Monday 29 June 2009

What is Evil?

The judge, in sentencing Bernie Madoff to 150 years in prison, called it "extraordinarily evil."

A friend, though, who I was talking with over the phone stated that you really can't call him evil. No doubt, the damage was catastrophic but was it "extraordinarily evil?"

Let's look at the total picture. He was doing this for over 30 years, through other recessions, and throughout this time, for years, he gave people "returns on their investments" that were extraordinary. This time, though, the recession was just too intense and so clearly unforeseen that he could not whether the storm caused by the great number of calls for the principle. Somehow, he must have just thought that he would never be caught and that the whole scheme would come crashing down. Wrong? No question. But is this extraordinarily evil? I would think that there are other crimes, perhaps not as extensive, that may "deserve" that label more.

Yet, he did destroy the lives of so many who, because of their age, cannot recover and are faced with spending their last years in misery. Individuals who worked hard so they would have some nest egg in their retirement -- and now are left with nothing. What about all the charities that lost so much and now are not able to meet the needs of their constituencies? Yet these same charities had extraordinary returns for years and were able to, thus, serve their constituencies better.

Evil. Is it measured by the harm it caused? Is it measured by some malicious intent and the extent of this extent? Or is it possibly to be just measured by the deviation from the truth? Regardless of anything else, Madoff misrepresented what he was doing. Maybe he thought, in some misguided way, that it would all work out in the end. Maybe the thought the that benefit he would bring to some people would cover the pain he would cause others. Maybe it just got out of hand and he did not know how to fix it. Applying all these various yardsticks will leave us eternally arguing about whether it was extraordinary evil. It would leave us arguing over the very nature of evil. In a certain way, though, it all comes down to emet, truth. The seal of God is emet. When you start to deviate from that simple standard, you really don't know where it will end up. And the result is Madoff. And regardless of the consequences, its all the same root of evil.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Thursday 25 June 2009

Defining a Halachic Issue

I just recently read Garry Rosenblatt's analysis of the tension that Rabbi Avi Weiss felt in creating the new position of Maharat, effectively a term for a woman rabbi without using the term rabbi. This review can be read at:
The sad truth is that, if Mr. Rosenblatt's analysis is correct, he misses the point and rather than showing the tension that should be experienced within a world of Orthodoxy that is confronting modernity is actually explaining why so many, in fact, are bothered by Rabbi Weiss' method of dealing with this issue.

The real question is: how is Orthodoxy suppose to respond to the challenge of modernity? The response of the extreme right wing is simply to ignore it. What they are saying is that the only source for values is the Torah, so what does it matter what another presentation of values is saying. Those who say, though, that the question is a real one are thus faced with this first issue -- why does it matter? This is exactly the point in contention.

To many, a confrontation between Halacha and modernity is ultimately personal. The person feels that there is value in Halacha and that there is also value in modernity. As such, there is a confrontation with a goal to try and satisfy both value desires. The objective is, thus, to find a way to meet the value of modenity within the halachic system -- and anyone able to find this path, this heter, is praised. The goal is the conclusion of satisfying both value desires.

This is exactly the problem. The halachic conclusion reached is thus perceived by others as simply serving the individuals wishing this answer. The conclusion is seen simply as a heter, couched in the unfortunate way that people often use this term to mean that its a way to have your cake and eat it too. This is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what a heter actually is and should be and, similarly, a gross misrepresentation of what the confrontation of modernityand Halacha is and should be.

The halachic system is a broad area of conflicting values that we are called upon, using certain methods of analysis and decision making, to stucture. What modenity does is present to us different ways of looking at and considering these values. Modernity should not be understood as a value system that confronts the halachic system but a presentation of ideas that uncovers new insights in the Halacha and causes us to highlight certain values that are already existent within the system. For example, when I think about the issue of women as halachic decision makers, I am drawn to the statement of the Minchat Chinuch that states that qualified women with a certain level of halachic knowledge must be considered in the evaluation of the numbers in making a decision based upon the majority. Modernity really doesn't introduce, to me, new values but causes me to be sensititve to values already existent within the Torah corpus. The result is, thus, not a confrontation between modernity and Torah but an issue within Torah with my goal to find what the Torah really wants. My goal is the emet, the truth. Modernity simply led me to highlight certain concepts within Torah and to undertake to look at Torah anew to see new structures within it -- something that has been done throughout the generations.

The goal is thus not to find a heter but to find the emet. As such, positions I may not like are not simply to be ignored because I have arguments to defend my view. I am not just looking for ways to okay what I want but to find the real Will of God, as I best understand it, which demands of me to consider that fact that, in His Revelation, God has presented conflicting values because that is the reality.

So if you want to promote women getting the title of rabbi, tell me the arguments why they should not. If your only perception of that argument is that it is an archaic result of the past that should be swept away with our new recognition from modernity of the value of women, you missed the point. If you know the real reasons and now -- through modernity highlighting Torah values that were perhaps, for various reasons, not highlighted in the past but nonetheless are still there -- wish to reconsider the whole matter in light of other Torah values that, perhaps, were not given the same consideration in the past (or did not have to be given the same consideration in the past), than that, I believe, is legitimate. But the goal is to find the emet haTorah, not the heter. And the goal is not the conclusion but the methodology. And when the goal is not exactly what you originally thought it should be -- but it changed because of reasons within Torah -- you are happy.

In the end, it would have been nice if the term Maharat was not simply a concession to concern for critique from the right wing while really wanting the title "rabbi." It would have been nice if the Torah arguments for why women should not be called "rabbi" were confronted, and giving women the title of Maharat was actually deemed to be what was really proper according to the emet haTorah. That, of course, would only happen if the goal is emet haTorah and not simply to find some way to have your cake and eat it too, have some way of still being able to call yourself Orthodox while really abiding to the value system of modernity.

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Sunday 14 June 2009


In a world that is constantly debating the merits and weaknesses of the "two state solution" to the problems of the Middle East, is it not strange that it seems to be forgotten that this solution was once on the table before, and those most in favour of this solution today violently rejected back then (1948)? Rabbi Hecht, in his latest article in the Jewish Tribune (Toronto) has a word to describe this: chutzpa.

To view this article on line, go to

Friday 12 June 2009

Reflections on Aveilus 3 - What is appropriate at the Shiva?

A Big Yasher Koach to Rabbi Laurence Rothwachs of Congregation Beth Aaron of Teaneck for allowing me to reprint this with his permission. This appeared as a reprint in the Beth Aaron Newsletter right around the time I myself was recently sitting shiva - RRW


The wise King Shlomo wrote: “[There is] a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Koheles 3:7). For most of us, learning to master the art of silence is no easy task. One can find numerous examples where our Rabbis have placed great value upon the acquired trait of silence, identifying it as a virtue worth aspiring towards.

If it is general truth that silence is virtuous, it is undoubtedly true in a house of mourning. Chazal teach that there is nothing of greater value in a house of mourning than silence (Brachos 6b). Thus, it is particularly disturbing that so many well-intentioned individuals fail to conduct themselves in accordance with this principle. I have decided to briefly outline the main guidelines regarding communication in a house of mourning. This is not intended to be a thorough analysis, nor will I attempt address the myriad of issues and complexities one may encounter in these situations. This brief set of guidelines is meant merely to lay out and concretize the ideal state of conduct in a house of mourning.

The halacha (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 376:1) prohibits a visitor from initiating any conversation with a mourner. This includes seemingly innocuous comments such as “how are you?” or “I am so sorry.” Rather, the visitor must wait for a cue from the mourner. Only then is he permitted to speak. Historically, it was not unusual to observe great Torah scholars (who in all likelihood possessed something substantive to say) enter a house of mourning, remain for a few minutes and leave without saying a word, other than the traditional recital of “ha-makom.” Such a visit should not be viewed as a failed attempt to console the mourner. Quite to the contrary, one’s mere presence and sincere expression of concern can be profoundly comforting (even to a total stranger!).

The following list of “Do’s” and “Do Not’s” is intended to serve as a short guide for one who seeks to comfort mourners in a proper and meaningful way. Not surprisingly, the Torah guidelines provide an excellent framework through which a mourner can experience grieving in a manner that is healthy and ultimately therapeutic.

  1. Do not try to distract the mourner from his/her mourning. Diverting the mourner’s attention is not the objective of a shiva visit and can often make the mourner uncomfortable.
  2. Do not tell jokes or make jestful comments in an effort to “cheer up” the mourner.
  3. Do not ask the mourner for details relating to the death. Despite our burning curiosities and, at times, confusion regarding conflicting accounts that we have heard, it is highly inappropriate to ask questions about the circumstances of death.
  4. Do not ask intrusive questions regarding personal issues and family matters, even as they relate to the deceased.
  5. Do not chastise or even mildly preach to a mourner who expresses anger at G-d or questions basics of belief. Do not offer explanations as to why (you believe) the deceased suffered in his life or why his suffering was purposeful. Similarly, one should never describe the timing, manner or circumstances surrounding the death as a “blessing.” These points, in particular, are the most difficult of all because, according to many, the visitors should ideally assist the mourners to be “matzdik es ha-din” (accept the decisions of G-d as just). More often than not, it would be best to save important thoughts and perspectives on suffering, theology, etc. for a more appropriate occasion, unless one is certain that the mourner will be comforted by his words. “When in doubt, do without.”
  6. Do not discourage a mourner from crying, no matter how excessive one may feel it is. Mourners (during shiva) should never be encouraged to suppress their grief.
  7. Do not tell a mourner that, with the passage of time, everything will return to normal.
  8. Do not say to the mourner “I know how you feel” (even if you feel you really do). At times, the mourner may suggest an association between his suffering and yours, but that should never come from the visitor.
  9. Do not carry on any side conversations with other visitors. Even the simple exchange of formal greetings with other visitors is inappropriate at a house of mourning (as well as a funeral). If others in the room are indulging in personal side-conversations, that does not warrant my participation.
  10. Do not stay longer than necessary. If there is not much conversation taking place, one needn’t remain in a house of mourning for more than a few minutes.
  11. Lastly, PLEASE do not enter a house of mourning with a cell phone that has an audible ring tone.

  1. Do LISTEN (without interruption) to whatever expressions of grief, concern, sorrow, anger, etc. are shared by the mourner.
  2. Do show concern for the mourner through facial expressions that reflect the concern and sadness that you feel. It is okay for a visitor to cry along with the mourner.
  3. Do allow the mourner to talk about the deceased. One may gently even initiate such conversation, but do not push too hard if the mourner does not respond to your initial cues.
  4. Do speak about the deceased’s goodness and fine character and the positive traits that he possessed. Do share personal anecdotes that reflect the above points.
  5. Do speak about how the deceased LIVED. All too often, a disproportionate amount of time is devoted to how the person died. Repeating these descriptions can be very taxing on the mourners. Naturally, a mourner will be more easily uplifted when the conversation deals with the deceased’s actions when he was alive and well.
  6. Do attempt to tactfully restore a conversation that has been sabotaged by another visitor who has tried to distract the mourner.
  7. Do remember that the purpose of a shiva visit is to comfort the mourner, not oneself. If one leaves a house of mourning saddened, that does not indicate a failed mission.

As I mentioned above, this brief set of guidelines is not meant to address every set of circumstances that may arise. I hope, however, that it does remind all of us that whereas it may be relatively easy to enter a house of mourning, properly fulfilling our mission is no easy task. May Hashem grant us the wisdom and strength to fulfill this great mitzvah in the most proper and effective manner.

Tuesday 9 June 2009

Reflections Upon "NISHMA" - The Intellectual and the Emotional

Our flagship name is Nishma. Now same attribute this to the penultimate verse in Qohelles:
"Sof Davar Hakkol NISHMA! In parshas Mishpattim we encounter the singular event when the Children of Israel declared their loyalty to the Torah by declaring in unison: "Na'aseh v'NISHMA" While in Several other passages in the Torah the term Na'aseh is used in isolation.

Commentaries into Parshanut have delved into the implications of the term "Nishma" and the Midrash takes note of the the sequentce - That Israel specifically preceded Na'aseh with Nishma

Avodah's esteemed moderator Micha Berger and I had an exchange of ideas regarding this concept, with particular attention paid to the Philosophy, Hashqafa, and Weltanschauung of Rabbiner Hirsch.

As I termed it Na'aseh is the performance of the a given Mitzva. This can be dry and rote especially in those societies that perform normative Halachah by peer pressure without any internal feeling. Adding the NISHMA dimension can transform performance into a religious experience. FWIW Reform tried to capture the experience and suspend the performance. This high-minded approach was just that, it produced Jews in the Mind only at best. However, given the mindless performance of Jewish practice by Observant Societies, this over-reaction was somewhat understandable. Hirsch actually tried to restore Observant Judaism to its Sinaitic roots by a synthesis of both aspects. The narrow question of how this NISHMA experience is to be defined was the subject of our debate.


(Re: Hirsch and "nishma"..) I also wonder how much the response is formal reflection in conscious thought as opposed to experiential.


Both. It is aisi both intellectual contemplation like a RYDS [Rav Yosef Dov Soloveichik] might do but also the touchy-feely kind that maybe someone like a R Shlomoh Carlebach might do.

Look how similar TIDE [Torah im Derech Eretz] and Slabodka are in terms of objective. The ideal Herr Rabbiner Doctor is cultured, refined, pays attention to his dress and the impression he creates. An emphasis on human dignity as part of Jewish expression. The Mensch-Israel. Ands what would I have to change of that to describe Slabodka's ideal alumnus? Less value assigned to cultural development -- although they valued personal creativity in poetry and music, secular education was relegated to satifying curiosity on the side. It was expected that you were well read; but nothing like a PhD.

There is a fundamental difference in how they define refinement. R' Hirsch speaks in terms of culture. Slabodka, unsurprisingly, in terms of middos. The overlap is large, but they are far from identical. I think that also underlies their difference in approach to taamei hamitzvos.

RSRH makes it about internalizing messages. And therefore when the message is unclear, he invokes symbology. Symbols do present messages in a manner where they can be better internalized. Thus the power of poetry over prose. (They also provide metaphor, and therefore can convey more than is explicitly stated. A symbol not only allows a message to go from mind to heart, it also allows the heart's message to be more fully grasped by the mind.)

Mussar looks to mitzvos to behaviorally change the person. Mitokh shelo lishmah ba lishmah via hergel. "Smile, and eventually you'll be happier." Therefore one needn't bring everything down to comprehensible terms. The human soul is understandably more complex than human understanding; the mind isn't big enough to contain itself.

This allows for an answer to the value of mitzvos even when you don't have the symbol key. ... I was thinking more of that dichotomy than RSCarlebach as a as a contrast.



Sunday 7 June 2009

Source Reconcilliation

Perhaps one of the more controversial aspects of Talmudic learning is the ubiquitous efforts made to harmonize statements that seem. to obviously in conflict. It is perhaps a source for some of the anti-Talmudic diatribe found amongst scoffers, anti-Semites, etc. So pray tell why does this persistent effort to make conflicting voices agree still prevail after several Milennia? While studying a daily dose of Shulchan Aruch I ran across this statement in ChoshenMishpat 30:2

"Anywhere that we can reconcile the words of the witnesses, that they do not contradict each other, we do such reconciliation"

Thus, if the Oral Law is a tradition passed down as a form of testimony from one generation to the next, then each teacher is in a sense a testifier. And if the multitude of testifiers are in apparent conflict, and if we assume that they are based upon a commonly observed phenomenon, then we are really compelled to treat the conflicting testimony as different viewpoints describing the same thing.

Illustration: if an old-timer says that Babe Ruth was great and another states that he was a glutton - wouldn't it be obvious that he was a GREAT Glutton? :-). All kidding aside we would not take the two statements as conflicting, only as supplemental in that describe different aspects of the same man, and within their respective contexts are each quite accurate!

Another illustration. The Misha in Pesachim discusses conflicting customs re: candles in the home on Yom Kippur: In some places it is required and in others it is forbidden. Yet the commentaries agree that the motivating concern is the same: the Prohibition of marital relations on YK. Only the method of manifesting this principle differs, the application can vary according to context.

Now indeed there are times when this principle of reconciliation is out-of-bounds. And any worthwhile idea may be overused at times. Nevertheless, the essential approach is sound: that we presume that

  1. The testifiers are likely to be honest
  2. That differences may be attributed to how something is described but the facts described are presumed to be identical.


Friday 5 June 2009

The "Assumption" Divide

Recently, I was drawn into a discussion, over at Garnel's blog (, specifically at the post on Goodness and Righteousness, that developed into a dialogue (or, rather, mutual soliloquies) on the issue of science and religion or rationalism and religion. The dialogue reminded me of a paper that a friend of mine, with a Ph. D. in Philosophy, once submitted a paper to Nishma for publication which we, unfortunately, did not get a chance to yet publish.

In it, he proceeds to describe the distinction in frame of reference between the Greek perspective on life and the Jewish one. What I found most significant in his presentation was his perception that never or rarely the two shall meet. What he argued was that someone with a Greek perspective just simply cannot accept answers or ideas that are based upon the acceptance of the Jewish perspective. And similarly, those with a Jewish perspective simply cannot accept a similar insistence on the Greek perspective. Perhaps, using the terminology of Rabbi Sholom Carmy, there is a secular bias and a religious bias -- and this bias should be recognized in any discussion that brings those with differing frames of reference together.

Let me give an example. One may look at something in the Torah and argue that this clearly proves the Torah's Divine origin. This argument is then presented to someone with a secular bias -- and it goes nowhere. What may ensue is a fight over the specific issue -- but that is not really the point in conflict. The one with the secular bias just simply cannot accept the conclusion of the one who maintains that this statement in the Torah proves the Torah's Divine origin because he inherently rejects that assumption. Any real discussion must therefore focus on the realm of the assumption and why one is insistent on it. That actually may yield an interesting dialogue and discussion.

This is similar in regard to someone arguing that something in the Torah proves that the Torah (chas v'sholom) is not of Divine origin. The argument is really not going to get anywhere because the one that this person may be trying to convince already accepts this position inherently and as an assumption. So the argument may surround this particular area of the text but that really doesn't accomplish anything. The real focus should be on the assumption -- not just why it is made but its repercussions. I, for example, recognize that in accepting the Divine origin of the Torah I am also accepting a presentation of a world with very different rules of nature that would seem to apply. Maybe this historical world had the same basic rules that we have today but clearly there was much more Divine intervention and open miracles. As such, the world, practically, functioned within a very different perspective. The result for me is that while I may not fully understand what a specific text may be saying as I don't really understand this perspective found in the ancient world, I also cannot deny that something unique may have happened. The point, as my friend put it, was that I accept a view of time and history that maintains that different epochs may have different basic rules. This is why I can believe there was a Sinaitic Revelation thousands of years ago while any open Revelation is not existent today. The secularist, though, accepts, as my friend put it, a democratic view of time and thus cannot accept that one period in history or time is fundamentally different in natural laws from another. With such and assumption. no arguments of Sinai effectively would work. You have to go back to the assumption.

I invite you to view the discussion over at Garnel's blog but I also invite you to comment on this, what I term, The "Assumption" Divide. Its not the arguments nor the conclusions that is at the essence of many debates but the assumptions that are not even articulated. Can you articulate yours?

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Wednesday 3 June 2009

Let's Face it -- We are different

Something just dawned on me. We always speak in awe and praise of the Jewish nation for having survived for close to 2000 years without a land. What other nation has even been able to survive outside their land for a minimal amount of time? But has it ever occurred to us that this very anomaly of our existence may also be the reason the other nations of the world cannot understand us? What kind of nation is it that can survive 2000 years without a land? To the nations of the world, this ability to survive without a land may only be seen as an indication of something quite abnormal about us. It may actually be the reason that the other nations just can't seem to understand us. We are different -- and this difference may be the seed of what is not liked about us.

Rabbi Ben Hecht