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Interdepedence of oaths, the success of the state, protecting the Jews of Eretz Yisroel, and Aggadah

June 18, 2008

To Whom It May Concern -

I first want to genuinely thank you for your website. I am an observant ba'al teshuva attorney that had no idea about any of these issues until recently.

The reason for my e-mail today is that I keep hearing the same core responses (set forth below) to the claims made by your organization, and I do not feel that I have adequate information to respond. Rest assured, I have scoured your website for answers, and while I have found some partial treatments, I do not feel that I have found anything extensive enough to provide a decent response to the well-meaning, but misguided religious Zionists that are a part of my community.

The most common response I hear to the assertions set forth by your organization is that the Three Oaths have been annulled by the nations, and that the Maharal's opinion that "even if the nations wanted to kill the Jews with terrible torture, the Jews are forbidden to change the applicability of the Oaths" is a clear minority opinion. The religious Zionists argue that even if the secular Zionists "sold out" religious Jews to create the State, this does not take away from the fact that Germans (in addition to a host of nations before them) butchered us. They therefore argue that the proximity of the creation of the State to the end of the Holocaust is clear evidence that the Three Oaths have been annulled. That is, there is a nexus between the holocaust, the annulment of the Three Oaths, and the creation of the State. How can we be certain that the Three Oaths have not been annulled by the nations?

Another argument posed is that if having the State was one of the greatest travesties in the history of Judaism, why did Hashem protect the Jews during the Six-Day War and the wars that followed? If it was so terrible to have a State, why would He allow that State to continue to exist for 60 years? Many religious Jews consider Hashem's protection in this regard to be His endorsement of the State.

Another common response given is that because so many Jews now live in the land, while it may not be kosher to have a State, we have to do everything we can to protect those Jews (through defensive and offensive military efforts) that live in the land since liquidation and mass emigration (meaning almost everyone) is not a realistic possibility.

Finally, many religious Jews make the claim that the Three Oaths are aggadata, and we cannot learn halacha from aggadata. What gives the Rabbis to learn halacha from the aggadata in this particular instance?

Thanks so much for taking the time review the e-mail, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Dear Mr. Rifkin,

The first argument you presented involved the supposed interdependence of the oaths of the Jews and the nations. Let's go back to the source of this concept.

For behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and a razor shall not go up on his head, for the child will be a nazirite of G-d from the womb, and he will begin to save Israel from the Philistines. (Shoftim 13:5)

The simple meaning of the word yachel is begin, as we have translated it above. But the Gemora (Sotah 10a) explains a different level of meaning: yachel can also mean it is nullified, namely, the oath of Avimelech was nullified. Scripture is about to relate the story of Shimshons life and how he terrorized the Philistines. Avraham Avinu and Avimelech, king of the Philistines, had made a sworn covenant with each other (Bereishis 21:23). But since the Philistines fought with and subjugated the Jews, thus violating the oath, the Jews were released from their obligation to keep the oath, and Shimshon was permitted to do what he did.

Some Zionists claim that there is a similar relationship between the oaths of the Jewish people and the nations (Kesubos 111a). The Jewish people was prohibited under oath from going up to Eretz Yisroel as a wall, rebelling against the nations, or forcing the end of exile. The nations were prohibited from subjugating the Jews too much. The claim is that since the nations violated their oath by killing six million Jews, the Jewish people is no longer bound by its oaths.

One need not look far to see the fallacy of this argument. Avraham and Avimelech swore not to harm one another, so when one harmed the other the covenant was broken. But why does one nation harming the Jews in exile give the Jews the right to take Eretz Yisroel away from a different nation that occupies the land? Why should one nation suffer for the violation of another nation?

Furthermore, Rabbi Shmuel ben Yitzchak Yaffe in his commentary Yefeh Kol to the Midrash Shir Hashirim points out that since there is already an oath not to rebel against the nations, the oath about going up as a wall cannot mean only taking the land by military force, because that would be superfluous it would be included in the general prohibition on rebellion. Rather, it means that any effort to take possession of Eretz Yisroel, even with the approval of the nations living there, is forbidden. With this in mind, one cannot possibly say that the oaths are some sort of deal between the Jews and the gentiles, for the oath prohibits Jews from taking the land even when gentiles allow it. The violation of this oath is not a sin against the gentiles, but a sin against Hashem Himself. Violation of the oath against forcing the end, which includes false messiahs and, according to Rashi, even excessive prayer, is certainly not a sin against the gentiles but against Hashem Himself.

Also, although the great destruction wrought by Germany is the worst our people have ever suffered, there is no reason to say that previous massacres such as the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, the destruction of Beitar, the Crusades and the massacres of 1648 (Tach Vetat) did not constitute a violation of the gentiles oath. Why then did the Zionist idea sprout only in this most recent century? In previous generations not only was such an idea never entertained, but it was expressly forbidden by the greatest Torah sages of the time. The Amoraim lived after the Roman massacres and yet they recorded the Three Oaths in the Gemora as practical law. The Rambam knew of the early Crusades and also terrible persecutions in his own lands by the Muslims, and yet he warns the Yemenite Jews not to violate the oaths. The same is true of other Rishonim such as the Rashbash (siman 2) and the Rivash (siman 101), and more recent poskim such as the Avnei Nezer and Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who deal with the oaths as practical halacha.

Until now I have used logic to explain why their argument is flawed. Now I will review the historical record to show that no Jewish sage or commentator in the pre-Zionist era ever made this argument. Every source text that the Zionists can find falls into one of three categories: 1) Reference to an action by G-d, not an annulment of the Jewish oath; 2) Reference to the annulment of the oath prohibiting rebellion against the nations. 3) Reference to the annulment of the oath against excessive prayer. But no one has ever said that the oaths against going up as a wall and forcing the end of exile through action were subject to annulment when the gentiles violate their oath.

We begin with the Midrash, Shir Hashirim Rabbah 2:7: "Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina says: There are two oaths here, one for Israel and one for the nations of the world. He made Israel swear that they would not rebel against the yoke of the kingdoms, and He made the kingdoms swear that they would not harden their yoke upon Israel, for if they would harden their yoke upon Israel, they would cause the end to come not in its proper time."

The Midrash does not say that the oaths are a covenant between Israel and the nations, nor does it say that if the nations harden their yoke upon Israel the oath is annulled. It says only that if they harden the yoke, G-d will bring an early end to the exile.

Similarly, the Shitah Mekubetzes in Kesubos 111a says in the name of the disciples of the Rashba: "I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my Beloved, what will you tell Him? That I am lovesick." (Shir Hashirim 5:8) The Jewish people is speaking to the nations of the world, after the Holy One, blessed is He, made the nations swear not to afflict Israel too much, lest they cause Him to arouse their love before its time, because the Holy One, blessed is He, cannot bear to see Israel in great distress and not save them, as the Gemara says (Sanhedrin 97b), "When the time to redeem them arrives, the Holy One, blessed is He, will raise up a king whose decrees are like Haman's and he will bring them to repent, and then immediately they will be redeemed."

Here again, it is clear that G-d will be the one to bring the redemption before its time. In passing, we note that the Shitah Mekubetzes states clearly that redemption, even when early, must be preceded by repentance.

That G-d will bring the redemption and not the Jews is also clear from the Pnei Yehoshua on Kesubos 111a. The Pnei Yehoshua asks how the oath on the nations of the world fits in with the verse "do not arouse or awaken the love before it is desired" which refers to the redemption of the Jewish people. He answers that if the nations afflict the Jews too much, "they will cause the Holy One, blessed is He, to hasten to bring the redemption before its time, as we find in the case of the Egyptian exile."

(The Pnei Yehoshua also asks how the oath against revealing the secret to the nations has to do with the redemption. He answers based on Rashi's second explanation, that "the secret" refers to the reasons behind the Torah. When the gentiles learn the reasons and secrets of the Torah, they will come to recognize the great love between G-d and the Jewish people, and they will then stop ruling over them and will arouse the redemption before its time. Thus Chazal with their holy inspiration foresaw today's situation, where 85 million Christians are strong supporters of Zionism and push the Jewish people out of exile prematurely, all due to the fact that they have read the Torah and recognize that the Jews are G-d's beloved people.)

Now we move on to the second category: those who write that the oath on rebellion against the nations becomes annulled when the nations violate their oath. As we wrote here two years ago, the oaths not to go up as a wall and not to force the end are not for the benefit of the gentiles, and thus they cannot be part of a deal between the gentiles and the Jewish people. Rather, G-d gave us these oaths for our own benefit, so that we should not try to redeem ourselves at the wrong time. But the oath prohibiting rebellion against the nations might be, logically speaking, part of such a deal with the nations. Of course, if one nation violated its oath, that would not permanently annul the oath of rebellion against the nations, nor would it give the Jews the right to rebel against a different nation; but there might be a temporary relaxation of the Jewish oath with regard to the offending nation.

This is what the Rabbi Shimshon Chaim Nachmani writes in his commentary Zera Shimshon (published in 1778) on Megillas Esther 9:1. Scripture tells us that on the 13th of Adar, the very day that the Jews' enemies had planned to destroy them, the exact opposite happened: the Jews destroyed their enemies. The Zera Shimshon comments that Scripture goes out of its way to say that "the opposite happened" because if not for this, the Jews would not have had the right to lift up their hands against the gentiles. But now, since the gentiles planned to kill the Jews, the Jews were permitted to kill them. Because it states in the thirteenth chapter of Kesubos, "What are these three oaths? One that the Holy One, blessed is He, made Israel swear not to rebel against the nations of the world, and one that He made the nations of the world swear not to afflict Israel too much." And the Shulchan Aruch says (Yoreh Deah 236:6), "When two people swear to each other and one violates his oath, the other is also permitted and needs no annulment."

Note that of all the oaths in Kesubos, he only quotes two: the prohibition to rebel against the nations, and the nations' oath. He does not quote the oath prohibiting mass immigration to Eretz Yisroel, nor the oath prohibiting us to force the end, because those oaths have nothing to do with the nations and are not subject to any deal with them.

In passing, we note that the Zera Shimshon assumed that the oaths would have applied to the Jews in the time of Haman despite the fact that the king gave them permission to fight back, and despite the fact that their lives were in danger. Thus the very same Zera Shimshon that Zionists trumpet as one of their proofs, besides not being any proof at all, actually contradicts two of their most central claims.

Finally, we have those who say that when the nations violate their oath, the Jews are allowed to pray excessively for the redemption, something that they are ordinarily prohibited from doing under the oath "that they should not force the end". These are Rabbi Shlomo Kluger in Maaseh Yedei Yotzer on the Hagadah, and Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein in Avkas Rochel 9:1. This does not mean that the Jews are permitted to take any action towards the redemption! The difference between being permitted to pray and being permitted to take action is simple: taking action toward the redemption is tantamount to heresy, but violating the oath through excessive prayer is not, since on the contrary, prayer strengthens the Jew's belief that G-d controls all events and only He can end the exile. Therefore, as long as the gentiles treat the exiled Jews in accordance with G-d's decree and did not exceed their limit, G-d does not want us to pray for the end of exile, since the exile was His plan and is for our benefit. But when the gentiles exceed their limit, their actions emanate from their own free will and not from G-d's decree, and so we may pray to G-d to save us from them (Vayoel Moshe 1:79). This was explained at length in the Parsha Pearls for Pesach, 5768.

The argument that Hashem's protection of the Jews in Eretz Yisroel means His endorsement of the state is not valid because 1) maybe Hashem wanted to protect the lives of the Jews living there during the various wars, 2) we don't bring proof from the success of something that it is permitted, because otherwise we would have to say it was permitted for Hitler to kill six million Jews, and the same with all the other successful wicked acts in history; 3) even if something is Hashem's will and part of His plan, that is not the same thing as saying it is permitted. For example, one could legitimately argue, if Hitler was able to succeed in killing the six million Jews, it must be that Hashem wanted it to happen. But that does not mean it was a permitted and righteous act. It says in Pirkei Avos that Hillel saw a skull in the water and said, "Because you drowned others, they drowned you, and your drowners will eventually be drowned." The evil in the world is part of Hashem's plan and yet the evildoers are punished for exercising their free will. See Rambam Hilchos Teshuva 6:5 who explains this by saying that even when Hashem wants an evil act to be done, He does not decree that any specific person do it; thus whoever chooses to do it is responsible for his crime. 4) The story of the Zionist state isn't over yet, and if you open your eyes you will see that Hashem is bringing a peaceful end to Zionism right now. He has raised up a nation that did not exist previously, who claim to be the original inhabitants of the land under the Zionists' feet. Hashem has made them increasingly persistent and support from them around the world is growing. Eventually the Zionists will have to give them equality, and if you incorporate all the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank, plus the refugees, into one state, there will no longer be a Jewish majority and Zionism would cease to exist.

This brings us to your third question: what do you do with all the Jews that live there now? The answer is that they don't need to go anywhere. There's nothing wrong with Jews living in Eretz Yisroel during exile. The problem is Jews ruling over Eretz Yisroel during exile. If there is one multinational democratic state in which Jews are a minority, that is not called Jews ruling the land. Such a prospect is not as far off as one might think. After all, don't we hear Olmert arguing for his land concessions based by saying that "if we don't do this, it would mean the end of a Jewish majority and the end of Zionism"?

The question about learning halacha from aggadah is not really a question when you realize that there are two types of aggadah in the Gemora: 1) aggadah that explains the punishments, rewards, and mussar behind established halacha, and 2) aggadah that brings in a new halacha not mentioned anywhere else. For example, in Sotah 4b it says that anyone who is careless about netilas yadayim is uprooted from the world. That is type 1). We know from the Gemora elsewhere that one must wash netilas yadayim. The aggadah is just coming to tell us a punishment for an established law. Such aggados are not generally codified by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch. In Berachos 5b it says that if two people are praying in a shul and one finishes first and leaves, they tear up his prayer, and it quotes a posuk. That is type 2): the prohibition on leaving one person alone in shul is not mentioned anywhere else in the Gemora; this aggadah is the only source. The halacha in this aggadah is therefore brought down by the Tur in Orach Chaim 90.

To prove more conclusively that novel halachos mentioned in aggadah are codified, take the tractate Berachos. Berachos contains 41 aggados that derive punishments from verses. 25 of those contain a law not mentioned anywhere else. Of those 25, 16 are codified by the Rambam or the Shulchan Aruch. 5 are brought by the Magen Avraham, another halachic work. That leaves only 4 that are not codified, and for each of those 4 there is a special reason which would take too much time to go into now. The point is that halachic aggados aggados from which a unique law emerges do have to be codified, and when they are missing from the codes, there has to be a reason, just like we search for reasons every time the Rambam omits a law mentioned in the Gemara.

Here too, the Three Oaths are certainly aggadah but they contain unique halachos. The poskim (though not the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch) do quote them as halacha.

Please let me know if you allow me to use this letter on our site if I change your name. (Most of the other names in the question and answer section are fictitious.)

Dear Rabbi-

Thanks so much for such an incredibly thoughtful response. And you of course have my permission to use this letter. That said, I would appreciate if you could change my name to a fictitious one. Sadly, while everything halachic under the sun seems fair game for discussion and debate, most pro-Israel religious Jews have no ability to be objective about this issue, and I do not want to become a target.

As a ba'al teshuva, it is very frustrating to me to see that the response on the other side is so totally irrational and based on emotion. Before I became I obervant, I lived a completely secular life as a young lawyer, but I totally changed my life because whatever limited powers of research and analysis I have led me to conclude that Hashem is real and His Torah divine. I gave up a INUMERABLE deep-seeded emotional attachments I had when I was secular (the girl I was with, the food ate, the places I went, the kinds of friends I had, the hours I worked, etc., etc., etc.) because I truly believe that the evidence of Hashem's existence and the divinity of His Torah is overwhelming in the face of all the counterarguments to the contrary. What irritates me so much about the religious zionists is that for all their religious education, they cannot give up ONE deep-seeded emotional attachment (their emotional attachment to the State) when presented with clear evidence to the contrary.

In my humble opinion, the only thing that should ultimately matter to a religious Jew is truth, whether that truth agrees with your emotional predisposition or not. If a religious Jew is nothing more than a person that chooses live a lifestyle that comports with his deeply-held, already existing beliefs, then that religious Jew is in some ways no better than a conservative or reform Jew that picks and chooses from the Torah what he or she wants to incorporate into their lifestyle, and discounts the remainder as false. I'm sorry for the rant, but even in Los Angeles where there are so many religious Jews, I feel like an Island with respect to my position on the State. It's not as if I go around publicizing what I believe (because of the very hostile response that such a position engenders), but I literally don't hear anyone in the community discussing the issue either. At any rate, thanks again for taking all that time to respond to me, and I hope you have a great rest of your week!