Wednesday 31 December 2008

6. Cleaving to God

Isn’t it funny: the smaller the world gets, the less we see each other. First the postal service, then the telephone, then email, instant messaging, (blogs), Facebook, Skype—bottom line, you have to be very creative nowadays if you want to come up with a believable excuse for not being in touch with your parents. But going home for a visit? Who needs to? You’re speaking to your family every day, you’re exchanging one- or two-sentence emails or text-messages on an hourly basis, you even see them over video-chat at least twice a week. Why ever go home?

Of course, technology has still been unable to make face-to-face human interaction obsolete. There’s still something to breathing the same air, stepping on the same grass, seeing the same people walking by, the same clouds, the same birds and buildings. And, as far as I know, you still can’t touch over the internet and you can’t send a blank email to express the kinds of silent things you can express in person. But the reasons for actual contact, as opposed to digital contact, are dwindling. So what’s the problem with that?

Let’s take the case of the string holding up the pole. The pole was precariously placed above the greenhouse. Two boys came along on their way to go fishing. Suddenly, the boys realized that they had forgotten to bring string. Just their luck: here was some string. But the string, as they knew, held up the pole. The boys looked around and found a nice, solid block of wood. They placed the wood securely against the pole. Satisfied with their work, they snipped the string. And the greenhouse collapsed. The string wasn’t holding up the pole at all. It was holding up the greenhouse.

A boss arranges a meeting with his new employees to discuss plans for the future. His young, savvy assistant thinks he’ll save the boss some time. Without telling his superior, he takes the initiative and sends out a quick text message: “Meeting cancelled. Please email ideas instead.” The boss is furious. “What do I need their ideas for?” The meeting wasn’t about ideas. It was about meeting.

I remember being lonely one day and visiting a friend of mine. He lived about forty minutes away from me. When I arrived, he asked why I was there. I said I was there to pick up a small book that I had lent him. He said, “You came all this way for that?” “Well,” I said, “that’s the pretense.” A good friend, he smiled and we sat together and talked. Later, as I was leaving, he called after me, holding out the book I had lent him: “Don’t forget your pretense.”

Sometimes, of course, the string does hold up the pole. Sometimes the meeting is about ideas. And sometimes the string holds up nothing and the meeting is about many things. The rule is: don’t forget your pretense. Or the Modern Day solution to loneliness could become Fed-Exing borrowed items back to their rightful owners, saving everyone the hassle of making the trip in person.

Why do we have personal Rabbis? Do we still need them? You’re not sure if the chicken is kosher? There are at least a hundred books you could buy, websites you could visit, videos you could download that will tell you if your chicken is kosher. And if you’re still unsure, just email one of the many “Ask the Rabbi” links that you’re sure to find along the way. To be safe, email all of them: it doesn’t cost you anything extra. That way, you can make an informed decision on your own. Isn’t that the goal, anyway—to be self-sufficient?

Even in ethical and philosophical matters, there are libraries of sources available to the dedicated student. Of course a Rabbi would be useful to help distinguish between the worthwhile and the worthless, but that’s icing, isn’t it? Is a Rabbi just a glorified index and bibliography? Does the Rabbi of the modern world amount to the guy telling you what to read next?

Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvoth, Positive Commandment 6: “By this injunction we are commanded to mix and associate with wise men, to be always in their company, and to join with them in every possible manner of fellowship: in eating, drinking, and business affairs, to the end that we may succeed in becoming like them in respect of their actions and in acquiring true opinions from their words.”

Yes, you can look it up online. Your Rabbi knows this, too. But sometimes the chicken is the pretense. As long as you’re aware of this, you won’t get lost in ‘Ask the Rabbi’ emails or Illustrated Guides for the Perplexed. However, if you start to think that the point of your Rabbi is exclusively to distribute facts that you could, with a little effort, acquire on your own, you insult all parties.

Don’t email your Rabbi—take him out for coffee, go for a drive with him, watch a movie with him: “that we may succeed in becoming like them in respect of their actions and in acquiring true opinions from their words.” But, it may be countered, “I want to watch Simpsons and my Rabbi doesn’t like Simpsons.” As the old joke goes: “Ah-cha.”

Tuesday 30 December 2008

When is Humanitarianism NOT humanitarianism?

Harry Truman is quoted as saying that -- while everyone described and describes his decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshimo as his most difficult decision and the very personification of the his famous desk sign "the buck stops here" -- the decision to drop the bomb was his easiest decision. It was so obvious what had to be done and what action would actually be the most humanitarian. The choice was the prolong the war, causing numerous casualities and hardships for more years or end the war in one strike which, while specifically brutal in the moment causing untold immediate grief to many, actually, in its context, was the more humane choice. To Truman, the humane choice was obvious so he dropped the bomb. What he understood was what humanitarianism is really about. It is not a response to the emotions of the moment and to the one who can cry the best or present himself/herself as the most oppressed or the most in need. It is especially not responding to the moment but the greater whole.

Of course, that really isn't good for the pictures. The immediate situation, especially if it can be presented in all its drama and, yes, emotions, that is what sells. And that is what gets people to keep tuned to your station or network or buying your papers or newsmagazines, especially with photos. Do you ever wonder how long the Second World War would have been prolonged if there were modern-day humanitarians with media coverage back then? Germany would be sending them into the places, filled with civilians, devastated by Allied bombs. But wouldn't these humanitarians also describe the evil done by the Nazis? Do you think the Nazis would show them those places? They knew how to take the Red Cross to Thereisenstadt but nowhere else. And do you think the media would rock the boat and potentially be thrown out. Afterall there is no freedom of the press so the press knows how to play to get the pictures. Luckily though, the Allieds did not have to contend with humanitarian groups with myopic vision and a media knowing what sells.

It is sad that Israel today does not have this fortune.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 28 December 2008

Can anyone explain why this is not offensive?

The Toronto Globe and Mail recently had an article regarding a public television broadcaster in Belgium, VRT, that has been accused of gross insensitivity towards Jews. You are invited to read the story at

Whenever I read a story of this nature, I always try to find some argument as to why the person being accused of this insensitivity thought it was not so. This is not an argument that there is no real anti-Semitism anymore. I am clearly aware of the reality of anti-Semitic bias in the media. Yet, I also believe that there is also an attempt by the media to try and hide the existence of this bias and thus I believe that when a biased story does emerge -- and they clearly do emerge -- there must have been some argument made by someone in the media world that tried to maintain that the report or story was not biased, not anti-Semitic. I think it is important to identify this perception as it makes us better prepared to argue our point.

I am thus most perturbed by the story presented in this article. I just can't see how anyone could perceive that words of the comedian mentioned in this article not to be insensitive. They are just simply remarkably crude.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 24 December 2008

Eye for an Eye

I was reading about this case, I believe in Saudi Arabia, concerning a man who poured acid on a woman's face causing her severe disfigurement and blindness in one eye. This woman has refused to accept "blood money," a fiscal compensation for her injury but demands that this undergo what she went through, including becoming blind. The old adage of "an eye for an eye" which, I guess, Islam applies literally. While giving a right to a victim to take financial compensation for an injury, it would seem that Islam grants the victim a final say and if the victim wants a similar to injury to occur to a perpetrator that occurred to a victim, so be it. What interested me, though, is why would a victim choose such a punishment rather than financial compensation which can benefit, in this case, her?

Of course, within Torah law, a victim does not have such a choice. Financial compensation is the sole punishment available in the vast, vast majority of cases. (The case of an injury below the value of a sheva pruta, the smallest monetary value, need not be considered.) Yet within the Torah text, the punishment is presented as "an eye for an eye." While this is understood as referring to financial compensation, this case in Saudi Arabia demonstrates a distinction and the desire of the female victim to see the perpetrator suffer is most revealing in highlighting this distinction. It would seem to me that at issue is: how to respond in a case of battery? This woman's desire is for the man that caused her such harm to feel the pain of a similar harm. This is more important to her than receiving compensation, than receiving assistance in dealing with the harm that has befallen her. She, simply, wishes to punish is the most direct way -- to have this man suffer similarly to how he made another suffer. Financial compensation does not do that. What it does is help the one who has suffered mitigate the effects of the suffering. One would think that this would be a higher priority to the one harmed -- after all it helps this person out. This Saudi Arabian woman is actually refusing that which would really help her.

This gives great insight into the Torah. By using the language of "an eye for an eye" the Torah is, perhaps, informing us that, in theory, a person who causes such great harm should be punished with experiencing a similar harm. That is the most honest repercussion for an evil deed. The fact that this woman wants this type of punishment to occur to the one that harmed her can be understood on this level. This is a certain level of justice. The problem is: what's the effect? One harmed must still live -- and now with an adversity of overcoming the harm. In the context of life -- of a value to life -- this must be the overriding concern. Thus the call must be for compensation, for assisting the one harmed rather than simply punishing the perpetrator in a vacuum. This is a great Torah insight. Indeed true justice, in a vacuum, would demand that someone who harms feels the pain of this harm. Yet, in a context of the challenges of life, a purpose in life, lessening the negative effect of the harm must have priority. We remember the idea of "an eye for an eye" but compensation must have priority because we must deal with the future, with assisting the one harmed to live. When one considers this perspective, one can begin to understand that one can only have this type of perspective if one truly finds that growing and developing in life is of paramount importance -- and this is not only Torah but, it would seem. a uniqueness of Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Saturday 20 December 2008

Chanukah: What Exactly is its Message?

The story of Chanukah is not solely about a military battle centuries ago between an imposing ruling class and a conquered Jewish nation. It is a celebration of the victory in an ancient battle against assimilation from which we are to draw strength in the Jewish people's continous battle against assimilation. Yet while this charge seems to be straightforward, the lesson of Chanukah actually is understood in many opposite ways

There are those who contend that Chanukah stands for the total rejection of Hellenism and any non-Torah, foreign ideas. There are others who contend an opposite lesson that Chanukah does not stand for the total rejection of Hellenism but for Hellenism to be incorporated, to the extent possible, under the banner of Torah. The enemy, within this viewpoint, wanted to make Torah secondary to Hellenism. The Maccabees thus fought for the opposite, for Torah to be paramount, but not for Hellenism, or the outside secular world, to have no voice. Each side brings arguments for their viewpoint, not just from the array of Torah statements and discussions on this issue, but from the Chanukah story itself.

The strange thing, though, is that the very holiday of Chanukah practiced today may have its own voice in this disagreement albeit in a somewhat different manner. Are we to reject the forces of assimilation fully or are we to assimilate ideas from outside of Torah that can enhance Torah? More basic, do we reject assimilation by totally rejecting it or do we fight assimilation by giving it some voice and then bringing it under the kanfei haShechina? Our natural inclination is most likely the former and we would expect Chanukah to stand for the total rejection of any incling of assimilation. The strange thing is what has happened to the very holiday of Chanukah -- it has become the most assimilated of Jewish holidays. How the world sees Chanukah, how many Jews see Chanukah, is vastly different to the halachic definition of the holiday. Chanukah has taken on all the trappings of the general season. Is this not ironic? The holiday that stands for the fight against assimilation has become the most assimilated Jewish holiday. Yet what would have happened if there was no Chanukah? How many Jews would have celebrated this season anyways without giving it any Jewish dimension? I could not believe it when I heard of people actually having Chanukah bushes -- but how many of these people would have had trees anyways in their homes because they wanted to get into the spirit of the season? The Chanukah bush actually, albeit on the lowest level, kept them at least making some connection to their Jewishness.

There is the question of the ideal. Torah only or Torah with general knowledge? That is a Torah machloket that has lasted the centuries. The story of Chanukah has been used to support both sides. But in the basic battle against assimilation -- you do what is necessary. Sometimes you have a strong stand and sometimes you just try to keep some Jewish consciousness. The celebration of Chanukah in our age represents this lesson to me.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 17 December 2008

5. Worshipping God

May 20, 2001. Game 7 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Philadelphia 76ers and the Toronto Raptors. With two seconds left, game on the line, Raptors guard Vince Carter took a shot. It was, considering the circumstances, a pretty good shot. For that fraction of a second while the ball was at its apex, all of Toronto held its breath. Happened to miss. Happened to be just a little too strong. Bounced off the side of the rim.

Prayers go unanswered.

Then the cheers came. Fans rushed the court. Confetti fell from the ceiling. There was a brief flash of a moment when I thought, “Wait—did it go in?” I had forgotten the game was in Philly. My prayers weren’t answered. Theirs were.

You really get a sense of what it means to worship when you watch your home team playing an away game. Every shot your team hits, silence. Every shot your team misses, cheers. Every mistake your team makes is an act of God done for the sake of the home team. Your team never loses on the road; the home team wins.

Even more so, go to a sporting event that you care nothing about. Watch the crowds of people stake everything on something they have absolutely no control over. Watch people jump out of their seats, yell at the referees, throw their peanuts. Watch them laugh and clap and whistle. Watch them cry. Watch them pray.

Two people stand side-by-side in shul on Friday night. One is a travelling salesman. The other is a farmer. The salesman has not been able to feed his family. He is setting out on his longest journey of the year, starting Sunday. He prays to God that the weather will be good. The farmer has not been able to feed his family, either. There has been a terrible drought and his fields have not produced any fruit. He prays to God for rain.

We assume, perhaps, that there’s something capitalistic about this. You pray your prayers, I’ll pray my prayers and we’ll let the Invisible Hand of God settle it. But there’s a problem:

When the Kohen Gadol emerged from the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, he would recite a short prayer. Included in the prayer was the following supplication: “May the prayers of travelers not enter before You.” Travelers would ask God to withhold the rain. This would be bad for almost everybody else because rain was necessary if there was to be food. The Kohen Gadol, therefore, prayed that the travelers’ prayers not be answered. (See TB Yoma 53b.)

Why not just leave it up to God? Farmers pray for rain, salesmen pray for sunshine: we all pray as we see fit and God does the tally. Why does the Kohen Gadol pray that certain prayers go unanswered?

Maybe because it’s true. If I pray that Carter hits that shot, I’m praying that the Philadelphia 76ers lose, that a stadium’s worth of people are disappointed, that all over Pennsylvania, basketball fans sit still, in shock, watching replay after replay, saying, “If only…if only…”

If I pray for sun, I’m praying that it doesn’t rain; if I pray for rain, I’m praying that it isn’t sunny. There is no form of worship that can escape this. All of your prayers, if answered, will have consequences; those consequences may mean unanswered prayers for others. In the very moment of prayer, the Kohen Gadol notes, to the best of his knowledge, who will suffer if this prayer is answered.

The gemara (TB Taanit 24b) tells of one time when the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur prayer was not answered and God heard the prayer of a traveler. The traveler was Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa. When it started to rain, he prayed to God, “Master of the Universe, the whole world is at ease but Chanina is in distress.” The rain stopped. When he arrived home, he prayed to God, “Master of the Universe, the whole world is in distress but Chanina is at ease.” And the rain started again.

Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was aware that his prayers would mean suffering for the majority of the population. He did not deceive himself into thinking that he was alone in the world. Still, he prayed for a temporary pause in the rain as he made his way home. This is honest prayer, sincere worship, matching the kind expressed by the Kohen Gadol. Perhaps it is, at least partially, because the prayer matched the Kohen Gadol’s in form, because Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa was cognizant of his prayer’s negative effect on others, that it was able to override the Kohen Gadol’s prayer. Was it wrong for Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa to pray for something that would result in loss for many people? Obviously not—his prayers were answered and he is considered a great man. But would it have been wrong of him not to recognize their loss?

Implicit in almost any prayer is the prayer for someone else’s prayer to go unanswered. There’s no escaping this, yet visualizing it as you pray can be troubling, not to mention overwhelming at times. If not for the obligation to worship God, I would leave it up to my subconscious to communicate to God my desires and my needs. That way I would not have to think about who will go hungry as I eat, who will be poor if I am rich, who will mourn when I rejoice. And I would not have to think about all those fans in Philadelphia, cheering as the ball bounced to the floor.

Sunday 14 December 2008

Poll Results - How Do You Choose Your Halachic Behaviour?

These are the results of the last Nishma poll which ran the month before Rosh Hashanah 5769
This was the poll question:

How Do You Choose Your Halachic Behaviour?
It is often the case, within the Halacha, that variant opinions are presented and we are called upon to choose the opinion which we will follow. The question is: how do we make that decision?The case of mayim achronim, the washing of hands before Birkat Hamazon, the Grace after meals, is an example of just such a case that may illustrate the various ways that we approach this question. Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 181:1 clearly states that mayim achronim is a chovah, an obligation (for both men and women). In sief 10, though, he writes about others that do not have the custom of washing their hands at this time, which is an opinon of Tosafot, Berachot 53b. The Mishnah Brura, 181:22, though, brings four eminent poskim - The Vilna Gaon, the Magen Avraham, the Maharshal and the Birkei Yosef -- who still maintain that people should wash their hands at this time.So what do you do...and, more importantly for this survey, why?
The poll choices and responses: I wash or do not wash mayim achronim because...
(Vote total 26)

a) it is what I feel is the dominant halachic opinion within the poskim; [belief in Halachic consensus]
Response 4/26 - 15%

b) my personal Torah study and research leads me to believe that my position is the correct one; [following one's conscience regardless of external pressure]
Response 5/26 - 19%

c) I wish to follow the normative behaviour of the community in which I live [peer pressure] Response 0/26 0%

d) I like doing something a bit different than what others are doing [non-conformist, original] Response 1/26 - 4%

e) it is what I simply want to do
Response 0/26 - 0%

f) it is the way I was brought up
Response 8/26 - 30%

g) it is what I was taught when I became religious
Response 2/26 - 9%

h) uninformed habit
Response 6/26 - 23%


While most respondents indicated that they basically act in a manner the mirrors what they have seen (option "f" and option "h") it is quite significant that there was still a sizeable majority which indicated that they have made an informed decision on the matter (option "a" and option "b"). These latter two options actually reflect the two major poles in halachic methodology today, whether our approach to psak should be as collators, presenting the reasoned basically majority opinion of the past, or as decisions makers, presenting our conclusions on a matter.

Saturday 13 December 2008

Cheftza shel Torah

While I was preparing my Insight last week,* I noticed a difference of opinions amongst the commentators and within the midrashim on numerous issues including the nature of Esav. To some Esav was one of the greatest rishayim, evil doers, of history. To others, Esav, while objectively not comparable in righteousness to Yaakov and his sons, was, in the context of that generation, not so bad. While this in itself did not really hit me as a new perspective -- I, of course, have seen over the years many disagreements in the Torah literature on numerous matters -- what hit me was the fact that in some of my Insights, I develop a concept based upon one perspective of Esav while in others I develop a concept based on another. This week's Insight was built upon the latter perception of Esav, that he was not so bad, but many other Insights were based upon the former perspective that he was a terrible rasha. What does that say about my Insights over the years in that I fluctuate regarding these different viewpoints? The fact is that I am sure, over the years, I have developed some ideas based upon one perspective -- one side in an argument -- while in others I based my ideas based upon another perspective -- including the other side of an argument. Should I not be consistent in my presentation of Torah?

The fact is that, in regard to the actual personality of Esav, I would answer a question by responding that there is a machloket, a disagreement. The fact is that actual knowledge of Esav's personality is not really my concern and I can live with accepting the reality that I really don't know. In stating that the study of Torah is not a history lesson, we also state that the basic issues of history, including the actual personality of historical figures, is also not really our interest. Our interest, rather, are the ethical lessons that we can learn from these presentations. In that regard, both sides of the machloket are not only equally valid but have equal value in presenting a Torah idea. The bottom line is that ideas developed using one or the other viewpoint still represent, even if contradictory in some basic assumption or perspective, an idea that is acceptable with the corpus of Torah thought. Both are a cheftza shel Torah. Both represent an idea that in the broad gestalt of Torah thought would have to be deemed acceptable. While the actual solution to the question upon which the commentators may disagree would inform us of which position is correct within the confines of this specific case, the fact that a specific idea can even be contemplated and considered and accepted by some within the world of Torah, must inform us that this idea -- even if we disagree with its application is a specific context -- has validity as a Torah thought.

I believe that this idea is actually most important in understanding the concept of eilu v'eilu. While one idea may be accepted as the actual psak l'dorot, the fact that the other idea existed and was considered a possibility must mean that the one who contemplated this idea -- even if he later rejects it on some technical ground -- must mean that the other idea was, at least, perceived as a possibility within the general corpus of Torah. Furthermore, if someone I recognize as a great talmid chacham presents an idea, even if I disagree with its correctness on technical grounds and side against it in psak, the idea must be accepted as theoretically a possibility within the corpus of Torah. It is a cheftza shel Torah. It such has value within our analysis of the ideas within Torah.

Returning to the case of Esav, since I am not really interested in what Esav was really like, the ideas that ensued from both perspectives of Esav do have value in our understanding of Torah. Thus, in discussing the broad realm of Torah ethics, it is not really contradictory to develop a general Torah ethical perspective quoting perspectives from both sides of the technical argument of what Esav was really like. If both ideas exist within the realm of Torah, they are both a cheftza shel Torah. They both have a place in trying to understand the corpus of Torah.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

*For those who may not be familiar with them, the Insight is a short dvar Torah that Nishma puts out almost every week. To see examples of past Insights, see the Nishma website at To receive more recent Insights and future ones, please sign up on the Nishma mailing requesting Insight by email (they are also available in snail mail in groups of five).

Monday 8 December 2008

4. Fear of God

Standing in line waiting for a guard to check your bag so you can enter a sporting event, you’re almost guaranteed to hear someone say, “See this line? This line is the terrorists winning.” And if ever you’ve been stopped at the Canadian/American border, you’ve probably heard someone say, “I’m going to miss my meeting/party/concert/doctor’s appointment because of the terrorists—see how they get us?” Or at the airport, when the security officer informs someone that he can’t bring liquids onto the airplane, grumbling as he throws his water bottle into the garbage: “Another victory for the terrorists.” But could this really be the goal of terrorists, to reduce the consumption of Evian en route to Shanghai?

We get shots to prevent disease. These shots are often inconvenient and a little painful. But we do it because the disease is thought to be more inconvenient and more painful. We put on our seatbelts even though it is more comfortable to drive unrestrained. We exercise and control our eating habits even though it is challenging. We keep the music low, restrict our spending, and resist the temptation to stare at the sun. We do all this because we accept that there is cause and effect in this world and we’re weighing a minor nuisance now against a major calamity later. Wearing sunglasses is not a ‘victory for the sun.’ It is a personal choice in response to reality.

Why don’t we view terrorism as a natural disaster? Like a hurricane or a tornado, an act of terrorism occurs (according to our standards) without any discretion or moral compass. We don’t talk of wins and losses in regards to natural disasters—why do we talk of wins and losses in regards to terrorists? Isn’t that, in some way, legitimizing their efforts? Doesn’t that suggest that there is some comprehensible logic involved in their actions? But if we view terrorism as a completely irrational act of nature—predictable in the same sense that meteorologists can predict the weather but never understandable—won’t we already begin the process of dismantling their legitimacy?

Fear can be broken down into two categories: fear of that which we can affect and fear of that which we cannot affect. In the first category are such things as fear of driving carelessly, being unprepared for a test, or saying something foolish. The second category includes fear of being fooled, ridiculed or injured.

There is usually overlap between the two categories. For example, the fear of being robbed includes the fear of being careless (first category) and the fear of being overpowered (second category). Natural disasters cannot be prevented (second category) but their disastrous effects can hopefully be reduced with proper planning and care (first category). Since terrorists operate within a system that we cannot relate to, their actions fall under the second category of fear. As much as terrorists would like us to believe that we are responsible for the horrific acts that they perform, in reality we must see that there is as much human consciousness or conscience in their actions as in a tsunami. On the other hand, there are things that we can do to try to minimize the occurrence and effectiveness of terrorism—this falls within the first category of fear. In both these ways, terrorism is much like a natural disaster.

There may be precedent for this viewpoint in the gemara Taanit. The mishna on 19a states:

For these [the following] we cry out [and fast] in every place [not just in the place where the event occurred]: for windblasts; for [a severe drought]; for [certain severe types of] locusts; for dangerous animals; and for the sword; we cry out for these because they are travelling disasters.

This mishna includes “the sword” with natural disasters.

Of course, as we see from this mishna, those with faith in God often do not subscribe to the concept of ‘randomness.’ The gemara Taanit deals largely with what causes the behaviour of the rainfall, how our actions are responsible for wet or dry seasons, and what we can do to gain forgiveness from God so that there is rain in the proper time. Therefore, that which is often seen as beyond our control is placed within our control.

The old proverb goes: “If you can do something, why fear? If you can't do something, why fear?” And it’s true: if you can help reduce terrorism by disposing of your water bottle, so do it. Drive safely, wait in line, get your shots—don’t fear. You did what you could. And if you can’t do anything about it, what do you gain by worrying?

This works well as long as everything breaks down neatly into one of the two categories of fear listed above. But God doesn’t really fit into either category. He is certainly beyond our control, which would have Him in the second category. But we know that He responds to us, to our actions and to our prayers. He doesn't belong in the first category, though, because God is inherently incomprehensible and we will never really understand exactly how our actions affect His Will.

Fear of God is completely unique. We fear terrorists because they will not listen to reason—they are outside of our domain. God, on the other hand, works according to a perfect system. We, however, are unable to grasp that system. As we try to act according to God’s Will, we must take every step with fear. We will never know if the choices we make are right. It is specifically because we believe in a rational, responsive and merciful God that we believe fear is necessary. The obligation to fear God is the obligation to recognize that you do not know what God demands of you but, still, your actions will have consequences. That, to me, is incredibly frightening. If I was not obligated otherwise, I'd probably fling God back and forth between the two categories of fear so that I could always conclude, "Why fear?" The commandment to fear God forces me to view Him as eternally, paradoxically within my control and beyond my reach.

Friday 5 December 2008

What, exactly, is a Jew?

Here's another article dealing with conversion in Israel It seems that the federations in North America do not like the present method as, in their eyes, it excludes people who, effectively, should be seen as Jews. What gets me is that we have been discussing the question of "Who is a Jew?" for years, we never truly investigate or even ask the question of "What is a Jew?". Simply, to the federations, the term Jew really has not religious significance. It is an ethnic, social, nationalistic term -- and, simply, identifying with the group is what, essentially, identifies you with the group. In applying the terms of the Rav, it is shared fate. Under the canopy of Halacha, though, the Jew has a different dimension and, while incorporating the concept of shared fate (and the concept of nationalism), has a further aspect to it that differentiates the term for all other nationaistic terms. It has a religious dimension. In the view of the Rav, this could be described as shared destiny which, at its root, means a shared consciousness, purpose and understood significance. Within this understanding of what the term Jew means, becoming Jewish is more than identifying with the group but necessitates joining in the goals of the group -- more correctly, what the goals of the group should be. According to Halacha, this demands that one must accept Halacha, practice Halacha, and be commited to Torah goals. This is what conversion is about.

The problem is Israel is, thus, that we are dealing with two different understandings of what the term 'Jew" means. Maybe the problem is that Torah conversion should not be the criteria for Israel's use of this term. There will be, though, other problems with not having gerut k'Halacha as this criteria. Maybe the answer is, as many have done over the years, to apply more lenient understandings of the halachot of gerut because of the nature of this problem. Maybe the need is for a discussion on this level. This demands a discussion not of what really is the law of gerut --which seems to be the case now -- but a discussion of the underlying issue and thus the question of what should be the practical halachic conclusion -- for as we all know, there almost always are differing opinions. This is not the case today for people are still using that problematic term that 'this is the halacha' without presenting that there are differing opinions and there is an issue of what opinion to apply and whether this is a situation to apply minority opinions. This can only come about, though, if we recognize that the issue is the colloquial understanding of Jewishness itself. We have to stop hiding behind a belief that everyone understands the nature of the halachic view of gerut. The reason the world doesn't get it is simply because they don't understand what being Jewish has to do with God anyways. That's the greatest irony -- for what really is Jewishness without God?

(As a final note, I believe, this was so ironic to Rav Kuk that he had to believe that all the chilonim who built up the land would eventually return to Torah.)

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 3 December 2008

A Lesson from the Automotive Three

Much has been made about the use of corporate jets by the CEOs of the Big 3 car makers when they travelled to Washington to ask for money from the U.S. government. It seems that they learnt their lesson and the rumour is that the next time they have to travel to Washington to get this money, they are going by car. Whether that is what the lesson should have been or not, the point is that how something looks matters regardless of what the truth is. That is not to say that it is more important than the truth but it also must be a consideration. An article on this subject, by Rabbi Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto).
To view the article on line, go to

Friday 28 November 2008

Lessons from Mumbai

There seems to be an attempt by some in the political world and in the media to distinguish between acts of terrorism in Israel and similar acts elsewhere in the world. Through maintaining such distinction, such individuals can argue for one method of responding to terrorism in the rest of the world while arguing for another method to be applied in Israel where, pursuant to the perception of these individuals, the terrorism is even seen to be understandable. I wonder what these people will do with the events in Mumbai. Here is a global act of terrorism that not only included Jews in their tragic numbers but specifically included in the terrorist planning a Jewish site with specific Israeli connections. What happened in Mumbai states that there is no distinction between terrorism in the rest of the globe and the terrorism that occurs in Israel. They both have the same motivation and intent. Its time for the world to start recognizing this and stop demanding of Israel what they would not do in their own battles against terrorism including talking with a "government" that supports terrorism.

Yet there is not only a lesson for the world from the tragedy of Mumbai but one for us as well. Of course, our hearts went out to our fellow yidden murdered in this horrible way and to their families. HaMakom yekom damam. It is only natural that our pain is much greater when Jews are included in the innocent victims of such hatred. Yet, if this event shows that the world should recognize that what is happening in Israel is a mirror on the world, what is happening in the world is also a mirror on what happens in Israel. We are told that everything in the universe is for the sake of klal Yisrael. This is not meant to tell us to see everything through particularly Jewish eyes and only consider what is happening in the world in terms of how it can impact narrowly on Jews. It is meant to tell us that what happens in the world, by definition, affects what happens to us because we are an integral part of the world. Terrorism anywhere in the globe is a concern of klal Yisrael because we are invariably part of the world. The state of the world is a Jewish matter.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 26 November 2008

3. Love of God

How do you know if you’re in love?
Old wisdom has it like this:

Is the person attractive?
If the person were not attractive…?
Okay. Good. Is the person wealthy?
If the person were not wealthy…?
Okay. Good. Is the person smart?
If the person were not smart…?
Okay. Good. Is the person kind?
If the person were not kind…?
Well…I guess…
Okay. Good. Is the person likable?
If the person were not likable…?
I mean…
If the person were not likable, would you still like the person?
I don’t know how to answer that.
If the person were not the person…?
If the person were not the person, would you still love the person?

When you can answer “Yes.” to this last question, you have found true love.


If God were not God, would you still love God?

W.B. Yeats, “For Anne Gregory”:
“Never shall a young man,
Thrown into despair
By those great honey-coloured
Ramparts at your ear,
Love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

“But I can get a hair-dye
And set such colour there,
Brown, or black, or carrot,
That young men in despair
May love me for myself alone
And not my yellow hair.”

“I heard an old religious man
But yesternight declare
That he had found a text to prove
That only God, my dear,
Could love you for yourself alone
And not your yellow hair.”

Does it then follow that only God (my dear) could love Himself properly? That Man is incapable of a love un-blinded by “yellow hair”?

Rambam’s definition of love (at least as it concerns God): “…to dwell upon and contemplate His Commandments, His injunctions, and His works, so that we may obtain a conception of Him, and in conceiving Him attain absolute joy” (Sefer HaMitzvot).

It is certainly one aspect of what we generally consider love: to focus the attention of our consciousness, to meander through dreams and memories, and, in so doing, to “attain absolute joy.”

But what about this love (E.A. Robinson, “Reuben Bright”):

Because he was a butcher and thereby
Did earn an honest living (and did right),
I would not have you think that Reuben Bright
Was any more a brute than you or I;
For when they told him that his wife must die,
He stared at them, and shook with grief and fright,
And cried like a great baby half that night,
And made the women cry to see him cry.

And after she was dead, and he had paid
The singers and the sexton and the rest,
He packed a lot of things that she had made
Most mournfully away in an old chest
Of hers, and put some chopped-up cedar boughs
In with them, and tore down the slaughter-house.

Does love of God exclude such love? The kind of love that tears down slaughter-houses?

A moment, when meticulous construction collides with luck, and God is loved by you—such a moment can haunt a person when it’s gone, can’t it? A lost love—how can such a love be reclaimed? How does a person retain elevation even upon descending?

How often can we expect to achieve proper contemplation of God? How often, then, can we expect to love God? Unless love of God includes more than the joy of contemplation: includes also the torture of fading memories, waning resolve and a desperate heart; the love that fears, that doubts, that enrages and is enraged; the love that falters and retreats; the love that lives in idealized realms, unknown dimensions and unconquerable universes; a love that is indistinguishable from raindrop to split sea, from Sinai to tiny, tiny mountain.

We know that proper love is not beyond our grasp since we are commanded to love God. But it must be remembered that it is a command; it is not inevitable. Belief in God is a separate edict—logically, then, belief does not automatically result in love. Similarly, love does not depend on (or even necessarily lead to) belief. It is its own responsibility: we are obligated to love God. Rambam views this love as emanating from contemplation. Contemplation of what? “Great honey-coloured ramparts at your ear?” No. “His Commandments, His injunctions, and His works.” Nothing to do with God as Entity but with God as Creator—this is how we “obtain a conception of Him.” To love a person’s beauty is in fact to love God, the creator of the person. But to conceive of a person’s developed essence, cultivated qualities and effect on the world and, in so doing, to obtain a conception of the person and find joy in this conception—this is to love the person.

But this joy that is felt at the apex of conception is at once the most potent and most fleeting aspect of love. The command to love God cannot be reduced to this sensation, although it may be the loftiest manifestation of love. “It must be man’s aim, after having acquired the knowledge of God, to deliver himself up to Him, and to have his heart constantly filled with longing after Him” (Rambam, The Guide, 3:51). This longing, intermingled with moments of “absolute joy,” is love. Joy, we know, is achieved through contemplation; how is longing achieved? “He accomplishes this generally by seclusion and retirement. Every pious man should therefore seek retirement and seclusion, and should only in case of necessity associate with others.”

This love is quiet, isolated and private. It is not a proclamation—it does not involve singing or dancing in the streets; it is a lonely romance that exists in prayers and thoughts and silent devotion—from W. Blake, “Love’s Secret”:

Never seek to tell thy love,
Love that never told can be;
For the gentle wind doth move
Silently, invisibly.

Contemplation of God will bring us joy, and all moments leading up to and away from this joy will bring us longing—this is love. It is carried close against the chest, hidden, proof that we are alone, that we are never alone.

I have found the dominant of my range and state —
Love, O my God, to call Thee Love and Love.
—G. M. Hopkins

Friday 21 November 2008

Ma'arat Ayin

I am looking at the questioning of the CEOs of the Big Three as they are peppered with questions about how they flew to Washington on private jets to ask for money from the government. One of the congressmen actually raises the issue of how it looks. Realistically the cost of this means of flying versus the use of a cheaper means of flying has no real implication on the issue. Saving $20,000 or $100,000 is meaningless in terms of the magnitude of the bailout request. Yet, its a matter of impression. How can you ask when it looks like you really don't need?

What it looks like is really the issue of ma'arat ayin. The issue is not whether the actual action is right or wrong but rather how the other perceives it. This case of the flights from Detroit to Washington would seem to revolve around the same issue. The perception counts. Yet the CEO's didn't seem to understand that. Their response was that it was company policy, for security issues, for CEOs to fly in private jets. While we can question what that really means, let us assume that it was true. So there was a reason to fly this way. But what then about the ma'arat ayin? The issue that hits me, and a concept that I believe many people do not recognize in the matter of ma'arat ayin is that perception matters. As the old adage goes, it is not enough that justice is done but also is perceived to have been done. We do not live solely in our own minds. In live within a community of fellow human beings and we must be sensitive to their thoughts, their perceptions, their feelings. What hit me about the CEOs was not that they did what they did -- for they believed (or let us say may have believed) that there was a reason for flying in private jets. What hit me is that they didn't even seem to see that there was a problem in what people may think. They ultimately weren't sensitive to the other -- even by just recognizing that there might be in a issue because of the perception. That leads me to wonder about the whole problem.

But what were they suppose to do? There seemed to have been a reason for flying in private jets, i.e. for security. Did they, though, discuss the matter before coming to Washington? Maybe they should have considered of all flying on one of the private jets rather than bring all three jets to Washington? Maybe they should have thought of other security measures that would be cheaper and work just as well? Maybe there really was no solution -- but then when asked about this issue, they would have been able to respond that they understood it, considered it before they flew to Washington but for other reasons they had to fly this way. Maybe they would still have been attacked for their decision and the perception that they made that decision as a result of their sensitivity, but the fact that they considered it also would have shown at least the basis of a sensitivity -- that they were concerned with perception. That is really what ma'arat ayin is about as well. Halachically, a real need can often override ma'arat ayin. If you have to do the action, a bar of ma'arat ayin can often be waived. The point though is for one to consider it, to consider perception, to consider the other.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 18 November 2008

Quantity and/or Quality

The recent article in the Jerusalem Post on line concerning conversions in Europe ( reflects a difficulty that is faced both in the realm of conversion as well as outreach to all Jews in general. The equation is simple. The lower we set the standards for inclusion in the "group," the larger the numbers we can attract to the group. The higher the standards, the lower the numbers. So what do we strive for, standards or numbers?

The question is actually not so simple. There is also, for example, the factor of time. Again, for example, the person we attract today with lower standards may become the standard bearer of distinguished Torah standards into the future. We can also question how we evaluate our standards. A person may be meticulous in one aspect of Torah while ignore another aspect. Do we call for all or nothing? Then we can ask: Is there anyone, outside of a few selected tzaddikim, that can meet a standard of all or nothing? The metaphor of the ladder is often presented as a manner by which we are to look at ourselves and others. It is not solely where you are on the ladder but whether you are going up or down? But the questions are still there. There must be, especially in the case of conversion, a minimum standard of where one is -- however we set that will affect numbers. Also we, the Jewish community as a whole and individuals -- both rabbanim and lay -- still must evaluate how we assist, direct, even push, one to greater heights; how do we know whether we are pushing too much or too little? And even this decision may affect numbers?

Another factor may be that numbers and standards are interrelated not only inversely but directly as well. The greater the numbers, the greater the ability to set and develop standars. As the rabbis in the smaller communities in Europe pointed out. with greater numbers they can build a strong Jewish communal structure which would improve the standards of the community. In the other way, there is also the possibility that with greater standards, Torah observance would stand out in a positive, distinctive manner which may also positively attract people to Torah observance thereby increasing numbers.

The bottom line question is, though: what do we want? We all want more Jews but what does that mean? In this whole modern concern regarding intermarriage and assimilation, this is the question. Do we just want people who identify as Jews regardless of what this term means or do we want people who meet a certain standard that makes the term Jewish mean something? Of course, then we have to figure out what this standard is, but the answer to assimilation and intermarriage cannot be just to increase the number of people who simply call themselves Jews regardless of what it may mean. The question is: what is the basic standard that we must demand?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Friday 14 November 2008

2. Unity of God

There is a tragedy to God’s unity, isn’t there? He’s peerless. Unity is complete solitude, complete self-sufficiency. Do we envy God His unity? Most people admit to the fact that they want to be needed, but do we also want to need?

In our pursuit towards greatness, do we view unity as a goal—‘in the image of God’—or as a failing—‘it is not good for Man to be alone’—?

There’s this balance that we’re taught as children: Play nice with the group; Don’t copy—that’s rude. So we’re flung into society and told to blend in when we stand out and to stand out when we start to blend in. In other words: Individual=good, Isolated=bad. In kindergarten: “He’s very popular among his fellow classmates but is not afraid to act alone on certain issues: gold star.”

Of course, this is how society functions. If we were each totally self-sufficient, there could be no growth—we’d have to hunt for our own food, build our own houses, sew our own clothes, treat our own wounds, etc.—there would be no time for advancement. If we sacrificed all individuality, however, there would be no specialization: no cooks, no carpenters, no seamstresses, no doctors. In either case, humanity would soon be extinct. Perfect unity—either unity of the individual or unity of the group—is incompatible with our survival as humans.

But our drive to be as much like God as possible compels us towards unity. Perfect levels of self-sufficiency, self-awareness, and self-confidence appeal to us like immeasurable treasures. But when we equate these things with utter and complete solitude, do we still hunger for them?

The funny thing is that our world develops and expands based on the individual’s desire for unity of self. In trying to be the best we can be—essentially, trying to escape reliance on anything other than the self—we push towards a greater existence. Society excels by virtue of the individual’s attempt to rid himself of the need for society.

At the same time, we speak of One Nation and we long for unity in society. In a dreamlike way, we wonder about a world in which everybody sees things as we do. In a generic sense, this dream unites us. But the specifics of the dream are distinct from individual to individual—my One Nation is, most likely, vastly different from your One Nation. What would you be willing to sacrifice for parity of values? Would you be willing to sacrifice your own values?

Perhaps our role here prohibits us from achieving either form of unity. We can’t be unified as individuals because we are part of the group; we can’t be unified as a group because we are individuals. But there may be a form of unity that is unique to humans which can only be expressed in the negative: I am unified with the self because, despite the pull towards society, I am not apart from myself; and I am unified with society because, despite the pull towards individuality, I am not apart from society. Unlike the kindergarten doctrine from above which describes a well-adjusted child-of-the-world, this vision depicts a troubled individual, clinging to two mutually exclusive unities, trapped somewhere in the middle—not not here and not not there. It is a unity achieved through struggle, sacrifice and meticulous philosophy. I think the model for this kind of unity can be found in prayer: ten men, joined, dependent, each standing silent, isolated, alone. So the question may be: do our shuls and synagogues evoke the indescribable sensation of mutually exclusive unities? And if not, why? What can we do to be more like God, less alone?

Sunday 9 November 2008

Who is charedi?

In an article on Ynet entitled "Who is charedi?" at,7340,L-3619172,00.html, Tali Farkash, a charedi journalist who works for Ynet, responds to this question as posed by her colleagues at the paper specifically in connection to Tzvia Greenfield, the new MK for the Meretz party. In attempting to answer that question, she postulates different yardsticks by which to answer the question. At the root of her problem is actually the very definition of what it means to be charedi, specifically as distinct from any other form of Orthodoxy. Her main challenge against Ms. Greenfield actually seems to be a problem that many within Orthodoxy may have; the question perhaps should have been: how could anyone Orthodox support Meretz? Nevertheless that is not the question and this, perhaps, brings up a greater issue. So often when people attempt to define charedi positions, they develop arguments that simply apply to all Orthodoxy thus resulting in a lack of clarity of what really are the points of distinction between the different factions within Orthodoxy.

Of course, we could ask: do we need this clarity in the first place? The problem is that as long as we use definitions such as charedi, a lack of clarity only furthers the problems we encounter due to a lack of understanding of what we truly believe. Someone could even challenge Ms. Farkash for calling herself charedi while working for the chiloni Ynet. I have seen people argue for an individual to accept the view of a certain faction within Orthodoxy because of some argument that they make only in the name of their faction when, in reality, it is actually a basic principle maintained by all Orthodoxy. I have also seen the opposite whereby one expresses a view that is only maintained by one faction of Orthodoxy in a manner that implies that it is fundamental to all Orthodoxy. I actually think labels are important but specifically as shorthand to understand what a person's philosophical, halachic and hashkafic viewpoints may be. Otherwise they are worse than useless, beading dissent and sinat chinum. As such, the question of who is charedi has some merit but only if we know what it being distinctly expressed by this term.

Returning in conclusion to Ms. Farkish's article, the only measure that she mentions that may be specific to the charedi definition is the acceptance of a certain authority. In this regard, I could see an argument that could maintain that Ms. Greenfield is not really charedi. But you know what's interesting. On the site of article are a picture of Ms. Greenfield and Ms. Farkash. Which one do you think looks more charedi? Of course Ms. Greenfield is actually also Dr. Greenfield with a Ph.D. in philosophy so isn't labelling her charedi problematic in the first place? Ms. Farkash, though, doesn't really mention this. I think in the end what I am really trying to say is: who cares? The term charedi seems to be used by someone as they seem fit, with their own agenda. Thus it is really meaningless. Which may be the greatest problem for it is simply a term used by someone to further their own agenda -- either by getting people to support a position because it is charedi or getting someone to challenge a position because it is charedi. Why not simply think and evaluate matters on its merit rather than its label?

In the end who cares if Dr. Greenfield is charedi or not It only matters if the term charedi itself has meaning and then it only really matters if an answer to that question really affects our understanding and our need to know.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 6 November 2008

Lech Lecha: The Personality of Blessings

Originally published 11/6/08, 5:58 PM.
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 Lech Lecha and the topic is blessings, specifically what blessings say about the person being blessed. What one considers a blessing tells us much about that person. For a further discussion on this idea, see

Tuesday 4 November 2008

1. Belief in God

This is my first blog. I have little faith in blogs. They’re too easy. Like faith in general. I have little faith in faith.

Should everyone have a right to blog?

Should everyone have a right to believe?

See, here’s the problem: of course everybody else’s blog is self-indulgent and exhibitionist, biased and unoriginal; of course everybody else’s belief system is dysfunctional, fanciful, inarticulate and fragmented. But not mine. My blog is actually worth reading. My belief system is actually believable. I remember when I first heard about blogs, I thought it was a joke. Why would anybody publish his/her diary/journal on the internet? Aren’t diaries those books with the little locks that we used to try to steal from our sisters? Aren’t journals a safe-haven for all our in-process thoughts, the thoughts not yet ready for mass consumption? Isn’t the whole point that nobody else reads it? What I failed to understand is that the blog can offer the best of both worlds. The internet provides the anonymity, if you want it, but allows you to share your thoughts with the world at the same time. More importantly, the underlying assumption is that a blog presents more of a concept-forecast than a finely polished idea—sort of like a weather report. The weather today is sunny, tomorrow looks to be rainy, the next day cloudy, and so on. A blog admits, by its form, to being fallible. Facts can, and often do, go unsubstantiated. The point is not to get locked into anything. If you disagree with me tomorrow about this blog I’ll just say, “Well, that was yesterday’s blog. Read today’s blog.” There’s always that backdoor. The glowing, red Exit sign. “I thought you were a Man of Faith?” “No, not anymore. That was yesterday.” Of course I’m not saying that you have to make a decision and stick with it regardless of what happens. That would be inflexible and foolish. But think about the difference between writing a book and writing a blog: If you decide to write a book, you’re committing to something. If you’re that guy who says, “I want to write a book about the flying patterns of African birds,” you better be sure that that’s going to keep your interest. Write a blog about African birds? Why not? Who cares? How much time are you putting into it? Who’s going to read it? How much research are you going to do for this one post? And tomorrow, when you wake up and you read over the blog and find yourself falling asleep from the monotony of it, do you know what you do? You write about that—you write about how boring African birds are and, what’s more, you write about how boring you were yesterday and thank God you’re not the person you were yesterday because that person would have put you to sleep. That’s what you write about today. And tomorrow? Like the weather forecast, it’s an educated prediction—there’s no real way to know. But if you’re writing a book on the subject you know exactly what you’re doing tomorrow: you’re studying the Wilba Bird in its natural African habitat because you’ve already invested four years into this project and, as disinterested as you are in the topic at present, you persevere. You persevere until you’re finished. Or until that moment when you realize that this is contrary to your very essence and “I don’t care about all the time and effort I’ve put into the thing, I’m losing myself here!” But it’s not just one blog you’re dismissing—it’s years of sweat and bruises and headaches and sleepless nights. When you walk away from that, you walk away with an understanding of yourself that exceeds what you knew of yourself before.

And, no, I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as a Wilba bird. See my point?

The blog is the constant check-up, the minute-by-minute report of Life as we know it. Would any doctor condone daily check-ups? We’d always be at the doctor: there would be no time to get sick; meaning, there would be no time to live. Think of the weatherman who says, “It’s a beautiful sunny day outside,” but hasn’t had the opportunity to see it for himself. One day, he says, “It’s a blizzard out there,” but it’s not snowing. He doesn’t know because he never goes outside. So if you’d ask him, “Do you believe it’s snowing?” he’d say, “Yes.” But if you waited long enough, he’d get an updated report and he’d change his answer: “This just in: it is not snowing.” Like that, fifteen inches of snow disappear from his consciousness. What’s the trick? We’re designed to react, to be moving, growing, bettering ourselves. Maybe it turns out it was a joke, orchestrated by some coworkers to prove how disconnected the weatherman is from the outside world: so now they tell him, “Of course it’s snowing—everybody can see that!” And suddenly, fifteen inches of snow reappear and he’s back on: “Sorry for the confusion, folks.”

Belief is malleable, constantly adapting to the world. Such is essential to our survival. If your joints don’t bend, you’re stuck where you are. The same is true of belief. But, following through with the metaphor, if your joints can’t lock into place, if they’re always swinging and buckling under your weight, you’re also stuck. It’s the interaction of commitment and flexibility that allows for growth. You don’t have to love, or even like, the African birds every day that you’re working there, but you still have to catalogue their habits. Blogging provides for too much flexibility, as does belief. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and be an atheist. Or the next day, a Buddhist. Maybe a week from now I realize that I believe in religious chocolate consumption. And then I post my most current beliefs on my blog. Wouldn’t it be more productive to treat belief like a check-up? Annually, or maybe bi-annually, you sit down and really think about what you believe in, what you don’t believe in, how your beliefs have developed over time; think about the weaknesses in your belief-system, the contradictions, the inadequacies; think about your own strengths and weaknesses and how they play a role in your beliefs; think about your ability to manipulate yourself—ask, “Why do I want to believe in this?” But to do this every second of every day?

So God says, “Yes: every second, every day.” How? How without making a mockery of faith? Because it’s a command—it is included within the directive, not external to it. So what is the driving belief that predates all action? Us. We, each of us, we are the lifelong projects. Before belief in God, there must be belief in Self. This means a commitment to growth over time. But there is no commandment in the Torah to believe in Self. To reconsider this belief daily would be destructive. Once we’ve established that we will not examine belief in Self more than once or twice a year, we have room to grow (or fail). The first step? Belief in God, examined and considered constantly in the true pursuit of understanding His commandments. But it is not voluntary. Your belief in Self has led you here; now you are obligated to believe in God. You’ll have your opportunity to reconsider when you reconsider the specifics of your faith in yourself. For now, belief in God is commanded.

At least that’s what I’m thinking today.

Monday 3 November 2008

The Palin Paradox

Much has been written regarding Bristol Palin, the unmarried, teenage, pregnant daughter of Gov. Sarah Palin, an individuals who, aside from being pro-life, also promotes sexual abstinence outside of marriage. In one way, Bristol's decision to keep the child is seen as a vindication of her mother's values but in another way her actions also are a challenge to her mother's values. Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, though, considers another aspect of this issue -- the family dynamics -- both wondering how Bristol told her parents about the preganancy and valuing the parents' response. An article on this subject, by Rabbi Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto).

To view the article on line, go to

Sunday 2 November 2008

Hearing Both Sides

I recently saw an article on Ynet regarding a charedi woman who was suing a cell phone company in Israel for a breach of privacy. According to this article, the cell phone company gave this woman's husband a list of her calls thus breaching her privacy. The result for the woman was quite detrimental for the list showed that she was calling a certain man quite often and with this information the husband went to beit din to request a get and a favourable divorce settlement which he received. The woman maintained that the relationship she had with this man she was calling was, in fact, quite platonic and was actually for the purposes of gaining insight into how to protect her marriage which was having some difficulties. The result of all this was that the woman not only became divorced but was also ostracized from the charedi community thus she lost her social life, her married life, and her children, for which she maintained custody, were to a large extent abandoned by their father. The woman maintains that under the privacy guarantees which were built into the contract with the phone company, the company was negligible for giving her husband the information about the calls. It seems that the husband got the information by telling the phone company representative that his wife was in labour and needed this information. The woman maintains that there was even a password on the account and the phone company had no right to give this information without the password.

There are further details but upon reading the article one becomes enraged with the phone company for releasing this information to the husband and causing such grief to this woman. One also becomes enraged with the charedi community for treating this woman in this way and supporting the husband's treatment of her, in fact even fostering this treatment. Then, upon reflection, one recognizes that one has only heard one side of the story. The newspaper has presented the story from the perspective of the woman. We do not hear the phone company's side, although the article does state that the company has stated that they are a law abiding company and would never violate the privacy rules within their company. Still, we do not really encounter both sides. The husband is also not given a voice. One may wonder whether under the laws of loshon hara such reporting is even appropriate but one can see the way people are manipulated by the way a story is presented and its onesidedness. At first one takes the presentation for granted as true. Only afterwards does one consider that one has only heard one side of the story.

Then there is the very dynamics of the story. This woman was involved in a behaviour that would be frowned upon by the charedi community. She knew this so why is she now upset with the consequences of her actions by this community. I am not defending the charedi position. I am completely against many of the charedi policies that are instrumental within this story -- the problem with women talking to men; the invasion of privacy that, according to this report, the beit din accepted; the treatment of the woman in the get/divorce proceedings -- but I am not a member of this community. In fact, to some extent, these are reasons why I am not. I, though, have difficulty understanding a person choosing to be part of this community and then being upset when the community simply follows its rules, rules that the woman knew about. If you don't like being part of the charedi world, don't be part of it. I find it problematic when someone acts as a member of that community then also acts in clandestine ways contrary to the community, then is upset when the community finds out and takes action pursuant to its rules. On the grander scale, that is not the way to fight what you believe to be wrong in the first place.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Friday 31 October 2008

Noach: The Question of Dual Moralities

Originally published 10/31/08, 2:13 PM.
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 Noach and the topic is dual moralities. Some believe that the difference between the 613 mitzvot incumbent on a Jew and the 7 mitzvot incumbent on a non-Jew is simply 606 mitzvot. There are many problems with such an understanding. One is the very fact that there are actual differences in the two Codes with, it would seem, distinct moral directives. For a further discussion on this idea, see

Sunday 19 October 2008

Why do we celebrate Simchat Torah on Shemini Atzeret?

The day we refer to as Simchat Torah in the Diaspora is actually the second day of the holiday of Shemini Atzeret so the question can be asked, both in the Diaspora and in Eretz Yisrael where the celebration of Simchat Torah is on the (only) day of Shemini Atzeret, why do we celebrate this occassion on a day that is already a holiday? In other words, why do we make the siyum of finishing the yearly reading of the Torah on this day? When one considers the idea that we are not to create another occasion of simcha (joy) on a holiday which has its own reason for joy, this question is even more potent. While we can technically argue that the making of a siyum does not technically violate the principle of mixing joys, the underlying thought is still most significant. Why not mark another day with the joy of the siyum of finishing the weekly readings of the Torah? Why specifically make this siyum on Shemini Atzeret?

There are many sides to this question. It may be something you want to ponder that may give you a greater appreciation of the nature of the day.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 15 October 2008

Jewish Tribune: Discrimination and Evaluation

Balancing the conflicting rights of individuals has now become a hot topic in Canada with discussions even of whether a doctor can refuse to do an abortion or whether this refusal in a violation of the rights of an individual. An article on this broad subject, by Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, was recently published in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto). To view the article on line, go to

Friday 10 October 2008

Zman Simchateinu

The Nishma website at presents various "Hot Topics" regarding important Torah concepts. One of these is simcha which has specfic importance to the holiday of Succot as this is to be the happiest time of the year. We invite you to look at the Nishma Hot Topic on simcha at, read the material sited and comment here as you wish.

Wednesday 8 October 2008


From the on-line library at, in concert with the theme of the day, we invite you to take a look at Tshuvah by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman at

Gmar tov!

Thursday 2 October 2008

Halachic Query: Conjoined Twins

Recently, someone watching The Learning Channel in the United States called me to ask for my opinion on the theoretical halachic consequences that could emerge in regard to the story that they were watching. It seems that the program was about conjoined twins who are only distinguishable from the neck up. In other words, while there were two heads, the rest of the body was shared between them. In regard to marriage and other matters of personal law, what would be the halachic status of such a person or persons if Jewish?

I was able to find clips about these two girls, Abby and Brittany, on YouTube, at, as I wanted to see for myself the exact nature of this case. It seems that medically the matter is quite complicated. There are clearly two personalities with two heads sharing what would seem to be one body. Doctors have found, though, that there are also two hearts, two sets of lungs, two stomachs but somehow everything merges so from the colon, there is only one. It would seem to be that there are similar distinctions in the limbs in that each girl controls only one arm but somehow the legs come under one neurological system. One of the clips indicate that the girls are now 16 and are talking about their desires to be mothers. Thus the question: if the girls were Jewish, could they marry? What would Noachide Law say for non-Jews?

There would seem to be some literature on the subject of Siamese twins in general in regard to marriage. In these cases, though, the bodies are much more distinct and, as in the case of the original Siamese twins who married two different women, each one of the twins would have separate relations with their spouses. The basic question would thus be more one of tznuit in that relations would have to happen in the presence of another person, namely the attached other twin. In the case of Abby and Brittany, though, the sexual organs are shared. Could they, thus, marry two different men? The fact is that even marrying one man could be a problem in that a man cannot have relations with his wife's sister. Would this not be similar to the case of a chatzi shifcha chatzi bat chorin with a combined status of being both Abby and Brittany applying to their combined being. The result would thus be that any sexual act would be defined as incest, according to the Halacha, since they are two sisters and the act would thus inherently be defined as having relations with your wife's sister (at the same time as having relations with your wife).

There is a case in T.B. Menachot 37a,b that actually deals with a case of a two-headed boy in regard to the question of pidyon haben, redeeming the first born. The gemara also raises the question as to how the mitzvah of tephillin for the head would be performed. It is unclear if the gemara views such a two-headed person as one person or two. Abby and Brittany are clearly two distinct personalities but the fundamental halachic question must be whether they are seen by Halacha as two distinct beings or one person. The gemara's discussion does not necessarily answer that question. The gemara also seems to imply that such a two-headed person is not really viable and would die soon after birth (not necessarily within 30 days, though). Abby and Brittany clearly do not fit into the gemara's profile and, thus, it may be argued that the gemara's presentation does not apply to them. There are further indications that these two girls are more separate beings than the being described in the gemara given the duality of many of their internal organs. The gemara seems to be indicating that this two-headed person under discussion only has two heads with everything else similar to the case of one individual. Yet, knowledge of whether the boy under discussion in the gemara had two hearts would not really be available to the authors of the gemara.

I thought that, if Abby and Brittany are defined as two persons by Halacha, one possible, halachically permitted way they may be able to have children, if they were Jewish, would be through the application of the law of pilegesh, concubine. There are major commentators, including the Ramo, who permit a pilegesh and I do not believe that the sister of one's pilegesh is forbidden to the man. Thus if this extenuating circumstance came up under Jewish Law there may be a way to let these girls become mothers. But maybe we would still not follow this route as it does challenge some basic general views on marriage. The fundamental question still remains: what is the definition of an independent being?

I don't really have answers to these questions. I am just posing this case as a halachic query for you to think about and comment.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday 29 September 2008

Machnisei Rachamim Apologetics - Reprint

Mon, 02 Oct 2000 12:45:40 EDT
From: Richard Wolpoe
Machnisei Rachamim Apologetics

There is a "machlokes" whether or not to recite Machnisei Rachamim. Those in favor probably rely upon tradition that it is ok.

Those who omit it, cite the Rambam's 5th principle of Addressing our Prayers to G-d along and not to agents or angels.

The following post is based upon the premise that Machnisei is OK to recite, while still respecting the Rambam's premise. Moreover we can appreciate the elegance of a poem w/o necessarily being offended not buying into its apparent premise.

There is an old joke about 2 litigants coming to a rabbi to decide their dispute. Litigant #1 recites his side and the rabbi answers:" You know you're right." Then litigant #2 recites his counter-complaints and to him the rabbis also responds You know you're right." The rebbetzin overhearing this asks: "how can they BOTH be right?". To which the rabbi answers "You know you're right too!"

In this spirit I will endeavor to make both sides right. You might quibble with some specifics, nevertheless don't dismiss the approach, because it is in the spirit of Eilu v'eilu.

Since we enjoy stories, here is another:

There was a very shy fellow named Abraham who was assigned to address a large audience of about 1,000. With his meek voice, he was unable to be heard. In order to assist him, a fellow named Eliezer was recruited to install and monitor a sound system.

During a practice run, Abraham began speaking w/o the mike. "Speak into the Microphone," advised Eliezer. Before long Eliezer explained the advanced electronics, of how the mike went into a wire into an amp into speakers, etc. So Abraham started saying "Dear Microphone please tell the wire to tell the amp to tell the speakers to tell the audience that...". "No no," advised Eliezer. "when you speak into the mike, all the electronics should be ignored as transparent to the user. Even though you are speaking into a mike, address the audience directly. ONLY the audience should be the subject of your address!"
And so it was. Abraham addressed the audience via the electronic system and things went smoothly.

One day, Eliezer caught he flu and was unable to assist Abraham's broadcast. Feebly, Abraham set up the sound system and did what he could. His address went OK, but it was clear that Eliezer was a wizard at electronics and had been using sophisticated techniques of raising and lowering the volume to make Abraham's speech all the more effective. At the end of Abraham's address, he uttered a prayer that had nothing to do with the content of his speech. Abraham asked, "Please restore Eliezer to health, Please have the mikes and speakers work optimally. Please fine-tune the sound system, etc."

Abraham was not addressing the sound system in order to deliver the CONTENTS of his speech. Rather now Abraham was requesting intercession that the sound system OPTIMIZE the impact of his speech.

Those who recite Machnisei Rachamim are not praying to Agents in terms of a prayer. They are requesting aid and assistance that the prayers get delivered OK. Another example: I might address a package to President Clinton in the White House and as an aside I can tell the postman to be very careful in handling the parcel...

So on one level, Machnisei Rachamim is not objectionable at all, it is not truly a prayer to a "being other than G-d" rather it is just a request that those agents do their tasks well in order to deliver the precious parcel of prayers.

On another level, those who do object to Machnisei Rachamim can rightfully cite that on a plain level, it is phrased as a request to being other than G-d and had no place in a Tefillah, either because of how it is appears as peshat or because the unsophisticated might not get the nuance and distinction made above and therefore it is better omitted.

Machnisei is therefore both OK and objectionable, just on different planes of reference.

Shana Tova