Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Do Not Stand Idly By

There is a tendency within human nature to protect those with whom we ideologically agree, even when those same people engage in questionable conduct. By the same token, when people with whom we strongly disagree are found to have done terrible things, we often jump at the opportunity to express our rage. Currently, there are cases coming to light of more rabbis physically and sexually abusing children. Just do a quick search on any major Jewish news site and you can discover for yourself. Whether you are a member of the perpetrator's denomination or not, this is beyond a case of questionable conduct - it is evil. And it has led to terribly tragic results, with at least one victim recently committing suicide.

There should be two primary areas of focus:

1) Apprehending and prosecuting the person who committed the act - so that the abuse stops

2) Providing comfort and therapy for the victims - so that the kids have a way to deal with the trauma

This isn't about proving that orthodox rabbis (or other people in positions of authority, for that matter) have a proclivity to engage in sexual abuse. It's about rooting out pedophiles, wherever they are and whoever they may be. And it means something for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews: Orthodox Jews must have the courage to report any abusers in their community to the police; non-Orthodox Jews must do the same and not feel vindicated that this has occurred in more religious circles. Bad apples exist in all religious groups and they must be dealt with accordingly.

Of course, we have to make sure that the allegations are true to the best of our knowledge. But if there is mounting evidence, it must be looked at seriously. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict." Do not stand idly by if you sense that this may be transpiring in your own community. Do you think God cares more about preventing the arrest of an "orthodox rabbi" or protecting children against an evil perpetrator? It's a rhetorical question.

We have to use common sense. We have to protect children. We have to fight evil.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Laughter Builds Character

The name that God commanded Abraham to give Isaac after his birth was Yitzchak, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning laughter. However, it would appear to be a contradiction to Isaac's primary character trait - gevurah, or strength of character - to be named after a word related to humor. Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr solves this apparent contradiction by commenting that in order to develop a high caliber of character and self-restraint, a person must be able to laugh at all the difficulties and obstacles they will encounter throughout their life.

To take this idea one step further, I believe that one of the greatest gifts God gave us was a sense of humor:

Aside from the anthropomorphizing of God (as I like to say: anyone who eats, sleeps and goes to the bathroom is not God), the moral of this comic is well-taken. If you're religious, it's very easy to get caught up in all the difficulties of leading an observant life and become overwhelmed. And for almost everyone, it's quite likely to be going through some serious financial or interpersonal problems right now. Yet there is a way to turn that difficult situation into one of character-building. Look for the absurdity in the situation. Find the levity. And laugh. While it may not solve the problem, it will make it a whole lot easier to get through it.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Power of Unity

Chazal, our ancient Torah scholars, explain a rather troubling difference between the reigns of King David and King Ahab. While David is generally regarded as one of the greatest figures in Jewish history, Ahab is described in very harsh terms because of his rogue monarch. Yet, when these two kings ever had to go to war, David's army would consistently suffer significant casualties; Ahab's army was always victorious with very few casualties. What reason could possibly be given for such a distinction? Even though Ahab's reign was marred with condemnation, the people were still united and cooperative. And despite the fact that David's reign was largely praiseworthy, the people were nevertheless filled with hatred and division.

There is a great lesson to be drawn from this that is applicable today. No matter how educated and professionally successful certain Jews are, or how ritually observant and spiritual other Jews may be, as long as unity and cooperation are the exception rather than the rule, we are vulnerable. This is the case from both a practical and spiritual standpoint. On the practical level, a people cannot expect to thrive for very long without general cooperation and goodwill in national pursuits. On the spiritual level, God cannot bring the Final Redemption and subsequent peace on earth until the underlying flaw that brought exile in the first place, sinat chinam, is rectified. Whichever way you look at it, the lack of interpersonal decency is a national problem that must be corrected.

In order for unity to emerge, there is a very important prerequisite: tolerating other people's imperfections. Included in the understanding of the commandment "Love your neighbor as yourself" is that just as we all wish for people to overlook our shortcomings, so too should we be able to cut others a little bit of slack for not being perfect. While this obviously does not include overlooking objective evils (e.g. if someone is a murderer or rapist, there must be accountability and punishment), it does apply to all those petty, annoying things we encounter from people in our everyday lives. If we do our best to incorporate this principle into our overall character, it could reap very beneficial results. You, God, and everyone around you will see the difference.

Whether in ancient times or today, never underestimate the power of unity.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Sinat Chinam - A Baseless Definition of Hatred

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains the reason for why God allowed the Second Beit Hamikdash, or Holy Temple, to be destroyed: sinat chinam. This phrase is often translated as "baseless hatred," but I have never found that definition to be instructive. After all, anyone can rationalize as to why their hatred is justified. However, there is another way to translate sinat chinam: "hatred of their chein." The reason I find this definition to be the most accurate is because it provides a basis from which any of us can combat this destructive force.

The word "chein" is yet another term that is difficult to accurately translate, but it is generally defined as grace, beauty or charm. In other words, it is referring to the particular quality that makes each one of us unique. Every person, no matter how religious or irreligious, has a unique divine spark, talent or ability. It is our job to make sure we use that gift for good. At the same time, we must allow others to pursue a path of goodness while using their own chein. Herein lies the reason for why sinat chinam is such a serious vice. When one hates a fellow Jew (instead of respectfully disagreeing with them), it's ultimately a lack of recognition of God and the particular grace He has bestowed upon that individual.

In our day and age we seem to be more polarized than ever before. When someone holds a certain view on ritual observance or religious thought, all too often those who hold opposing views begin personal attacks instead of simple disagreement. This is so obviously counterproductive that it should go without saying, but unfortunately it has to be articulated. So here it goes: no matter how strongly any of us disagree with a fellow Jew, the moment we begin unwarranted personal attacks, we have lost the argument and engaged in sinat chinam. The reason for this is because instead of focusing on the substance of the issue (and possibly learning something from the other person's approach), we have attacked their character and unique understanding of life. Both civility and the possibility of bringing them to our way of thinking is lost.

We each have to figure out a way to tolerate those who differ from us in terms of dress, ritual observance, ideology, political affiliation, and other major areas of life. However, there is an equally important point to make: sinat chinam does not include hating someone who violates basic ethical principles (i.e. those which hurt other people). For example, it does not mean tolerating a businessman who engages in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme or a rabbi who assaults women and children. In such cases, we are not hating the person for who they are - a certain type of businessman or rabbi of a particular denomination - but rather for the pain they have inflicted upon innocent people. In fact, it would be a chilul Hashem, a desecration of God's name, to overlook such evils. While tolerance is generally a virtue, it cannot be taken to the point where we drop ethics.

We have been in exile for bordering on 2,000 years as a result of sinat chinam between Jews. This vile and ubiquitous form of hatred has literally destroyed us from within and has spiritually allowed our enemies to attack us from without. There is no greater way to defeat our enemies, and evil for that matter, than to focus on removing sinat chinam and uniting as one people despite all our differences. And it isn't even that difficult. Every individual Jew can go on with their life as usual. We simply have to make sure that when disagreements inevitably arise that we focus on substance, allow the other person their unique approach to the issue, and courteously offer our own perspective. If sinat chinam - hating another person's chein - had the power to destroy God's home on earth, then ahavat chinam - loving (i.e. tolerating) another person's chein - has the power to rebuild it.