Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ashkenaz vs. Sephard

I was sent an article last week that reported a strange incident in the Knesset. During a debate about tax exemptions for rooms adjoining synagogues, the discussion turned from substance to personal attacks. In this case, the verbal barrage claimed that Ashkenaz women don't go to shul (synagogue). If you're wondering where this bizarre charge originated, you're not alone. As someone who knows both Ashkenaz and Sephard families whose female members attend services, I don't understand the charge either.

This individual demeaned another person with words and will use that same mouth to pray to God? As the Chafetz Chaim points out, when someone speaks lashon hara (evil speech), their prayers are unable to reach God. If someone wants their prayers to have a positive effect, they must speak from a mouth that does not engage in lashon hara. In all likelihood, this politician just couldn't tolerate opposition to his view and simply used the Ashkenaz-Sephard issue as a distraction. Unfortunately, this doesn't only happen during political debates. Adults engage in small-minded, child-like behavior all too often. Instead of using one's mind and staying on topic, when someone can't defend their position, they typically resort to petty, personal attacks. It's called small-mindedness for a reason.

This case brings up the whole idea of Ashkenaz vs. Sephard. I have never quite understood what the big deal was anyway. Some of our ancestors came from Europe, others from Spain or elsewhere, and each brought their own Jewish customs. To believe that either Ashkenazim or Sephardim are the only ones who have it right completely misses the point. Ashkenazim and Sephardim differ in many ritually significant ways, but that should never affect how we ethically treat one another. All that is necessary is for each of us to follow our family's ritual customs (or in the case of many married women, take on those of their husbands), and at the same time follow the universal ethical code outlined by the Torah.

It might help to recall the four questions asked by the Heavenly Court after we die:

One of the questions isn't whether you were Ashkenaz or Sephard.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Feelings vs. Values

In our day and age, feelings seem to win out in virtually every area of life. While some people would consider this to be progress, I do not believe this is best for society-at-large. Feelings are important in the micro (i.e. interpersonal realm), while values are important in the macro (i.e. larger society). Unfortunately, many people do not make this distinction.

This can be easily traced to the ongoing conflict between the Palestinians and Israel. As long as the majority of media outlets show images of "poor" Palestinians throwing rocks against "wealthy" Israeli tanks, the average uneducated viewer (I'm leaving out blatantly anti-Semitic viewers, who will be against Israel no matter what) will feel for the Palestinian. What is clearly missed in all this is any value of right and wrong. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Israel is simply defending its citizens, and that the reason many Palestinians live in meager neighborhoods is because of the corruption and depravity of their leaders (a.k.a. terrorists). They spend their time thinking of ways to destroy Israel rather than to build homes, hospitals and schools on land their enemies left.

Just think of the last time someone asked how you feel about a particular issue. Unless they're wondering if you have a fever, they should really be asking what you think about that issue. Without taking this idea too far, all I'm trying to point out is that we have allowed emotion to replace thought in many areas of life. And we have paid a dear price for it. For example, instead of focusing on the substance of a particular topic, many people will have an emotional outburst when someone disagrees with them - and it's often respected as a valid response! This ruins any chance of having an intellectual discussion about politics, religion or any other area of life. Unless it's an existential issue, we shouldn't take differences of opinion personally.

By the same token, there are interpersonal cases where more compassion should be exercised. For example, Rabbi David Levin (grandson of Rabbi Aryeh Levin, one of the most righteous Jews in history) served as a chaplain in the Israeli Air Force. While caring for a bereaved military family, he saw them playing live music at the grave site of their loved one. This made him very uncomfortable because it is not permitted according to halachah (Jewish law). However, Rabbi Levin used good judgment and was able to discern that, although he disagreed in principle, it would have been a worse offense to say something harsh or demeaning to the mourners. Perhaps one day that family will become more connected with their Jewish roots because of Rabbi Levin's kindness and tolerance.

Feelings and values both have their place, but we have to use our seichel (common sense) to determine when one overrides the other. In cases of upholding standards of objective good and evil, values must win out; otherwise (to paraphrase Pirkei Avot 3:2), people would eat each other alive. However, in cases of upholding interpersonal decency, feelings are there for a reason; otherwise, we would constantly be bickering over every slight detail that others didn't perform precisely as we saw fit. While it's crucial to have both strong values and compassion for others, it's just as important to know which one to implement in a given situation.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Good that Comes from Evil

It's hard to imagine any good coming from evil, but time and again we see it. For example, during the second Intifada, we saw the epitome of evil as innocent Israelis were maimed and murdered by Palestinian terrorists, but we also saw the epitome of good in the heroic efforts of fellow Israelis rushing to help the victims. On September 11, 2001, we again saw the epitome of evil as innocent Americans were maimed and murdered by Islamic terrorists, but we also saw the epitome of good in the heroic efforts of fellow Americans coming to the aid of the casualties.

Following a different kind of evil - natural disasters - we also witnessed the kindness of people coming to the aid of others. In 2004, the Asian tsunami prompted an overwhelming amount of generosity from around the world. The humanitarian response included billions of dollars in donations. Just recently, the Haiti earthquake has prompted a similar outpouring of support. Various countries have sent emergency crews to help in the recovery effort, and large amounts of money have been donated to provide food, water and medicine.

One of the organizations helping out is ZAKA. This group deserves special recognition because of the nature of their work. These are the Jewish volunteers who, among other tasks, meticulously gather human remains from the scenes of accidents and terror attacks so that victims can have a proper burial. This is known as chesed shel emet - true kindness, since there is no way for the dead to repay the living. Currently, ZAKA is helping non-Jews in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. It's a testament to the values of ZAKA that their volunteers have worked around the clock, even on Shabbat (Saturday), for the sake of saving human life. They represent the best of Judaism.

It's heartwarming to see the outpouring of support from around the world following natural disasters. However, when it comes to fighting Islamic terrorism, the "international community" is nowhere to be found. Not only that, but entities such as the United Nations consistently condemn countries (usually the United States and Israel) for fighting enemies who threaten their existence. This is upside-down thinking; instead of hating evil, they hate those who fight evil. King David put it eloquently: "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" - those who love God must hate evil. There are many people who don't take this concept to heart. Although military action is always the last resort, we must do what is necessary to fight the evil of our time.

As anyone following current events knows, Iran is inching closer to a nuclear bomb. While Iran's tyrannical leaders hide behind the mantra of only being against "the Zionist regime," individuals with moral clarity know better. When Martin Luther King, Jr. overheard a Harvard student launch a tirade against Zionists, he duly noted: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking anti-Semitism." Nevertheless, most of the world will condemn Israel if/when it takes action against the Iranian threat. Let's do our part to pursue goodness without waiting for something bad to happen first. One suggestion, ironically, can be learned from our enemies. Just as they wish to inflict harm on Jews both religious or secular, let's counteract their hatred by treating all Jews decently, regardless of one's level of observance.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Haiti Earthquake and Pirkei Avot

Estimates of those killed and injured from the devastating earthquake in Haiti span anywhere from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. Still, the full extent of the damage will not be known for days to come. Aside from the obvious empathy we should have for the victims of the disaster, there is an excerpt from Hillel in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14) that provides a wise approach on how to treat tragedies that befall others:

"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?"

The implication is for individual character, but I think it can also extend to group character:

If we don't help fellow Jews, who else is going to help them?
But if we only help fellow Jews, what kind of people are we?
And if not at this time of need, when?

There are both Jews and non-Jews around the world in need of all kinds of help. Therefore, we have to start at the most basic level and help those closest to us first, such as family and community. However, all human beings descend from the same man, Adam, and are created b'tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. As a result, it's quite noble to care for others - regardless of religion - if we are in the position to do so. It's great to see that Israel and various Jewish groups have quickly sent rescue teams, medical staff and supplies to help in the relief effort. If you would like to contribute to one of the organizations doing relief work in Haiti, click here.

This brings to mind a different earthquake several years back - in Iran - when Israel also offered help, but was immediately denied by Iran's tyrannical government. Imagine the caliber of people it takes to help victims of a country whose leaders are focused on obliterating them! This is but one example of the chasm between Jews and our enemies. While there are people who would love to destroy us, the feeling is not mutual. We will defend ourselves with brute force when necessary, but we remain "rachmanim bayshanim v'gomlei chasadim" - a people defined by compassion, modesty and acts of kindness.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Holy Land Hardball

I came across a documentary the other day called Holy Land Hardball. It's about the formation of an Israeli baseball league. I got a real kick out of it because it encompassed three of my favorite things: Israel, sports and humor. It focuses on Jews from all walks of life trying to become professional athletes, as well as the experiences of non-Jews who participated. Players came from all around the world, including Australia, Japan, the United States and Dominican Republic. There was even a brief appearance by Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who was the mohel after a player's wife gave birth to a baby boy.

Although the league ultimately didn't survive, this film provided a pleasant portrayal of Jews working together toward a common goal. It also reminded me of the meaningful analogies we can draw from sports. For example, for better or for worse, we're all on the same team. And just as good chemistry is needed between players in order to win, so too we need good interpersonal relationships between Jews to function well as a people.

I'll leave you with a great quote from a famous coach:

"A man can be as great as he wants to be. If you believe in yourself and have the courage, the determination, the dedication, the competitive drive, and if you are willing to sacrifice the little things in life and pay the price for the things that are worthwhile, it can be done."
- Vince Lombardi

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Looks Can Be Deceiving

The first thing people usually judge when they meet another person is appearance, including what kind of clothing the person wears. This is quite understandable since it's the first thing we notice, but it's also vain and unproductive. Some of the most beautiful people on the outside can be some of the ugliest people on the inside, and those who do not appear as dignified can often be the sweetest human beings. Without using too many cliches, the lesson is obvious. While it's only human to judge what we see, a person's looks reveal virtually nothing about their character.

This lesson has been brought to the forefront with news stories about Jews who appeared to live a certain way, but instead engaged in evil behavior. In a recently reported case, a man who seemed to be a respectable Orthodox rabbi allegedly engaged in behavior so perverse that I will only provide this link and let my readers decide on whether or not to view the details. While stories such as these are very upsetting, they also provide striking reminders of how appearance and conduct can be in complete contradiction to one another.

Not to focus too much on the negative, there are many cases that drive home this point in a positive manner. For example, there is a true tzaddik (righteous man) living in my community who doesn't necessarily fit the stereotypical profile. He is a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), leads the daf yomi shiur (daily Talmud class) and always treats other people with dignity and respect. I'm not sure how most people would envision this person dressing, but it's doubtful they would guess correctly. He has worn all sorts of attire over the years, including cowboy hats, boots, colored yarmulkas and plaid shirts. I'm glad to say that almost everyone in our community recognizes this person for who he is and not simply by how he dresses.

In another timeless example, we recently read the Torah portions dealing with the story of Yosef (Joseph) being sold into slavery by his brothers. After all the dire circumstances to which he was subjected, Yosef quickly rose in the ranks to viceroy of Egypt, second in command only to Pharaoh. When his brothers came to make amends for their actions and reunite the family, Yosef did not exactly look as they had remembered. He was older, distinguished and dressed in the garb of an Egyptian leader. Only after several impassioned encounters were they finally able to recognize him for who he actually was - a God-fearing Jew, who always kept the best interests of others at heart.

Once again, it's easy to figure out the moral of these stories. There are both great and terrible people who dress in modern clothing, just as there are both great and terrible people who dress in traditional religious attire. I'm sure everyone knows of an individual who doesn't look the part, but in reality leads a righteous life. As a result, the best barometer of character is a person's actions and behavior - not their appearance or clothing. By looking beyond the exterior, our chances greatly improve at finding people who truly lead lives of goodness.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A New Year's Resolution

Nobody is exactly sure what 2010 has in store for us, but I have a feeling it will be a very significant year. After all, the world moves so fast nowadays that world-changing events are bound to happen. Although certain events are beyond our control, there are many personal situations over which we do have control. With this in mind, here is my suggestion for a new year's resolution - and it's something we didn't see a whole lot of in the news stories of 2009: accountability.

While I enjoy seeing the thousands of people who celebrate in Times Square every year to watch the ball drop, the one thing that always bothers me is hearing the common response from those who are interviewed in the crowd. They usually say something to the effect of "good-bye and good riddance to last year." This is almost always well-intentioned and just said to express optimism for the year ahead. However, what it implies is that we can simply move on without any accountability for our actions during the previous year.

The Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah 5770, took place months ago. Instead of spending an evening partying with friends, we spent the better part of two days praying. While this would not exactly be my definition of fun, we are lucky to have a tradition in which we take stock of our actions. For any ritual sins committed against God, we asked for forgiveness and do our best not to repeat them. And for any emotional, physical or financial hurt inflicted upon other people (in the financial case, money owed must also be repaid), we directly asked those individuals to forgive us and try to make amends. What drives me crazy, however, is when fellow Jews wait for Rosh Hashanah to arrive before doing this. It's almost comical to see everyone roaming the halls of shuls and yeshivot asking, "Are you mochel me?" (i.e. do you forgive me?). Although it's the right attitude during that time of year, why wait until then to clear things up?

As Jews, we are taught that our actions matter. My hope is that when we are aware of some wrongdoing we have committed against another person, we're more proactive about fixing it. Take the time to go over to that individual, even if you're not too fond of them (it happens...we're all human), explain that you had no place doing what you did, and ask for forgiveness. More often than not, people are impressed by a sincere gesture of reconciliation. If you happen to be on the other side of that question, as long as what occurred isn't truly evil, let it go. We have to pick our fights in life, and it's best to rise above the little things. I can say from personal experience that this is never easy, but you'd be surprised at how good you feel afterwards.