Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo publiceert regelmatig en neemt daarbij geen blad voor de mond.
In Memory of Ari Fuld z.l. A Hero in Israel.
We will soon be celebrating Simchat Torah, and Jews throughout the world will dance with Sifrei Torah in their synagogues, community centers, university campuses, and even in the streets. This is remarkable for many reasons. We Jews treat our Torah scrolls as if they are human. We hold them close, kiss them, dance with them, dress them in the most beautiful garb, and build magnificent structures – the heichal or aron hakodesh – to house them. So great is our love for these scrolls that when they are too old and worn to be used, we bury them in a cemetery, similar to the way human beings are buried.
This, however, is most strange. The scrolls that we carry in our arms do not at all fit the times in which we live. They are completely outdated.
We live in a world of sophisticated technology. We walk on the moon, travel through space, communicate via satellite, and make use of the Internet – all without batting an eye. Physicians transplant people's hearts, and replace or repair other parts of the human body with the greatest of ease. Any time now we will witness more scientific breakthroughs that will utterly surprise us, and before we know it, even more amazing inventions will usher us into a world we never dreamed was possible. Everything is moving and changing so rapidly that the term "speed" no longer has any relevance.
Yet here we are, dancing with a scroll that is totally oblivious to it all. The text in this archaic scroll hasn't changed since the day Moshe received it at Mount Sinai. Furthermore, even the manner in which the Torah scroll is written has not been altered. It is still the human hand that must write the text. No word processor can take over. The quill has not been replaced, and nothing dramatic has happened to the formula used to produce the special ink. The parchment, as well, is prepared in the very same way as it was in the days of the prophets. If someone looked at the scroll we carry in our hands, and didn't know better, they would think we had discovered it in a cave where people thousands of years ago used to preserve their holy texts, such as the Dead Sea scrolls.
Jewish law always encourages integrating the latest scientific knowledge into our lives and has no problem with the newest developments in treating infertility, flying a spacecraft, and using technical devices to make it easier to observe Shabbat. Yet, when it comes to the writing of a Sefer Torah, no technological improvements are appreciated. They are basically rejected (1).
Ours is a future-orientated religion. We are not afraid of the latest technologies because they allow us to fulfill, in ways unimagined by our forefathers, the divine mandate to cure diseases, create more pleasant ways to live our lives, and make the world a better place. All this is beautifully expressed by our Sages, who direct us to become partners with God in the work of creation. But the very text that demands this does not allow for any changes in its content and bars us from making use of the latest technological devices when it comes down to the physical preparation and writing of this same text!
What is the message conveyed by this paradox?
While living in a world that is constantly in a state of flux and where matters can change overnight, there must be a place of stability where we can take refuge. We need unshakeable foundations that won't shift like quicksand. Without such footing we would be lost and dangerously overwhelmed by the very technology we have created. While we benefit from all these new inventions, we also pay a heavy price and become the victims of great confusion. Technology and science often create moral problems that overwhelm us. We then begin to wonder whether it would be better to reject our moral standards in order to accommodate all the new possibilities that have opened up. Though many of us know this will only lead to more problems, others are calling for such radical steps, thinking it will bring improvement.
We need certainty but can no longer find it. The situation has become so critical that we realize we have reached a place where our human identity is at stake, unlike our forefathers who had to deal primarily with problems related to ideology.
Looking at and taking notice of a Sefer Torah is therefore of great value. Here is an item that has not changed an iota. Its physical nature attests to its stability. It is the only thing in the world that would not give in to innovation. Its text informs us that while things indeed need to evolve and become more sophisticated, the basic moral positions in the Torah are not to be altered, and its physical representation as an "old-fashioned scroll" sends us that message. It does not want to accommodate everything, nor does it even want to accommodate itself. It is beyond time and space and hence disconnects itself from the so-called new developments that the passage of time always demands. It wants to remain itself, on its own terms, and therefore offers us a haven of stability and genuine identity in a stormy world. In that way, it reminds us of eternity, of another world in which enduring standards prevail and where there is tranquility, something we all long for.
A Sefer Torah teaches us that not everything old is necessarily old-fashioned. Making use of the word processor has in many ways led to depersonalization in our lives; running our world by remote control has not been good for our souls; and walking on the moon has not helped us to know our next-door neighbor any better. On the contrary, technological progress has robbed us of our own humanness.
It is therefore most meaningful that one item has maintained its constancy. It carries a text that has had greater influence in the world than any other we know of. It has changed the universe as nothing else has; it encourages people to move, to discover, and to develop. But it is written on parchment, by the hand of a person, holding a quill, as if to say: Be yourself. Don't get run over by the need for progress.
(1) Although there are some slight changes in the way we produce all these components today, sometimes making things a little easier, basically the formula remains the same. In Ohr Yitzchak, the collection of responsa by Rabbi Yitzchak Abadi of Jerusalem, on Yoreh De’ah, siman 54, the author suggests ways in which a Sefer Torah can be written without the scribe actually writing the letters, making use of the latest technology. This suggestion has not been accepted by the vast majority of halachic authorities. I would add that it is not in the spirit of Judaism, nor is it what a Sefer Torah should stand for, ideologically. This matter indeed goes to the very root of the difficult question as to what extent ideology can play a role in halachic issues – a long and complex topic beyond the scope of this essay.
Yes, Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are serious days. They require us to place God in the center of our lives and then to repent and ask forgiveness for our misdeeds.
But, let's be honest. Many of us know that, however much we try, true repentance probably won't happen and we'll just fall back into our old ways. The effort involved in surviving this, year after year without becoming depressed, is nearly brutal. The fact that we keep on trying is an enormous human accomplishment. After all, what is the point of going through the motions only to discover that we are back where we were? It's torturous!
How does one survive this?
Strangely enough, it's humor that does the trick.
Here's how it works. We are all romantics. What this really means is that we are not prepared to be content with our physical and spiritual lives. There is more to life than what we experience, and our goal is to achieve it. There is always a gap between what we want our life to be and what it is in reality.
But sooner or later, a kind of rapprochement develops between the two, which mainly consists of the fact that this lack of contentment with our lives slowly starts to give way to the reality that is forced on us. This process begins the moment we enter primary school. We are completely "authentic" at the start, but we slowly conform to the reality around us and lose our real self. During puberty, it may slow down a bit as a result of adolescent rebellion. But by the time we enter the world of higher education, get married, and become absorbed with "the facts of life", it begins to be a kind of suit of armor, which we can no longer break out of and which will accompany us for the rest of our earthly existence. The result is often tragic. It's like painters who believe they have completed a painting and just at the last moment realize that something is lacking. They turn back to have another look at their painting, and while they are sure that the objective of their work has indeed, more or less, been realized, they also know that something essential is missing and that they have somehow overlooked "the real thing." But as a result of their armor, they cannot discover it. The great Dutch author Willem Bilderdijk (1756-1831) once compared this to an opera singer who gets a lavatory as a room in which to practice. It suffocates him.
But most people do not realize this and live happily in the bathroom wearing their armor. Our society anticipates this and catches us in its net.
Only great souls are aware of this and, often with much effort, throw off their armor and venture outside the bathroom. As a result, they frequently clash with society and are misunderstood. But they are also the ones who move society forward. They realize that they are like prisoners looking through the bars; and once they have seen the garden of their lives, they bend the bars and walk out.
But to do so requires humor.
What is humor?
Humor is that which keeps us laughing, despite everything. Humor is conquered sadness. It is the melancholy that you pierce through and then profit from. It is the affirmation of our superiority over all that goes wrong. It is also the awareness that we live in the midst of continuous absurdity which, if we take a step backwards, makes us realize that even if we attempt to live a life of soberness – using all our faculties of logic, common sense and joy – we will still end up staring at the mystery of living a life we cannot grasp and will never understand no matter how much we've convinced ourselves that we have it all "under control." Humor teaches us that there is meaning behind absurdity, although we can't figure out what that meaning actually is.
But most of us miss the joke and walk around with a sad face. Interestingly enough, it was the victims of the Holocaust who, under impossible and most cruel circumstances, saw the absurdity of it and sometimes managed to use a wry form of humor regarding their situation, to help see some (religious) meaning behind it. (See Eliezer Berkovits, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps, Sanhedrin Press, NY & London, 1979.) It kept them alive. No one will doubt that this was a phenomenal human accomplishment that only a few could achieve.
A Dutch proverb describes it well: Humor is the trainer for the game of life.
And so, Rosh HaShana is a day of infinite humor, because it confronts us with all the absurdity and foolishness of our life's ambitions – receiving honor, acquiring money, accumulating material possessions, and more. But we also realize that these ambitions shape our lives with the purpose of having us laugh about them in the presence of God, because it is God who has, strangely enough, created this condition. It is through the everydayness, the trivialities, and the absurdity of human existence that God wants to meet us. Nothing could be more serious, humorous, or odd. It is a type of funfair, but with the misfortune of having a merry-go-round that often becomes badly dislocated, causing people to get hurt and even die.
But that's not all.
Rosh HaShana asks us to re-crown God and put Him in the center of our lives. It is a festival of uncompromising monotheism, the belief that all that exists is His handiwork and that He is everywhere. He is transcendent, immanent, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal. There is no "Other" but God.
This means that we are trying to crown a Being about Whom we have not the slightest clue. We don't know Who He is, what He is, and why He does the things He does, which often make no sense, are unacceptable, and even cruel. He is the great Unknown to Whom the words "Exist" and "Is" don't even apply, since these definitions are sorely deficient.
This is the pinnacle of absurdity and humor. How do you crown a Being when you haven't the slightest comprehension of who He is, and sometimes even wonder whether He is? It is rather pathetic.
It is this type of paradox that is at the center of Rosh HaShana. We try to accomplish something which, by definition, is completely impossible. So why even try?
Crowning a Being that is not a Whom, a What, or an It, but only an Ein Sof, an "Endless End," and an Infinite, makes no sense whatsoever. It sounds like a bad joke, like someone is pulling the wool over our eyes on the most serious day of the Jewish year.
And here again is the humor. Rosh HaShana takes us back to our childhood; back to our pre-school innocent authenticity. We are asked not to comply with our maturity, which was developed by our armor during high school and later in life. Rather, we are asked to go back to being romantics, feeling discontent with our lives, and re-experiencing the gap between what we are and what we wanted to achieve before we fell into the "trap" of maturity. This is humor of the highest order.
Which stories are children's favorites? No doubt fairy tales! And which are the most popular fairy tales? The ones that are completely incomprehensible, in which the impossible takes place: flying animals; houses built on clouds; princes turning into frogs; lions that can speak; wizards and witches who travel on brooms. It is a world in which all definitions, logic, and common sense are violated. But nothing excites a child more than these stories. Why? Because in the fairy tale, the child enters a world where there are no limits, where omnipotence and transcendence are obvious because there is no armor to block them. There is the capacity to believe in something that is impossible and therefore "true" in the realm of eternity. It is the expression of an unlimited "faith capacity" that the child demonstrates.
But there is still more. All fairy tales are about yearning, not fulfillment. (1) The prince has to defeat the seven dragons, after which he must live seven years as a frog before he can marry the princess. This is narrated in great detail. But once he has married the princess, the fairy tale comes to an end. All we are told is that they "lived happily ever after."
And this is as it should be, because real life begins where the fairy tale ends. The fairy tale is concerned with the engagement. But life deals with the much more difficult task of the marriage between two people, one of which has been a frog for seven years, and the other has slept for a hundred years. In the fairy tale, there is total silence regarding what happens afterwards. It only tells us about the journey, not the arrival.
Paradoxically, this describes our lives. We live a real life only after we have left the fairy tale of our lives. We believe we've got it all together. But later in life we suddenly realize that we never left the fairy tale. Until the last day, we are still busy with the journey and realize that we will never arrive. In fact, we don't even know what this arrival consists of. It is beyond our grasp. And it is exactly that which makes life so exciting. The longing keeps us alive. We may tell ourselves that we have arrived, but we simultaneously realize that the happiness we caught along the journey starts repeating itself now that we have arrived, and the dragon of boredom consumes us. The story then comes to an end.
Many mature people, especially those who have religious souls, experience this when they sing religious songs with fervor and devotion but have not the slightest clue what these songs mean. They are on a journey and are longing to understand, but they know it will never fully happen.
One just has to think about the Jewish women and men who say their daily kapitel tehillim (chapter of psalms) while, for the most part, having not the slightest clue what these psalms actually mean; or, the Jewish children who are asked to sing ‘Anim Zemirot’ (an almost incomprehensible kabbalistic song) in the synagogue on Shabbat morning. They will sing the song with great devotion, knowing that it touches on something most holy, far beyond their comprehension. The synagogue members who respond to the children with every second verse also have no clue about what they are singing, but in no way does this lessen its spiritual meaning. In fact, it only adds, because it is pure. It is the journey that keeps them fascinated. The armor of maturity has been thrown off, and the impossible becomes possible, but still incomprehensible.
The same takes place in church, where people sing Latin Gregorian songs without knowing a word of Latin and where the translation is even more unintelligible. They do this in an uncomplicated but most devoted way, with the conviction that something enormous is at stake. And this is true.
In all these cases, the songs are fairytale-like and consequently of utmost beauty.
This is certainly not a plea for singing only religious songs that are incomprehensible, but it is to remember that these songs are of the greatest importance because they confront us with the meaning behind the absurdity of life, which is revealed in these fairytale-like songs with which all of us live. In some way, they tell us that the songs we do understand are ultimately just as much a part of the absurdity as those we do not understand. They confront us with the ineffable, the mysterium magnum. They restore us to our rightful place. They turn us into children, which we have always been and always will be however much we want to deny this. We are still traveling.
The problem is that there is a wisdom "out there", which is transmitted on a wavelength that is out of range of our spiritual transistor's frequency. Yes, we turn on the radio, but we're only able to hear some strange noises and unusual static. There is a serious transmission failure. We can't find the pipelines because we have become locked in our armor and are too far removed. This is the only human condition known to us. And on Rosh HaShana we become aware that we will never catch this wavelength.
Therefore, Rosh HaShana is of the greatest importance. Having to crown a Being whom we cannot fathom forces us to believe in the fairy tales of the Divine. When we state in our prayers that "God was King, is King and will forever be King”, we enter a space where all such expressions are completely beyond our intellectual capacity. We do not know what we are saying. It is all holy absurdity. And consequently, it is most significant.
For this reason, there is an interplay of words in our prayers, when we laud God as the King but then at a certain moment are silenced by our awareness that all these expressions are deficient. We realize that our words are completely inadequate and we are not tuned in to the transistor's transmission, which by definition cannot reach us.
We then do what children do when they cannot find the words. They start looking for other ways to overcome the problem. Sometimes, out of frustration, they'll make incomprehensible sounds to let off steam and simultaneously try to reach a level that no words can reach. In that case, they may take a whistle, or other blow toy, and produce strange sounds that belong to the world of fairy tales.
This is the purpose of the shofar. When words are no longer effective, we look for other ways to pull through and release our frustration. And so we start to blow a strange sound that can pierce through all heavenly levels until it makes it to the One Who is totally unknown.
And somehow we have a good laugh over it. What do you do when absurdity and inadequacy hits you? You can become depressed and melancholic. But here Judaism proves its genius. It turns the tables on us and asks us to overcome our negative feelings and instead celebrate this absurdity. It asks us to dress like kings and queens, have tasty meals, sing optimistic songs, and turn Rosh HaShana into a fantastic holy celebration.
It is all a cavalcade of our lives and therefore very serious.
"To live is like to love – all reason is against it, and all healthy instinct for it", said Samuel Butler.
It is Divine humor that tells us to continue to live with this absurdity; and supreme holy witticism that asks us to live with laughter. We are asked to enjoy the journey and realize that there is no arrival.
Tizku le-shanim rabot
(1) See Godfried Bomans, ‘Wij Horen U Niet’, Elsevier, 1961, Dutch.
“On Rosh HaShanah all the inhabitants of the world pass before Him like a flock of sheep.” (1)
“Like walking on a small narrow road where no two can pass by at the same time.”
In this mishnah, the Sages highlighted man’s uniqueness and loneliness in his encounter with God. Human beings are, above all, individuals. They meet God privately, each one having been created in a particular way with varying talents, emotions and levels of wisdom. Privacy is, after all, the privilege of the individual.
Still, this individuality is of little value if man is unable to exercise it in his connection with God and his fellow man. Only in relationships can man be an individual, for if he does not live in an encounter with the Other, he cannot be unique, since it is distinctiveness that makes man special. Like a flower that we single out from among all others, and whose beauty we individualize, so man does not become human unless his uniqueness is highlighted.
However, individuality is also an enormous challenge – a call for responsibility, from which there is no escape. It is man alone who is responsible for his deeds, and it is primarily through these that man meets the Other. Nothing has more far-reaching consequences than the human deed. One act may determine the fate of the world. It is through the application of his deeds that man reveals his thoughts and feelings. And even when the act is done in the company of his fellow men and with the cooperation of others, it still remains distinct.
According to a view in the Talmud (2), Rosh HaShanah celebrates the birth of the first human being – the first creature destined to be an individual – while Yom Kippur reminds him of his responsibilities. Though other creatures no doubt have some degree of individuality, they do not carry responsibility for their deeds, and are therefore not distinctive.
Consequently, it is the uniqueness of the human deed that is the focal point of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The High Holidays, then, are a protest against the notion that some of our deeds are trivial. Since all of our deeds take place in the presence of God they must all be significant. Our encounter with God on the High Holidays teaches us a powerful lesson: There are no deeds of insignificance. It warns that we should never see our lives as common and irrelevant. However small a deed may seem in our eyes, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur make us aware that our entire lives, and even the most trivial deeds, should be attuned to eternity. Time is broken eternity; every moment counts because it is part of a great and infinite mystery of which not even a second can be recaptured. We do not live in our private time but in God’s time, in which we spend every second of our lives. It is therefore imperative that we instill divine eternity into all of our deeds, making the small things significant, the common unique, and the momentary eternal. (3)
We must internalize the truth that only through detail can one really live a life of profundity. Detail is, after all, the breaking down of generalities into such subtle components that they touch eternity. Man needs to live profoundly because only a contemplative life has meaning.
Every ordinary act should be turned into a kind of mitzvah, a spiritual challenge, making it a dignified encounter with God. On Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur we are reminded that our deeds must redeem God’s presence and rescue Him from oblivion. In doing the finite we must be able to perceive the infinite.
The High Holidays are a warning to live vertically and not horizontally. When we live our lives in the constant pursuit of new material objects, believing that through them we will find meaning and joy, it would behove us to look around and see the continuous boredom in which our Western world finds itself. The excitement of new possessions leads to the trivialization of our lives after a day or two – but only if we view them horizontally. If we look at what we have in a vertical dimension, meaning in the process of constant spiritual growth, then we see these objects in the light of eternity and, consequently, in profundity.
As we enter a new year, we encounter major challenges. Let us hope we handle this well in our private life and sincerely pray that the governments of Israel and America will make the right decisions concerning Hamas, Iran and the Islamic State. One small mistake may bring a disaster.
May God grant the Jewish people and all of mankind the wisdom to make the right choices, as well as the opportunity to live in peace and with great profundity.
Tizku leshanim rabot.
(1) Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:2.
(2) Rosh HaShanah 10b.
(3) Abraham Joshua Heschel.
One of the most remarkable features of the Portuguese Spanish Selichot, besides the text, is the choice of melodies. The tunes are not like those of the Edot HaMizrach, the Eastern Sefardi communities. They are much nicer, and surely with due respect, much more beautiful than those of our Ashkenazi brothers.
The Portuguese Spanish Selichot are different in that their tunes are very optimistic and joyful. They are a pleasure to hear.
Still, to sing about one’s transgressions in an optimistic tone, as if proud of them, is quite remarkable! It begs the question: How can a person feel pride about his transgressions? Would it not be more appropriate to chant them in a subdued voice, dramatically, to sad music?
Why ask a chazzan with a beautiful voice, accompanied by a grand choir, to lead these prayers? Shouldn’t the congregation get someone with an untrained voice who would sing the Selichot simply and humbly?
I believe there is a profound idea behind this phenomenon: To be given the opportunity to do teshuvah is an enormous privilege. It is a joy to be able to say I am sorry. In fact, it is one of the great gifts that Judaism has given mankind: the knowledge that man can change; that if he has not been successful the past year, he can turn over a new leaf and start again. This is the ultimate expression of religious optimism. Judaism teaches man that there is no karma that traps him, and no original sin that stands in his way. Man is free to re-engage with God and his fellow man. He can regret his deeds. Whatever obstacles there may be, all that is required is the will to change his ways and the effort to work hard at it.
Over the years, we have misunderstood the meaning of prayer and chazzanut. In most synagogues, services are heavy and often depressing. There is an absence of joy and spiritual outpouring.
True, it is not easy to speak to God. In fact, it is a major undertaking, and not without great risk. Who are we to speak to God? There is chutzpah involved. Even more outrageous is the fact that we dare to praise God. Johann Wolfgang Goethe once observed: Wer einem lobt stellt sich ihm gleich. He who praises someone places himself on the other’s level. Or, as Aristotle said: Everyone may criticize him, but who is permitted to praise him?
Indeed, the question is crucial. Logically, such boldness should not be permissible. The answer, however, is that God is prepared to compromise His greatness for the sake of man and come down to his level, or lift man to such greatness that he can touch His Throne.
This is the internal knowledge of the religious man. Through it he realizes the joy and the privilege to be allowed to praise God and ask His forgiveness, in spite of its impertinence.
Nothing expresses this joy better than singing the Selichot in an optimistic tone. Not only is man allowed to say the Selichot; he is commanded to do so. It is the celebration of man’s vulnerability as well as his grandeur. It is God’s great gift to man.
What, then, is the function of the chazzan and choir? Many seem to believe it is to give a musical performance; to provide a “charming service” for the congregants. But such an observation is a tragedy. It’s a violation of the very goal it wants to achieve. More than that, it’s a kind of idolatry entering our synagogues.
Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “The Cantor has to pierce the armor of indifference.” Chazzanut is not simply a skill, or a technical performance. It is a protest against apathy; a nearly impossible battle to rescue the words of the prayer book from spiritual oblivion. The chazzan’s task is to lift the printed words from the very page on which they appear and turn them into a prophecy through which man will look in the mirror and realize that he must run for his life. He has to disengage himself from the all-too-familiar prayers, which have become stagnant and deadening. Chazzanut is the art of putting wings on the words, elevating them to a world that many of us no longer recognize. The goal is to unbind the words from their own restrictions until, in an explosive burst, they scatter into new meanings and carry us to a newfound world of spirituality.
The chazzan and the choir must lift each word out of its confined meaning and turn it into something that the word on its own is unable to convey. To sing is “to know how to stand still and to dwell upon a word” (Heschel).
The Talmud tells us (Sanhedrin 94a)) that God wanted to appoint King Chizkiyahu as the Mashiach. After all, he was a great tzaddik, a righteous man who even turned Jewish education on its head by ensuring that “no boy or girl, man or woman was found who was not thoroughly versed in the laws of purity and impurity” (Ibid 94b). Never, says the Talmud, was there such advanced Torah learning in all of Israel. And yet, Chizkiyahu’s son Menashe was utterly wicked. The Talmud asks, in astonishment, how that could have been. Such a righteous father; and such an evil son! Surprisingly, the Talmud responds that the reasons why King Chizkiyahu did not become the Mashiach and why he had such a wicked son are one and the same: He didn’t sing! That showed that he lacked understanding of the value and profundity of singing. He didn’t realize that just as music sets the soul on fire and draws us nearer to the infinite, so does singing. “It takes us out of the actual and whispers to us dim secrets that startle our wonder as to who we are, and for what, whence, and whereto” (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Menashe never heard his father singing. He was probably a very serious and somber man. As a result, he couldn’t purify his heart and mind. He was left with stagnated words that couldn’t move him and ultimately led to his wickedness.
We must never forget that because Chizkiyahu didn’t sing, he could not be the Mashiach. And all of us lost out.
No song – no Mashiach.
Deze tekst wordt vrijdag 7 september ook gepubliceerd in The Jerusalem Post.
When you besiege a city for many days to wage war against it to capture it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an ax against them, for you may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Is the tree of the field a man, to go into the siege before you? (Devarim 20:19)
כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור
“Cleanliness is not next to Godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made an essential, and Godliness is regarded as an offence.” – G.K. Chesterton (1)
Throughout most of history, religious Jews’ hygiene standards were far more advanced than those of most other people. Indeed, Jewish law dating back thousands of years contains a far-reaching codex for personal and environmental cleanliness that would seem novel and forward-thinking to many twenty-first century lawyers, environmentalists, and public health-care workers.
Besides numerous laws that prohibit needless destruction of the natural environment and its resources, as well as pollution in its various forms, Jewish Law also seeks to preserve animal life and maintain clean and pleasant conditions both in the home and in the public domain.
The Torah of the Bathroom
In a fascinating narrative, the Talmud tells of the great Rabbi Huna who asked his son why he was not attending the lectures of Rabbi Chisda, a brilliant, younger colleague. Rabbi Huna’s son, in his innocence, answered that he wanted “to hear words of Torah and not about worldly matters.” Taken aback by this response, Rabbi Huna asked his son which “worldly matters” Rabbi Chisda actually discussed. The son responded that the sage lectured about cleanliness and appropriate behavior in the bathroom. After hearing this, Rabbi Huna exclaimed in wonderment, “Here are matters of health [and thus of Torah], and you call them worldly matters!?!” (2)
On another occasion, the Mishna (3) states that “it is not permitted to soak clay in the public highway (…) During building operations, stones [and other building materials] must be deposited immediately on the building site [and not left on the road].” The Talmud also forbids other forms of litter, such leaving shards of glass in the public domain. (4) The purpose of these laws is to protect the public against injury, and also to ensure a minimum standard of cleanliness in society.
With their keen insight into human nature, the Jewish sages understood the direct impact of these laws on the society’s psychological well-being. The Talmud quotes a source that states that if a spring serves as the water supply for two towns, but does not provide sufficient water for both, the town closer to the source takes precedence. (5) The other town, in such a case, would need to find other ways to get sufficient water. However, when it is a choice between the farther town’s drinking water and the nearer town’s laundry water supply, the farther town’s drinking water should come first. (6)
The Cause of Depression
To our surprise, Rabbi Yossi objects to this ruling and states that the closer town’s laundry water will take priority over the farther town’s drinking water! The Talmud, explaining Rabbi Yossi’s reasoning, refers to a statement of the famous authority, Shmuel, who says that constantly wearing dirty clothes causes depression and mental instability! (7)
In other words, clean garments are not a luxury. Jewish law considers cleanliness a necessity. The great Halachic authority, Rabbi Ahai Gaon (8th century), ruled that the law is decided according to Rabbi Yossi’s opinion. (8) A wealth of similar laws and observations are to be found throughout traditional Jewish literature.
Unfortunately, these laws do not seem to be of great concern within many orthodox communities today. Though litter does not pollute the streets of orthodox communities any more so than in some secular communities, one still wonders why rabbis and religious leaders who are so genuinely committed to the Torah and Tradition do not speak out on these issues to ensure that the relevant laws receive the attention they deserve. Indeed, given the spirit of Jewish Law, we would expect that the streets in orthodox neighborhoods would look remarkably cleaner than anywhere else.
By implementing the Torah’s laws in this realm – which should really not be too difficult, for after all, we’re only talking about throwing garbage in bins rather than in the streets – orthodox communities will take away much of the ammunition in their secular detractors’ arsenals, and in so doing, will make a tremendous kiddush Hashem, which is in fact the purpose of being a Jew. (9)
(1) G.K. Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles (New York: Dodd Mead, 1917), 67.
(2) Shabbat 82a.
(3) Bava Metzia 10:5.
(4) See Bava Kama 29b.
(5) Nedarim 80a.
(6) For full understanding of this statement see the commentaries on Nedarim 80b.
(7) Nedarim 80b.
(8) She'eltot, Re'eh, no. 147.
(9) For further reading on this subject, see the excellent essay by Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld and Dr. Avraham Wyler: “The Ultra Orthodox Community and Environmental Issues,” Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 415, 21 Tishrei 5760, (October 1999): 1-7.