Ends and Means

November 4, 2016 at 2:58 pm

trolley-dilemma-300x217There is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!

Election Frenzy

October 31, 2016 at 11:24 am

To the great surprise of no one, I expect to pull the lever (which is to say, press the electronic button) for Trump. I have a set of reasons for so doing: his support for Israel, his [or, more accurately, his advisors’] economic and foreign policies, and whether the Supreme Court will be populated by justices bent upon determining if legislation is Constitutional, or by justices bent upon changing the law to conform to their own opinions. [As we have seen, justices of the latter variety are far more dangerous to religious communities of all types.]

But what I’ve noticed is that no matter which candidate you support, someone is going to tell you that it is religiously untenable to do so, and that it completely contradicts any claim you might have to being a moral, much less religious, person. The conversation all-too-often turns to direct attacks… and not against the candidate or the candidate’s positions, but at the other party in the discussion. All of these are direct quotes from online comments:

If you support Trump, it’s a “shanda” because you are supporting a “neo-fascist,” a “Nazi” guilty of a host of crimes. You are “attacking Judaism” and, of course, “promoting anti-Semitism.” Orthodox supporters in particular must be racists motivated by “deep resentment… against black folks for their total lack of gratitude or even conscious recognition” of Jewish support for civil rights.

If you support Clinton, you are an “un-kosher Rabbi” who endorses “an anti-Israel Treif candidate for President… with the Chazzer Feesel Clinton.” If Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU supports Clinton, “can we now trust the OU on kashrus?”

If I seem to have more anti-Trump material, this is true. As Scott Adams of Dilbert fame points out, Clinton supporters are more likely to steal the sign off your lawn, deface your bumper sticker, or accuse you of racism and hate speech. They are more prone to use insults and labels on social media. [The anti-Clinton examples above come from a single individual.]

But my point is that it is equally inappropriate on any side, especially coming from a fellow Jew.

Is there an exemption from the obligation to be Dan L’Kaf Zechut, to judge every person favorably, because there’s an election campaign going on? If you are incapable of seeing why a rational, intelligent, religious individual might have completely rational reasons for supporting either candidate, the problem lies within you, not the target of your ire.

Certainly, there are serious issues involved. But in the end we know Lev Melachim B’Yad Hashem, that “The heart of a king is like a stream of water in the hand of Hashem, wherever He wishes, He will direct it.” [Proverbs 21:1]

Life and civilization will go on. Yes, elections address important issues, but a blatt Gemara (page of Talmud) addresses more important issues. And somehow we manage to fight over the latter while building friendship rather than enmity. It should be that way with every argument!

We’re All in This (World) Together

October 28, 2016 at 5:17 pm

With an insight that my friend Rabbi Leonard Oberstein called prescient, the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah quotes a Medrash:

Rebbe Yitzchok says: He did not need to begin the Torah [here,] but from ‘this month will be for you the first of months’ [Exodus 12:2], for that is the first Mitzvah that Israel is Commanded to follow. What is the reason to begin with ‘The beginning?’… That if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for conquering the land of the seven nations,’ they will say to them, ‘all the world is the property of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He Created it and Gave it in accordance with what is right in His eyes. By His Will He Gave it to them, and By His Will He Took it from them and Gave it to us. [Yal. Shim. Ex. 247]

globe-1674102_1920-300x255This Torah portion teaches many other lessons that are as relevant today as ever. The idea that we have a single Creator, Ruler of heaven and earth, is one example. Much as Kant and others attempted to prove otherwise, to truly live a moral life requires that we acknowledge a standard greater than our own, one that we must follow even when, frankly, we don’t want to. Monotheism enables and indeed requires that single, objective standard. Under polytheistic idolatry, the wishes of one “god” often contradict the desires of another; when we ourselves determine morality, our judgment is clouded by temptation and self-interest.

We also learn that we were created in the image of G-d. Every person has a spark of Divinity within him or her. Every life has infinite value, and thus the preservation of life becomes a critical responsibility of every person.

We learn the brotherhood of man. All of humanity are brothers, descended from a single father and mother. We cannot ignore “our brother’s blood.”

We even learn our responsibility as custodians of the earth, as Hashem gives to Adam and Chava rulership over all other creatures, bringing each one to Adam to name, and gives all growing things to them to eat.

It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism accuses Jews of opposing all of these values. Besides “stealing” the Jewish homeland, Jews are accused of killing non-Jews at will and destroying the earth, and considering non-Jews to be subhuman (there’s even a concocted quote from the Talmud to prove it)!

The lessons of Judaism serve as their own rebuke to these nonsensical canards. We are all one human race, like it or not, says the Torah. All that the Western world now calls “Judeo-Christian ethics” emerges from the Torah’s lessons, guiding us to perfect ourselves — to live as godly individuals. We await the day when “all who dwell on earth will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… As it says, ‘And Hashem will be King over all the land, on that day Hashem will be One, and his name One.'” [Zechariah 14:9]

As we begin to read the Torah for another year, let us remain mindful of its ability to transform and elevate us like nothing else!

Slave or Servant?

September 16, 2016 at 2:17 pm

butlerIn this week’s reading, we are reminded multiple times that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. First the Torah warns judges to be impartial, especially in handling cases involving orphans and converts, and to be merciful when it comes to debts of widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing” [Deut. 24:19] Then the Torah tells us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, olives or grapes, to leave these for the poor — again, especially converts, orphans and widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” [24:22].

The Torah also gives us, this week, two Commandments regarding non-Jewish slaves themselves: if such a person runs away from somewhere else to go live in the Land of Israel, he must be allowed to remain there. His master cannot extradite him; “He shall live among you, in the place of his choice within one of your gates, which he likes, and you shall not oppress him” [23:17].

The Torah reminds us that we were slaves, in order that we not consider ourselves “upper-class.” We are to go out of our way to treat widows, orphans, converts, and any poor person with generosity. After all, they are our peers, and they need our help.

But what about a person’s own slave? Why is there a law not to send him back home?

In reality, this is far from the only limitation upon treatment of slaves. A person may not command his slave to violate a Torah Commandment, meaning that both enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. And if one blinds the eye of his slave, knocks out a tooth or severs a finger, the slave goes free.

I had the good fortune to speak with R’ Irving Roth lay”t about this; he is a Holocaust survivor and Director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. He knows very well what it means to be treated as a slave — and these Commandments, he explains, prove that what we call slavery is forbidden in the Torah. The Hebrew word Eved is translated as slave in this context, but it is inaccurate — it derives from the word la’avod, to work, and in other contexts is translated as servant. We are all told to be an “Eved Hashem,” a Servant of G-d!

A slave is a piece of property; he has no individual human rights, and can be treated literally like an animal. The Torah tells us that to the contrary, every human being was created in G-d’s Image — and must be respected for that reason alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having or being a servant — honestly, having a job for life would be a relief for many of us! Yet the Torah forbids denying the humanity of any other person. We must treat every person with dignity and respect — for after all, we ourselves are descended from slaves.

The Judge in his Locker

September 9, 2016 at 2:29 pm

locker-820088_640In this week’s reading, we find two passages that do not seem to belong together. The Torah begins this week with a commandment to set up a justice system, with both courts and judges to make rulings, and police to enforce them. It speaks of the importance of true and fair judgment that shows favoritism to no one. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” [Deut. 16:20]. The Torah even follows this up by saying, “in order that you live and inherit the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you.”

Then the Torah goes off in what appears to be an entirely different direction: “you shall not plant an asheira tree” — which comprises prohibitions on planting a tree for idolatrous worship, as well as planting a tree in the Holy Temple. What is the connection between setting up a justice system, and prohibiting idolatry?

The Talmudic Sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish explains the juxtaposition [Sanhedrin 7b]: appointing a judge who is unfit for the position is like planting an idolatrous tree! To which Rav Ashi adds: if the unfit judge is appointed in place of a true scholar, then it is like planting such a tree in the Temple itself, next to the Altar.

Judaism does not permit a distinction between obligations to G-d and our obligations to each other — after all, they both come from the same Source. The Torah is telling us that corrupt judges strike at the very foundation of Judaism, just like idolatry.

There was a teacher who came to a Jewish school for boys after years in the public school system, who quickly learned what it means when children treat their interpersonal relationships like key religious obligations.

A student had performed well in her class, and she awarded him a prize: his very own can of soda. She gave it to him as they were leaving class, and she saw him go over to his locker to put it away to drink later. Seeing that his locker did not have a lock on it, she asked him if he would like her to keep the soda for the time being, so that no one else would take the soda from his locker.

This young boy, in either fourth or fifth grade, looked at her like she had suggested something crazy. “No one would take my soda,” he said. “That would be stealing!”

Those of us who attended those schools, and who send our children to those schools, may not recognize this as anything extraordinary. But to her, after decades of experience with children trying to educate themselves in “what they can get away with without getting caught,” this was a profound moment.

Throughout our lives, that sense of obligation must constantly be with us. Any type of injustice is certainly no less significant than anything we regard as a core Jewish ritual. This, too (and perhaps even more so), is part of what it means to follow the Torah.

True Vision

September 2, 2016 at 12:17 pm

space_eye-space_universe_photography_wallpaper_mediumThe reading this week begins, “See I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse” [Deut. 11:26]. This is said in the singular form, rather than plural, and the Ba’al HaTurim explains that this statement, “see,” was made to each and every individual. Each of us has the blessing and curse lying in front of us, the ability to choose between right and wrong.

This does not mean, however, that the correct choice is always obvious. The same reading also discusses the possibility of a false prophet, coming to guide us to idolatry, even proving to us that his false god has real power:

When there shall arise among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams, and he shall provide you with a sign or wonder; and this sign or wonder shall come to pass as he told you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods which you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you love Hashem your G-d with all your hearts and with all your souls.
— Deut 13:2-4

Throughout our lives, we are confronted with opportunities to choose the good — yet the good may not be immediately obvious. Sociologists talk about the “bandwagon effect,” in which even truly bad ideas are adopted at an increasing rate the more they are adopted by others.

A senior at Brown University wrote an article this week in which he advised incoming freshmen to “prepare yourself for insane anti-Semitism.” The movement to boycott Israel is a direct descendant of the Nazi boycott (via the Arab boycott, which predates 1948), it leads directly to anti-Semitic slurs and acts against individual students, yet it is adopted as a “moral” movement by people who have not bothered to look and discern the truth.

How often are we fooled, in our own lives, by things which appear moral or correct to others? Are we “going with the flow,” or are we looking at and evaluating the blessing and the curse?

This is the challenge of our reading, and it lies before each and every one of us.

Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day

August 12, 2016 at 10:57 am

If we think about it, it should amaze us that there are people who insist we must always remember the Holocaust — even for generations to come, long after the last survivors are lost to us — who are nowhere to be found on the Ninth of Av, when we remember the long history of hatred directed against the Jewish nation. How can we remember the Holocaust, while forgetting the tragic losses of earlier days?

Perhaps we need to give it a modern name: “Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day.” Because, of course, hatred for Jews, as Jews, is the source of all the tragedies found in our history.

Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin (called the Netzi”v from the acronym of his name) was the Dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin in the late 19th century, when “anti-Semitism” was a new German euphemism for an old hatred. He explains, using the story of Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan, that anti-Semitism is rooted in two basic ideas: jealousy of (perceived) wealth, with a suspicion of fraud and theft, together with antipathy towards Judaism itself. As we know, Lavan suspected Yaakov of stealing his idols. Although Yaakov was opposed to idolatry, Lavan believed that Yaakov stole them only in order to disgrace them, to tear down everything Lavan held holy. And why would Yaakov do such a thing, if not for his Judaism? [Our Sages teach that all our forefathers, being prophets, observed Judaism and Jewish ethics.] This is what angered Lavan.

When we look through Jewish history, these two themes play out repeatedly. The Jews are repeatedly (and falsely) accused of stealing land and property, which is why financial boycotts against Jews are among the most basic of anti-Semitic activities. And whether it is the accusation that “you killed our god” to Jews as killers of prophets, children, or people in general, the idea that Judaism encourages atrocities towards others is the other lie at the root of all the hatred.

In the end, we know that we are hated for the best of our values — today’s entire “Judeo-Christian” value system stems from our teachings. And that is what gives us courage. G-d told us that we would propagate His values in the world, that we would be hated for it, that we shall always survive, and that in the end we will dwell securely in our land and bring peace to earth. So as we move forward to mourn all the destruction in our history, we must remember the light at the end of the tunnel — brighter than any mankind has yet seen.