Being a commuter on the New York City subway, I am no stranger to street preachers. Honestly, I find them kind of annoying because people are trying to read, sleep, have a conversation or just generally mind their own business. Nevertheless, I don’t say anything because I recognize that these people see “witnessing” as a religious duty, an idea with which I can empathize. So, while they may be a little intrusive, they’re pretty harmless.
This was not the case with Michael Ray Webber, a preacher with Truth and Triumph Ministries, who decided to proselytize during the credits at a showing of the latest Avengers movie in Redlands, CA. Reports as to Webber’s exact words differ but the apparent gist was along the lines of, “If you were to die tonight, would your passage to heaven be guaranteed?” Given our current climate of school shootings, and the precedent of the 2012 theater shooting in Aurora, CO, during a showing of Batman, you can imagine the audience reaction: panic.
Susie Arias was there and she reported that “That’s when the kind of chaos happened in the little exit, where people were jumping over the railings, and kind of falling over, twisting their ankles and hitting their head.” One woman jumped off a balcony to the ground 20 feet below, where she was trampled by others scrambling to escape the theater.
The New York Post dubbed Webber a “raving lunatic” but I think that’s unfair. He was just a guy doing his best to fulfill his religious obligation as he saw it. He just failed to think through the context and the consequences. Or, as Ms. Arias put it, “If you’re gonna try to draw people towards the Bible, that’s not the way to do it, and he needs to stop.”
The same kind of situations present themselves in Judaism. There are times when it’s appropriate to perform a mitzvah (like 99.999% of the time) but there are also times when the appropriate thing to do is to refrain from doing a mitzvah. I’ll share a story:
A long time ago, I attended a youth event out of state. The teens were generally not from religious backgrounds but they all spent Shabbos together with its attendant services of various lengths. That’s a lot for a kid whose Saturdays normally involve movies or the mall. Saturday night was when we would normally recite kiddush levana, the monthly sanctification of the moon, but for whatever reason the director opted not to include this in the schedule. Was it because the kids had had enough prayers for one day? Because logistically it’s very difficult to move a large group of teens from inside to outside and back without losing a dozen of them? Was it an oversight? No idea. But whatever the reason, the youth leaders were charged with accompanying the teens back to where they were supposed to go. This they did except for about 15 boys, who were scattering to the winds because their advisors were outside saying kiddush levana. Their director went outside and chastised them for losing control of their groups by telling them, “It’s not bracha time.”
Of course, we have a concept of z’rizim makdimin l’mitzvos, the zealous are quick to perform mitzvos as soon as the opportunity presents itself, but there are other factors to consider. For example, there’s the concept of ha’oseik b’mitzvah patur min hamitzvah, one who is already involved in a mitzvah is exempt from performing a different mitzvah (Talmud Brachos 11a). Also, women are generally exempt from positive, time-bound mitzvos (like tzitzis, tefillin and eating in a succah). The Talmud (Kiddushin 29a) only tells us that they are so exempt, not the underlying reason why. Later authorities posit several reasons, and the commonly-accepted one is that women have so many commitments on their time related to child-rearing that it would be unfair and impractical to also have to fulfill certain mitzvos that have designated time frames. While this particular exemption doesn’t apply to men – not even to single fathers – Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lubavitch once famously chastised his son Rabbi Dov Ber for failure to stop learning Torah in order to tend to a crying child. So we see that certain mitzvos might occasionally be obviated because of one’s other obligations.
There are other reasons for which mitzvos might be put aside. The reason we violate Shabbos to save a human life is because it’s preferable to violate one Shabbos in the hope that doing so will enable the one saved to observe Shabbos many times in the future (Talmud Shabbos 151b). (Life-saving on Shabbos is not limited to Sabbath-observant victims for reasons beyond our scope, but that’s the underlying rationale.) In fact, mitzvos may generally be ignored for life-saving purposes based on the verse v’chai bahem (Leviticus 18:5), mitzvos were given for us to live by, not to perish by (Sanhedrin 74a).
There are also occasions where the Sages enacted that we should not perform certain mitzvos in order to protect the sanctity of Shabbos. This includes such seminal mitzvos as blowing shofar on Rosh Hashana and taking the four species on the first day of Succos (which is the only day obligated by Biblical law) should these days fall on Shabbos. Perhaps neither you nor I would violate Shabbos in order to fulfill these obligations but someone somewhere invariably would, which is enough of a reason to generally bar the practice (Talmud Rosh Hashana 29b).
This is not to suggest that we should have carte blanche in deciding not to perform mitzvos, just that sometimes we need to use our brains. There is a popular saying, attributed (perhaps apocryphally) to Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, that there is a fifth volume to Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law): common sense.
When we’re in shul and others are talking, do we admonish the culprits with extreme prejudice based on the obligation to rebuke wrongdoers (Leviticus 19:17)? Or will doing so merely exacerbate the situation, making it wiser to refrain?
When flying on a plane, should we make a minyan, or even just daven in the aisle because standing is preferable? Or will doing so bother other passengers, inconvenience flight attendants, and possibly pose a safety hazard? There is significant halachic opinion that in such a situation, one should make concessions to the needs and comfort of others.
King Solomon tells us that “a wise man has eyes in his head” (Koheles 2:14). Webber told CBS that he plans to continue evangelizing but that he would better consider his choice of venues. We should use his example to remember to think through our actions and not let our religious zeal blind the eyes of common sense.
[1.] For the advanced student, I also reference the concept of eis laasos laShem (Tehillim 119:126, Temurah 14b).
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.