Last year, 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 sixth selection with my take on these issues – RSP
Is it appropriate to share mother-in-law jokes?
Humor is often used to defuse tension, and no relationship is fraught with more tension than that of in-laws. The Talmud (Yevamot 2a) itself refers to mothers-in-law as tzarot (rivals or adversaries) as in the worst circumstances they compete for the affections of their child with the new spouse. But those are under the worst circumstances, which is not to say they don’t occur with some frequency.
Certainly, one has to respect one’s in-laws (see Yoreh Deah 240:24, and Taz 19), presumably out of gratitude that they gave life to one’s spouse. Warm relations with one’s in-laws gladden your spouse and make for a better marriage, notwithstanding the occasional bumps in the road in any relationship. And it is those bumps that have engendered the popular mother-in-law jokes.
Generally, one is not allowed to joke about a person even if that person will not be offended by it, because who for sure knows whether offense is taken? Jokes about the individual would therefore be inappropriate; conversely, jokes about the institution are less troubling, especially if the mother-in-law knows they are in jest. (Sometimes it seems as if the primary purpose for the creation of the Internet was the sharing of jokes.)
We shouldn’t be so stuffy as to disallow any form of humor, particularly when it is playful and not malicious. Chazal (Avot 6:5) even noted that “mi’ut sechok,” a little humor, is one of the 49 ways through which the Torah is acquired. Chazal didn’t say “no humor,” but rather “a little humor.” It should be acceptable in this context as well. After all, even Moshe Rabbenu, given the choice of living with his in-laws or returning to his enslaved brethren in Egypt, left Yitro and returned to the house of bondage. Doesn’t that say it all?
For hundreds of years, Jews in Poland fasted on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the tens of thousands of Jews killed in 1648-49 in the Chmielnitzky uprising. Yet, we don’t fast today for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Why not?
We probably should but there are several reasons why we don’t. Some point to a statement in the kinot – “for we may not add a new day of mourning over ruin and burning,” a reference to the Crusades. But as the question implies, the fact that Jews in Poland did fast renders that reason less than compelling, even if the kinot were an authoritative halachic source.
I think the real reason is broader and an unhealthy reflection on our society today. Polish Jews formed one community. It is probably fanciful to say that all were religious but at least they all saw themselves as part of one nation. Sadly, that is no longer true in Jewish life. Polish Jewry had a central leadership body – the Council of the Four Lands – that could issue decrees to which all Jews felt bound. We no longer have a respected council of leaders that all Jews respect.
Moreover, how many Jews today fast the established four fasts, such that a decree to establish another would be heeded? Fasts are designed to be catalysts for teshuvah, repentance. How many Jews sincerely engage in acts of repentance? The Holocaust devastated mainly, although not exclusively, Ashkenazic Jewry. It would be very difficult to convince, say, most American Jews to accept an additional fast.
That being said, the current observances of Yom Hashoah fall short of a meaningful commemoration of this unique and horrific calamity. They tend to consist of contrived ceremonies, survivor accounts, hollow expressions of “Never Again,” and the pursuit of the broader agenda of the organizers. There is little religious perspective added, and almost no attempt to fit the Holocaust into the context of Jewish history before and after it. That might have to wait another generation and those proper observances will include a public fast.
Should the average Jew learn Kabbalah?
Much depends on how we define “Kabbalah.” Certainly traditional Kabbalah bears absolutely no relationship to the mass market Kabbalah that distributes amulets and holy water, emphasizes the recitation of enigmatic texts and is mostly New Age-type self help for the vulnerable.
Traditional Kabbalah, as taught in the Zohar, the writings of the Ari”zal and his disciples and later expositors as well, focuses on the inner workings of the universe, a deeper understanding of G-d and the role of Israel in the world. It tries to resolve the conundrum of how an incorporeal G-d created, sustained and continues to relate to a corporeal universe. The problems lie in the broad use of physical imagery and anthropomorphic terms to refer to these extremely esoteric concepts. These expressions are liable to engender in the casual reader a grave misunderstanding of fundamental principles of the Torah, especially relating to the nature of G-d.
Generally, these rarefied subjects in the Torah are limited to those, as Rambam writes in a related context (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13), “whose stomachs are filled with bread and meat, i.e., to know what is permissible and prohibited in the Mitzvot…and these must precede [the stroll through the Pardes, the orchard] because they train us how to think, perfect this world and prepare us for the world-to-come…”
Rambam underscores that even the greatest sages were not always comfortable with this study. How less comfortable, then, should be Jews who are not yet filled with the wisdom of Torah, are not fully observant, nor conversant with Jewish philosophy! The immature student of Kabbalah can be easily harmed by its study and draw incorrect and heretical conclusions about G-d.
We should all be extremely hesitant before embarking on such a study, and only then with a qualified teacher.