The Korach story, in which Aharon’s right to the priesthood was challenged, ends with the Torah enumerating the special priestly gifts that to which the Kohanim are entitled (Bamidbar 18:8-20). On this special status of the priesthood, the Sifrei comments: “There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of kingship, and the crown of the priesthood. The crown of priesthood was taken by Aharon, the crown of kingship was taken by David, the crown of Torah, however, waits for anyone to take it.” This idea, that Torah is and should be accessible to all, is at the center of a responsum in the book Maseit Binyamin (no. 62), written by Rav Avraham Salnik (Poland, ca. 1550-1620), on the topic of whether a blind man can receive an aliyah.
In this responsum, Rav Salnik articulates a strong sense of moral and Torah obligation to ensure that everyone, regardless of circumstance or disability, is treated as an equal member of the community and is given full access to the Torah. He starts on a very personal note:
(1) Many great sages have debated whether a blind person can receive an aliyah and read from the Torah, this one permitting and this one forbidding…. And I said, “If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, leave not your place” (Kohelet 10:4), for you should not be cast off forever (Eicha 3:31). For… the Torah has always been placed in a corner, so that whoever wishes may come and take it. And even one mitzvah should not be negated.
(2) For behold, now in my old age, the sight from my windows has darkened, and my eyes have grown dim from sight (cf., Breishit 27:1). According to what the Rabbi (Yosef Karo) opined, I will be driven away this day from seeking refuge in the inheritance of the Lord (I Samuel 26:19)… God forbid that I should abandon the way of the tree of life, and from my youth I have grasped onto its branches, its laws, and its rule. Even in my old age I shall not cast it off. And I will open with the matter of halakha, to see for what purpose the Rabbi has done such a thing to me… I will stand firm and “speak regarding Your laws in the presence of kings and not be embarrassed”. (Ps. 119:46)
Rav Salnik opens with a statement of what has compelled him to write this teshuva. He expresses the sense of abandonment that can be felt by being excluded. Significantly, he invokes the sense that the Torah – as opposed to the priesthood or the kingship – is, and is supposed to be, available to all (Sifrei Korach, 119 and Rambam, Talmud Torah, 3:1), and to be excluded from the ritual of receiving an aliyah is symbolically to be told that one is excluded from a connection to Torah and Torah study. Implicitly responding to those who would say that “why is exclusion from one mitzvah so important?” he states that every mitzvah is weighty and we should not allow someone to lose the opportunity even to do one mitzvah.
In the next paragraph, he becomes much more personal. We now find out that he himself has become blind. He takes personally the ruling of Beit Yosef, Rav Yosef Karo, that a blind man cannot receive an aliyah (“why has the Rabbi done such a thing to me?”). An impersonal, dispassionate ruling for a group of people is taken personally and passionately by those whom it affects. He once again speaks as to how this one exclusion will make him feel rejected from the world of Torah. This is reinforced by the phrase “not to be counted” among those who get an aliyah – when one isn’t counted, the message is that one does not count.
His statement that “And in my old age I shall not be cast aside,” reflects the disempowerment that often comes with the infirmities of old age, and in this case, with the reality of being blind. When such physical disempowerment is coupled with halakhic exclusion – for halakha sometimes makes requirements, like standing, speaking, hearing, and seeing, that cannot always be performed at this stage of life – the sense of disempowerment and rejection can be profound.
All that being said, it is quite remarkable that given his stature as a major posek of the time, one who had many people turning to him for halakhic guidance and teshuvot, the author would still feel so rejected “merely” because he could not receive an aliyah. This makes us realize how hard it is to fully appreciate, to have full empathy for, those who are being excluded when we are not in their shoes.
In the continuation of the teshuva, which we do not cite here, the author lays out three approaches to rendering a decision in a matter that is debated by earlier authorities, and goes on to show how his decision is supported through all three approaches. He concludes that a person who is blind, and an illiterate person, can receive an aliyah even lichatchilah.
We turn now to the closing section of the teshuva. The author here makes a critical point about the mandate of inclusion and the role that it plays in the halakhic process. While never compromising the integrity of the process, as seen above, it is clear that the author felt pushed to come to a certain conclusion.
(3) I remain astounded regarding those who forbid – how have they decided the law [with the effect] of casting off the Heavenly yoke from people? How much more so regarding an important and public mitzvah such as this! This is not what we have learned from our Rabbis, the authors of the Mishna and the Gemara! For behold… the Sages would take a sacrifice (which was being offered by women) into the Women’s Courtyard so that the women could do the laying of the hands… and regarding every positive time-bound mitzvah – women are permitted to perform them and recite the blessing over them…
(4) …The Rabbis waived whatever concerns there might have been in these cases, because the value of accepting the Yoke of Heaven was more important, and also for the sake of giving religious satisfaction, as we said in Hagigah, “not because laying of the hands on sacrifices applies to women, but for the sake of giving religious satisfaction to women.”
(5) The same, then, is true in our case. We should waive [any concerns] in the case of the person who is not literate person and the person who is blind, and we should not object to them being oleh to the Torah and from making the blessings, so that they may be included in the accepting of the Yoke of Heaven and to give them religious satisfaction.
Rav Salnik was aware that there are those who would say, “Although he is not clearly incorrect, this issue is not ironclad and it remains debatable. Therefore, we should be strict, and not allow such a person to have an aliyah, since we wouldn’t want to make a brakha li’vatalah or not have all the aliyot done properly.”
The author turns the tables on this argument (paragraph 3). Rather than responding to “how could you be so lenient?” the author challenges those who would restrict, and say, “how could you be so lenient?!”. This argument could be made on the moral, ben-adam-li’chaveiro level. To rule restrictively means to hurt another person and is a compromise of our moral responsibilities. In other words, this would be being too lenient in the realm of ben-adam-li’chaveiro. In a similar vein, Rav Chaim Brisker said, “Don’t say that I am being lenient on hillul Shabbat; no. I am being very strict on sakanat nefashot, risk of life.” This is a calculus of weighing religious-moral obligations against religious-ritual ones.
Rav Salnik, however, makes a different argument. He states that to exclude someone is to be irresponsible in the religious-ritual realm as well. A person who is excluded feels rejected and alienated. Exclusion, then, can often lead to a general feeling of alienation and can lead to a rejection of the Jewish community or a life of observance. Many, many cases such as this have occurred in the past and continue to occur today. This is then Maseit Binyamin’s challenge to those who would restrict and exclude: “How have you decided the law to cast the Heavenly yoke from this people?!” To be strict about full mitzvah observance demands that we maximize inclusion.
What emerges from this section is that need for inclusion can push a posek to find a path within the halakhic system that will allow him to rule that no exclusion exists. Alternatively, it can push a posek to find a practical way to allow a person to participate, even though the law still excludes him or her on a technical level.
In his signing off, Rav Salnik does something strange. He references the parasha of the week by referring to it as “For the entire community is all holy.”
Binyamin Aharon ben Avraham Salnik, Thursday, 3 Tamuz, 5370 (1610), Parshat “For the entire community is all holy.”
This is, of course, none other than our parasha, parashat Korach. Although those words were articulated by Korach, and could be claimed to represent an ideology of full equality that is in opposition to that of the Torah, Rav Salnik implicitly states that Korach’s statement was correct. Korach may have been using this ideology cynically and in a self-serving way, but in the end, what he said was true: everyone is holy, and everyone therefore has a right to have access to that which is holy.