Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Responsible P'sak

I read an article today that incensed me. I do not want to link to it, or even hint to it, but I am sure that many people have read it. I would like to respond to it, however, and so, I will give a general summary of the article, and then respond.

The article basically quotes a rabbi as issuing a ruling that is not found in the Shulchan Aruch. Basically, it is a situation where something that is permitted according to all Jewish halachik sources is turned into something that should not be done, and the reasoning is absurd. It is not supported by judicial sources, nor can it be. (I know this is not very specific, and I would love to be more explicit, but I do not want to hint to who said it, or what he said.) Now to my response:

When deciding halacha, especially for a public forum, one must be extremely careful in everything he says. In order to demonstrate that what one writes has authority, there should be quotes from earlier sources and explanations as to how the author reached his conclusions. In the absence of this type of transparency, the writer essentially expects people to accept what he says because he says it. This either will lead people to reject his words outright, or (just as dangerously) to follow what someone writes just because of the persona they radiate, instead of based on reason and understanding. In Judaism, we prefer reason and understanding to blind obedience.

Furthermore, when the descision contradicts clear halachik precedent, the author simply knocks another nail into the coffin or rabbinic reliability and authority.

Extra caution must be taken to assure oneself that the p'sak will not have unintended negative consequences. I am reminded of a true story told to us in our ordination classes by Rabbi Brownstein from M'chon Pu'ah. A rabbi once convinced a secular army wife in Israel to keep the laws of Niddah, family purity. The rabbi was quite impressed with how the husband handled it. One day, after complimenting the military-husband, the husband said to him, "Rabbi, it really does not bother me. When my wife says that she is forbidden to me, i just take care of myself with the girls on the base." Certainly, the woman was doing something good, and the husband was wrong. However, this story illustrates how careful a rabbi must be of unintended consequences. They must be assessed and addressed, even when all seems fine. How much more so does this apply when a rabbi decides to write a p'sak or article which encourages people to act as if something historically permitted is forbidden: there will be unintended consequences, and in this type of case, the rabbi cannot justify his decision in the face of these consequences.

When dealing with an issue, for example, like a new stringency in modest dress, tznius, there are many consequences. (This example of modest dress is simply used as an illustration of the problems that can come up when a rabbi is not extremely careful in the way he issues rulings.) Our present cultural milieu is one where it is common for women to dress in a less than halachikally mandated way. In the Talmud, a woman who did not follow the socio-religious mode of dress was considered a p'rutzah, a wanton woman. However, today, I would not be willing to apply that label, since a wanton woman is one who eschews the norms of social behavior. Although a woman who does not keep to the standards of tznius is not going against halacha, she would not, in our day and age, be considered a wanton woman (in my opinion).

In such a cultural situation, it is imperative that our halachik standards of tznius conform to the halachik requirements, and little more. If we try to set ever-higher standards that are not required by baseline halacha, we will end up pushing women away from keeping the baseline requirements. You simply cannot hoist such a g'zerah on the public, which they will not be able to keep. Also, a Jewish marriage, one of sanctity and reciprocal trust, must be able to keep both partners excited and satisfied with the most intimate parts of their relationship, and this is almost impossible if, in such a society, we put more and more new restrictions on what the standards of modesty are.

Telling the public to keep stringencies which are not halachikally mandated by solid precedent will simply push more and more women and men off the edge, and out of Torah observance, and destroy the shalom bayis the supremely important family-peace, that should rest upon a Jewish home.

(There is an important caveat to this: No way of life places such a primacy on individual study as does Judaism. It behooves individual Jews to learn as much as they can, so that they can judge for themselves, with guidance from someone they have reason to trust, what writings to seriously consider, and what writings to reject. We have access to any sources we need, and we should hold ourselves responsible. It is reasonable to expect us to be able to make judgements, and decide what rabbis we feel have proven themselves to be worthy of our reliance upon them.)

Only through transparency of halachik sources, a deep understanding of the public, and a thorough examination of potential unintended consequences, should a rabbi issue a public ruling. To be any less strict upon oneself would be to issue חומרות דאתי לידי קולות, to try to strengthen observance on one side, while accidentally creating larger problems on another side. Hand in hand goes a warning to individuals to research what they find to be problematic, and to choose halachik authorities with utmost care.

Friday, April 18, 2008

An Empty Chair for Justice

This year, at many Pesach sedarim, there will be empty chairs. The empty chairs represent people who we wish we had with us, but are not able to come. We remember Ron Arad. We remember Udi Goldwasser, Elad Regev, and Gilad Shalit. We are angered that our government does not force the issue diplomatically and militarily. And yet, we recognize a certain amount of impotence: without clear knowledge of where they are or how to retrieve them, there is not much the military can do, and we understand the need to be strong diplomatically, and not trade terrorists for POW's, as painful as that decision is. The chairs for these heroes represent the work of terrorist groups that the free world denounces, however weakly.

There is one empty chair which represents another Jewish captive. His name is Jonathan Pollard. This chair is unique, however, because it represents not only the absence of Jonathan, but also the absence of justice; more, the trampling of that justice under the oppressive boot of anti-Semitism. This chair sits bereft of both Pollard himself, and the fairness he deserves, not because some declared enemy of the Jews has kidnapped them together one night in a cowardly attack. No, no. This chair sits in tragic vacancy partly because of our own antipathy. It embodies a debt of justice that has not been paid by a country we consider good, and our friend. And we do not demonstrate the fortitude and determination to free either Jonathan or our beloved ideal of justice and righteousness.

For more than twenty years, Jonathan has been imprisoned for turning treaty-promised intelligence over to Israel from the US. He acted to correct an illegal policy that withheld information promised to Israel by agreement. And yet, when discovered, he was traitorously turned over by Israel to the US, where he was treated as a spy to an enemy country, and given a sentence that astounded the world. While four years is the average prison term given to a person convicted of charges similar to his, Pollard received a life sentence. A plea bargain was breached by the government, after it had been signed. The life sentence was imposed based on documentation of alleged crimes that were not part of the trial, and were not aired and challanged in court.

Jews in America have the power to speak out against this injustice, until "judgment runs down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream". We can do more for Pollard than we can for the other captives. Let us use our position as citizens of the United States to right a wrong: to bring Jonathan back to the Pesach table, and the light of justice into the gloom of his small cell in North Carolina. Let us all keep a chair empty for them. Let us act, relentless, until Jonathan can thank God, as we will tomorrow night, "who took us from bondage to freedom, from the depths of sadness to the height of happiness, from mourning to celebration, and let us sing before Him a new song, הללוי-ה!"

Thursday, April 17, 2008

A Matter of Faith

At Josh Waxman's blog, I found a quote from Shadal relevant to our previous discussion. A skeptic of the Zohar's authenticity is chided by Shadal:

"After the matter is so, behold I choose to believe in the sefer haZohar, such as is the consensus of the majority of the congregation of Israel, and all its Rabbis and its Sages, from the time of its revelation until today. Of their portion should be my portion, and of their lot should be my lot . And you, if you want to cast your lot together with those of little faith, cast it, and who is holding you back?

And while engaged in them, I hurried to enter my house, and I closed the door behind me, and I slept until the light of morning, and I arose in the morning and went to the house of prayer. And when I returned to go to my house, this man attached to me and greeted me.

I said to him: Are you the muddier, who comes to muddy my heart with your doubts? Go in peace, and what is between me and you?

And the man answered and said: I am astounded at your words, my master, and I have heard about you, saying that you are always the lover of truth, and in truth this is not the way of lovers of truth, to berate a person who says things of reason, before you hear his claims.

I answered him: You are not speaking correctly, for even if this is my approach in all matters of understanding, and all my days such was my trait to learn from every man, and to accept words of truth from he who said it, still in things which touch on the matter of the faith, there is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel opposite Hashem. {A quote from Mishlei 21:30.} And behold, you are to my eyes like an enticer, and the Torah says "you should not consent unto him nor hearken unto him."(See Devarim 13:9) Our Sages have already said not to respond to an Israelite apostateת and certainly one who is extremely skeptical {/irreverent}, and therefore my word is already spoken. My brother, do you wish אo go to the right or to the left? Believe or deny according to all that is good and right in your eyes, but me, why do you call to travel with you?"

Of course our faith should be founded on reason. However, "reasonable" is far more flexible a barometer than "empirically evident". Since the latter cannot be applied to matters of faith, our will ultimately shapes what we reasonably accept in our lives. Although the subject of faith being discussed is different, I have echoed Shadal's words here, where John Wisdom illustrates the situation where empiricism alone will not decide how we interpret the facts and events that we witness. I write:

"It comes down ultimately to will. I cannot 'prove' spiritual matters for proof does not operate in the realm of "why or what" but in the realm of "how" (the realm of science). Therefore ultimately one cannot solely use facts or data to decide whether or not to live a life believing in God. He must rely on his experience. If so, it all comes down to willing oneself to allow experience to help one see God and not brush those experiences off as chance or something irrelevant. This is the idea of "Free Will" in its muted yet most glorious lyric: truly giving Man the opportunity to will himself to do right."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

God, Torah and Morality

Over the past few days, I have taken part in a discussion about morality and the existence of God. I will recap the major points, and then present the question that my beloved (really) opponents do not seem able to answer.

1) I said that I (and some others) accept the Torah as the binding word of God. Therefore, telling me that a Muslim can make the same argument does not really resonate for me. X said, "When a Muslim says that something is the word of God you don't just accept that uncritically, right? I know it's a little over the top in this particular discussion but it's been famously said that religion can make good men do evil."

2) I responded: "The nature of faith is such that it cannot really be proven or disproven. It can be based on reason, and does not have to be (and should not be) irrational, but it is outside the realm of facts, science, and empirical evidence. I have discussed this in many places, including my blog. And so, if the totality of my experience on earth has lead me to believe that the Torah is the word of a God who exists and is involved in the life of mankind on earth, I will accept the words in it a proiri.

You are right, this can be done by any member of any religion. And the fact is, there is no way to definitively prove that they are wrong or that I am right. However, that does not stop me or them from taking the position in which we have faith -- ie, holding of our respective tenets.

That being said, you are right, the fact that a Muslim says something is the word of God does not make me accept it. However, that is not because I reject the dimension of faith, but because I reject his faith in preference to my own.

For someone who finds the concept of faith fundamentally inferior to sciences, this is hard to swallow. I personally see science and empiricism as wonderful tools in their sphere, and yet recognize that they are limited, and are not useful within matters of faith and spirit.

I hope this explains why the fact that Muslims and other religionists do things I do not support in the name of God, does not make me unable to follow my Torah, in the name of God.

I know it's a little over the top in this particular discussion but it's been famously said that religion can make good men do evil.

By what standard? I personally agree with you that the crusades were evil, but the religious leaders of the time held that it is good to rid the world of non-believers, if they choose not to convert.

The judgment call of "good" men doing "evil" implies a moral code that the actions are being measured against. Which moral code are we using? Is it modern secular humanism? Buddhism? Judaism? The fact is that every code of morals or ethics accepts that certain acts may be unsavory but are necessary for the greater good of the community, nation or world, even secular humanism.

So, I do not think that the aphorism you quoted really says much. "Evil" implies a moral code. If within that moral code, an action is required, it would cease to be evil in that code."

3) X took this to mean that I had no basis in rational thought, and that therefore I was no different than Hamas members who kill innocent civilians. After a lot of misunderstanding, Holy Hyrax asked X: "Don't you have faith in a God? Don't you have reasonable arguments behind that faith of yours, that other skeptics can start attempting to tear apart at? Don't you think that people also have reasonable arguments behind their faith in a religion?"

4) X responded: "No, I believe in God based on reasoned arguments which I have discussed at length elsewhere. I don't have faith in that regard. I do have faith in free will though. I do not believe people have reasonable arguments that successfully make a case for the claims of Orthodox Judaism." I then realized that X had misunderstood me, and assured him that my faith is certainly bolstered by plenty of circumstantial evidence, and pointed him to my writings where I discuss some of this, for example here and here. Obviously, my belief is that matters of faith can never be demonstrated empirically, but there are plenty of reasonable arguments to accept God and also the Torah. X conceded that I was now not morally bankrupt, because my faith (I call it so because I have no empirical evidence for it) rests on reason. However, based on his reasoning, X believes that I am wrong. This is fine, I respond, because it shows how reason is also relative -- as long as it is not drawing from empirical evidence.

5) X then moved on: "My question to you then is - are you so certain in your belief system that you would kill a man for lighting a match on the Sabbath (supposing you lived in a time and place where this could be a realistic scenario)?" To that, I responded, "In my belief system, a person who lights a match on sabbath does not get the death penalty. This is because the death penalty is only meted out when the perpetrator follows a formulaic response to warnings from witnesses. In essence, a person will only be killed for this if he wants to be. Look here" for some of the reasoning.

6) X pushed on, "Ok, even so. You would perform the execution of a man who "wants" to die?" Here is my response: "I don't understand your problem with the death penalty for sabbath observance. At the very least, it can be seen as a social contract, and the Jewish society accepts these strictures. If you want to be part of the society, you have to play by its rules, just like in the US. You can't sleep with your daughter in the US and say, hey, its my life. If a Jew decides he does not want to keep sabbath and actually feels the need to say verbally , "I know it is a sin that receives death, and even so I commit it," when warned by two witnesses before he does the action, then he should live in some other country among other people. The fact is that Jewish Law is extremely limited in how the formulaic death penalty is meted out, much more so than the US today, where "ignorance of the law is no excuse"."

7) Meanwhile, Y was trying to show that his secular humanistic view of morality is better than a God based one. I pointed out that if morality is just what reason dictates to be good and right, Hitler could conceivably claim that his actions were based on reason and therefore moral. Y wrote: " umm... could you make a listing of reasons from Hitler so I can prove them as unreasonable." Y claimed to be able to prove, even to Hitler, that his actions are not rational, and therefore, immoral.

8) I responded with this:
"Hitler's Reasons to Euthanize or Sterilize the Mentally Handicapped:

a) they take up valuable resources (food, water) without contributing to society.
b) caring for them takes away doctors and therapists from non-mentally handicapped people who need these resources to recover from illnesses and become productive members of society.
c) mentally handicapped people are awkward to have around.
d) they also suffer physically and emotionally more than normal people, and this can be alleviated by euthanasia.
e) They keep bad genes in the national or worldwide gene pool.

This is reasonable to Hitler, and to many others, even today. How is it irrational to you? And whatever you say, please show how this proves that it is irrational even to Hitler. Without that, all you will have shown is that reason is relative."

9) Y wrote: "If someone thinks something is within reason and in fact it is not this is called a delusion." I lost my patience a bit and wrote, "What the heck gives you the right to feel that you have the patent on reason! Your opinion demonstrates sublime faith in your own power of reason to the exclusion of other humans' abilities."

10) So, Y wrote: "I can't even prove to you that Hitler was not within reason. How could I possibly prove to Hitler, who is dead, and even in his life was a sick ****, that he was irrational and illogical? I lose HH and Mev, You are right." Is Y being facetious, or is he really conceding this important point?

11) HH wrote to Y: "You simply don't like what Hitler did. That in no way shows he was not a reasonable man." I wrote: "Calling someone as sick **** does not prove anything. I am interested in your logical response to the euthanasia and sterilization issue, Y."

12) Y: "I said "you are right" and you still hound me? I give up!" A bit later, he said: "I do believe in objective reason and morality. I can't prove it to you though so that means nothing to you unless you feel the same way." HH responded:
"If you think of reason as subjective then reason is not provable.
Now you're getting the hang of it.
I do believe in objective reason and morality. I can't prove it to you though so that means nothing to you unless you feel the same way.
An Orthodox Judaism can say that exact same line."

13) So far, the conversation stands with my last comment, directed to both X and Y:

"Ok, even so. You would perform the execution of a man who "wants" to die?

First of all, you seem to get the idea that reason as a basis for moral argument is subjective. Y kept saying over and over again that he can prove that it is immoral what Hitler did. When I challenged him with 5-6 rational reasons to sterilize or euthanize the mentally ill/handicapped, he gave up! He admitted that he can't prove that. It's all based on his reasoning (which I have yet to hear. Pray tell, Y, why is it immoral to euthanize a person who is a burden to society and himself and please, no more links. If you can't formulate a reason yourself, then concede. I don't send you off on chases to read some stuff from some internet site without explanation of what I hold.), and Hitler had darn good reasoning to euthanize.

The only way there can be true morality regarding this is if some higher Power says that it is wrong to euthanize them.

You ultimately admit that my faith in God and Torah can be (and is, I say) based on reason. Therefore, although you may like to say "but your reasons are wrong", you see how this is a subjective argument. I think your rejection of my reasons ignores mountains of good circumstantial evidence, and is dangerous. So two can play that game.

I think secular humanism sets up the position that humanity is the highest end of moral concern.

This is very nice, X. Do you think you can explain to me the problem with Hitler's reasoning then? Y could not. I repost it for your convenience:

Hitler's Reasons to Euthanize or Sterilize the Mentally Handicapped:

a) they take up valuable resources (food, water) without contributing to society.
b) caring for them takes away doctors and therapists from non-mentally handicapped people who need these resources to recover from illnesses and become productive members of society.
c) mentally handicapped people are awkward to have around.
d) they also suffer physically and emotionally more than normal people, and this can be alleviated by euthanasia.
e) They keep bad genes in the national or worldwide gene pool.
What is your reasonable response to this?"

And so, we await X's and Y's responses.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cool Web Site

To see a graphical representation of any website (including blogs), go here.

Here is mine:

Friday, April 04, 2008

Parenting: Modeling Desire

Being a parent, as evidenced by the Hebrew word for the term, הורה, is first and foremost to raise a child to its full potential through education. Although we may accomplish this goal through lecturing and discipline, the most effective way to impress our values on our children is through modeling. We act as models, as examples, living a life consistent with the ideals and principles we hold true. This is much more impressive and long-lasting than a stern reprimand.

Indeed, the philosopher, Rene Girard, has developed a system to explain how people develop needs that are on a higher level than the basic needs for food, shelter, and the like. He states in his book, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, that people borrow their desires from others. A subject's desire for an item is not directly from the subject to the object, but is triangulated by a model for that desire. In essence, we "need" something only after having, consciously or subconsciously, seen someone we wish to imitate "need" that object first. Girard calls this doctrine "mimetic desire", or imitative desire. This may seem simple, but what it says is that desire we have, bad or good, is first cultivated by witnessing some model, another subject, desire it.

Girard goes further, and explains that the desire for the object is really an attempt to be more like, or closer to, the model. We want an object because, deep down inside, we want to imitate the model. The need for material objects really resolves to a metaphysical desire to be more like an idealized model.

This is fascinating. It is easily applicable to individuals who constantly seem to need the next invention, the next item that can be bought. This obsessive need for newness, the thrill of owning the next object, is really a steroid shot of temporary emotional and psychological growth. We enjoy buying something new, because satisfying that desire brings us closer, at least on a superficial level, to our better selves. It is a short-lived substitute for the organic happiness of true emotional, psychological or intellectual growth that brings us closer to our image of perfection.

And yet, mimetic desire can find positive outlet, as well. Our sages teach us that when the Torah states, "והלכת בדרכיו", it means to try to be like God. "מה הוא רחום, אף אתה רחום", just as He is merciful, so shall you be merciful. This is the concept of imitatio Dei, imitating God. We bring our actions and traits into line with God's, and we find ourselves become closer to Him.

Our children look up to us as representatives of God. Indeed, part of the reason of the commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" is to teach children the concept of honoring God. Parents are a metaphor for the divine in a child's world. And so, when we imitate God, when we model for our children a selfless servant of God, our children learn from that what their aspirations should be for their personal relationships to Hashem and spirituality. Indeed, Rav Hirsch points out that the word for "son", is בן, which shares the root meaning "to build". Children are, for better or worse, built by their parents -- shaped by their parents' example. Our children absorb what we desire, what we aspire to, and make that into what they want. It is up to us as parents to make sure that the things our children soak up under our tutelage are things that are of value. We must teach our children by example that we are here to serve God, not our own desires. This is a lesson that the Chafetz Chaim felt had to be nurtured by parents even before their children are born. Regarding it, Rav Hirsch wrote (in his Collected Writings, Vol. vii) that the single most important thing a parent can do to assure the proper education of his child is to make sure that, to the best of their ability, the parents model perfection.

However, no man lives who does not sin. And so, in addition to modeling the best way to live, we must model to our children the appropriate way to make amends when we err. When a woman gives birth, she brings two offerings, an עולה and a חטאת. The burnt-offering is mentioned first, while in the Talmud (Arachin 21a), we learn that the sin-offering is brought first. Why this inconsistency?

Rabbi Menachem Sacks of Chicago, in his work, Menachem Tzion, suggests a resolution that seems correct in light of the above. He says that the burnt-offering, one that implies no sin, and is completely positive, represents our ideal lives. Ideally, we hope to live perfectly, and not sin. However, in reality, we know that we can never completely rid ourselves of mistakes. So, the Torah mentions the עולה first to remind us of our ideal, and provide us with a model towards which to strive. No matter how often we make mistakes in raising our children, we must remember the ideal and constantly strive to that first. On the other hand, by bringing the sin-offering first, we acknowledge our imperfections, and resolve include in our children's education the gamut of human reality, which includes sin and a process to achieve atonement and forgiveness. Thus, the offerings of the mother upon the birth of a child truly remind the parents of the awesome mimetic responsibility they bear, and the appropriate way to share the lessons of humanity with her offspring.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Imam Says Rape, Murder Non-Muslims

In a chilling video from London, a muslim cleric says that all non-Muslims automatically do not believe in God, and that their rape and murder is sanctioned by Islam.

No Muslim is to be condemned for any action, while all things non-Muslim must be hated.

But, as shul candyman says, we really should just make a salha (peace party) with them! That is really how we can turn this hatred around...

My goodness. How incredibly naive, eminently arrogant and patronizing, or willfully blind can he be?

The Arab problem with Israel is not some minor offense that we committed against their honor; it is that we stole (in their minds) their land!

Let us say that someone came into your house, and said, "This is now my house". After 50 years of legal battles, he approaches you and says, "come, let us make peace: here, you can have this bedroom, and half of that bathroom."

You would not say, "yes, peace is the answer". You would say, "the whole house is mine!"

In the same way, the Arabs won't relinquish their perceived right to the land because candyman has decided he would like to make peace. They will just use it as a staging area for their next attack.

The only real response is, "NO! the whole land is ours as an inheritance, from God!"

Parenthetically, as this video shows, it does not end with Israel. As Holy Hyrax correctly notes, dar al harb circumscribes the entire world, as well. Israel happens to be the canary in the coal mine for global jihad, and it will not spare you if you make Arab friends (as candyman suggests American Jews do). The people who hacked women and children to death in Hevron 1929 were neighbors and friends! They said "hello" every morning, they shopped together, visited, and yet, when the opportunity arose, they slaughtered.