UPDATE

5756 - Number 1

 

INQUIRY

Defining a Chilul Hashem

INQUIRY

WITH RABBI BENJAMIN HECHT

Defining a Chilul Hashem

The classical case of chilul Hashem, as found in Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot YesodeiHaTorah, chapter 5, concerns the obligation, in certain circumstances, to sacrifice one's life rather than violate a Torah law. While, in general, we are called upon to transgress a command in order to save our lives, in these particular instances, an offense would also result in the profaning of G-d's Name; thus we are called upon to give up our lives rather than sin. Why, though, do these circumstances render this transgression, performed under duress, an action that profanes G-d's Name? What is the exact nature and mechanics of a chilul Hashem?

Rambam, here and in his famous Ma'amar Kiddush Hashem, describes the various factors that demand observance of the law even at the cost of one's life. The first, and perhaps the most well known, is the nature of the law itself. There are certain laws -- concerning idolatry, murder and arayot, the major sexual offenses -- that we are always called upon to observe even at the expense of our lives. On the surface, this would seem to imply that there must be something inherent to these transgressions that would profane the Name of Hashem. Many commentators, though, find such a theory difficult to accept. They declare that the command to not violate these laws in any circumstance, even at the expense of one's life, is not derived from the concept of chilul or kiddush Hashem, but rather reflect the inherent stringency of these laws. See Encyclopedia Talmudit, 15:342. In fact, Meiri, Magen Avot, subject 19 declares that this must also be the reasoning of Rambam himself. Chilul Hashem, according to these opinions, is never dependent upon the internal nature of the transgression but rather the external circumstances that surround the action. In fact, these external factors that transform a violation into a chilul Hashem are the focus of this discussion.

The other determinants, noted by Rambam, that must be considered in evaluating whether a violation of Torah under duress is a chilul Hashem are, indeed, of the external nature. There are three such factors. The first one is whether the one forcing the violation is doing so for personal pleasure or in order to simply force the Jew to violate Torah. The second one is whether the violation is to be performed publicly or privately. The third one is whether there is a general state of religious persecution of Jews or not. According to the Ma'amar Kiddush Hashem, if the non-Jew is forcing the transgression simply for his personal benefit, it is never a case of chilul Hashem. If the non-Jew, though, is demanding the transgression in order to force the Jew to sin, if this action is to be done publicly, the Jew must sacrifice his or her life rather that transgress. If it is, however, a period of general religious persecution of Jews, even if the action is to be performed privately, the violation would be a chilul Hashem. (There is somewhat of a controversy whether Rambam maintains the same formulation of these rules in the Mishneh Torah as the language in this text is somewhat unclear.)

It would seem that the underlying principle is the impression we present concerning our commitment to G-d. A chilul Hashem would seem to occur when we present ourselves as lacking a certain level of commitment. Thus, if the non-Jew's purpose is simply personal pleasure and the Jew's commitment to G-d is not in question, the infraction cannot be deemed a chilul Hashem. When, though, the non-Jew's objective is to publicly demonstrate a Jew's lack of commitment to G-d, even under duress, the act is a chilul Hashem. In times of religious persecution, even a private act demonstrating such a lack of commitment is also deemed to profane G-d's Name. Is this concept, though, what we mean when we colloquially declare that a certain person's behaviour was a chilul Hashem? When we state that someone performed a chilul Hashem, do we mean that this person's actions demonstrated a lack of commitment to G-d?

Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 63 extends the definition of chilul Hashem to include cases that don't involve duress. Someone who violates a Torah law although he or she has no inherent desire to do so and gains no pleasure from doing so, but simply transgresses in order to rebel against Hashem, is deemed to also be profaning the Name of G-d. The conceptual underpinning of this category of chilul Hashem would seem to be similar to that of the original category. What greater indication of a lack of commitment to G-d is there then an act of rebellion? While we may colloquially consider a chilul Hashem to occur when someone has a negative perception of an observant individual, the sources seem to be pointing to a different concept. The essence of a chilul Hashem seems not to revolve around whether a person is projecting a negative impression of observance but rather whether a person is presenting a lack of commitment to G-d.

Another challenge to the colloquial understanding of chilul Hashem seems to arise also from T.B. Sanhedrin 74b. In the case of duress, the definition of a public violation of the law is in front of ten, specifically, ten Jews. The concern for chilul Hashem seems to be an internal matter; we are concerned with how members of the committed group, Jews, will perceive the behaviour. This idea is further supported by the source verse for chilul Hashem, Vayikra 22:32, which focuses on the effect on the Jewish people. The colloquial concern, though, seems to be more with those outside of the group. Indeed, when the term chilul Hashem is invoked, usually the question is: what will the non-Jews think? what will the non-observant think? If, though, a chilul Hashem does refer to a lack of commitment to G-d, it makes sense that our concern would not be with what outsiders would think, but that we are presenting the wrong message to those within the group. Demonstrating a lack of commitment to Hashem would be most hurtful to those who share the commitment; the concern of chilul Hashem would be directed to Jews, specifically observant Jews. If, though, a chilul Hashem refers to a negative representation of Torah observance, it follows that our concern should be with the perception of those outside the group.

Herein lies a most interesting revelation. Colloquially, we understand a chilul Hashem as referring to an act that will (a) denigrate Torah observance in the eyes of (b) the general population. The basic sources on the subject, though, seem to understand a chilul Hashem as referring to an act that will (a) demonstrate a lack of commitment to Hashem in the eyes of (b) the committed population. Is this perception correct? What is the basis for the colloquial understanding of this concept?

There are, indeed, sources that seem to present chilul Hashem as representing, what we have termed, its colloquial understanding. The concern for chilul Hashem in these cases seems to be a negative perception of observant individuals. In fact, this seems to be the essence of the third category of chilul Hashem that is presented in the Sefer Hamitzvot. Basing himself upon T.B. Yoma 86a, Rambam states that if a pious individual acts in a way that the general population would consider inappropriate for this individual (and there is some inherent legitimacy to this higher standard of behaviour and its imposition upon this person), this person is performing a chilul Hashem. The concern within this category does not seem to be the portrayal of a lack of commitment to G-d. The concern seems to be the negative portrayal of observance, that people will denigrate Torah in that this pious person acts in such a negative way. Perhaps, chilul Hashem represents both concepts -- a portrayal of lack of commitment to G-d and/or actions that would evoke negative reactions to Torah -- and it is this third category of Rambam that is the source of the latter, more well known, definition.

Yet, upon a closer look at the language of Rambam in Sefer HaMitzvot, the concern of the third category may also not be the colloquial understanding of chilul Hashem but rather the same concern as the first two categories - the portrayal of lack of commitment to G-d. Rambam states that the pious person must refrain from this behaviour, although inherently permitted, because the general population perceives it to be an aveira, a transgression. It may, in fact, not be a chilul Hashem because the general population will have a negative attitude towards Torah in that a pious individual could so act. It may be a chilul Hashem because the general population will perceive this pious individual as violating the Torah law and thereby demonstrating a lack of commitment to Hashem - even though it is actually inherently permitted. For the pious individual we are concerned that the general population not even have an incorrect perception of lack of commitment.

In Ma'amar Kiddush Hashem, Rambam, though, does seem to express the idea that a chilul Hashem also occurs when one creates a negative attitude towards Torah. In general terms, he states, when any person acts in a way that creates public ridicule and slander, this is a chilul Hashem. In specific terms, when a pious or learned person acts in a discourteous manner unbefitting his position, it is also a chilul Hashem. It would seem that there is support in the sources for the colloquial definition of chilul Hashem. This view would also seem to be supported by Rambam's source text for his third category, T.B. Yoma 86a.

Clearly, the source in Yoma does support the other factor in the colloquial understanding of chilul Hashem in stating that our concern is the briyot, the general population. It is not how we appear to other members of our group that is most significant but rather how we appear to those outside our group, specifically, non-Jews. Interestingly, according to Chinuch, mitzvah 296, even if we define the theme of chilul Hashem to be as the original sources indicate, an indication of lack of commitment to Hashem, it still may be the demonstration of this to non-Jews that is our concern. The Chinuch writes that we should die rather then give the oppressor the opportunity to think that we deny G-d. The fact that one should only sacrifice one's life if the transgression is to be performed before ten Jews is set, not because our worry is that a group of Jews may think that the person lacks commitment, but rather because we specifically do not wish the non-Jew to see a display of lack of commitment publicly -- i.e. in front of other Jews.

A further investigation of the sources indeed reveals that the category of chilul Hashem is, in fact, broad. It includes the portrayal of lack of commitment to G-d and the act that will denigrate observance. Its concern is our standing before fellow Jews and before non-Jews. Is there, though, some essence, some bridge, that unites the many possibilities within this category?

Rashi, Yoma 86a actually introduces a third possible understanding of a chilul Hashem. He states that when Jews are punished for their sins, non-Jews see only that Jews, the nation of Hashem, are suffering. When they thus declare that this misfortune must mean that G-d is unable to save the Jews, this is a chilul Hashem and the honour of Heaven is diminished. A chilul Hashem occurs when the full Glory of G-d is not perceived, in fact when the presence of G-d is diminished; behaviour that will lead to punishment and this denigrating response within the nations of the world is, thus, a chilul Hashem. In fact, this explanation fits into the words chilul Hashem most appropriately. In demonstrating a lack of commitment to G-d or in giving people the opportunity to distort Hashem as lacking ability, we do indeed profane Him, weaken the perception that the world should have of Him. The focus is clearly on the misrepresentation of Hashem. The colloquial explanation of chilul Hashem, though, presents somewhat of a problem. Why is it a chilul Hashem if others perceive us as acting immorally? The challenge is not against G-d but against us. Do we profane G-d's Name because the non-Jew assumes that the Jew is acting pursuant to the Will of Hashem and thus Hashem must support such behaviour?Is it that through our unacceptable behaviour, people will assume that Torah and the G-d of Torah are also immoral? This would be a most interesting concept: a chilul Hashem occurs when someone evaluates G-d and Torah to be immoral. This explanation of chilul Hashem, though, has an inherent problem - are we to indeed evaluate Torah through the eyes of non-Jews? Especially if the behaviour is halachically correct, are we to be concerned about a possible chilul Hashem because those with ethical systems outside of Torah will find this behaviour, correct by Torah standards, immoral?

Strangely, we, in fact, do find the term chilul Hashem applied in just such a case. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Gezeila v'Aveida 11:3 states that it is forbidden to return a lost article to an idolater. In the case where there will be a chilul Hashem, though, one is obligated to return the lost item to the idolater. This law would seem to imply that in cases where others perceive a Torah observance as immoral, there is a possibility of chilul Hashem. But why?

Why would an act perceived to be immoral reflect negatively on G-d? Would not such an act reflect poorly solely on the perpetrator of the act? Are we really concerned about someone, through our actions, declaring Hashem to be immoral? Why are we, in any event, concerned with the moral perceptions of the other, the one whose morality is not based on Torah anyways?

Perhaps the concern is that the non-Jew, believing that the Jew must share the same moral conviction -- (afterall 'ethics are ethics') -- will see in the behaviour of the Jew, even if correct according to Torah, a rejection of G-d. In other words, the essential concern of the chilul Hashem is still really the perception of lack of commitment to G-d. The reason we are concerned about the moral evaluations of the non-Jew is that, albeit incorrectly, the non-Jew will perceive the Jew, in not maintaining the non-Jew's standard of morality, to be ignoring G-d. Alternatively, the non-Jew's evaluation may lead him to limit G-d and Torah's ability. The non-Jew may assume that if this individual who follows Torah acts in such an unacceptable manner, the Torah -- and Hashem -- cannot be a powerful teachers of morality. Must we, though, give such consideration to a non-Jew's moral perceptions? Are we to be concerned how the non-Jew evaluates Torah and G-d according to his system of morality? Interestingly, the language of the sources imply that we are, in fact, concerned about the non-Jew's essential view of the morality of the matter. It would seem to be that it is not simply because we are concerned about the non-Jew's perception that we are not following Hashem or that Hashem is a weak teacher, but that the inherent moral aversion of the non-Jew is the essence of the chilul Hashem. We profane G-d's name when someone perceives our observance as immoral - but still why are we concerned about the moral evaluations of the non-Jew?

We indeed do find Torah sources that point to the recognition of a natural morality within Mankind. See, for example, Mishna Avot 2:1 and Sifri, Devarim 79. Does this mean that we are to be concerned with all the moral attitudes of the general society? I would think not, but then I would have to arrive at some criteria for distinction between those I should be concerned for and those I should not.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Dibrot Moshe, Ketubot, Teshuva 1 introduces an idea that may shed light on this matter. It is not any morality within the non-Jewish world that is of concern, but their moral perceptions that are connected to the Noachide Code (in its broad sense). A chilul Hashem may be when the non-Jew perceives the Jew, who may in fact be following Halacha, as not maintaining the standards of morality the non-Jew perceives to be part of Torah. It is not, though, that we are perceived to have a lack of commitment to G-d. The moral passion of the non-Jew is part of this definition of chilul Hashem. We profane G-d's Name when a non-Jew perceives us as not maintaining the Torah standard of morality and, therefore, looks upon us negatively. It may a chilul Hashem when we are not perceived to be in the forefront of Torah-based morality. Yet, if the concern is a Torah morality, what is the general morality that the above sources indicate we are also to consider?

And why, still, is this inadequacy on our part, deemed to be an attack upon G-d? Here lies another interesting aspect of the colloquial definition of chilul Hashem. Honestly, we do not invoke this term because we are concerned about how others will view G-d, but our concern is how others will view Jews or observant Jews. It seems from the sources that when the honour of Israel is challenged, the honour of G-d is also challenged. It may be a chilul Hashem when we do not meet the appropriate standard and are subject to attack because we represent Hashem in this world.

I leave it to you to continue the investigation of the term chilul Hashem, used so frequently, yet, in reality, most technical and demanding clarification.

We invite you to submit your thoughts and comments, on the issues presented in INQUIRY, for possible inclusion in future NISHMA UPDATES.Your suggestions for INQUIRY topics and questions are also most welcome. Your involvement is a necessary part of our combined learning objective.


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