Scandal in the Jewish World – Commentary

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by Rabbi Lehrfield

Sadly it seems as if a month, or even at times a week, does not go by without a negative report in the media about someone that is Jewish. Scandals and embarrassing stories about the actions or statements of a handful of Jews not only make the local Jewish papers but often times get national attention as well. The desecration of G-d, the Chilul Hashem that is created during these incidents is enormous. Despite the community’s best efforts it feels as if we are constantly being inundated by these terrible stories. It is this concept of Chilul Hashem that Rabbi Yochanan ben Beroka addresses in his teaching in Chapter 4 Mishna 5.

At first glance there are definitely more questions than answers when studying this Mishna. What reads as a fairly straightforward Mishna in fact is riddled with difficulties. Rabbi Yochanan teaches that anyone that desecrates the name of heaven in secret will have their punishment exacted in public. In addition, both unintentional and intentional desecrations of G-d (Hashem – The Name) are treated alike. Rabbi Yochanan is obviously coming to teach about the seriousness that must be taken in dealing with someone that commits a Chilul Hashem, a desecration of G-d. Such a person, Rabbi Yochanan teaches, faces grave consequences.

Yet, if that was in fact what Rabbi Yochanan wanted to teach, he could have very well have said it in a more direct way. Why does Rabbi Yochanan in teaching about Chilul Hashem describe a case of someone desecrating G-d in private? How could that even be possible? More often than not, a Chilul Hashem occurs in front of others?! How could someone create a Chilul Hashem in private? Furthermore, how is ‘punishment exacted in public’ an appropriate consequence for actions taken in private? As a general rule, G-d runs the world under the ethos of Mida Kineged Mida, a measure for a measure. How does this punishment fit the crime?

In addition, there are other elements of this Mishna that require further analysis. For example, why does Rabbi Yochanan continue his teaching by describing that a person is punished equally for a Chilul Hashem whether the action was done intentionally or not? In Jewish law a distinction is made between Shogeg, accidental, and Meizid, purposeful, actions. Why does Rabbi Yochanan teach that such a distinction does not exist in the realm of Chilul Hashem. How does Rabbi Yochanan even define what is and is not an unintentional and intentional Chilul Hashem. More simply, what is the definition of a Chilul Hashem?

Interestingly, the concept of Chilul Hashem is not introduced here by Rabbi Yochanan. Rather, Chilul Hashem is rooted in a Biblical commandment. The Torah teaches in Vayikra (22:32), “ViLo TiChalelu Et Shem Kodshi” ; “You shall not desecrate G-d’s Holy Name”,  Rather, “ViNikdashti Bitoch Bnei Yisrael” ; “G-d shall be hallowed among the children of Israel.” The Torah teaches here in Vayikra that the two concepts most commonly referred to as Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem are more than just a good idea—these are actual Mitzvot in the Torah. In fact, the Rambam, Maimonides, in his Sefer HaMitzvot, the Book of Mitzvot lists Chilul Hashem as Mitzvah number 63 of the 365 negative Mitzvot. Because Chilul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem are mentioned almost in the same breath, within the same pasuk, many see these two concepts as being opposites of one another. Kiddush Hashem, sanctifying G-d’s Name and Chilul Hashem, desecrating G-d’s Name stand at two opposite ends of the spectrum. They are related, but are the inverse of each other.

The Rambam in Hilchot Yesodei Torah (5:4), in fact teaches exactly this. He writes in Hilchot Yesodei Torah (5:4) that Chilul Hashem is actually the opposite of Kiddush Hashem. In addition, he continues and discusses three primary categories of Chilul Hashem. The first category is someone that refuses to give up his life when he or she is called to (for example the three cardinal sins). The second category is when one commits a sin not because they are driven by their urges, but rather out of spite to hurt their fellow. Finally, the third category of Chilul Hashem is when someone who should know better acts in a fashion that is perceived to be beneath him. Colloquially speaking, when people use the term ‘Chilul Hashem’ they are usually referring to this third category. When a Jew’s actions reflect poorly on what is expected, they risk creating a Chilul Hashem.

While it is certainly people’s actions that unfortunately create a Chilul Hashem, the Gemara in Tractate Yoma (86a) teaches that what is important is not the deed itself as much as the impression that it makes. For example, even an action that is not a sin may in fact constitute a desecration if it is liable to be incorrectly interpreted. For this reason the Gemara continues and tells the story of Rav who refused to buy a piece of meat from the butcher on credit because it would be a Chilul Hashem. Despite the fact that Rav would certainly pay his balance in the future, onlookers might assume that Rav was taking advantage of his Rabbinical position and was receiving special benefits. Rav’s actions were basic and routine, and yet he was concerned about how his actions would be interpreted vis-à-vis the sanctification (or lack thereof) of G-d’s name.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the punishment for a Chilul Hashem is very serious. The Gemara in Tractate Yoma (86a) continues and teaches that neither Teshuva, Yom Kippur, or even suffering can fully help a person achieve atonement for the sin of a Chilul Hashem. In a similar way, the Gemara in Tractate Kiddushin (40a) writes that Ein Makifin B’Chilul Hashem, that G-d does not grant ‘credit’ when it comes to a Chilul Hashem. The Gemara there offers two explanations as to what this means—either G-d exacts punishment immediately or G-d does not allow a person to repent because the seriousness of a Chilul Hashem outweighs all of the merits a person achieves in their lifetime. In either case, cccording to both opinions, the gravity of a Chilul Hashem is obvious. Rabbeinu Yona builds on these ideas and teaches that the singular possibility in atoning for a Chilul Hashem is to perform actions of Kiddush Hashem.

Getting back to Mishna 4 of Pirkei Avot, it is very interesting to think about what motivated Rabbi Yochanan to discuss such a serious and heavy topic. Rabbi Berel Wein in his commentary to Pirkei Avot posits that Rabbi Yochanan was active during the time of the great Rabbinic dispute between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania and Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh. It is this dispute that is actually referenced as part of the Passover Seder in the words of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya (Harey Ani Kiven Shivim Shana, it is as if I am 70 years old) who served as a replacement to Rabban Gamliel as head of the Sanhedrin as part of this dispute. Eventually, Rabban Gamliel reconciled with Rabbi Yehoshua and was restored to his position (albeit on a rotation with Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya). Rabbi Wein suggests that perhaps this very public and nasty incident served as the backdrop to the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan in Mishna 4. Not only might the actions of Rabban Gamliel fit the Rambam’s categories of Chilul Hashem, but the overall debate and animosity that was created as part of this dispute certainly did not create a Kiddush Hashem.

Given all of the above, how then is it even possible for someone to create a Chilul Hashem in private? The debate between Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua was incredibly public. Rav was worried about how others around him might interpret his behavior and actions. In what way then can a Chilul Hashem be private? Based on precisely this difficulty, some commentators suggest that Mishna 4 is in fact describing a group of people that are known to have created a Chilul Hashem, however exactly who did what is private (i.e. a secret). Other commentators suggest that Rabbi Yochanan is trying to emphasize not absolute privacy and secrecy, but rather a situation with very few witnesses. Based on this approach, Rabbi Yochanan can therefore be said to be teaching about the seriousness of a Chilul Hashem even amongst a small group of people.

Perhaps another approach that can be suggested is based on how the term ‘Chilul Hashem’ is translated. So far the emphasis of this discussion has been on defining Chilul Hashem as a desecration or a profaning of G-d’s name. However, the Hebrew word ‘Chilul’ is related to the word ‘Chalal’ meaning hollow or empty space. In other words a Chilul Hashem is not about a deed or even a negative impression that might be taken. Rather, a Chilul Hashem is an action that ‘empties’ G-d’s presence from this world. Based on this definition there is no difference whether a person sins in private or in public. Both actions (public and private) of Chilul Hashem drive away G-d’s presence and makes G-d less revealed in this world.

This approach helps shed light on an interesting piece of Gemara. The Gemara in Tractate Shabbat (31a) lists the questions a person is asked as they are judged to enter the World to Come. The very first question asked is, “Were you honest in your business dealings?” While it is certainly an important question, it is strange that it is listed first. In fact, the second question that a person is asked is, “Did you set time for Torah study?” Shouldn’t that be the first question that a person is asked when reflecting on the life they live? Why start with a question about how a person conducted their business? The Pri Migadim (Orach Chaim 156:2) suggests that if a person is not honest in their business dealings than all of their Torah learning constitutes a Chilul Hashem. In other words, the question about business serves as a prerequisite for Torah study, because if a person was not honest with others in business, than the Torah learning that they did throughout their life cannot serve as a source of merit.

This notion helps explain why Rabbi Yochanan taught that someone that profanes G-d’s Name in private (whether intentionally or not) is punished publicly. The very notion of unintentionally creating a Chilul Hashem is unimaginable. How could a person possibly do such a thing? Perhaps one might suggest that this person forgot or didn’t know that what they were doing was a Chilul Hashem. Yet, the Gemara in Shabbat highlights that the very essence of our existence boils down to sanctifying G-d’s name and removing its desecration from the world. A person that doesn’t know any better is obligated to teach themselves what is and is not a Chilul Hashem! How could a person possibly forget the very purpose for which they are created?! These principles must be front and center every moment of our life. Similarly, often times it is the person that creates a Chilul Hashem in private that has done something even more egregious. Rabbi Yochanan is, therefore, highlighting a person that sins in private because this is a person that is more concerned with the opinions of others than the opinion of G-d. In a sense, it is such a person’s false public piety that is in of itself a desecration of G-d’s name and as such must be punished publicly.

It is an understatement to say that working hard to create a Kiddush Hashem and to avoid a Chilul Hashem is challenging. As we have discussed, sometimes the best of intentions can lead to a Chilul Hashem. However, we must continue to work hard to bring G-d’s holy presence into this world. In trying to achieve this balance and objective, Rabbi Yissocher Frand once taught a different interpretation about the relationship between a Kiddush Hashem and a Chilul Hashem. As we have noted, both of these concepts are learned from the same verse in Vayikra. However Rabbi Frand teaches that:
“The Torah is trying to tell us that, on the contrary, it is not true that Chillul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem are on opposite ends of the spectrum. The Torah is telling us “I want you to make a Kiddush Hashem of My name—and while you are doing it, make sure that you do not make a Chillul Hashem!”
It is not enough to just jump at the opportunities to create a Kiddush Hashem. A person must at the same time think and be cognizant of the potential of profaning G-d’s name as well. By living a more thoughtful, considerate, and intentional life then our best intentions will in fact bring G-d’s holy presence into this world while achieving a true Kiddush Hashem.