Category Archives: Contemporary Life

The End Game

Is it too early to try to make sense of the Corona virus pandemic that has rocked the world? Trying to read God’s mind is always a hazardous and hubristic venture. We can never be certain of our conclusions.  On the other hand, we also risk losing the opportunity to evaluate where we are, what does God want from us, and further sink into the morass of materiality and happenstance.

One problem in this endeavor is that usually people try to interpret events in accordance with their conventional modes of thinking. And the ramifications of this crisis are multifaceted. It has shaken every societal and global institution. Americans have responded to the shutdown of society and infringements on personal freedom remarkably well, especially considering the disruption of family life and the collapse of the economy. The American economic juggernaut has ground to a halt. American politics, unpredictable for years, has descended into utter nebulousness.

The world has been brought closer in one sense, but in other ways remains the same. No place on the globe has been immune from the spread of disease; shared suffering has engendered some international cooperation. But it has also exposed some countries, such as China, as both victims and villains in this drama. The game of power politics and the desire for strategic advantage for some countries over others continue unabated.

All this misses the real point. Again, people are prone to seeing the world in a new situation as they have in prior situations. From a Jewish perspective, there are people who will look at any event and interpret it as a call for increased Torah study. Others perceive this plague as a divine mandate to do more acts of chesed, and in the current crisis opportunities abound. Aliya activists see the potential, with good cause, for a dramatic increase in Aliya. Still others will look at our closed shuls and conclude that God has not been happy with our communal prayer, and so has temporarily stripped us of it. And the Messianists see this, as they see everything, as an indication that Moshiach is coming soon.

All of that might be true and I hope they are true but I think they are reading into the situation more than simply interpreting the facts on the ground. And what are those facts? It is the one overpowering reality that mankind struggles with and has still not accepted: the reality of G-d’s existence and His mastery over the world. It is a time for teshuva, not just in the classic sense of repentance but in its literal sense of a “return,” a return to an awareness of G-d.

Even in nations that recognize God’s existence, He has been compartmentalized. G-d is “assigned” to a panoply of rituals, houses of worship, lifecycle events (especially tragic ones), and pious, platitudinous invocations often from impious people who enjoy platitudes. But the reality of His might, His dominance, and especially His morality is widely ignored. Society celebrates “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of man” (Tehillim 135:15). The explicit intent of government officials is not to introspect on the broader meaning of life, which should be easier in an environment devoid of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing entertainment industry, but rather to get the economy going and have people dive right back into the crass consumerism that for many is the purpose of life and the source of their contentment and meaning. Certainly, a prosperous economy is critical to a functioning polity – but only because it then facilitates the more consequential pursuits of life. It should be the means to an end and not the end goal itself. When there are no or few consequential pursuits, then we wrongly admire those who have power and influence, and generally set the tone for the zeitgeist.

Who are the powerful? One might suggest the politicians, the generals, the tycoons, the scientists, the doctors, the clergymen and others. They are the ones who claim to have the answers for everything and promise us the fulfillment of our life’s ambitions – as long as we subscribe to their assumptions. And now we see the limits of their powers and how their answers are really not answers at all.

Of course no one saw this coming. Anyone (many do, in fact) can irrefutably predict an impending calamity because until it happens it is always impending. I can’t criticize any person for failing to anticipate something unprecedented; that is as unfair as it is illogical. But the responses to the disaster are illuminating in that they spotlight the wide chasm between our egos and our inadequacies.

The approaches of some rabbis to this catastrophe have been spot on, while others have been deeply flawed. The doctors are trying heroically to save lives, as are the scientists in the frantic research. There is no explanation why one person succumbs and another survives, why one man is afflicted and another woman is unaffected, why the elderly are most vulnerable and the young almost unscathed. There are theories – but the theories ultimately testify to how little we know. Hundreds of scientific papers from across the world have been published in the last six weeks alone with potential cures or treatments. That indicates not just their creativity and their untiring efforts but also their limitations. When there are many answers it means there is no one, real answer. Thus we are treated to the daily spectacle of “this drug works” and “no it doesn’t!” “We are days or months away from a vaccine!” followed by “No, you’re not,” with the sincere, mercenary and political motivations all jumbled. And when someone finds the answer to this disease, who can say that this won’t be followed by other medical challenges which are similarly confounding?

Those who place their faith in science – a staple of secular mankind since the Enlightenment – should re-evaluate, to say the least. (I don’t know anyone who has faith in politicians.) Simple questions – the efficacy of certain drugs, the existence of herd immunity for Corona virus or any immunity at all for those recovered – cannot be answered, are answered in the alternative, or will only be answered after the fact. We ask rhetorically in the daily Shacharit: “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were, the wise as if devoid of knowledge (science?), and men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?”

It is indeed so, as jarring as it sounds and as humbling it is to the self-image of modern man. We try, we often succeed, we use our G-d-given intelligence to try to solve the mysteries of the universe and properly so – but “all is a fleeting breath,” a particularly evocative metaphor in these troubled times.

The wealthy – the group that is most idolized in a materialistic world – have seen the ground on which they walk shaken. The world economy is crumbling, and the markets are volatile. For sure, they are better able to absorb the blow than are the middle class or the poor. Pity those whose businesses will fail or are unemployed from companies that will not reopen. It was unthinkable even two months ago that supermarket shelves in the United States would be empty and that people would be lining up by the thousands to receive boxes of food from local authorities.

Everyone is groping in the dark for answers and perhaps the message is to look up. The atheist and vulgar materialist will find their explanations in nature and the like. They will be unrepentant until the end. They will continue to impose their amorality (often, immorality) on the world under the guise of rights, ethics, kindness and even morality but all “the works of the hands of man.”

Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1) writes that “when troubles, such as famine, a plague, or locusts befall a community, we are to cry out to G-d… It is one of the ways of repentance… And those who do not cry out but conclude that this is just ‘the way of the world and these tribulations are mere coincidence,’ this is nothing but cruelty that causes them to cling to their evil ways and it only invites more suffering.”

Why is this “cruelty”? Because cruelty (achzari’ut) is the feeling that “I am a stranger (a zar) to all this hardship. It has nothing to do with me. It is all coincidence.” Even an earth shaken to its core will not dislodge the unbeliever or the materialist from his world view; that too is an ordeal, of a different sort. Nevertheless, it seems that the scourge is having some positive effect. Last week, a Pew survey indicated that more than 25% of Americans report that they are praying more than they did before the crisis. If it is sustained, along with the humility engendered by this blunt encounter with our evident vulnerabilities, a vital transformation in society will have begun.

The times demand a reassessment of priorities and life’s purposes, a return to G-d as the Source of all life and not as a cliché, not as an image that we trot before our mind’s eye during periods of stress only to relegate Him to some corner (large or small, depending on the person) of our world in more normal periods. We know that Moshiach will arrive amid some global cataclysm, when mankind concludes that nature, science, wealth, or power do not have the solutions to what ails us. That despair forces us to look away from ourselves, to “lift our eyes on high and discern Who created all of these” (Yeshayahu 26:26). The sooner we do that, the sooner we will see an end to human suffering and malaise, and behold the dawn of the era of redemption.

 

Ask the Rabbi, Part 4

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 fourth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Should a person be comfortable or uncomfortable davening in an airport or on an airplane?  And should he act conspicuously or inconspicuously?

Setting aside security considerations, our mandate as Jews is quite straightforward and is presented to us at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch (1:1). The Rema states that “one should not be embarrassed in front of people who (might) ridicule his divine service.” After all, what do we have to be ashamed of – that the Creator and Master of the Universe has called upon us to serve Him? There could be no greater honor.

Of course, there are practical considerations to be weighed as one must strive not to be unduly provocative to other people. Davening on an airplane often inconveniences other passengers. Congestion in the galleys or aisles is so disruptive that many modern day poskim have recommended that people on airplanes daven alone and not in a minyan, especially where provisions for group tefila are not made. Even in the airport, davening in the middle of crowds of quizzical onlookers is not conducive to the kavanah required for tefila. But airports have plenty of semi-private spaces (some even have designated prayer rooms without overt religious symbols or icons) that are amenable to prayer.

I have frequently davened in airports without incident. Decades ago, I was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Düsseldorf, Germany – my first time in that country. Without any options, I davened with talit and tefilin in a corner of the waiting area, with numerous passersby stopping to glance or gaze at this unusual spectacle. I thought to myself at the time: “Good, let Germans see a Jew wearing talit and tefillin on their soil.” And I survived. The rest of the world can only benefit from the presence of proud, fearless Jews. So can we.

 

Is it appropriate to analyze one’s parents? 

Much depends on what is meant by “analyze.” Certainly, sitting in judgment of one’s parents is forbidden. We are mandated not only to honor (kibud) but also to revere (mora) our parents. Analyzing one’s parents, and their virtues or vices as parents or as individuals, would violate the latter prohibition. And this applies even if parents act abusively. As the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates, a story codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240:3), “if a child is wearing expensive clothing and sitting among noblemen, and one’s father or mother tears his clothing, strikes him in the head and spits in his face, the child cannot embarrass them but must remain silent, fearing the King of Kings who commanded him so.”

Admittedly that is an extreme case but the point is clear: scrutinizing, critiquing or rebuking our parents is generally forbidden.

However, if a parent torments or traumatizes a child to the point of psychological dysfunction, it would certainly be permissible, even therapeutically indispensable, to discuss one’s upbringing in a counseling setting. Discussion of parents and parenting is a staple of certain types of therapy. But it should be done, wherever possible, with respect and reverence, and eschewing the tendency to blame all of one’s troubles on other people. Indeed, recognizing that no one is perfect can even engender the assumption of personal responsibility for one’s own fate in life, and that can lead to healthy outcomes.

If “analyzing” parents means better understanding their decisions in order for the child to learn parenting skills, then that is proper as well. After all, as a wise Rav once said,   “G-d eventually takes revenge on children by  making them parents.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of four books.

On Balance

Well, the world has certainly changed, and in a hurry.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were overwhelmed with a variety of crises – the rise in violent attacks against Jews in America and Europe; the opioid epidemic that was sweeping the nation and devastating large swaths of the country; and our vaping teenagers,  a plague that necessitated government investigations, crackdowns and restrictions. These troubles dominated our thinking before we had ever heard the term “social distancing.” That doesn’t even mention the omnipresent threat of global warming that was to end the planet in a decade or so unless, among other things, single-use plastic bags was banned from all stores. All that seems not months but years ago, and all it took to drive them from the headlines was a once-in-a-century pandemic.

For all those who claim to have seen the corona virus coming, I wish they would have told me right before. Of course no one knew, even if there are always people predicting catastrophes. The problem is that there are always more people predicting catastrophes than there are catastrophes. When the one person is right, he is lauded for his genius and prescience. When the multitudes are wrong, no one pays attention to them (remember the looking disaster of Y2K?). It reminded me of the old economists’ joke, that economists have accurately predicted twelve out of the last five recessions. That’s about right.

Governments’ response, both federal and state, will be the subject of much deliberation and recrimination, little of it objective or honest. There is a reason why there is no template for dealing with the unprecedented; that is because it is unprecedented. To have too few ventilators available in such a disaster is a criticism that would be warranted only if I told you that next year hundreds of thousands of dialysis machines will be needed, so spend the money now, and suffer the consequences. It is simply unpredictable, and that calls for emergency measures. Every politician would love to repair the bridge the day before it collapses. To do it too early seems like a waste of money, too late is too late. Sadly, it is usually difficult to time it so precisely. But the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production to China is a national travesty, one born of the multiple regulations and union requirements that render manufacturing in America less than cost effective. That has to be solved because it is unhealthy (both literally and figuratively) to be dependent for our vital medicines on the Chinese whose way of life, of doing business, of governance, and moral notions so differ from ours.

Of more interest is the religious response. The good news is that the Jewish community for the most part adapted quite well to the most Draconian restrictions imaginable. To me it is unthinkable to have spent a month outside of shul, davening alone. For American Jews, whose spiritual lives are often centered on the shul, to be robbed of that daily experience could be crushing, if not for the fact that we are historically a nation of adapters. The believing Jew sees G-d’s hand in everything. In a profound way, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot. We therefore serve G-d not by building private altars but by abstaining from certain otherwise obligatory acts. It is the same in the current environment; our divine service is characterized by what we cannot do even if we want to do it. Fortunately, our Sages anticipated this predicament: “Rav Assi said: ‘Even if a person thought to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to exigent circumstances, Scripture construes it as if he performed it’” (Kiddushin 40a). The sense of loss and feeling of dislocation is great but that is where we are. The mitzvah of saving lives and avoiding harm to oneself or others takes precedence over public prayer and learning.

Not every Jewish community was quick to get with the program with the resultant increase in illness, death and suffering in those communities both in Israel and in America. Some held out for a few days, some a few weeks, and I suppose there are still some recalcitrants even today. One rabbi claimed that only G-d would tell him when to close his shul (I assume he merited a divine communication, because he was closed the next day.) Another rabbi quoted that Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that “the world only endures because of the breath of children studying Torah” – so the closing of yeshivot endangers us rather than protects us. Still another decried the loss of pubic prayer, since “the world exists due to the kedusha in U’va l’tzion and the response in Kaddish after public Torah learning” (Sotah 49a).

Those are all true statements, of course, but certainly homiletical, and neither will prevail in halachic discourse over the requisites of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives. For sure, their emotions and desires were in a holy place, but why did they not comply and continue to endanger their communities?

I found it fascinating that a similar dynamic played out among Catholics. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week (April 6) and the headline says it all: “As Coronavirus Halts Masses, Conservative Catholics Push Back.” These Catholics argued that “believers need the church now more than ever.” Cardinal Burke opined that just as people need food and medicine and take care not to spread the virus in the process, “so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels…and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion.” Rusty Reno, the noted Catholic writer, stated that “in a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment and death, churches must not join the stampede of fear.”

It is impossible to know whether here Catholics followed the Jews, Jews followed the Catholics or both came to their conclusions on their own. But it is an intriguing question: why is that (for lack of a better term) those religious groups who self-define as the most “conservative,” or “traditional,” or “fundamentalist,” or “ultra…” of one sort or another, insisted on maintaining spiritual business as usual despite the dangers extant – even as the rest of the society effectively shut down?

There are many possible answers (a commitment that exceeds that of others, not being one of them) but here I suggest two, one general and one specific.

The first is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to our lives that was not only unforeseen but also still is, in a literal sense, incredible. It is simply beyond belief, something that the entire planet is experiencing that no one had ever experienced before –a global pandemic that necessitates the shutdown of economies and social institutions. It is easy to dismiss such a calamity as real – even after its effects are upon us. There lurks in the mind the suspicion that “this can’t really be happening.” If so, finding comfort and refuge in our normal spiritual lives is reassuring and even more imperative notwithstanding the “dangers” that are not fully internalized.

The second speaks to us, as I cannot address the Catholic claims. Halacha is a very balanced and delicate ecosystem. For sure, there is a scale of hierarchies as there are gradations of holiness and importance in the mitzvot. The more “fundamentalist” a group is, the more likely they are to attach greater significance to facets of Torah that are less compelling (clothing and beards come to mind). But they can also lose their sense of balance and true priorities when they take one mitzvah and see it as the end-all and be-all. In so doing, they distort the ecosystem, as they also do, for example, by taking Agadic statements designed to teach us values and employing them to draw halachic conclusions, a profound methodological error.

Psak halacha (a conclusive determination of authorized practice) involves much more than just deciding that a particular mitzvah “to me or my group” is more important than any others. It involves reckoning with ancillary values (hefsed merubeh, kavod habriyot, etc.) that will play a significant role in the final analysis even if their applications involve some subjectivity. Failure to account for ancillary values – or exaggerating the importance of one particular mitzvah – will invariably lead to distortion in the final conclusion. Hence the reluctance to comply with the current societal mandates for a long time (in some places). Their yearning and intentions were as admirable as their conclusions were misguided and deadly. Thus it turns out that they were not more frum but less frum than they hoped to be. That is the price for a misconstruction of halacha but may Hashem help us all!

People often think that the greatest value in the Torah is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and who is to argue with that? It is certainly a supreme value and dominates our thinking here. In truth, though, it is not the highest value, because even the saving of a life is superseded by the three cardinal sins each of which mandates martyrdom instead of violation.

That makes fidelity to G-d’s will, or better said, service of G-d in every situation we confront in life, the highest value. That divine service is ordinarily manifested in the performance of many mitzvot like Torah study, public prayer and the like. It requires the building and maintenance of communities dedicated to joint practices and shared values. If the times now demand a temporary retrenchment in that type of divine service, then we should grieve, realize what we are missing, and when the gates are reopened surge forward with renewed vigor and appreciation for the spiritual beauties of our lives.

Just like after the churban, sometimes G-d demands service through abstention in some spheres (public prayer) and intensification in other spheres (acts of kindness).

May He soon end this scourge, bring healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His world.

Ask The Rabbi, Part 2

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.