Wednesday 29 August 2007


Originally published 8/29/07, 3:03 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
The disclosure that Mother Teresa had doubts has seemed to raise eyebrows. Faith is seen as precluding doubt; one who believes should not doubt. It seems for many that Mother Teresa's doubts reflect a weakness in her. As a person of God, she was expected to have absolute faith.

The problem with this whole frame of reference is that doubt really says nothing about God. Doubt reflects the reality of the human condition. When one doubts what one is really doubting is not God but rather oneself, one's perception of the truth, one's ability to know. If Mother Teresa actually had doubts, my perception of her has actually improved. But then again, I'm not a Catholic but rather a Jew committed to Torah -- and to me doubt is necessary to actually relate to God.

The one who has no doubts, who is so sure of his/her thoughts and his conclusions, really cannot hear God but only himself/herself. It is only with doubt that one is able to hear the other and the Other. Doubt opens one to possibilities, to the opportunity that one may be wrong and learn from outside oneself. And this is really the whole process of Torah study. It demands dialogue, discussion and argument. It demands divergent opinions. It demands for one to find an answer outside of oneself -- always with some doubt and therefore without absolute surety and open to a new idea.

The human being can only relate to God if the human being recognizes his/her own weaknesses. This can only emerge if one doubts oneself. While it may be true that with doubt one never knows for sure about anything -- but isn't that the reality in any event. To postulate simple faith without thought is simply to project a fantasy. God, though, wants the human being to struggle in the attempt to know reality. God specifically speaks to the questioner, for the questioner is the only one who can grasp God, to the extent humanly possible. Without the question you can never know what God is really saying.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

Impact of the Mishnah Brurah during 100 Years

This article outlines the impact of the Mishnah Brurah over the last 100 years or so.
Jewish Star Article

Consider this: What has made this book so influential?
Its Author?
Its Contents?
Its Devotees?
Kesiva vaChasima Tova

Sunday 26 August 2007

Limits of Rabbinic Authority

Originally posted 8/26/07, 3:15 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Are there any objective limits to Rabbinic Authority? Or can rabbis rule subjectively and perhaps capriciously to advance their opinions, ignoring Black letter Law or the concept of Eilu v'Eilu? This subject was previously broached on this blog, here. More than ever, it is something to consider seriously.

Here is an e-mail I sent to The Jewish Week that was recently published. More background on this matter is available and BEH will be published on this thread or subsequent threads.
Rabbinic Decisions
I would like to echo the remarks of Rabbi Noah Gradowsky (Letters, July 13). Certainly Orthodox rabbis should be empowered to render decisions concerning halacha [Jewish law]. That said, I have two caveats: First, they should not make decisions that are absolute when the matter is in dispute. The Lower East Side eruv controversy comes to mind. Some Orthodox rabbis are prohibiting making an eruv. Instead, they should be merely rendering an opinion as to the eruv"s validity.

Second, rabbis should not be "thought police." People should be entitled to think for themselves. The hidden thoughts are for God alone to determine. At most, rabbis can rule on prescribed behavior. However, the philosophy as to how best to implement laws should remain a matter for open-minded debate.
Rabbi Richard Wolpoe
Teaneck, N.J.
NB: The Hidden Thoughts refer specifically to "hanistaros L'Hashem Elokeinu" - [end of Shlishi in Parshas Nitzavim]. While a Beth Din has every right to enforce behavioral standards "v'haniglos lany ul'evaneinu" nevertheless our intimate thoughts [and possibly intimate behavior] are "bein Adam Lamakom" alone.

Friday 24 August 2007

Ki Teitzei: War and the Innocent Bystander

From the archives of Nishma's Online Library at, we have chosen an article that relates to the week's parsha, both to direct you to this dvar Torah but also for the purposes of initiating some discussion.

This week's parsha is Ki Teitzei and the topic is the response to terrorism. In the response to terrorism, there is always a great possibility that innocent individuals will also be hurt and killed. That is the pragmatic reality but how do we understand this action within the Torah's moral perception? War and the Innocent Bystander is at

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Is Dogfighting a Jewish issue?

First posted 8/22/07, 12:33 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
By now, anyone who follows the news has heard that Michael Vick, the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons, has worked out a plea bargain on the dogfighting charges that have been brought against him. It has been a "hot topic" (see in the news and on talkradio, especially sports talkradio.
My question is: is this a Jewish or a Torah issue?

Of course the Torah has rules on how we are to treat animals and there is a general principle not to be cruel to animals, tzar ba'alei chayim. While the application of this rule demands halachic analysis, it is clear that a purpose of entertainment does not justify this treatment of animals. So the Torah perspective is pretty clear; yet this does not really answer the question.
There may be a straightforward Torah view on an issue but that does not necessarily mean the issue is a Torah issue. The question is whether the case of Michael Vick should concern us. Is this story something that we should be interested in? Is what happens to Michael Vick something that should concern us? On the one hand, the story does not really have a Jewish side to it but perhaps it does say something about the society in which we live.
Isn't this something in which we should be interested? What I have been thinking about in the past few days is the the role of sports -- specifically violent sports that permit body contact intended to hurt and even harm -- in our society. I have heard someone compare a football game to the gladiator battles in ancient Rome. Of course they are not the same thing, but in a strange way they also are.
Is this sublimation of aggression a good thing in that people no longer would tolerate actual gladiator battles to the death (and even in modern sports there is little toleration of any intent to injure) or do these sports foster this drive in giving an acceptable outlet to it? That to me is an important Torah question.

Just one last point that I also began to wonder about. Is tzar ba'alei chayim applicable as a Noachide law for non-Jews? I have heard people extend the law of ever min hachai, eating the limb of a live animal, to define it as a prohibition of cruelty to animals but I am not sure if that is a real Noachide halachic concept.
While it clearly has a voice of moral directive, and I find Vick's behaviour unacceptable on Torah moral grounds (and Noachide moral grounds) I have been wondering if Vick actually violated a Noachide law.
Clearly for a Jew, this behaviour is Torah legally unacceptable but I have been wondering whether a similar statement could be said about a non-Jew?

Thursday 16 August 2007

Ethical Dilemma #2 Emerges from the Sports Pages

Originally posted 8/16/07, 9:21 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
An ethical dilemma emerges from this week's sports pages: during the course of the past several years, TWO, not ONE, but TWO NBA coaches have been fined for publicly questioning the integrity of NBA officials. Now, it has been reported that at least one NBA official has been indicted on charges of altering the outcome of the game on behalf of mob-related gambling rings.

Assuming that this official is convicted (he actually pleaded guilty yesterday) and assuming that these coaches were addressing games negatively influenced by this scoundrel official, are these coaches entitled to a refund of their fines and an apology? Or not? Should they have kept their mouths shut in public and simply complained through "back-door" channels?

Rabbi Richard Wolpoe

Monday 6 August 2007

Israel: We have a Real Problem

Originally published 8/6/07, 10:54 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
The following Time magazine article, "A Sort of Peace in Gaza", describes how Hamas is bringing law and order to Gaza.

Our first response may be that this is not true. To maintain our image of Hamas, we don't want to hear of them doing anything that even smacks of being good; their intent must be for evil. There is a real problem with that type of response.
Marc Shapiro in his book on the Sridei Eish mentions that this Torah Sage -- the last Rosh Yeshiva of the Berlin Yeshiva -- was originally enamored by fascist ideology having read works by Mussolini. He thought that the anti-Semitism of the Nazis ym"s was secondary to their real intent to maintain the other goals of fascism; tragically he was wrong, and suffered greatly because of his mistaken perception of Nazi anti-Semitism. To the Nazis, anti-Semitism was a very significant part of their ideology.
Yet this story of the Sridei Eish still points out to us that there was still more to Nazi ideology than anti-Semitism. If the Sridei Eish could have any positive thought regarding fascist thought, he must have seen that its objective was more than anti-Semitism.
In fact, this is what attracted the average German citizen to not only support Hitler ym"s but idolize him. The same happened with Chmelnitzkei ym"s. Both these Sonei Yisrael became idolized by their people. The fact that they were anti-Semites may have furthered their support; it generally did not cause them a problem. But the real reason the people were behind them is because they helped their people.

This is a concern with Hamas. We often look at the world through Jewish eyes, viewing matters from a Jewish perspective. This is not necessarily how everyone else sees the problem. There may have been Germans who even felt bad about what the Nazis were doing to the Jews but, bottom line, their concern was themselves and Nazi policy, in general -- not in regard to the Jewish People -- was beneficial to them.
Hamas is in the same place -- and that is why we have a real problem. Hamas has support amongst Palestinians because of what Hamas does for the Palestinians. The Time article shows that Hamas is interested in being a good government for their people. Let's not try to deal with this by simply declaring not to be true. Let's assume the worst -- that it is true. Now Hamas' anti-Semitism is a real problem -- because it is not Hamas' only focus.
Hitler, Chmelnitzkei, could not have done anything against the Jewish People if they first did not find favour within their nations. They accomplished this through working on behalf of their people. Once they had the support of the people, their anti-Semitism could come out, especially if it also was supported by the people or, at least, didn't really bother the people.

We have a real problem. What Hamas seems to be doing is good government. If this were happening anywhere else in the world, we would be happy to see a government act in the best interest of the people, rather than in their own greedy interest which was the way of other Palestinian leaders. Of course the people are going to turn against the greedy leadership.
So what is Israel going to do? Support the greedy leadership because it is better for Israel? That has its own problems as the people have found this alternative of others interested in their welfare -- and Israel is seen even more as the enemy.
So do you support this leadership that is actually acting for the people? Of course not, as this leadership is a mortal enemy? We have a real problem.

Sunday 5 August 2007

Kol Gedolei Yisrael

Originally posted 8/5/07, 12:13 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Someone just sent me the latest edict that has emerged from the Charedi Gedolim banning concerts. Again, I saw those words "kol Gedolei Yisrael." Kol - all. Is this true? Is this a ban from every Gadol? The real challenge of all these edicts is not the essence, its these words.

I would not say that I was not surprised by this latest edict but the essence of the edict should not be shocking. Whether we agree with this view of Torah or not, this edict does reflect a certain view that lives within the spectrum of Torah.

While I may personally disagree with this view, Eilu v'eilu demands of me to give it the respect that it is due even as proponents of this view would not respect my view. Eilu v'eilu does not mean that we have to agree; it even demands that I argue, within the beis medrash, for my view against this other Torah view with which I may disagree. I am called upon to respect the view as a position within Torah and to treat it as such even as I leave the beis medrash and find people practicing this view. But, while I am called upon to respect this other view, I do not have to respect the lack of respect for my view. Albeit that Eilu v'eilu is a most complicated subject (further on this subject, please see my articles on the Slifkin Affair, accessible through the Nishma Website's Index to Commentaries).

There is a tremendous loss on many accounts when divergence in Torah opinions are not recognized. One such loss occurred in this instance, for this edict could have initiated much Torah discussion and debate. One of the great losses in edicts of kol Gedolei Yisrael is that the reasons behind the pronouncements do not come forth. Everything becomes an issue of Daas Torah and authority. Ideas -- Torah ideas -- are lost. There is a concept of Torah authority. Certainly, there is a concept of kavod haTorah, respecting Torah scholars -- yet such edicts create havoc in that for, without the ability to argue within the world of Torah ideas, the entire issue becomes the respect of the Gedolim thus initiating disrespect especially in that the voice of other Gedolim are discounted. It is Talmud Torah that is keneged kulam, Torah study that is equal to all else. Teaching Torah should always be at the root of any message.

My sadness and, yes, anger boils, often, not over the actual edict -- for often I can see the argument, even as I may disagree, within Torah. It is its effect on Torah study, Torah thought, that truly saddens me. We are losing our wisdom. In stating "all" we limit Torah's breadth and depth. Yes I understand why people may fear breadth and depth but the cost of losing this is too great. The Sridei Eish wrote that it is true that with depth and breadth there is the danger that one may turn away from a Torah true path and embrace heretical ideas. That is the challenge as we leave simplicity. This, though, is the challenge of thought -- yet with the command of limud haTorah, we are called upon to think (see Derech Hashem). To enter the world of depth and breadth is a cost that we must undertake -- for the sake of Torah. The only path is the path of emet haTorah. the truth of Torah.

I am tired of seeing edicts expressed in simplistic terms to, thereby, ensure their unmitigated observance by a section of the masses who will follow such edicts. I am also, though, tired of hearing simplistic attacks on these edicts which do not get to the meat of the issue and, in many ways, further a destruction in kavod haTorah. The call must be l'hagdil Torah u'lhadira, to express the greatness and glory of Torah. When a Torah scholar speaks, we must give it its due -- which may call for our Torah arguments in disagreement, even powerful disagreement. For the sake of Torah, though, we cannot tolerate statements that all Gedolim said something unless they actually all did. That should be our point of battle -- for the sake of Torah.