Thursday, March 29, 2007

Nightmare 2

In Nightmare 1 I described my fear that in some hashgachot within Judaism the average person isn't expected to be a moral agent at all - all moral decisions are deferred to the gedolim, and a person's free will is exercised by choosing to follow their decisions.

I encountered that thinking again this week, in a discussion with a chassidic friend in Brooklyn. I was describing to him how my wife treats the lottery as a game. She buys one ticket per lottery if she buys one at all. "If Hashem wants me to win, then one is enough; if he doesn't want me to win then buying lots won't help." Then she spends hours plotting how to use her winnings, in great detail. Usually about 80% goes to some form of tzedakah - building a new women's mikveh at one end of time, buying out her financially strapped parents' mortgage, starting a trust fund for Mazon, etc.

My friend said that if he won the lottery he would put it all in a trust fund and sign it over to his rebbe, then go back to his normal life. He quoted some mussar that if Hashem makes you wealthy the reason is Hashem wants you to redistribute it properly.

I was appalled by this answer. If Hashem wanted his rebbe to have the burden of redistributing the wealth, Hashem would have his rebbe win the lottery! This attitude seemed gross ingratitude on my friend's part. An analogy would be if the young shepard David, having been offered the kingship, abdicated in favor of Shmuel.
After all, a navi would do a much better job ruling Israel as Hashem wished than David could hope to. So let Shmuel rule and David be a shepherd!

Thoughts? When Hashem sends us tests, is it our job to struggle with them, or to pass them along to people more likely to pass?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why did the dinosaurs die?

This past weekend my shul had Dr. Gerald Schroder< as scholar-in-residence. Dr. Schroder is a physicist who writes on issues of reconciling science and Torah. Despite being a physicist, Dr. Schroder spent a fair amount of time discussing evolution and abiogenesis (the creation of life from non-life).

I talked with Doctor Schroder after one of his lectures, and he mentioned he believes that just as Hashem intervenes in human history, Hashem intervened in earlier times in the history of Earth. He identified two such points at the Cambrian explosion and the destruction of the dinosaurs. He stressed this was belief and not science.

I started thinking about the death of the dinosaurs at the hands of Hashem, and I came up with the following fable:

When the time came for Hashem to give the Torah, he went to all the species of dinosaurs. Hashem approached Tyrannosaurus Rex and asked "Will you accept my torah?" T. Rex asked "What does it say?" Hashem said "Of all the animals that walk on the land, these you may eat..." T. Rex said "I am the mightiest carnivore to ever walk on the land. Anything and everything is my prey. I will not accept the Torah."

Then Hashem approached the Apatosaurus. "Will you accept my Torah?" "What does it say?" "The fire shall be kept burning on the altar continually, it may not be extinguished." "Oh no", the Aptosaurus replied. "Fire is wild and uncontrolled, and when the land burns we must flee before it or die. I couldn't keep a fire burning. I won't accept the Torah."

Hashem went to the Velociraptor, from there to all the other species of dinosaurs. None would accept the Torah.

Then a small Hadrocodium wui, the earliest mammal spoke up. "I will accept the Torah, Hashem". Hashem said "But you are too small and feeble - you cannot fulfill the mitzvot. But because your desire to serve me exceeds your ability, I will make sure your descendants have the ability you desire. And the dinosaurs shall learn that without my Torah they have no purpose."

Monday, March 19, 2007

Little Mosque on the Prairie

I've started watching Little Mosque on the Prarie, a Canadian comedy, on youtube. It is mildly amusing. The thing I find worth mentioning here is the resonances with Orthodox life, especially that of 40 years ago. Episode 2 discusses whether the mosque needs a barrier separating men and women praying. Episode 4 talks about whether Muslim kids should trick or treat, as well as dealing with efforts to get woman only swim time at the municipal pool. There is an ongoing internal debate as to the importance of keeping cultural markers - should goat be served at a Ramadan breakfast, or are cucumber sandwiches ok? If you watch videos it might be worth taking a look - nothing deep, but an interesting glimpse in a funhouse mirror.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Religious accomodations in stores

I found the following post in the Star Tribune interesting. Some Muslims working as cashiers in a supermarket are refusing to touch (wrapped) pork products, instead asking the customers or another cashier to scan them and put them into the bags.

I remember a few years ago a local Rabbi was asked for a psak about a teenage who wanted to work in the snack counter of a local theater that served hot dogs with cheese and other basar b'chalav combinations. He suggested she not take the job.

The sources quoted in the article seem to think that the cashiers' actions are legal, and that this falls within the requirement to 'reasonably accommodate' the religious beliefs of employees. Initially I thought this was unacceptable, but after more thought I'm inclined to agree.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Unintended Consequences?

YNet reports on a bill filed by Shas to prohibit proselytizing in Israel:

Shas was also sure to defend the bill from accusations of violating Israel's freedom of religion principal, saying that "we do not mean to violate freedom of religion or freedom from religion. We mean to allow everyone to believe in their own religion, and prevent harassment by any source trying to harm the basic democratic right according to which 'every man may live in his religion.'"

The proposal pointed out that the law does not specify which religion it applies to and therefore also forbids the proselytism of non-Jews to Judaism.

"The law also applies to Jewish sects bringing Muslims from the Old City to convert to Judaism," it said.

I worry about the (hopefully)unintended consequences of this bill. (I also worry about the intended consequences, but that is another issue). Will this bill hinder efforts to enable non-Jewish Russian immigrants to convert? Will the Reform movement be forbidden to offer 'Introduction to Judaism' classes? How will the government distinguish between efforts at conversion and simply making educational efforts available? Will it be ok to open an Xtian science reading room, but forbidden to advertise its existence? Will atheism be considered a religion, and organizations such as Footsteps be outlawed in consequence? In principle, could Aish Hatorah be required to confirm people are Jewish before letting them into a Torah codes lecture?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Remembering to Forget Amalek

The pasuk says Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!.

This passage is peculiar. Why are we commanded to blot out the memory of Amalek when we are at peace? Shouldn't Amalek be blotted out as part of the process of war and conquest?

I interpret this to mean 'When you are not at peace, you may have to do terrible things to survive and prosper. Fighting wars are necessary, but they are dangerous to the victor as well as the vanquished. When you have defeated Amalek and are at peace, do not take up the ways of Amalek. Instead blot out the memories of what you have suffered, and behave as though the coarsening effects of war had never touched you.'