Thursday 28 February 2008

Vayakhel: The Motivation for Giving

Originally published 2/28/09, 5:50 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
From the archives of Nishma's Online Library, 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 Vayakhel. The topic is tzedakah, specifically how we decide to distribute our funds for worthwhile causes. There are always more needs than available funds, so how do we determine priorities? Where would you put the call to give toward the Mishkan in a world of competing needs?

We invite you to look at an article on this general topic at

Sunday 24 February 2008

Parsha: Ki Tisa - Life is Complex

Rabbi Hecht and I share a synchronicity on complexity.
It's in the Nishma tagline:
Life is complex, Torah is complex etc.

As we seem to be drifting towards a new Dark Ages, people are seeking the old black-and-white solutions that made magic popular 1,000 years ago and dictators popular about 70 years ago. Perhaps that is why Roshei Yeshiva are now being invested with "rebbe"-like infallibility -an absolute anathema to misnagidic thinking!

Anyhow - in the parsha we see that aside from Levi'im, Yehoshua, and women and children - all 600,000+ adult Israelites were labelled with guilt for the "Molten Calf". And yet the Levite-produced carnage amounted to but 3,000 souls less than 1/60 the of the total- and should therefore be a nullified trivial measure by rabbinic thinking!

Hazal have explained that there was not simply ONE level of guilt but at least 3; viz.:
  1. Those who sinned with witnesses and warning
  2. Those who sinned with witnesses and NO warning
  3. Those who sinned without witnesses
There is also another hierarchy:
The Eirev Rav started and instigated the sin. Some Israelites joined along and some merely witnessed idly w/o any Pinchas like protest. Thus the actual culpability for worship was limited to 3,000, but the collective guilt of acquiescence or of condoning was nationwide.

Which leads us to consider that not every guilt or culpability is morally equivalent. To say that since Andy Pettite was not 100% forthcoming at first makes him as big a liar as the Rocket or as McNamee is mis-leading and is ingenuous. There ARE degrees of guilt, it is NOT a black and white continuum. And ther are levels of honesty. While few humans bat 1.000 in the honesty department, not all are compulsive liars either!

That said: culpability is a funny thing! Many "public Jews" have railed that the world was silent about the Holocaust whilst it transpired, yet many - myself included - are silent as a slaughter occurs in Darfur.

A Hong Kong native who owns a Chinese restaurant lamented to me: Jews had a Holocaust . What about the Chinese!? Indeed he is correct. In the aftermath of the Jimmy Doolittle raid "40 seconds over Tokyo" Japanese exacted revenge on 250,000 Chinese over the next few weeks. Nanking was raped! And who in the West cares to comment!? In fact most North Americans buy the Euro-Centric version of WWII beginning at Hitler's invasion of Poland and ignore the Japanese occupation of China almost completely! [not to mention Manchuria etc.]

And even in Europe, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia and the Spanish Civil War were surely part of the WWII cluster of the battles of the dictators! The point is while standing idling by is NOT the same level of culpability as committing the dirty deed, nevertheless culpability there is indeed! Woe to all of us for not doing our best to protest


Saturday 23 February 2008

Judaism - Which ISM triumphs?

Originally published 2/23/08, 7:54 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
It seems that every generation has its own set of challenges.

About 100 years ago - Judaism was superseded by many Jews - by Marxism/Communism/Socialism etc. It was THOSE isms that would bring about the Millennia! =- i.e Peace on Earth and all that optimistic stuff.

But it does not end with Socialism. In the Western World, most Jews genuflect to Secular Liberals as uber alles. While others go further and add Feminism or Egalitarianism to supersede Judaism/

Perhaps the most Jewish of isms to challenge Judaism is Zionism. Vesechezena Eineinu bechuv'cha leZion berachamim. Certainly Zionism is a genuinely Jewish ideal. The issue though is, Does Zionism become the be-all and end-all of Judaism superseding all the OTHER aspects?

Now that post-Zionism is upon us, we have even NEWER isms to supersede Judaism. There is of course the Kabbalism of the fringe groups that include Esther/Madonna. But even more indisious is Meshichistism or, applying an old fashioned word - Messianism. Unfortunately , the is not a brand new ism, but rather a recycled one. The idea that a human Messianic savior could supplant or fulfil the entire Torah was posited in the 1st Century CE, probably NOT by the Nazerene himself but by such apostles as Saul/Paul etc., culminating with the Nicene Creed.

But it did NOT end there. There was the Messianism of Bar Kochabe and Shabettai Zvi, to mention a few. Did it end there? Apparently not! There are STILL Jews who are more focused upon the Messiah than upon Judaism.

I would submit that there is only ONE ism to trump Judaism and I call it "Torah-ism." When you stick to the Torah, only THEN can you supersede "Judaism" per se.


Thursday 21 February 2008

Opening your mouth to put your foot in it

Originally published 2/21/08, 6:17 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Why do people not recognize how to talk to someone with different a prioris, a different perspective? Recognizing a different perception does NOT mean you agree with it. What it does mean is that you can have an effective communication as you express your view. It means that you don't look like an idiot.

This issue emerges again with statements regarding homosexuality made by some religious MKs in Israel. Homosexual behaviour is clearly forbidden. I would add that much of what is permitted in terms of a gay lifestyle also presents halachic problems. For example, I recently read something about two religious men sharing an apartment while maintaining a romantic albeit celibate relationship. The problem with that, though, is that the prohibitions of yichud and of any touching may still apply; there are still halachic problems. That is not my point, though. Notwithstanding the clarity of the prohibition, one still has to know how to express the Torah view to the general populace, especially if the general populace does not share the Torah view and in fact challenges it. Dah mah l'tosheiv l'apikoris, know how to respond to the heretic. This includes stating a Torah posotion in a manner that will not allow the other to mock Torah. This demands that one understand the perspective of the other and not be seen as foolish or worse in the other's eyes.

On a certain level this is most difficult in the case of homosexuality as the Torah position is opposite the view of many in the Western World. We will thus be defined as racist or homophobic by maintaining the view of Torah. But, as such, we must be doubly careful not to add more fuel to the fire. Thus we must be extra careful about what we say and make sure that we do not create further harm to Torah.

When I first heard the recent statements made by religious individuals that the recent earthquakes in Israel were a result of Israel's liberal view of homosexuality, I was most upset. See,7340,L-3509263,00.html

I am tired of people playing God. The gemara's call to look into one's behaviour when misfortune falls is a personal call. It tells people to look at themselves to see what they are doing wrong -- it does not mean to look at the other for reinforcement of what you already think the other is doing wrong. If you can't critique yourself, keep quiet. Further on this, see

But then what really upset me, was the response to the statement that was also posted. See,7340,L-3509505,00.html. Its not the response per se that bothers me but how the response makes the original statement look so foolish and, as such, thereby makes Torah look foolish. Could the MK have said that it violates Torah without mentioning that it violates nature? Isn't that actually suppose to be the Torah approach, to abide by the Halacha simply because it is the tzivui Hashem, the command of God? Furthermore, if you do want to make a point to another person based on their perspective, at least get the perspective right. I am so tired of people thinking they are defending Torah making Torah look foolish

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday 18 February 2008

Orthodoxy Is More Than Ritual

Originally published 2/18/08, 12:54 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
So many people like to express their tolerance of Orthodox Jews. They will go out of their way to ensure that kosher food is available for them or to ensure that they are able to observe Shabbat -- and on a certain level that has to to appreciated -- but I am always somewhat surprised by where the line is drawn on that tolerance. In ritual matters, or what is often referred to as ritual matters such as Kashrut and Shabbat, tolerance does indeed seem to be the order of the day -- but what about other issues. I find it interesting how people who would never expect an Orthodox Jew to eat non-kosher and, as such, will do everything to respect this aspect of Orthodoxy, will simply expect Orthodox Jews to violate other aspects of Halacha that, for some reason, these people do not define as essential.

Another example seems to have surfaced in the Israel military as presented in,7340,L-3508063,00.html. I don't get it. The Israeli military will ensure that Orthodox Jews have kosher food, so why can't they ensure that these soldiers will not have female instructors? Is it because some Orthodox Jews would not insist on an absence of female instructors? Does tolerance only exist with a monolithic vision of others? There are differences within Orthodoxy, doesn't each vision, with their distinctions, deserve tolerance? For these individuals, regardless of the opinion of others within Halacha, have a right to follow their view. Is it because the military is concerned with poskim having more authority than military commanders, the concern that existed at Gush Katif? That is a most complex issue and when entering a communal structure there is a problem of differing views of Halacha circumventing the action and goal of the collective -- but that should only concern us when the actions of the collective are indeed challenged. In this case, what could be the problem with meeting the religious perspective of these individuals and ensure that their company only has male instructors?

In the end, I think that problem is in how people see Orthodoxy. As long as we are keeping kosher or privately observing Shabbat, there is tolerance. But bringing Orthodoxy to the world, voicing opinions that touch upon the general issues and ways of the world, as tolerance seems to be a forgotten value.


Sunday 17 February 2008

Baseball and Congress: Truth and Loyalty

Originally posted 2/17/08, 4:50 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
We may first wish to ask if the present Congressional investigation of steroids use in baseball is a Jewish issue. I am sure that many will say no. On the other hand any issue that involves an consideration of our values, especially when values are in conflict, must call upon us to investigate the Torah perspective on a matter. Such is the case here -- and as often the case the Torah perspective truly highlights the complexity of human life and our need to render appropriate valued decisions.

Last week, I was listening to the radio as a I drove and heard people voicing their opinion on whther Andy Pettit was right in fingering Roger Clemens on the latter's use of steroids. Many argued that Pettit was absolutely correct in telling the truth. Others argued that Pettit even should have lied to maintain his loyalty to a friend. The ones who felt that the truth was most important basically argued that morality must be maintained and lying was wrong. The ones who felt that Pettit sold out his friend basically responded that even though it may be more moral to tell the truth, you sometimes have to lie for a friend. It was at this point that I truly felt that this was a Torah issue for the Torah argument is not that you must break with morality to lie for a friend but rather that morality itself is often hard to define. Sometimes lying is the moral choice. The complexity of a situation is lost in a non-Torah perspective of the moral universe. In the Torah laws of testimony, lying is not condoned but the restrictions on testimony in various situations are intended to highlight this issue. If a testimony will not accomplish a conviction, it should not be given, is one example.

I am not saying that Pettit was right or wrong. I think it is a complex issue. What I am saying, though, is that it may be worthwhile for us to look at issues in the world to see how the Torah would direct us in those situations -- and what we may find more than anything else is Halacha's sensitivity to the complexity that is life.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Respecting Other Value Systems

Originally published 2/12/08, 3:57 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. The link no longer works.
The past week was filled with comments in the National Post (a newspaper that serves all of Canada) regarding an incident where an Orthodox rabbi did not shake hands with a female deputy mayor. Columnists in the paper found the rabbi's behaviour to be disrespectful, while many responded to these critiques with the defense that the rabbi meant no disrespect and was simply following his religious principles which should be, at least, understood in light of our concept of freedom of religion.

In following this case, two issues interested me. One was the need for individuals to learn how to relate with differing, and even conflicting, value systems. One can disagree but one still has to know the specifics of another's behaviour and what is its true message. A secular person may still find difficulties with the gender distinctions of Orthodoxy specifically, as in this case, with men not shaking hands with women, but it should still not be interpreted pursuant to the secular person's value constructs. Why a secular person may not shake hands with a person of another gender has nothing to do with why an Orthodox person may not. To live in a society of individuals with differing value systems means to understand the frame of reference of the other and know the message of a specific behaviour pursuant to this frame of reference, not the interpretor's frame of reference.

This leads me to a second issue that drew my attention. I direct you to
which is a comment from one of columnists who critiqued the rabbi for not shaking hands. To defend herself she argued that, of course, it would be wrong to be upset by an Orthodox person simply following his/her religion -- but in this case the rabbi was not simply doing this. The columnist quotes a source that states that according to Halacha there is not problem with people of different genders shaking hands. That, in truth, may be a legitimate halachic position but prohibiting this shaking of hands is also a legitimate halachic position. Of course, the columnist is not knowledgeable of differences in Halacha -- but that is also a necessary knowledge for one who wishes to deal with differing value systems. How can one understand Orthodoxy without a knowledge of machloket, disagreement? To critique the rabbi for adopting a specific halachic opinion by stating that it is not a halachic opinion is absurd -- but this columnist does not know this for the columnist does not really understand Orthodoxy. This is a powerful caveat. Even when you think you understand the other, maybe you should still recognize that you do not.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 10 February 2008

Why Have Schools Dropped the Ball re: Cantillation?

Originally published 2/10/08, 3:01 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Here is my response to a provocative post from the "Leining Group"

Soap Box time for Better chinuch:

  • Why don't teachers of Humash and Tanach simply insist on reading the words with the trope from day one and teach the trope as part of the language of the Tanach?
  • I think Sephardim and Teimanim do this already. FWIW, Moslems would never cite a verse from the Qur'an without its cantillation.  It's a shame we don't insist on this in our educational systems
  • Also, many older editions of Siddurim and Machazorim USED to have verses from Tanach with their trope. Why was this dropped? Espeically as printing became CHEAPER
  • Somewhere along the line, excellence in cantillation and diction has been dropped as priority. Why? And what can we do about it?
By way of background here is the original post:

On Feb 10, 2008 10:43 AM, myappel <> wrote:
Shalom Leining Group Members,

I imagine that I am not alone in thinking that the trope is really an intrinsic part of proper k'riah. There have been numerous discussions on this list regarding its role in directing proper word pronunciation, and phrase parsing. What seems to happen though, is that in the emphasis on proper k'riah and understanding, trope is deemed to be extra, and is often not taught until kids are preparing to become b'nai-mitzvah. Having taught the parasha to a number of b'nai-mitzvah, I can say that the introduction of trope at that point portrays it as a new, additional element to learn besides the actual words. I think it would be much easier if trope were taught earlier,
so children could appreciate that it really is an organic part of k'riah. I have a 6 year old son who is able to read, and has just started his study of Chumash. (He had a Chumash receiving party in school just last week.) I am inclined to start working with him on identifying trope, and showing its role in the understanding of the pesukim. Clearly though, I would approach the teaching differently than I would for a bar-mitzvah age child. My current idea is to show how the Etnachta and the Sof Pasuk, are major pauses, how that affects the meaning, and how the meshartim that lead up to these notes fill in the phrasing. This would be done with the pesukim that are being learnt in school. Any comments on this approach? Does anyone have any experience in working with early grade school-age children in teaching trope? If so, are there any other ideas that you might have about how to approach it?


Thursday 7 February 2008

A Funny thing Happend Today @ Lunch

Originally posted 2/7/08, 11:04 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
While lunching and munching at my food - while on the job as mashgiach - a lady entered our restaurant and asked for the rabbi. She had already tried to get the rabbi of the local shul but at about 2:00PM he was not to be found. Instead she requested of me:
"Do you know the rabbi in Monsey how heals the sick?"
I replied: "I'm afraid I do not. Have you tried calling any of the local rabbis?..."

After a brief chat it turned out that I could not help her either. It seems that her husband is very ill and no one so far has been able to help HIM.

As she exited the door I made one last suggestion: "Have you tried asking help from God directly?"

Who knew -such a novel thought!

Good Shabbos,

What should be the priorities of the Jewish community?

Originally published 2/7/08, 6:08 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. Neither of the links work.
An interesting exchange recently took place in the pages of the National Post (Canada) on essentially what should be the priorities of a Jewish community especially within the context of the greater community
in which we live and, in fact, within the world community. Please see:


Within the views of both presentations are the obvious political overtones that revolve around what is actually being done -- "we are doing that!" "No, you are not!" -- but there is the greater issue of the balance of being a self-interest group serving the group, and being the bastion of Jewish ethics attempting to present Jewish values to the broader society.

Was a regular newspaper the appropriate forum for this presentation?

What's your take?

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Burkas and Tznios: The Challenge to Torah Thought

Originally published 2/6/08, 12:07 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
We would like to draw your attention some recent posts on The Blog of Garnel Ironheart, which discuss a group of frum women who have begun dressing in a manner that is similar to the Moslem Burka.

The Torah concept of the shvil hazahav, the Golden Mean, does not just present a value in some quantitatively middle approach to traits and values. If one views two poles of any one trait, one is often perceived to be better than the other. The result for many is a difficulty with having to incorporate any value of the extreme that is deemed to be negative. This is an example of such a problem for it we perceive value in a lack of sexuality, than any degree of sexuality would be problematic. The Golden Mean would then just be defined as what is permissible and so you would strive for the extreme to meet what is perceived to be the goal. Another example would be found in the female leader of ths group's desire to not speak. Define the world in two extremes, declare one holy and then you will move to the holy extreme.

The principle of the Golden Mean as the ideal behaviour and value within Torah thought actually challenges this perception. The Mean is not some quantitative statement of the middle but the definition of a new qualitative middle understanding of the value and trait. It demands sophistication in thought to define this value and trait and recognize a whole new way of understanding the trait, value and life. Tzniut is not the absence of any sexuality but a new Torah definition of proper sexuality in the same way that it defines proper Torah expression of self. That is why I translate tzniut as gracefulness. The sadness of these women's behaviour is what it states about how far we are from Torah thought and the true sophisticated understanding of God's wisdom. Their behaviour is sad for them but it is sad for all of us for it shows how weak our understanding of the sophistication and genius of Torah is in our generation.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Saturday 2 February 2008

Rabbiner Hirsch and the Mishna Brura

Originally published 2/2/08, 10:12 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Dear Readers,

I have just completed reading the Biography of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Apparently Rabbiner Hirsch bemoaned the fact that the Shulchan Aruch[1] was in 4 parts and thereby people were not being holistic in that they neglected vast tracts of Hoshen Mishpat etc, in their behavior.

While the Mishna Brura pointedly commented on ONLY Orach Haim because he felt that this was the primary legal text for Jewish People [see hakdamah to the Mishna Brura.] [2]

There you have it in a nutshell. If you ever meet Jews who are meticulously observant in their observance of Davening, Shabbos and Pesach, - whilst also being boorish, dishonest, and downright sleazy in business - they are probably following the Mishna Brura.OTOH, if you meet well-rounded people who observe only the basics of Halachah, but are essentially honest, straightforward [glatt yosher] - then they probably pasken like Rabbiner Hirsch!

[1] Although it is popular to attribute this arrangement to the Shulchan Aruch - It was actually the Tur who subdivided his work in 4 [actually 4 majors with Orach Haim sub-divided into 3] and into the the simanin later used by R. Y. Karo et. al.
[2] Ironically, the MB himself was a Ba'al Musar and would probably "rue the day" that Jews went off in this mis-direction!

Friday 1 February 2008

Mishpatim: Understanding Torah

Originally published 2/1/08, 1:08 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
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 Mishpatim. The topic is mitzvot we understand and mitzvot we don't understand. Most significantly, what we understand may actually change over time. Certain laws shich were presented as understandable in the past are now deemed not understandable. And other laws which were described as beyond human comprehension in the past and now seen as making sense. What does this indicate about the human interaction with Torah? We invite you to look at an article on this topic at