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 seventh selection with my take on these issues – RSP
May one enjoy good food or is the ideal to not care what one eats as long as it gives one strength to serve Hashem?
The primary goal of all physical activity is to strengthen and preserve our bodies for higher purposes. Rambam (Hilchot De’ot 3:2) underscores that all our actions must be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of Heaven. Thus, “when we eat or drink…we should take to heart that the purpose is not just pleasure, such that we only eat or drink what is sweet to the palate…but rather that we are doing it only to strengthen our bodies and limbs. As such we should not eat everything the appetite desires like a dog or donkey [would] but eat healthful foods and eschew harmful foods…”
To overemphasize the ancillary aspects of food – taste, flavor, presentation, etiquette, matching exotic wines to a particular entrée – is to indulge in animalistic acts but in a more sophisticated manner. It is certainly not the highest expression of human endeavor, which lies in the world of thought, moral choices and pursuit of knowledge of G-d. Man is defined as a baal sechel, an intellectual creature, and not a more refined beast.
Yet, even the Rambam refers to indulging only (bilvad) for pleasure-seeking. We are not prohibited from enjoying ourselves (some of the baalei musar would disagree). The Yerushalmi (end of Kiddushin) states that we will have to give account for everything our eyes saw in this world but did not consume. The prohibition is to benefit from the world without a bracha, without acknowledging G-d’s beneficence.
There are some righteous people, like Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, who live on a sublime plane of existence and seek no pleasure from this world. For us mere mortals, we are allowed to enjoy ourselves, as long as the pleasures are permitted and appropriate. But they must always be a means to the end, and never the objective per se. That terrain is very difficult to navigate; it is, though, the test of life.
Is trying to reconcile Torah with current scientific knowledge proper?
We start with three premises: first, that the Giver of the Torah is also the Creator of the universe; second, that, as such, no true conflict between Torah and science can exist; and third, that Torah and science are distinct disciplines that are designed to explain disparate facets of the world. The Torah teaches us the “why” of the world – why we exist, what G-d’s purposes in creation were, and by what divine moral code we are supposed to live. Science teaches us the “what” of the universe – how the universe operates and how its various forces can be understood and even harnessed for the benefit of human beings. While science thus is amoral, the Torah is the ultimate morality.
Yet, as both disciplines share the same Author, and as man is obligated to “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it” (Breisheet 1:28), it is both natural and proper to study how science accords with the Torah. It seems better to ask whether it is proper to reconcile current scientific knowledge with Torah than the converse. This approach is more enlightening and edifying, as scientific conclusions are constantly amended when previous theories are upended while the words of the Torah are both immutable and infinite in their wisdom.
From the Rambam’s understanding of the universe as delineated in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah (chapters 3-4), it is clear that thinking man is required to utilize the scientific knowledge of the day in order to elucidate different aspects of Torah and even (for the cognoscenti) to better understand creation itself, even if that knowledge will change in each generation. It is astonishing how the language of the Torah can accommodate different theories, underscoring that the Torah is not meant to teach science or history – but morality
What should one do if one hears about persecution of a people in a foreign land?
Years ago, an earnest young woman from our shul asked me to announce a forthcoming rally to protest the horrific genocide in Darfur. When I asked the purpose of the rally, she said it was “to raise awareness.”
“And having raised awareness,” I asked, “what is the next step? Do you support the deployment of American troops to halt the massacres?” She answered: “Absolutely not.” (It was during the Bush years).“I don’t want US troops deployed anywhere in the world.”
“So,” I continued, “having raised awareness, what do you hope to accomplish? What are your policy goals?” “None yet,” she answered. To which I responded, “When you figure out what you want to do, I’ll be happy to endorse the rally.”
The suffering of innocents across the world is often accompanied by a barrage of clichés, platitudes and bromides, some designed to assuage the consciences of the protesters, others intended as mere virtue-signaling, but little that actually thwarts evil and liberates the persecuted. The rasha has a distinct advantage as those who aspire to goodness cannot fight injustice across the globe.
Words cannot save the victims but sometimes they can redeem our humanity. I know of no effective measures to fight evil other than the application of righteous and overwhelming military force against the perpetrators. We should support that use of force, which is not to say that the United States or any other country has the obligation to intervene everywhere. We should mindful of how hollow our criticism would be of those who did not rescue Jews during the Holocaust if we ourselves do not volunteer to rescue other endangered peoples.
The least we can do is daven for them, as we pray for the peace of all nations on the Yamim Noraim, and remind ourselves that “chaviv adam she’nivra b’tzelem,” all mankind is precious as we were all created in the image of G-d. We can care, grieve, speak out, refuse to relegate these stories to the “way of the world,” raise money, demand protective action, and punishment for the perpetrators.