Wednesday 31 December 2008
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 http://www.nishma.org/. 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
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
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
To view the article on line, go to http://www.jewishtribune.ca/TribuneV2/content/view/1140/53/