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The Music of Halacha; Prayer For An Apostate

In Turkey, where Jews generally enjoyed freedom of religion, a grave misfortune befell a Jewish family in the city of it is mere at the beginning of the 18th century. A member of this family left home with a small son, to forsake  his ancestral faith for another, must most likely Islam. An event of this kind was most unusual, as Jews in Turkey were seldom subjected to religious discrimination, and this occurrence must have stirred the community to its depths. It is possible this act of apostasy was connected with the Sabbatean movement, still strong in Turkey as elsewhere.

A question arose in the community as to whether prayers should be recited for the return of the renegade to his faith, and inquiry was sent to a renowned Rabbi in Bohemia, Rabbi Yonah Landsofer. It is not clear why a Rabbi in distant Bohemia was consulted, especially one so young, as Turkey abounded in great Talmudic authorities. Perhaps the matter was referred to Rabbi Landsofer among others. The fact that his counsel was sought attests to the great prestige he enjoyed as an outstanding Talmud this despite his youth.

Rabbi Landsofer responded to the problem by first analyzing its nature: what grounds may one question the right of pious Jews to pray for the repentance of a sinner? He pointed out that to difficulties are involved: first, whether such a prayer is prohibited as being a futile prayer (Berachot 54b), since man is granted free will to choose his path and his behavior is not controlled by God.

Again, if God wishes to restore the apostate to grace, prayers are altogether superfluous. Unlike a supplication for one’s own advantage, a prayer for the repentance of the sinner does not redound to the benefit of the one who prays, but to the greater glory of God. This should then be left to God to do as he pleases.

To resolve the problem, Rabbi Landsofer thought it necessary to examine the question of freedom of will, pointing out that this freedom is not absolute. There are times when man is deprived of freedom, as in the case of Pharaoh whose heart God hardened (Exodus 7:3).

There are times, on the other hand, when God prevents a man from sinning as in the case of Abimelech (Genesis 19:6). “The heart of Kings is in the hands of the Lord.” (Proverbs 2:1)¬† The Almighty at times inflict suffering upon an individual to direct him into repentance, there by curtailing his freedom, or He may do so without inflicting suffering. If, when He finds it necessary, He hardens the heart of a man to deprive him of his free will, will He not when necessary, affect his heart to lead him back to a good life? Has not God promised he would, “Remove our heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh,” (Yechezkail 36:26) and that He would, “pour out His spirit upon all mankind.” (Joel 3:1)?

That there is no absolute uniformity in the relationship of God to the world, that at times He transforms the order of nature and permits man to exercise his freedom, while at other times He takes complete control of nature and of man’s behavior, is expressive of a mode of divine activity that should not puzzle us.

It is true, however, that a person may pray for himself, as in our daily liturgy: “Bring us back, our Father, to Your Torah and restore us to Your service.” Through our expressing desire to return to Him, He opens before us the gates of repentance. Otherwise, how would we ever be able to overcome the moral obstacles that constantly face us?

Moses did not entreat God to give the people a good heart to serve Him at all times but rather left it to them (Avodah Zarah 5a), suggesting that when a man’s conscience is not aroused, praying for him is futile.

Another passage in the Talmud (Ta’anit 23b) , ascribing the greater efficacy of prayer for rain to the virtue of the wife of Abba Chikiah, rather than to her husband, because she pleaded with God for the repentance of the wicked while he prayed for their death, also fails to serve as evidence for our problem. Perhaps the wicked men referred to there were, as Rashi says, only ignorant men. For such men we are permitted to pray because they are akin to sick people. It is also possible that the unique virtue of the wife of was her unique devotion to charity rather than her prayers for the wicked. The evidence from this passage is thus not conclusive.

This statement of Rabbi Meir’s wife, Beruriah, that it is preferable for him to pray for the wicked man tormenting him rather than for their death, is likewise not decisive. Her intention might have been that his prayer for their repentance would cause them to cease harassing him and for this reason she herself did not supplicate for their rehabilitation but asked her husband to pray to keep them from this particular sin, as when the men of the Great Assembly prayed for the destruction of the evil impulse of idolatry.

One cannot ask God to deprive an individual completely of his freedom to choose between good and evil. Since Rabbi Meir’s own welfare was at stake, perhaps he would have been able to expand the scope of the prayer to include the complete repentance of his torment ors.

Similarly, the counsel¬† by Rabbi Isaac Luria to a sage (The Alshich) whose son had become an apostate to offer special prayers for his full repentance might have referred to a situation where the son was regretting his apostasy and the father’s prayer provided additional support. Moreover, a father certainly has the right to pray for his son, as the departure of the son from the faith causes great agony to the father.

Rabbi Landsofer concludes that where a child who cannot repent on his own is involved, as in the case under discussion, we must all regard ourselves as guardians and it becomes our duty to pray for him. And it since the child cannot repent except through the father, it becomes our duty to include both in our prayers. Meil Tzeddakah #7

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