PROFAINING THE SACRED
Rabbi David Walk
Last week, you may recall (or not), I discussed the injunction to be holy. I advocated for the notion that God wants us to create sanctity in this mundane realm. This is a very special talent that we have been blessed with. On the simplest level we have been granted the power to take a blank piece of paper, then write one of God's seven holy names on it, and voila this piece of paper now must be treated as a holy artifact. Pretty remarkable! On a more sophisticated plane, we can sanctify our time by dedicating it to Torah and mitzvoth or even our community and environs by imbuing them with holy purpose and activity. That is also cool. But from many years of reading Marvel Comics I am acutely aware of the fact that every power is fraught with problems and perils. We may not have to walk around with super hero costumes (although Chasidim do), but we do have to remain cognizant of a major danger for creators of kedusha. We also have the power to profane God's name. That hazard is presented in this week's Torah reading.
The mirror image reality of our powers to create both the sacred and profane is recorded in the following verse: You shall not desecrate My Holy Name, that I may be sanctified amidst the children of Israel. I am the Lord Who sanctifies you (Leviticus 22:32). This dual opportunity to either sanctify or desecrate God's name is most famously manifest in the situation of martyrdom. When there are no alternatives to either publicly transgressing certain sins (murder, adultery and idolatry) or being executed, then there must follow either a Kiddush Hashem or a Chilul Hashem. Thank God those instances are not common, and we are to avoid them as much as possible. However, Maimonides lists other circumstances in our lives when we can either sanctify or desecrate God's name. For example: Whoever consciously transgresses one of the mitzvoth related in the Torah, without being forced to, in a spirit of derision, to arouse Divine anger, desecrates God's name. Conversely, anyone who refrains from committing a sin or performs a mitzvah for no ulterior motive, neither out of fear or dread, nor to seek honor, but for the sake of the Creator, sanctifies God's name (Maimonides, Fundamentals of the Torah, 5:10). Maimonides also lists certain social behaviors which can either sanctify or desecrate God's name, because of one's stature in the community (check out law #10 and Laws of Torah Study, 3:10).
This reality that practitioners of Torah can profane God's Name by anti-social acts embarrasses our Jewish people more often than we would like. My first experience feeling this shame came in 1975 with the revelations about Medicaid fraud by an ordained rabbi from the Yeshiva University Semicha Program which I was then attending. Watching these respected members of my community first accused and then convicted of reprehensible treatment in a network of nursing homes mortified me. It changed my dream to shame. Sadly that was the first of a series of revelations about supposedly observant Jews who brought disgrace to our religion, our people and our God, and these revelations seem to surface almost annually. And time has not lessened that churning in my stomach when some frum or rabbinic figure is thrust into the spotlight for fraud, or abuse or bribery or whatever. The traditional approach that the more religious or learned the figure the greater the desecration seems to work not only in the pages of the Talmud or Maimonides but in my gut as well.
This brings me to the dilemma. We believe that greater mitzvah performance and greater Torah knowledge brings greater awareness of spirituality and God's presence in our realm. So, how can precisely these individuals bring such shame to us and Chillul (desecration) to God's name? This is not a theoretical question. It's a conundrum which faces us all and has been asked by many of my young, impressionable and innocent students. My approach to this thorny issue doesn't do justice to the enormity of the dilemma, but I will share it with you, and hope that anyone out there with a better solution will share it with me.
It seems to me that the system of mitzvoth bequeathed to us by God must be viewed as a unified or holistic arrangement. We perform mitzvoth in their various areas of application (between human and God, between human and human) and these actions added together result in an ideal spiritual human being, beloved of God and revered by mankind. Halacha and Jewish practice must be the arbiters of all our actions. But what happens when an individual views mitzvoth as independent goals, not a unified field theory? Then there isn't a comprehensive approach to the spiritual life, and, even worse, certain areas can be treated as outside the rigorous adherence to morality demanded by Jewish Law. Remember that God tells us that our lives must be tov v'yashar (good and ethical). Under those circumstances of bifurcated behavior, we can have individuals with strict attachment to Jewish Law in one area (say, keeping kosher or shabbat) but lax performance in other areas (say, theft or kindness). This is not a failure of the system, it is a disorder within that person. The greater the disconnect the greater the desecration.
We believe that the Jewish nation is charged with the mission to guide the world in the direction of belief in God and on the route towards ethics with one another. When our behavior brings shame and ridicule to our people, it's much more than just failure. It contradicts our purpose because it drives God out of our world and that profanes the entire enterprise, both God and the Torah. For some reason throughout history we observant Jews have found it harder to live for the cause than to die for it, and that's very sad.