I first thought of writing this a few weeks ago when a jury in a major American city convicted an ultra-Orthodox Jew of committing a heinous and reprehensible crime. This is not an apologia. (I hate apologetics.) It is an attempt to remind ourselves that as surprising and distressing as our co-religionists’ failures might be (and our own), those failures should not shock us into disbelief or knock us off track.
Now before I get to the point, I want to make some preliminary points. First, I don’t condone any of the acts for which he was convicted. Not only are such acts illegal, but they are a violation of so much that the Torah holds sacred, that they undermine the Torah. They also undermine basic human decency, aka derekh eretz. So it is a double undermining of the Torah, and an undermining of the fabric of human life. Anyone who does such things will get what he (or she) deserves. There is judgment and there is a Judge.
The second preliminary is a bit more subtle, but I trust my readers to be up to the task. Just because a person is found guilty of a crime, doesn’t mean he actually did it. Huh? Every legal/judicial system has a procedure for establishing the guilt or innocence of the accused. If the procedure is properly followed and the “standards of guilt” are met, a verdict “guilty” is given. Did the accused commit the crime? Maybe, maybe not. But procedure was followed and this was the result.
We all know that there have been cases where people got away with murder. It was known that they committed a crime, but it couldn’t be proved according to the legal system. The opposite also happens. Someone committed no crime, but the legal system was used to show that he did. I don’t know what Mr. Ultra-Orthodox Jew did or didn’t do. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what his accuser did or didn’t do. I wasn’t there. I know that it is possible for men to abuse trust and authority. (He certainly could’ve done it.) I also know that it is possible for innocent people to be mistakenly convicted. (Was he? I don’t know.)
Back to our topic.
Does being a religious Jew—Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, whatever—make one unable to sin? Does Torah study and/or mitzvah observance or both combined, absolutely guarantee that one will never again “sin,” or commit a crime against the Torah or humanity? To anyone who has studied Torah as a mature thinker, the question is laughable, a klutz kasha. Here are just a few sources and examples that show us that this is not so.
- 1. Don’t trust yourself till the day you die (Avot 2:5).
- 2. The holy Torah can be a life-giving elixir or a fatal poison (Yoma 72b).
- 3. Adam, the first human being, “hands-on” created by God, told directly by God to not eat from the tree—sinned.
- 4. Noach, whom the Torah calls a tzaddik (Genesis 6:9), sinned by getting drunk (ibid. 9:21).
- 5. At the Torah-giving at Sinai, the Jews had an overwhelming Divine revelation (Exodus 20:15) but a mere 40 days later they made the Golden Calf (ibid. 32:4), a mistake so bad we Jews will pay for it till Mashiach comes.
- 6. Only a handful of extraordinary tzaddikim never sinned (Bava Batra 17a).
- 7. The spiritually greater one is, the greater his temptation (Sukkah 52a).
- 8. God gave us Yom Kippur because He knew we would make mistakes, aka sin!
Torah study and mitzvah observance don’t automatically turn a person into a tzaddik/saint. One has to maintain constant vigilance in order to resist sensual temptation and rationalization. The more vigilant one is the greater a tzaddik he’ll be. But we all slip, even the best of us, even after a lifetime—eighty (80) years!—of being kohen gadol (Berakhot 29a).
If I sin—badly and often—even though I study Torah and observe the mitzvahs, what good is it? Why bother? Reb Noson of Breslov asks this question. His answer is deceptively simple. If you didn’t do the mitzvahs you do, you would be worse.
This doesn’t mean that every Torah-observant Jew is ipso facto better than people who aren’t observant. It means that mitzvah observance makes you better than you would otherwise be. We are not referring to the so-called “ritual” mitzvahs. That’s obvious. We are referring to the mitzvahs and attitudes towards inter-acting with people and oneself. But there is a proviso. You have to want to be better, maintain your vigilance—and behave yourself.
© Copyright 2012 Breslov Research Institute