Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Behar Bechukotai 5777

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Innovation and Voluntary Religious Participation

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5771

There are a number of themes that I found myself coming back to every so often. One of those that I will address again today is the question of religious innovation. How do we relate to religious innovation? Is there room for non-mandatory practices in the halachik system and if so, how do we view them?

My point of departure this morning is the very last chapter in the book of Vayikra. This chapter seems to be out of place both thematically and textually.  It begins

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,

  1. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If a man shall make a special vow to give to the Lord the estimated value of persons,
  2. Then the estimation shall be: of a male from twenty years old to sixty years old, fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.

This is a description of a unique way to give money to the temple- you don’t simply write a check- you make a vow to donate the worth of an individual. In Hebrew it is referred to as erchin- or valuations.

The obvious question that everyone asks is- why is this chapter the last chapter of Vayikra? Is it not better suited in Exodus when describing the different donations made to the temple?

There is a textual question as well. The book seems to end twice. The book contains a whole set of laws and at the end we get a covenant- this is what happens if you keep the laws and what happens if you don’t and then it ends:

Chapter 26 verse 46. These are the statutes and judgments and laws, which the Lord made between him and the people of Israel in Mount Sinai by the hand of Moses.

Except that it is not really over- we have one last chapter and then it ends again:

Chapter 27 verse 34. These are the commandments, which the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel in Mount Sinai.

The Kli yakar, Rabbi Ephraim Lunchitz – 16th to 17th century Prague, offers a novel suggestion. He argues that very often when the rebuke section of 26 takes place and things are not good we run to promise that we will get better and improve and do this and that, and as soon as the hard times pass we forget about our vows and promises. Thus the torah connects the rebuke section to the vows section to remind us that we must keep those vows and really change.

While that does work to some degree thematically, it does not work textually. According to his approach the two should be connected but they are not.

Midrash Tanchuma argues that the last chapter is a complement to the first chapter of Vayikra and they provide bookends to the book. What is it that God wants from us- not to sacrifice ourselves or our children, rather God wants us to sacrifice animals and donate our worth and our children’s worth. And if we do that, it will be as if we have sacrificed ourselves and our children.

That too is subject to the same textual criticism as the former approach. According to this the last chapter should be included in the rest of the book.

Other commentators all note that the last section seems to be intentionally cut off and separated from the rest of the sefer. The book ends and then puts in an addendum as it were.

The first 26 chapters are statutes and judgments and laws while the last chapter is simply the commandments.

The Netziv offers a very cryptic commentary. He simply writes- it is a wonder to perform a Mitzvah that God does not want. He then refers you to a similar comment that he makes earlier in the book regarding the voluntary Shelamim sacrifice which is similarly cryptic.

To fully appreciate the Netziv, we have to look at a contemporary of his, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch and his commentary.

Hirsch writes that this chapter refers to voluntary or non-commanded gifts, “but purely as an act directed by one’s own feelings and wishes. It is extremely significant that this chapter on gifts to the temple is quite clearly, by its position in the book, only to be taken as an additional supplementary concluding chapter, and definitely does not belong to the laws statues and torah which God has set as the condition of the covenant.”

For Hirsch, this is specifically excluded because it is less important and not as critical as the rest of the book.

This seems to be what the Netziv is alluding to as he wonders what good there is at all in the non-commanded.

Rav Amnon Bazak, a 21st century teacher in Israel, offers a very similar textual analysis but arrives at a very different conclusion. He writes that the optional gift is separated to show that there can be a gift that is not commanded and not part of the reward and punishment structure, rather it is a gift given simply for the sake of heaven. It is in a sense what come after the book of Vayikra- first you must do what is commanded and then you can do something purely for the sake of heaven.

They agree on the textual level – this piece is intentionally excluded. The question is why? Are these optional gifts and gestures good or bad? In other words- is there room to look positively upon the non-commanded spiritual act performed out of an individual desires and wishes?

The Hirsch and the Netziv take a generally negative attitude while the Midrash and Rav Bazak seem to take a more positive one.

Intuitively, I think that the positive position seems correct. Yes it is separated, and there should be a separation between that which is commanded, a mitzvah and that which is not. But it is included in the Torah and the Torah does not seem to frown upon it. There is a textual indication that it’s different but none that it is negative.

Why then do Hirsch and the Netziv take the negative view? I believe that this is a very good example of historical context influencing commentary. Both live in the 19th century and experience first-hand the beginning of the reform movement. They see people who argue that we should innovate based on individual desires with a stated spiritual goal. And they see the danger in such innovation it forms the basis for their commentary.

Who is really right?

They both are, and that is the tricky part of individual desire driven innovation. It could be extremely beneficial or wildly dangerous depending on the time and place and the innovator and innovation.