Friday 28 November 2008
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
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…?
Okay. Good. Is the person likable?
If the person were not likable…?
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
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
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
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
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
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
From the archives of Nishma's Online Library at http://www.nishma.org/, 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 http://www.nishma.org/articles/insight/insight5761-07.htm
Tuesday 4 November 2008
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
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
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