Torah Alone does not a Mench Make –By Rabbi Hyim Shafner

August 7, 2009

A congregant of mine was confounded by the reports of Rabbis who were arrested for illegally trafficking in human organs. One person in the group said that some might justify their acts claiming the money would be used for yeshivahs and other important Jewish organizations. They turned to me and demanded to know if there really is a way to justify such things through the Torah?

I answered that Judaism, whether the Torah or the Talmud, contains many diverse ideas, not just one opinion and not just one way of thinking about God or the world.  For instance, regarding the question of how we should view non-Jews and how we should act toward them we could look at Abraham. Abraham left a conversation with God, the Torah tells us, in order to run out into the desert and welcome three nomads who were not Jews. Abraham was the first Jew and these nomads, as far as Abraham knew, were idol worshipers. This would be one way to answer the question of what our attitude could be toward non-Jews. On the other hand, one might look at the book of Deuteronomy in which Moshe commands the Jewish people to destroy those who are idol worshipers.  (No doubt the two cases can be seen in different lights and many lomdishe hairs be split, never the less it is the divergence in general attitude expressed by both sides that I am calling attention to.)

Another example of the variety of theological stances within Judaism is with regard to the question of asceticism. A statement in the Talmud tells us one will have to give an account for every pleasure they did not take advantage of in this world (Tal. Jer. 4:12). Additionally there is an opinion that the Nazir (Nazerite) brings a sin offering at the end of his Nazarism to atone for the sin of forbidding upon himself that which the Torah permits.  On the other hand there is a second opinion in the Talmud that the sin offering of the Nazir is due to his leaving behind a higher ascetic state.  The rabbis tell us, “Sanctify (separate) yourself even from that which is permitted.”  In Jewish history there were of course whose central practice was extreme asceticism such as Chasidey Ashkenaz in the 12th century.  Which direction should we take?

Direction can not come only from reading the Torah or even the oral tradition, these are varied and can be used to rationalize anything, including selling human organs for gain.  In the end Torah, written or oral, (at least in their written forms), are not enough to guarantee that we will live a life that is right and good in the eyes of God or others, -our own moral worldview and personal theology must be brought to bear upon Torah as a meta guide.  And this too must be part of the Torah and mesorah (oral tradition).  What we quote from the Torah will be filtered based on who we are and what our world vision is, so we must thoughtfully cultivate a correct worldview.   In Judaism today there are many world views: Zionist/non-Zionist, Torah u’Madah/Torah Im Derech Eretz, Open Orthodoxy/Insular Orthodoxy, etc., etc.

Morethodoxy does not claim to change anything in Torah (God forbid), rather to help present a set of glasses through which to see the Torah, a guide for balancing the varied approaches which are within the Torah.  It is a path accentuating an attitude of rachum v’chanun, first and foremost merciful and loving.  When faced with two approaches within Judaism it is a guide and path for choosing the approach that is, (within halacha), more inclusive not less.  It is not, God forbid, a path of molding the Torah to our selfish desires or to the vagaries of modern life and low brow chapters of western culture, but of opening our eyes and souls to the Torah in ways that Torah alone may not allow us to see.

The Ramba”n said it long ago (v’etchanan and k’doshim) . It is not enough to keep the Torah. If one only keeps the law one may still be a disgusting person.  Jewish law demands that we go beyond the law to do what is right good at the eyes of God and people.  Ours is a religion that is quite legally based yet if one were to just keep the law that would not be enough in our relationship with others or in our relationship with God. V’asita Ha’yashar V’hatov –“Do what is right and good”- go beyond the letter of the law with regard to how you treat others and Kidoshim Tihiyu, -“You shall be holy”-sanctify yourself beyond the letter of the law in your relationship to God.

The Torah alone does not a Mench make. It requires also spectacles through which to see the Torah, ones ground from the glass of things like moral training, philosophy and musar, learning the great ideas of other religions and moral and philosophical systems, chassidut and kabbalah, reading the great secular books, seeing the great works of art, appreciating the natural world God has made and its aesthetic and scientific beauty, exploring the important human ideas and insights -within humans in general and within ourselves in particular (usually through psychotherapy)- so that we can move beyond their own needs and see those of others more clearly.

In the end if our glasses through which to see the Torah and the world are placed correctly and our filters though which to sift the torah and our experiences are honed well we will achieve the goal of being Jews, to be merciful and gracious in imitation of the Divine One and to be a “light unto the nations”; we will not be selling illegal goods to further spiritual life.


Gentiles and Kiddush Hashem – Rabbi Barry Gelman

July 28, 2009

I have spent the last week in Camp Moshava in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Being here has been a real treat. Camp Moshava is a living breathing “kiddush Hashem”. One of the many outstanding aspects of my experience thus far has been the wide variety of orthodox Jews that work here.

I mention Kiddush Hashem because, except for my experience here this week, my thoughts have been on the tremendous chillul Hashem created by the Rabbis arrested last week for offenses ranging form money laundering to human organ trafficking.

I have no doubt that the actions that these rabbis have been accused of have done enormous damage to the perception of Torah. I am deeply concerned that these actions will create doubt and cynicism in the hearts and minds of young people towards religious leadership. One way to combat these outcomes is for the Modern Orthodox community to clearly state that these actions were wrong and that the greed that led to them is not in keeping with a spiritually sensitive Judaism.

Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein coined the term “glatt kosher hedonism” to refer to the belief (desire) that observant Jews can have it all. Our communities, the Modern Orthodox, pride ourselves on appreciating what is good, wholesome and spiritually fortifying in general culture. In doing so, we run the risk of letting our guard down in the pursuit of having it all. So as not to allow this tragedy to go without any positive outcome, our communities need reiterate the importance of Zniut – modesty in the way we live.

 

I will conclude with two brief notes that were emailed to me recently in reaction to the scandal.

 

Rabbi Riskin mentioned a number of times that when he still lived in New York and was starting his own yeshiva high school (“Mesivta Ohr Torah” in Riverdale), he interviewed 17 candidates for the job of Rosh Yeshiva.   After ascertaining all knew how to learn, he asked them, “Suppose you ordered by mail an electric shaver from Alexander’s Department Store.   And instead of one shaver being delivered, 3 shavers were delivered.   What would you do with the other two?”   Rabbi Riskin reported that sixteen of the seventeen insisted that they keep the other two shavers because stealing for a gentile is permitted.

 

The last applicant (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Sosefsky who is now the Rosh Hayeshivah of Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim) insisted on returning the shaver quoting Bava Metzia Perek 2 Yerushalmi: Rabbi Shimon Ben-Shetach bought a donkey from an arab. When RSBS was removed from the seller, he noticed there was something in the saddle: a valuable diamond whose sale would have put RSBS on easy street for the rest of his life.  But RSBS insisted on returning the diamond to the arab as it would be better for the gentile to bless the G-d of Shimon Ben-Shetach than for Shimon Ben-Shetach to obtain any financial benefit such as this.

 The following, written by Rabbi Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, authoer of the Sefer MItzvot Gadol on positive Mitzvah # 74 is very timely.

And I have already expounded to Galus Yerushalayim in Spain (Sefarad) and the other Galuyos under Christianity (Edom), that now that the Galus has lasted too long a Jew must separate himself from the frivolities (Hevlei) of the world and grasp the seal of Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu, which is Truth, and not lie, neither to Jews nor to non-Jews, nor to deceive them in any matter, and to sanctify ourselves even in that which is permissible to us, as it says

(Tzefani’a 3:13): “The remnant of Israel will not commit foul deeds nor speak falsehoods, nor will there be found in their mouths treacherous tongues.” And then, when Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu comes to redeem us the non-Jews will say that He is just in doing so, for we are men of truth and Toras Emes is in our mouths.

But if we conduct ourselves towards the non-Jews with deceit (Rama’us), then they will say: “See what Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu has done, that He has chosen as His portion thieves and cheats.”

Furthermore, it is written (Hoshe’a 2:25): “And I will plant them in the earth.” Why does a person plant a measure of grain in the earth? In order to cultivate several measures. So too Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu planted Yisroel in the various lands so that converts would join us. As long as we conduct ourselves amongst them with deceit who will cling to us? And, we find that

Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu was upset even by theft from evildoers, as it says(Bereishis 6:11): ” And the land was filled with theft (Chamas).”

Further, I bring proof from the Yerushalmi Chapter Eilu Metzi’os (Halocho 5), where it says: “The elder rabbis (Rabbanan Savi’ai) bought a measure of grain from non-Jews and found within it a bundle of money. They returned it to them, and the non-Jews said: ‘Blessed is the G-d of the Jews.'” Many similar stories of lost items that were returned to non-Jews because of Kiddush Hashem are related there.


Mergers. Are They Good For The Jews? – Rabbi Barry Gelman

June 23, 2009

Recently there have been reports of Conservative and Reform synagogues merging in order to deal with the difficult economic situation in America.  

In towns where the Jewish population cannot sustain both a conservative and reform congregation these mergers are necessary. Some of the arrangements have been very creative and credit is due to those who negotiated these mergers. It is heartening to see cross denominational cooperation and people thinking outside the box to sustain Jewish institutional life in times of crises.

There is another side of the story. While for years people have been talking about the closing of the gap between Reform and Conservative Judaism, with Reform Judaism becoming more traditionally minded and Conservative Judaism taking more liberal positions, these mergers represent a leaving behind of ideology. (see link to merger article below)

Now, before readers get all upset… I know that in some of these cases it was either merge or close…I am, however, interested in analyzing an underlying reality that allowed these mergers to happen.

My point is that synagogues and movements with strong ideologies would make for very difficult merger partners. Synagogues with strongly held beliefs, nuanced opinions and unique character are not easily folded into other synagogues. Read the rest of this entry »