I often point out the influence of Netziv’s Torah commentary among Torah writers today across the spectrum. One of the reasons for this was his unique ability to find what the Torah was saying to the Modern Jew. While a traditionalist with no formal secular education, he seemed to have internalized much of the spirit of his (and our) times while maintaining a very profound sense of the Talmudic tradition that was so clearly the center of his life.
In this week’s parsha, he picks up on the issue of individualism, something he discusses in several places, perhaps most famously in his discussion of the Tower of Bavel. Because it has always been clear that Judaism has a strongly communal element, many earlier commentators missed that the Torah nevertheless recognizes the unique needs and aptitudes of every individual. Living at the height of European Romanticism and on the cusp of Nietzsche’s writings – which both contributed to a new much more pronounced interest in the individual – Netziv surely intuited the need to address the legitimate aspects of trends making inroads upon his students.
In this particular case, he picks up on Ramban’s approach to the commandment of holiness, which is to refine oneself by abstaining form behaviors that may technically be permissible but nevertheless degrading. One example mentioned by Ramban is gluttony. Though not specifically forbidden, it is clearly inappropriate for a Jew serious about God. In any event, Netziv notices that is commandment is prefaced by Moshe’s need to say the command to “all of the congregation of the Children of Israel.” This unusual expression leads Netziv to understand that God is telling Moshe that the nature of this commandment is that telling it to all of the congregation is not the same as just telling it. That is because people’s bodies are different, as are their customs and other similar things. To take our example of gluttony, a person born into a wealthy home will have different expectations than someone from a simpler background.
Granted, a very similar idea is found in the Talmud (Ketuvot 67b), when it speaks about the lack of one impoverished person being different than the lack of another. The Gemara there explains that we should ideally provide for a wealthy man who has lost his fortune with everything that he is accustomed to, even though this will be supported from communal tzedekah funds. Moreover, Netziv cites a precedent specifically about the commandment of holiness from the Maggid Mishneh at the end of Hilchot Schechinim. What is new with the Netziv was his contemporary appreciation of the notion, which in turn allowed him to further expand its application to areas where it was previously unnoticed.
Yet what is critical here is not the modernity or lack thereof of Netziv’s point. What truly matters is that his is a true idea that is both rooted in authentic Jewish tradition and also speaks very much to us. Of course, making such points is the sign of a great Jewish commentator.
In the case of the commandment to be holy, Netziv is telling us that it is not measured by a universal yardstick in the same way as eating matzah, for example. The point of the commandment is moving beyond behavior that is merely borderline to that which is exemplary. In other words, to act in such a way that no one will cast legitimate aspersions on him. Although every Jew is expected act in this way, what that means practically will differ for each individual.
Looked at responsibly, the flexible yardstick set up by Netziv does not make it easier for us. For while it may tempt some to claim a lower standard than is appropriate for them, that would be no more legitimate than any other excuse to sin. On the contrary, the principle calls for greater self-awareness. Since we are expected to do what is appropriate for our circumstances, we have a greater responsibility to understand them and what is truly expected from us.
That being the case, the appeal of Netziv’s expansion of individualization is not that it makes the Torah easier. Rather, it comes from a much keener appreciation of what the Torah wants from us. In cases like this, it prevents us from mechanical observance of standardized actions and forces us to examine what the Torah actually expects of us here and now.
And don’t forget to listen to the related podcast episode, Is it a Symphony or is it Jazz?