanctuary of the Torah for subjectively doing just what you think right…The Jew, with his offering, wishes to place himself in the service of God; by his offering he wishes to make himself subservient to the wishes of his God. So that all offerings are formulae of the demands of God, which the bringer, by his offering, undertakes to make the normal routine of his future life. So that self-devised offerings would be a killing of just those very truths which our offerings are meant to impress and dominate the bringers, would be placing a pedestal on which to glorify one’s own ideas, where a throne was meant to be built for obedience, and obedience only.”

These words of Rabbi Hirsch could offend the sensibilities of the modern mind, even the minds of those who would describe themselves as “Modern-Orthodox”. They remind us of the famous motto of another rabbi from Germany in the generation previous to Rabbi Hirsch, the Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Moses Sofer (Germany–Hungary, 1762-1839): “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah”. Rabbi Hirsch, like the Hatam Sofer before him, was fighting against the Reform movement. His commentary on the sin of Nadav and Avihu was apparently written with this in mind.

But is it really true that “anything new is forbidden by the Torah”? Are all innovations in the area of Halacha forbidden? Is it not true that Halacha develops and adapts itself to the changing conditions of life? In order to receive an answer, we don’t have to look further than the continuation of the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu. After their death, Moses commands Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar, how to deal with the different offerings of the consecration period. The Torah continues the story in Leviticus chapter 10:

16 And Moses diligently inquired for the goat of the sin-offering, and, behold, it was burnt; and he was angry with Elazar and with Itamar, the sons of Aaron that were left, saying:

17 ‘Why did you not eat the sin-offering in the place of the sanctuary, seeing it is most holy, and He gave it you to gain forgiveness for the sin of the congregation, to make atonement for them before God?’

18 Behold, its blood was not brought into the sanctuary within; you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I had commanded!’

From here we see that also Elazar and Itamar, and perhaps even Aaron himself, acted against the Divine commandment, and burned the sin offering rather than eating it. Even after the terrifying death of their brothers, which seemingly happened because they had not obeyed the Halacha diligently, they nevertheless permitted themselves to digress from the commanded procedure and act according to their understanding. What was their argument to justify what they had done?

19 And Aaron spoke to Moses: ‘Behold, this day have they offered their sin-offering and their burnt-offering before God, and there have befallen me such things as these; and if I had eaten the sin-offering to-day, would God approve?’

In other words, Aaron claims: After what has happened to us today, would God really have wanted us to eat the sin offering according to the plain rules of the Halacha? Surprisingly, Moses accepted Aaron’s claim:

20 And when Moses heard that, he approved.

We learn from here that Aaron, and even Moses, did not reject outright innovations supported by the claim “would God approve”?  We see from here that subjective Halachic considerations, as long as they come from pure motivations, are not rejected, and in some situations, are even desirable.

What was the difference between the actions of Nadav and Avihu and those of Elazar and Itamar? From Moses’ answer to Aaron, we see that Elazar and Itamar had consulted with their father. Only afterwards did they decide that the burning of the sin offering was preferable to its eating. It is hinted here that Nadav and Avihu were quick to bring the “alien fire”, without consulting Aaron their father. Their act was not rooted in deep deliberation, but rather in strong emotions and religious enthusiasm. Elazar and Itamar deliberated what to do with the sin offering, and consulted their father. After careful consideration, they decided what to do with the sin offering. If our words are correct, than we can see that the difference between the two actions was that the first one was emotional and the second was intellectual.

The Halachic system, like any other organized legal system, gives the Posek (the Halachic decision maker) a rigorous tool how to purify his/her deliberation. This system acts as a preventative measure against actions that are rooted in one’s natural feelings, but go against the spirit of the Halacha. Subjective considerations are desirable, but they have to pass through the clarifying process of Halachic argumentation.

Our organization Rabbis for Human Rights is composed of rabbis from the different streams of Judaism. Orthodox rabbis believe in the authority of the Halacha, whereas Conservative and Reform rabbis do not accept this authority in such an absolute manner. In my opinion, we all have a very important lesson to learn from Aviad Stolman’s brilliant analysis of the story of Nadav and Avihu. We all have a tendency to get swept away by strong emotions, especially in the area of human rights. Before we allow ourselves to make decisions on the basis of those emotions, we have to check ourselves:  Where are our motivations to act in accordance with those emotions coming from? Are they really coming from considerations based on our honest concern for human rights? Or are they emotional considerations based on a need to express anger at the establishment?  Or perhaps they are based on egotistical aspirations for fame and exposure to the media? I remember the period of the protest movement against the Vietnam War in the United States. Before I got to the university, I thought that the leaders of these movements were all motivated by pure ideological considerations, to protest against an unjust war. After I was already in the midst of these demonstrations, I realized that this was not always the case. As rabbis we have to clarify our motivations completely, both our psychological motivations as well as checking our positions from the standpoint of our concept of Judaism and Halacha.

Rabbi Mordechai Goldberg is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights    

Read previous weekly Torah commentaries here           

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