June 10, 2022

Yevamot 79

For some people, Yevamot 78-79 (i.e. yesterday and today’s daf) are simply more of the same technical halachic debates relating to children, marriage, Jewish status and the mitzvah of yibum. However, for Rav Hayyim David Halevy (see Asseh Lecha Rav 7:70-71), who is one of my spiritual, moral and halachic role models, these pages contain some of the most crucial, and sadly overlooked, teachings throughout the Gemara concerning morality, society and the responsibility of governments to look after their citizens.

R’ Halevy’s responsum – which strives to explain a number of cryptic teachings found in Yevamot 78-79 – is innovative, nuanced and compelling, which is why readers are encouraged either to read it themselves (see https://bit.ly/3MLJYpP for the full Hebrew responsum, or if you’d prefer to read a summary and commentary on this responsum, see https://bit.ly/3Gf1HU4). Beyond this, it is important to acknowledge that his message was primarily intended for the government of the State of Israel in terms of providing a clear statement about its moral responsibilities to all the citizens of the State of Israel.

Nevertheless, there are clear lessons that Rabbi Halevy draws from our Gemara which are not limited to Israel concerning the duty of governments to act with national integrity and to protect the lives of all their citizens. In particular, from Rabbi Halevy’s reading of our Gemara’s discussion of King Saul’s actions, he makes it clear that when governments carry out actions or maintain policies that even indirectly lead to morally outrageous outcomes, they are held responsible. This is because it is the obligation of every government to be concerned for the welfare of all its citizens.

This morning I woke up to the news about another mass shooting in America. 19 children and 2 adults were murdered in a rural Texas elementary school, and the lives of countless more will be changed forever. I know that for some people this horrific event prompts them to rehash – once again – debates that have occurred time after time after time. But for Rabbi Halevy, along with those like Rabbi Sacks, it is impossible to separate between policy and morality, or between government and responsibility.

Simply put, what Rabbi Halevy teaches us in this responsum is that when horrific events happen that are even merely indirectly due to government actions or policies, then a government cannot claim to be free from responsibility. Instead, it has failed to protect the lives of its citizens. And as the government, it has a legal and moral duty to ensure that such events will not happen again.

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