Netziv on the Dangers of Religious Passion

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau



By Rav Yitzchak Blau



Shiur #12:  Netziv on the Dangers of Religious Passion





R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), known as Netziv, was the long-time Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin, the dominant yeshiva of Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century.  The yeshiva was founded in 1803 by R. Chayim of Volozhin, who was succeeded by his son, R. Itzele Volozhiner.  At the young age of fourteen, Netziv married R. Itzele’s daughter.  When R. Itzele passed away in 1851, his older son-in-law, R. Eliezer Yitzchak Fried, became Rosh Yeshiva, but he died soon after, in 1854.  Netziv took over and stayed on as Rosh Yeshiva until the closing of the yeshiva in 1892.  R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin poignantly notes that the powerful link between Netziv and Volozhin is reinforced by the fact that Netziv passed away a year after the yeshiva closed.[1]  


As with European royalty, many illustrious rabbinic families in Europe were related to each other.  Netziv’s sister married R. Yechiel Mikhel Epstein, author of the Arukh Ha-shulkhan.  Thus, R. Epstein’s son R. Barukh Epstein (author of Torah Temima) was his nephew.   Some of our biographical information on Netziv comes from the younger R. Epstein’s autobiographical Mekor Barukh.  One of Netziv’s daughters married R. Refael Shapiro, author of Torat Refael, and their daughter married R. Chayim Soloveitchik.  Thus, Netziv had family ties to some of the greatest rabbis of the century.


Netziv’s immediate family also included people of stature.  His first wife, Rayna Batya, has been the subject of several scholarly studies.[2]  His oldest son, R. Chayim Berlin, was an important rav in Europe.  After the death of Rayna Batya, Netziv married his niece, daughter of the Arukh Ha-shulchan.  This marriage produced R. Meir Bar-Ilan, the well-known Religious Zionist leader.  R. Bar-Ilan’s portrait of his father, Rabban Shel Yisrael, is the other significant historical account of Netziv’s life.  In evaluating this account, it should be noted that Netziv was sixty-four when R. Bar-Ilan was born and thus their lives only overlapped for thirteen years.[3]




The literary productions of Netziv reveal a remarkable breadth.  He was certainly not a Rosh Yeshiva who restricted his attention to Shas and posekim.  He certainly studied those as well - note his Meromei Sadeh on the Talmud and his collection of responsa, Meshiv Davar.  Yet his scope was far wider.  R. Berlin gave a Chumash shiur after davening each morning in Volozhin.  Those shiurim served as the basis for his Ha’amek Davar, one of the finest Chumash commentaries ever written.   Even more tellingly, he wrote commentaries on works of the Ge’onim and midreshei Halakha.  Few rabbinic writers devoted significant time to this material; nevertheless, Netziv wrote impressive commentaries on the She’iltot of R. Achai Gaon and on the Sifra.  Rabbi Gil Perl’s doctorate on the latter represents the best academic analysis of Netziv’s thought to date.[4]


The Danger of Devekut


One recurring theme in R. Berlin’s Chumash commentary is his concern that an intense desire to come closer to God can lead to antinomian behavior (that is, anti-legal or anti-halakhic behavior).  He understands several mitzvot as addressing this problem and reads a few biblical stories in light of this phenomenon.  While a transgression so motivated deserves more respect than a sin motivated by greed or selfishness, its noble motivation makes it, in some ways, more dangerous.


In two places the Torah prohibits adding to the commandments, once in the singular form (Devarim 13:1) and once in the plural (Devarim 4:2).  Netziv explains that the singular form addresses the beit din (the court).  They are allowed to make new edicts but they are not allowed to portray those innovations as biblical law, a position based on Rambam’s Hilkhot Mamrim 2:9.  The plural form addresses each individual Jew who might be tempted to add mitzvot as a means of achieving closeness to God. This verse warns against such behavior; the very next verse (Devarim 4:3) mentions the worship of the idol Pe’or.  According to Chazal, such worship infiltrated the Jewish community when people wanted to degrade this idol by defecating before it.  However, this reflects this idolatry’s precise mode of worship and constitutes pagan practice.  Thus, the Pe’or episode reflects an example of good intentions gone awry.[5]


Interestingly, the Torah twice anticipates this burgeoning problem and attempts to forestall it before it breaks out.  Netziv points out that immediately prior to the sins of Nadav and Avihu and of the two hundred and fifty men from the Korach rebellion, a verse warns about precisely this danger.  He writes that both of these episodes were motivated by a desire to come close to God.  Certainly, they were similar transgressions - note that in both episodes, the sins involve bringing an incense offering and are punished with death by Divine fire.   Unfortunately, the divine warnings were not heeded.


Zeh ha-davar asher tziva Hashem ta’asu” (“'This is the thing which the Lord commanded that you should do,” Vayikra 9:6): Why does Moshe say this after the people had already acceded to Moshe’s commands and brought all the necessary sacrifices on the eighth day of the milu’im (dedication of the Tabernacle)?  If they had already fulfilled all the requirements, this exhortation appears superfluous.  The Sifra says that Moshe instructed them to eradicate a particular yetzer ha-ra from their hearts so that they would all worship God with one form of worship.   Netziv explains that the midrash refers to the yetzer ha-ra of antinomian attempts to cleave to God.  Having done all that they were commanded to do, the nation was still subject to this danger.  This midrash gives one of the possible reasons against this phenomenon.  Allowing every person to strive for a relationship with God in his or her own way ultimately creates anarchy.  There would be no sense of a common communal religious service.[6]  Of course, another danger is that the form chosen could itself be objectionable, irrespective of concerns about community.


The same Sifra cites the verse in Devarim (10:17) which says that God does not take bribes.  What could be a bribe for God?  Netziv argues that the bribe could not be the standard fulfillment of mitzvot because that is just taking care of basic obligations.  A bribe must refer to acts for God not commanded by the Torah.  The religious individual might think that God would be pleased by such behavior, but Devarim tells us that He is not.


This problem reared its head at other points in Jewish history.  During the celebration of the construction of the Temple, Shlomo ate from the sacrifices on Yom Kippur (see Mo’ed Katan 9a) because he thought that the love of and closeness to God attained through such partaking outweighed the need to fast.  The almost ubiquitous attraction of private altars (bamot) during the First Temple period should be understood in the same way.  Individuals who found it difficult to make the trek to the Temple in Jerusalem still wanted the religious experience of bringing an offering.  This tempted them to set up private altars in their backyards, despite the fact that this violates Halakha.[7]  This also explains why the problem of idolatry actually grew worse with the construction of the Temple.  The people were frustrated with the centralization of religious worship and sought other avenues of religious expression.[8]


Despite Moshe’s admonition, Nadav and Avihu fall into precisely this trap.  The verse refers to “strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them” (Vayikra 10:1).  In a consciously homiletic fashion, Netziv explains that the fire refers not to a physical item, but to the fiery enthusiasm to come close to God, even in ways which He did not command.[9]  He also uses this to explain midrashim that these sons of Aharon violated other prohibitions, including entering the Mishkan in an inebriated state and lacking the priestly garments.   Nadav and Avihu reason that the normal priestly laws do not apply to them, precisely because they are entering in a manner beyond of the bounds of Jewish law.  If so, they thought, normal halakhic restrictions cease to apply.[10]  Sadly, their error leads to an early death.


In the same way, the Torah anticipates the wild desire for clinging to God of the two hundred fifty men in the Korach uprising.  The commandment of tzitzit precedes that story because this commandment attempts to forestall such behavior.  R. Berlin argues that this commandment reminds both regular Jews and those who seclude themselves in pursuit of love of God to remain within halakhic boundaries.  The blue threads of tekhelet symbolize those yearning for the heavens, and they need this reminder.  In this context, Netziv cites a gemara (Shabbat 127a) which deduces from the behavior of Avraham that welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine presence.  For Netizv, this gemara is not about absolute worth but about the priorities of religious life.  One must first keep the law and only then think about achieving devekut.[11]


This idea even explains why the third paragraph of Shema was included in the twice-daily recital.  After all, the theme of mitzva observance already appears in the second section.  The tzitzit paragraph was added to express the need for halakhic boundaries in the pursuit of God.[12]


Once again, this preliminary warning did not stem the tide.  Netziv notes some striking differences between the various forces in the Korach camp.  There are two distinct groups of sinners: the two hundred and fifty men who bring incense, and Datan and Aviram who challenge Moshe’s leadership.  (Later we will address where Korach himself fits in.)  Unlike the two hundred and fifty men, Datan and Aviram do not participate in the incense test.  Additionally, the two hundred and fifty men are consumed by fire, whereas Datan, Aviram and Korach are swallowed by the ground.  R. Berlin explains that the different groups do not share the same motivations.  Datan and Aviram are contentious men who simply like a good fight and want to bother Moshe.  The two hundred and fifty men, in contrast, yearn for the religious experience of bringing an incense offering.  They cannot tolerate the fact that this type of experience has been restricted to Aharon and his descendents.  In fact, they are even willing to die for violating a prohibition, if they can just have this experience.  It becomes clear why Datan and Aviram do not offer the incense: this aspect of the argument never attracted them.  Netziv’s approach can also explain the varying kinds of death.  He assumes that divine fire is a much more honorable way to die than being swallowed up by the earth.  The two hundred and fifty men were deserving of such a demise; Datan and Aviram were not.


Where does Korach himself fit into this structure?  Netziv contends that Korach was a person capable of genuine religious striving.  In that sense, he had far more potential than Datan and Aviram.  However, jealousy consumed him until he led the rebellion without any kind of noble motivation.  Yet, he still portrayed himself as sharing the dreams of the two hundred and fifty men.  Therefore, he engaged in the incense offering.  Divine punishment soon revealed the authentic truth and Korach was swallowed up together with those cronies devoid of more idealistic urges.[13]


A terminological parallel aids this interpretation.  Bemidbar 17:3 tells us that these two hundred and fifty men sinned “be-nafshotam.”  The same type of phrase appears regarding the nazir who was not able to avoid coming into contact with a dead body (Bemidbar 6:11).   In both cases, there was a striving for a level of holiness not truly deserved.  The two hundred and fifty men were not chosen for the priesthood. The nazir who became ritually defiled was apparently not ready for this level of religious existence.  


The firepans used by the two hundred and fifty men are beaten flat and made into a covering for the altar.  The verse says this covering will serve as a sign (Bemidbar 17:3).  Netziv explains that it reminds those yearning for God not to take the antinomian route.   On the other hand, it also conveys the fact that such transgressors should not be equated with those who sin for fully ignoble reasons.  Nothing produced by the latter group would be worthy of use in the Temple.  Those misled by religious passion are wrong, but we can evince some respect for their strivings.[14]


What is the alternative for people so motivated?  Netziv points out that Chizkiyahu was able to wean people away from idolatry by showing them how they could cling to God through study of Torah.[15]  In other words, striving for devekut is a good thing.  The key is to realize that the halakhic system allows enough room for individuality, passion and religious experience without the need to break its boundaries.

[1] R. Shlomo Yosef Zevin, Ishim Ve-shitot (Tel Aviv, 1966), p. 15

[2] See for example, Don Seeman, “The Silence of Rayna Batya: Torah, Suffering and Rabbi Barukh Epstein’s Wisdom of Women,” The Torah U-Madda Journal, Volume 6, pp. 91-128.

[3] Of course, this does not mean that we should be quick to reject its contents.

[4] The doctorate, entitled “Emek ha-Neziv: A Window into the Intellectual Universe of R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin,” was completed at Harvard University.

[5] Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 4:2-3.

[6] Ha’amek Davar, Vayikra 9:6.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 4:21.

[9] Ha’amek Davar, Vayikra 10:1.

[10] Harchev Davar, Vayikra 10:1.

[11] Ha’amek Davar, Bemidbar 15:39.

[12] Harchev Davar, Bemidbar 15:39.

[13] Ha’amek Davar, Bemidbar 16:1.

[14] Ha’amek Davar, Bemidbar 17:3.

[15] Ha’amek Davar, Devarim 4:21.