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D'var Torah by Dr. Kalman Stein, Interim Head of School

Dr. Kalman Stein, Head of School

Dear Hebrew Academy Community: 

An interesting conflict broke out within the Kehila, the autonomous governing body of the Jewish community, in a town in Moravia—present-day Czech Republic-- about 350 years ago. It seems that after many years of having allowed all tax paying members of the Jewish community to vote in all elections and decisions of the Kehila, the upper class proposed that suffrage be restricted to those who paid a larger amount of taxes and to those, wealthy or not, who were recognized as Torah scholars. The rationale, as they presented it, making the argument which would be made years later by nineteenth-century liberals, was that since virtually all communal decisions had fiscal implications it made no sense to allow the poor who had an insufficient stake in society to have a determinant voice in those decisions.

The poor, the majority of the population, cried out that they should not be disenfranchised because after all they were doing their part. Even if the wealthy paid much more, the small sum paid by a poor man is more of a burden than the much larger tax payments of the wealthy. 

So how did they settle this dispute which would someday be struggled and bled over in the streets and parliaments of Europe? They sent a request to adjudicate the dispute to the Chief Rabbi of Moravia, Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal (1600 – 1661), known as the Zemach Zedek. 

The Zemach Zedek found the sources for his decision in two citations in Massechet Menachot which are based on this week’s Parasha. 

First, he cited the Gemara which points out that the Torah’s closing comments both for one who brings a bull and for one who brings just a pigeon as his voluntary sacrificial offering are identical—Ishai Rai’ach Nicho’ach LaShem—that is, that each is a pleasing burnt offering to Hashem. This teaches, says the Gemara, as quoted by Rashi in Vayikra, Echad HaMarbeh V’Echad HaMam’it, U’Bilivad ShehYekhavain Libo LaShamayim—The one who gives more and the one who gives less are equal as long as each intends to serve God. So, Point One for the poor. 

But argues the Zemach Zedek, one must go even further and look at the next Pasuk: “V’Nefesh Ki Takriv Karban Mincha LaHashem—If someone brings a flour offering to God”—Comments the Gemara, quoted by many commentators, the word Nefesh, soul, is used only in reference to the customary offering of the poor, about one who is only able to bring flour (rather than an animal offering):”God says, I consider this as if the poor person had sacrificed his soul” (because, as the poor in our town in Moravia argued, the poor person has to virtually invest his soul in the effort to raise even the small offering, or tax payment, he is called upon to make). This, as far as the Zemach Zedek was concerned, places the poor not merely in a position of equality but, perhaps, indicates that the meager offering of the poor is valued more highly by God than is the considerable offering of one for whom the major contribution comes rather easily.

In the end Rabbi Krochmal came up with a wise decision (based on the Mishnah) which took the arguments of both sides into account and mandated an electoral system based on consensus—the winning majority in any vote had to represent both the majority of voters and more than half of the total tax collection.

Interesting, at least to history geeks like me, but so what? I have shared this question and response with students for many years. Students are invariably surprised that rather than simply allowing political and socio-economic power to prevail, the community almost instinctively understood that political issues more often than not are ethical, and thereby religious, issues and that Jewish values must, therefore, be determinant. Too many of us in the Modern Orthodox world have come to regard Halakha as being limited to the ritual sphere—I stirred my chicken soup with the wrong spoon, I forgot to say Al HaNissim. As an educator who works with young men and women struggling to find their religious identities within the complexity of Modern Orthodoxy, I have come to appreciate that helping students see that Torah is not limited to a small ritual sphere of life, that demonstrating that Judaism has important things to say about our societal existence lend importance to Judaism in students' eyes. Kids understand, perhaps more clearly than adults do, that the relevance of a religion is determined as much by its ability to address itself to the broadest possible kind of human questions as by its ability to provide the means of ordering man's relations with God.  Our religious discussions at home and in school must include issues of social justice, war and peace, political decision making, ecological concerns and the like so that the next generation is sensitized to the relationship between Torah and Mitzvot and the whole of human experience.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dr. Kalman Stein
Head of School

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