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The dynamics of Halakha

Cheshvan 5781 | November 2020

When Bnei Yisrael were informed of the laws of sexual conduct in the desert, they famously responded by crying: “Moshe heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then God became very angry, and Moshe was displeased” (Num. 11:10). Rashi explains that according to one interpretation, their complaint related to the laws of sexual conduct: “The Rabbis said (Yoma 75) – ‘throughout their families,’ that is, on matters pertaining to families – in other words, appropriate sexual conduct.

The Gemara in Yoma 75 explains that Israel did not engage in illicit relations even in Egypt, before they were redeemed: rather, they were as a “locked garden, my sister, my bride” (Song of Solomon 4:12). If so, what were the illicit relations that elicited such a harsh reaction? It seems their concern was with the laws that were added to the seven Noahite laws, including the laws of Niddah. The immediate and natural response to these laws was that they are intolerable, and too much to ask of a couple, and a family.

What can Moshe do about the nation’s distress in light of these laws, including the complex Niddah laws? Moshe is so frustrated by the nation’s grievance that he asks God to kill him: “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me; If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery” (Num. 11:14-15).

The solution God offers Moshe is delegating his responsibilities. Seventy elders are gathered and called upon to lighten the leadership load, and ease the nation’s ability to cope with the higher level of sanctity expected of the people of Israel through maintaining purity of home and family, among their many other dealings in the desert.

We move from this Torah perspective to the present day. The laws of family purity surface in various stages in a couple’s life, sometimes leading to moments of weeping, resentment and frustration. The grave difficulty of these laws is expressed by Maimonides in the Laws of Forbidden Intercourse (22:18-19):

There is nothing in the entire Torah that is more difficult for the majority of people to separate themselves from than sexual misconduct and forbidden relationships. Our Sages said: When the Jews were commanded regarding forbidden sexual relations, they wept and accepted this mitzvah with complaints and moaning, as implied by the phrase: “Crying among their families,” [that is,] “Crying about family matters.”

Our Sages said: A person’s soul desires and craves theft and forbidden sexual relations. You will never find a community without some people who are promiscuous regarding forbidden relationships and prohibited sexual conduct […]

What is the solution to this difficult situation? Returning to the Torah verses, the solution seems to be not changing the requirements of the halakhic system, but rather, the seventy elders. The Mishna in Avot (1:6) instructs every individual – and couple – to seek out a rabbi; to invest, seek out, and find a rabbinic address for consultation, and find appropriate halakhic solutions for distressing and difficult situations. The Torah recognizes that a single authority cannot cope with the needs of all couples; even Moshe himself attests that a single halakhic leader is incapable of facing the diverse needs of varied couples. The existing halakhic system offers multiple avenues for addressing every unique case, and is often equipped to find solutions for complex problems. There is no need to ‘restart’ halakhic categories in the laws of family purity in order to find solutions. Borrowing from the medical field, the growing trend of personalized medicine offers individuals custom-made treatment based on their unique circumstances. This is true of other fields as well, such as personalized banking, and more. One of the primary characteristics of the halakhic world is the use of systematic rules for the resolution of unique, personal situations.

This generation is privileged to have a plethora of both male and female halakhic leaders who are attentive to questions and problems in all fields of halakhah.

Weeping and resentment are part of life, and are important to surface to the public sphere, instead of leaving the individual to cope with pain and difficulty alone. Without these expressions of pain, the seventy elders would not have been positioned to broaden the spiritual and halakhic leadership for the good of the nation. The weeping and frustration regarding the laws of sexual conduct led to an excellent outcome of a multitude of halakhic leaders and avenues. The public sphere, which is viewed as an address for raising halakhic lacunas is not the place for halakhic clarification, since it doesn’t allow personalized attention. Solutions should be sought in the private sphere, where attention can be given to the unique issues faced by each individual and couple.

Rabbanit Surale Rosen

is a graduate of Hilkhata, Matan's Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a certified Meshivat Halakha. She is the Director of Shayla. In addition she is a certified To'enet Rabbanit and a graduate of Matan’s Advanced Talmud Institute. Surale has taught Midrash, Talmud and Halakha and Daf Yomi in a wide array of shuls and communities, including the Matan Beit Midrash. Surale is a graduate of Bar Ilan University and holds degrees in English Literature and Talmud. This past year she wrote the weekly Parashat HaShavua column for Chumash Shemot in the leading religious Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon and periodically writes Divrei Torah for weekly Torah publications.