Min haMuvhar

Orthodoxy and Diversity

The Talmud (Berakhot 58a) teaches that one is required to recite a special blessing when witnessing a vast throng of Jews, praising the Almighty who is hakham harazim, the One who understands the root and inner thoughts of each individual.Their thoughts are not alike and their appearance is not alike. The Creator made each person as a unique being. He expected and wanted diversity of thought, and we bless Him for having created this diversity among us.

The antithesis of this ideal is represented by Sodom. Rabbinic teaching has it that the Sodomites placed visitors in a bed. If the person was too short, he was stretched until he fit the bed. If he was too tall, his legs were cut off so that he fit the bed. This parable is not, I think, merely referring to the desire for physical uniformity; the people of Sodom wanted everyone to fit the same pattern, to think alike, to conform to the mores of the Sodomites. They fostered and enforced conformity in an extreme way.

Respect for individuality and diversity is a sine qua non of healthy human life. We each have unique talents and insights, and we need the spiritual climate that allows us to grow, to be creative, to contribute to humanity's treasury of ideas and knowledge.

Societies struggle to find a balance between individual freedom and communal standards of conduct. The Torah, while granting much freedom, also provides boundaries beyond which the individual may not trespass. When freedom becomes license, it can unsettle society. On the other hand, when authoritarianism quashes individual freedom, the dignity and sanctity of the individual are violated. I wish to focus on this latter tendency as it relates to contemporary Orthodox Jewish life.

Some years ago, I visited a great Torah luminary in Israel. He had given a shiur (Torah lecture) for rabbis and rabbinical judges in which he suggested introducing civil marriage in the State of Israel. He offered cogent arguments in support of this view, and many of those present actually thanked him for having the courage to put this issue on the rabbinic agenda. His suggestion, though, was vehemently opposed by the rabbinic establishment, and this rabbi was sharply criticized in the media. Efforts were made to isolate him and limit his influence as much as possible. Students of the rabbi were told not to attend his classes any longer. This rabbi lamented to me: Have you heard of the mafia? Well, we have a rabbinic mafia here. This, of course, is an indictment of the greatest seriousness. It is not an issue of whether or not one favors civil marriage. The issue is whether a rabbinic scholar has the right and responsibility to explore and discuss unpopular ideas. If his suggestions are valid, they should be accepted. If they are incorrect, they should be refuted. But to apply crude pressure to silence open discussion is dangerous, and inimical to the best interests of the Torah community.

Similar cases abound where pressure has been brought to bear on rabbis and scholars who espouse views not in conformity with the prevailing opinions of an inner circle of Orthodox rabbinic leaders. As one example of this phenomenon, a certain rabbi permitted women to study Talmud in his class at his synagogue. One of the women in his congregation consulted a Rosh Yeshiva who promptly branded the synagogue rabbi as a heretic (apikores) for having allowed women to study Talmud. The Rosh Yeshiva told the woman she was not permitted to pray in the synagogue any more as long as that rabbi was there. When the synagogue rabbi was informed of this, he wrote a respectful letter to the Rosh Yeshiva and explained the halakhic basis for women studying Talmud. The Rosh Yeshiva refused to answer, and told the woman congregant that he would not enter a correspondence with a heretic. The woman stopped attending the rabbi's synagogue.

Is this the way of Torah, whose ways are the ways of pleasantness? Does this kind of behavior shed honor on Orthodoxy? Shouldn't learned people be able to speak with each other, argue a point of halakha, disagree with each other? Shouldn't the Torah world be able to deal with controversy without engaging in name-calling and delegitimization?

Over the years, I have been involved in the planning of a number of rabbinic conferences and conventions. Invariably questions are raised concerning who will be invited to speak. Some says: If Rabbi so-and-so is put on the program, then certain other rabbis and speakers will refuse to participate. Someone says: if such-and-such a group is among the sponsors of the conference, the other groups will boycott the event. What is happening in such instances is a subtle--and not so subtle--process of coercion. Decisions are being made as to which Orthodox individuals and groups are acceptable and which are not.

This process is insidious and is unhealthy for Orthodoxy. It deprives us of meaningful discussion and debate. It intimidates people from taking independent or original positions, for fear of being ostracized or isolated.

Many times I have heard intelligent people say: I believe thus-and-so but I can't say so openly for fear of being attacked by the "right." I support such-and-such proposal, but can't put my name in public support for fear of being reviled or discredited by this group or that group.

We must face this problem squarely and candidly: The narrowing of horizons is a reality within contemporary Orthodoxy. The fear to dissent from the "acceptable" positions is palpable. But if individuals are not allowed to think independently, if they may not ask questions and raise alternatives, then we as a community suffer a loss of vitality and dynamism. Fear and timidity become our hallmark.

This situation contrasts with the way a vibrant Torah community should function. Rabbi Yehiel Mikhel Epstein, in the introduction to Hoshen Misphat of his Arukh haShulhan, notes that difference of opinion among our sages constitutes the glory of Torah. "The entire Torah is called a song (shira), and the glory of a song is when the voices differ one from the other. This is the essence of its pleasantness."

Debates and disagreements have long been an accepted and valued part of the Jewish tradition. The Rama (see Shulhan Arukh, Y.D. 242:2,3) notes that it is even permissible for a student to dissent from his rabbi's ruling if he has proofs and arguments to uphold his opinion. Rabbi Hayyim Palachi, the great halakhic authority of 19th century Izmir, wrote that "the Torah gave permission to each person to express his opinion according to his understanding...It is not good for a sage to withhold his words out of deference to the sages who preceded him if he finds in their words a clear contradiction...A sage who wishes to write his proofs against the kings and giants of Torah should not withhold his words nor suppress his prophecy, but should give his analysis as he has been guided by Heaven" (see Hikekei Lev, O.H. 6; and Y.D. 42).

The great 20th century sage, Rabbi Haim David Halevy, ruled: "Not only does a judge have the right to rule against his rabbis; he also has an obligation to do so [if he believes their decision to be incorrect and he has strong proofs to support his own position]. If the decision of those greater than he does not seem right to him, and he is not comfortable following it, and yet he follows that decision [in deference to their authority], then it is almost certain that he has rendered a false judgment"(Aseh Lekha Rav, 2:61). Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in rejecting an opinion of Rabbi Shelomo Kluger, wrote that "one must love truth more than anything" (Iggrot Moshe, Y. D., 3:88).

Orthodoxy needs to foster the love of truth. It must be alive to different intellectual currents, and receptive to open discussion. How do we, as a modern Orthodox community, combat the tendency toward blind authoritarianism and obscurantism?

First, we must stand up and be counted on the side of freedom of expression. We, as a community, must give encouragement to all who have legitimate opinions to share. We must not tolerate intolerance. We must not yield to the tactics of coercion and intimidation.

Our schools and institutions must foster legitimate diversity within Orthodoxy. We must insist on intellectual openness, and resist efforts to impose conformity: we will not be fitted into the bed of Sodom. We must give communal support to diversity within the halakhic framework, so that people will not feel intimidated to say things publicly or sign their names to public documents.

Let me add another dimension to the topic of diversity within Orthodoxy. Too often, Orthodox schools and books ignore the teachings and traditions of Jews of non-Ashkenazic backgrounds. Information is presented as though Jews of Turkey, the Balkans, North Africa and the Middle East simply did not exist. Little or no effort is made to draw from the vast wellsprings of knowledge and inspiration maintained by these communities for many centuries. Yet, these communities--deeply steeped in tradition--produced many rabbis and many books, rich folklore and religious customs; and these spiritual treasures belong to all Jews. To ignore the experience and teachings of these communities is to deprive ourselves and our children of a valuable part of the Jewish heritage.

Why, then, isn't there a concerted effort to be inclusive in the teaching of Jewish tradition? Among the reasons are: narrowness of scope, a tendency toward conformity, lack of interest in reaching beyond the familiar. Yet, unless we overcome these handicaps, we rob Orthodoxy of vitality and strength, creativity and breadth.

Orthodoxy is large enough and great enough to include Rambam and the Ari; the Baal Shem Tov and the Gaon of Vilna; Rabbi Eliyau Benamozegh and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch; Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Benzion Uziel; Dona Gracia Nasi and Sarah Schnirer. We draw on the wisdom and inspiration of men and women spanning the generations, from communities throughout the world. The wide variety of Orthodox models deepens our own religiosity and understanding, thereby giving us a living, dynamic, intellectually alive way of life.

If the modern Orthodox community does not have the will or courage to foster diversity, then who will? And if we do not do it now, we are missing a unique challenge of our generation.

The Generation of the Lie...Thoughts for 9/11

The Generation of the Lie (reprinted from Marc D. Angel, The Wisdom of Solomon and Us, Jewish Lights Publishers, 2016.)

He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, even they both are an abomination to the Lord. (Proverbs 17:15)

Death and life are in the power of the tongue; and they who indulge it shall eat the fruit thereof. (Proverbs, 18:21)

The United States suffered a horrible and horrifying terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Arab terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers killing thousands of people. Two other airplanes were hijacked leading to the murder of all the passengers.  One of the hijacked airplanes was flown into the Pentagon, not only killing the passengers but killing or grievously wounding many individuals in the Pentagon that day. The trauma of that day for the survivors and the families of the victims will never entirely disappear.

Moral clarity prevailed in many circles. The terrorists were murderers, hateful and misguided individuals who believed that they would be rewarded in heaven if they murdered Americans. They were willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of inflicting damage on the United States. But, there were those who justified the wicked and who condemned the righteous. They described the murderers as “martyrs.” They rejoiced that America, the great devil, had suffered a serious blow. The same pattern often is evident when acts of terror are committed against Israel. The murderers are described as “militants” or as “martyrs.” The Israeli victims are blamed for their own deaths, and the murderers are honored by the societies from which they emerged. The United Nations routinely condemns Israel for defending itself against terrorism, and routinely ignores the heinous acts of murder committed against Israel.

We should not be surprised by the massive hypocrisy that justifies the wicked and condemns the righteous. This has been going on for many centuries. Not only does Solomon note this phenomenon in Mishlei, his father David screamed out against it in his Psalms. Psalm 12 has been described by Martin Buber as a prophecy “against the generation of the lie.” The Psalmist cries out: “Help, O Lord, for the pious cease to be…They speak falsehood each with his neighbor, with flattering lip, with a double heart they speak.” The generation is led by oppressors who say “our tongue will make us mighty,” who arrogantly crush the downtrodden. They act sinfully but are confident that their smooth talking propaganda will keep them immune from retribution.

Buber comments: “They speak with a double heart, literally ‘with heart and heart’…The duplicity is not just between heart and mouth, but actually between heart and heart. In order that the lie may bear the stamp of truth, the liars as it were manufacture a special heart, an apparatus which functions with the greatest appearance of naturalness, from which lies well up to the ‘smooth lips’ like spontaneous utterances of experience and insight” (Good and Evil, p. 10). The Psalmist is not merely condemning his “generation of the lie,” but future generations that also will be characterized by lying, bullying, oppressing; that will be led by smooth talking and corrupt demagogues. But the Psalmist turns prophet and proclaims that God will arise and protect the victims of the liars. Truth will prevail. “It is You, O Lord, who will guard the poor, You will protect us forever from this generation.” Although the Psalmist is confident that God will set things right, meanwhile the ugly fact remains: “But the wicked will strut around when vileness is exalted among humankind.” Although God will ultimately redeem the world from the “generation of the lie,” this will not happen right away. As long as people submit to the rule of the wicked, the wicked will stay in power. If the wicked are not resisted, they will continue to strut around and feel invincible.

The Nazis understood the power of propaganda. If you tell a big lie often enough and loud enough, people begin to believe it. Even if they do not fully believe it, they will lose the spiritual courage to resist the liars. They will either remain passive or will actively conspire with the wicked. The “generation of the lie” continues to flourish in our day, when tyrannies are viewed favorably and democracies are judged negatively. Every vote that justifies wickedness is an act of complicity with the wicked. Every abstention that refrains from condemning wickedness is also an act of complicity with the wicked. Albert Einstein described the moral decay which he felt was setting into society. “One misses the elementary reaction against injustice and for justice—that reaction which in the long run represents man’s only protection against a relapse into barbarism. I am firmly convinced that the passionate will for justice and truth has done more to improve man’s condition than calculating political shrewdness which in the long run only breeds general distrust. Who can doubt that Moses was a better leader of humanity than Machiavelli?” (Out of My Later Years, p. 10).

Teachings of Dr. Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks (1933–2015) was dubbed by the New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine.” His many years as a neurologist brought him into close contact with many human beings with severe disorders—and he seemed to learn from each of them. To him, they were not “cases” but real people, human beings whose lives had been seriously impaired, who needed care, who still had something to teach. His many books reached millions of readers and opened new and deep worlds to us.

            Dr. Sacks was raised in a fairly observant Orthodox Jewish family in Cricklewood, England. Although later in life he reminisced about the positive elements in his religious upbringing, by the time he was a teenager he was already drifting away from the religious lifestyle of his family. At some point he admitted to his father that he had homosexual tendencies, “but don't tell Ma, she won’t be able to take it.” But his father, a medical doctor, did tell his mother, also a medical doctor, that their son was homosexually inclined. The next morning his mother “came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: ‘You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born’” (Gratitude, pp. 37–38). Although the subject seems never to have come up again with his parents, the searing pain of his mother’s remark never went away.

            After becoming a doctor in 1960, Sacks left his family and community, in search of a new setting for his life. He moved to Los Angeles where he continued his studies in neurology. Feeling an inner void, he turned to drugs and a near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines. He slowly recovered, and then found meaningful work in New York in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx, the Mount Carmel. “I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories—stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues” (Ibid., p. 39).

            Throughout his life, Sacks dealt with loneliness, feelings of not belonging. He had a variety of neurological problems of his own, and then later in life had to deal with injuries, and eventually with bouts of cancer. Perhaps because he had these issues, he was able to view life with deeper insight and intensity, greater empathy for sufferers, gratitude for all the genuine blessings he did enjoy.

            An underlying theme of his work was expressed simply and elegantly: “The essential thing is feeling at home in the world, knowing in the depths of one’s being that one has a real place in the home of the world” (Awakenings, p. 272). As we go through life, we need to feel that we are rooted in something real and strong, that we can live without fear and despair. But this is not easy to achieve.

 

For all of us have a basic, intuitive feeling that once we were whole and well; at ease, at peace, at home in the world; totally united with the grounds of our being; and that then we lost this primal, happy, innocent state, and fell into our present sickness and suffering. We had something of infinite beauty and preciousness—and we lost it; we spend our lives searching for what we have lost; and one day, perhaps, we will suddenly find it. And this will be the miracle, the millennium! (Ibid., p. 29)

 

            In his book, An Anthropologist from Mars, he tells the story of Franco Magnani, a man who had only one subject and who talked about nothing else. It was the story of his hometown in Italy, Pontito. Magnani could imagine every building, every brick in every building; he could hear the sounds of the church bells. He painted scenes from Pontito with amazing accuracy and eye for detail. During World War II, the Germans had occupied Pontito, and Magnani’s family had to escape. When they returned after the war, they found that things had changed for the worse. Buildings were defaced, the previously neat town was in shambles. Franco was a fatherless ten-year-old child at the time. He told his mother: “I shall make Pontito again for you, I shall create it again for you.” When he later was living in the United States, he began to paint scenes of Pontito. His first painting was of the house where he was born, and he sent it to his mother. “In some sense he was redeeming his promise to reconstruct Pontito for her” (p. 167).

            Oliver Sacks knew that Franco Magnani had an obsession; Franco felt himself the sole survivor and rememberer of a world forever gone. But Sacks then extrapolates from Franco’s situation:

 

Discontinuity and nostalgia are most profound if, in growing up, we leave or lose the place where we were born and spent our childhood, if we become expatriates or exiles, if the place, or the life, we were brought up in is changed beyond recognition or destroyed. All of us, finally, are exiles from the past. (p. 169)

 

            But being an “exile” also has its positive elements. When one feels at least somewhat of an outsider, the very feelings of unease can generate creativity and originality. Confrontation fosters friction that can lead to boldness, confidence, independent thinking. “It takes a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness, to strike out in a new direction once one is settled. It is a gamble as all creative projects must be, for the new direction may not turn out to be productive at all” (The River of Consciousness, pp. 139–140). People sometimes lock themselves into an intellectual box; they do not allow themselves “to encounter new ideas, to create a mental space, a category with potential connection—and then to bring these ideas into full and stable consciousness, to give them conceptual form, holding them in mind even if they contradict one’s existing concepts, beliefs, or categories” (Ibid., p. 205).

            Sacks had a “spaciousness of mind,” a deep and spontaneous curiosity about how human beings function; how our minds and senses perceive reality; how each detail of nature deserves close and concerted attention.

 

We take our senses for granted. We feel we are given the visual world, for example, complete with depth, color, movement, form and meaning all perfectly matched and synchronous. Given this seeming unity, it may not occur to us that there are many different elements composing a single visual scene, and that all of these have to be separately analyzed and then put together. (Musicophilia, p. 105)

 

            As he was facing his own imminent death, Oliver Sacks wrote a beautiful essay drawing on his memories of the Jewish Sabbath as observed in the home of his youth, and in the homes of many of his relatives. The peace of Sabbath was palpable, a time outside time.

 

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest. (Gratitude, p. 45)

 

            Dr. Oliver Sacks’s mother had once wished that he had never been born. I suppose she changed her mind as she witnessed the impressive person he was to become and the significant achievements he was to attain. But those who have benefited from his care and his wisdom are very grateful that he was born. Our world is larger and better because of him.

 

*   *   *

 

            I first discovered Dr. Oliver Sacks when I read his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, published in 1985. He wrote about a variety of people who had serious neurological deficiencies, and who dealt with problems that most people—thankfully—do not have to confront. Although the symptoms were so strange, Sacks writes about them with warmth and empathy; we come to focus on the human beings not on their symptoms. We all, after all, have deficiencies of one kind or another—or many deficiencies. Dr. Sacks’s genius was not to judge us for what we lack, but for what we are.

            Someone once told Dr. Sacks: “You’ve always been a rover. There are rovers, and there are settlers, but you’re definitely a rover. You seem to have one strange adventure after another. I wonder if you will ever find your destination” (A Leg to Stand On, p. 66). I think that by the end of his life, Dr. Sacks had found his destination, calmly and wisely.

 

References

 

A Leg to Stand On, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998.

An Anthropologist on Mars, Vintage Books, New York, 1996.

Awakenings, Picador Books, London, 1990 (first published 1973).

Gratitude, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2019.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Summit Books, New York, 1985.

The Mind’s Eye, Picador Books, London, 2011.

The River of Consciousness, Vintage Books, New York, 2017.

Musicophilia, Vintage Books, New York, 2008.

 

 

 

Modesty at the Beach, Respect for Elders, Adoptions, Rosh Hashana Customs--Rabbi M. Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to go to a pool, beach, or boardwalk where both secular women and men are in bathing suits that are not tznius?

Each person must take responsibility for his/her moral life. We live in a society where many men and women dress and act immodestly. This is true not only at the beach, but almost everywhere in public.  Whether walking down the street or shopping in stores, one is likely to run into people who are dressed very far from proper standards of modesty.  We necessarily must develop inner moral resources that enable us to block out unwanted distractions.

Religiously observant people will try to avoid situations that will lead to improper thoughts or feelings. Different people have different thresholds for what they can or cannot tolerate.

It isn’t uncommon for religious young people to go on “shiduch dates” walking on the boardwalk at various ocean beaches. There are many non-tseniut people on the beach and the boardwalk…but these couples concentrate on their own conversations and are oblivious to the non-tseniut people. This is true of other religious people who enjoy a healthy walk on the boardwalk and do not get distracted by the presence of non-tseniut individuals.

While it isn’t proper to put ourselves in temptation’s way, it’s also not proper to restrict our lives unnecessarily. Each person must know where best to draw the line when it comes to his/her decisions.

 

Is it proper for children to call their parent's friends or other adults by their first names?

In traditional hierarchical societies, children are taught to respect their elders. Children defer to the authority of adults. They do not exhibit undue familiarity by calling elders by first name. Such behavior is considered to be very bad manners. Calling someone by first name assumes an equality of status.

When I grew up, we never referred to elders by first name—even if they were close friends of our parents. We would call them “uncle” or “aunty” or just not call them by name at all. It would have been unthinkable to call an adult by first name.

But those days of my childhood are long gone. General society has moved away from the traditional hierarchical model. Children grow up thinking that it’s fine to call everyone by first name…even their teachers, and sometimes even their own parents. While I bristle at these things, I also realize that society has become increasingly “egalitarian” where everyone feels entitled to equal treatment and equal respect.

I personally believe society is better served when children learn to refer to elders respectfully, not by first names. There should be social boundary lines between children and adults.

However, it is ultimately up to parents to teach their children proper behavior. In some circles, people feel that it’s fine for children to call elders by first name. They think that a more egalitarian spirit should prevail in relationships between children and adults.

While we each have our own opinions on the topic, it is really up to each family to determine what is most appropriate for them.

 

Is it proper to adopt if you have biological children?

Each situation requires its own analysis.

As a general rule, it is a great mitzvah to adopt an orphan and provide a loving home. If a couple has children of their own, it is all the more praiseworthy for them to extend their love to a child not of their own. Before making such a significant decision, the couple obviously has to consider many things relating to family dynamics, finances etc.

The question becomes more complicated when there are childless couples eager to adopt…but when there are very few children available for adoption. In such cases, it would be proper to give precedence to childless couples. But even here, it would have to be determined what would be in the best interest of the child that is to be adopted.

Whether or not couples have biological children of their own, the decision to adopt is not simple. The overriding concern should be for the welfare of the children who are to be adopted.

 

Is it proper to use new Simanim on Rosh Hashana?

 

The Talmud records the opinion of Abayyei: “Since you hold that symbols are meaningful, everyone should make it a habit of eating the following on the New Year: black-eyed peas, leeks, beets, and dates.” It is told that when the Babylonian scholar Hai Gaon left the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, his students brought him a basket filled with different fruits over which he recited blessings and biblical verses.

Sephardim still follow this practice, generally before the evening meals of Rosh Hashana. Before tasting each item, a passage beginning with the words “yehi ratson” is recited, along with the appropriate blessing. This ceremony generally features delicious foods including dates, pomegranates, apple dipped in honey or sugar, pumpkin turnovers, leek patties, beets, black eyed peas. There also is a “yehi ratson” said over the head of a fish or lamb. Some Sephardim make a “soup of seven vegetables” that includes symbolic foods for a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Is it proper to add additional simanim? For us Sephardim, we already have plenty on our plates! Most others also have symbolic foods for the occasion, including apples dipped in honey. If they wish to add appropriate simanim that add joy to the occasion, why not?

The “yehi ratson” passages and the symbolic foods are a happy way to inaugurate the New Year. We pray that all of us, and all Israel, are blessed with a happy, healthy New Year. Tizku leShanim Rabbot, Shalom al Yisrael.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beyond Tears: As We Approach Tisha B'Av

Our ancient Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed in 586 BCE and 70 CE…and we are still fasting and crying! If this made sense during our many centuries of exile, does it still make sense today? After all, we now have a vibrant and strong Jewish State of Israel. With all our problems, shouldn’t we be enjoying our sovereignty and the first flowerings of redemption? Isn’t it time to stop fasting and crying for an exile that has functionally come to an end?

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, addressed this issue in his volume of responsa, “Asei Lekha Rav”, 1:13, which was published in Tel Aviv in 1976. He wisely observed: “If a nation knows how to remember the days of its destructions and tragedies and fixes days for fasting and prayer, then it may be presumed that it will merit redemption. Fasting is a matter for the nation, not for God.”

Tisha B’Av is commemorated to arouse our national memories and our national aspirations. Even with the establishment of the State of Israel, we have a long way to go before all is well with the Jewish people. While our observance of Tisha B’Av is not as bleak and somber as that of our ancestors in pre-State days, we still derive value by devoting the day to fasting and prayer, to memory of tragedies past, to dreams of redemptions yet to come.

It is a day for spiritual and national reflection.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) suggests that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed due to the sin of sinat hinam, baseless hatred. Yet, “baseless” hatred seems to be rare, if not impossible. Whenever people hate, they don’t think their hatred is baseless. They hate others because of their race or religion, because they fear them or were hurt by them. The reasons for their hatred may be entirely false and unfounded—yet, in their minds it is not baseless. Indeed, it would be quite amazing to come across someone who states that he/she hates you for absolutely no reason…just for the sake of hatred!

I believe the phrase “sinat hinam” should be interpreted differently. It does not mean baseless hatred. Rather, the word “hinam” derives from the word “hen”—graciousness, loveable-ness. The Temple was destroyed because people hated to see the “hen” in others. They dehumanized their opponents, treating them as though they lacked human charm and worth.

At the time preceding the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews were divided into hostile factions. There were zealots and pacifists, war-mongers and peaceniks, religious extremists and moderates. The groups were so antagonistic to each other, that they could not see the “hen” in their opponents. They stereotyped and demonized each other. This led to the fragmentation of society and to the inability to work together in a unified fashion.

When we look into each other’s eyes and see a fellow human being, it is quite difficult to hate. We realize that all of us—regardless of nationality and ideology—are human beings. We love, we fear, we care for our families, we can be kind and compassionate. When we see the “hen” in others, our emotions steer away from hatred and toward sympathy.

Too often, people do not seriously look for the “hen” in others who are not part of their own inner circle. They dehumanize, create stereotypes…and hate to see the “hen” in those who differ from them. They do not see the individual human being with a heart and soul and feelings; instead, they see Settlers and Peace Now; ultra-Orthodox and secular; Jews and Arabs; Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Instead of talking to each other as fellow human beings, we tend to shout at each other as enemies. It is easy to hate a stereotype; it is difficult to hate a fellow human being who has “hen.”

Don’t we deeply lament the fact that our enemies constantly engage in dehumanizing us, in presenting us as hateful objects rather than as fellow human beings? Don’t we profoundly wish that our enemies would take the time to look into our eyes and see our “hen,” realizing that we all are created by the same God and all are endowed with grace and loving-kindness? And if we are profoundly disappointed by the hatred aimed against us, shouldn’t we strive our mightiest to avoid falling into that same vicious trap of hating others? Shouldn’t we try to elevate our own humanity by seeing the “hen” in our fellow Jews and in all our fellow human beings?

Tisha B’Av certainly has meaning for us today. It is a day for fasting, prayer and introspection. It is a prod to national memory. It is a reminder of past failures. It is a clarion call for a wiser, more humane and happier future. It is a challenge to overcome the pernicious sin of sinat hinam, hating to see the “hen” in our fellow human beings.

It is a time for tears - and a time to move beyond tears.

 

Kamtsa, Bar Kamtsa--and our Contemporary Parallels

The Talmud records a poignant story relating to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Although historians describe various political, sociological, and military explanations for the Roman war against the Jews, the Talmud—through the story of Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa—points to a moral/spiritual cause of the destruction:

R. Johanan said: The destruction of Jerusalem came through Kamtsa and Bar Kamtsa in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamtsa and an enemy Bar Kamtsa. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtsa. The man went and brought Bar Kamtsa. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. He said, How can I tell? He said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar]. So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he [Bar Kamtsa] made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they [the Romans] do not. The rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtsa so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land. (Gittin 55b–56a)

The story tells of a host—apparently a wealthy man—who throws a party and wants his friend Kamtsa to be brought to it. The servant makes a mistake and brings Bar Kamtsa—a person the host despises. When the host sees Bar Kamtsa, he orders him to leave. Even though Bar Kamtsa pleads not to be humiliated by being sent away, the host is unbending. Bar Kamtsa offers to pay for whatever he eats, for half the expenses of the entire party, for the entire party—but the host unceremoniously leads Bar Kamtsa out of his home.

The story reflects a lack of peace among the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The antagonism between the host and Bar Kamtsa is palpable. The unpleasant scene at the party was witnessed by others—including “the rabbis”; obviously, “the rabbis” were included on the party’s guest list. They were part of the host’s social network. When Bar Kamtsa was ejected from the party, he did not express rage at the host. Rather, he was deeply wounded by the fact that rabbis had been silent in the face of the humiliation he had suffered: “Since the rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him.” He might have understood the host’s uncouth behavior, since the host hated him. But he could not understand why the rabbis, through their silence, would go along with the host. Why didn’t they stand up and protest on behalf of Bar Kamtsa? Why didn’t they attempt to increase peace? Bar Kamtsa was so disgusted with the rabbis that he decided to stir up the Roman Emperor against the Jewish people. If the rabbinic leadership itself was corrupt, then the entire community had to suffer.

Why didn’t the rabbis speak up on behalf of Bar Kamtsa?

Apparently, the rabbis kept silent because they did not want to offend their host. If the host wanted to expel a mistakenly invited person, that was his business—not theirs. The host seems to have been a wealthy patron of the rabbis; he obviously wanted them included on his invitation list. Why should the rabbis offend their patron, in defense of an enemy of their patron? That might jeopardize their relationship with the host and could cost them future patronage.

The rabbis kept silent because they thought it socially and economically prudent for their own interests. They could not muster the courage to confront the host and try to intervene on behalf of Bar Kamtsa. By looking out for their own selfish interests, the rabbis chose to look the other way when Bar Kamtsa was publicly humiliated.

Rabbi Binyamin Lau, in his review of the rabbinical and historical sources of that period, came to the inescapable conclusion that “the rabbis were supported by the wealthy [members of the community], and consequently were unable to oppose their deeds. There is here a situation of economic pressure that enslaved the elders of the generation to the officials and the wealthy….The Torah infrastructure depended on the generosity of the rich.”

When rabbis lost the spirit of independence, they also lost their moral compass. They were beholden to the rich, and could not afford to antagonize their patrons. They remained silent even when their patrons behaved badly, even when their silence allowed their patrons to humiliate others. Bar Kamtsa was outraged by the moral cowardice of the rabbis to such an extent that he turned traitor against the entire Jewish people.

The story goes on to say that Bar Kamtsa told the Emperor that the Jews were rebelling. To verify this, the Emperor sent an offering to be sacrificed in the Temple. If the Jews offered it up, that proved they were not rebelling. If the Jews refused to offer it up, this meant that they were defying the Emperor and were rising in rebellion. Bar Kamtsa took a fine calf on behalf of the Emperor, and put a slight blemish on it. He was learned enough to know that this blemish—while of no consequence to the Romans—would disqualify the animal from being offered according to Jewish law.

When Bar Kamtsa presented the offering at the Temple, the rabbis were inclined to allow it to be offered. They fully realized that if they rejected it, this would be construed by the Emperor as a sign of disloyalty and rebellion. Since there was so much at stake, the rabbis preferred to offer a blemished animal rather than incur the Emperor’s wrath. This was a sound, prudent course of action. But one of the rabbis, Zecharyah b, Abkulas, objected. He insisted that the rabbis follow the letter of the law and not allow the offering of a blemished animal. He cited public opinion (“people will say”) that the rabbis did not adhere to the law and therefore allowed a forbidden offering. The rabbis then considered the extreme possibility of murdering Bar Kamtsa, so that this traitor would not be able to return to the Emperor to report that the offering had been refused. Again, Zecharyah b. Abkulas objected. The halakha does not allow the death penalty for one who brings a blemished offering for sacrifice in the Temple. Murdering Bar Kamtsa, thus, would be unjustified and illegal. This was “check mate.” The rabbis offered no further ideas on how to avoid antagonizing the Emperor. The offering was rejected, and Bar Kamtsa reported this to the Emperor. The result was the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and razing of the Temple. “R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the scrupulousness of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Rabbi Johanan casts R. Zecharyah b. Abkulas as the villain of the story. R. Zecharyah was overly scrupulous in insisting on the letter of the law, and he lost sight of the larger issues involved. He did not factor in the consequences of his halakhic ruling; or if he did, he thought it was better to suffer the consequences rather than to violate the halakha. Rabbi Johanan blames R. Zecharyah’s “scrupulousness” for the destruction of Jerusalem, the razing of the Temple, and the exile of the Jewish people. The moral of the story, according to Rabbi Johanan, is that rabbis need to have a grander vision when making halakhic decisions. It is not proper—and can be very dangerous—to rule purely on the basis of the letter of the law, without taking into consideration the larger issues and the consequences of these decisions. Technical correctness does not always make a halakhic ruling correct. On the contrary, technical correctness can lead to catastrophic results. To follow the precedent of Rabbi Zecharyah b. Abkulas is a dangerous mistake.

Yes, Rabbi Zecharyah b. Abkulas was overly scrupulous in his application of halakha, when other larger considerations should have been factored in. His narrow commitment to legal technicalities caused inexpressible suffering and destruction for the Jewish people. But is he the real villain of the story?

Rabbi Zecharyah was only one man. The other rabbis formed the majority. Why didn’t they overrule Rabbi Zecharyah? The rabbis surely realized the implications of rejecting the Emperor’s offering. They were even willing to commit murder to keep Bar Kamtsa from returning to the Emperor with a negative report. Why did the majority of the rabbis submit to Rabbi Zecharyah’s “scrupulousness”?

The story is teaching not only about the mistaken attitude of Rabbi Zecharyah b. Abkulas, but about the weakness and cowardice of the rest of the rabbis. The other rabbis were intimidated by Rabbi Zecharyah. They were afraid that people would accuse them of being laxer in halakha than Rabbi Zecharyah. They worried lest their halakhic credibility would be called into question. Rabbi Zecharyah might be perceived by the public as the “really religious” rabbi, or the “fervently religious” rabbi; the other rabbis would be perceived as compromisers, as religiously defective. They recognized that Rabbi Zecharyah, after all, had technical halakhic justification for his positions. On the other hand, they would have to be innovative and utilize meta-halakhic considerations to justify their rulings. That approach—even if ultimately correct—requires considerable confidence in one’s ability to make rulings that go beyond the letter of the law. Rabbi Zecharyah’s position was safe: it had support in the halakhic texts and traditions. The rabbis’ position was risky: it required breaking new ground, making innovative rulings based on extreme circumstances. The rabbis simply were not up to the challenge. They deferred to Rabbi Zecharyah because they lacked the courage and confidence to take responsibility for bold halakhic decision-making.

When Rabbis Do Not Increase Peace in the World

When rabbis lose sight of their core responsibility to bring peace into the world, the consequences are profoundly troubling. The public’s respect for religion and religious leadership decreases. The rabbis themselves become narrower in outlook, more authoritarian, more identified with a rabbinic/political bureaucracy than with idealistic rabbinic service. They become agents of the status quo, curriers of favor from the rich and politically well-connected.
When rabbis lack independence and moral courage, the tendencies toward conformity and extremism arise. They adopt the strictest and most fundamentalist positions, because they do not want to appear “less fervent” than the extremist rabbinic authorities.

When rabbis fear to express moral indignation so as not to jeopardize their financial or political situation, then the forces of injustice and disharmony increase. When rabbis adopt the narrow halakhic vision of Rabbi Zecharyah b. Abkulas, they invite catastrophe on the community. When the “silent majority” of rabbis allow the R. Zecharyahs to prevail, they forfeit their responsibility as religious leaders.

The contemporary Hareidization of Orthodox Judaism, both in Israel and the Diaspora, has tended to foster a narrow and extreme approach to halakha. This phenomenon has been accompanied by a widespread acquiescence on the part of Orthodox rabbis who are afraid to stand up against the growing extremism.

In the summer of 1984, I met with Rabbi Haim David Halevy, then Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. He was a particularly independent thinker, who much regretted the narrowness and extremism that had arisen within Orthodox rabbinic circles. He lamented what he called the rabbinic “mafia” that served as a thought police, rooting out and ostracizing rabbis who did not go along with the official policies of a small group of “gedolim,” rabbinic authorities who are thought to have the ultimate power to decide halakhic policies. When honest discussion and diversity of opinion are quashed, the religious enterprise suffers.

The Orthodox rabbinic establishment in Israel, through the offices of the Chief Rabbinate, has had the sole official religious authority to determine matters relating to Jewish identity, conversion, marriage, and divorce. It has also wielded its authority in kashruth supervision and other areas of religious law relating to Jewish life in the State of Israel. This religious “monopoly” has been in place since the State of Israel was established in 1948. With so much power at their disposal, one would have expected—and might have hoped—that the rabbinate would have won a warm and respectful attitude among the population at large. The rabbis, after all, are charged with increasing peace between the people of Israel and their God; with applying halakha in a spirit of love, compassion, and understanding; with creating within the Jewish public a recognition that the rabbis are public servants working in the public’s interest.

Regrettably, these things have not transpired. Although the Chief Rabbinate began with the creative leadership of Rabbis Benzion Uziel and Yitzchak Herzog, it gradually sank into a bureaucratic mire, in which rabbis struggled to gain political power and financial reward for themselves and/or for the institutions they represent. The Chief Rabbinate is not held as the ultimate religious authority in Israel by the Hareidi population. It is not respected by the non-Orthodox public. It has scant support within the Religious Zionist camp, since the Chief Rabbinate seems more interested in pandering to Hareidi interests than in promoting a genuine Religious Zionist vision and program for the Jewish State.

Recent polls in Israel have reflected a growing backlash against the Hareidization of religious life and against the political/social/religious coercion that has been fostered by Hareidi leadership. Seventy percent of Jewish Israelis are opposed to new religious legislation. Fifty-three pecert oppose all religiously coercive legislation. Forty-two percent believe that the tension between the Hareidim and the general public is the most serious internal schism in Israeli Jewish society—nearly twice as many as those who think the most serious tension is between the political left and political right. Sixty-five percent think the tensions between Hareidim and the general public are the most serious, or second most serious, problem facing the Israeli Jewish community. An increasing number of Israelis are in favor of a complete separation of religion and State, reflecting growing frustration with the religious status quo.

Posting Photos, Casinos, Sunscreen--Rabbi Marc Angel Responds to Questions from the Jewish Press

Is it proper to frequently post photos of your life on Facebook or Instagram for anyone to see? What about just for your friends and acquaintances to see?

I begin with a disclaimer: I don’t personally do Facebook or Instagram. I very much enjoy photos from our children and grandchildren, which we receive via WhatsApp and Nixplay, but I have no interest at all in sharing photographs beyond our immediate family.

Although Facebook and Instagram are not part of my own life, I know relatives and friends who find these social media to be very worthwhile, especially when it comes to keeping up with family and friends who live in other towns. If people find these things to be of real value, they have a right to opt in to these social media.

I’m not sure what positive value there is in posting photos beyond one’s immediate circle of family and friends. To me, it smacks of inappropriate exhibitionism. I find it strange that people want total strangers to follow their lives; I find it even stranger that people actually find satisfaction in following the lives of total strangers.

Time is precious and non-recoverable. Before deciding whether or not—or how much—to engage in social media, one needs to be sure that the investment of time is well worth it. Think carefully, and decide on your own what’s best for you.

Is it proper to go to a casino and play the slot machines or card games?

 The very first verse in Tehilim provides the answer to this question. The Psalmist declares that happy is the person who does not sit in the company of idlers…moshav leitsim. I think moshav leitsim is an apt term to apply to casinos.

Halakhic tradition views gambling in very negative terms. At worst, gambling involves financial dealings of dubious propriety deeming an inveterate gambler as someone with tarnished reputation. At best, gambling entails becoming part of a moshav leitsim, a group of people engaged in frivolous activity.

People go to casinos (or gamble online) not merely to pass a few hours of entertainment…but to win money. Although everyone knows that the odds are stacked in favor of the house, people think they will be lucky to win at card games or slot machines. The casinos offer many incentives to get people to gamble…and the casinos rake in many millions of dollars from gullible players.

Many patrons of casinos lose substantial amounts of money. Some have become “addicted” and keep betting their assets away in the hope that this time they’ll hit it big. But very few come out ahead and very many suffer serious losses.

It is best not to get started with gambling. If one already is a frequenter of casinos (or plays online gambling games) it would be best to stop.

Happy is the person who does not sit in the company of idlers, time wasters, gamblers.

 

 Is it proper not to wear sunscreen given the UVA/UVB exposure risks? Should a parent educate young children about the need for sunscreen and require them to wear it?

One of the basic responsibilities of parents is to keep their children as safe and healthy as possible. Would we think it proper for parents to feed children tainted food that can harm them? Would we think it proper for parents to let children play in traffic? Of course not. We would view this as highly irresponsible behavior.

Likewise, would we think it proper for parents to expose their children to bright sun without having protected them with sunscreen? Sunburn—especially severe sunburn—is not only painful but can have long term detrimental impact on health. Responsible parents will see to it that their children are properly covered with sunscreen. They will teach their children the importance of maintaining healthful practices.

Conveying the importance of good hygiene goes beyond the issue of sunscreen. It entails maintaining and teaching a healthy lifestyle. The goal is to inculcate our children and grandchildren with proper behaviors so that they will adopt these behaviors on their own…even when we aren’t there to nag them!

 

 

A Modesty Proposal: Rethinking Tseniut

The Torah provides a framework for sexual morality. Its legal prescriptions specify forbidden relationships; its narratives describe behavior and dress that reflect attitudes relating to sexuality and modesty.

The Torah’s view of sexual relationships might best be seen as fulfilling the overarching command that we be a holy people (vaYikra 19:2). Indeed, Rashi, in his commentary on this verse, identifies holiness with separation from forbidden sexual relationships.
However, the Torah does not enumerate rules relating to modesty in thought, dress, and speech. For example, it does not state how much of a person’s body needs to be covered, and gives no measurements for sleeve lengths or skirt sizes. Nor does it present specific rules relating to “hirhurim”—erotic thoughts; nor to “mehitsot” separating men and women at public gatherings; nor to the general—non-sexual—interrelationships of men and women. Rather, these rules are inferred from the mandate to be holy—to separate ourselves from sin, including sin of a sexual nature.

The Philosophy of Tseniut

The Talmud and later rabbinic literature provide additional material relating to sexual conduct in general, and tseniut (modesty) in particular. An aim of tseniut is to diminish the possibility of improper sexual temptations that could lead to sinful behavior. The human sexual drive is quite powerful, and the tseniut laws are intended to keep that drive under control.

Tseniut, though, is not simply a system of prevention from sin. Rather, it encompasses a positive philosophy relating to the nature of human beings. While acknowledging the power of human sexuality, tseniut teaches that human beings are more than mere sexual beings.

In his famous book, I and Thou, the philosopher Martin Buber pointed out that ideal human relationships involve mutual knowledge and respect, where people treat themselves and others as valuable persons—not as things. Tseniut, in fact, seeks to foster the highest form of I-Thou relationship. By insisting on modest dress and behavior, the laws of tseniut promote a framework for human relationships that transcends the physical/sexual aspects.

Non-tseniut behavior signals a person’s desire to be seen as an object of sexual attraction. People who dress in a sexually provocative way are interested in being noticed, in exciting the sexual interest of others. When people dress provocatively, what they are communicating is: notice me, I crave your attention, please don’t ignore me. Underlying this non-vocalized plea is the feeling that one will not be noticed unless he/she is prepared to become an object of attention or unless he/she conforms to the prevailing fashions, even if those fashions violate one’s sense of decency and propriety.1

It is normal and natural for people to want to appear pleasing to others. That is why they spend so much time and money on clothing and grooming. If one dresses nicely, neatly, and modestly, one may take pride and satisfaction in his/her appearance. If, though, one specifically dresses or behaves in a manner that is aimed at arousing sexual attention, then he/she has crossed into the non-tseniut mode. One has chosen to be an object a thing,rather than a Thou.

Why would people willingly dress or act in a manner as to make themselves into objects? The answer is that they want to be noticed, admired, longed for. They think that by presenting themselves as objects, they will more likely achieve these goals. They demand less of themselves and of others; no commitment or serious dialogue is invited or expected.

Human beings all have feelings of insecurity; we need to be needed, appreciated, and loved. Although these tendencies are often exacerbated in teenagers, they continue to exist throughout adult life. Exhibitionism is a short-cut to gaining the attention—and hopefully the affection—of others. Yet, underneath the veneer of showiness is a layer of essential insecurity, loneliness, and dissatisfaction with self. Exhibitionism may gain the attention of others, but it does not gain their respect and love.

Dr. Norman Lamm has written: “One who lacks the sense of inner dignity and worth will expose himself [or herself], as if to say, ‘Look at me. Am I not beautiful? Am I not smart? Do you not like me?’ The lack of inner dignity leads to exhibitionism, the opposite of modesty, whereas a sense of inner dignity will normally result in the practice of modesty.”2

Tseniut, then, should be understood as a framework for maintaining our human dignity. It teaches us to treat ourselves and others as valuable human beings, not as objects. Non-tseniut behavior and dress serve to diminish our full humanity, reducing us to the level of objects of sexuality. Tseniut is a manifestation of holiness. Exhibitionism is a manifestation of crudeness and feelings of insecurity.

The Technicalities of Tseniut

It is important for us to understand the underlying assumptions of the ancient and medieval halakhic sources. The early rabbinic opinions on the topic of tseniut emerged from a context where women—Jewish and non-Jewish—were deemed to be subservient to men. The operative principle was that the honor of a princess, i.e. a dignified woman, is for her to remain in private. Women were to stay home to the extent possible. When they appeared in public, they were to be dressed in such a way as not to attract the attention of men. Women generally were not given the same educational opportunities as men, nor were they encouraged or generally allowed to participate in public life or to have authority over men. Women’s role was to care for the household, have children, and maintain piety and modesty.

Classic rabbinic literature assumes that women are primarily a source of sexual temptation to men, and that women should therefore dress and conduct themselves so as not to arouse men’s passions. Discussions of the laws of tseniut often tend to focus on specific details of what constitutes modest and immodest dress and behavior. Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, in his book Understanding Tzniut, cites talmudic and later rabbinic sources dealing with such issues as what parts of a woman’s body constitute nakedness; how much of a woman’s body needs to be covered; the ervah (nakedness) of a woman’s leg, voice, and hair. He also discusses sociological conditions that may impact on the boundaries of modesty.3

The discussion in Berakhot 24a is reflective of the prevailing talmudic attitude:

Rabbi Yitzhak said: An [uncovered] tefah (hand’s breadth) in a woman is nakedness (ervah)….Did not Rabbi Shesheth say that anyone [i.e. any man] who gazes even at a woman’s little finger is as though he gazes at her private parts?... Rabbi Hisda said a woman’s leg (shok) is ervah… Shemuel said that a woman’s voice is ervah…. Rabbi Shesheth said a woman’s hair is ervah.4

This passage, and others of the same tenor, operate with the following tacit assumption. Because women’s body, hair, and voice are so alluring to men, women are to cover themselves up to the extent possible, and are not to use their voices in a way that might arouse men. Halakhic literature contains various opinions as to how to apply the tseniut rulings—but by and large, the general assumptions outlined above are taken for granted.

Yet, let us delve a bit more carefully into these assumptions.

1. Women today are no longer relegated to the home, but are involved in all aspects of society. Women interact regularly, and in many contexts, with men; women often hold positions of responsibility, including having authority over men. Few today would agree with the notion that the honor of a woman is to remain in the privacy of her home. Few today would agree that women are or must be subservient to men.

2. If we are concerned lest men be erotically aroused by women’s body, hair, and voice, shouldn’t we also be concerned lest women be erotically aroused by men’s body, hair, and voice? Although halakhic sources spell out in detail the various restrictions on the manner of women’s dress and behavior, there is very little relating to men’s dress and behavior. The assumption is that men are far more passionate and uncontrollable than women. Whether or not this assumption is correct, it is surely not correct to assume that women lack strong sexual feelings for men. They are subject to erotic arousal by men’s manner of dress and behavior. Thus, all discussions of tseniut should deal with both sides of the equation, not just with women’s mode of dress and behavior.

3. If the rules of tseniut are to protect men from falling into sexual sin, why are most of the restrictions placed on women? The rules could have been formulated in an entirely different way. Since men are so passionate and women are so arousing, then men should cover their eyes in the presence of women and should avoid public places where women might be seen. If men have the problem, why should women be forced to pay the price for men’s weaknesses? Let the women conduct themselves as they wish, and let men guard themselves from falling prey to temptation!

The Philosophy of Tseniut and Its Technicalities

The philosophy of tseniut teaches self-respect, respect for others, and the importance of not treating oneself or others as objects. The goal of tseniut is to maintain human dignity, and to foster respectful and meaningful human relationships.

The technicalities of tseniut should aim at fulfilling the ideals of the philosophy of tseniut. In popular discussions of the subject, though, there often is a serious disconnect between philosophy and technicalities. Here are a few items that underscore the gap between the concept of tseniut and the technical halakhic rules that are supposed to foster tseniut.

1. “Women’s hair is considered ervah, nakedness.” Normative halakha applies this statement only to married women. Single women need not cover their hair, since men are used to seeing them with uncovered hair and will not be aroused. Is this a valid argument? In olden times when girls were married off at an early age, this assumption may have held true. Seeing girls up to the age of early teens with uncovered hair may have been a normal feature of life, not generating untoward thoughts on the part of men. Yet, today most women do not get married while they are still children. If a woman in her 20s or 30s has her hair uncovered, what difference would it make to men whether she is single or married? Most men would not be able to tell whether such a woman is single or married. Yet, halakha allows the single woman to go bare-headed, while a married woman must cover her hair. If the purpose of head covering is to foster tseniut and to prevent men from looking at women’s “nakedness,” then there is no substantial reason today to differentiate between married and single women. Either all women of marriageable age should cover their hair, or none of them need cover their hair because men are accustomed to seeing women with uncovered hair.5 Indeed, Rabbi Yosef Mesas rules that married women need not cover their hair in our days, since the normal practice of women in our society is to go with hair uncovered.6 He wrote: “Since in our time all the women of the world have voided the previous practice and have returned to the simple practice of uncovering their hair, and there is nothing in this that constitutes brazenness or lack of modesty…therefore the prohibition of covering one’s hair has been lifted.”

2. “Women’s hair is considered ervah.” Yet various posekim allow women to cover their own natural hair with a wig. As long as they have fulfilled the technicality of covering their hair, they are not in violation of halakha. In some circles, it is expected that married women wear wigs; if they do not do so, they are considered to be religiously deficient. Does this make any sense? Women will spend thousands of dollars to buy wigs that often look better than their own hair. They will wear these wigs, which can be quite attractive, and be considered to be within the laws of tseniut. However, if a woman “wears” her own hair, in a modest fashion, such a woman is deemed (by many) to be in violation of halakha. If a woman’s hair is indeed nakedness, how can it possibly be permitted for them to wear wigs—also made of hair? Would anyone suggest that a woman is permitted to wear a skin-colored dress that is printed with the design of her private body parts? Of course not. Such clothing is obviously anti-tseniut. Likewise, if a woman’s hair is nakedness, covering it with a wig is anti-tseniut.

3. “A woman’s voice is ervah.” This is generally applied to her singing voice, not to her usual speaking voice. But there are strong halakhic sources that permit men to hear women singing religious songs, or lullabies to their children, or other songs that have no erotic intent or content.7 When the prohibition of “kol ishah” is applied to all instances of women singing in the presence of men, this is a distortion of the intent of the halakha. The prohibition forbids licentiousness. Moreover, it should be applied not only to men hearing lewd songs sung by women, but also to women hearing lewd songs sung by men. The concept of “kol ish” is just as valid and just as important as “kol ishah.” If men sing in a manner that is sexually provocative to women, this constitutes a breach in tseniut and a breach in holiness.

4. “An uncovered tefah of a woman is nakedness.” Surely, it will be agreed that it is proper for women to cover the parts of their bodies that are particularly arousing to men. It should be equally agreed that men be required to cover parts of their bodies that are particularly arousing to women. But the real issue is not how long skirts and sleeves must be, nor how buttoned up a man’s shirt should be. Rather, the question is: What constitutes sexually provocative dress that is forbidden by the philosophy and rules of tseniut? A person might be covered from head to toe, and yet the clothing may be too tight, too clingy, too enticing. A person’s clothing might be entirely within the rules of tseniut, yet the person may use seductive gestures, facial expressions, or body movements. In many cases, an uncovered tefah of a woman (or a man) is not sexually arousing at all; rather it may be repulsive, an example of very bad taste. Likewise when people wear clothing that is too tight or too revealing. These are violations of tseniut, not because they are sexually arousing, but because they compromise one’s dignity—even if one does not want to realize this. They reflect a person’s conscious or subconscious desire to be seen as an object, rather than as a dignified person.

Confronting Reality

A number of tseniut rules in classic halakhic literature have come into conflict with changing societal realities. These rules have been modified or dropped by large groups of Torah-observant Jews. Here are a few examples.

1. …Our sages commanded that a man must not teach his daughter Torah, since the intelligence of the majority of women is not geared to be instructed; rather, they reduce the words of Torah to matters of foolishness according to the poverty of their understanding. Our sages said: One who teaches his daughter Torah is as though he taught her foolishness. To what does this refer? To the Oral Torah; but as concerns the Written Torah, he should not teach her; but if he did teach her it is not as though he taught her foolishness. (Rambam, Hilkhot Talmud Torah 1:13)

Despite Rambam’s ruling, in many Orthodox schools today, girls/women do study Talmud. Indeed, Stern College for Women of Yeshiva University has an advanced program of Talmudic Studies for women, instituted with the blessing of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. Programs for women who wish to pursue advanced study of Talmud and halakha have blossomed in the United States and Israel. Modern Orthodox institutions reject the assumption that women‘s intelligence is unfit to absorb the wisdom of Talmud. Moreover, even if Hareidi schools do not teach girls/women Talmud, they do teach the Written Torah—in spite of Rambam’s ruling not to do so.

2. It is unseemly for a woman constantly to be going abroad and in the streets, and the husband should prevent his wife from this. He should not let her leave [home] except once or twice per month, according to the need. There is no beauty for a woman except in dwelling in the corner of her home, for so it is written, “All the glory of the king’s daughter is within (Psalm 45:14)” (Rambam, Hilkhot Ishut 13:11).

Very few, if any, Orthodox communities today follow this halakha of the Rambam. Very few, if any, accept the notion that a woman should live most of her life in the confines of her own home.

3. An unmarried man may not teach children because of the mothers who bring their children [and we fear possible immoral thoughts or conduct between teacher and the children’s mothers]… A woman may not teach children because of the fathers who bring their children [and we fear possible immoral thoughts or conduct between teacher and the children’s fathers]. (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, 245:20–21).

Few, if any, Orthodox schools follow this halakha. It is quite common for single men to teach in Day Schools and yeshivot. It is also quite prevalent for women to teach in Day Schools and yeshivot. Indeed, Hareidi girls’ schools tend to encourage students to become teachers.

4. A man must distance himself from women very very much…It is forbidden to look at her beauty and even to smell perfume that is on her…It is forbidden to look at colorful clothes of a woman with whom he is acquainted, even when she isn’t wearing [these clothes], lest this lead him to think about her. If a man comes across a woman in the marketplace, it is forbidden for him to walk behind her; rather he should run so as to divert her to his side or behind him… One who looks even at a woman’s little finger with the intention of deriving pleasure from this, it is as though he looked at her private parts. It is forbidden to hear an ervah voice or look at her hair. One who intends to do any one of these things is subject to lashes [makatmardut]…. (Shulhan Arukh, Even haEzer 21:4).

In discussing the ruling that a man must run from a woman if he meets her in the market place, Rabbi Haim David Halevy asserted that this law refers to former times when women generally stayed home and were not often found walking in public. But in our day, many women walk in the public thoroughfares and marketplaces. If a man ran away every time he found a woman in front of him, people would think he was a fool. In his seeming piety, he would actually subject religion to ridicule in the eyes of the public. Rabbi Halevy concluded that a man who found himself walking behind a woman should simply try to keep his eyes from looking at her.8

The above examples demonstrate that there is a disconnect between various technical halakhot relating to tseniut, and the reality of the societal conditions in which we live. As a result, these halakhot—and others like them—have been generally modified or discarded among Torah-observant Jews. Sometimes apologetic explanations have been given and sometimes not.

Tseniut Today

We need to return to the underlying philosophy of tseniut: the expectation that we be holy, that we live dignified lives, that we not present ourselves as sexual objects. How these aims are actually fulfilled very much depends on the societal conditions in which we live. In ancient and medieval times, when women lived highly restricted lives, the rules of tseniut were applied accordingly. In our times, when women function openly and freely in society, the rules of tseniut also must be applied with this reality in mind.
The following are some proposed applications of the rules of tseniut in our modern societies:

1. Neither men nor women should dress, speak, or act in a licentious manner that will arouse the sexual attention of others. It is a violation of tseniut to wear skimpy, overly tight, or other clothing that is designed to highlight one’s sexuality.

2. It is proper for men and women to dress nicely, neatly, and modestly. It is fine to dress fashionably, as long as those fashions do not violate the philosophy of tseniut.

3. In our society, it is normal for upstanding and proper women to wear pants/pants suits; short sleeved dresses/blouses; clothes with colorful designs. Wearing these things is not a violation of tseniut, as long as these items are not fashioned in such a way as to highlight one’s sexuality.

4. Married women need not cover their hair, as long as their hair is maintained in a modest style. The wearing of wigs does not constitute a proper hair-covering for those married women who wish to cover their hair. Rather, such women should wear hats or other head coverings that actually cover their hair.

5. Men and women may sing in the presence of those of the other gender, as long as the songs are of a religious nature, or of a general cultural nature (e.g. opera, folk songs, lullabies). People should neither sing nor listen to songs that have vulgar language or erotic content that will lead to improper thoughts or behavior.

6. If a person dresses, speaks, and acts in a proper, dignified manner, it is not his/her responsibility if others are sexually aroused by him/her. That is their problem. It is their responsibility to control their thoughts and emotions, and/or to remove themselves from situations that they find to be sexually provocative.

7. Normal interactions between men and women are a feature of our societies. Women may serve in positions of authority over men, just as men may serve in positions of authority over women.9 The key point is this: holiness and tseniut should characterize all contexts where men and women mingle and work together. Co-ed youth groups and schools are permitted, but must be maintained with high standards of tseniut.10

Conclusion

Rabbi Avraham Shammah, who teaches at the Herzog Teachers’ College in Israel, stated: “Women and men should behave in a manner that reflects great respect for one another; they should not consider one another in a crude manner such as sexual objects; they should not dress provocatively, nor should their body language be provocative….”11 This is a fine formulation of the guidelines of tseniut.

It makes little sense to pretend that our living conditions today are identical to those of antiquity and the middle ages. Women’s roles in society have changed radically. The interrelationships of men and women today are far more common and far more frequent than in former times. Fashions have changed dramatically. Definitions of brazenness and immodesty are far different today than they were in olden days. Recognizing these changes is essential to formulating a proper application of tseniut rules.

It must also be recognized, though, that modern-day fashions often reflect very non-tseniut standards. Clothing that is designed to be sexually provocative—low cut in front or back, dresses or skirts above knee-length, clothing that is too tight, men’s pants that are worn below the belt line, and so forth—are clearly in violation of the philosophy and rules of tseniut.

Our goal as thinking halakhic Jews is to be clear on our responsibility to be holy, and to treat ourselves and others as fellow human beings—not as sexual objects. When we live as tseniut human beings, we enhance our own dignity and the dignity we show to others. This is not an inconsiderable accomplishment.

Notes

1. See my book, Losing the Rat Race, Winning at Life, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2005, especially chapter 4.
2. Norman Lamm, “Tseniut: A Universal Concept,” in Haham Gaon Memorial Volume, ed. M.D. Angel, Sephardic House and Sepher Hermon Press, New York, 1997, p. 155.
3. Yehuda Henkin, Understanding Tzniut, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2008.
4. I am not going into the discussion about improperly seeing or hearing women during one’s recitation of the Shema, nor distinctions between seeing or hearing one’s wife or other women.
5. See Rabbi Henkin’s discussion of hair-covering for women, pp. 29f; and article by Michael Broyde, “Hair Covering and Jewish Law,” Tradition, Fall 2009, 42:3, pp.97-179. It is understood that married women must adhere to a higher standard of tseniut than single women, since married women are subject to the laws of adultery for illicit relations. Nonetheless, both married and unmarried women are bound by the rules of tseniut and obviously are not allowed to comport themselves in a way that will entice improper thoughts or deeds on the part of men who see them.
6. Rabbi Yosef Mesas, Mayyim Hayyim, vol. 2, no. 110.
7. For a discussion of sources relating to kol isha, see Saul Berman, “Kol Isha,” in Rabbi Joseph H. Lookstein Memorial Volume, ed. Leo Landman, Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1980, pp. 45–66; and the responsum of Rabbi David Bigman, “A New Analysis of Kol B’Isha Erva,” in the Responsa section of jewishideas.org. Michael Makovi collected many sources on the topic in his article “A New Hearing for Kol Ishah,” in the Articles section of jewishideas.org
8. H. D. Halevy, Mayyim Hayyim 2:45.
9. See Benzion Uziel, Piskei Uziel, Jerusalem, Mossad HaRav Kook, 5737, no. 44, where Rabbi Uziel argues that women may vote in elections, and may be elected to public office where they have authority over men.
10. See the excellent pamphlet by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow and Ron Hori, Hevra Sheleimah: Hevrah Tsenuah Me’orevet leKhathila,” published by Neemanei Torah vaAvodah and HaKibbutz HaDati, Tel Aviv, 2011.
Rabbi Shammah’s paper was originally published in Hebrew and can be found at http://www.kolech.org.il/show.asp?id=25484. It was published in English in the bulletin of JOFA.

Drawing on the Wisdom of Isaiah Berlin

   

  Isaiah Berlin was one of the intellectual wonders of 20th century England. Born in Riga in 1909, his family emigrated to England in 1921. Isaiah quickly adapted to life in his new land, attending St. Paul’s School and Corpus Christi College, Oxford. He studied classical languages, ancient history, philosophy, politics and economics; he was a top student and a voracious reader.  In 1932 he was appointed to a lectureship at New College, and he became the first Jew to be elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls, considered to be among the highest honors in British academic life.

     During the 1930s, he was one of a group that developed “the Oxford philosophy,” a movement that also included premier Oxford scholars J. L. Austin, A. J. Ayer and Stuart Hampshire. During the Second World War, Berlin was stationed in New York serving in the British Information Services (1940-42), and then at the British Embassy in Washington DC (1942-46).  In 1945-46, he spent four months in the Soviet Union, meeting with persecuted members of the Russian intelligentsia, including Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak. His stay in the Soviet Union deepened his staunch opposition to communism.

After the war, Berlin returned to Oxford where his interests turned to the area of intellectual history. In 1950, he received a research fellowship at All Souls, allowing him to pursue his academic interests which were outside the mainstream of philosophy as it was then taught at Oxford. He made regular visits to American universities, where his lectures impacted on the development of intellectual history as an area for academic research.

       In 1957 Berlin was elected Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at Oxford.  Also in 1957, he was knighted. In 1967, he resigned his chair upon becoming the founding President of Wolfson College at Oxford, a position he held until retiring in 1975. He continued to teach, write and lecture, and passed away in 1997.

       That a Jewish immigrant boy from Riga became one of the foremost intellectuals of England is a tribute to Isaiah Berlin’s brilliance, as well as to the receptivity of Oxford and the English academic community. He rose to great intellectual heights, and did so as a British Jew.

       In his biography of Isaiah Berlin, Michael Ignatieff reports that Berlin’s mother taught him in his Riga childhood: “We were Jews….We were not Russian. We were not Letts. We were something else. We had to have a home. There was no point living in a perpetual qui vive. Above all, there was no point denying it, concealing it. To do so was undignified and unsuccessful” (Isaiah Berlin: A Life, p. 30). This early lesson stayed with Berlin throughout his life. Even as he adapted and “belonged” within English academic life, he was always aware of his being, in some sense, an “outsider.” He understood the need to belong and therefore sympathized with Zionism, the movement that promoted the right of Jews to live their own lives and to be fully accepted as Jews. Berlin explained that to be a Jew “was to know how deeply men and women needed to be at home somewhere in the world. Belonging was more than possession of land and statehood; it was the condition of being understood itself” (Ibid. p. 292).

       When he served in New York in the early 1940s, he was drawn to public Jews such as Rabbi Stephen Wise and Justice Louis Brandeis. He could not bear “apologetic American Jews” such as Walter Lippmann and Arthur Hays Sulzberger and saw them, in the words of Lewis Namier, as “trembling amateur gentiles” (Ibid., p. 105).  Berlin and a colleague coined the acronym OTAG, Order of the Trembling Amateur Gentiles.

       Berlin was not religiously observant in the Orthodox sense, but he never took his Judaism in the direction of Reform. “Berlin was adamant that if there was to be observance, it had to be as authentic, as traditional, as close to the ancient faith as possible….For all his skepticism, his respect for the religious content of the ritual was unfeigned” (Ibid. p. 294).

       Berlin’s Jewishness may have played a role in a central aspect of his thinking. Jewish tradition teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God; all have access to God; the righteous of all nations have a place in the world-to-come. Whereas other religions and ideologies have claimed exclusive possession of truth (and eternal salvation), Judaism makes room for others. This recognition of “truths” among all people is uniquely important.

       In his essay, “The Pursuit of the Ideal,” Berlin developed his understanding of pluralism. He rejected the view that “all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors.” He dismissed the notion that there was one dependable route to attaining  this “one true answer.” He argued against the idea that “the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another—that we knew a priori” (The Proper Study of Mankind, p. 5).

       Indeed, those who have posited one correct truth to the exclusion of any others—such people have fostered totalitarian societies, inquisitions, religious persecutions etc.  They have been so certain that they alone have truth, that they disdain—and often punish—those who do not share their truth. And they commit their atrocities with self-righteousness! “To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity” (Ibid., p. 16).

       Berlin’s idea of pluralism is elegant. It differs from relativism that calls on us to accept all views as being equally valid. Rather, pluralism is “the conception that there are many different ends that men may seek and still be fully rational, fully men, capable of understanding each other and sympathizing and deriving light from each other…..Intercommunication between cultures in time and space is possible only because what makes men human is common to them, and acts as a bridge between them. But our values are ours, and there are theirs” (Ibid., p. 8).

       In his essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin directed his attention to the predicament of oppressed classes or nationalities. “What they want, as often as not, is simply recognition (of their class or nation or color or race) as an independent source of human activity, as an entity with a will of its own, intending to act in accordance with it (whether it is good or legitimate, or not), and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand, as being not quite fully human, and therefore not quite free.”  Berlin repudiated paternalism “not because it is more oppressive than naked, brutal, unenlightened tyranny, nor merely because it ignores the transcendental reason embodied in me, but because it is an insult to my conception of myself as a human being, determined to make my own life in accordance with my own (not necessarily rational or benevolent) purposes, and, above all, entitled to be recognized as such by others. For if I am not so recognized, then I may fail to recognize, I may doubt, my own claim to be a fully independent human being” (Ibid., p. 228).

       Berlin underscored these thoughts in his essay, “Nationalism.” He pointed out the obvious: the thought of 19th and early 20th centuries was “astonishingly Europocentric.” When even the most imaginative and radical political thinkers spoke of Africans or Asians, there was “as a rule, something curiously remote and abstract about their ideas….The peoples of Africa and Asia were discussed either as wards or as victims of Europeans, but seldom, if ever, in their own right as peoples with histories and cultures of their own; with a past and present and future which must be understood in terms of their own actual character and circumstances” (Ibid., p. 603).

       Isaiah Berlin, steeped in academic studies, was not an “ivory tower” scholar. He thought deeply and cared deeply about politics and society. He thought deeply and cared deeply about the Jewish predicament as an oppressed and misunderstood minority group; he thought deeply and cared deeply about how humanity might be more respectful, thoughtful, and fairer.

       His teachings are as relevant today as they were when he first expounded them.

                                            *     *     *

            I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, as were both of my parents. My grandparents had come to Seattle early in the 20th century from towns in Turkey and the Island of Rhodes. My ancestors had lived in the old Ottoman Empire since the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Spanish religious intolerance at that time was counter-balanced by Ottoman religious tolerance.

In Seattle, Jews were a tiny minority of the general population. Sephardic Jews were a small minority within the city’s Jewish population. My grandparents, like the other Sephardic immigrants, spoke Judeo-Spanish as their mother tongue. I thought it was perfectly natural and normal to grow up in Seattle with Turkish-born grandparents who spoke a medieval form of Spanish!

       I strive to live according to the truth of my faith. Yet, I also am struck by a massive reality: I am part of a Sephardic Orthodox Jewish community that represents an infinitesimal percentage of humanity. There are at least seven billion other human beings who live according to their faiths, and who know little or nothing about mine. If I have the true way of life — one for which I am willing to live and die — how am I to relate to the overwhelming majority of human beings who do not share my faith?

       Growing up as an Orthodox Sephardic Jew in Seattle, I learned very early in life that I had to be very strong in my faith and traditions in order to avoid being swallowed up by the overwhelming majority cultures. I also learned the importance of theological humility. It simply would make no sense to claim that I had God’s entire Truth and that seven billion human beings were living in spiritual darkness. I surely believed — and do believe — that I have a profound religious truth that guides my life. But I also believed — and do believe — that all human beings have equal access to God, since God has created each one of us in God’s image.

       One of the great challenges facing religions is to see the full picture of humanity, not just our particular segment of it. While being fully committed to our faiths, we also need to make room for others. We need, in a sense, to see humanity from the perspective of God, to see the entire canvas not just individual segments of it.

       Religious vision is faulty when it sees one, and only one, way to God. Religious vision is faulty when it promotes forced conversions, discrimination against “infidels,” violence and murder of those holding different views. How very tragic it is that much of the anti-religious persecution that takes place in our world is perpetrated by people who claim to be religious, who claim to be serving the glory of God.

       While religion today should be the strongest force for a united, compassionate and tolerant humanity, it often appears in quite different garb. Religion is too often identified with terrorism, extremism, superstition, exploitation…and hypocrisy. People commit the most heinous crimes…and do so while claiming to be acting in the name of God.

       Isaiah Berlin’s concept of pluralism provides a framework to be faithful to our own truths, while being genuinely respectful of the truths of others. Religion should unite humanity in a universal striving for Godliness and righteousness.

References

Isaiah Berlin: The Proper Study of Mankind, Eds. Henry Hardy and Roger Hausheer, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1998.

Ignatieff, Michael, Isaiah Berlin: A Life, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1998.

 

 

 

 

 

Eulogy at Wounded Knee

We stand at the mass grave of men, women and children—
Indians who were massacred at Wounded Knee in the
bitter winter of 1890. Pondering the tragedy that
occurred at Wounded Knee fills the heart with crying and with silence.

The great Sioux holy man, Black Elk, was still a child when he saw the
dead bodies of his people strewn throughout this area. As an old man, he
reflected on what he had seen: “I did not know then how much was
ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still
see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all
along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young.
And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was
buried in the blizzard. A people’s dream died there. It was a beautiful
dream. For the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center
any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.”

Indeed, the massacre at Wounded Knee was the culmination of
decades of destruction and transformation for the American Indian. The
decades of suffering somehow are encapsulated and symbolized by the
tragedy at Wounded Knee. Well-armed American soldiers slaughtered
freezing, almost defenseless, Indians—including women and children.
Many of the soldiers were awarded medals of honor for their heroism, as
if there could be any heroism in wiping out helpless people.

How did this tragedy happen? How was it possible for the soldiers—
who no doubt thought of themselves as good men—to participate in a
deed of such savagery? How was it possible that the United States government
awarded medals of honor to so many of the soldiers?

The answer is found in one word: dehumanization. For the
Americans, the Indians were not people at all, only wild savages. It was no
different killing Indians than killing buffaloes or wild dogs. If an American
general taught that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian,” it means that
he did not view Indians as human beings.

When you look a person in the eye and see him as a person, you simply
can’t kill him or hurt him. Human sympathy and compassion will be
aroused. Doesn’t he have feelings like you? Doesn’t he love, fear, cry,
laugh? Doesn’t he want to protect his loved ones?

The tragedy of Wounded Knee is a tragedy of the American Indians.
But it is also more than that. It is a profound tragedy of humanity. It is the
tragedy of dehumanization. It is the tragedy that recurs again and again,
and that is still with us today. Isn’t our society still riddled with hatred,
where groups are hated because of their religion, race, national origin?

Don’t we still experience the pervasive depersonalization process where
people are made into objects, robbed of their essential human dignity?

When Black Elk spoke, he lamented the broken hoop of his nation.
The hoop was the symbol of wholeness, togetherness, harmony. Black Elk
cried that the hoop of his nation had been broken at Wounded Knee.

But we might also add that the hoop of American life was also broken
by the hatred and prejudice exemplified by Wounded Knee. And the hoop
of our nation continues to be torn apart by the hatred that festers in our
society.

Our task, the task of every American, is to do our share to mend the
hoop, to repair the breaches.

The poet Stephen Vincent Benet, in his profound empathy, wrote:
“Bury my heart at Wounded Knee.” This phrase reflects the pathos of this
place and the tragedy of this place.

But if we are to be faithful to Black Elk’s vision, we must add:
Revitalize our hearts at Wounded Knee. Awaken our hearts to the depths
of this human tragedy. Let us devote our revitalized hearts toward mending
the hoop of America, the hoop of all humanity That hoop is made of
love; that hoop depends on respect for each other, for human dignity.

We cry at this mass grave at Wounded Knee. We cry for the victims.
We cry for the recurrent pattern of hatred and dehumanization that
continues to separate people, that continues to foster hatred and violence
and murder.

Let us put the hoop of our nation back in order. For the sake of those
who have suffered and for the sake of those who are suffering, let us put
the hoop of our nation back in order.