“We still have known thee for a holy man.”
These words sound like praise. In reality, they exonerate a man who is clear about his guilt; he admits he has done wrong. Yet, because of his status in society, because he is a holy man, no one believes him to be capable of the evil that he himself knows he has done. These are words spoken to Friar Laurence by the Prince at the end of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act V,scene 3 line 270).
One production I saw had the friar keeled over as the prince was speaking this absolution, the contortion of his body expressing an admission of guilt even as he was verbally being exonerated. This seems to me the visual equivalent of the musical ambivalence in the Torah trope note shalshelet, what Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called a “frozen motion.” A shalshelet is over a word that says one thing verbally, while the sound, the note of triple hesitation in its singing, connotes something quite different. The point of these words is that the prince doesn’t care a whit what Friar Lawrence has actually done – he still considers him a holy man.
However, a look at the Torah shows that the opposite is true in Jewish law; holy men are never excused from improper behavior.
Of course we know that it is only “holy men” who seem to somehow need excusing. Men who are not “holy” or distinguished for their talents and contributions will not have others rushing to excuse them. (Women, holy or not, almost never get that kind of justification or rationalization for inappropriate behaviors.)
However, a look at the Torah shows that the opposite is true in Jewish law; holy men are never excused from improper behavior. No matter who a person is, from the king to the most common subject, no one is above the law. Any holy man, as a mortal and flawed human being, is capable of breaking the law.
Rank is unimportant; only the reality of sexual misconduct and murder matters.
In fact we learn in Deuteronomy that the king must keep a copy of the Torah with him (Deut 17:19). These verses state that a king should not have unchecked power, take too many wives, have too much money, or send people back to Egypt to purchase horses. He must not believe that he and he alone is the repository of all authority. No king of Israel can ever justify misbehavior by claiming his monarchical dispensation; no such term exists in Tanach. We know of multiple stories of prophets admonishing kings. The most famous example is Nathan’s rebuke to David after he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband murdered at the military front. Nathan tells David a parable of a rich man who steals a poor man’s only ewe. When the king is shocked at the rich man’s greed, the prophet is unsparing in his condemnation, saying “You are the man” (II Samuel 12:7). Rank is unimportant; only the reality of sexual misconduct and murder matters.
The text of Deuteronomy tells us the way to check the king’s up-raised or haughty heart is for him to take the text of this Torah and copy one for himself. He must bring the law to life for himself by giving it another life in his writing. By copying over this book, the king will connect with teachings that will affect his life and behavior.
In Judaism, there are no holy men whose actions are not questioned.
The Babylonian Talmud tells us in Sanhedrin 21b that the king is obligated to make his own copy of the Torah, not rely on one made by his forefathers. Why must he write himself? To be certain that he has incorporated the values within himself, and that he has an active rather than passive knowledge of the law. It is the process of writing, in reliving and experiencing the ideas in the text, that will give the king the experiences necessary to govern and remain within the limits of the law.
In Judaism, there are no holy men whose actions are not questioned. An individual’s status does not matter in determining right, wrong, or kedusha (holiness). The only question that matters is whether or not a law has been broken. Judges are instructed not to show partiality (Deut 16:19); anyone doing wrong deserves to be investigated and indicted. Prophets are not afraid to point a finger at a king charged with adultery. The attitude toward wrongdoing in Tanach could not be further from that expressed by the Prince in Romeo and Juliet.
We can fill in the blanks of these examples with the names of those who have assaulted or molested women and been exonerated because of their supposed holiness or talent.
The Prince’s attitude that says because someone is – fantastic at Jewish outreach, the best football coach ever, a talented movie producer or director, an outstanding intellectual and editor and writer – he is beyond criticism. We can fill in the blanks of these examples with the names of those who have assaulted or molested women and been exonerated because of their supposed holiness or talent. This attitude does not apply in Judaism and never has.
We believe in the mitzvah of “hocheach tocheiah” (Leviticus 19:17) – all are surely obliged to point out the faults of others. There are specific and appropriate ways to go about this rebuke but the message is that each of us capable of illustrating to others how it is that they might do better. “Those who had the power to protest and did not” are to be condemned according to the Talmud (BT Shabbat 54b).
Ultimately the goal of these values is not to create a class of persons who are known to be holy no matter how they behave, but to enable each of us to truly act as though we are created in the image of God.
For Jews, no one is ever presumed holy who is not.
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