Is Jewish Law always BLACK and WHITE?

Well, if you read the beginning of this week’s Parasha it definitely seems so! Pinchas witnesses a plague engulfing the Jewish people as a result of immoral behaviour. Young Jewish men have strayed after Midianite women. Zimri, a leader of one of the tribes is publicly and brazenly having relations with Cozbi, a daughter of Midianite royalty. Pinchas, a young zealot, takes matters into his own hands and spears the wayward couple, killing them instantly. The plague instantly ceases, G-d’s honour is restored and Pinchas is rewarded with a ‘covenant of peace’. He and his descendants became part of the Priestly tribe, to forever serve in G-d’s house of peace. 

Pinchas’ reaction seems quite severe. But, interestingly, no less severe than the following response given by a leading Rabbi in the 12th Century, Morocco. 

A fanatical Muslim sect, the Almohads, had seized power and were embarked on a policy of forced conversion to Islam. The Jewish community was faced with a choice: to affirm Islamic faith or die. Some chose martyrdom. Others chose exile. But some acceded to terror and embraced another faith. 

One of them addressed this question to a rabbi. “Rabbi”, he said, “ I converted under coercion, but in my heart.. I am a faithful Jew. Can I at least get some merit by observing in private as many mitzvoth as possible? In short, is there any hope for me as a Jew”?

The rabbi’s reply was emphatic. A Jew who had embraced Islam had forfeited membership in the Jewish community. For such a person to fulfil the commandments was meaningless. Worse, it was a sin. The choice was absolute: to be or not to be a Jew. 

Maimonides, no stranger to persecution, was so incensed by this response that he wrote a response of his own, castigating the Rabbi and his ruling. In it, he writes that a Jew is not to be excluded from his community. He writes: “It is not right to alienate, scorn and hate people.. It is our duty to befriend them and encourage them to fulfil the commandments.” In a daring stroke of interpretation, he quotes the verse: ‘Do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his hunger when he is starving’ (Proverbs 6:30). The conversos who come to the synagogue are hungry for Jewish prayer. They ‘steal’ moments of belonging. They should not be despised but welcomed.

What a beautiful response! In essence, Maimonides was combining the prescriptive law with compassion. At the end of the day, there are some (not all) situations that are black and white, with a clear judgement and outcome. Yet Maimonides demonstrated that we must always seek to instruct and teach with care and compassion. We must always show concern for the plight of the person in front of us. 

Wishing you and your families Shabbat Shalom and see you next week!

Rabbi Yossi and Chana Raizel Friedman

(Don’t forget to participate in the mitzvah of writing a Torah by securing a letter in our new Sefer Torah – details here