“Anu Mattirin Lehitpallel im ha-Avaryanim”

A Tale of Blessing Blasphemers, Praying Predators, Devout Desecrators, and the Internal Israelite

BY: Ariel Caplan

This piece is dedicated to Mr. Joseph Cooperman, a”h,[i] who taught me that the Jew who drives to shul on Shabbat is still a Jew.

If you are an Orthodox Jew hailing from Teaneck, Woodmere, or Monsey, it probably shocked you when, as a young boy or girl, you first learned that other sorts of Jews exist: Jews who drive and watch television on Shabbat, who wear funny little strips of cloth as tallitot, who end their limited Jewish education at age thirteen (regardless of gender), who date and marry non-Jews, even Jews who – frequently enough – do not seem outwardly to be very Jewish at all. It was probably an even greater shock to realize that these individuals make up the majority of the American Jewish community. Perhaps you were inclined to seek ways to welcome or interact with them; perhaps you reacted with confusion, undeserved disgust, and a desire to distance them as much as possible.

Growing up Orthodox in Highland Park, New Jersey, a town with a reasonably-sized Conservative community, I somehow managed to never notice these not-quite-the-same-as-me people among the hordes of Orthodox Jews, ranging from left-wing Modern Orthodox to Agudah-affiliated, who filled the streets every Shabbat afternoon. However, my sociological education was boosted every year during the Yamim Nora’im (High Holy Days), when I would accompany my father on his annual pilgrimage to Eatontown, New Jersey, where he was hired by the Beech Street Minyan to serve as its hazzan (cantor).

The Beech Street Minyan, of which my grandparents were members, met, as you might expect, on Beech Street, specifically in the Oakhurst Yeshiva’s high school building. It consisted of the final holdouts of the Red Bank Jewish community, and most of the participants were in their sixties, seventies, or even older. The accent of the local populace most closely paralleled the pronunciation of Kaddish featured in the back of the Hebrew-English ArtScroll siddur (“Yis’bawrach, v’yishtabach, v’yispaw’ar…”), and communal singing was a cacophonous mess of dried-up voices (excepting one year when a guest managed to sing every note correctly – in the wrong key). The cast of characters was predictable, entertaining, and much beloved by me. Pete Fox, the white-bearded gabbai (beadle), orchestrated the tefillah with expertise and experience, my grandfather often backing him as gabbai sheni (secondary beadle). President Richard Shenkman seemed to chant the weekly announcements like one of the hazzanim, perhaps because years of practice had allowed him to master the routine to the syllable, and possibly because he had nothing better to do, considering that the dying shul had nothing in the way of coordinated activities. One hunched-over man used to painfully trek to the minyan each week, his sluggish pace ensuring that the trip took about an hour. Another fellow, seemingly somewhere in his forties, would arrive by car close to Musaf in a wetsuit, ready to infuse his day with spirituality after having spent the morning surfing at the beach. The weakened and elderly Rabbi Ganzfried, always ba’al keri’ah (Torah reader), seemed a shell of his former self; having spent decades in Jewish education, including many years as an administrator of the now-nonexistent Akiva School, he now could just barely manage to walk and talk. Two shul members were Kohanim, until one of them passed away; the remaining Kohen was a tall man who had become more religious over the course of decades, while his predecessor was short and shriveled and had resorted to riding in a fellow member’s car to attend his coveted Sabbath services. The man who gave him a ride was perhaps the most interesting of all: Coop.

Joe “Coop” Cooperman was well worth his grand entrance. Somewhere in the middle of birkhot keri’at Shema (the blessings on the Shema), the sound of tires struggling on gravel would resound in the shul, and through the left window one could see a black car whirling around and pulling into one of many vacant spots. Out of the car would emerge a tall figure, still strong in his old age, who swiftly threw on a black satin kippah over his bald head. With a delighted grin, he would don a tallit and enter the shul to join the services. Still possessing impressive muscle mass for someone in his seventies, Coop was the favorite for hagbahah (lifting the Torah), although he had to take care to avoid hitting the ceiling with the Torah’s handles. Despite the fact that he might be halakhically classified as a mehallel Shabbat be-rabbim (public Sabbath desecrator), Coop was through-and-through Jewishly identified and could speak and joke about Jewish topics as well as anyone else. He always had something to say, and whatever it was would invariably be followed by a jolly guffaw. As with most of the locals, I knew (and still know) very little about his history or accomplishments, but it was clear that he represented something at once frustrating and spectacular: the Jew who is not grounded in Orthodox belief and observance, but is still exceedingly passionate about his heritage, his people, and his own assortment of religious practices.

Living in an Orthodox bubble, many (usually young) people have never had to consider the question of how one is to relate to such Jews. Many factors complicate the calculation: imperatives of ve-ahavta le-re’akha kamokha (loving one’s neighbor as oneself)[ii] and ahavat Hashem (loving God),[iii] concern about bilateral influence, uncompromising maintenance of theological standards, the ideal of ahdut (unity), and a host of other considerations influence the individual and communal decisions about what understanding or interaction is appropriate, and various groups have reached different conclusions.

Whatever line is drawn (or not drawn), however, should not influence another issue, which actually extends far beyond the Coops of the world, even to individuals who would be labeled, for valid reasons, as abhorrent and undesirable Jews, Jews who might be seen as mehallelei shem Shamayim be-rabbim (public desecrators of the name of Heaven). The question is: how do we define the Jewish nation? Can we really identify ourselves with people who blaspheme God in public, who assist those scheming to wipe out our Israeli brethren, who openly support violation of all manner of sexual prohibitions, some of which we are supposed to give up our lives for rather than commit? When someone cheats the government, individuals, or charity organizations out of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of dollars, can we still embrace him? How are we to relate to a Jew who participates in a drug ring or commits murder?

Sanhedrin 44a quotes a seemingly aggadic statement of Rabbi Abba bar Zavda, explaining the verse which states that “Israel sinned.”[iv] Rabbi Abba adds, “Although [one] has sinned, he is still Yisrael” (an Israelite). Rashi explains how this is derived from the verse: “Since it does not state that ‘the nation sinned,’ [apparently] their name of sanctity is [still] upon them.”[v] This statement is quoted in a halakhic context in works of Rishonim,[vi] the Tur[vii] and Beit Yosef,[viii] commentaries on Shulhan Arukh,[ix] and countless early and late teshuvot.[x] Hence, it seems that we take very seriously the notion that a Jew, although he or she has strayed, halakhically remains one of ours. Interestingly, this Gemara in Sanhedrin continues to enumerate sins committed by one such sinner, Akhan, the individual mentioned early in Sefer Yehoshua (chapters 6-7) who violated the ban on the spoils of Yeriho. The Gemara clearly implies that Akhan, although he sinned severely, was still considered “Yisrael.” This is true in spite of three ensuing comments of Amoraim, which establish that Akhan lived with a betrothed maiden (perhaps among the worst of sexual crimes, judging by its punishment[xi]), surgically undid his circumcision (thereby rejecting his Jewish identity), and “violated the five books of the Torah.” Whether or not these claims work as good peshat (straight reading of the text), the message they send is clear and significant: one can reject the fundamental tenets of faith, violate the worst of crimes, and still be considered a Jew.

Certainly, this path is not recommended, and it did not end well for Akhan, who was condemned to death and stoned.[xii] However, our practical reaction notwithstanding, there is a hashkafic (theological) point to be deduced: the Jewish nation does not consist merely of those who follow the rules. Much to our chagrin, there are many marginal figures we might see as outside our faith community. However, as the Gemara makes clear, they are still Jews.

At no time does this point have more practical relevance than on Yom ha-Kippurim, when we preface the Kol Nidrei declaration with a few lines of tremendous legal significance. Before a word about oaths and vows has been uttered, the hazzan publicly affirms the right of any Jew, with whatever history, to participate in the Yom Kippur service: “anu mattirin lehitpallel im ha-avaryanim – we give permission to pray with the sinners.” With a few words, the hazzan allows even those who have been excommunicated to pray with the congregation.[xiii]

Imagine, for a moment, a synagogue full of the entire world population of Jewry, every single Jew in one place, gathering for prayers on the holiest of days. The hazzan has barely finished reciting the legal formula, and in march the throng of those who have (or should have) been denied entry up to this point. The parade includes adulterers and thieves, murderers and extortionists. There are abusive parents, spouses, teachers, and community leaders. There are people who have unfairly defamed or shamed others, or who have condemned the halakhic system and its adherents in public and influential ways. All these and more enter and circulate, swelling the ranks with their guilty presence.

Obviously, the scene seems rather unpleasant, to say the least. Yet it is exactly this that we welcome, whether in theory or in practice, on the Day of Atonement. On one day of the year, at least, we include the sinners in our congregation, offering them a chance to remember, to return, to reconnect with sources of sanctity and engage in teshuvah (repentance). This is the message for them. But what of us? How are we to react? Presumably, there is a message for the rest of the congregation as well, and it is that which was earlier cited from Sanhedrin: “Although [one] has sinned, he is still Yisrael.” We cannot limit Jewish identity to those who practice what is good and just, and certainly we cannot limit it to our ideological partners. Our opponents, both those who practice what they preach and those who do not, are still Yisrael.

Indeed, we ignore the rankest portions of our people at our own peril. Keretot 6b records an Amoraic statement that “any public fast which does not include rebellious sinners of Israel is not considered a [valid] fast. [The proof is that] helbenah (galbanum) exudes a foul scent, yet the verse mentions it with the incense spices.”[xiv] The Tur (Orah Hayyim 619) cites this passage as the reason why we must include even the excommunicated in our Yom Kippur prayers. The Perishah explains that there is a great Kiddush HaShem (sanctification of God’s Name) involved in the repentance of sinners, and adds that if sinners do not repent, even the righteous are held responsible for the sinners’ actions.[xv],[xvi] However, we might offer a different explanation, based on several Talmudic passages regarding these “rebellious sinners of Israel.” Eruvin 19a described these people as being as “full of mitsvot as a pomegranate”[xvii] is full of seeds, with the result that the fires of Gehinnom (a hellish purgatory) do not affect them.[xviii] A more striking defense of these sinners is recorded in Gittin 57a:

[Onkelos the convert] raised up Bil’am through magic, and asked him, “Who is important in the World to Come?” He replied, “Israel.” [Onkelos queried further,] “Should I attach myself to them?” [Bil’am] answered, “Do not seek their peace or their benefit forever.”…

[Onkelos] went and raised up the rebellious sinners of Israel through magic. He asked them, “Who is important in the World to Come?” They responded, “Israel.” [Onkelos questioned further,] “Should I attach myself to them?” They replied, “Seek their benefit, and do not seek their harm…”

Come and see the difference between the rebellious sinners of Israel and the prophets of the nations of the world!

The message of this passage, in light of its final line, seems to be that the sinners are not simply called “Yisrael;” they maintain an inner quality of goodness and Jewish identity despite their actions. The element of Yisrael, it seems, instills within the Jew an inescapable conviction that Torah is true, that service of God is a desirable path,[xix] and that the Jews are God’s chosen nation. The potential for greatness, for inspiration and rededication, for complete teshuvah, exists and is available no matter how far a Jew has fallen. And this may be the point of publicly including sinners on Yom Kippur, whether or not excommunicated sinners are actually present. In fact, we have all strayed; the question is one of degree, rather than a binary yes or no. If the rebellious sinners can return, certainly those who have not gone as far have this ability.

Yet there is another point, and it is here that we have much to learn from Coop. Even those who do not practice Judaism as dictated by Halakhah possess a Jewish identity. Whether one’s Shabbat morning ritual includes walking to shul, driving to shul, or robbing a bank, there is a sense of Jewish identity which, the Gemara in Gittin teaches us, exists somewhere within. As its own entity, however, it is most perceptible in the middle category of Jews, who possess a very real love for Judaism and the Jewish People even while acting in a manner unbounded by Halakhah. When I consider this category, I am personally comforted by the sense that it is not just any group of avaryanim (sinners) with whom our voices join in prayer and penance on Yom Kippur; it is our avaryanim, those who identify with us, who possess a powerful desire to serve God and identify with His people,[xx] even if it might be buried under miles of earth in some extreme instances. In Coop’s case, of course, no digging was required.[xxi]

The tenth of Tishri, 5770 was Mr. Joseph Cooperman’s final Yom Kippur. This year, although I will be surrounded by bahurei yeshivah and Rashei Yeshivah rather than a more representative sample of Kelal Yisrael, I will undoubtedly mentally drift back to the days of the Beech Street Minyan, its assortment of characters, and the lessons of passionate Jews who generally lacked the education I was privileged to receive. Despite what I may do or say the rest of the year, on this day, Jewish identity, and ahdut with everyone, no matter what, will be the theme du jour. And from that perspective, Coop is one of my favorite Jews. Yehi zikhro barukh.

Ariel Caplan is a junior at YC majoring in Biology and is a Staff Writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] All names and places in this article have been modified.

[ii] Vayikra 19:18.

[iii] See Sefer ha-Mitsvot le-ha-Rambam, Aseh 3.

[iv] Yehoshua 7:11. Translation is the author’s, as are those of the Gemara and Rashi’s comment.

[v] Rashi ad loc., s.v. “Hata.”

[vi] See, for example, Hiddushei ha-Ramban to Bava Metsi’a 71b; Hiddushei ha-Rashba to Yevamot 22a, s.v. “Matnitin;” Rosh, Bava Metsi’a 5:52; Hiddushei ha-Ritva to Sanhedrin 22a, s.v. “Ve-Ahiv;” and Or Zarua, Helek Gimmel, Piskei Bava Batra, siman 103.

[vii] Yoreh De’ah 159 and Hoshen Mishpat 283.

[viii] In several locations; for example, Orah Hayyim 55:11.

[ix] See Taz, Orah Hayyim 448:4; Pithei Teshuvah, Yoreh De’ah 112:1; and Mishnah Berurah 55:47.

[x] The Bar-Ilan database, version 14, yields several hundred results within the category of teshuvot.

[xi] See Devarim 22:23-24, which establishes the penalty for this crime as stoning, which, according to the opinion of the Hakhamim of the Mishnah on Sanhedrin 79b, is the most severe form of Jewish death penalty. Regarding the question of inferring the severity of a sin from its punishment, see the baraita of Rabbi Matya ben Harash on Yoma 86a, which supports the notion, as well as Avot 2:1, which seems to challenge it.

[xii] Yehoshua 7:24-25.

[xiii] See Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 619:1 with commentary of Mishnah Berurah.

[xiv] Translation is the author’s.

[xv] Orah Hayyim 619:1, partially cited in Sha’ar ha-Tsiyyun 619:4.

[xvi] Obviously, the issue of arevut and divine justice is beyond the scope of this article.

[xvii] Translation is the author’s.

[xviii] See, however, Rosh ha-Shanah 17a, which seems to contradict this statement, as does the next source cited in the skipped portion.

[xix] Regarding this point, see Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gerushin 2:20, which assumes that all Jews desire to perform mitsvot and avoid averot, as well as Haggahot Maimoniyyot ad loc., which applies this principle even to a mumar (Jew who has abandoned his faith). Beit Yosef, Even ha-Ezer 134 cites sources that support or reject the Haggahot Maimoniyyot’s contention, and Rema’s gloss to Even ha-Ezer 154:1 assumes that the Haggahot Maimoniyyot is correct.

[xx] See Maharsha’s Hiddushei Aggadot to Keretot 6b, in which he says that the inclusion of sinners in a fast presumes that they actually accede to join the prayer service, as if they do, they are not in the category of poresh min ha-tsibbur (those who separate from the community). It seems that the redeeming quality here is their identification with the Jewish People. While Maharsha limits the inclusion to those who actually join, we might infer, based on the passages of Gemara quoted, that even those who do not join the fast still possess this redemptive sense of identity, as was suggested in the text.

[xxi] I do not mean to characterize Coop as an avaryan; in today’s societal climate, it is generally accepted that herem would be inappropriate for the average non-Orthodox Jew. The point is that Coop’s sense of Jewish identity was a revealed form which indicates the presence of this same sense of identity within those who seem beyond all sense of Jewish tradition and values.