Hunting, Platonic Relationships, and the Spirit of the Law (Methodology of Pesak 3)

The shiur and sources are available: here.

This week I spoke about something that I would hope is obvious, but all too often is not:  Halacha pesuka does not account for the entirety of the Halachic system.  Halacha includes both the letter and spirit of the law, and while there are formal differences between Halachic obligations and Halachically laudatory actions, there are both important.

Perhaps the most famous champion of the spirit of the law was Ramban.  In both his discussion of Kedoshim Tihyu and VeAsita HaYashar Vehatov (as well as other places), Ramban posits that the Torah never intended to be a laundry list of obligations.  Instead, God set up 613 mitzvot to act as guides, and then commanded that we seek to understand the spirit of the law that emerges from those mitzvoth and live according to the totality of the Halachic system.  Rabbi Menachem Leibtag once described this as a connect-the-dots picture: the mitzvoth are the dots and the spirit of the law is the picture that emerges.  I have written about some of the implications of this formulation of Ramban in an article several years ago in Kol HaMevaser (available in the Musar and Ethics issue here:

The Rambam as well, when describing the components of a Jewish speech ethics, describes 5 categories: 1) Mitzvah 2) Praiseworthy 3)Assur 4) Disgusting 5) Neutral.  Thus, only 1/5 of speech is “neutral” – everything else is has either legal or moral implications.

I then read through two teshuvot that capture this point.  The first was the famed teshuvah by the Noda BeYehuda about hunting.  After spending much time explaining why it is not assur formally (neither because of Bal Tashchis or Tzaar Baalei Chaim), he posits that it is wrong anyway.  He notes that only evil characters in Torah were hunters, and thus recreational hunting is clearly against Torah values.  It violates obligations of kindness and makes the hunter cruel.  While at the end of the teshuvah he mentions the possibility that hunting is assur because it is dangerous, it is clear that he wants the reader to understand the importance of values that are not reducible to halacha pesukah.   [See the teshuvah for a discussion of hunting for business.  In the shiur I also deal with some of the subtleties in the teshuvah.]

The second teshuvah was R. Moshe’s teshuvah about platonic relationships.  While often understood as saying that platonic relationships are yehareg ve’al yaavor (!), a close read of R. Moshe reveals more.  The questioner prefaced his question by saying that he knew the relationship he had was disgusting, but he didn’t care if it was wrong.  All he wanted was to know whether it was technically mutar.  To this R. Moshe responded with a construal of Rambam’s position that would lead to the understanding that it was yehareg ve’al yaavor.  It seems clear that R. Moshe opposed platonic relationships, but I would suggest that he was less than convinced of his extreme position.  He was instead using Halachic language to show how bad he thought this relationship was, and his rhetoric throughout seems to support this.  In fact, he notes that the extreme position is not necessary, and one can easily argue it is not yehareg ve’al yaavor. Still, he maintains his objections.  The real point of the teshuvah was to convince someone who didn’t care about the spirit of the law that the line between Halacha pesuka and the spirit of the law is narrow, but if he only cared about halacha pesukah, he would show him how it might be formally assur.  In the shiur I read through the teshuvah closely, and for those who are interested, they can listen to the whole thing.



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