Of Wounded Souls
You are children to the Lord, your God. You shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy people to the Lord your God, and God has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people, from among all the peoples on the face of the earth. (Deut: 14:1-2)
The prohibition against cutting oneself is expressed by the Hebrew word titgodedu, which also has the connotation of agudos or groups. From this added connotation, the Talmud (Yevomat, 13b) derives a prohibition against forming splinter groups (in terms of Torah practice) in addition to the prohibition against self-inflicted wounds.
Thus when members of a Jewish court disagree about the correct decision in a matter affecting Jewish law or custom, they are commanded to reach a common consensus and are enjoined from splitting along the lines of their opinions. This prevents the situation where some rabbis and their followers adopt one practice they perceive as being proper, while the dissenting rabbis and their followers will adopt a different practice which they perceive as being correct.
Such a bizarre confluence of ideas has no parallel elsewhere in the Torah. After all, what is the common denominator between inflicting wounds on oneself as a sign of mourning and forming splinter groups that observe different practices in carrying out Torah laws?
Let us attempt to examine each of these ideas in turn and see if we can discover the common thread.
[The following analysis is loosely based on the words of the Maharal in "Gur Aryeh.")
SIGN OF MOURNING
The commentators all take the same approach to the obvious prohibition contained in the passage: the infliction of wounds as a sign of mourning.
Because Jews are God's children and He loves them as a father loves His children, they are commanded to take a larger view of apparent tragedy. They are expected to understand that every Jewish death is for the best, no matter how tragic and unjust it may appear at first glance.
No death happens by accident.
As no death happens by accident, and one ultimately in charge of anyone's fate is one's Heavenly Father, as emphasized by the passage, it follows that whatever happens is the outcome of a deliberation made by Him, and is therefore based on considerations of loving affection.
Moreover, as the passage continues to point out, Israel is a holy people, and holiness is a spiritual quality. Thus death constitutes merely a temporary separation from the deceased. The individual who dies is merely leaving the physical world and undertaking a journey to a spiritual world, which is far more pleasant than this one.
In actual terms, God has chosen to withdraw him or her from a life of travail and drawn him or her back to Himself. The separation of mourning is thus not a permanent loss. The people left behind will meet up with those who have departed.
It is permissible to cry because it is human nature to mourn any long-term separation from the beloved. Even people who anticipate seeing each other again in this life cry at parting when they face living apart from each other for extended periods of time. But it is inappropriate to inflict wounds on one's body as an expression of mourning.
SIGN OF RAGE
The self-inflicted wound is symbolic of a loss that is both arbitrary and permanent. Such a wound is the outward expression of the frustration of grief, and the emotion accompanying the act of infliction is rage -- an expression of the impotent rage human beings feel in the face of the workings of a cruel and unjust fate.
The permanent scar that the wound imprints on the body is symbolic of an emotional loss that will never heal, caused by a permanent separation from the lost beloved. Such reactions are inappropriate to express Jewish grief for the reasons outlined. So much for the obvious prohibition expressed by the passage.
The second prohibition that the Talmud derives from the passage is more complex.
First of all, to the superficial observer it would appear that all observant life is conducted in the shadow of the violation of this prohibition.
If we look around the world of observant Jews, we find it split into a bewildering number of sects. There are Ashkenazim, (i.e. Jews of European extraction), and Sephardim, (i.e. Jews who are the descendants of those who spent the last several hundred years of the exile in Moslem cultures). Among the Ashkenazim, there are Hassidim of various sects who generally wear special garb, and non-Hassidim, who follow another tradition. Each of these groups has special customs in prayer and observance. Each of them has its own slant in the interpretation of Jewish law.
Needless to say, this is only an apparent violation of the prohibition. On careful analysis, it turns out that the prohibition against breaking into various sects is a prohibition that applies to a very particular situation.
Judaism only has a central halachic (i.e. legal) authority when there is a Temple and a Sanhedrin that sits within its confines. Such a Sanhedrin, composed of 71 elders, is invested with the ultimate authority on all matters of Jewish law and custom. When such a central authority is not present, halacha is autonomous to a large degree. Each rabbi has the authority to decide questions involving law and custom for his own congregation of followers.
This local autonomy was overruled only twice since the destruction of the Temple. The first occasion was the compilation of the Mishna by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. A man of enormous economic as well as spiritual resources, he managed to gather about him a court composed of the majority of Jewish scholars of note, and this rabbinic court fixed Jewish Law in the Mishna, which is the ultimate authority.
The Sanhedrin fixed Jewish Law in the Mishna, which is the ultimate authority.
Thus no sage who lives after the sealing of the Mishna has the authority to rule in matters of Jewish law and custom against any rulings that are to be found in the Mishna.
The second occasion was the sealing of the Talmud, which occurred several hundred years later in Babylon. Rav Ashi, who was the Jewish sage who organized and edited the Talmud, also managed to gather together most of the sages of Israel and was thus also able to lay down Torah law and custom in a way that is binding for all periods and in all places. Thus no one can go against any ruling of the Talmud in matters of Jewish law and custom.
About 500 years ago, the Jewish people voluntarily reached a decision to further limit the concept of legal autonomy and to recognize the rulings of the sages who lived prior to the writing of the "Arbaah Turim," written by Rabbi Yakov Ben Asher, (1270-1343) as finally authoritative.
The classical abbreviation of the above -- the "Shulchan Aruch" by Rabbi Yosef Caro (1488-1575), as annotated by Rabbi Moses Isserles (1525-1572) -- defines Jewish law today.
The sages who lived after the sealing of the Talmud and up to the codification of the "Shulchan Aruch" were collectively termed as Rishonim, or the "first ones" and their Torah opinions are accepted by all sections of Torah Jewry as finally authoritative. (Among the most prominent Rishonim are Rashi, his students and descendants who were the chief authors of the Tosaphos, Maimonidies and Nachmanides.)
No one since, has presumed to differ with the opinions of the Rishonim except in very rare cases.
But that still leaves a lot of territory uncovered.
EVOLUTION OF JEWISH LAW
In the last five hundred years, due to the changing nature of the Diaspora caused by emancipation, (which followed the Enlightenment of the 18th century) and as a result of the mushrooming of technological advances that are the results of the discoveries of modern science, Jewish law and custom have undergone a tremendous evolutionary development.
This development occurred entirely in the absence of a central Jewish authority, and is therefore subject to the rules of halachic autonomy. Thus local authorities resolved many important issues of halacha and custom, each in its own unique way. Their congregations and descendants carried on their traditions resulting in the bewildering profusion of Jewish observance and custom that we find today among observant Jews.
Today, we find a bewildering profusion of Jewish observance and custom among observant Jews.
All this is perfectly correct and legitimate under the rules of virtual autonomy granted by halacha to local authorities. The fact that the observant portion of the Jewish people, despite their division into the bewildering profusion of distinct segments, all subscribe to a single "Shulchan Aruch" in virtually all important questions is due to their decision to accept the rulings of the Rishonim as sacrosanct and above dispute.
As the Rishonim did such an incredibly thorough job in exploring and explaining the Talmud, the voluntary acceptance of their authority insured that, despite halachic autonomy, areas of disagreement were always restricted to issues of relatively minor importance. All observant Jews still have the feeling of observing a single Torah despite their surface variations in minor matters.
To convey the flavor of autonomous rabbinic authority perhaps it is worthwhile to relate a famous story concerning the Vilna Gaon.
One Friday afternoon, the housewife of a poor family living in Vilna had a halachic question concerning the chicken she was preparing for her family Shabbat meal. She quickly dispatched her husband to the chief rabbi of the city to ask for his ruling whether it was permissible to eat the chicken, but the husband had some difficulty in locating him and failed to return.
Meanwhile, the time available for cooking was running out as Shabbat was fast approaching, so in desperation she dispatched one of her children to ask the Gaon of Vilna who lived close by.
By general consensus (then and now), the Gaon of Vilna was a Torah giant on the level of the Rishonim, even though he lived in the 1800s He was not only the greatest Torah authority in the city of Vilna, but was accepted as the greatest Torah authority of the last 500 years.
The husband and the child returned simultaneously with their answers. The chief rabbi of Vilna had ruled that the chicken was permissible whereas the Gaon had ruled that it was forbidden.
The husband ran back to the rabbi to ask him what to do under the circumstances. He told him to tell his wife to prepare the chicken and both he and the Gaon would come to his house and partake of it. The rabbi then went to the Gaon and explained that while he fully realized that in terms of halachic expertise he was as dust beneath the feet of the Gaon, nevertheless he was the Rabbi of Vilna and under Jewish law, it was his ruling that should be followed unless it was clearly mistaken which it was not, because the issue turned on a matter of opinion. In his opinion, which was halachically defensible, the chicken was permissible. Even the Gaon was therefore subject to his ruling as a member of the congregation of Vilna. And to avoid violating the prohibition against splitting into sects contained in Parshat Re'ah, he was asking the Gaon to submit to his ruling and demonstrate this submission by coming with him to partake of the chicken.
The poor family was honored that Friday night by the visit of Jewish Vilna's two most prominent citizens.
The Gaon agreed, and the poor Vilna family in question was honored that Friday night by the visit of Jewish Vilna's two most prominent citizens. The Gaon and the rabbi sat down at the Shabbos table and the wife ran to present each of them with a bowl of hot soup prepared from the chicken in question. On the way to the table one of the lamps dripped tallow into the bowl intended for the Gaon. In those days cheap candles were made of non-kosher animal fat and thus the soup intended for the Gaon became halachically forbidden to eat. At this point the chief rabbi of Vilna excused the Gaon from partaking of the soup. It was clear to all the participants that God Himself had intervened to excuse the Gaon from having to partake of a substance that he ruled halachically forbidden.
The point of the story, however, is that the Gaon was willing to partake of it. With all due modesty, it was clear to all parties involved that he was a much greater expert in halacha than the local rabbi. Yet, he held himself enjoined by the commandment that prohibits the splitting into factions to follow the ruling of a lesser sage who was the local autonomous rabbinic authority. If the chief rabbi had ruled the chicken permissible than it truly was permissible under Jewish law for all the members of the Vilna Congregation.
The Gaon of Vilna could certainly not be held suspect of agreeing to partake of a treif chicken for whatever reason. If the chief rabbi ruled that the chicken was kosher, it truly was. Had the chief rabbi instructed the wife to bring the Gaon a second bowl, he would have partaken despite the heavenly sign. All the others, including the chief rabbi, still partook despite what they regarded as heavenly intervention to protect the Gaon from having to partake, and they did so with the Gaon's full agreement and in his presence.
Herein lies the thread that unites the two apparently unrelated prohibitions in our passage.
The principle of unity of the Jewish community under the banner of Torah is regarded by Jewish law as the supreme arbitrator of halacha. In the Shabbat Mincha service we recite "You are One, and your name is One, and who is like your people Israel, One nation on earth." In the relationship between God and the Jewish people the principle of unity occupies a prominent if not a dominant place.
One of the preconditions of being offered the Torah was the attainment of unity:
They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:2)
The words Israel encamped there are totally superfluous.
Rashi in the name of the Mechilta says that these words were written to convey the idea that the entire Jewish nation encamped there in total unity, as a single individual with a single desire. All other encampments contained an element of disunity; it is the acceptance of a single Torah that unifies Israel into a single individual.
DIVINE ATTRIBUTE OF JUSTICE
Just like this principle of unity determines halacha, it also governs God's attribute of justice.
When someone dies the Divine attribute of justice is at work. At first glance it certainly does not seem as though the attribute of mercy is in evidence at all. But God is One. It cannot be that He can do something while exercising solely His attribute of justice while totally ignoring His attribute of mercy.
Because God is One, the principle of unity overcomes considerations of pure judgment.
The word for mercy in Hebrew is rachamim. Rearranging the letters gives us machar, meaning "tomorrow," and rechem meaning "womb." Present occurrences have to be considered in the light of tommorrow, and have to be regarded as forces that give birth to the future. Justice focuses entirely on the past. All judgments are responses to past behaviors. They cannot take future potentials into account.
Because God is One, the principle of unity overcomes considerations of pure judgment.
In every Jewish death considerations of tomorrow are also involved. Nachmanides quotes the speech of the wise woman of Tekoah to David:
For we shall surely die, and shall be as water spilt on the ground which cannot be gathered up again; neither does God take away life but devises means that none of us be banished. (2 Samuel 14:14)
In other words a Jewish death only appears like water spilt on the ground which cannot be gathered up again. In actuality, God will never take a Jewish life unless He has devised some means to assure that death is not the equivalent of permanent banishment from life.
The halacha as it applies to God's principle of justice is also overcome by the prohibition to avoid rulings that will affect a split in the unity of Israel.
Inasmuch as every Jew is a part of this unity -- since we all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai either corporeally or as souls that were yet to be born -- we are all part of the Israel that is described as a single individual with a single desire.
Just as God will not inflict a permanent blemish on this collective Jewish individual by permanently ending a Jewish life in a way that it cannot be gathered up, we are forbidden from inflicting a blemish on ourselves for the same reason.
The principle of unity is the thread that binds the two prohibitions together. May it be God's will to finally end our travails and expose the glory of this great unity to the light of day in our time.