Friday, May 3, 2019

Distinguishing the Action From the Person

Parshat Acharei Mot 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Chapter 18 of the Book of Vayikra contains a number of negative mitzvot – things we are not supposed to do. Many of the negative actions are labeled “to’evot” – an interesting word which has many possible meanings.

Some possibilities: abomination, perversion, disgusting perversion, taboo.

In this chapter, the Torah lists a number of deeds which fit into this category of “to’evah,” but the Torah remains consistent in focusing on labeling the deed, not the person engaging in the act.

The comparison is made several times to the inhabitants of Egypt and Canaan, who were guilty of these things, while the deeds of the Canaanites were specifically utilized to prove why they were undeserving of remaining in the land bearing their name.

A warning is issued that those who follow the ways of these activities will be cut off from the Israelite nation (18:29).

Some of the commentaries (Ramban, Rabbenu Bachaye, etc) write of 3 types of “Karet” (excision from the nation).

The following is Ramban’s take:

There are three methods of Karet. The first is with respect to an individual. The second regards the souls of people. The third is regarding the soul of an individual. Quoting the Sifra, he concludes that “Karet” is from the word which means destruction.

The first type references someone who is generally righteous but who stumbled in giving way to a karet-inducing sin. He might die young, but his soul will remain intact. This person will have a share in the World to Come. 
The second type references someone who is sinful in life. This individual does not die young, but the soul is cut off from any next-world experience. 
The third type experiences karet on two different levels, in body and in soul. This aspect of karet is limited to one who commits idolatry or blasphemy. The Talmud in Shavuot extends this punishment to one who throws off the yoke of Heaven and speaks mockingly of the Torha. 

Ramban’s analysis continues and he speaks of the different ramifications for the soul and body, some of the other definitions of “karet,” and what kinds of repercussions a person can experience in this world and in the next.

While some definitions of karet do include an impact on the body, most focus solely on the experience of the soul, especially after death.

All of which leads me to a very simple conclusion. 

In Jewish life, there is a very specific realm and direction of behavior that warrants a person being unwelcome in the community. At the highest level, that of “karet,” the person’s sins need to be so grave, so beyond the pale, that the person might either die young at the hands of God (or in some instances, the hands of Beit Din), or the person’s soul is dealt with in the Heavenly Realm, by a divine creature – possibly God Himself – as opposed to His angel. 

There is no question that the “behaviors” described in this passage, Vayikra 18, are abhorrent or detestable to God in one way or another.

However, does committing these sins always warrant the person’s being judged by the community? Being ostracized by the community? What if a person doesn’t commit a sin at all, but doesn’t conform to a community’s standards?

I believe the Torah’s deliberate language choice is teaching us a dictum that was championed by Bruriah in the Talmud. Hate the sin, love the sinner. 

We don’t always have to agree with the things people do, or the way they choose to live their lives. But particularly when the choices people make are not criminal at all, and certainly not against the Torah’s rules, at most our right is to privately object, while publicly embracing the Jew.

Accepting the person while not condoning the behavior is an important distinction in Jewish communal living. The Torah gives us this instruction when it comes to facing the reality of our fellow Jews committing “Torah crimes” we might abhor or find detestable. At the very least, a similar standard should be held for those who look and live differently than we do, but who are nevertheless fellow Jews who have a different way.

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