A few months ago, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised. Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered. All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.
Here is the second selection with my take on these issues – RSP
Should a person lend any significance to his dreams?
Well, none of us are Yaakov Avinu or Yosef Hatzadik whose dreams were prophecies, messages from G-d that guided their (and our) futures. Dreams were the typical means of conveying prophecies for all prophets except for Moshe. But even if dreams are not prophecies, and not all are noteworthy, Chazal recognize with extraordinary prescience the importance of dreams.
The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 55b) states that a person only dreams at night of what he thinks about during the day. That is, dreams are a way of reconciling conflicts in one’s conscious life, or giving unconscious expressions to one’s fears or fantasies, or sometimes dealing with a painful reality in a way that is less provocative or distressing. Certainly, it bears mention that (ibid 54a) just like there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without some nonsense. The true nature of dreams is masked to make their deeper messages more palatable and most will be unremembered and unremarkable.
Occasionally, dreams will enable us to think more intensely about an issue or problem or person or event that is troubling us, and sometimes troubling us in a way that we refrain from thinking about openly. Certainly, the higher our spiritual level, the more elevated will be the substance of our dreams. But one who goes even seven days without a dream is called “evil,” i.e., unfortunate (ibid 14a). Dreams are divine gifts that clear our minds, ease our hearts and sometimes call attention to potential problems that are resolved without us being fully cognizant of it.
Should a person think highly of himself?
No. And yes.
This calls to mind the two divergent schools of musar – of Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin. Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, a student would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.
The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his musar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that could apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the Avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.
In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “a person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written ‘the world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Breisheet 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”
The modern self-esteem movement is misguided, to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.
May one use data derived from unethical research (an extreme example of which would be data from Nazi research that used human test subjects instead of lab rats and caused unimaginable suffering)?
It is tempting to think that use of data from the research of evildoers might serve some productive purpose, notwithstanding they are the fruits of the poisonous tree of diabolical sadists. It purports to make the torture and death of the victims slightly less gruesome and gratuitous and perhaps even adds an element of purpose. We should utterly resist that notion.
Even assuming that the science derived is legitimate and not distorted by the twisted minds that produced it, use of that data is grossly immoral and would tend to legitimize what is perverse and insufferable conduct. If the question is asked this way – Should Dr. Mengele be construed as a genuine scientist and researcher? – the answer becomes much clearer.
Judaism has a concept of an object that is otherwise neutral or indistinguishable from other objects but is nonetheless assur b’hana’ah, proscribed from providing any benefit or pleasure to another. In terms of foodstuffs, the issur hana’ah supplements the prohibition of consumption. It is not just that it cannot be eaten or drunk – yayin nesech, for example – it cannot even be given away to someone as a gift. Any type of benefit is precluded. That is how this data should be treated: total ostracism.
To think otherwise is to sanction the worst atrocities under the guise of serving a greater purpose, which invariably cheapens human life and incentivizes mass murderers. Nazis should not be glorified as scientists nor their dastardly deeds rationalized as even a partial good. That is the only way to perceive evil as evil, identify it and then eradicate it from the face of the earth.