Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

Déjà Vu: The Public Propagation of Hatred

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

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Like most of our American population, I thoroughly enjoy the internet and the educational and entertainment enrichment and communication possibilities the media in general adds to my life. But, as so many people are already aware, there is an essential caveat: the widespread dissemination of supposed truths that are actually untruths – in other words, lies. Currently, especially in our political life, we have also seen the damage that the reverse side of the coin – undermining proven facts and calling them “fake” to suit a particular, usually nefarious, agenda – can do.

This caveat also applies to the all too often malevolent representation of the Talmud on the web. As I have commented in previous posts, the Talmud represents an accumulation of wisdom. Each singular remark captures only one rabbinic opinion on the subject under discussion. The expression of many other opinions (over a number of centuries) follow on each talmudic page, and, in most cases, these differing opinions are reconciled to produce a majority view. Popular wisdom is also taken into account. Sometimes a conclusion cannot be reached, and the subject under discussion is tabled peaceably for another time.

So to cite a single negative position in a published post, article, or sound byte does not represent the whole conversation, is likely to distort it, and may indicate malicious intentions on the part of the person or organization that posted it. Unfortunately, anti-Semitic websites which quote a variety of out-of-context Talmudic statements proliferate on the internet. Their usual intent is to incite hatred of the Jewish people (even if appreciation of Jewish lawyers or doctors or occasional friends is expressed).

Here we come to the heart of the matter: statements taken out of context that are deliberately used by individuals or groups to malign people and cause them pain, and, even worse, to incite hatred against religious and/or ethnic groups. The Talmud refers to this deceitful misuse of speech as a category of what in Hebrew is called ona’at devarim, the pain that words can inflict.

The Talmud makes clear that just as there is ona’ah in monetary matters (i.e., willful deceit, fraudulent business dealings), there is also ona’ah in words, when the intention or effect is to inflict pain. Even if we have spoken these words with good intentions, we should be mindful of hurting others by what we say.

For example, we should not add pain with our words to people whom tragedy has befallen, who are suffering illness, or by implying that God does not allow innocent people to come to harm, and in general, behaving like Job’s so-called friends (who pointed out his failings when he was down). As my revered mentor, Rabbi Elijah J. Schochet, cautioned (referencing the medieval scholar, Rashi), since no one except God can know your thoughts, “be mindful of the one who hears your thoughts.” Causing people anguish through disrespect is considered disrespect for God (who, after all, was our Creator).

In fact, shaming someone in public is considered so serious in the Talmud that the perpetrator or group of perpetrators — will have no share in the World-to-Come (the after-life). Shaming someone publicly – whitening that person’s face (that is, draining it of blood, deadening the spirit) — is compared with murder — you have murdered someone’s reputation, and it is often irreparable. Public humiliation of someone (even calling someone a bad name in public) is so sinful in the extreme, so offensive to God, that it is better, the Talmud declares, to cast yourself into a fiery furnace than to shame someone in public (Baba Metzi’a 59)! As the U.S. moves into the 2018 mid-term election, our politicians – and those who support them — should remember that.

Even the biblical Tamar, who was impregnated by Judah and brought forth on his orders to be burned, did not shame him in public. Instead she sent him the signs that identified him as the culprit, and, in remorse, he saved her from her fiery fate. Our electronic media and print press would do well to use restraint, as Tamar did, when they excoriate people in public office.

We certainly get the Talmudic point that ona’at devarim, causing people anguish with words, is a very important issue; that is, it is important not to do it. The Talmud does reflect, though, that sometimes external events provoke disharmony. Difficult economic times, for instance (can cause strife in a household, and husbands (in 2018, it would also be working wives) are enjoined to make sure there is food in the house. As the incomes of middle class and lower income families are presently poised to take a big hit through increased taxes and deliberately inflated medical costs, our governing bodies would do well to enact something positive – big league — to ameliorate this inequity.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.

 

Holding Multiple Views Simultaneously

Holding Multiple Views Simultaneously

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Did you know that every single opinion cited in the Talmud is respected? This is a Jewish value that we would do well to follow in America in contemporary times. The rabbis of the Talmud listened to all sides of a matter and were inclined to make their joint decision (which became Jewish law, called the “Halakhah”) based on majority opinion. However, just as in the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, the minority opinion was still respected and remains a valid point of view. There may come a time in history when the minority opinion makes more sense.

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Actually, when we examine how Jewish rabbis/judges exercised the law so many centuries ago, we find that American law has many resemblances to rabbinic law.  As contemporary lawyers will appreciate, the rabbis argued vigorously and persuasively, enjoying the different points of view and, indeed, the argumentation itself, just as if they were in a debating club.

But the situations they tackled were serious ones, even if sometimes they were hypothetical, and the decisions they made had consequences of which they were keenly aware. Sometimes there was not enough evidence to make a decision, and the discussion was termed “Undecided” and tabled. Sometimes rabbis who had greater scholarity or prestige carried the day, but what is essential to remember (as I was taught in rabbinic school) is that these were loving disputes, with the argumentation presented in order to make the best decision. Acrimony was usually avoided because the rabbis recognized that there could be multiple truths, depending on one’s perspective and knowledge of a situation.

What I am stressing is that every point of view, sometimes expressed with hyperbole to make the point, was given consideration. That is why only one point of view out of many, a single sound byte, cannot be cited as the conclusive rabbinic position. It is all too easy to take words out of context and manipulate them to suggest what was never meant. With this in mind, it is essential not to take a statement made in the Talmud out of context (all too often done by its detractors) because it will not reflect the whole Talmudic view on a particular situation.

The Talmudic method is to listen to all sides of an argument before making a decision, respecting everyone’s point of view, taking from each what is valuable, and then deciding on a well-considered position. It’s a useful method for our current U.S. legislators to emulate.

©️Rabbi Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

Mikeitz, 2017

Mikeitz, 2017

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick, C.M., M.A., M.R.S.

 

Mikeitz, occurring in the Torah portion sequence ten weeks after Simchat Torah, is a hopeful parasha to read at Chanukah. It concerns dreams and their interpretations, and how they impact our lives. It is also a biblical “type scene” of deception, which details an astonishing sequence of dramatic moments, as the parasha balances the Hebrew word shever (usually translated as grain, food) with sever (the dot is on the other side of the letter shin), which stands for hope. [1]

Our home

From childhood, I have been aware that dream interpretations are sought after because they evoke “the human desire to know the future and the belief that this foreknowledge must somehow be available to us” (Plaut, Essays, 281).[2]  My mother, whose imagination and sensitivity were both super-attenuated, was known to her friends as a great tea leaf reader. They would often gather at our home over tea and delicate pastries and persuade her to “read” their fortunes. In those days, tea bags were not in vogue, and if you wanted a reading, you didn’t use a strainer to keep out the tea leaves when you poured the tempting brew into the tea cup. Then, when you were finished imbibing the amber liquid, you turned the cup upside down in the saucer and let the tea leaves set. After an interval, the “reader” would interpret the pattern formed by the leaves. My mother also interpreted dreams, but only those of her family and close friends. I remember her cautioning me that one must only give positive interpretations. [3]

There is always a caution when it comes to dream interpretation. Divination (for example, predicting the future from sounds made by hissing snakes) has been traditionally frowned on in Jewish thought as representing pagan superstition. Thus dream interpretation in Mikeitz, suggests Nahum M. Sarna, represents “the first clash recorded in the Bible between pagan magic and the will of God…. [It] constitutes a polemic against paganism.” [4According to the Sages in the Talmud, “it is an open question as to whether dreams have a validity” (Berachot 55a).

For Joseph, the hero of Mikeitz, though, recounting his own dreams initially got him into a lot of hot water with his brothers. Understandably, they didn’t like the idea of bowing down to their younger brother, as his dreams suggested. Their jealous ire against him took the extreme form of casting him into a pit, selling him into slavery, and deceiving their aging father that Joseph had been killed. Later, when the enslaved Joseph is relegated to prison in the court of the Pharaoh, he impresses his fellow inmates by interpreting their dreams (much like my mother and the tea leaves), so much so that when the Pharaoh has troubling dreams, the released inmates recommend Joseph to his attention. Eventually, through his visionary interpretations and the practical solutions he suggests, a famine is averted in Egypt.  Joseph rises to become the Pharaoh’s right hand man, dressed in rich robes with ceremonial accessories to accentuate his status.

As Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut points out:

“Joseph was the first Hebrew who lived, so to speak in Diaspora, the galut. He became thoroughly assimilated, adopted the customs of his environment, changed his name, wore Egyptian clothes, swore by Pharaoh’s name (Gen. 45:15), and married an Egyptian wife. In Potiphar’s house and prison, he was still ‘the Hebrew’; as an Egyptian official, he became wholly Egyptian. He entered a new life of affluence and power, and the past seemed far away” [5](280).

But it never really went away. You can only travel so far from who you are. As Rabbi Plaut wrote the above words, he may have been thinking about the increasing assimilation of secular Jews into 20th century North American society. In any case, it is the Diaspora Joseph that his brothers will meet when they travel from a drought-stricken land to Egypt in search of provisions for their family. Although Joseph recognizes his brothers, they do not recognize him, and Joseph struggles with his conflicting feelings of revenge and love, amid concern for his ailing father. “What we achieve in disguise is never the love we sought, “Rabbi Sacks comments. “We don’t need disguises before God.” [6]

He points out that Joseph had three gifts that enabled him to reach such heights: First of all, Joseph dreams dreams himself; indeed, his double dreams are a sign that they are not simply imaginings. A repeated dream, Rabbi Sacks explains, is “a signal sent by God” to suggest that there is something deeper about the human condition.” Secondly, Joseph could interpret dreams, and thirdly — perhaps most important of all — he had the ability to implement dreams, transform them into realistic applications. “It’s easy to see what’s wrong,” adds Rabbi Sacks, referring to societal problems. “A leader has the ability to make it right.” [7]

In order to give this tale of multiple deceits a positive outcome, as the brilliant commentator Nechama Leibowitz explains, Joseph’s brothers eventually evidence a sense of responsibility towards one another. Also, while Joseph’s interactions with his brothers [at first] seem vindictive, he is actually facilitating “their growth and rehabilitation.” In other words, Joseph “forced his brothers to simulate experiences that would help them to confront their dark past and pave the way for a bright future.”

In a D’var Torah that I previously posted on my own website (www.rabbicorinne.com), I wrote about my personal belief that dreams are pointers to the future, and that we should believe in them. In a corroborating passage (Berachot 55a), Rav Hisda tells us that a dream that is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read. Dreams are the unopened letters of the soul. If we have the courage to open them, they point to the paths we need to follow – our soul paths – if only we can find the moral strength to do it. However, dreams, the Talmud also cautions, are only 1/60th of prophecy. That still gives us 59/60ths to fulfill. It takes a lot of hard work!

1. Three other episodes in the Bible center on deception: the episode that begins in Isaac’s tent, when Jacob deceives Esau; the deception in regard to Rachel and Leah’s marriage to Jacob; and the deception that takes place between Judah and Tamar (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “The Power of the Dream,” Covenant and Conversation. www.Sacks. Aish.com/tp/i/sacks/233216101.html).

2. Plaut, Rabbi Gunther W.,  Gen. Ed., “Essays,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006), 281.

3. In writing this D’var Torah, I first toured interpretations of this parasha in previous years on the AJRCA website (www.ajrca.edu). Dr. Tamar Frankiel also accents the positive in her 2014 essay: “Joseph reads [dreams] so that a positive resolution can be found,” she writes. And in tractate Berachot, the rabbis say that “one should always give the dream a good turn” (Frankiel, Mikeitz, 2015). In Rabbi Janet Madden’s interpretation of the same parasha, she writes that, according to Berachot b, “realization of all dreams follows the mouth; that is, that the import of a dream depends upon the interpretation given to it” (Mikeitz, 2014). In addition, Rabbi Elihu Gevirtz notes that the Hebrew letters of lechem (bread) are the same as the letters for dream (chalom); both bread and dreams “sustain us and give us nourishment and satisfaction” (Gevirtz, Mikeitz, 2010).

4. Sarna, Nahum M. “Gleanings,” The Torah: A Modern Commentary, revised ed. (New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2006), 282.

5. Plaut, Ibid., 280.

6. Sacks, Ibid.

7. Ibid.

 

 

 

 

©Rabbi Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2017. All rights reserved.

So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

So What IS the Talmud, exactly?

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

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When you have a chance to look at a Talmud page, you’ll notice that the Hebrew or Aramaic text is in the middle surrounded by commentaries from various learned rabbis, often in different centuries. The idea is to give depth, diversity, and continuity to the original interpretations (with what we would today call Hyperlinks to an Internet page). In addition, there are multiple published volumes of later commentary that amplify each text.

 

This text in the middle is itself usually found in two parts (the Mishnah and the Gemara) separated by about 400 to 600 or so years. While the earlier Mishnah is in Hebrew, the Gemara is often in Aramaic, which had become the vernacular of the Israelite people, just as it was in the time of Jesus in the first century C.E.

 

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Then, after the destruction of the Second Temple (72 C.E.), which the Romans razed to the ground so that there would be nothing left, including most of the leadership, a small group of rabbis gathered together to set down Jewish law, just as if the Temple still existed – in the great hope that remained essential to the Jewish religion in every country to which the Jews were scattered, that someday they would return to the Holy Land. Although the rabbis had some remnants of scrolls, most of their combined knowledge came from memory. And much of what they established as rabbinic Jewish law was also committed to memory and later transcribed. Students of both the Torah (the five books of Moses) and the Talmud are aware that both an Oral Law and a Written Law existed. Now there was a need to set the Oral Law down so that it would not be lost. This took about four centuries to complete, and it was called the Mishnah.

 

However, after a few centuries had passed, the rabbis of those years considered that some of the views of the Mishnah needed updating since they reflected an agricultural society, while the Jews who remained in the Holy Land (despite propaganda to the contrary, there has always been a Jewish presence in the Holy Land) as well as the much greater number of Jews in the Diaspora, were now living a more urban life, although they were usually persecuted and earning their often meager livings through  various trades. In most cases, they could not own land. So the earlier text of the Mishnah needed additional opinions.

 

This new text, which follows on each page right after the Mishnaic text, is called the Gemara. In other words, the rabbis of different centuries are picking up earlier arguments and adding their own, more sophisticated opinions to it, just as if no time had passed. Together they are called the Talmud. (The redactors of the Talmud were very ingenious in their ability to link together opinions expressed over the years.) In many ways, this process is similar to the way we argue the finer points of the U.S. Constitution today, and very carefully some amendments have been added over time.

 

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.

 

So Many Questions

So Many Questions

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

Jewish responses to specific moral issues are often framed as questions: How does one survive the world as an outsider? Can a life be surrendered for another life – or other lives? Does my body belong to me? How can we use our freedom of will to sanctify life? What are the medical ethics involved in “beginning of life” and “end of life” issues? How do we approach human aging and death? What does it mean to view life through “la’asot” [to do, to take action] spectacles? How do we understand evil? Can there really be ethics in warfare? Is there a Jewish answer as to why bad things happen to good people? Are human beings the real beneficiaries of kindness to animals?

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One wonders how the Jewish people – my people — survived just trying to answer all those questions, let alone transporting themselves from country to country over the generations. They were able to do so because they had a large body of collected wisdom in the Talmud, as well as the many other texts that commented on the Hebrew Bible, as well as on the Talmud itself. Over the centuries, the commentaries continued to grow.

They were also able to survive because they had a portable homeland, “Eretz Yisrael” (the land of Israel, often referred to as “Eretz,” the land) populated by Jewish values that have survived until today. Their prayers, facing the East, towards Jerusalem, continually reflected the internalized yearning for its eternal capital. Finally, after years of persecution and striving, in the middle of the 20th century, the State of Israel was reborn. And whether or not it is endorsed by any political entity, its eternal capital will always remain Jerusalem. It is also worthwhile to remember that in Hebrew, the word for Jerusalem – “Yerushalayim” – is plural, inclusive.

©️Corinne Copnick, 2017, Los Angeles. All rights reserved.