Sunday 30 March 2008

How we argue?

Originally published 3/30/08, 10:33 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
In the latest halachic debate in Israel between the charedim and other Orthodox views in Israel, we again see the strong language of dissension. The issue is the definition of death and the position of the charedi community is that brain death does not define halachic death.
The controversy that is surrounding this issue, aside from the very halachic debate itself, is in how the charedi community is expressing its view. It presents its view as the only legitimate halachic view and other views that accept brain death as a halachic standard are simply dismissed. This seems to be another case of the charedi world simply dismissing views with which it disagrees as outside the pale.

The intersting thing that hit me though is the actuality of how meforshim throughot the centuries have responded to others with positions with which they disagreed. In many cases we also find harsh language, disparaging comments and a rejection of the opposition even amongst those that in other circumstances demanded respect for others within the halachic process. In truth, we find within halachic literature throughout the ages strong language similar to the charedi defense of their position. Is it just possible that the charedi world, rather that really dismissing those with which they disagree, is simply following the examples of language that have been used throughout the ages?

In truth, it is clear that for many charedim there is a dismissal of other positions in a most outright and simplistic fashion. Yet it has always bothered me -- could charedi scholars really be rejecting the reality of machloket in halacha? The answer may be that they are not. They are simply adopting a language that they have seen within the halachic literature in cases of disagreement. The only problem is that, while in the hands of scholars this language is known to have one connotation, as this language spreads to the masses, the result is a simplification of Torah that challenges its very essence.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Monday 17 March 2008

The Artist and the Jew

Originally published 3/17/08, 1:28 AM. Link no longer works.
A commitment to Torah and Mada (or, in the definition of Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Derech Eretz) presents a dialectic that is to push and inspire us to new understandings. The reality and the process, though, fosters a realm of conflict that challenges us on many levels and, while, perhaps, ultimately beneficial, tries us in the struggle that we must confront. This is most intense is the struggle of the self.

Tikva Hecht, a frequent contributor to Nishma, weighs in on this issue in an article she recently wrote for Kol Hamevaser entitled "The Artist and the Jew" This article is available on line at:

Friday 14 March 2008

Vayikra: Progression and Regression

Originally published 3/14/08, 12:23 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 Vayikra. The topic is the movement of ethics, specifically are we becomming more or less ethical? Rambam contends that sacrifices were an allowance to past weaknesses in the human being and it is better to worship God without animal sacrifices. Ramban strongly disagrees. If sacrifices were ordained at Sinai, they are part of the perfect Torah. Is there any possible reconciliation for these divergent opinions

We invite you to look at an article on this topic here.

Wednesday 12 March 2008


Originally published 3/12/08, 3:23 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
This is not a comment on the behaviour of Eliot Spitzer. The question still emerges: should he have resigned?

For me, this question can be divided into two parts. One is regarding the fundamental question of how we choose someone to lead, specifically in pragmatic terms. Do we judge based upon the results or the essence of the person? Of course, one whose actions and essence are in unison is the best choice -- but what to do in such a case when one's results as a leader do not coincide with one's personal behaviour? Do we want someone who delivers in terms of results even though he is personally lacking or do we choose one whose essence is fine even though he may not deliver as well? Or do we say that one whose essence is inherently tainted will eventually fail in delivering results in any event?

There is another issue as well. I have seen Mr. Spitzer referred to as a hypocrite and this made me think about the problems with that label. Does teshuva not necessitate that we all recognize ourselves as hypocites? Do we not have to accept that we are not living up to our standards in order to embarke on a path of teshuva? I do not know what Elitot Spitzer really believes in regard to what is right and what is wrong -- and that in itself is an issue and colours any comments I may make. Yet I wonder who I want as a leader. Do I want someone who argues for a certain value system although never meets this standard or do I want someone who argues for a different standard? Is one who wold be in favour of prostitution and subsequently uses prostitutes be better than one who is against prostitution yet still uses prostitutes? Is Spitzer's crime that he prosecuted prostitution yet used them himself - thus the label of hypocrite? Is that better than one who openly argues the prostitution is okay and then uses them? What if the one who argues against prostitution says that he just can't control himself even though he knows that it is wrong? What if he says he was just arguing against prostitution because he wanted to win the election but really thought it was fine, and the proof is that he used it?

As I said above, I don't know what Eliot Spitzer is really like but I find that there are more questions that need to be asked -- about ourselves and what we need and should want in such circumstances.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 11 March 2008

Standards of Judgement

Originally published 3/11/08, 3:02 PM, Eastern Daylight Time. Link no longer works.
An incident occurred in the Greater Toronto Area whereby an Orthodox rabbi was criticized for not shaking hands with the female deputy mayor of one of the cities in the area. Fed by certain newspaper reports, this became a major issue until the two involved individuals wrote a joint letter of reconciliation. That, though, may have not been enough for some of those who used the incident as an opportunity to attack Orthodoxy.

There actually was much discussion that surrounded the issue. Some felt that the mistake occurred in the briefing process that should had preceded the event that caused the outcry. The deputy mayor should have been forewarned that the rabbi would not shake her hands and no offence would be intended. Was the problem in the rabbi's staff or the deputy mayor's staff for not properly briefing the deputy mayor on what would happen and the rabbi's departure from normal etiquette due for religious reasons? We do not know the answer to that question but clearly the lesson is an important one to learn. Many are respectful of those who follow different standards; they would just like to be aware of any changes so they are not left looking foolish. In observing Torah, we must be aware of our obligation in this regard.

Nevertheless, even proper briefing may not be enough and in such cases we must stand strong in defence of our Torah values. The incident, though, brought, a new type of attack. One columnist critiqued the rabbi is not really following Orthodox law but choosing not to shake hands for some other reason, some stringency that puts Orthodoxy even further beyond the pale. See, further,
While there may be lenient opinions in regard to this law, there are also opinions that forbid this practice and this rabbi should be entitled to follow that which he believes. How often do we see people attacking religious people, of all types, by stating that what they believe is not even what their religion believes? I find myself greatly insulted if I am told by someone that Judaism doesn't even believe in that which I may be saying (or doing) and quoting some Reform rabbi to that effect. My Judaism is not this Reform rabbi's Judaism and I should not be evaluated from that perspective. The same is true, ll'havdil, within Torah. Sometimes, one challenges me by quoting from another Orthodox rabbi. If this person is asking me a question in learning, wishing to know the point of disagreement, I am very considerate and welcome the opportunity to talk in learning. But if one wishes to challenge my Torah, use someone else's opinion as if it is the only view of Orthodoxy, I respond impatiently. Orthodoxy is not monolithic. Don't tell me what I believe!!!

I state this in regard to other religions as well. I find it most difficult when someone argues that Osama bin Laden is not a true Moslem because some other Moslem states that his position is contrary to the Koran. Who am I to say what a Moslem should believe? There are most likely Moslems that read the Koran one way and others who read it another. That is really not my issue. I may wish to know to whom I can relate and to whom I cannot, but it is not up to me to state what is the "true" belief of Islam. It doesn't really matter what I think the Koran is saying -- I don't really care what it is saying. What matters is what the other who believes in that book thinks that it is saying -- and my opinion on his understanding is not relevant to him/her.

If one wishes to argue with another over general philosophical or theological questions, I have no problems -- but know the limits. I think it is arrogance, though, to tell another what he/she really believes based upon your analysis of that person's religion.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 9 March 2008

Taking Things a Bit TOO Literally

Originally published 3/9/08, 9:55 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Someone was asked the following question by a bride.

"She intends to go to the kever of her grandfather to give him an invitation to her wedding. When should she do it?"

My response:

Preferably before he is niftar. After all is time travel any bigger a neis than a meis coming to a chausunah?
A certain member of the list found my response a bit too sarcastic, so I did a reality check with a VERY chashuvah Rav in Teaneck and he found it to be NOT sarcastic and actually a quite amusing answer! I guess some people realize that it is Adar and others do not! [Maybe meishnichnas Adar marbim besimcha is not enough to trigger a sense of humor...]

Any FWIW, if the Niftar DID attend the Wedding all the kohanim would have to leave! I figure pashut, if you get to the niftarim whilst they are still alive then the Kohanim may stay!

Kol Tuv / Best Regards,

Friday 7 March 2008

Was the Attack on Mercaz Harav Targeted?

Originally published 3/7/08, 12:07 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.
When I first heard of the terrible, tragic attack on Mercaz Harav, I was immediately concerned that it may have been more than a random terrorist attack. Others seem to share my concern. See, for example, and,8599,1720222,00.html?xid=feed-cnn-topics&iref=werecommend. If this is so. and this attack was a directed attack on the yeshiva, there is reason to be further distressed by this occurrence. Mercaz Harav is more than just another hesder yeshiva; it is the spiritual centre of the entire movement. As such, if this attack was directed than it was directed against the entire movement, a specific action directed against the national religious in Israel. And if the movement's spritual centre can be a target, are the terrorists also contemplating other spiritual entities of the movement, i.e. the hesder yeshivot? I hope and pray that this is not a new episode in the calamities that have fallen upon Israel whereby our mekamot of Torah, specifically the hesder yeshivot, lose any aspect of their effectiveness due to targeted terror.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 5 March 2008

Did The Great One Really Slaughter the Lesser one?

Originally published 3/5/08, 12:17 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Here is an allegorical explanation by the late Lubavicher Rebbe re: the Purim story wherein Rabba "slaughters" Rav Zeira.

Whether one subscribes to this particular allegory is not quite as important as the general idea that the story was probably never meant to be taken literally and there is SOME allegorical dynamic at its Aggadic Root


Saturday 1 March 2008

The American Jewish Divide

Originally published 3/1/08, 9:20 PM, Eastern Daylight Time.Link no longer works.
Recently Gary Rosenblatt wrote an editorial about the furtherance of disunity amongst the Jewish community in the United States. The article is available at:
He is clearly correct in asserting that the Jewish Divide, as he describes it, is growing. The problem, however, may be more than just a question of unity. In this respect, I wrote the following letter to The Jewish Week.

Dear Mr. Rosenblatt:

Your article on the American Jewish Divide intrigues me. The issue is, however, in my opinion more than just a question of unity but rather a much more fundamental question of definition. Beyond the question of 'who is a Jew?' -- which really deals with defining criteria for membership in "the group" -- we have to start dealing with the question of 'what is a Jew?' -- the very definition of "the group." The issue, phrased in a different way, is not simply how do we keep "the group" together but the need to define the very nature of "the group."

What I believe is occurring with the advent of a further divide is a development of different fundamental definitions of "the group." This has caused even greater problems as we seem to further ignore this very need to define who we are. In dialoguing with fellow Jews, we assume that we all share the same definitions and understandings when, in fact, we do not. Even in your article, you refer to "Jewish ethics" as if it were a monolithic standard that is basically shared by all Jews, i.e. members of the group (in fact, as you would seem to present it, a defining characteristic of "the group"). The fact is that, although references to Jewish texts may be used by each different perspective, there is no longer a monolithic vision of Jewish ethics. The question of unity cannot, thus, be dealt with by reference to a theoretical single yardstick of Jewish ethics but must move on to a further question: how do we unite different segments of "the group" with different understandings of the ethics that each one believes is actually fundamental to "the group"? If our ethics actually reflect that same spectrum that exists in the general world, how can we even refer to them as a unique aspect of Jewishness? This is precisely my point. The demand is for definitions and understandings, not simply a call for unity.

In this vein, may I direct you to an article I wrote that basically calls for people to investigate their definition of Jewishness, rather than ignore this need. From this perspective, I contend that the only path to dealing with this problem is through the insistence on adjectives in defining one's Jewish identity rather than their avoidance. While a reference to being 'Just Jewish" sounds as the short path to unity, it actually fosters disunity and further problems for it leads to obscurantism and the lack of a definition for Jewishness. The article is at:

Thank you.