Wednesday, May 18, 2005

The Religious Zionism Debate IV

The Three Oaths, Part I

I. The Oaths

The Gemara in Kesuvos (111a) quotes R. Yossi ben R. Hanina: "What are these three oaths? One, that Israel should not rise with (or like) a wall; another, that God had Israel swear not to rebel against the nations; another, that God had the nations swear not to subjugate Israel overmuch."

These three oaths are taken by the Satmar Rav as implying a prohibition against the Jewish people returning as a group to the land of Israel. While we may return as individuals, mass immigrations, and certainly the erection of a Jewish state, violate the oath against rising with (or like) a wall.

While this passage seems like an aggadic passage, there are two responses to this objection. First, there are a few posekim who cite it. Second, there is no such thing as "just" an aggadic passage. Aggadah informs our religious outlook and cannot be ignored!

Most significantly, the Satmar Rav quotes the Maharal of Prague's treatment of these oaths in his Netzah Yisrael, ch. 24. The Satmar Rav explains the Maharal's difficult words as implying that these oaths represent absolute prohibitions that one must sacrifice one's life before violating. In technical terms, these oaths are yehareg ve'al ya'avor. It is better to be martyred than to violate these oaths.

The Satmar Rav's treatment of this subject is lengthy, erudite and simply brilliant. One can only be amazed by the breadth and depth of his thinking. However, this does not mean that his analysis is conclusive. It seems he overlooked or, more likely, did not have available to him an important source that refutes his analysis.

II. The Maharal

The Maharal's commentary to Kesuvos was published from manuscript for the first time in, I believe, 1960. In that commentary, which is now ubiquitous and readily available for anyone to verify, the Maharal explains these oaths allegorically, as is his general approach. These were not literal oaths which a biblical obligation prohibits us from violating. Rather, these are Divine decrees about the exile. The exile will last as long as God has determined, not one moment less or more. Thus, the Maharal explains (and this is all explicit), the oaths that Israel should not rise with (or like) a wall and may not rebel against the nations means that we will not be able to shorten the exile. It will end when God has decided it will end and not any time sooner. The third oath, that the nations may not subjugate us overmuch means that they will not be able to lengthen the exile. The overmuch, evidently, refers to the time of the subjugation. The exile will end at the appropriate time, not sooner and not later.

This explanation is significantly different from the Satmar Rav's. Indeed, as R. Shlomo Aviner points out (Kuntres She-Lo Ya'alu Be-Homah 13:5-6), this explanation of the Maharal, that the oaths represent Divine decrees and not prohibitions, might very well be the intent of the authors of the halakhic responsa that the Satmar Rav quoted.

For example, R. Shlomo ben Shimon (Rashbash) Duran (Responsa Rashbash, 2) wrote:

However, this commandment [to move to Israel] is not a communal commandment to all of Israel in this exile, but is entirely prevented (nimneis) as the Sages said in the Gemara in Kesuvos in the last chapter, that it is one of the oaths that God had Israel swear--that they would not hurry the redemption or rise with a wall. Just see what happened to the descendants of Ephraim, who tried to hurry the redemption.
It is quite possible that the Rashbash is saying that we cannot move to Israel en masse because it will not work. We are exempt from this communal commandment because its fulfillement is (or was) currently impossible, since the oaths are a Divine decree preventing such a mass immigration. There is no evidence that he held that such a mass immigration is forbidden, only that it is impossible. The same can be said for R. Yitzhak ben Sheshet (Rivash) Prefet (Responsa, 101).

The Rambam, in his Iggeres Teiman (ch. 4, Qafah edition, p. 55), writes:
Because Shlomo knew with Divine inspiration that this nation, once it is ensnared in exile, will plot to awaken before the appropriate time and will be destroyed through this and will fall into troubles, he warned about this and made it vow -- allegorically (al derekh mashal) -- and said, "I adjure you, O you daughters of Jerusalem" (Song of Songs 2:7).
The Satmar Rav finds this significant: The great Rambam explicitly quotes the Three Oaths! However, the Rambam states that they are allegorical. The Satmar Rav (Va-Yoel Moshe, Ma'amar Gimmel Shevu'os, ch. 36, in the Ashkenazi 5760 edition, p. 47) explains the allegorical aspect of these oaths as meaning that, in truth, the oaths are only binding on the generation that took the oaths (his reasoning is actually much more elaborate). Therefore, these are not legally binding oaths, "only" allegorical but still very serious matters.

This seems, in my opinion, to be a somewhat forced reading of the phrase "al derekh mashal." That is not the standard way the Rambam allegorically interprets aggadic passages. It seems to me more likely that he understood the oaths in a manner similar to the Maharal: The oaths are Divine decrees that the exile cannot be shortened. Our efforts to do so will only end in disaster.

III. More Maharal

While the Maharal is quite explicit in his commentary to Kesuvos, he also has a long discussion of the Three Oaths in his book Netzah Yisrael, ch. 24. The discussion there is very complicated and somewhat ambiguous. This format does not lend itself to extensive textual explanation, so I encourage my readers to explore R. Menahem Kasher's Ha-Tekufah Ha-Gedolah, ch. 14, where this great sage delves into the language of the Maharal and offers a much more compelling explanation of the Maharal's words that, importantly, are consistent with his commentary to Kesuvos. Anything to the contrary yields a contradiction within the Maharal's own writings. Also critical is that the Maharal is no longer understood as being of the surprising opinion that Jews should choose to be martyred rather than mass-immigrate to Israel.

IV. History and the Oaths

According to the Maharal, as explained above, the Three Oaths refer to a Divine decree that the exile has a pre-determined length and we cannot shorten or lengthen that time (excluding, presumably, a mass repentance). Any attempts to immigrate en masse to the land of Israel will fail unless the time for the exile has ended.

Evidently, if we immigrate en masse and do not fail, the time of the exile has ended! The existence of a huge portion of the Jewish people in the land of Israel, expected to be the majority within the next 15 years, indicates that the Divine decree of the exile has been fulfilled and our punishment has ended.

One critic has suggested that Religious Zionists read the Maharal as referring only to a Divine decree, rather than a prohibition, and then they reject the Divine decree. That is not at all the case. Rather, they are saying that the Divine decree has finally, and thankfully, ended (as everyone agrees it eventually would). The reality of the state of Israel is proof of it.

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