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Rabbi Wolpe’s Picks: Jewish Law is Personal

‘On the Relationship of Mitzvot Between Man and His Neighbor and Man and His Maker,’ by Daniel Sperber

David Wolpe
May 02, 2014

Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In this Scroll series, Wolpe examines a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.

Judaism divides mitzvot into two broad categories, bein adam l’havero — between human beings, and bein adam l’makom, between a person and God. So putting on tefillin is between the individual and God. Feeding a hungry person is between human beings. Granting that there is an inevitable overlap — God is implicated in all our actions, and when you put on tefillin it may be modeling for others, the two broad categories stand. When they conflict, is there a means of deciding which takes priority? Is one class of mitzvah more important than the other?

Daniel Sperber’s cumbersomely titled but erudite and stimulating book, On the Relationship of Mitzvot Between Man and His Neighbor and Man and His Maker, argues that the tradition teaches that mitzvot between people take precedence. Admitting that to many this is counterintuitive — we owe the Creator of everything more than our neighbor — the book nonetheless makes a compelling case that our neighbor, fragile and needy, comes first. Threaded through the argument are a myriad of sources along with wonderful anecdotes, illustrations and fine grained talmudic distinctions that make the book equally rewarding as learning and moral instruction.

Daniel Sperber is well known in the world of Jewish scholarship. He served as dean of Jewish Studies at Bar Ilan and has written, among many other books, an important exploration of Jewish customs, Minhagei Yisrael. In this work he is struggling against a strong strain of ritualism that elevates punctiliousness over kindness. Repeatedly Sperber shows how the tradition from the Talmud onward places human feeling first; derech eretz, as the Rabbis teach, comes before Torah. In other words, first you have to be a mensch.

Sperber not only analyzes the place of the mitzvot, but runs through their priority in different categories (everything from theft to hospitality) and adds a chapter on the practices of various noted Torah personalities, including The Brisker Rav and Reb Aryeh Levin.

He retells several stories of Rabbis who, out of consideration for the financial losses of a poor person, stretched to declare an animal kosher, and recounts a renown ruling of the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles) in the 16th century permitting a wedding to take place after Shabbat had begun so as not to humiliate the bride.

In the compass of a short review it is impossible to summarize the richness and intricacy of the sources Sperber marshals to prove his point about the priority of human considerations in the halacha. In an age when pushes for greater stringency are rife, we are in need of learned voices of humane halachic interpretation. The import of the book as a whole might be summarized in an aphorism Sperber quotes from R. Salanter, the greatest figure in the Mussar movement: “Even at the hour when one stands in fear and trembling before the awesomeness of judgment, one is not free from the obligation of taking care not to tread on one’s neighbor’s foot.” Great religious ecstasy before God does not justify even small indifference to another person. A lesson both timeless and very timely.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe