Israel’s national airline, El-Al, recently came under fire for massive delays on flights from the US to Israel. The issue? Ultra-Orthodox men who refused to occupy their pre-assigned seats next to women. The saga made international news and the Washington Post reported that the pilot had to plead with the men to sit down so that the plane could take off. But no sooner was it in the air, than the men jumped out of their seats and blocked the aisles, wreaking havoc and making the flight most uncomfortable for all the passengers.
If a man dies childless, the law of the levirate marriage (yibum) obligates his brother to marry the widow and bear children perpetuating the deceased’s name. If they refuse to proceed with the yibum, they perform an annulment service called chalitzah. If, however, the widow was somehow otherwise related to the surviving brother, she is exempt from yibum and chalitzah. The Mishnah teaches that not only is a related woman exempt, but even if her polygamous co-wife is related to him, she is exempt.
The Mishnah states: The School of Shamai permits the unrelated co-wife to the brother and the School of Hillel forbids the relationship.
Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri taught: How should this law be disseminated in Israel? If we decide according to the School of Shamai, the children will be bastards according to the School of Hillel; and if we decide according to the School of Hillel, the children will be illegitimate according to the School of Shamai! Let us decree that the co-wives in question all do chalitzah and not yibum.
Chief Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel asked him: What then shall we do with any pre-existing co-wives, who already followed the ruling of the School of Hillel and, believing that there was no obligation to do yibum or chalitzah, went on to marry unrelated men? Should they do chalitzah post-facto? That would make them repulsive to their husbands, who would feel that until now they weren’t legitimately married! And we could not, in good conscience, institute such a decree, for concerning the Torah, King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Its ways are ways of pleasantness.”
It’s okay to take on extra personal stringencies in one’s relationship with the Almighty. But not when they come at the expense of making others feel repulsed by the Torah. Rabbi Shimon refused to accept Rabbi Yochanan’s solution, because it would turn people off. We must strive to show the pleasantness of the Torah’s ways and any stringency that would threaten that is not a stringency – instead, you are acting contrary to G-d’s will! If you refuse to sit in your seat on the plane because you think you’re being pious, you’ve missed the point. The Torah’s ways are pleasant and nobody should be made to feel repulsed by a Torah decree!
Rabbi Shimon is offering us an important rule of thumb: When may you act piously? Only if it increases the perception of the beauty of Torah. For example, according to strict Halacha, if you find an object in a busy thoroughfare, you may keep it. But imagine what a sanctification of G-d’s name you would make, if you were to put up signs around the neighbourhood seeking the owner! Now that’s piety that demonstrates the Torah’s pleasant ways. By contrast, self-righteous ‘piety’ that causes people to be repulsed, is antithetical to Torah.
We live in spiritually challenging times when we are bearing witness to the tragic vanishing of the vast majority of our people. It is incumbent upon every one of us who cares to utilize every opportunity possible to demonstrate the pleasantness of the Torah’s ways. Don’t mess up! You can make a difference, for better or for worse. Strive to ensure it’s always for the better!