What the snake knew
The woman said to the Serpent, . . . “Of the fruit of the tree which is in the center of the garden, G-d has said: ‘You shall neither eat of it nor touch it, lest you die'” (Bereishis 3:2-3).
By adding a seemingly innocuous prohibition against touching to the prohibition on eating, Chava brought death to the world and changed the course of human history forever. She provided the opening that the Serpent needed. He pushed Chava into the tree, and she did not die. The Serpent was then able to convince her that just as she had not died as a consequence of touching the tree so she would suffer no adverse consequences as a result of eating from it.
The story of Chava and the Serpent cautions us as to the potential danger of excessive stringencies. A talmid chacham once explained to me the rare, but not unknown, instances of wives of kolleleit dressing inappropriately. When they were in seminary, he said, they were told that certain colors of stockings were forbidden. When they noticed that competing seminaries had different forbidden and permitted colors or that the forbidden colors changed from year to year, they concluded that nothing they were taught about tznius was really halacha.
Even stringencies adopted by an individual may have consequences far beyond him. Nearly three decades ago, Rabbi Aharon Feldman, Rosh Yeshivas Ner Israel, told a group of new chasanim how he had called a certain husband to make an appointment to discuss the latter’s shalom bayis problems. The man replied that he could not come that night because he would be baking his matzos one at a time, in a private kiln, far out of the city.
“He was trying to impress me,” Rav Feldman said. “He would have been shocked to know that I viewed him as a murderer – someone who was killing his wife and children with his stringencies.”
THE DANGER OF UNDESIRABLE, long-range consequences is even greater with respect to communal-wide bans than with respect to individual stringencies, which can, at least, be tailored to the spiritual needs of a specific individual. When applied to a large public, the danger of unforeseen and negative long-range consequences is multiplied many-fold.
With respect, to any particular ban issued by the collective Torah leadership of the generation, there is only one response: We must follow. It is not for us to debate the propriety of this ban or another.
At the same time, very few bans are initiated by the gedolim. Most often the initiative starts with well-meaning askanim. And with respect to them, it is possible to discuss, in general terms, some of the long-range consequences of a multitude of bans.
Well-intentioned askanim may often view a letter signed by the gedolim banning a particular activity as the quickest and most effective way of handling a problem. But that may be a short-sighted approach, especially if the ban takes the place of chinuch. The late Rosh Yeshivas of Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, used to say that one does not educate with issurim. Issurim may be necessary, but they are at best a very rough chinuch tool.
When bans are widely ignored, the negative consequences are twofold: the authority of the gedolim is diminished and those who do not obey are endangered. As a community, our most precious resource is the deference and respect accorded to our gedolim. There are many communal problems that can only be resolved through the direct and forceful involvement of the acknowledged Torah leaders – i.e., finding places in high school seminaries for all our daughters.
But like any precious resource, the authority of the gedolim must be carefully husbanded. Too frequent reliance on that authority can lead to its declining force. Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, once convened a conference of yeshiva principals and demanded that they all make space in their institutions for newly arrived Russian immigrants. “And if we don’t?” one asked. Rav Yaakov replied that anyone who did not would be read out of the community. Like all threats, the effectiveness of that one depended on being infrequently invoked.
If we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that the authority of the gedolei hador is being undermined from many directions: when machlokes involving the most precious communal institutions cannot resolved; when even those who fervently wave the banner of daas Torah can be heard loudly explicating the “interests” and manipulations behind a psak with which they disagree; when the instructions of the gedolim are circumvented with subterfuges.
In a certain large chareidi area, the gedolim ruled last year that the tests for high school age yeshivos should take place at the end of the school year. Many yeshivos ketanos, however, continued with the old practice of testing much earlier, and then added a “retest” in Tammuz. The bochurim all recognized the “retest” as little more than a fig-leaf – in some cases it consisted of a single question asked a single bochur. The impact on the kavod haTorah of young bochurim from watching respected educators perform such an end-run around the instructions of the gedolim was incalculable.
The loss of rabbinical authority every time a ban is ignored affects the entire community. But there is also the impact on the Jewish future of every Jew who finds it within himself to ignore a ban directed to the Klal and not to a particular subgroup within the Klal. That act of disobedience inevitably follows an elaborate process of rationalization that has implications far beyond the particular act of disobedience. The one involved has distanced himself from the camp of those faithful to the directives of the gedolim.
Once he views himself as outside the encampment, the danger grows that he will distance himself further and further, until not only contemporary bans but rabbinic decrees and even Torah commandments become suspect in his eyes. We should not look lightly upon encouraging generally upright Jews to see themselves as dwelling apart.
The dangers involved when the explicit words of the gedolim go unheeded impose a tremendous responsibility on all community activists who press the gedolim to sign on to their pet projects. They must be careful to provide the gedolim with only absolutely uncontestable facts, without a trace of exaggeration. And among those crucial facts would be: How will the community respond? Will it, for instance, boycott a particular bus line for weeks, in order to force the bus company to install separate seating buses on that route?
The gedolim, of course, know all this, and are much more careful than those who claim to speak in their name. Some years ago, after a number of tragedies on school tenders involving young children, concerned parents and principals came up with a list of proposed protections, such as, “It is forbidden to have a tender without an accompanying adult.” When they brought it to Rav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv for his signature, he refused to sign. He explained, “These may all be very fine requirements, but where does it say in Shulchan Aruch that these things are forbidden?”
The Ohr HaChayim Hakodesh describes how the Serpent told Chava that all the trees of Gan Eden were grafts from the Eitz Hada’as. He knew that if everything were forbidden, then everything would ultimately be permitted, and the desire for permitted pleasures would be channelled to forbidden ones.
This article appeared in Mishpacha on 3rd October