Thursday, April 7, 2011

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv) on Right-Wing, Left-Wing and Jewish Unity, Part I

I love coming across random responsa by accident. Yesterday I accidentally came across Meishiv Davar 1:44, and I was floored that I had never heard of this responsa. This is Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin’s response to an editorial that promoted separation of observant Jews from less observant Jews.

I expect to translate the responsum in the next several posts, as I make time. (It’s more than 4500 words in the Hebrew, so give me time…) Here’s Part I:

I saw an editorial called “Right and Left” in the journal Machzikei haDat [“Those who hold on to religion”], #3, in which they came to address a question requiring reply. Since we are obligated to participate in strengthening religion in Israel, I cannot flee from this. I will present before the nation of Gd, those who hold on to religion, may Gd bless them, that which is in my heart in this analysis, and if someone else can reply and clarify the issue in some other way then may his words come and illuminate the path of life. Even if we are far from each other in dwelling, we are close to each other in our desire and yearning to come to the right target, with the help of Gd who provides intellect.

They arranged the question as: (1) Could the Jewish religion divide into three streams? (2) Is there a right, left and center in the path of our faith? They added that in their view, the elements of right, left and center in religion existed in years past, and perhaps in Israel there were three such groups, meaning righteous people who distanced themselves from the world’s issues and did not benefit even a pinky’s worth from this world, and opposite them were wicked people who threw off the yoke of Torah and awe, whether out of ignorance or wanton ill-intent, and that the middle people were those who were simple in their ways, traveling in the way of the world and not rejecting the Torah.

I saw, with all due respect to the editor, that he did not conclude with that with which he began. He began to investigate whether there is right, left and middle in religion and in the path of our belief, and he concluded that the left is an abandonment of the yoke of Torah and awe of Gd – but this is not within religion, it is outside of the path of our faith! Also, the language of, “Are there three groups like this in Israel” is unclear – what is the question? Regarding three groups, perfectly righteous, perfectly wicked, and intermediates?

Rather, this would be the way to analyze: Are there among the guardians of faith and religion, who do not break the fences, right, left and center. This is the question which requires proper clarification.

In truth, there are three groups in Israel, and according to our explanation, with our humble abilities, those are the ones identified in Torah as “to the right” and “to the left”, as will be explained.

The Hebrew for this section:
ראיתי בעלה מחזיקי הדת גליון ג' מאמר נערך ממעריכי העלים, הנקרא המאמר בשם ימין ושמאל ובאו בזה לדרוש בתורת שאלה הנדרש לתשובה, ובאשר עלינו להשתתף בהחזקת הדת בישראל לא יכולתי מלט נפשי ולהציע לפני עדת ה' בעלי מחזיקי הדת יברכם ה' את אשר בלבי בחקירה זו, ומי שיש בידו להשיב ולברר הדברים באופן אחר יבאו דבריו ויאירו דרך חיים כי איך שהננו רחוקים זמ"ז במקום דירה הננו קרובים זה לזה ברצון וחשק לבא אל המטרה, בעזר הא-ל דעה מורה:

הן העריכו לשון החקירה, (א) היוכל דת ישראל להחלק לשלשה גזרים, (ב) הנמצא ימין ושמאל ואמצע במהלך אמונתנו, והוסיפו כי לדעתם ענין ימין ושמאל ואמצע בדת היו לפני שנות קדם, אולי נמצאו בישראל שלש כתות כאלה, היינו הצדיקים אשר התרחקו מכל הויות העולם על אשר לא יהנו מעולם הזה אפילו באצבע קטנה, ולעומתם נמצאו רשעים פורקי עול תורה ויראה אם מחסרון ידיעה אם בשאט נפש ובזדון, ואמצעים תמימים בדרכיהם הולכי בדרך העולם ולא בעטו בתורה:

והנני אומר במח"כ המעריך, לא במה שהחל לחקור סיים, הוא החל לחקור אם יש ימין ושמאל ואמצע בדת ובמהלך אמונתנו וסיים כי השמאל הוא פריקת עול תורה ויראת ה' והרי זה אינו בדת והוא חוץ ממהלך אמונתנו, וגם אינו מובן לשון אולי נמצאו בישראל שלש כתות כאלה מה זו שאלה, על שלש כתות, צדיקים גמורים, ורשעים גמורים ובינונים, אלא כך יש לחקור, אם נמצאו בשומרי אמונה ודת ואינם פורצי גדר ימין ושמאל ואמצע, זהו שאלה שנדרש לברר יפה:

אמנם גם בזה יש ויש שלש כתות בישראל, ולפי ביאורנו בעניות דעתנו המה הם מכונים במקרא בשם מיימינים ומשמאילים כאשר יבואר:


  1. This is actually a very famous responsum in the, uh, tolerant wing of Orthodoxy.

    Much of the Machzike Ha-dos is on, so perhaps you can find the editorial. I onced posted something which I think is interesting, regarding the origin of this newspaper.

  2. S-
    No kidding? I never heard of it. (And I thought my wing was the tolerant one...) Has anyone already done a translation? I could save myself some time.

  3. I was kidding about the tolerance!

    IIRC there's a partial translation in "'No Two Minds are Alike': Tolerance and Pluralism in the Work of Neziv," Torah u-Madda Journal 12 (2004): 74-98.

    I think Louis Jacobs might have discussed it in his Theology in the Responsa, but I'm not sure about that.

    Actually, I may have overstated its fame.

  4. Sorry, should have said that the aforementioned article was written by Gil S. Perl, who did his doctorate on the Netziv.

  5. S., which Orthodox wing do you belong to?

  6. Real cynicism (as a principle, yet!) and Orthodoxy are incompatible.

  7. In Israel it is a pretty well known t'shuvah in Religious Zionist circles. Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook used to refer to it, as well as parallels and comparisons in his father's writings. It of course leads to a whole discussion of why Rav Hirsch took a different approach in Germany (he really had no choice since realities in Frankfurt were established before he got there).

    I had cited it when addressing the topic of separate shuls in a struggling central Massachusetts community. That letter didn't go over too well, as I recall.

    I had always thought that it is, indeed, well known; but I guess maybe that's only in certain circles in Israel.

  8. > It of course leads to a whole discussion of why Rav Hirsch took a different approach in Germany (he really had no choice since realities in Frankfurt were established before he got there).

    It's not such a kashya. Or, it's the same kashya you can ask on the Machzike Hadas. R. Hirsch and the Machzike Hadas faction in Hungary were in complete agreement about separation, and both elements explicitly supported each other.

    Whether it's true or not that R. Hirsch had "no choice" in Frankfurt, he advocated it *everywhere* so explaining what he did in his own location is not enough, since he held that was the obligation of Orthodoxy all over.

  9. S. (Miss Fred), I wasn't aware that Rav Hirsch advocated separation *everywhere*, as opposed to German Reform communities. Where can I see this?

  10. I mean everywhere where there was such a struggle. Why should the situation have been different with his theory? Much of this is discussed in Jacob Katz's "A House Divided," which deals mainly with separation in Hungarian Orthodoxy, but has plenty to say about R. Hirsch too. The theoretical principle was the same.