Tag Archives: Halacha

Religious Vegetarianism – is it time?

When I was 17, I happened upon a book I received for my Bar Mitzvah (!) by the name of “A Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace, written by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook. In it, he discusses vegetarianism as a religious ideal; its origins, merits, and dangers.

Here’s the (very!) short version:

  • Man was never intended to eat meat as it is immoral to derive pleasure from the suffering/death of other living creatures
  • Humanity failed to live up to the high moral standards set forth by God, leading to the flood
  • Man was permitted, temporarily, to eat meat for 4 reasons:
    1. Each “level” of creation needs to contribute its part to the gradual development and elevation of the world. In his current state, man depends – physically and emotionally – on eating meat for the world to develop.
    2. It is futile to try and maintain a moral standard of sensitivity towards animals while the world is filled with cruelty between humans. Humanity must first purge itself from far greater injustices before doing so towards animals.
    3. A prohibition to eat meat reinforces an equation between the species, legitimizing humans seeing themselves and acting no different than animals. Permission to eat meat instills the distinction between the species and therefore, an understanding that man is more than an animal, with greater expectations.
    4. Abstention from eating meat can create a false sense of morality which would – consciously or unconsciously – serve as an excuse for other immoralities. Eating meat serves as a “vent” for mans lower, animalistic, aggressions. Left without that “vent” people would find other, human, aggression vents, while still convinced they are moral due to their vegetarianism. (remember the stories of the vegetarian SS commanders walking their dogs through the camps?)
  • The Torah’s laws pertaining to animals incorporate both aspects – allowing man the use of meat while minimizing the cruelty involved in it while forcing him realize the moral compromise it involves. By following these “balance keeping” laws, man’s sensitivity towards animals can slowly develop, alongside humanity’s general moral development, towards the day when the full ideal of vegetarianism is natural and obvious.
  • In the meantime, vegetarianism should not be adopted by the masses but only by pious individuals who already lead lives of higher moral and religious standards. If the masses were to adopt it, he warns, it could lead – like during the generation of the flood – to the denigration and moral corruption of humanity.

Being the 17 year old idealist that I was, I knew for a fact that when Rav Kook spoke about the pious individuals who could take on vegetarianism, he was, obviously, talking about me… Six months later, after rereading the essay, I realized that – no, he wasn’t. I found myself looking down judgmentally at non vegetarians, excusing certain behaviors and avoiding guilt trips due to a new found sense of self righteousness. Thus ended my romance with vegetarianism.

Ever since, I have struggled with the topic and the degree to which I should or should not re-adopt it. Recently, inspired by the public display of vegetarianism by Israel’s president Reuven Rivlin, the following thought has begun to haunt me:

How are we to understand the fact that animal cruelty today is the worst in history. Due to factory farming and the mass production of meat for human consumption and commercialization, animal cruelty is more severe and more systematized then could possible be previously imagined (I dare you to go on youtube and search “factory farming” or “animal cruelty“. Let’s see how long you can bare to watch)
Keeping in line with Rav Kook’s philosophy, the fact that, through industrialization, animachicksGroundDownl cruelty has become:
1. So severe
2. So well known and undeniable
One must say 1 of 2 things:
Either we are in greater danger than before of “blurring the species lines” (reason no.3) and in greater need of “non-human aggression vents” (reason no.4), or, these new scale cruelties are a divine “nudge”, forcing us to realize what was always there to a tolerable degree has now reached a horrible epoch, one that can no longer be rationalized by moral philosophy and that we have no choice but to move towards adopting vegetarianism on a larger scale.

Considering that Rav Kook also holds that the world – as a whole – is constantly moving towards greater moral refinement (something I believe with every fiber of my being, especially since the establishment of the State of Israel)
and that
The alternatives for a non-vegetarian diet are so easily accessible or even produced,
I wonder if we are ready to take on a greater moral standard and progress towards vegetarianism. Meaning, if in past generations there was a certain correlation between man’s lower moral standards and limited- “personal use”- animal cruelty, we now find ourselves with an opposite correlation – higher moral standards on the one side but increased animal cruelty on the other.
Personally, I feel less and less capable of rationalizing the support of and participation in the industrialization of animal cruelty, while aspiring to the loftiest moral and religious ideals.
What about you?

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Is the Shabbat Smartphone app Kosher?

My students approached me asking for my opinion on the so called “Shabbat App” which – according to the developers – “allows you to Halachically use a Smartphone on Shabbos”.Shabbos app
After reading the material on their website, I discussed it in class. Below is a summery of my opinion, followed by 4 correspondences between myself and the app developers.

1. The foundational logic of it is false and very disturbing:

Currently, using a Smartphone on Shabbos is prohibited. Unfortunately, this does not stop many otherwise observant Jews from using their devices on Shabbos, and can make Shabbos harder for the more adherent observer that do not use a Smartphone. The Shabbos App will give us all a way to keep shabbos with all the stringencies and still take full advantage of the wonderful technology the world has to offer.

As I told the students, it would be like saying – since there are so many people who aren’t Shomer Negi’a (and/or “find it difficult to not be”), let’s come up with rules of how to minimize the חיבה (affection) aspect of touching – only through clothing, only after stipulating that it isn’t affectionate touching, etc… As one of the students said – “that’s ridiculous. No one who touches girls would care about any of those things”. Exactly. I don’t believe there is anyone out there who is texting on Shabbat but at the same time is stringent with Brachot before and after eating. Meaning, people who are texting on Shabbat do not do so because they find it difficult to manage without cell phones.
They do so because they do not care enough about Shabbat and are violating other איסורי (prohibitions) of Shabbat as well. There is a concept in Halacha called הלעיטהו לרשע וימות – we do not have a responsibility to minimize an איסור for people who intentionally violate Halacha. Furthermore, if we did do this – it would serve as a destructive blow to Shabbat as it would open the door for other people – who wouldn’t otherwise dream of using their phones on Shabbat – to start doing so.

2. In their list of possible issues that using the phone on Shabbat entails, the writers miss the biggest issue. They list possible איסורים (prohibitions) – Mav’ir, Boneh, Kotev, השמעת קול, etc… but say nothing of the main issue – ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר – from which מוקצה and other איסורי דרבנן (Rabbinical prohibitions) come, of differentiating Shabbat from weekdays. For many Poskim this is also the reason we do not use many electrical appliances on Shabbat and not because there is any actual איסור מלאכה. Throughout history our rabbis made sure to maintain the unique distinction between Shabbat and weekdays, making sure that during Shabbat people not only not create but also not be engaged – in action or thought – in weekday endeavors. I can think of fewer things that would empty Shabbat from all that is beautiful about it. Think of the quiet of Shabbat, the quality time with family and friends, the Shabbat meals and songs, the special atmosphere in and outside Shul, the Drashot, classes and lectures and the long hours of rest. How much of that would continue if cell phones – the instrument which most isolates us from our immediate surroundings – were permitted on Shabbat?

3. The possible מלאכות and ways they are “fixed” through the supposed app are riddled with mistakes. To name two of them:
– The idea that a battery heating up is אסור משום הבערת אש is very childish. Fire is not an issue of heat. Like most Melachot, it’s an issue of (יצירה) creation.
– In the “solutions” it mentions that a גרמא (causation) system will allow typing to be delayed and random. This idea is one most well known from the Tzomet solutions. The obvious difference being that Tzomet comes up with solutions because there is:
A. An actual Halachik need to violate Shabbat such as for sick people, for security and safety and other similar situations.
B. An extreme loss of Oneg/Kvod Shabbat, such as disabled people and the like.
In order so people who have to violate Shabbat or cannot function normatively on Shabbat the Halacha has a solution: The Mishna says that גרם כיבוי is מותר, the רמ”א conditioned that this can be used only במקום הפסד (in a place where there is loss) and the Poskim of our generation have said that security and health needs qualify as מקום הפסד. Equating cell phone use to any of these is nothing short of a gross abuse of Halacha.

It was a great discCellphone on Shabbatussion with my students. Though they didn’t agree with everything, they understood the logic I presented as well as my claim that whoever is behind this is not coming at it will pure intentions by any means as they are completely disregarding the most problematic aspect of the question.

And if you need further proof that this has little to do with concern for Shmirat Shabbat and are wondering what is really behind it one may not have to look much further than the price of the app – 50 USD.

(SEE IN THE COMMENT SECTION BELOW 4 CORRESPONDENCES BETWEEN MYSELF AND THE APP DEVELOPERS)

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Jews as slave owners(?)

Jacob_Levin_slave_auction_ad

The title of this post makes me cringe as I’m assuming it does any decent person reading it.
How can we reconcile the existence of slavery in the Torah and its normative regulation in Halacha with what is in our days a fundamental universal truth – the abhorrence of slavery in any form?
In addition, how can we as Orthodox Jews understand slavery as part of the eternal Torah which we believe is relevant to our lives in every generation? are we to sympathize with slave ownership?
Two classic approaches to this challenge are:

1. Slavery in the Torah has nothing to do with slavery as we know it from history. This approach emphasizes those Halachot that set Torah’s slavery as fundamentally different. One of the more famous of these is pointing out that one only becomes a slave by either selling themselves or by being sold by the court after stealing and not being able to pay back. Other examples are that one is forbidden to task their slave with denigrating work, that a slave has the right to sue his master if physically harmed, that – at most – a person could be a slave for 6 years and of course – even slaves have 1 day off a week and other such examples. It is more of a semantic confusion than a moral contradiction: what the Torah calls ‘slave’, we today call ’employee’, ‘maid’ or ‘cleaning lady’ or ‘nanny’.
Though this definitely depicts a significantly milder form of slavery than that we are familiar with from history, it tends to leave out the less “PC” aspects of slavery in Halacha; that one may forcibly sell his – Jewish – daughter as a slave if she is of a certain age, that a non Jew can be taken as a slave by force without stealing or selling themselves, that he can be forced to mate and then have his children taken from him and sold, that it is forbidden to release him from slavery, that one is allowed to assign him fruitless and humiliating work, that it is permissible to beat ones slave as long as no irreversible damage is done, etc…
To call this approach an attempt at apologetics would be an understatement.

2. Slavery exists even if we make believe it doesn’t. Not necessarily the same crude physical ownership of one man over another, but just as real an exploitation of the poor by the wealthy; the CEO who exploits the manpower wabolish slavery MEDorker who cannot make ends meet, has no health insurance or benefits of any kind, who can be fired at a moments notice with no supports or assistance once his exploitation is complete. Better to regulate such non ideal societal dynamics, thus minimizing the exploitation, than ignoring them and telling ourselves that “slavery is a thing of the past and of no concern to us as modern people”. Having slavery as a fixed element in Torah  and Halacha reminds us that severe exploitation will always be among us and we must recognize it and try to regulate and minimize it. This approach emphasizes the degree to which following the Halachot of slavery would have contained the more crude and cruel elements of slavery and even progress certain barbaric tendencies among individuals or groups who are more prone to being exploited to such degrees. (i.e. a Jewish slave who sells himself can support his family without resorting to crime, one sold by the court for theft can undergo rehabilitation – leading a productive and disciplined lifestyle, the non Jewish slave can become refined through the example of Jewish morality and Jewish observance, which he becomes obligated by, etc…)
This approach is a penetrating and complex one which carries a strong moral call to every generation but also includes a disturbing patronizing attitude as well (to put it mildly…).

A third approach to the question, which I would like to suggest is based on Rav Kook’s discussion of the obligation to annihilate Amalek and the moral dilemma this Mitzvah poses. He writes the following:

“The prevention of possibility is to us a testimony of Hashem’s will and prevention of will has many forms, sometimes a practical prevention like the fear of the ruling nations and sometimes a spiritual prevention. We are pleased when such preventions exist, as we recognize that such is the will of the divine providence in such times”.
Rav Kook says something tremendously daring – it is not a coincidence that in a generation when the idea of genocide is deplorable we happen to not know who Amalek is, thus preventing us from fulfilling the Mitzvah, even if we wanted to. Through the moral development of human kind and the ‘mixing of the nations’ which has erased the existence of an identifiable Amalekite nation, the application of this Mitzvah and all the Halachot that go with it is no longer an active part of our observance, nor do we yearn for their renewal.
We accept the impossibility of this Mitzvah’s observance as a positive expression of a more developed state of humankind and The Jewish People. Through history and circumstance, Hashem has turned the Mitzvah of annihilating Amalek from a practical, physical, one to a spiritual and symbolic one.
This idea has far reaching implications with the obvious questions being – how and who can decide that the physical and/or spiritual inability to observe something translates into testimony that it is no longer divinely desired and that we should be happy about it? what other Mitzvot could you apply this idea to (Animal sacrifices? Mamzerim? not saving a non Jew on Shabbat? women’s role in Jewish society?)
These are excellent questions for a different time but I would suggest applying it, in the meantime, to slavery in the Torah:
Yes, the laws of slavery were tremendously advanced in comparison to slavery in the ancient – and even modern – world and yes, exploitation still exists (though to far, far lesser degrees) and yes, the regulation of slavery with normative guidelines and restrictions served as a refining element to both master and even slave, considering the alternatives.
But even so, we believe that the abolishment of slavery in humankind, especially in Western society, is divinely inspired, divinely directed and part of the moral progression of the world towards a more moral, more ideal, more holly world. The – divinely directed – impracticality of these Mitzvot is cause for tremendous optimism.

So, what are we to do with all of the Psukim, Midrashei Halacha and Halchot about slavery? am I saying – Heaven forbid – that ‘they aren’t relevant any more’***? to that I would say:
1. Talmud Torah is always relevant
2. No guarantees exist that humankind will not morally regress again (70 years ago slavery of the Jewish People would have been a blessing…)
3. Traces of slavery still exist in the world as well as shadows of it in our own society
4. There is an entire world of Chassidish and Kabalistic literature that learn from these Psukim and Halachot guidelines and directives for the inner ‘slave’ and ‘master’

I believe this third approach holds within it tremendous power, combining a traditional approach to Torah and Mitzvot with the most refined moral sensitivities and search for relevance. It is definitely the one I will be thinking about this coming Shabbat when reading the laws of slaves and slavery.

(*** What this third approach may actually mean is this: due to a variety of changes and developments, Mitzvot can become, categorically, no longer relevant as normative behaviors. But – and this is crucial – it is not us, humans, who make it no longer relevant, rather, Hashem makes them no longer relevant. This idea can be part of a larger explanation of מצוות בטלות לעתיד לבוא “In the time to come – Mitzvot will be nullified”, again – not by us, rather, by HIM through changes in humanity, be they ethnic, national, societal, psychological or moral. Deserves its own post but couldn’t help myself…)

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Post Modernism and Jewish Legitimacy

There seem to be a lot of arguments, especially within Orthodox circles, regarding what is and isn’t a “legitimate” Torah opinion. I find myself increasingly perplexed in face of these discussions. In a social reality where everyone chooses for themselves what, how, when to do things and the concept of identity so individualized and fluid, what relevance does the term ‘legitimate’ even have any more with regard to religious belief and practice (other than societal association)?
You may say – the discussion is “what is Halachically legitimate”. Here too, the variety of opinions on so many major issue are so great that – (and this is a key element in this argument) without a Sanhedrin or other centralized Halachik authority – the term seems to loose its meaning.
There are attempts to draw general lines between those who are “out” and those who are “in” but that, too, is an illusion – depending on who you ask, the border of the consensus shifts drastically.
If Rav Nachman said that people who learn Guide to the Perplexed “have an image of idol worship on their face”, Rav Elchanan Vaserman said that Religous Zionism is “joint idol worship” (עבודה זרה בשיתוף), Rav Shach called Chabbad a “cult similar to Judaism” and in return was identified as a force of ‘The Other Side’ (סיטרא אחרא) and let’s not even start on what some rabbis – through the ages – said about Kabbala, I find it futile to speak of a consensus.
Even Rambam’s 13 principles of faith have been disputed and interpreted to such extent that make them mute as a binding creed and the Shulchan Aruch expounded upon to the point that we no longer have (if we ever did) a unifying code of normative practice.

One can argue for or against this reality but it does little good to act as if there is still such a thing as “THE Halacha” or “THE Jewish opinion”.
Even if many Torah Jews (think they) have escaped post modernism, Torah and Judaism have not. (250+90)

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Why am I Observant?

I don’t feel like I have to, I’m not afraid of what will happen to me if I don’t, it’s not because my soul was commanded at Har Sinai (maybe it’s just me but I have no personal memory of the event, just a communal one) and it’s not because it makes more sense than other faiths (which it may or may not).
It’s because I choose to be part of the historical phenomena called – The Jewish People. Call me naive, but I have come to Trust The System (or, TTS as I’ve come to call it). The miraculous system that has sustained thousands of years, with all its ups and downs, molding and creating a better society and a better world; a world with moral absolutes, a world that abhors violence and cherishes kindness, a world of rules and laws that strive for morality and aspire to the divine. That is the kind of system I choose to be part of to the extent of my ability. Sometimes I do a better job at participating and contributing to this endless process and sometimes not as much but, why am I observant – because I choose to be part of the most significant system I know of.(207)

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