Thursday, January 05, 2006

"Gesher tzar m'od": Thinking *inside* the box

"Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m'od, all the world is a very narrow bridge . . ."

One of my co-workers came to me a few weeks ago saying that she'd found some change in the candy machine and wondering whether it was okay for her to take it, because it probably came from a goy (non-Jew). I gotta tell ya, my jaw dropped. I gave her what for, telling her that it didn't matter from whom one stole, g'néva is g'néva (theft is theft). It wasn't the petty change that bothered me, it was the principle of the thing. In the end, after I guilt-tripped the heck out of her, she decided to put the change in a pushkeh (tzedakah/charity box).

A few weeks later, I was complaining to a co-worker that it was a disgrace that we don't recycle paper in our office. I said that it was "bal tashchit." (That's the name of a rule that the rabbis promulgated forbidding wastefulness. I think it's based on D’varim, Parshat Shoftim, Deuteronomy chapter 20, verses 19-20, in which we were forbidden to cut down fruit trees for military use during war.) My co-worker's only comment was, "Well, it least it isn't "shémos." ("Shémos," or "shémot"="names": We're forbidden to destroy or dispose of anything that has one of the Hebrew names of G-d written on it—we have to either store the item or literally bury it.) I replied that it's still bal tashchit, wastefulness. Seriously, folks, is it any less forbidden for us to break the halachah (Jewish religious law) against bal tashchit than to break the halachah against destroying shémot? A halachah is a halachah. (Okay, okay, I'm not Orthodox—yell at me about my inconsistent observance later. I'm trying to make a point here.)

I'd encountered this kind of attitude before. Back in the good old days before he was transferred to another office, another co-worker used to give a shiur (study session) for the Jewish women who work in this building. If my memory, such as it is, serves me correctly, we were studying a book called Sefer HaChinuch (?), by Luzzato (?). After a few weeks of having to miss the shiur due to the demands of work, I came in in the middle of a chapter about the soul, and couldn't believe what I was hearing. Apparently, this particular author posited that there were several types of souls (nefesh, neshamah, etc.)—and that the kind of souls that Jews had were superior to the kind that non-Jews had.

And I've encountered this kind of attitude since. One of the most shocking things I saw while editing a manuscript that one of the many rabbis on our organization's staff gave me to work on was a statement by a rabbi that Jews are automatically more ethical than non-Jews just because they're Jews and need not trouble themselves to behave ethically because everything a Jew did was automatically ethical.

I was always taught that Jews were the chosen people not because of any innate superiority, but simply because we were the ones to whom G-d gave the mitzvot (commandments). Has this attitude, too, been lost with the increasing "charédization" of Judaism, along with an openness to such things as a good secular education (possibly including such a thing as, heaven forbid, college), television, the Internet, Jewish rock music, and men and women actually participating in enough activities together that they might, heaven forbid, meet and marry one another?

On a lighter note, I was taken aback considerably when a co-worker told me that she'd never been to a Chanukah party. On the other hand, I suppose she would be equally taken aback if I ever told her that I'm 56 years old and I've never been to a s'udat Purim. Which brings me directly to my next post . . .


Blogger Noam S said...

housekeeping notes: sefer ha'chinuch(a list and discussion of the mitzvot, all 613 of them), as far as I know, has an unknown author. R. Moshe Chaim Luzatto wrote a number of ethical works, including mesillat yesharim, which may have been what you were studying.

the gemara at the end of makkot(the very very end) discusses how(theoretically) instead of having 613 mitzvot we could have had less, and learned the remaining from the few given. I dont remember all the details(I learned it a few months ago, and don't have it handy to quote directly), but basically the gemara lists a number of mitzvot that are bein adam l'chavero(between people, as opposed to between man and God), and posits these as the basis for the rest of the mitzvot. Eventually they whittle it down to one mitzva. Clearly there is a concept that mitzvot between people are very important. However, there are also gemara's that discuss the difference between Jews and non-Jews, and the different legal standings. While in some very orthodox(some might say cloistered) groups these differences are used as a basis for halacha l'ma'ase(practical use laws, as opposed to theoretical), and on that basis one may not have to return the lost object of a non-Jew, one certainly is not obliged to retain that lost object, and equally certainly it is a good deed to return it, no matter who the owner is. Unfortunately, these distinctions which are legalistic in nature, and more on a theoretical basis, get turned into practical guidance. So the question asked is " do I have to return it?", not, "what is the proper thing to do from the point of view of Jewish morality, or even just plain human decency."

I will have to go find my sources, but there are opinions that the soul of a Jew is different from the soul of a non-Jew. A non-Jew who wants to have a Jewish soul has options(conversion). This opinion in no way diminishes the humanity of people who are not Jews, but draws a distinction. I have not thought about it enough to have an opinion as to whether I agree wtih this. But again, this is a theoretical discussion, with no practical application. YOu may argue that differentiation is the first step towards persecution, but the reality is that Jews are different from other people simply by the fact that they are Jews. Just as Catholics are different from Hindus, Orthodox Christians from Muslims, and on and on. No one reliable that I know of claims that non-Jews are any less human than Jews, and I would reject that claim totally.

Thu Jan 05, 12:13:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Ezzie said...

One note on the change story...

I would have understood her question differently. Since the money was found in the candy machine, and is of a small amount, it almost definitely would not fall into the category of stealing. The person who left it there had no doubt not even realized, or, if they later did realize, would have 'given up' on the money and it would become hefker. Her question would be if one is required to do hashavas aveidah (return lost items) in this case, in case it was a Jew who left it there. The answer is likely no, but ask your local (Orthodox, heh) rabbi. :)

Thu Jan 05, 06:23:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Thanks for the info about the book, Dilbert. Maybe it was Mesillat Yesharim.

The change was never the issue. So what if the amount in question was less than a dollar? And so what if she would have had no idea to whom to return it? What bothered me was the question. Kayla was making a clear distinction between Jew and non-Jew *in terms of ethical behavior.* Why should it matter from whom one is "stealing?" Why should any Jew think that there's nothing wrong with not returning an item to a non-Jew?

Maybe the "soul" business is theoretical, but it bothers me for pretty much the same reason that the question of whether it's "less wrong" not to seek to return a lost item to a non-Jew. Maybe it's just my ignorance showing, but I was under the impression that it was our souls that distinguished humans from animals, in tradition thinking. So how can one type of human's soul be different from than another's? I just don't get it.

Thu Jan 05, 09:33:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Ezzie said...

I'm not sure my answer was clear enough, sorry...

I don't think she intended it as a put-down to non-Jews at all, or as an implication that they are 'below' us somehow. It's simply a halachic/hashkafic issue as to whether or not a person has to expend that effort to return the lost object in a situation where it's mostly non-Jews.

Fri Jan 06, 02:06:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie, that's exactly my point. I honestly cannot comprehend how or why or hashkafah (I think a reasonable translation would be "one's religious perspective"--please correct me if I'm wrong) differentiates between Jew and non-Jew *in matters of ethics.* I don't understand how I can interpret that in any way other than as a put-down and/or "an implication that they are 'below' us somehow." From the point of view of my own haskafah, there's nothing "simple" about this. I have a serious problem with this differentiation between Jews and non-Jews in matters of ethics. If something's wrong when done by a Jew to a Jew, why is it any less wrong when done by a Jew to a non-Jew?

Sat Jan 07, 06:22:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Eliyahu said...

shira, i'm not up on the details of the law. but i'm reminded of something my rabbi taught me. we were discussing whether it would be ok to have a cheeseburger in public. no, of course. what about a vegi-burger with cheese? no, was the answer, it's not ok, at least in public, because you don't want to give the appearance of eating meat and dairy. so if the appearance of cheeseburgers is important, how much more so the appearance of how we deal with all people? go, shira!

Sat Jan 07, 11:10:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Agreed, Eliyahu. At the very least, this sort of differentiation in ethical behavior is "maret ayin" (if that's the proper spelling), meaning, roughly, "it looks bad," it makes one appear to be doing something wrong. Second, such an approach certainly won't enhance our reputation with non-Jews. But to my mind, the basic problem is that this sort of behavior doesn't just *look* wrong, it *is* wrong. No offense intended, folks, but that's the way I see it.

Sun Jan 08, 12:33:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should be aware that in my Orthodox education growing up, it was constantly stressed that ethical responsibilities to non-Jews are the same as ethical responsibilities to Jews, and that even where Rabbinic literature posits a difference in our technical obligations to idolaters, (1) most non-Jews today aren't human-sacrificing idolators, and (2) you treat every human being respectfully, because of darkei shalom or mishum eivah, depending on if you're an optimist or a pessimist.

On the topic of qualitative differences in the souls of Jews and non-Jews, unfortunately a growing number of Jews are under the impression that this idea has a long venerable history in Jewish thought. (This may be do to the proselytizing efforts of Chabad, who hold it as central to their theology). It does not appear in any ancient source, and when it shows up in the middle ages there is never a real source given from the Torah or Prophets or Talmud, other than the author's imagination or "personal revelation" or "esoteric knowledge". In fact, when the first Chabad Rebbe tries to prove this point in his book Tanya, he misquotes a *rejected* opinion in the Gemara as authoritative!

The older quotes from our tradition that address the issue of differences between JEws and non-Jews, all talk of being Jewish as a "gift" or a "responsibility", and stress that every human being was created at once, with the same identity (as Adam), and with the same Tselem Elohim.

Sun Jan 08, 11:53:00 AM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Big Brother, that's closer to the attitude that I was taught. If we're all "b'tzelem Elokim" (in G-d's image), how can we have different souls? I find that pretty confusing. So it's of interest to me that that interpretation may be of relatively recent vintage, and may possibly even be based on an error. (Hey, even a scholar is entitled to make a mistake, now and then. It's when the error gets passed down as irrefutable truth that it becomes problematic.)

I was taught that being chosen does *not* mean being better, it means we have more obligations and responsibilities, including being "or la-goyim," a light to the nations, which, to me, means setting a good example.

In addition, Treating every human being respectfully, because of darkei shalom, the ways of peace, strikes me as a good bet if one wants to get along with the neighbors. Do me a favor, though, and please translate the term "mishum eivah." Not having been blessed with a day school education, I'm still catching up.

Sun Jan 08, 07:37:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Ezzie said...

Shira - sorry, I'd misunderstood you. BigBro says it well. :)

A couple rebbeim I had got upset at students who tried to "prove" non-Jews are below us.

Mon Jan 09, 05:24:00 PM 2006  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Ezzie, thanks for clarifying.

There seems to be a diffentiation between halachic theory and expected behavior on the issue of dealing with non-Jews, the consensus among the commenters here seeming to be that, lack of obligation notwithstanding, one should "do the right thing" and also **not** get the idea that non-Jews are less human or beneath us.

Tue Jan 10, 12:11:00 AM 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I asked an orthodox Jew whether non-Jewish souls are considered less or equally fully human compared to born-Jews, he referred me to the Noachide laws- which I feel did NOT answer my question. If a non-Jew needs to convert or to follow the Noachide laws to fully live in the One- does this not suggest that persons not born of Jewish mothers were somehow less to start with? Why would somebody need to undergo any procedure in the first place? My understanding may be limited- but this seems like circular reasoning.

Sun Jun 03, 05:59:00 PM 2007  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Re Jewish law's seeming inference of Jewish superiority, what a number of the previous commenters to this post seem to be saying is the opposite of the usual: Do as I do, not as I say. The consensus here seems to be to go beyond the letter of the law in dealing with non-Jews, in the interest of respect, fairness, and good neighborly relations. That's, perhaps, sometimes the best approach when changing the letter of the law is so difficult.

Tue Jun 05, 06:30:00 PM 2007  

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