Reconsidering Torah Education (part two)

Read part one

In the last edition of “Thoughts” we discussed Ramban’s – Nachmanides’ – assertion that we are commanded to recall Revelation.  He understands this commandment as an obligation to accept Revelation as a verifiable historical event.  In other words, we must “prove” for ourselves and our children that Revelation took place and that the Torah is authentic.    

The balance of the last edition discussed whether providing our young people with this foundation, described by Ramban, may support them in resisting the many influences on campus and in the work-place that discourage Torah observance.

In this edition, this discussion will be broadened and Ramban’s position will be examined more extensively.

And it will be that in exchange for accepting these laws (mishpatim) and observing them and performing them that Hashem will observe the covenant and kindness that He promised to your forefathers.  (Sefer Devarim 6:12)

I. Hashem’s promise is absolute

In the opening passage of the parasha, Moshe tells the people that in exchange for their acceptance and observance of the Torah’s laws, Hashem will fulfill the promise He made to their forefathers.  In the following passages, Moshe explains that Hashem will extend His love to the people, He will bless them, and grow their number.  They will possess the Land of Israel and enjoy these blessings there.

Is Moshe telling the people that Hashem’s promise to the Avot – the Patriarchs – is not absolute?  Is it conditional and rendered invalid if the people are unfaithful?  Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir – Rashbam – responds that Hashem’s promise to the Avot is absolute.  He will not abandon or violate His promise.  Moshe is explaining that although the promise is absolute, it may be fulfilled with this generation or postponed and fulfilled with a future generation.  This will depend upon the people’s conduct.  If the nation observes the laws, then it will experience the fulfillment of the promise.  If the generation is unfaithful, then the fulfillment of the promise will be reserved for another generation.[1]

II. Reward for observing the Torah

In the passage Moshe explains that the fulfillment of the promises is dependent upon the observance of the class of laws he refers to as mishpatim.  Which laws are included in this class and why is their observance essential to the fulfillment of Hashem’s promises?

Ramban responds:

“And he mentions these mishpatim, to intensely warn them regarding the mishpatim.  [This is] because there cannot be a large nation that is entirely careful regarding all commandments and [in which] they do not at all sin in them.  Only through mishpatim will the Torah be established.  [This is] as the Torah says regarding them: And all Israel will hear and be frightened (Devarim 21:21).”

The key to understanding these comments is Ramban’s reference to Devarim 21:21. This passage refers to the punishment of the rebellious son.  This young person steals from his parents to indulge his gluttonous appetites.  If he cannot be corrected, and continues to engage in the behavior, he is executed.  The passage cited by Ramban explains that the execution of the rebellious son makes an impression on the nation.  Those who hear that this young person was executed for his behavior will understand the seriousness of the commandments and will be moved to be more careful in their observance.

III.  Enforcing observance

Now, Ramban’s understanding of mishpatim and their significance emerges.  Mishpatim are the court-imposed consequences for violating the commandments.  Ramban is explaining that commandments are inevitably violated.  If the consequences for violation are enforced by the courts, then violations are contained and observance is preserved.  If the mishpatim are not observed – the consequences are not applied – then observance of the commandments is undermined and eventually abandoned.

Ramban continues:

“Furthermore, many will have compassion in response to one being subject to stoning or ‘burning’[2] for violation of a commandment.  [This is] as it is stated: Do not have compassion… (Devarim 19:13).”

According to Ramban, the Torah recognizes that there are instances in which it will be difficult for us to carry out the punishments required by the Torah – whether these be subjecting a poor person to a fine, application of lashes for violation of a religious commandment, or putting someone to death.  This is a natural response.  The Torah is admonishing us to put aside our compassion and enforce observance of the commandments.  Without this enforcement, observance cannot be sustained within the nation.

Ramban’s position begs the question: Is resistance to administering punishment only an expression of compassion or does this resistance have a more fundamental foundation?  The Torah requires we execute one who openly and intentionally violates Shabbat.  This violator rejects our beliefs and one of the Torah’s most fundamental commandments.  Do we have the moral authority to take the life of someone whose beliefs differ from our own and whose practices deviate from our expectations?  What right do we have to violently enforce our religious beliefs upon others?

And you will consume the nations that Hashem, your Lord gives to you.  Do not have compassion for them.  Do not serve their gods for it is a snare for you.  (Sefer Devarim 7:16)


IV. Destroying the nations of Canaan

We are commanded to remove all idolatry from the Land of Israel.  The nations practicing idolatry must be destroyed and no remnant of these nations may be spared.  Moshe warns the people that if they allow a vestige of idolatry to remain in the land, they will themselves become ensnared in idolatry.

Ramban comments:

“And he says, ‘Do not have compassion for them.’  [This is] as I mentioned.  [Namely] that through compassion, judges destroy all law.” 

Moshe admonishes the people to completely destroy the nations of Canaan.  Why does he deliver this admonishment at this point?  Ramban is explaining that Moshe opened the parasha warning the people to enforce the laws.  They should not indulge their compassion for one who violates the Torah.  Compassion has limits; it is not appropriate at all times.  Compassion for one who violates the Torah undermines the Torah.  Then, Moshe applies this principle to the imperative to destroy the nations of Canaan.  Compassion resists this commandment.  Moshe warns the people that compassion must be abandoned.  If these nations are not destroyed, then their remnants will ensnare the Jewish people in idolatry.

Ramban is consistent.  The Torah goes to extreme lengths to nurture and reinforce our compassion.  Yet, compassion is not universally appropriate.  Sometimes, compassion is destructive.  Compassion for the nations of Cana’an will lead to the destruction of the Jewish nation.

Again, Ramban ascribes the natural resistance to destroying these nations to a healthy trait – compassion for others.  Is there not a more fundamental basis for resistance to this commandment?  Idolaters have a different faith than ours.  What right do we have to destroy those whose faith differs from our own?

V. Foundations of religion

Let us be completely frank about this issue.  We vigorously condemn religious zealots who engage in terrorism against those they designate as heretics.  These zealots kill and maim.  They destroy cultural heritages.  They justify their violence by declaring that they are G-d’s warriors and they fulfill a Divine mission.  How can we condemn them without reckoning with the Torah’s admonishments that we destroy idolaters, uproot their culture, and even punish our own co-religionists who openly reject the Torah’s laws?

This is an intensely disturbing question.  However, from Ramban’s perspective it is easily answered.  The difference between the Torah and the zealotry of modern day religious terrorists is immense.  These terrorists acknowledge that they act out of faith.  They believe that their religion is the only true faith and that those who reject it are heretics.  However, they have no basis for establishing the truth of this assertion.  It is subjective and it cannot be substantiated by objective standards.  In fact, they may assert that their eagerness to engage in violence, risk, and even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of their religious goals is the most compelling testimony to the strength of their convictions.  This is true.  However, the intensity of their convictions does not establish their truth.  Their willingness to engage in violence and self-destruction in support of unsubstantiated beliefs only proves the depth of their depravity.

Ramban’s position is that the Torah was given through public Revelation to establish a compelling historic basis for its authenticity.  We do not claim a right to enforce subjective faith upon others or to destroy nations who may undermine our commitment.  We do not derive moral authority from a delusional sense of religious superiority.  Our authority is derived from the Torah which commands us to enforce its laws and remove idolatry from the land.  Our conviction in the Torah’s authenticity is not an expression of subjective faith.  It is an established objective historical reality.

VI. Consequence of rejecting Ramban’s view

Ramban’s position was shared by the great Torah scholars of his time.  Since his era, it has become more controversial.  Those who reject this perspective assert that we should not observe the Torah based upon a “proof” of the authenticity of Revelation.  Instead, our faith should guide us.  How does one who rejects Ramban’s perspective respond to the above questions?  Does Hashem implore us to be just and compassionate and also command us to take life and uproot culture based upon unfounded faith?  If one responds that this is Hashem’s desire, then how does this person distinguish our people from crazed religious terrorists?[3]

[1] Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer Devarim 7:12.

[2] Seraifah – burning – does not mean that the person is set afire or placed in a fire to be consumed.  In general, the Torah’s forms of execution are swift and relatively humane.

[3] Experience leads me to conclude that very many observant Jews experience cognitive dissonance confronted with this issue.  They “believe” in the truth of the Torah.  Yet, they cannot comfortably justify the Torah’s treatment of idolaters or that the penalty for violation of some of its commandments is forfeiture of life.  They do not believe that their attitude is comparable to the Crusaders who destroyed Jewish communities or the jihadists who slaughter innocents.  However, they cannot identify the fundamental difference between themselves and those they condemn.  The consequence is that they avoid confronting the moral dilemma inherent in their position by ignoring that the Torah legislates punishments for violation of its commandments.