Ferguson in the Torah

by Yaakov Menken on August 29, 2014 at 1:15 pm

FergusonOver the past few weeks, those reading the news in the United States have been confronted with two entirely different accounts of events in Ferguson, Missouri. In the first version, an unarmed man with his hands up was shot by police. In the second, a large, domineering man physically struck a smaller police officer until the officer, in fear for his life, shot his attacker.

Two such narratives can only take hold in an environment in which authority is not trusted. And indeed, in some countries the legal authorities have little to do with any actual justice. The Torah tells us, in this week’s reading, both that laws must be enforced rather than simply existing in a book, and that the leaders of a city must be dedicated to the welfare of each individual.

Our reading begins: “Judges and officers you shall put in all your gates” [Deut. 16:18], referring to each city. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says that the officers are not mere bureaucrats, but must use “rods and straps” as necessary to force people to accept the judgment of the judges. This, of course, could be a recipe for tyranny.

The counterbalance is found at the end of our reading this week. There we learn that the elders of the city are obligated to look out for the welfare of every individual, even a visitor. When a person is found dead outside a city, its elders must come to the site and declare “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [him]” [21:7]. Rashi asks, “could we imagine that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [this means that] ‘we did not see him and let him leave without food and without escort.’”

Ferguson is the result of a breakdown in trust between the authorities and the people whom they are supposed to serve, a breakdown which is sadly replicated across the country. A veteran police officer (and Professor of Homeland Security) from Los Angeles touched off a firestorm of criticism when he dared to say that the middle of a violent riot is not the ideal time to confront a police officer, and that approaching an officer aggressively is a bad idea. Despite acknowledging that officers can engage in bullying and even criminal behavior — and saying that these should be challenged via appropriate channels — he was widely characterized as an advocate for dictatorship, a police state.

What his critics do not realize is that denying officers any authority “on site” is advocating for anarchy. Officers in Ferguson did not show up in armored vehicles because they wanted to play with their overgrown toys, but because stores were being looted, cars were being burned, and they were facing bottles, Molotov cocktails and even bullets. The public order is not preserved by letting every miscreant have his way.

There must be a balance. The leaders of a city must be interested in the public good, and every individual must respect the law, or expect to face “rods and straps” until he does. That is the lesson of our reading, and as current events demonstrate, it is every bit as apt today as it was when the Torah was given. Human nature has not changed.

We are fortunate today to live, for the most part, in countries where the leaders of each city and nation are elected, and can be voted out if they do not serve the public interest. In such a system, appropriate legal methods exist to challenge and correct abuses when they happen. It is the obligation of every individual to observe the law, use the law to challenge its abuses, and try to change it where necessary — not to “take matters into our own hands” or encourage the anarchists among us.

Much Ado About Something

by Yaakov Menken on August 28, 2014 at 10:52 am

I suppose I should have realized something extraordinary was afoot when a friend messaged me on Facebook to ask if I was “okay.” I wondered what he meant, until he said that he’d heard I was being “picked on.”

While it is true that my post reflecting on the entertainment industry, in the wake of Robin Williams’ death, did get a lot of attention — I can’t say I felt I was being “picked on.” The first two responses were from people whose voices I have long respected, and whose comments were very favorable. Admittedly, this did not describe the comments of many others, but, as I’ll explain in a moment, that didn’t change my perception at all. But now that my friend Rabbi Shmuel Simanowitz, whose legal career included representing many musicians, decided to praise my post at a kiddush (money quote: “I can’t tell you how many clients’ funerals I’ve attended”), and my friend and former colleague (and noted Jewish musician) Rabbi Avraham Rosenblum has defended my perspective as well (though no, Avraham, I may indeed be “square,” but not at all as argued) I suppose some follow-up commentary is in order.

I would like to begin with a meta-observation, not limited to this particular post. It is interesting to me that some of those most vociferous about not using stereotypes about any other ethnicity or group seem to have no problem with stereotyping Charedi Rabbis. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams. So the fact that one particular Charedi Rabbi might have grown up using expressions such as “nanu nanu” and “shazbat” with his friends, have studied probability theory, psychology and sociology (though, without apology, none of the requisite textbooks expressed the depth of understanding of human nature found in Sifrei Mussar or a Daf Gemarah), and count as immediate family a (medical) Doctor, a veteran educator with a Master’s in education and counseling, and the Director of an institute devoted to the study of human behavior… all of that makes no difference at all. Everyone knows that Charedi rabbis have no background in statistics, don’t understand mental health issues, and are generally parochial and backwards in their thinking, with no sympathy for a secular entertainer like Robin Williams.

In order to feel “picked on,” I’d need to have the impression that (a) the person understood what I wrote and (b) identified a major error in fact or perspective. So I’m not going to feel picked on even if the person who comments that “Robin Williams brought so much happiness to MILLIONS of people. He gave laughter to soldiers overseas and didn’t mind the danger he put himself in, he was selfless and kind” then concludes that “Just because he’s not Jewish doesn’t mean his life had no value except as a lesson in a Yeshiva where some Rabbi uses him” [as if I'd said otherwise] or that “[I] should be ashamed.” One thing’s for certain — nothing I wrote diminished Williams’ gifts or his generosity in the slightest, or cast his life as valueless. The first two sentences of this supposedly contrary comment express my own feelings about Williams quite well, and thus the last two are a reaction to the commenter’s prefabricated stereotypes rather than a response to anything I’d actually written. [Alternatively, as this was a comment to an article critical of my own, it's possible she simply never opened my article before opining about it.]

Before writing my essay, I made a comment about the link between entertainers and suicide on Twitter — and was immediately challenged whether they were indeed any more likely to grapple with mental health issues. Fair enough. Thus some research was added to my post, demonstrating that harmful behaviors such as addiction, overdosing and suicide are almost endemic to top-flight entertainers. As it turns out, Mork had commented about this himself, calling Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and others “victims of their own fame” (link below).

But once it was posted, someone attempted to belittle my perspective with what he imagined to be a more rigorous refutation, inadvertently proving that old adage about lies and statistics. The fact that the overall population of those working in arts, media and entertainment does not have a particularly high suicide rate is both true and entirely irrelevant to the topic of my post. Producers, cameramen and TV anchors are not unusually prone to suicide, at least to my knowledge — successful entertainers are a tiny fraction of all those employed in the industry. Prior to hearing Rabbi Simanowitz’s comment, someone shared with me that comedian Jim Horton wrote after William’s passing that “In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide.” To pretend this isn’t unusual — and troubling — is to stick one’s head, ostrich-like, deep in the sand.

It is similarly untrue that I am unfamiliar or unsympathetic with mental health issues. Though some decided that I was somehow claiming that no observant person could develop mental illness, or that such people don’t deserve both our sympathies and professional help, there is nothing unaware or unsympathetic about the observation that fame seems to exacerbate depression, which I submit is obviously true — and again, was recognized without controversy when expressed by Williams himself as Mork, and by his friend Jim Norton.

Then came the argument that “rabbis shouldn’t sermonize about celebrities.” And here, I think, lies the crux of the issue. Besides the fact that “sermonize” is a pejorative in its own right, the author attempted to lump together my comments about Williams, with whose talents I am more than casually acquainted, with an older Rabbi who had used Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as a “foil to teach Torah.”

Given that I know almost nothing of Eddie Vedder (beyond his anti-Israel rant during Operation Protective Edge), much less the Rabbi who spoke of him, I cannot comment upon that. But Judaism teaches us to try to learn from every situation and everything that happens, and the idea that celebrities should somehow be “given a pass” by rabbis (but not, of course, by People Magazine or the National Inquirer) is rather silly. And from whence does this critic get the idea that I commented upon Williams doing “something not in accordance with the morals of the Torah?” Well, yes, intentional suicide is against Halacha, but the writer is hallucinating if he imagines that I thought Williams committed suicide “being of sound mind and body.” On the contrary, my only remarks about Williams himself were complimentary and understanding. He was brilliant, charitable and humanitarian, and deeply troubled.

But Rabbis, you see, can’t say something that is critical of celebrities, the subjects of modern adulation. How dare the Rabbi present Torah as something deeper, more meaningful, and vastly more fulfilling?! The critique only seems ludicrous because it is.

He then compounds his error by ridiculing the idea that anyone could claim to find happiness via entertainment. At least he temporizes by limiting “anyone” to those over 25, but I suggest that he sit in the Yankees’ section in full Orioles’ regalia for an object lesson in [much older] peoples’ allegiance to a bunch of guys hitting balls with sticks for their enjoyment.

There is another way to read my essay, of course. It could have been written by someone who felt personally touched by Williams, and who was pondering the loss of someone who easily crossed from humor to reflection — someone who could easily have been seen as having once read (and according to all reports, have helped written) his own epitaph. And when addressed that way, the post was neither irrational nor a knee-jerk condemnation, but a sincere expression of regret that fame, especially in the world of entertainment, can be as deadly as Mork once said — precisely because entertainment is supposed to help us be “happier,” yet is making its leading practitioners, those who gave us so much humor and simple fun, so miserable.

But considering the post in that light, you see, would have broken all those stereotypes.

You Gotta Have Faith

by Yaakov Menken on August 15, 2014 at 11:05 am

thank_you_inscription_04_hd_pictures_170884Have you ever had something bad happen, and said a quick (or not so quick) prayer?

The truth is, it’s really not supposed to be that way. [It's not? What do you mean by that?] Let me explain:

The Torah tells us that G-d wants to bless us. G-d wants to give us everything, as our kind and beneficent Father. And most of all, He wants us to come close to Him, rise spiritually, become more “godly” throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, due to our own failings, these often don’t travel together: if our lives are blessed with material success, we are not as focused upon G-d! This is what Moshe warns us about in this week’s reading: “Guard yourselves, that you don’t forget Hashem your G-d, to not observe His commandments and judgments and laws which I have commanded you today; that you don’t eat and drink, and build good houses and dwell in them… And you will say in your heart, my might and the strength of my hand have made for me all of this wealth” [Deuteronomy 8:11-12, 17].

When that happens, when we forget G-d after receiving His blessing — well, that’s when He needs to remind us Who is really in charge. But we shouldn’t need something bad to happen before we turn to Him. Our goal should be to recognize His kindness when we receive blessing — so that we don’t need less pleasant reminders to turn to Him at every moment.

Death of an Icon

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 5:28 pm

I grew up watching Mork. I’ve seen Aladdin. I even, during college, watched him perform live. But I never knew Robin Williams.

He was the consummate entertainer. He just knew how to make us laugh. His improvisation, his off-the-cuff remarks, were brilliantly funny. But we never understood who he really was.

And that was, perhaps, the problem, that which made him so depressed as to bring him to a tragic end.

With his passing, journalists and commentators are talking about mental illness and depression, recognizing the challenges he faced. [UPDATE: And let me make it clear that I am not commenting about most cases, or even necessarily his case, of mental illness or depression. A person with either must seek professional treatment and it is a Mitzvah to do so.]

But I don’t believe that Williams simply had a mental illness. Few are discussing how common depression seems to be among the leading entertainers — or why this is so. While I could of course be wrong in this one case, it is hard to imagine that so many entertainers, upon finding success, coincidentally develop depression.

Someone challenged me, asking whether it is true that so many entertainers are depressed, so I did a little research. I looked up Rolling Stone’s list of the top 500 albums, and found that nine of the top ten artists (those with the most albums on the list) had a drug problem (Bruce Springsteen being the exception). So did all five of IMDb’s top five actors (that’s where I stopped looking, though #6, Dustin Hoffman, did as well). Sports figures, of course, must stay in shape, but even there you find one drug scandal after the next. And what are drugs? Escape from the plain, real, often-depressing world.

[UPDATE: Someone sent me the link to comedian Jim Horton's article about Williams. In it he writes: "So many comics I know seem to struggle with the demons of self-hatred and self-destruction... In the 25 years I’ve been doing stand-up, I’ve personally known at least eight comedians who committed suicide."]

I’m not aware of any other industry whose top practitioners are so likely to have trouble with drugs, alcohol, broken marriages, other self-destructive behaviors, and of course suicide… as entertainment. Not politicians, not the military, not any other profession or (legal) blue-collar field. In order to find a similar level of prevalence, one must look at drug dealers or prostitutes.

Isn’t something wrong with this picture? The entertainment industry is supposed to be about making us happy; entertainers are sharing happiness with us. Yet behind the scenes, they seem to need to escape. Either temporarily by getting drunk or high, or all too often permanently, whether via overdose or deliberate action.

The answer, I believe, is that what I said above is not really true. Entertainers are not sharing happiness, they are acting. Comedians practice their art and make people laugh… and then go home, where life isn’t funny. They aren’t creating something real, or (usually) making a lasting difference in someone’s life, so the feelings of accomplishment are similarly transient. Thus the need to escape.

True happiness is not found via entertainment. Happiness is tied to attainment, to achievement, especially to attaining completion as a person. The Vilna Gaon says on Megillas Esther (8:16) that in this world, Simcha, happiness, precedes Sasson, joy. “Happiness is moving forward to reach an objective in happiness, and joy is afterwards, when one has already achieved the objective and feels joy in his heart.”

Happiness is not a casual thing, it doesn’t just happen, it is something that one can pursue and develop. This is why Chazal say “it is a great Mitzvah to always be happy” — it’s something we can cultivate.

This statement also teaches us that happiness is not a state of laughing delight. Rav Alexander Mandelbaum, in his “V’hayisa Ach Samayach” (“and you shall only be happy”), speaks about two types of happiness considered by Chazal — happiness with one’s lot, and happiness in performance of Mitzvos. Happiness with one’s lot is developed by considering that G-d gives each individual precisely what that person needs — so he or she, even in a difficult situation, should be happy with the understanding that HaShem saw that the difficult situation would prove to be of ultimate benefit. That sort of happiness doesn’t “just happen.”

One does not always feel Sasson, joy. But it is a Mitzvah to always be happy — even on Tisha B’Av, even during Shivah. How can this be? We can comprehend this by understanding Simchah as a feeling of moving happily in the right direction, pursuing a goal. That is something that can remain with a person even during times of grief and pain.

That is real happiness. Unfortunately, the purveyors of what the modern world calls “happiness” — the entertainers — realize within themselves, either consciously or subconsciously, that they have not found and are not providing true happiness.

What makes this especially sad is that now that he is gone, the stories are emerging of Robin Williams, the humanitarian, who visited hospitals on Dec. 25 to give presents to all the children. When he met the doctors and nurses who had spent their holiday stabilizing a premature baby, he teared up — recognizing people whose efforts were real and transformative. Perhaps he didn’t realize that yes, you can make others happy, you can give people something lasting, just with a smile — and even a joke or two, which Robin Williams had in abundance.

Yes, it’s sad that he went, and it’s sad that he was so sad — he could have been so happy.

Two Tweets about Israel and Gaza

by Yaakov Menken on August 12, 2014 at 11:45 am

These are two of my more popular (commonly “retweeted”) entries about current events.

Just your everyday Kiddush HaShem

by Yaakov Menken on August 8, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Last night my wife and I celebrated our anniversary in typically Jewish fashion: we went out for Chinese food. Initially we both ordered a dinner special, but in the waitress’ presence my wife changed her order to a slightly more expensive option. [For the locals, David Chu's crispy chicken Szechuan style is outstanding, and well worth the extra $1.40.]

This is relevant because when we got our bill, I could see a mistake without reading Chinese: the amounts for both orders were equal. We had been billed for two dinner specials. So when the waitress came back, I asked her to please make the correction.

Did we have to do that? No. Because it’s not standard practice among the nations of the world to voluntarily correct an error in their favor, we are not obligated to do more. But that is really the nature of Kiddush HaShem — sanctification of G-d’s Name — doing something that everyone recognizes is “the right thing to do,” whether or not everyone does it. Not everyone gets to be Rabbi Noah Muroff of Connecticut, who became an international news item by returning $98,000 discovered in a desk he had purchased. But we should do it nonetheless.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe tells the people: “behold I have taught you decrees and laws, as Hashem my G-d has Commanded me, to do them in the middle of the land, which you are going there to inherit. And you shall guard them and do them, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, which will hear all of these decrees and say, ‘just a wise and understanding people, this great nation’” [Deuteronomy 4:5-6].

Today, it may seem obvious that telling the waitress about the error is “the right thing to do.” But the story is told of a young Jewish man who, unaware of the richness of his own heritage, went to Eastern nations searching for spirituality. He was walking together with his teacher when the latter picked up a wallet he found on the ground, and pocketed it without investigation. The student asked if he wasn’t going to try to see who had lost it, and he responded that this was unnecessary, that it was destined that the wallet be his good fortune. This was enough for a young Jew to realize that something was amiss.

Yes, in our countries it’s different. Everyone recognizes that a spiritual leader, of whatever kind, ought to be returning that wallet. But where do you think they learned this wisdom? Is there something like that in Aesop’s Fables? I don’t think the sort of people who threw prisoners to the lions for entertainment would give someone back his dropped handkerchief before throwing him in!

The paradox of today’s Western world is that it bases its moral values upon the same “wise and understanding people” that it so often despises, persecutes, and accuses of imagined violations of those same morals. A recent example would be the UN Human Rights Council (populated by the representatives of such bastions of human rights and dignity as Syria, China and Venezuela) accusing the IDF of “indiscriminate” shelling that, just coincidentally, was 3.5 times more likely to hit a male than a female.

The best way to respond to that is through personal example. It is said that when Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was a young Rav in Tzitavyan, Lithuania, someone came to him because the post office had made an error in his favor during a transaction. Rav Kaminetsky told the person to go back to the post office and repay the amount of the error. This happened several more times; it turned out that the Postmaster was surprised enough the first time that he deliberately tested other members of the Jewish community to see what would happen. Although the Rav left for America in 1937, the community he guided had sufficiently impressed that Postmaster that he personally helped save many Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Simply do the right thing, whether or not you have to do it and whether or not others actually do — and not only will you be doing the right thing, but others will notice, as well.

Stopping Baseless Hatred

by Yaakov Menken on July 25, 2014 at 5:49 pm

We are about to enter the period of time called the Nine Days, the beginning of the month of Av. The Ninth of Av is the tragic day when Israel mourned needlessly after the the evil report of the spies [Num. 14:1 ff.]. G-d said that because we mourned for no reason, that day would become a day of mourning. And so it has been, as by the time of the Mishnah it was the anniversary of five tragedies:

  1. Our anscestors were told that due to their needless mourning, they would remain in the desert for forty years and enter Israel only after all the adults of the time had perished;
  2. The destruction of the First Temple;
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple;
  4. The city of Betar was overcome, and all of its inhabitants, tens of thousands of people, were killed;
  5. The site of the Holy Temple was plowed through, making it totally barren.

Since then, many other catastrophies have been associated with the Ninth of Av: Pope Urban II declared the first Crusade to Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Rhineland and France and the loss of many thousands of lives; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain (on or around the ninth); Germany entered World War I, which resulted in 120,000 Jewish casualties and set the events leading to the Holocaust in motion; Heinrich Himmler secured Nazi approval of the “Final Solution;” and the deportation of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Even more recently, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the tenth of Av (the Temple continued to burn into the tenth, and thus it is connected to the mourning as well). And less than ten years ago, the tenth of Av began the infamous “Disengagement” from Gaza, which led directly to Gaza becoming the largest terrorist base in the modern world and to what is arguably the longest ongoing war crime in modern history, the firing of over 12,000 missiles aimed at civilians.

1370626668What can we do? We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to needless hatred between Jews. This is a time to focus our energies on increasing brotherhood and love between members of the Jewish people, especially keeping in mind the situation facing those of us who live in the Holy Land today.

Dr. Rene Levy, a neuropharmacologist in Seattle, recently sent me a copy of his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do about It.” It could not be presented to you at a more appropriate time. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of needless hatred, with suggestions for prevention and repair.

The book looks at hatred as a topic of intellectual study, increasing our awareness of the issue and, at the end, inspiring us to do better. It looks at the understanding of hatred by psychologists, neurobiologists, and of course our Sages. An entire section is devoted to Israel and the Jews, referring to the hatred of the State of Israel and the “new anti-Semitism” (it is worth noting in this context that Dr. Levy grew up in France, and received his BS in Pharmacy from the University of Paris before moving to the United States to study for his PhD). It received favorable reviews from not only Harav Shlomo Maimon, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Seattle, but a series of professors, Israeli politicians, columnists and others. In the truest spirit of brotherhood, there is something in this book for every reader, to be both informed and inspired. You are invited to read more about the book (and learn where to buy it) on its website.

For a more traditional, “mussar” (ethical) approach to increasing love and harmony, one can turn to books such as “Ahavas Chesed” (lit. the love of kindness) by the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan) among others. May our study of love over hate turn to practice, and bring us to the time when, we are promised, the Ninth of Av will be known as a day of joy, rather than tragedy.