Thursday, 29 January 2009

How Could Jews Protest...and as Jews?

Protests against Israel in the Gaza war were upsetteing in their own right. What was even more intolerable, though, was the fact that Jews joined in these protests emphatically announcing that they were Jews, and as Jews were protesting -- like it was some real and true expression of their Jewishness.
An article on this subject, by Rabbi Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto). To view the article on line, go to

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

8. Walking In God’s Ways

WWJD. The solution to all your religious quandaries: What Would Jesus Do? Abbreviated W.W.J.D. and emblazoned on bracelets, bumper stickers, backpacks, mugs, etc., it’s a small reminder—like a string around the finger—to help Christians during the dark moments of confusion. Not sure of the right thing to do? Just do what the alleged son of God would do.

The joke is: who exactly are you asking? This little, objective Jesus that lives in your head?

For example, imagine that you pass a hungry person begging for food. You’re half-a-block away and you stop to consider your actions. Should you go back and give the person something to eat? Well: “What would Jesus do?”

Are you asking for an objective ruling? In other words, are you reaching outside of yourself for direction? Or are you asking for a personal ruling, reaching into yourself to identify your own sense of right and wrong?

The difference is significant yet how often are we consciously aware of which question we’re asking? ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ attempts objectivity: “Jesus would go back and give the guy some food.” But how do you know?

Recently I was having a conversation with someone discussing the issue of abortion. I could cite varying opinions from a Halachic perspective but when asked for my personal opinion I had to admit that I didn’t have a response. My chavruta complimented me, suggesting that this showed a level of devotion to the Halacha. I disagreed. I had allowed the Halacha to act as a surrogate for my own morality.

Belief in God means that we believe in an objective system of right and wrong—whether or not we have a clear view of this system is a different matter. The belief in objective morality can cloud the fact that our senses provide us with subjective information and we are incapable of definitively disassociating our thoughts from our imperfect brains. Essentially, any attempt at objectivity must come from a starting point of subjectivity and there’s no escaping that. We may be able to know an objective morality but any sincere person must admit that we can’t objectively know that it is objective.

If the Halacha, as you understand it, obligates you to return to give food to the hungry, what choice do you have? But having our eyes on God does not absolve us from our responsibility to conduct an investigation faced inward as well.

If it is found that there is a conflict between the Halacha and your personal morality, what will you do? Will you take it as a sign that your morality is flawed? Or will you see it as an indication that you’ve misunderstood the Halacha? Will you try to manipulate the Halacha to bend to your personal beliefs? Or will you sublimate your feelings and defer to God?

On the other hand, it may be discovered that there is no conflict between the Halacha and your personal morality. That’s certainly convenient, but can you trust this symbiosis? How do you know that you haven’t self-regulated your ethical system to conform to Halacha? How do you know that you haven’t coloured your understanding of Halacha to match your morality?

This is why asking questions such as ‘What would Jesus do?’ can be self-deceptive. (Naturally, there may be Christians who understand the question on a more complex level; I’m looking at it colloquially.) These questions are in the business of objectifying the inherently subjective. ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ asks you to objectively answer a hypothetical question. Hidden in the background, directing the path, is your personal morality, camouflaged by religious devotion. There are two questions; WWJD asks only one. And, like most two-in-one devices, it really doesn’t satisfy either of its goals very effectively.

I doubt there is a simple way to rectify the conflict between God and Self. But I don’t think we’re called upon to erase ourselves. How often do we see someone taught to discount his/her personal morality in light of Halacha eventually abandon orthodoxy entirely? How long can we tell the feminist, the homosexual, the pacifist, the vegetarian, the egalitarian, the artist that any morality that is inconsistent with Halacha must be suppressed? How long can that last before the Self fights back? But if Halacha represents Truth, what good could it do to let the Self take God by the leash? Dialogue is the only solution. Personal morality is sharpened when challenged by Halacha and Halacha grows and develops in the hands of worthy individuals.

The search for an objective morality has its best shot at validity when we each have a voice of our own to bring to the table. Otherwise, who knows what lurking beliefs pull strings beneath the surface? “You will walk in His ways (Devarim 28:9).” The subject, as with all the commandments, is you.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

A New Tactic

I really wasn't surprised by the article by Khadafi that I saw in a recent edition of the Toronto Star. (See ) It seems that the article was syndicated to many papers in North America and, perhaps, around the world. I was a bit surprised that the article came from Khadafi but I was just waiting for the Arabs to come up with this idea. Why not have just one big, democratic, state combining Jews and Arabs in the land that is called Israel and/or Palestine? This is an idea that the Western World can clearly embrace. The fact that Khadafi is the one making this suggestion would really appeal to the Western World. He will be seen as one who has repented, as one who has embraced democracy. Khadafi in his article even declares that he understands why Jews need a land and is willing to accept their presence on the land. All the Arabs want is democracy; would that ever sell in the West?

And, of course, the Arabs will get want they want anyway. Such a democratic state, especially with an ever growing Arab population that will surpass the Jewish population soon, if it has not already done so, could not possibly be a Jewish state. And what has happened in Gaza shows that even when this "democratic" population votes in a totalitarian government, there will still be support for this "democratically, elected government" in the West -- which means that when this population turns its totalitarian objectives against the Jewish population in this theoretical democracy, there will always be the argument that its the democratic will.

I just hope that the ploy turns against Khadafi. Rather than Westerners being even more supportive of this idea because it comes from a "repentant totalitarian", they will recognize that it is another ploy from a manipulative dictator who has just come up with another way to achieve his totalitarian goal.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Moral Confusion: Selling Virginity

Originally published 1/25/09, 4:22 PM.
There was a news article I saw on the CNN website that caught my attention. See It seems that a 22 yr. old woman is auctioning "her virginity" over the internet and the latest bid is at 3.8 Million U.S. Dollars. Of course, the amount itself will gain attention from the curiousity of the general public; perhaps, so will the basic idea itself. I found myself, though, interested in this story for what it may indicate about human nature and the moral fabric of individuals. I was not surprised to find that the questions that were bothering me were not really addressed in what I read. In fact, more questions arose.

The basic underlying structure of what was being presented seemed contradictory to me. Here was a woman, 22 yrs old, who is stating that she was a virgin. What type of woman, in our modern world, would still be a virgin at 22? We would think that there must have been some moral reason for her to have made this decision. Now though, she was offering to have sex for money which would make her a prostitute. How does a woman who has a moral value to remain a virgin then decide to practice prostitution? And the fact that what she is now doing prostitution is something that she admits. In the article, she says that she knows that selling her virginity is an act of prostitution, that is why she is running the auction out of Nevada. If she had reasons to refrain from sexual behaviour up to know, how does she reconcile becoming a prostitute with her other moral perceptions?

It only gets stranger. It seems that she came up with this idea because she wants to raise money for graduate school in which she wants to study Family and Marriage Counselling. Doesn't it seem that what she is now doing challenges her ability to undertake her desired future profession? She also informed some of her previous boyfriends that they should not think that by undertaking this, she is now becoming promiscuous. No, just a prostitute. How does she understand sexual morality?

Now, of course, one might contend that this issue really has nothing to do with Torah, so why be bothered by it? The fact is that Torah connects to human nature. If God speaks to human beings through the Torah, understanding the frame of reference of the one receiving the communication is significant in understanding the full extent of the communication. I often find that people, in understanding Torah, have uni-dimensional views of human personality and human nature and the result is a simplistic view of Torah. The more that we recognize that the Torah speaks to a multitude of human personality types with variant frames of reference, the more we can see the full depth of the spectrum of Torah. That is why this case is so interesting to me. In attempting to understand the general guidelines of the Torah in sexual conduct with often apply certain perspectives on sexuality and natural morality. This woman would seem to defy these perspectives. She does not seem to fit into any stereotype. Maybe understanding this will open our minds to better understand the Torah perspective on these matters. We can have a clearer idea of the multi-dimensional nature of the Torah directives regarding human sexuality.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The New Jewish Issue in Washington

As Barack Obama assumes the Presidency of the U.S., it seems that many Jews have important and integral roles within this new administration. According to something I heard tonight, it even seems that of the seven most influential positions in this new administration, all seven have been filled with Jews. I am not sure how to respond to this fact. On one hand, there is pride in hearing of Jews attaining such types of positions. There is also gratitude and hope with the belief that Jewish People now have many friends in the White House, many members of our people in leading positions. There is, however, also some trepidation. Just because someone is identified as a Jew or even calls himself/herself a Jew, does not mean that he/she has the emotions of a Jew and cares about the Jewish People. In this case, though, amongst these new appointees, there are clearly some that strongly identify as Jews, who seem to care about the Jewish People. The problem for me, though, is not whether someone feels like a Jew but rather whether that person thinks like a Jew. In this regard, does this person turn to Jewish sources in making a decision or does the person simply do what so many Jews do -- act upon their own moral initiative and call it Jewish because they can find some source in the large corpus of Jewish sources that can be used to support such an initiative -- and, in any event, their Jewish heart just feels that its right?

Torah is so broad and multi-dimensional that one can almost always find some statement that can be used to support, even advocate for, some viewpoint. The question in Torah scholarship is not whether some source can be found to support an idea but how this source connects to and integrates with the myriad other sources on the subject -- often, seemingly, in contradiction -- to create a substantive, practical directive that reflects the true complexity of a matter. When I hear that a Jew, with a strong, positive feeling of Jewish identity, is in a position of governmental import, I generally do feel some good about it. This positive feeling should result in some positive feelings towards the Jewish People within that administration. But what I am really hoping for when I hear that a Jew is in such a position, is that this Jew is also a Jew who thinks like a Jew. This means someone who understands the nature of Torah and its lessons -- and thus recognizes the complexity of life and of decisions. Such a person I can also trust with the decision making that accompanies such a governmental position -- since such a person will also understand the value of Torah in identifying and clarifying the complexity of a situation and directing a person in proper responses to that situation. The result will be, not just a Jew in government but also Jewish decisions, decisions that reflect Jewish, Torah wisdom. That is, by definition, good for the Jewish People but it is, also, inherently good for all.

The greatest possible kiddush Hashem that can emerge from so many Jews in important positions in this new administration is that wise decisions will emerge from them and people will recognize the value in Jewish, i.e. Torah, thought. Sadly, a chilul Hashem, could also potentially emerge if these Jews actually make foolish decisions which are then interpreted as Jewish decisions because they were made by Jews even though the wisdom of Torah was not applied in making these decisions. So many Jews in the White House -- what to think? It depends. Will these Jews use Jewish wisdom in arriving at their decisions? If the answer to that question is yes -- it is good for the Jews and, in fact, for the U.S. and all Americans, in fact all the world. The wisdom of Torah will be available to assist in the development of the world. If these Jews, though, do not know Torah or how to apply it within their new roles, I have some concerns. They will make their decisions like everyone else but these decisions will still be defined as Jewish decisions. That is taking a gamble.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Chumrah becomes a Kullah - A Basic Halachic Warning Signal

Throughout the study of Halacha, one idea that is constantly stressed in the recognition that what may be a stringent position in one case may also result in a lenient position in another case. This recognition is deemed to be most important in halachic analysis for it warns the one doing the analysis not to simply go with the safest position but to strive for the truth -- for the safe position in one case, i.e. the stringent position, may reflect a halachic concept that will result in a most dangerous and risky conclusion in another case, the lenient position. This warning has significance beyond its practical import. The nature of Halacha always demands a full analysis of the case and the concepts involved. There are no such things as easy or safe answers, in the long run. One must always strive to understand an issue to the best of his(/her) abilities and if the only conclusion one can reach still must recognize divergent views on a subject between leading Torah scholars, one, to be safe, must consider all possibilities. This type of analysis demands of us to go beyond agendas -- to determine the halacha according to the truth.

It is with this caveat in mind that I find myself troubled by the recent case of 29-year-old Yossi Fackenheim who was recently declared not to be Jewish by some individuals in Israel. It seems that Yossi, the son of noted Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim, wished to give a get to his wife but when he appeared before the beit din to do this, the beit din asked him about his Jewish identity. He informed them that he was adopted and converted as a baby in an Orthodox beit din in Toronto. He, though, also admitted to not abiding by a halachic lifestyle which resulted in this beit din declaring him not to be Jewish. His conversion, since he did not live a Torah lifestyle, was declared null and void.

The truth is that I have difficulties with that conclusion in strict halachic terms, so I am inherently biased against the beit din's conclusion. Yet, even if there are opinions that may come to the conclusion that the non-observance of a halachic lifestyle may challenge a gerut katan, to act upon this view in this case where there are clearly opinions to the contrary in this case, is a clear violation of the above noted principle. While this court and rabbis may feel that they are being stringent in "protecting" the essence of Jewish identity -- and there clearly is value in connecting Jewish identity to Halacha and Torah -- there are also many possible leniencies, or worse, that must also arise from such a decision. My first concern was that Yossi's wife may, if you take the position that he is a Jew, be left without a get. That would be clearly unacceptable. I then heard that this beit din was instructed by a higher court to arrange the get. So the principle prevailed in this important context. But that was only one of my concerns. Do we not encourage Yossi to still do mitzvot? We also find many places in the gemara a concern for how a halachic decision may affect the definition of marital intercourse and, while this is not an absolute overriding concern, there is a a predisposition not to apply a halachic stance that would define an act of marital intercourse into an act of promiscuity, i.e. not marital intercourse, in this case an act of intercourse between a Jew and a non-Jew. It would seem to me that these rabbis and this beit din came to their conclusion so swiftly that they did not even consider these matters. They let their chumra result in kullahs without considering this issue. This does not say that they would not have came to a similar conclusion even if they would have considered all the differing halachic views. As Rav Moshe Feinstein constantly declared -- the posek must act according to his view of the truth. This result, as much as I may disagree, may have been these rabbis' and this beit din's view of the truth. But if that was so, it would have clearly been shown to be the result of contemplation and consideration. That, from what I have heard, does not seem to be the case. It therefore emerged from agenda. Agenda in Halacha must be approached very gingerly.

Of course, the whole issue of how Israel should deal with conversion given the true nature of Jewishness in our time and the multi-faceted way that people look at being a Jew nowadays, is a most complex issue. What does an Orthodox beit din if someone of the stature of an Emil Fackenheim wishes to convert his newly adopted baby through an Orthodox beit din even though the baby will not be brought up within an observant home? It is a real dilemma. Rabbi Reuven Bulka has a book entitled The Coming Cataclysm which argues for what use to be the norm -- that the Orthodox beit din should convert this baby in order to maintain a level of Jewish unity and unity in Identity. The trend in the Orthodox world, today, though is to be more stringent in the laws of conversion and truly demand, especially in the case of an adult, full observance even though that will result in complexity and confusion in Jewish identity. This, though, is the way the law actually seems to read. There is an issue but beyond the actual issue, if our personal agendas become the overriding consideration than Halacha itself -- there is an even greater problem. That is my concern, beyond the normal problems, with this case.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Friday, 16 January 2009

New Translation of Shemona Perakim

A new translation of Rambam's Shemona Perakim, with commentary, by Nishma contributor, Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, is now available from Targum Press! For further information, please see
For a brief picture into Rabbi Feldman and his focus, a short bio of him is available on the Nishma website at His Nishma article on Tshuva is also available on the website at
We highly recommend his works.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

LBJ - A [Lost] Legacy of Decency Towards the Jewish People

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this article. I have heard "anecdotals" of how LBJ was supportive of local congregations in the Austin Texas area. I have also heard that he was a friend of Israel in a most general way. This was a stark revelation. I never realzied how much LBJ really went out of his way to help the Jewish people. His sincere desire to end victimization of African-Americans despite being a Souterhn Politican was an act of courage tha I have always applauded. That he was a "profile in Courage" for Civil Rights and Voting Rights is beyiod dsipute. What I have failed to notice - until this article - is that he stended the same decncy ahnd humanity to us Jews.

I feel humbled that I never had a chance to apprecaite all of this utnil SO many years afterwards. It haunts me that I have been oblviious to his generosoity to our people


Past news reports do little to reveal the full historical extent of Johnson's actions on behalf of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Most students of the Arab-Israeli conflict can identify Johnson as the American president during the 1967 war. But few know about his active efforts to rescue hundreds of endangered Jews during the Holocaust - actions that could have thrown him out of Congress and into jail. Indeed, the title of "Righteous Gentile" is certainly appropriate in the case of the Texan whose centennial year is being commemorated this year. I had once before sent an article to you about Johnson and his feeling about Jews, but this report is much more forthcoming. YOU REALLY SHOULD READ IT!......Bob

25 Dec 2008

A few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that newly released tapes from US president Lyndon Johnson's White House office showed LBJ's "personal and often emotional connection to Israel." The news agency pointed out that during the Johnson presidency (1963-1969), "the United States became Israel's chief diplomatic ally and primary&nb sp; arms supplier."

Appropriately enough, the annual Jerusalem Conference announced this week that it will honor Johnson in February 2009.

Historians have revealed that Johnson, while serving as a young Democratic congressman in 1938 and 1939, arranged for visas to be supplied to Jews in Warsaw, and oversaw the apparently illegal immigration of hundreds of Jews through the portGalveston, Texas. of

A key resource for uncovering LBJ's pro-Jewish activity is the unpublished 1989 doctoral thesis by University of Texas student Louis Gomolak , "Prologue: LBJ's Foreign Affairs Background, 1908-1948." Johnson's activities were confirmed by other historians in interviews with his wife, family members and political associates.

Research into Johnson's personal history indicates that he inherited his concern for Jewish people from his family. His aunt Jessie Johnson Hatcher, a major influence on LBJ, was a member of the Zionist Organization of America. According to Gomolak, Aunt Jessie had nurtured LBJ's commitment to befriending Jews for 50 years. As a young boy, Lyndon watched his politically active grandfather "Big Sam" and father "Little Sam" seek clemency for Leo Frank, the Jewish victim of a blood libel in Atlanta. Frank was lynched by a mob in 1915, and the Ku Klux Klan in Texas KKK attack. Johnson's speechwriter later stated, "Johnson often cited Leo Frank's lynching as the source of his opposition to both anti-Semitism and isolationism." threatened to kill the Johnsons. The Johnsons later told friends that Lyndon's family hid in their cellar while his father and uncles stood guard with shotguns on their porch in case of

Already in 1934 - four years before Chamberlain's Munich sellout to Hitler - Johnson was keenly alert to the dangers of Nazism and presented a book of essays, Nazism: An Assault on Civilization, to the 21-year-old woman he was courting, Claudia Taylor - later known as "Lady Bird" Johnson. It was an incredible engagement present.

FIVE DAYS after taking office in 1937, LBJ broke with the "Dixiecrats" and supported an immigration bill that would naturalize illegal aliens, mostly Jews from Lithuania and Poland. In 1938, Johnson was told of a young Austrian Jewish musician who was about to be deported from the United States. With an element of subterfuge, LBJ sent him to the US Consulate in Havana to obtain a residency permit. Erich Leinsdorf, the world famous musician and conductor, credited LBJ with s aving his life.

That same year , LBJ warned a Jewish friend, Jim Novy, that European Jews faced annihilation. "Get as many Jewish people as possible out [of Germany and Poland]," were Johnson's instructions. Somehow, Johnson provided him with a pile of signed immigration papers that were used to get 42 Jews out of Warsaw.

But that wasn't enough. According to historian James M. Smallwood, Congressman Johnson used legal and sometimes illegal methods to smuggle "hundreds of Jews into Texas, using Galveston as the entry port. Enough money could buy false passports and fake visas in Cuba, Mexico and other Latin American countries.... Johnson smuggled boatloads and planeloads of Jews into Texas. He hid them in the Texas National Youth Administration... Johnson saved at least four or five hundred Jews, possibly more."

During World War II Johnson joined Novy at a small Austin gathering to sell $65,000 in war bonds. According to Gomolak, Novy and Johnson then raised a very "substantial sum for arms for Jewish underground fighters in Palestine." One source cited by the historian reports that "Novy and Johnson had been secretly shipping heavy crates labeled 'Texas Grapefruit' - but containing arms - to Jewish underground 'freedom fighters' in Palestine."

ON JUNE 4, 1945, Johnson visited Dachau. According=2 0to Smallwood, Lady Bird later recalled that when her husband returned home, "he was still shaken, stunned, terrorized and bursting with an overpowering revulsion and incredulous horror at what he had seen."

A decade later while serving in the Senate, Johnson blocked the Eisenhower administration's attempts to apply sanctions against Israel following the 1956 Sinai Campaign. "The i ndefatigable Johnson had never ceased pressure on the administration," wrote I.L. "Si" Kenen, the head of AIPAC at the time.

As Senate majority leader, Johnson consistently blocked the anti-Israel initiatives of his fellow Democrat, William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Among Johnson's closest advisers during this period were several strong pro-Israel advocates, including Benjamin Cohen (who 30 years earlier was the liaison between Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann) and Abe Fortas, the legendary Washington "insider."

Johnson's concern for the Jewish people continued through his presidency. Soon after taking office in the aftermath of John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Johnson told an Israeli diplomat, "You have lost a friend, but you have found a better one."

Just one month after succeeding Kennedy, LBJ attended the December 1963 dedication of the Agudas Achim Synagogue in Austin. Novy opened the ceremony by saying to Johnson, "We can't thank him enough for all those Jews he got out of Germany during the days of Hitler."

Lady Bird would later describe the day, according to Gomolak: "Person after person plucked at my sleeve and said, 'I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for him. He helped me get out.'" Lady Bird elaborated, "Jews had been woven into the warp and woof of all [Lyndon's] years."

THE PRELUDE to the 1967 war was a terrifying period for Israel, with the US State Department led by the historically unfriendly Dean Rusk urging an evenhanded policy despite Arab threats and acts of aggression. Johnson held no such illusions. After the war he placed the blame firmly on Egypt: "If a single act of folly was more&nbs p; responsible for this explosion than any other, it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision [by Egypt] that the Strait of Tiran would be closed [to Israeli ships and Israeli-bound cargo]."

Kennedy was the first president to approve the sale of defensive US weapons to Israel, specifically Hawk anti-aircraft missiles. But Johnson approved tanks and fighter jets, all vital after the 1967 war when France imposed a freeze on sales to Israel. Yehuda Avner recently described on these pages prime minister Levi Eshkol's successful appeal for these weapons on a visit to t he LBJ ranch.

Israel won the 1967 war, and Johnson worked to make sure it also won the peace. "I sure a s hell want to be careful and not run out on little Israel," Johnson said in a March 1968 conversation with his a mbassador to the United Nations, Arthur Goldberg, according to White House tapes recently released.

Soon after the 1967 war, Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin asked Johnson at the Glassboro Summit why the US supported Israel when there were 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis. "Because it is right," responded the straight-shooting Texan.

The crafting of UN Resolution 242 in November 1967 was done under Johnson's scrutiny. The call for "secure and recognized boundaries" was critical. The American and British drafters of the resolution opposed Israel returning all the territories captured in the war. In September 1968, Johnson explained, "We are not the ones to say where other nations should draw lines between them that will assure each the greatest security. It is clear, however, that a return to the situation of 4 Jun e 1967 will not bring peace. There must be secure and there must be recognized borders. Some such lines must be agreed to by the neighbors involved."

Goldberg later noted, "Resolution 242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was de liberate." This historic diplomacy was conducted under Johnson's stewardship, as Goldberg related in oral history to the Johnson Library. "I must say for Johnson," Goldberg stated. "He gave me great personal support."

Robert David Johnson, a professor of history at Brooklyn College, recently wrote in The New York Sun, "Johnson's policies stemmed more from personal concerns - his friendship with leading Zionists, his belief that America had a moral obligation to bolster Israeli security and his conception of Israel as a frontier land much like his home state of Texas. His personal concern s led him to intervene when he felt that the State or Defense departments had insufficiently appreciated Israel's diplomatic or military needs."

President Johnson firmly pointed American policy in a pro-Israel direction. In a historical context, the American emergency airlift to Israel in 1973, the constant diplomatic support, the economic and military assistance and the strategic bonds between the two countries can all be credited to the seeds planted by LBJ.

*** The writer served as deputy chief of mission of the Israeli Embassy in Washington. Today, an international consultant, he blogs at

Thank you for this report: Jon Mandell

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Islamic Monotheism

I was directed to a posting on youtube about a person who was an Orthodox Jew for 10 years, then became a Muslim. On the video this person said he was frum from his late teens until his early thirties and then, through discussions over the internet with a Muslim, became a devout Muslim. In the small piece of this video that I saw, this person contended that an argument that really convinced him of the truth of Islam was that it was the perfect Monotheism, Now I understood what this person was contending in regard to Christianity but I could not fathom what he meant by contending that Islam was a better form of Monotheism. The person continued. The problem with Judaism, according to this person, was that it gave power to the Rabbis and thus lessened the oneness and overall power of the deity. I write deity in this case with a small d -- for this person was not referring to HaKodesh Baruch Hu. What amazed me was that this individual, after being frum for over 10 years, could not understand the problem with this contention and this idea that Rabbinic power lessens the greatness of God. It is precisely because Hashem gave power to rabbis, human beings, that we recognize His True Greatness.

Islam is all about submission to the deity. Through submission, one is deemed to recognize the deity as the one, overall force in the world. The problem is: what about the human being? What was the human being created for? The greatest gift that God can give a human being is the ability to be Godlike which includes individuality, independence and autonomy. It is with this perspective that Hashem gave us the Torah in such a manner that it still demanded human involvement, human thought, human decision making. We accept the dominion of Hakodesh Baruch Hu by submitting ourselves to the direction of Torah -- but, then, God's directive still demands our analysis. We have to figure out what God wants from us. We have to think. We have to still make decisions. On the surface, it may look that God's power is chas v'sholom being reduced by this involvement of human beings in the determination of what is demanded. It may seem that God's overall Authority, His Oneness, is being challenged by the involvement of human decision makers in the process. What is not being understood is that God is so above the need for this type of full submission that He wished to create an entity upon whom he could actually bestow some of His essential attributes -- because He is so unique and so One of an Entity that whatever He bestowed upon humanity would not detract from Him one iota in any event. So Hashem created a system that demanded of Man to recognize His absolute Dominion yet still gave Man the ability to participate in the process and thereby experience imatio Dei. Rabbinic power is thus not a challenge to the Oneness of God but actually declares the Greatness of this Oneness.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday, 12 January 2009

7. Taking an Oath by God’s Name

“I swear, it’s wrong what Israel’s doing in Gaza.”

This I overheard while waiting in line for a falafel.

“You know what’s wrong? What’s wrong is that they didn’t do it sooner. I swear: that’s what’s wrong.”

They were, I believe, fighting over who would pay the tab. “I’ll pay.” “No, I’ll pay.” “How could I take a gift from someone who thinks…” Et cetera. And so I waited.

By the time I got up to the front to order, I wasn’t sure what I wanted anymore. The woman said, “You’ve been standing in line for fifteen minutes—how could you not know what you want?”

“I think I knew what I wanted when I got here,” I said, “but that was a long time ago. Now I’m not sure.”

So I let the couple behind me go ahead while I reconsidered my order.

It’s a complicated decision. You’re not just ordering for yourself. You’re also ordering for the person you’re going to be five minutes from now when you eat whatever it is you order, and the person you’ll be twenty-five minutes from now when you’re done eating, a day from now when you’re exercising, thirty years from now when you’re going to the doctor for a check-up, fifty years from now when you’re reminiscing. You’re ordering, when you think about it, for a lot of people. And you want to please all of them, or at least as many as possible—don’t you?

To complicate matters, each permutation of you makes different choices depending on the choices you make today. So you can’t just jump ahead to a seventy-year-old version of yourself and ask him (or her) what he’d like you to order because his answer will be different depending on what you did.

Even worse, according to a recent psychological study, we generally view our past selves in a manner similar to the way most people view their parents: nothing we did was right. For example, if you’re a non-disciplined eater, in the future you’ll probably look back on your past self with disdain, blaming your past self for your current health problems. If, however, you’re a disciplined eater, in the future you’ll blame your past self for not having enjoyed life more while you were young.

And you think all this doesn’t come to mind when I’m standing in line to order a falafel?

So I’m wondering: how is it that these two guys who just left (still arguing) are able to come to definitive opinions about an issue that intermingles sensitive and complex aspects of faith, politics and mortality and I’m unable to choose my lunch?

“What’ll it be, then?” I still wasn’t ready, so I resorted to the incredibly absurd stall-tactic of objectifying tastes: “What do you recommend.” “The spicy such-and-such is excellent.” “Is it very spicy?” “Yes. That’s why it’s called…” “Right. What else is good?” “The tofu thing is good.” “But does it have a lot of tofu in it?” And so on.

It’s frustrating because there is an ideal solution here. Isn’t there? There must be one dish that will best serve all my needs, now and into the future. God knows what I should order. With some investigation and perseverance, I should be able to know, too.

What I would like to be able to say is, “I want the falafel.” Very definitively, with a sense of authority and calm.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I want the falafel. I swear: I want the falafel.”

I imagine this type of certainty is accompanied by an incredible sense of relief. The endless permutations of This Moment are reduced to one, clear path. All that remains is to take the necessary steps in the right direction. The horrifying image of an infinite number of compasses pointing North in an infinite number of different directions—with a blink, it disappears. North is North. “I swear.” (See, for example, Charlie Chaplin’s paper compass in ‘The Gold Rush’.)

But we are far too limited to attain such certainty. I can do my best but I will never really know what I should have for lunch.

So what, then, do we say when the waitress asks for our order?

“I’m sorry—I am far too limited a being to know what I will have for lunch.”

That won’t work. Humans can’t escape making choices. Even abstention is a choice.

“Since I will never know what I should have for lunch, I’ll have to choose randomly.”

But should a lack of complete knowledge cause you to dispose of or disregard the knowledge you’ve attained?

“Though I do not have complete knowledge, I must, for the sake of action, believe that the knowledge I have is sufficient for these purposes.”

On the other hand, should self-deception be necessary to live a productive life? Incomplete knowledge may be all we have but does that require us to imagine a certainty that doesn’t exist?

“Come on! There are people waiting: what’ll it be?”

We fumble through life with dimly lit candles, barely able to see a step in front of our eyes. With this restricted visibility, the people rushing ahead into the dark can often appear to be the brave ones. Some will be drawn to emulate them. After the fact, we may try to distinguish between the brave and the foolish but the variable of luck is irremovable. Those who cling close to the sidewall and tiptoe are no wiser: they waste what little wax their candle has. Maybe the only choice is to maintain a steady pace and, when asked, say with confidence, “I swear with God’s Name: I see just one step ahead, and hardly that.”

An oath taken with God’s Name is an oath taken without hubris. It is an oath that, from its very conception, makes mention of the All-Knowing, and so distinguishes us from our creator. In modern times, Rabbinical law has directed us away from the practice of taking an oath. It may be thought that we lack the confidence, the knowledge base, or the devotedness to swear with God’s Name today; I sooner think we simply lack the humility.

If it is appropriate to liken each individual’s intellect to a dull light, then it is certainly true that the wise person is “he who learns from all” (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) since it is then the wise person who makes use of the most candles. But still, this combined light cannot begin to compare to God’s Knowledge. Nevertheless, choices must be made, actions taken, paths formed. All in all, lunch must be had. But not with certainty. If we can regain this humble awareness of our limited vision, perhaps some day we will once again be able to swear in the Name of God.

And then maybe we won’t have to wait so long in line to order a falafel.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

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Saturday, 3 January 2009

Maintaining Jewishness must be part of any action on behalf of Israel

There was a demonstration, today, in Toronto against Israel's actions in Gaza. I not only heard about it on the news tonight but I actually received an email, on Thursday, about such a demonstration being planned. This email, in response to this proposed demonstration, called upon Jews to counter-demonstrate -- yes, in downtown Toronto, at 2pm Saturday. Yes, I was being asked to join the counter-demonstration on Shabbat!

Many questions went through my mind. Was this counter-demonstrating actually assur, prohibited, specifically, on Shabbat? If it was a direct violation of Shabbat, was there any argument for a heter based on the circumstances? Even if it was not a direct violation, this demonstration was far away from the Jewish neighbourhoods in Toronto -- should one trek so far to counter-demonstrate? Was it in the spirit of Shabbat? What really hit me, though, were not the technical questions concerning Shabbat but what was being presented about the nature of this conflict. Is this fight just another nationalistic battle between two entities, each wanting nationalistic dominion, or does this fight have a dimension beyond that, of moral, ethical and Divine proportions? This call for a strong presence at this counter-demonstration seemed to come from someone with strong nationalistic feelings for Israel and for Jews -- but there wa something missing in not recognizing the significance of Shabbat within this scenario. Caring for Israel and for Jews is, of course, very important -- but it is not enough. There is a reason for the significance of the Jewish People and, by extension, a Jewish land -- and that is marked by Shabbat. Would a counter-demonstration be so significant that it would be worth the price of not properly marking Shabbat?

Of course, we are not to rely upon a miracle and are to act pursuant to derech hateva, the ways of reality. Of course, in regard to a military issue, one must act as necessary -- and if this counter-demonstration actually would make a difference in regard to Jewish lives, it would be mandatory to attend, not just possibly permissible to attend on Shabbat. The question for me, though, actually concerned what should be the focus of our Jewish fervour. I doubt that attendance at this counter-demonstration would actually make a signficant difference in what will be -- but the ones who wanted to have a successful counter-demonstration still felt it important. It, most likely, was important to them for the image of the Jewish people was under attack -- and they did not want that verbal attacks against Israel to go unanswered. This is, to a large extent, admirable. Yet on Shabbat itself something else it at stake -- what Jewishness is really all about. We cannot let the nationalistic fervour that makes us act on behalf of Israel like all strong nationalists act on behalf of their nation allow us to lose sight of the specialness of Israel and Jewishness. Just keeping Shabbat was, thus, in my opinion, more important.

Rabbi Ben Hecht