How much should Judaism change to accommodate those who cannot abide its rules? When someone claims that the Torah’s laws may drive them to suicide, does this threat to life constitute pikuach nefesh that overrides the law? These are complex questions that I do not claim competency to answer, but I will offer a few sources for thought.
The Manipulative Husband
The Gemara (Nedarim 66b) tells the story of a man who vowed not to benefit from his wife until she gave some of her food to R. Yehudah and R. Shimon to taste. The husband was trying to make a point about what a bad cook she was. She brought the food to R. Yehudah who ate it in order to bring peace between a husband and wife. However, R. Shimon refused to eat the food because he found the entire vow disrespectful to Torah leadership. He said, “Let the children of the widow die and Shimon will not move from his place.”
Ran and pseudo-Rashi explain that R. Shimon cursed the man and his children to die. Rosh explains differently that R. Shimon cursed the man as a widow’s son (i.e. fatherless), because he seems to have had no positive role model on how to interact with others. The contemporary scholar, Rav Moshe Zuriel (Leket Peirushei Aggadah, ad loc.) suggests very simply that R. Shimon was saying that he would not budge — he would remain in his place for decades, even after the man and his children died, rather than compromise on this issue.
Why was R. Shimon so stubborn? Why didn’t he follow R. Yehudah’s path of prioritizing a marriage’s well-being over the respect of a Torah leader? I suggest that the two agreed in principle and disagreed in application. The issue is simple: any mischievous man could use vows to manipulatively embarrass rabbis. If it becomes a trend, it would make a circus out of communal leadership, draining their time and the respect others have for them.
R. Shimon took this as a guiding principle. He would not allow leadership to collapse in this way. In contrast, R. Yehudah distinguished between one-off cases and a trend. If one person does it, what is the harm in participating? You look at a single situation differently than a string of related cases. In one case, all you see is a husband and wife who need to be reconciled so your natural desire to help others in any way possible drives your response. If a trend had developed, then R. Yehudah also would have stood strong against the cynical misuse of halachah, he would have looked at the broader picture and not just the particulars of the case.
Divorcee to Kohen
In general, the responsa of Rav David Tzvi Hoffmann reflect a sensitivity to this dichotomy. I would like to examine two in particular that relate to our subject. In Melamed Le-Ho’il (Even Ha-Ezer, no. 9), Rav Hoffmann addresses the following case: A recently married woman turned out to have already been pregnant from a kohen who is not her husband. Her husband demanded a divorce. Can they annul the marriage rather than divorce, so the woman can marry the kohen rather than give birth out of wedlock? There is concern she may commit suicide rather than suffer the indignity.
Rav Hoffmann concludes that the marriage is valid and requires a divorce. After that divorce, the woman may not marry a kohen. The concern for suicide, however real it may be, does not constitute pikuach nefesh and cannot allow us to permit that which is forbidden. The rabbi must instruct her not to add to her sin but to do teshuvah, repent for her misdeeds, and embrace the divine mercy. We have no right to sin by conducting the wedding of a divorcee with a kohen to prevent them from committing a worse sin.
Writing on Shabbos
In another responsum (ibid., Orach Chaim, no. 61), Rav Hoffmann addresses a young man in business school whose parents insisted he attend class and write on Shabbos. His mother said that if he refuses to do so, she will commit suicide. Does this constitute pikuach nefesh that overrides the Shabbos laws?
Once again, Rav Hoffmann dismisses potential suicide as an overriding halachic factor. If we allowed it, then anyone could make such threats and force people to eat non-kosher, work on Shabbos and commit any other sin. We would be at the whims of mischievous cynics. Rav Hoffman points out that the young man could write with his left, which is only rabbinically forbidden. However, even a rabbinic prohibition cannot be set aside by this concern.
Rav Hoffmann did not dismiss the tragedy of potential suicide. Every life is precious and must be preserved. If so, shouldn’t the life threat override these laws, particularly the rabbinic laws? In a one-off case, perhaps that might be true. But Rav Hoffmann detected a trend, not a one-off situation. With a trend, we must look at the broader circumstances and stand strong against an agenda to diminish the Torah. We lack the right and the authority to allow people to manipulate Judaism.