Tag Archives: Jewish ethics

Friendship in Judaism (In Tribute to a Decade of a Strange and Wonderful Friendship)

Dear Josep,

Mo’adim l’simcha! (Roughly, happy holidays. Just smile and nod.)

Aside from being the second day of Succot, it has come to my attention that today is also the tenth anniversary of the day we met.

…No. I do not expect you to have noticed this.¬†ūüėČ No matter what Facebook may claim,¬†“friendversaries” are not really a thing. Usually we have no way to know the exact date of the beginning of a friendship.¬†But ours began in a very specific context, and I happen to have concrete evidence of that event: the newspapers we wrote during the conference. They are dated the 19th, 20th, and 21st of October, 2006, which means we met on the 18th.

You see, just for kicks, I dug up the PDFs of those newspapers from the depths of my Gmail history… and¬†I noticed something amusing. The first issue was compiled¬†during the months leading up to the conference–as in, before you and I had met.¬†The editor assigned me some short articles on various topics, and asked me to write a longer feature article on the topic of my choosing. I chose to write, of course, about Spain’s Jewish past and crypto-Judaism in modern times. (What else?!)

So, if you open the paper to page 3, you find the first section of that article, alongside a column by a certain Josep… about religious life in Barcelona.

This is the very first instance either of our names appear in the byline.

True story.

excerpt from newspaper

And here we are, ten years later, still discussing religion, with me still taking up the vast majority of the space on the page. ūüėõ

I wanted to mark this occasion, as is my wont, with a discussion of the concept of friendship in Judaism!

Well, the first thing, the most famous thing, is the line that is usually translated thus: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). But the word in Hebrew often translated as “neighbor” is actually ÷∑◊®÷Ķ◊Ę, which translates far more accurately as¬†“friend.”

There are a few questions one might ask about this verse. Firstly, how can God command you to “love” someone? Isn’t “love” a feeling? You can’t command someone to be happy or sad or angry, can you?

So… no, actually. Love isn’t just a feeling. It was Mr. Rogers (who was a Presbyterian minister in addition to child psychologist and TV personality) who said: “Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.”

…There you have it. When the Torah commands us to love our friend or to love God, it doesn’t mean we should¬†feel love, it means we must¬†practice love. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler argues that the root of love is giving: that we create love by giving to another. We give to our fellow man¬†in many ways, many of which are listed explicitly in the Torah; and we give to God by following His commandments and giving to His other creations.

So why does the Bible say, “as thyself”? Obviously, the plain meaning is that you should care for your friend as much as you care for yourself. But there is another idea there: you have to love and accept yourself before you can truly love and accept someone else.

Let’s take a look at stories of friendship in the Bible. The most famous and obvious example is the “bromance” between¬†David and Jonathan.

A little context: before King David came to power, King Saul ruled the Kingdom of Israel. Jonathan was his eldest son, the crown prince. But while King Saul hated¬†David and tried to kill him, knowing he was destined to supersede him, Jonathan and David became soulmates. The Bible puts it in the strongest and most poetic of terms: “Jonathan’s soul was entwined with David’s soul, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.”¬†The only other time this kind of language–the “intertwining of souls”–is used in the Bible, is when Judah tells Joseph about the love their father has for Benjamin: “And his [Jacob’s] soul is entwined with his [Benjamin’s] soul.”

Usually when the term “soulmates” is used people interpret that romantically. I used to think of it that way, too. But I don’t anymore. I believe that people have more than one “soulmate”–people with whom you develop a deep and inexplicably powerful bond, that can defy space, time, and circumstances. The friendship between David and Jonathan was such a bond. Jonathan was the heir to the throne; it would have made perfect sense for him to join his father in ridding themselves of “the competition.” But instead, he risked his very life to save David’s.¬†There’s an incredibly powerful moment in Samuel I chapter 20, after Jonathan had worked out a way to find out, once and for all, his father’s intentions with David, and after he delivered the message that David¬†must flee:

And David arose from the south; and he fell upon his face to the ground three times, and prostrated himself three times. And they kissed one another, and wept one with the other, until David wept greatly.¬†And Jonathan said to David, ‘Go in peace! For we have sworn both of us in the name of the Lord, saying, ‘May the Lord be between me and you, and between my descendants and your descendants forever.”” ¬†(Samuel I 20:41-42)

Tragically, this was very likely the last time David and Jonathan ever spoke. David spent the next few years on the run, and Jonathan died on the battlefield with Saul.

So we see in this story that Jonathan practiced love for his friend by giving to him–everything from his right to¬†the throne to his own life.

The Talmud also has a great deal to say about friendships. In Ethics of the Fathers, one rabbi¬†recommends “a good friend” as the key to living an honest and good life. There are many stories about friendships in there, too. Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gebirol, a famous Sephardic poet, said: “If you ask about a person, ask who his friends are. For every person does what his friends do.” (I wonder if this is the source for the common saying, “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”)

There seems to be common agreement among the Sages that friendships with good people can make us better people.

Well, I can definitely confirm that our friendship has made me a better person in a variety of ways.

So… happy friendversary, Josep. ūüėČ It’s a pleasure and a privilege to know you.¬†As you wrote in your dedication on my copy of the book: “I hope to be¬†arguing with you for many decades to come!” ūüėõ

Love,

Daniella

Why the Abortion Debate Hardly Exists in Israel

Dear Josep,

Abortion is one of the most hotly debated and divisive topics in American politics. It’s one of the most important issues on the agenda¬†for aspiring politicians, and the discussion around it comes up over and over again during pre-election campaigns.

In Israel, on the other hand, no one so much as mentions it when elections roll around.¬†Abortion is practically absent from political debates in this country–as much as anything is “absent from debate” in Israel, that is. ūüėČ But really, for¬†a country full of Jews–who are constantly arguing about¬†everything–this has got to make you ask: what’s going on here?!

Well, first, let’s look at what’s going on in the USA.¬†On one¬†end of the spectrum we have the ultra-conservatives, influenced mostly by Christian thought, who believe that a baby’s status as a person¬†begins at conception, and therefore abortion at any stage of pregnancy is nothing short of murder and should be illegal just like murder is.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the ultra-liberals, who assert that no one has any right to tell a woman what to do with her body, regardless of the status of the baby at any stage during pregnancy, and therefore any woman should be free to abort her pregnancy at any time.

These are the voices that shout the loudest, but the truth is that the opinions of the majority of Americans fall somewhere in between those two positions.

While many liberals find the ultra-conservative position horrible and wrong and possibly misogynist, I think it’s important to understand that if you truly believe that the status of “personhood” applies from the moment of conception, there is really no way around this as a serious moral problem. It angers me when I see people brush that opinion off as ignorance or bigotry. The question of exactly at which point a person becomes a person is not a matter of science; it is a matter of philosophy. If you spend more than half a millisecond thinking about it, it is not a simple question at all. According to Christian thought,¬†a person becomes a person at the moment of conception, and at that point, the fertilized egg takes on exactly the same status¬†as the mother. It is not ignorance or bigotry to think that no one should be allowed to kill what you¬†believe is a¬†person, even if that pregnancy and birth may cause suffering.

Fortunately¬†for the world’s one and only Jewish country… the Jewish position on this matter is a lot more, shall we say, nuanced.

In the Talmud, there are several sources that state that in the first 40 days after conception, the embryo¬†(or zygote, or blastocyst, if you want to get technical) is not considered a human by halakha. Maimonides says “All these forty dates, it is not a fetus, it is considered like water.” (This comes out to sometime¬†during¬†the 8th week of pregnancy.) So while Judaism would not advocate aborting a pregnancy in general, there is a lot more room to permit it in the first 40 days.

After this, the fetus has a sort of in-between status in Jewish law, one which I would call “potential personhood.” This applies practically in a number of ways.

Firstly: Judaism, in contrast to Christianity, does not consider abortion to be equal to murder. It is a sin, but not as grave as murder.

On the other hand, most¬†authorities agree that it¬†is permissible to desecrate the Sabbath to save the life of a fetus (a threatened miscarriage, for example), even though the fetus is not considered a person. One of the ideas behind the principle that allows us to break most commandments in order to save a life, is that we are desecrating one Sabbath so that the person¬†we saved will be able to observe many Sabbaths in the future. This principle still applies in the case of a fetus, who will (hopefully) eventually grow into a person, who will (hopefully) keep the Sabbath. ūüôā

From these two rulings we understand that the status of a fetus as a person is somewhat fuzzy.

Accordingly, the question of whether abortion is permitted has a rather fuzzy answer, too. As a general rule, of course, as we saw in the post about pregnancy and contraception, Judaism encourages us to bring life into the world, and therefore, by default, abortion is forbidden. However, under certain circumstances, exceptions can be made.

There is a well-known organization¬†in Israel that deals with fertility and¬†halakha, called Puah Institute. I have never needed to consult them for any reason–thank God–but the general sense I get from them is that their rabbis tend to be very lenient when it comes to aborting a pregnancy for “medical reasons” (a.k.a., the fetus suffering from some medical condition or other that would affect its quality of life and that of its parents and family). There is a general perception that religious Jews will not abort in the case of Down Syndrome, for example, and I personally would not (and not only for halakhic reasons). But I have heard of cases of the rabbis at Puah permitting a woman to abort in such a case where it was determined that having a child with this disorder would be catastrophic for the family.

Unfortunately, Israel is not particularly advanced when it comes to accessibility and equality for people with disabilities. Combine¬†this with the fact that the Israeli medical system recommends more prenatal testing than any other country in the world, and you will understand why we¬†also have the highest “medical abortion” rates¬†in the world. I¬†take moral issue with this, personally, but the point is that there is room in halakha to make allowances, even beyond what I personally am morally comfortable with.

So whether an abortion is permitted by halakha depends what the reason is, and it also depends on the stage of pregnancy. The later in the pregnancy, the harder it is to permit. Starting at around 24 weeks, a fetus could theoretically survive outside the womb. So if you think killing a 24-week preemie outside the womb is murder, it’s pretty hard to argue that killing a 24-week fetus inside the womb isn’t murder. Still, Judaism does not consider it the same as murder until the baby has been born.¬†The guiding principle in halakha is “the life of the mother comes before that of the fetus,” meaning that if, even during childbirth, the mother’s life is threatened and could be saved by killing the fetus,¬†halakha says that the fetus must be killed to save the mother’s life.

The fact that Judaism is more nuanced than Christianity on the topic of abortion is the reason the political conversation around it in Israel is so different from that in the USA. Abortions are legal until the third trimester and are funded by our national healthcare. There are theoretical criteria for an abortion to be approved for funding, such as the age of the mother, medical issues, or financial issues, and a woman must appear before a committee for approval. But in practice the request is almost never denied.

I consider myself to be “pro-choice,” in that I believe women should be allowed to have abortions even in some cases where I think it is morally wrong.¬†But while I think women absolutely have the right to do what they want with their bodies, it’s more complicated than that when there is another life, or potential life, involved.

So I find the Israeli arrangement to be a good middle ground: abortions are legal and accessible, but not so accessible that women can take the decision lightly. It seems that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this arrangement as well.

Another illustration of how different the discourse in Israel is from that in the USA¬†is the difference between our anti-abortion movements. The most well-known anti-abortion organization in Israel is called Efrat. They claim that they are not anti-abortion, but merely offer counselling for¬†mothers who were considering abortion for financial reasons, and if said mothers decide to have the baby, Efrat offers them financial assistance. I have read articles that call their integrity into question and claim that they are more sinister than they seem, but still… compare and contrast to those lunatics¬†shooting up abortion clinics in the USA. O.O

(Seriously Americans. WT*.)

Shelo neda, as we say in Hebrew… roughly, “may we never know from this.”

Love,

Daniella

Tweet No Evil: The Power of Speech in the Age of Social Media

Dear Josep,

I recently saw a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky–yes,¬†that Monica Lewinsky1–that I found really important and inspiring. She talks about cyberbullying and the “culture of humiliation”, and how the¬†global response to the scandal in which she was involved made her the sort of¬†“patient zero” of this phenomenon. What I find inspiring is her courage¬†in forgiving herself for¬†a mistake that was rubbed in the entire world’s face, reclaiming her narrative, and then going on to speak up for the victims of similar shaming campaigns and try to turn the world into a more compassionate and forgiving place. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes:

Why am I talking about Monica Lewinsky and cyberbullying on a blog about Judaism?

There is a mitzvah in our tradition called “shmirat halashon“, “guarding the tongue”. It is a prohibition against speaking negatively¬†about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking;¬†hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known,¬†lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively¬†about people behind their backs.

Much as these things¬†seem self-evident as part of being a decent person, it is actually very hard. We have a drive to speak negatively about others, for a whole variety of reasons, and especially that last one–speaking about people behind their backs. It can be hard to draw the line between negative speech that is necessary and negative speech that just feels good. For example, if someone has wronged you and you feel hurt, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust if you need to get it off your chest and get some support, but it’s not okay to go on and tell everyone you know just for the sake of feeling self-righteous.¬†Because these boundaries are a little blurry, it is an often misunderstood¬†and even maligned¬†mitzvah, especially compared to “big” mitzvot like keeping kosher and Shabbat. ¬†As a kid, I remember it being used against me by other kids as an attempt to shut me down, and not always in a justified context. Unfortunately, even in ultra-Orthodox communities,¬†this mitzvah can be under-practiced and under-appreciated… and also sometimes misused to excuse covering up cases where speaking up is the proper thing to do, such as cases of abuse. Especially in communities that are so careful about things like women’s modesty and holding to the highest standard of kashrut, it is tragic when shmirat halashon is not properly observed.¬†The effects of misusing speech are devastating.

Speak no evil, hear no evil. Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.
Speak no evil, hear no evil.
Image is cropped from this image by japanexperterna.se.

King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. In the Talmud, the Sages say, “One who embarrasses his fellow¬†in public–it is as though he has spilled blood.” Speech is what elevates humans above animals. It is what allows us to share our ideas, building off of each other to create, develop and advance¬†in science, technology and philosophy. It is what allows us to share our emotions and thoughts, making it possible to build relationships, improve ourselves and others, support others, and heal each other. Words change the way people think, the way they feel, the way they see the world. Speech is a gift that has immense power. And like everything that has immense power, that power can be very¬†constructive… and also very¬†destructive. And in this day and age, when we are so connected and our words and images can be¬†spread globally in the blink of an eye, we have to be especially careful about what we say. We often have no idea what effect¬†our words could have.

The mitzvah of shmirat halashon¬†is not only to avoid¬†speaking negatively, but also to avoid¬†listening to negative speech. Listening to and internalizing speech is what gives it its power, even if we don’t actively spread the negativity. Simply¬†allowing it into our minds and souls contributes to its¬†damage. Simply hearing something negative about another person will change the way you think about him or her, even if you’re not sure you believe what you heard.

I think that at a deeper level, the problem of negative speech¬†stems from difficulty with another concept that is not a¬†mitzvah but a¬†middah¬†(positive character trait/ethic) that we are encouraged to develop: judging others favorably (dan l’kaf zchut). Judging people favorably does not mean excusing their behavior or turning a blind eye to their negative traits. It means giving¬†the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best–because there is always so much we don’t know about the situation or the person–and focusing on the good aspects of that person or group.

When we truly judge everyone favorably, there is simply nothing negative to say.

I’ll give you an example that I found especially distressing. A couple years ago, there were a number of cases of parents accidentally leaving their babies or young children in a hot car, that ended in tragedy. Facebook was full of awful comments, blaming the parents, calling for severe punishment of these “criminals”. This really upset me, because in most cases like these, the parents are actually completely responsible and loving parents who had one fateful moment of absentmindedness with terrible consequences. Here is an excellent article on the topic, which I think anyone who has an opinion on this should read; but I warn you, it is an emotionally difficult read, especially as a parent.

We all make mistakes. I cannot imagine the agony those parents must have been experiencing. As a parent, my heart clenches and I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. They need support in their grief and guilt, not people making nasty comments, rubbing their mistake in their faces, and calling for punishment. When I tried pointing out to people that these parents deserved our support and empathy and not our criticism, the responses were… not encouraging. I wrote the following in my journal:

It scares and saddens me that I live in a world where people’s automatic defense mechanism in these cases is to be cruel, angry, and to punish, rather than to be kind, compassionate, and try to help. It makes me wonder about our justice system, where our response to wrongdoing is so focused on punishment instead of reeducation and rehabilitation.

And it angers me that when I show compassion for parents like these, I get responses like “Stop your crocodile¬†tears, you probably agree with those teenagers who think the Boston Marathon bomber was ‘too pretty to have committed a crime’. Your false compassion cheapens the life of a child who died a horrific death.”

Because making a tragic mistake as a parent is apparently morally equivalent to committing premeditated murder out of senseless hatred. And apparently, it is impossible to have compassion both for the parent and for the child.

I just haven’t been able to stop thinking–and occasionally crying–about this.

Social media intensifies the phenomenon of negative speech and magnifies its ugliness. And I don’t just mean the kind of high-profile “shaming campaigns” and cyberbullying Ms. Lewinsky is talking about. Every time we share an article, a status, or a spoken remark¬†that ridicules¬†someone, every time we make¬†a disparaging comment or use disrespectful or extreme language to describe an individual or a group (excluding, of course, individuals or groups that have proven themselves unequivocally to deserve those descriptions), we are using the gift of speech for harm.

The Torah calls on us to use our speech to build, rather than destroy. To use it, as Ms. Lewinsky urges, to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion instead of a culture of humiliation, criticism and punishment. Not only to speak constructively, but also to close our ears to negative speech, and drown it out with kind and encouraging voices.

I try to be careful about how I speak¬†and write, and I try to think ten times before saying or writing anything that is harsh or critical. But every once in a while I will hurt someone with my words. I think the blessing-and-curse of being highly sensitive and empathetic makes it easier for me to be aware of the effect words have on others, and that also makes this issue particularly important to me. But I am no saint and I struggle with avoiding negative speech just like the next person. It’s not an easy trait to cultivate, but I think it is of far greater importance than most people realize.

Love,

Daniella


1. If you were not old enough to be politically aware, or were otherwise living under a rock, during 1998, here you go.↩


Blog readers: Do you remember when someone’s speech, positive or negative, had a deep and lasting impact on you? Please tell us about it in the comments. (And as per the halakhot of shmirat halashon, if your story casts someone in a negative light, please avoid details that reveal that person’s identity to someone who might know him or her.)

Also: if you are interested in learning more about this topic, cultivating¬†constructive¬†speech and avoiding¬†destructive¬†speech, I have a friend who runs this daily e-mail service, “Protect Our Speech”, that sends one short e-mail lesson per day about shmirat halashon. You can subscribe by sending an e-mail to¬†protectourspeech-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. You can also find the lessons on Facebook under the “Protect Our Speech” community.