Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Death Penalty for Not Voting Degel HaTorah?

Rav Chaim Kanievsky
If anyone wants to know why there has been an erosion in respect for rabbinic authority, they do not have to look further than a recent statement by Rav Chaim Kanievsky. This is not to cast aspersions on R’ Chaim. It is to note the likely reactions to his quoted words by many even in the Charedi world.

According to Matzav, R’ Chaim’s son, R’ Shlomo Kaneievsky, attended a meeting about strengthening the Charedi political party, Degel HaTorah. This was apparently done in reacton to a meeting of the Charedi Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah headed by R’ Aharon Leib Shteinman. R’ Shlomo came armed with the words of his father. Here is Matzav’s version of what he said: 
“I asked [my father] what I should say here. My father told me: ‘Tell them that it is written in the Gemara that those who demean the greatest leaders of the generation have no portion in Olam haba.’”
Rav Shlomo added that his father, with uncharacteristic sharpness, said, “Hamevazeh gedolei hador chayov sekilah - Those who denigrate the gedolei hador are deserving of stoning.”
When Rav Shlomo asked his father about the fact that this is not written explicitly anywhere in Chazal, Rav Chaim replied that “we are talking about chillul Sheim Shomayim and this is worse than one who desecrates the Shabbos, even though it is not written explicitly.”
“When I asked him,” added Rav Shlomo, “that they will say that they have different gedolim, he said to me, ‘You can say that I saw how the Chazon Ish accompanied him (Rav Shteinman) to the door. There is no more to say and it is not respectful to say more.”
Here’s the thing. Rabbinic leaders fear losing any power they have left in the government of Israel. As such they want to make sure that they are unified. Splitting votes with a rival Charedi party will weaken them.

Even if both Charedi parties would have the same interests (which is unlikely or there wouldn’t be the need to split) - it is actually mathematically possible to lose Charedi seats with a split vote since the threshold of required voters per additional seats in the Kenesset may not be reached in either party whereas if the split votes were combined in one party it could add up reaching the threshold for an additional seat.

But to declare those who vote for another party – even another Charedi party - to be guilty of a Chilul Hashem and worthy of Skilah (stoning - a Beis Din level death penalty) is a mind boggling statement coming form an elder in Klal Yisroel. I am not questioning his views. I’m sure they are based on his considerable understanding of Halacha. I simply do not understand them. There is no explaining it to the rational mind.

Now - no Beis Din has the power to issue the death penalty today. But the mere fact that he declared voting even for another Charedi party to be worthy of such a penalty is what makes it so hard for even many Charedim to respect his views. At least in private if not publicly.

I suppose one can say never to believe what is said in the name of Gedolim. I have heard many Charedim say that unless you hear them say it… or they have hand written and signed it – don’t believe a word. But would R’ Chaim’s son deliberately lie about what his father said?

I’m trying to imagine R’ Moshe Feinstein saying anything remotely close to this. Or R’ Yaakov Kamenetsky. Or R’ Yoshe Ber Solveitchik. Or R’ Ahron Soloveichik. Or R’ Aharon Kotler. Or even the Steipler Gaon, R’ Chaim Kanievsky’s father. I can’t. They would have never characterized sincere Jews who voted their conscience for other Charedim as deserving the death penalty. Especially if they relied on other Gedolim.

Can you blame anyone for questioning this kind of declaration? Questioning someone who is an undisputed Gadol of their community can only result in a lessening of respect. That’s because Charedim believe that even raising the question shows that you do not respect the Gadol as you should. But how is it possible not to question it - at least in your own mind?

I can’t speak for R’ Chaim. Nor am I in any position to admonish him. I will simply say the following Dvar Torah from last week’s Torah portion of Lech LaCha.

Therein the Torah tells us of Avraham’s questioning God. He asked how he (Avraham) would know that the promise God made to him about  his progeny inheriting the land of Israel would be fulfilled.

Rashi explains that there are two different ways of interpreting what Avraham was asking. One was to ask God to show him a sign that would prove His commitment to give Avraham’s progeny the land of Israel.The other was to ask God by what merit his progeny would be worthy of God’s promise.

Chazal tell us that it was Avraham’s questioning of God’s commitment that brought about the 400 year exile of slavery in Egypt. The Yalkut Gershoni (R' Gershon Stern) asks why, "Why was Avraham punished?" Isn’t it possible that the second interpretation is the correct one? The answer is that he was punished because he was not precise in his words. That there were 2 possible interpretations - leaving the possibility that he was actually questioning God is why he was punished with a sentence of slavery for his children.

The lesson to be taken here is the following: Chachamim Hizharu B'Divreichem. Wise people must be careful when they speak. Lest they be misunderstood and the honor of the Torah undermined.