June 20, 2024
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Schrodinger’s Kiddush Hashem

We like to think that a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification or glorification of God’s name, is perfectly good. It is the ultimate expression of religious virtue. In reality, this is not the case and common sense confirms that. Not only is the delineation between kiddush Hashem and chilul Hashem blurred, the distinction itself does not hold absolutely.

Nadav and Avihu, two priests and leaders, sinned by bringing a “foreign fire” into the Tabernacle. Despite their general piety, their sin carried a serious punishment and they suffered divine execution. God explained, “By those who come near Me, I will be sanctified; in front of all the people, I will be glorified” (Lev. 10:3). Their deaths served as a kiddush Hashem because they demonstrated divine intervention and judgment. The public punishment of sinners constitutes a kiddush Hashem. This is true even regarding the punishment of the righteous, whom God judges on a stricter scale, and certainly regarding the punishment of the wicked. Divine justice is a kiddush Hashem.

Rav Avigdor Nebenzahl (Yerushalayim Be-Mo’adeha, Purim, pp. 230-233) engages in a thought experiment with broad application. What would have happened if people did not know that Nadav and Avihu had sinned? They would have seen the punishment but not understood that it came as a result of specific sins. Many would attribute this to unknown sins or some other divine plan. However, some would say that it shows there is no justice in the world because even the righteous suffer. If that had been the case, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu would have caused a chilul Hashem.

Rav Nebenzahl points to the courageous acts of Holocaust victims, the many people who struggled to observe Judaism and maintain their faith under the harshest of circumstances. There was so much sacrifice and effort exerted to help others, study Torah, observe Shabbos, etc., in the face of unthinkable danger. Every act of faith attempted under persecution, every martyr’s death, generates a kiddush Hashem. And yet, some see religious people suffering and reach the opposite conclusion, that God somehow must have been absent. Even the greatest acts of kiddush Hashem can also generate a chillul Hashem, depending on the observer. Put differently, when it comes to kiddush Hashem, to some degree the observer influences the character of an act.

The Gemara (Megillah 12a) describes how R. Shimon Bar Yochai’s students asked him why, during the time of Purim, the Jews of Persia deserved Haman’s evil decree. He told his students to offer suggestions. They answered that the Jews of Shushan ate at Achashverosh’s party or that they bowed to an idol. Neither answer is particularly clear. Most likely, the majority of people in the Persian empire had no idea that the Jews had committed any religious sin.

Rav Nebenzahl asks what would have happened if the Jews had not fasted and repented when Esther requested? Presumably, Haman would have won. The Jews in the Persian Empire would have been nearly wiped out, suffering a painful and humiliating defeat. On the one hand, it would have been a kiddush Hashem because Divine providence would have been apparent. Just like Nadav and Avihu’s punishment served as a kiddush Hashem, so too the punishment of the Persian Jews would have sanctified God’s name also. But only to those who understood what was happening. To many others, who would see God’s chosen people suffering persecution and reach blasphemous conclusions, there would have been a massive chilul Hashem.

The same act can be both a kiddush Hashem and a chilul Hashem, depending on the observer. This idea has haunted me over the past year. On the one hand, in many communities Jews have risked a great deal in their zeal to pray as a community, learn Torah publicly, rejoice with brides and grooms, and perform other public mitzvot. While there is room to challenge this impression, and indeed I have largely refrained from joining any of this, from the perspective of those who have been moser nefesh for Torah and mitzvot during the coronavirus they have performed a great kiddush Hashem. And yet, there can be—and is—a different perspective that renders these very same actions a chilul Hashem. The newspaper headlines tell us that even if these acts were a kiddush Hashem, they were also a chilul Hashem. Our religious acts have scared, alienated and angered a large portion of the population. Not only does the difference between a kiddush Hashem and a chilul Hashem lie in the perspective of the observers, the same act can generate both.

The Mishnah (Makkot 3:17) quotes R. Chananiah Ben Akashiah who says that God gave the Jews many commandments in order to give us merit. Rambam (ad loc.) explains that we obtain the ultimate reward when we perform a mitzvah completely properly and purely. This happens so rarely that we need many mitzvot, many opportunities, to try to achieve this. An act of pure kiddush Hashem seems incredibly difficult. Yet, just like we constantly strive to improve our mitzvah performance so we eventually reach the pure mitzvah, we must also refine our behavior so that our acts of kiddush Hashem are pure, free from misinterpretations that produce the opposite.

Of course, this is not always possible. Other people’s response to Divine providence lies mostly outside our control. But many things lie within our reach. We must take control of our actions so that what we perceive as acts of kiddush Hashem do not simultaneously produce an opposite,
perhaps even larger, negative reaction. As we enter the Purim and Pesach season, our acts of kiddush Hashem, our devoted observance of mitzvot, must remain unambiguously positive to all observers.


Rabbi Gil Student is editor of www.TorahMusings.com.

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