Beit Midrash

  • Family and Society
  • The Marital Relationship
To dedicate this lesson
Translated by Hillel Fendel

When Compassion & Holiness Come to a Head

Two issues have surfaced recently. Public calls have been made, to allow occasional light physical contact between spouses during the period of niddah, and to officially accept same-sex couples into our communities. How does the Torah instruct us to deal with them?


Rabbi Azriel Ariel

Iyar 11 5781
Two issues have surfaced recently that bring to the fore the question of how "flexible" is Jewish Law (Halakha) where people are suffering. Public calls have been made, even within the religious Orthodox community, to a) allow occasional light physical contact between spouses during the period of niddah, and b) to officially accept same-sex couples into our communities. The calls have, not surprisingly, elicited sharp reactions from all shades of the spectrum.

These issues appear to place two important values – holiness and compassion – at odds with each other. How does the Torah instruct us to deal with them?

Our generation places "compassion" very high up on the scale of values. When we meet up with suffering, we are strongly driven to seek to alleviate the pain. In the progressive-liberal camp, this value is of critical importance, and in its name the camp demands revolutionary solutions that will uproot "from its roots" whatever causes the suffering. The Halakhically conservative camp also recognizes the importance of "compassion," and would like to alleviate all suffering – but it is also governed by other values, primarily that of "holiness," to which the secular-liberal camp does not accord importance. Halakhic liberals do not deny the importance of "sanctity," but it has become somewhat dimmed for them.

Both issues mentioned above involve a strong measure of suffering, one more long-lasting and intense than the other. A woman in niddah who requires an embracing hug from her husband, and even more so, one who cannot find love with a member of the other sex – both of these cases justifiably arouse strong feelings of compassion. Woe unto one who does not strongly feel so towards his brothers and sisters who may be suffering!

On the other hand, the desire to help soon meets up with another important Jewish value: the Torah's demand for restraint and self-control in the most personal and modest aspects of our lives. How are we to give each value its due? Which value is to give way to which, and when?

For those whose scale of values does not include "sanctity," this question does not arise. On the contrary, they often criticize the Torah and its adherents whenever they see that observing the commandments causes any type of suffering. But for Torah-observant Jews who value and are guided by both compassion and holiness, the dilemma is very strong.

Torah sources can be found to support different approaches to solving it. We know, for instance, that our Patriarch Avraham interrupted his "meeting" with G-d in order to receive wayfarers, showing that "hosting guests [compassion] is greater than greeting the Divine countenance [sanctity]." Moreover, saving a life overrides observing the Sabbath, for, as the Rambam writes, "the laws of the Torah are not a form of 'vengeance,' but are rather mercy, kindness and peace in the world."

Those who follow these dicta will seek every possible way to bend and stretch Halakha in the face of suffering – because they feel that compassion overrides holiness.

On the other hand, it is also well-known that certain laws of sexual relations must be observed even on the pain of death (yehareg v'al yaavor) - strongly indicating where "sanctity" stands vis-à-vis "compassion." Similarly, certain types of illegitimate children (mamzerim) may not marry into the Jewish community (other than to others of their status, or to converts), no matter how much compassion we wish to have. That is to say, if there is no Halakhic basis to be lenient, the Halakha simply cannot be stretched for the sake of our desire to help out one who is suffering – because in these cases the Jewish scale of values holds "sanctity" higher than "compassion."

So states this remarkable Midrash (paraphrased from Vayikra Rabba 32,8):

"I returned and saw all of those who are oppressed" (Ecclesiastes 4,1): Daniel Hayata said this verse refers to mamzerim – their parents sinned, why should the children suffer? The verse continues, "They shed tears [and] have no comforter," rather "their oppressors are empowered" – this refers to Israel's Great Sanhedrin, which forbids them in the name of the Torah to marry into the community. "They have no comforter" - G-d says: "It is up to Me to comfort them, in the future…"

And in fact, once it was established that sanctity reigns supreme even over compassion, the Torah giants of all generations dedicated their days and nights towards finding solutions for specific cases. They looked tirelessly for Halakhic routes by which to be lenient for agunot (women who cannot remarry because their husbands cannot be found, even if they are assumed to be dead), for mamzerim whose status is not certain, and the like. However, they never considered changing the Halakhic principles themselves.

Why is "sanctity" so important? It is because it is the source of all the other Torah values. Without holiness, which demands that we rise above ourselves to higher and even upper-world dimensions, no other value is important. Why should a person do anything beyond his own comfort zone, even to help out someone else, if nothing exists other than our own physical existence, and if there is no "image of G-d" within us? (See Rav Kook, Orot HaKodesh II, 561.

The downfall of the generation of the Great Flood began when they violated the principles of sanctity embodied in the laws of sexual relations – and this led to a violation of the principles of compassion as well: "The earth was filled with crime and violence" (B'reshit 6,13).

We saw in our own recent history how this played out. The Oslo Accords were motivated by our compassion, our need to seek to end bloodshed and mourning, and so the Government of Israel chose to sacrifice the value of the sanctity of the Land for the sake of its compassion for bereaved families. But the results were the opposite: We conceded the value of sanctity without being compassionate – for it was the very Oslo Agreement that led to ever much greater bloodshed and grieving.

The conflict between the two values is not only over their respective places in our priorities, but also how to define "compassion." There is a type of compassion that applies to the here and now, and there is a type that takes the future into account as well.

Consider the blatant example of abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. A long and intense public campaign to do everything possible to free him, including the release of imprisoned terrorists murderers, played on our feeling of compassion for one soldier and his family – and resulted in the release of 1,027 terrorists, at least 40% of whom later returned to committing acts of terrorism. Ten Israelis were murdered by them! The progressive camp, motivated by short-term compassion, appeared not to have the same compassion for victims whose names and families were not yet known.

Similarly, though on a different scale, we must recognize that our very necessary compassion for individuals with same-sex attractions does not mean that we must have compassion for the phenomenon in general. We must not change our Halakhic norms by granting public recognition and acceptance to same-sex relations strongly forbidden by the Torah – for this would undermine the foundations of the institution of family, leading in turn to even greater suffering on the part of future generations than that which is sought to prevent now.

Short-term, immediate compassion must not override our compassion for the future. Nor must compassion defeat sanctity. In our thrice-daily Amidah prayer we recite the blessing Atah Kadosh (You are Holy) towards the beginning, while only towards the end do we say the HaE-l HaTov (You are Good) blessing.
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