Tuesday, May 4, 2010

When Great Men Fall--An Analysis of Power

Soap opera-like debacles have stunned, stupefied, and dismayed our community. We have witnessed a prime minister, governors, and men of stature plummet to the depths of scandal and ignominy. Especially disconcerting and the epitome of paradox is when revered men, charged to exemplify God's Word, purportedly disgrace His Word instead. Why do great men fall?

Lord Acton famously said, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men ."

Why is it that great men, predominantly, become bad men?

Research published recently in Psychological Science showed that power tends to corrupt and to promote a hypocritical tendency to hold other people to a higher standard than oneself. The research also demonstrated that powerful people not only abuse the system but also feel entitled to abuse it.

According to Professor Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist at Stanford University who focuses on the study of power, "When people feel powerful, they stop trying to control themselves."

An article in the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the research as follows: People with power tend to be more oblivious to what others think, more likely to pursue the satisfaction of their own appetites, poorer judges of other people's reactions, more likely to hold stereotypes, overly optimistic and more likely to take risks.

In other words, Gruenfeld and her colleagues discovered that powerful people tend to have a heightened sensitivity to their own internal states and a reduced sensitivity to others.

Perhaps this is why the Torah's regulations for a Jewish king are so strict. For instance, a Jewish king must keep in his possession a Torah scroll (according to several meforshim it was worn as an amulet) to remind him of his subservience to the Law, "lest his heart becomes haughty over his brethren and he departs from God's commandments right or left " (Devarim 17:20).

The king was only allowed to divest himself of his personal Torah when attending to personal needs, such as using the lavatory (see Maimonides, Hilchos Melachim 3:1). The Torah scroll functioned as a perpetual admonition to the king not to abuse power, behave superciliously, or act above the law.

It seems from Sefer HaChinuch that arrogance and self-centeredness is the prime cause for turpitude in a leader's rule. The Jewish king, or leader, is commanded to place every self-interest aside and act solely in the service of the people, following the law of the Torah.

Reporters were astounded at the estimated 300,000-500,000 people who attended Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach's funeral in 1995. Most of the journalists had never heard of him. After a thorough search of encyclopedias and computerized archives for information on this heretofore uncelebrated personality, they were baffled that they came up with virtually no information.

The quintessential Jewish leader throughout the ages - whether it was Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, Maimonides, the Vilna Gaon, Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (or any one in the constellation of illustrious rabbinic personalities that have graced the Jewish world throughout the millennia) - was not necessarily renowned for charisma, elocution, or popularity (there is no ballot that elects a Jewish leader). Rather, it is the intense sincerity, integrity, selflessness, and, above all, infusion of Torah into their lifeblood that are responsible for the seemingly gratuitous selection and adulation of these outstanding men.

Nor does education or knowledge insure a leader's virtue, tenacious commitment to morality or lack of corruptibility. This fact is poignantly illustrated by the following accounts.

Michael Wildt of Hamburg University, in his book Generation Des Unbedingten, chronicles that the SS forces, those who ran the concentration camps, were comprised of some of the most educated people in German society. An elite of intellectuals and academics - a consortium of Ph.D.s in literature, philosophy, law, history, and science - directed the genocide.

A famous story is told about Bertrand Russell when he was professor of ethics at Harvard. Russell was engaged in eyebrow-raising sexual antics that were highly unacceptable in Boston in the early 20th century. The dean, especially irate that a professor of ethics should be acting so unethically, summoned him and excoriated him for his behavior. Russell rejoined: "I was a professor of geometry at Cambridge, but no one ever expected me to be a triangle or a square."

Russell, one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was maintaining that what a person studies and teaches need have no bearing on his behavior.

This is the polar opposite of the Torah viewpoint. Torah knowledge and Jewish leadership is sine qua non with Torah living. Torah study is not so much about pedantic learning, flawless logic and cerebral chess as it is about refining and purifying one's rudimentary, crude being.

According to the Vilna Gaon the raison d'être of Torah is self-perfection - to serve as a vehicle for rectifying one's character traits. The objective of Torah study is to form a Torah-ingrained personality. What one studies and teaches must become an integral part of his or her life.

The first Jewish powerhouse was Avraham Avinu. The progenitor of the Jewish people and the world's first disseminator of monotheism had no tradition about God. His immediate forebears were pagans, as was the culture in which he lived. Avraham operated without any initial revelation. It was necessary for him to engage in a scientifically objective quest to find God.

Interestingly, the written Torah is entirely mute on the subject of how Avraham discovers God. Avraham is mentioned only in the context of his first spiritual assignment, but his entire spiritual saga of discerning God remains shrouded in mystery.

Why is that? Why should Avraham's intellectual drama be so obscured? Perhaps it is to teach that one's individual metamorphosis is too personal of a subject to be broadcast publicly. To decipher truth amid decadence and hedonism is a formidable challenge.

The emotional and intellectual rigor, turmoil, and anguish of refining one's instincts and imperfections is a battle waged in the innermost recesses of one's heart. Mustering the courage to let go of long-held doctrines and beliefs, and forgoing illicitness one has become ingrained with, is a deeply private exercise. And it is the most important exercise.

In our current chinuch system, we often lose the forest for the trees and get derailed by extolling the didactic, pedagogic, and technical instead of celebrating the work and spirit that goes into shaping an ethical and altruistic conscience.

Our true leaders, like Avraham, never succumbed to the temptation of power. They knew that real power is defined not by one's clout or material worth but is achieved by perfecting one's character and living a life of empowering, enabling, and honoring others.

Lord Acton was right - to an extent. Power does tend to corrupt, but only when in the hands of mediocre leaders. Great men fall not because they are innately bad men but because they have not become intrinsically good men.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is there scientific Evidence for God's Existence?

JWisdom — Shows click here

Part IV

Are you an empiricist or a rationalist? How does science prove something to be true? Can we use such a tool to ascertain whether there is a God?

Join Rabbi Fingerer in this 8 minute Godcast for a fascinating perspective on whether science can offers evidence for God's existence.

A Moral Necessity for God

JWisdom — Shows Click here

Part III

What is the most consequential question of all time? Does God actually exist? Why doesn't Judaism speak about the word "God"? What would the world be like without God? What is wrong with spontaneous generation? What is the anthropic principle?

Join Rabbi Fingerer on this fascinating Godcast. In less then 8 minutes you will learn a great deal about Judaism's different take on God.


JWisdom — Shows

Part II

What does "Change" mean? Why is it so hard to let go of things? How does one undergo a transformation? How are human beings different than animals? Why was the first human being called "Adam", which means earth? Why was Abraham not religious? What type of change is the hardest: Changing a career? A spouse? Or changing one's ideology and behavior? Discover the answer and discover yourself.

Join Rabbi Fingerer on this fascinating Godcast. In less than six minutes you may discover a component of yourself that you never new existed.

Not Blind faith

JWisdom — Shows

Part I

Who was the most influential person in world history? Why is Judaism not necessarily a Religion? Who was Abraham the first proponent of Monotheism? Why is his identity so obscured

Join Rabbi Fingerer on this fascinating "Godcast." It's less then six minutes but you may receive an eternity of information.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A New Denial Of Traditional Judaism

Op-ED in The Jewish Press (February 17, 2010)

By: Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer

For thousands of years of Jewish history there wasn't a unique nomenclature classifying Torah-deviant Jews. Denominations like Conservative, Reform and Orthodox were non-existent. One was either more observant, less observant, or, in highly atypical cases, nonobservant.

The reason for this is that history is immutable. Sinai was a historical fact that was irrefutable and unassailable.

I haven't met a sane individual who doubts Julius Caesar existed or the Roman Empire fell. Yet I have encountered numerous people who cast aspersion on the world's most momentous and epic occurrence: Revelation at Sinai. Such a blatant disregard and contempt for incontrovertible history has opened a Pandora box of other denials, such as the claim that the Holocaust never happened. Once we tolerate one perversion of history there's no limit to other falsifications that ensue.
It's been alleged that Judaism's transmission is unreliable because it is no different from the game "telephone," in which one person cites a word and the message moves down the line until it emerges a garbled version of the original. This comparison is wholly inaccurate.
The nature of the Jewish people is to be argumentative - but notwithstanding endless persecution and exile, the original message emerged unscathed. This may be attributed to the fact that the message wasn't arbitrary or subjective but was God's revered Word - hallowed and sacrosanct. Couple the tremendous import of the message with the fact that each Jew was a master pedagogue ("vishinantom livonecha," Devarim 11:19) and it's obvious how vital preservation of the accurate tradition was.

Perhaps no other nation has such an explicit and unequivocal historical chain. Rambam (in his introduction to Mishneh Torah) delineates a clear, incontestable chain of teachers from Moshe Rabbeinu until Rav Ashi, redactor of the Talmud. Conclusive studies have traced contemporary Torah leaders back to Rav Ashi, bringing the chain of tradition full circle.
Were Julius Caesar to visit Rome today, he would be at a total loss. He wouldn't understand the lingua franca, the dress, or mannerisms. On the other hand were Moshe to visit Meah Shearim, he would, essentially, feel at home.
The Torah mandates that an ambiguous "pri etz hadar" be combined with other minim on Sukkos. "A beautiful fruit" can depend on individual taste and preference. One person may consider the mango to be the most beautiful fruit, while his peer may be partial to an apple.
If our mesorah were in any way diluted or adulterated, one would anticipate seeing an array of different fruits being used for this mitzvah. Historically, in direct fulfillment of the Oral Law, only the esrog has been used in fulfillment of this mitzvah.
In my years (before my early retirement) of supplying the community with arbah minim, I had the privilege of servicing an eclectic base - from leading chassidic rebbes to litvishe roshei yeshiva, as well as Conservative rabbis.
It seemed disingenuous for a Conservative rabbi - who professed no allegiance to and sometimes displayed vehemence against Oral tradition - to purchase an esrog. It is, however, an incredible testimony to the force and weight of our tradition that even those who tend to deny it end up corroborating it.
Until the early-mid 19th century no one challenged the universally accepted truth of Sinai. Then a neo-Jewish movement began in Berlin that sought to reconcile modernity with Judaism. For the sake of progressiveness and to facilitate assimilation, this movement claimed the Torah had not been God-given, and that it was not incumbent on Jews to follow it. They postulated that the Torah was man-made and subject to change - and in "modern times" obsolete.
In 1837, Abraham Geiger called the first Reform rabbinical conference in Wiesbaden, Germany, and declared: "The Talmud must go, the Bible, that collection of mostly so beautiful and exalted human books, as a divine work must also go."
Samuel Holdheim headed the Reform congregation in Berlin. He disavowed many cardinal features of Judaism: circumcision, covered heads during worship, the tallis, blowing of the shofar, the use of the Hebrew language, and the mention of Zion, Jerusalem or the land of Israel in any service.
By the mid-19th century, Reform had dethroned Jerusalem in favor of Berlin. The Jewish Sabbath was changed from Saturday to the Christian Sunday. The synagogue began resembling the church in its aesthetics and services. German Reform also had the gall to abolish the "automatic assumption of solidarity with Jews everywhere." Adherents of Reform described themselves as "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion," rather than as Jews.
This movement gained momentum. In the end, traditional observance by European Jewry gave way to assimilation, intermarriage, and conversion to Christianity. By the advent of World War II, over 40 percent of German Jews had intermarried and many Christianized. Even in Poland, that bastion of traditional Jewish observance, two-thirds had ceased to keep the Shabbos.
What went wrong? Modernity is by its very definition relative - subject to the capriciousness of men and society. Any notion defined by modernity is fluid and can be changed according to time, place, and situation. Modernity itself is therefore useless in defining a standard of right conduct.
Judaism, a divine institution, operates in the sphere of eternity, which is, by definition, absolute. Absolutism transcends the vicissitudes of mortal whims, as it is forever valid.
This brings us to the timely issue of women rabbis. Jewish tradition, cognizant of the physiological, psychological, and spiritual makeup of human beings, distinguishes between men and women. It actually gives deferential status to women. According to many meforshim, women are exempt from certain mitzvos due to their exalted status. As John Gray famously wrote, "Men are from Mars and women are from Venus."
While we may be two sides of the same coin, we are different. That's how God designed things. As sefer Bereishis carefully explicates, a woman's role is reflective of the fact that she is often the silent hero, working behind the scenes as the nurturer, sustainer, and catalyst.
A difference in roles is by no means a diminution in value. Whether it was in Egypt, Israel, Persia, or Syrian-Greek occupied Israel, throughout Jewish history women have heroically redeemed the Jewish people, albeit in a uniquely feminine manner. A recent Time magazine article suggested that feminism may have contributed to more sadness in women than happiness. When modernity supplants eternity - when innate, ontological strengths are skewed and distorted - it's time for pregnant pause and introspection.
Judaism teaches that in every male-female encounter there is a unique dynamic at play, with potential for exploitation. This is precisely why safeguards apply, in order to maximize necessary propriety between genders. Studies suggest that irrespective of environment (even in academic and corporate milieus) men have a tendency of viewing women colleagues, superficially, as women.
Judaism's tradition of modesty is meant to preempt potential disregard for a woman's intelligence and spirituality. The shofetes Devorah was not your typical public functionary. Though she was ordained by God to judge her people, it was a pro tempore role and special guidelines were prescribed to safeguard her intrinsic femininity.
The prognosis for Reform and Conservative Jewry is bleak. A break with tradition is a failed experiment. Only Traditional Judaism - a.k.a. Orthodoxy - once deemed a relic of the past, is in upward swing. The secret to its success? Not capitulating or kowtowing to transitory ideas or ideals but rather harnessing modern knowledge and invention to complement religious experience.

Obscuring the divinely endowed roles of man and woman is tantamount to denying God's Omniscience. As we stand at the precipice of a new threat to tradition, it is incumbent on us to reaffirm our fealty to the Omniscient Knowledge of our Creator.

Questions Need To Be Welcomed, Not Disparaged

OP-ED in The Jewish Press (February, 3, 2010)

by Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer

I was apprised of the fact that a renowned rav and posek in Flatbush dedicated his Shabbos morning drasha to the plight of a young lady who was recently dismissed from her Brooklyn Bais Yaakov. It seems she vexed the administration because she asked her teacher incisive questions about the nature of Gan Eden. Thankfully, due to the intervention of this prominent rav, she was reinstated to her school.
Thousands of frum individuals grow up with gnawing questions about the fundamentals of Yiddishkeit. Their questions may be trite and simplistic (i.e., Why do we keep Shabbos?) or profound and weighty (i.e., How do I know there is a God? or Hashem knows everything, including every move I make; yet I have free will. How can the two co-exist?).
It's not the particular question that is germane - every sincere and thoughtful question is relevant and important. Rather, it's the way the question is received and handled. Sadly, most often the questions are either rebuffed or repudiated by parents and teachers. Some adolescents are even slapped or labeled with the pejorative "apikores." The outcome is that in some cases the seeker despondently resolves to trudge through life with lingering and unresolved doubts in ikrei emunah, and in other cases, tragically, they throw in the towel, religiously.
The Hebrew word for question, she'ailah, is etymologically derived from the word sha'al - to borrow or request. According to Rashbam, Tosafos, Chizkuni, Klei Yakar, and other commentaries, sha'al, in this context, does not mean to borrow but denotes requesting something that is one's rightful possession - one's natural entitlement.
It is against Torah hashkafah to take offense or to reject a sincere question. Just as water sustains the physical world and is free and accessible to everyone (this predates New York City's water meters!), so too should knowledge be available freely. This is precisely why, according to the halachic ideal, one should not charge tuition to dispense Torah knowledge (see Yoreh Deah, 246:5).
The late Sy Syms said in relation to his discount clothing chain, "An educated consumer is our best customer." His slogan is a fitting credo for Judaism. When we avoid answering questions and penalize a child for asking, it compromises the integrity and absolute authenticity of our mesorah. It projects insecurity and appears to the child as if we have something to hide. How incongruous! Judaism has all the answers. We live in an age where Torah knowledge is awing the greatest scientists and most resolute atheists.
If only parents and educators would be more candid and unveil the vast contemporary knowledge found in Torah, it would preempt many such questions.
Science is now on the offensive, catching up to Torah. For example, how many of our students know that at the 1990 meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the meeting's chairman, Dr. Geoffrey Burbidge, astrophysicist at the University of California at San Diego Center for Astrophysics and Space Science (and former director of the Kitt Peak National Observatory), commented: "It seems clear that the audience is in favor of the book of Genesis - at least the first verse or so, which seems to have been confirmed."
Do we speak to our children and students about modern-day miracles that show God's intervention in the world?
For example: Eretz Yisrael lay desolate and barren for almost two thousand years. Mark Twain traveled there in 1867. He reported: "There is such desolation; one cannot even imagine that life's beauty and productivity once existed here . [The Land of Israel] dwells in sackcloth and ashes. The spell of a curse hovers over her, which has blighted her fields and imprisoned her mighty potential with shackles. [The Land of Israel] is wasteland, devoid of delight."
The world's greatest civilizations fruitlessly attempted to restore life to the land. In fulfillment of the Torah's prophecies, miraculously, as soon as the Jews returned, starting in the late 19th century, the land became fertile and reinvigorated.
Another example: After the Persian Gulf War, two eminent scientific journals (Nature and MIT's Nature and Arms Defense Studies) were puzzled about the apparent Divine protection that Eretz Yisrael had been afforded from Scud missiles. Both journals devoted full-length research articles to attempt to logically explicate the hows and whys behind the purported miracles.
Many rishonim (among them Rambam, Rabbeinu Bechaya ibn Pakudah, Rabbeinu Bechaya ben Asher, Rav Saadya Gaon) hold that the mitzvah of emunah is not predicated on blind faith but on rational and objective knowledge. According to Chovos HaLevovos, knowing and inquiring about Hashem, getting first-hand knowledge of Him, is a fulfillment of the Torah's charge "Veyadato hayom ki Hashem hu Elokim" - "and you should 'know' today that He is God ."
Rambam (Yesodei HaTorah 8:1) stresses that despite all the miracles they witnessed in Mitzrayim, the Children of Israel did not believe in Hashem wholeheartedly until they had first-hand knowledge and personally experienced the revelation at Sinai.
Our children and students deserve answers. If we don't provide them with answers or they feel too uncomfortable and intimidated to ask questions, they will, chas v'shalom, go elsewhere with their questions. The street and the Internet are replete with individuals and material looking to snare the innocent away from Judaism. We don't necessarily have to know all the answers. We do have to know that there are addresses to turn to for answers, such as qualified rabbis, hashkafah books, and lectures.

The value of shakla vetarya, the dynamicof the exchange of questions and answers, is paramount in Judaism. Every Jewish toddler is educated with the four questions of Pesach. Upon death every Jew is asked four crucial, fateful questions. The only way to ensure that these last questions are answered appropriately is to espouse an open-communication "questions welcome" environment throughout a person's life.

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