August 7, 2018

Answers that are both true and correct (Mishpatim)

Last Shabbat we read Parshat Yitro whose final verse informs us that the Kohanim were forbidden to ascend the altar on steps – which is why there was a ramp beside the altar. The following verse, which is the first verse of Parshat Mishpatim, begins with the words: ‘and these are the ordinances that you shall place before them’, and since this verse begins with the word ‘and’, we learn that it must be a continuation of an idea connected with the altar. This leads the Mechilta (end of Yitro) to conclude that the Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court) was to sit near the altar.

Among the many sources that explore the association between the Sanhedrin and the altar is Gemara Sanhedrin 7b which considers the prohibition of ascending the altar on steps. According to our Rabbis, one of the major reasons for this prohibition was to maintain a reverence for the Holy Temple and to limit the Kohanim from taking large strides or from running as they ascended towards the altar. Thus, Bar Kapara explains that: i) since the Kohanim could not take large strides as they ascended the altar, and ii) since the altar is symbolically associated with the Sanhedrin, that iii) we learn that judges should ‘be deliberate in judgement’ (Avot 1:1) and should treat the law and those who approach them for judgement with reverence, rather than making rash decisions. I believe that this is incredibly good advice, and I would like to explain how it applies not only to judges in the Sanhedrin, but also, to rabbis who are poskim (halakhic decisors).

Quite often, a rabbi will be asked a she’elah (a halakhic question) which they believe they can answer with ease. In such an instance it would be understandable for the rabbi to quickly respond. In fact, we are told that any unnecessary delay in responding to halakhic questions reflects a lack of consideration of the questioner. Nevertheless, there is a great need for a rabbi to be ‘deliberate’ because while they may be able to rapidly provide the ‘true’ answer, their quick answer may fail to provide the ‘correct’ response. As the Vilna Gaon explains (Aderet Eliyahu on Yeshayahu 1:17):

A responsible judge needs to have a double dose of wisdom. Firstly, they need to be fluent in the realm of the Torah and be able to deduce the law according to its true meaning. Secondly, they need to be fluent in reading human behaviour and be able to recognise the truth or any lies expressed by the litigants or witnesses. This is alluded to in the biblical phrase ‘V’Hinei, Emet Nachon Hadavar – and behold, the matter was true and correct’ (Devarim 13:15), meaning that [the judge must ensure that] their judgement is Emet, ‘true’ according to the law of the Torah, [and they must also ensure that it is] Nachon, meaning ‘correct’, based on their understanding of human behaviour.

A powerful example of this distinction is cited by Rabbi Dr. Yisrael N. Levitz in his essay on ‘The Rabbi as Mental Health Practitioner’:

One rabbi recently shared with me an incident where a congregant had approached him with what appeared to be a straightforward halachic question. He simply wanted to know “if someone who commits suicide could be buried in a Jewish cemetery.” The rabbi, wondering about the motivation behind the question, astutely suspected that this might be more than a halachic query. He invited the man to his office and told him that he would be happy to discuss the matter with him, but was simply curious as to what it was that prompted the question. After a few moments of discussion, the man admitted to being very depressed and that he was actually contemplating suicide. With the rabbi’s counsel the man was able to seek professional psychiatric help and was able to get beyond his crisis. This was not only a case of sensitive pastoral intervention that saved a man’s life, but an example of a person indirectly signalling a deeper problem.

What is clear from this story is that while this rabbi could have offered a response that was Emet and merely answered the question of whether someone who commits suicide can be buried in a Jewish cemetery, their response would not have been Nachon. In this case, the rabbi meditated on both the nature of the question as well as the questioner, which led him to ask more questions and offer the correct support to the questioner.

A further example of this distinction is recorded in Moshe Levanthal’s Serarah Shehi Avdut which records an incident when a woman called a rabbi in London to ask him whether she could immerse in a mikveh while wearing a bandage. The Emet answer to this question can be found in the laws that concern hazitzah (barriers) when immersing in the mikveh. However, the rabbi had a hunch that there was more to this question than initially presented and that the tone of the she’elah did not appear to ‘fit’ the questioner. He asked a few more questions such as how she had been injured, and within a few minutes the woman revealed that she had been hit by her husband. At this point, the halakhic question itself of whether a woman can immerse in a mikveh while wearing a bandage itself had not changed, but certainly the question itself took on a deeper, more disturbing dimension.

The reason why I have shared the above examples and insights, and written this longer-than-usual Dvar Torah, is to point out a growing trend of rabbis trying to demonstrate their halakhic prowess by rapidly responding to halakhic questions with true, but often ‘incorrect’ answers. The power of the web and other tools such as SMS and Whatsapp enable and empower us to respond to questions with lightning speed, and occasionally, this is precisely what is needed. However, there are other occasions when these tools can tempt responders to reach rash decisions.

The first letter of the first verse in our parsha serves as a valuable reminder to rabbis & judges to treat litigants and questioners with reverence, and to avoid the temptation of providing quick ‘true’ answers ahead of (slightly) slower but correct ones.

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