Monday, April 26, 2004

Thou shalt not assume

Suppose the Torah did not say, “thou shalt not steal” would it be all right to steal? I read a report by a police detective in Israel, who said that whenever a particularly callous spate of crimes is noticed in a specific area, the first thing they check out is if there is an ex-ortho in the vicinity. You would have thought that anyone brought up with as many rules as we are, in a society as strict as ours, would at least retain a vestige of morality even after leaving. That is patently not the case, as most who deal with such cases will tell you.

The reason is simple. We are not taught morality. What we learn is what God and the Torah allow and what not. That is all. We do not teach a child that it is wrong to hit, we teach them it is an aveira (sin). We do not tell our children that you must not steal, we teach them that the Torah says you must not steal. The result is that if someone decides at some point that he does not believe in God and the Torah, he is left with no rules at all and no inherent sense of right and wrong.

I do not expect our Rebbes and teachers to start teaching human morality. I am not sure they could even if they wanted to. I do remember that our former headmaster, the late Alexander Feurstein, used to take five minutes every day during lunch to teach us a din (halachic rule). Between the usual things, like how to wash your hands before eating bread, how to stand during prayer and what blessing to recite for rice, he would slip in some little nuggets of common decency. “If you see a woman carrying heavy bags, offer her your help. Stand up on the bus if you see an elderly person or a mother with a baby and offer up your seat. Shut the gate if you are rambling in the countryside, to stop animals getting out.” He made no distinction between the kind of din that is mentioned in Halacha and those that human decency dictates.

I do not claim to remember all those little things he told me. I do still get irritated when I see people dropping litter and I know he was the one who drilled it into me, and I am proud that I was brought up that way. The Yesodey Hatorah is now but a shadow of its former self. Today most parents prefer to send their children to the ultra-Chassidic schools that cater to a much more fundamentalist stream. There is no room in today’s curricula for such frivolity.

I was going to open a business at one stage in my life, importing a certain product from the United States. When we discovered that someone in the community was already doing it my partner and I had second thoughts. He went to ask a Rav what to do. The answer he got was that it was Halachically permissible.
When he asked “What about meschlichkeit (common decency)? The Rabbi replied, “You want to be more meschlich than the Torah?"

I don’t, but I am loath to suppose that the Torah is as unnmenschlich as the behaviour of some of those being taught its ways seems to indicate. As Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame so aptly put it “What God wants, God gets, God help us all."

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