Universalism

(Updated 12-Oct-2007: Added kaf zechus.)

In today’s world, with the Orthodox community as tiny as it is, dealing with high costs of education and our own needs, our chessed tends to be focused on the helping others within our own communities.

Another factor promoting our insularity is our need to self-define in order to survive. We are more likely to focus on those mitzvos that are uniquely preserved by Orthodox Judaism. Mitzvos championed by non-Orthodox Jews tend to get shorter shrift. This impacts fundamental things like the amount of time spent teaching boys Tanakh or diqduq (Hebrew grammar).

Such need for survival, both to focus on building internally and on defining ourself, is not to be belittled. One can easily argue that any topic it pulls attention from is not any worse off if the community were to ch”v disintegrate and there were no one’s attention to veer. In fact, this seems to be the position of the Mishnah Berurah (694:3, laws of the Purim obligation of matanos la’evyonim, gifts to the poor). He writes that if someone gives a perutah (a minimal coin) to a gentile for reasons other than darkhei shalom, it is theft from the poor (presumably meaning the Jewish poor). One could argue the same reasoning is true of time and energy, not only money. The question is defining “darkhei shalom“, and asking if anyone would give charity to non-Jews for other reasons.

But I would argue that the same thing happened to our calling to help others beyond the eiruv. That in an age where “Tikkun Olam” has been hijacked to refer to left-wing political activism, we are artificially playing down the centrality of extending a hand to those not in our little community — whether it’s the local soup kitchen or protesting the killing in Darfur.

1- As Dr. David Luchens quoted in his eulogy for Rav Aharon Soloveichik:

“It is not just that Rav Aharon is the only Rosh Yeshiva that speaks about Biafra”, his lifelong friend Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, once explained. “It’s that he is the only Rosh Yeshiva who ever heard of Biafra.”

So I decided to collect some thoughts about the centrality of a universalist outlook by launching an Avodah discussion.
On Avodah, and before that in the Jewish Press, R. Harry Maryles, a student of Rav Aharon’s, explains his rebbe’s position:

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, zt”l, wrote in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, the concept of kavod habriyos, the dignity of Man, is a halachic imperative that constitutes the basis of human rights, and the basis of all civilized jurisprudence.

As the Rambam says in Hilchos Sanhedrin (24:8-10), these rights apply even to pagans. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” Why should the Torah repeat the word tzedek? Rabbenu Bachaye interprets it to mean that the same standard of righteousness should be applied toward all non-Jews.

As an example of this attitude, Rabbi Soloveichik related the following story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia):

Shimon Ben Shetach worked in the flax business. His students advised him to give up that business and buy a donkey which would provide a better income. Shimon Ben Shetach agreed. So his students went to a pagan Arab and bought a donkey for him. After the purchase they discovered a large diamond tied to it. They brought the animal and the jewel to their rebbe who thereupon asked them, “Did the Arab know that there was a diamond tied to the donkey?” They answered, “No.” Shimon Ben Shetach told his students to immediately go back and return the diamond. But the students knew the laws regarding returning lost objects to idolaters. They knew that they were not required by halacha to do so. Why, they asked their rebbe, did he ask them to return it? He answered, Do you think that I am a barbarian? I am more interested in hearing the exclamation, “Blessed be the God of the Jews” from pagans than I am in earning a living.

2- Jason Moser offered two contemporary citations. The first is Orthodox Forum. Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law. Northvale, N.J: Jason Aronson, 1997. In particular, chapter 2, “Tikkun Olam: Jewish obligations to non-Jewish society” by Rabbi J. David Bleich.

Second is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s work “To Heal a Fractured World”, chapter 9 – Responsibility for Society, pp. 113-129. Quoting Rabbi Sachs:

There are certain questions that are note asked within a particular culture, simply because the circumstances that give rise to it never occurred. Throughout history, Jews took it as axiomatic that they were responsible for one another. The question they did not ask was: to what extent are we responsible for the wider society and the world?…
The question was not asked because it never arose. For eighteen centuries of Diaspora history, Jews had no civil rights. They had no vote. Until the nineteenth century, they were not admitted to universities, the professions, parliaments, local government or offices of state. Even after emancipation, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they entered the public domain as citizens rather than as Jews. Public culture was either Christian or secular, and there was no point of entry for, or interest in, a Jewish voice.
[Emphasis in the original.]

3- Rabbi Sacks provides this quote from Rav Kook (also in Jason Moser’s email to Avodah):

“The love for people must be alive in the heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their spiritual and material advancement … One cannot reach the exalted position of being able to recite the verse from the morning prayer, ‘Praise the Lord, invoke His name, declare His works among the nations’ (1 Chron. 16:8), without experiencing the deep, inner love stirring one to a solicitousness for all nations, to improve their material state and to promote their happiness.”

‘The Moral Principles’ (Middot ha-Rayah). English version in “The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems”, translated Ben Zion Bokser, London 1979 p.136

4- Moshe Yehudah Gluck offered this quote from the Ramchal’s introduction to Mesillas Yesharim:

The general rule for this (Halichah B’drachav – MYG) is that a person should act in all his ways based on uprightness and forethought (Hayosher V’hamussar – MYG). Chazal generalized it as, “Anything which is harmonious both to its performer and to the observer.” This means that one goes to the n-th degree of doing good, which is that its result is the strengthening of Torah and repairing relationships between nations.

5- Doron Beckerman quoted Rabbeinu Yonah on the obligation to pray for the well-being of the government:

Rabbi Chaninah Segan HaKohanim says, pray for the welfare of the monarchy, for were it not for trepidation of it, a man would swallow his fellow alive.

This statement is meant to express the idea that a person should daven for peace in the entire world and to feel pain when others suffer; and this is the way of the Tzaddikim, as David a”h, said (Tehillim 35:13) “And I, when they take ill, my clothes are sackcloth, I afflict my soul with fasting”.

For a person should not make his supplications and requests solely for his own needs, rather he should daven for all human beings that they be in a peaceful environment, and when there is peace of the monarchy, there is peace in the world.

- Rabbeinu Yonah, commentary on Avos 2:3

On to my own Avodah contribution…

6- There are a number of things we are told to do for non-Jews “mipenei darkhei shalom — because of the ways of peace”. Usually this is assumed to mean we do them in order to preserve peace for our neighbors. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains otherwise. As we just saw in the Ramchal, we are enjoined understand this concept of “vehalakhta biderakhav — going in His ways.”

Returning to the Mishnah Berurah, it turns out he is saying that giving charity to non-Jews for reasons other than trying to imitate the Creator is not only a poor form of charity, but also theft from Jewish causes. His statement is more like “it would be theft were it not darkhei shalom” than a statement that the norm is theft. This eliminates his ruling as a consideration for whether the Torah promotes universalism. The universalist viewpoint is recommending the charity specifically as a form of imitatio Dei.

7- Along similar lines, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, Rav Shimon Shkop writes about the enigmatic lines of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi li? Ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? — If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?

Rav Shimon explains that the key to chessed is not self-lessness, but an extension of the notion of self. It is easy to do things for one’s one bodily comfort. Somewhat holier, to take care of one’s higher needs. One’s family is “me and mine”, so helping them is also quite easy. One step more outward would be to help one’s friends. People with a wider definition of “li“, for me and mine, would be committed to one’s neighbors and community. And so on, wider and wider. The greatest ba’al chessed is one with the broadest notion of self, including as many people as possible.

This is what Rav Shimon defines as truly being in the image of G-d, of “be[ing] holy just as I Am Holy.” It is akin to Rav Aharon’s idea. To imitate G-d is to shower chessed universally.

8- Universality is a primary feature of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz, Torah combined with a cultured nobility. Derekh eretz isn’t merely to be taken in, it is also to contribute back to the greater culture. “Yaft Elokim leYefes, veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — Hashem gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” (Breishis 9:27) Sheim’s task is to be the voice of G-d in the greater culture. The moral voice in the mosaic of civilization. This is a theme Rav SR Hirsch develops further looking at the messianic prophecies of our becoming “a light for the nations” and “For from Tziyon the Torah will come forth…”

By being silent on issues like Darfur, we are missing our Semitic calling.

9- R’ Yitzchak Blau on Ki miTzion Teitzei Torah (starting at 25:25) ( 25:25) points out that the Tif’eres Yisrael explains three mishnayos in Avos in universal terms.

a- Hillel asks us to try to be mitalmidav shel Aharon (one who is from among the students of Aaron), which in part means being someone who is “oheiv es haberi’os — literally: loves the creatures” (Avos 1:12). Beri’os is a pretty universal term for humanity, not confusable for a limitation to other Jews.

b- Lest you think this attitude is specific to Hillel, the Tif’eres Yisrael also learns this lesson from Shammai’s words: “havei meqabeil es kol ha’adam beseiver panim yafos — receive all people with a pleasant expression on one’s face” (Avos 1:15).

Is this “ha’adam” universal? The Tif’eres Yisrael cites a Tosafos to show that while “adam” sometimes means “everyone in our conversation”, “ha’adam” is always about all of humanity. R’ Blau likens it to an announcement in shul “Everyone can vote for shul president”. Obviously “everyone” is limited by context. This is how Tosafos explain the gemara, “‘adam ki yamus ba’ohel’ – atem keruyim adam.

However, Tosafos point out, this is not true of “ha’adam“. And therefore the TY concludes that this mishnah obligates you to show that warmth to Jew and non-Jew.

I would add to this the observation that the same could be said of another obligation formulated identically: “Havei dan es kol ha’adam lekaf zekhus — judge all people toward the [balance scale] plate of righteousness” (Avos 1:6), i.e. when in doubt about someone else, assume the best.

c- While “adam” may be ambiguous, it’s not ambiguous when used in contrast to “Yisrael.” And so, the Tif’eres Yisrael reads the following mishnah:

[R' Aqiva] used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the “Image” [of G-d]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d, as it is said, ‘For in the image of G-d He made man.’ (Bereishis 9:6)

Beloved are Israel, or they were called children of the Omnipresent. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they were called children of the Omnipresent, as it is said, ‘You are children of Hashem your G-d.’ (Devarim 14:1)

Beloved are Israel, for to them was given the instrument by which the world was created[, the Torah]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they had the instrument through which the world was created, as it is said, ‘For I give you good doctrine; do not forsake my Torah.’ (Proverbs 4:2)

Therefore, the mishnah is saying that all human beings are chavivin because they are created betzelem, and the Jews are noted for having extra gift — being selected to represent Hashem among peoples, and getting the Torah. But every person is previous. Regardless of color, abilities or appearance. (This Tif’eres Yisrael is worth seeing, particularly the Boaz, as he waxes quite poetic about people who advanced mankind.)

We should realize that we are the mamlekhes kohanim, a kingdom of humanity’s priests. If we do not appreciate how the world is behaving, it’s our job as their clergy to take responsibility for the religious failings of our flock. We must struggle to survive as an am levadad yishkon, a nation that will dwell alone, so that we have a particularist identity as the world’s kohanim. But our mission and concerns must be universal.

This balance is seen in the berakhos before Shema, (among many other tefillos). The berakhah of Yotzeir Or is universal, about Hashem as the Creator of everything, once and continually bringing reality into existence. “Hakol yodukha — all shall know You.” Ma’ariv Aravim in the evening is similarly universal, “‘Hashem Tzevakos’ shemo — His name is ‘G-d of All Forces”. But then we have Ahavas Olam and Ahavah Rabba, describing the special love Hashem has for Jews in particular, the recipients of His Torah. To reach that universal goal, we have immediate needs to look to our own.

And may we soon merit that day when “They will all come together in a single union, to do Your will wholeheartedly.”

The Butler’s Dilemma

A moral dilemma taken from the Dilbert Blog by newspaper cartoonist, Scott Adams:

Let’s say you’re the butler to a billionaire who lives alone. The billionaire dies in his sleep. You know he owns a large piece of jewelry that no one else has seen, and you have access to it.

If you steal the piece of jewelry, sell it, and give the money to an African charity, you can feed an entire village for a year. The village would otherwise starve. If you don’t steal the jewelry, it will go to his surviving family who has so much money they won’t care about it.

Obviously it is illegal to steal the jewelry and feed the starving village in Africa. But do you have a moral obligation to commit the crime for the greater good?

And if so, do you likewise have a moral obligation to steal anything else you can get your hands, from dead billionaires or living neighbors, if you can use the stolen property for the greater good?

The problem becomes much simpler within a halachic framework. A person who stole to feed his own children is still violating the prohibition against geneivah. It is only when one deals with mitzvos like “ve’asisa hatov vehayashar — and you shall do the good and the just” that one is called upon to make one’s own moral choices. Otherwise, the choice is on a legal level — and charity doesn’t trump theft.

Like the Laws of Pesach

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹקֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

The wise son of the Hagaddah asks, “What are the laws of testimony, the metarational laws, and the more intuitive laws which Hashem our G-d has commanded you?” The wise son already knows much about the structure of halakhah, he is implicitly asking for a breakdown by asking for the laws by category: The eidos are comprehensible to people, but only after being taught the background of what it is they commemorate. Chuqim are laws that are beyond human comprehension, that we keep out of loyalty to and trust in the One Who commanded them. And mishpatim are laws that make intuitive sense based on human notions of law and ethics.

The answer we are told to give him is to “tell him like the laws of Pesach. Do not eat dessert after the Pesach [offering].” Usually this is understood to mean that you are to teach him all the laws of Pesach up to the very last one — do not eat after eating from the qorban.”

The Sefas Emes points out that this explanation is quite a stretch. It doesn’t say “teach him the laws of Pesach until” the one about not eating afterward. Rather, it says, “teach him kehilkhos haPesach, like the laws of Pesach, one may not eat…”

Why isn’t one supposed to eat after eating from the Pesach offering? Because you should be left with the taste of the mitzvah in your mouth.

The Sefas Emes explains that this is the point we must teach the Chacham. He is very focused on the intellectual pursuit of understanding the mitzvos of the night. With that fixation, he might miss experiencing the Seder, the lessons that can only be learned by living through it, rather than trying to comprehend it. Torah study is important, but it can not supplant the changes one undergoes by actually performing the individual mitzvah.
Therefore we teach him that all of Torah is “like that law of Pesach: do not eat dessert after eating the Pesach offering.” Savor the experience, the taste of the mitzvah.

A Seder Thought

From this month’s Yashar (The Mussar Institute‘s newsletter), “How Mussar Affected My Life — Student Profile” by By Dorit Golan Cullen. (I wrote the majority of this entry in an email to The Mussar Institute’s list. It therefore was designed for people with less Jewish education but more commitment to a Mussar personal orientation than this blog’s usual target audience.)

I suggest reading the column now, if you haven’t yet, because the following is just the conclusion. Without the context and background, the point will be somewhat denuded:

Two and one-half years later, I’ve attracted wonderful people both in my personal and professional world because of the transformation of my character and my freedom to be open and honest in a different way with people.

Mussar has given me the voice to my inner feelings about my self and the people I dearly love. Mussar has also given me permission to select the people I want in my inner circle. As I write, I am feeling at peace, balance and purer than I was in the summer of 2004. Thank you for taking me on this wonderful ride called life.

Mussar can be a very freeing experience.

I think it’s no coincidence that the traditional seder is a precise 15 step program. It reminds me of one of the “ladders” found in many of the mussar texts — most famously, in the structure of Mesilas Yesharim. (Available for free in English and the original Hebrew.) We start with Zehirus – Caution, move on to Zerizus – Zeal, to Neqi’us – moral Spotlessness, to Perishus – Separation from challenges we can’t yet master, and so on. Step by step, a path from wherever we were when reading page 1 to the heights of Qedushah-Holiness.

And so too the seder. Qadeish – committing ourselves to the journey. And immediately, even with an “u-” prefix as a conjunctive, we have “uRchatz – AND Wash”. Chapter 1 — commitment. But before that commitment can cool, immediately, start washing away the unholiness of the past. And so on, step by step, from study to living through the Exodus to the point where we can partake of a meal and it be a sacred meal, to Nirtzah (from the root /רצה/, desire), where we are as G-d desires us to be.

The seder is a mussar ladder. We not only recall the Exodus from Egyptian bondage 3319 or so years ago, but also the Exodus from the spiritual degradation. The Exodus is not merely a one time event, but an interruption of history designed to show us what is constantly occurring in our own lives.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. Translated: a pair of troubles. Everyone recalls a time when they got their lives back after being stuck between a pair of troubles, between a rock and a hard place. The assistance that G-d sent our way is our own “Exodus from Mitzrayim“. Each one not only freedom from physical or emotional bondage, but an opening for spirituality. If we only choose to climb that Mussar Ladder…

In less poetic, nitty-gritty life, to me, the big mussar challenge I will be facing this evening is giving my chlidren the seder that want and need, rather than the one I want to give. Being able to balance my duty to teach them with what it is they are ready to receive. Taking into account the differences between their world view and mine, their priorities and mine. To be empathetic enough to see how that changed with their growth over the past year. For me, that is my “uRchatz“, my taking that commitment to holiness of Qaddeish, of making qiddush on that first cup of wine, and running with it to wash away my habitual errors.