The following is adapted from the speech I gave at my son’s Bar Mitzvah.

G_d relates to Moshe different than Avraham

wrapping-tefillinG_d spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. 

וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ’ לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name [Hashem]

לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֘ל אֲנִ֣י יְהוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃

Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.

Didn’t Avaraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov know Hashem?  Weren’t they prophets?  Didn’t Avraham argue with G_d about saving the people of Sodom?  Then didn’t he reach such a level of trust in G_d as to who lives, who dies, who tells your story, that when G_d says your own son is supposed to die, you do it?  And 37 year old Yaakov has such trust in his father that he says tie me up dad!

Further, what does it mean to make yourself know G_d by the name ‘Hashem’ versus ‘El Shaddai’?

A Childlike Relationship versus an Adult Relationship

There is a qualitative difference between the times of Avraham and the times of Moshe.  Hashem means ‘my lord’ or ‘master;.  El Shaddai is the G_d of action.

First Hashem – A young child doesn’t question the authority of his parents.  A child trust his parents emphatically – there is question of the parents perfection and Hashem’s perfection.  There are no questions of emunah – of faith in parents and no questions in G_d. In turn, no mitzvos are required of the child.  The child need not respond with any act, because whatever he does, he will be cradled and little is really required or expected of him.

Every relationship teaches us something about our relationship with G_d.  Just as our relationship with our parents changes, so does our relationship with our Creator.  (In Jewish sources, the creation of a child is the combination of G_d and your two parents partnering to make it so.)  The parent doesn’t change much and is more set in his ways, but the child changes.  However, as the child grows, the parent has to change how he or she relates to the child and a first time parent goes through a learning process.  The rules for the first born are generally more strict than for the later born.  So too, bereshis bara elokim, in the beginning of G_d’s creating, there was a strict child-like relationship – Adam an Chava [Eve] are the first born and tol play in the playpen, just don’t touch this one thing!  That’s off limits!  But it’s pretext, according to the midrash tanchuma.  The father knows the child will do the ‘wrong’ thing and now he can take him out of playpen to a far bigger playpen.  In this case, it’s the playpen that we call planet earth and even the space beyond.  It’s a rather larger playpen to explore.

Moshe [Moses] Brings the World to a State of ‘Bar MItzvah’

Noach and Avraham bring the world to a more mature age – they receive the first mitzvos.  Far more action is required of Moshe, and of course, the rest of the generations.  Moshe brings the world to a state of ‘bar mitzvah’.  Moshe asks deeper questions.  

While there is no agreement on whether Iyov [Job] existed or not, some sources say Iyov is Moshe or is written by Moshe.  Moshe doesn’t want to just have faith, Moshe needs to question – “G_d, why me?” “G_d, surely there’s someone else who can do this?”  “G_d, how can I keep leading when my people keep retreating?”  

G_d shows Moshe the back of his tefillin – the knot where it all comes together.  This is the mitzvah that a bar mitzvah boy takes on.  Things don’t always make sense and things don’t always seem to go the way you want them too – there are ups and downs even for, and sometimes especially for, those who cling most to their Creator.  Just as the tefillin of a bar mitzvah boy seems to hang on the head inexplicably, remember that there’s a knot holding it together on the other side.  From the front, it doesn’t make sense how it’s there, but from the back, it all connects.  (Heard from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky.)  Hashem reveals himself to Iyov in much the same manner – in fact, the tefillin knot episode takes place in a wind which might be the same whirlwind that Iyov sees when Hashem appears to him, if they are, in fact, the same people.

Now compare Avraham’s actions to Moshe and Iyov.  Avraham is told take your son, your only son and make him into an offering for G_d.  Avraham wakes up early and the morning and obeys without hesitation. Avraham questioned at Sodom out of his love for other people, but relents to the will of Hashem being his will.  Moshe does not relent.  He does not relent to save others in Egypt, to save the Jews after sinning, an even to save himself an enter Eretz Yisroel until G_d directly tells him to stop.  In this first exampe, Moshe saves the erev rav and those deserving death in Egypt.  They become a thorn in his side, leading to the chait ha’egel, the golden calf, and worshiping thereof. Meanwhile, Iyov is told by his friend Elifaz, in a partial answer to Iyov’s suffering – you were a judge and you let people go for their crimes.  It is these same people who came back to steal all your property an hurt you. For Avraham, trust is implicit in the relationship to Hashem.  For Moshe, his relationship is with El Shaddai and “seeing is believing.”

Bar Mitzvah Means Your Relationships Get More Complex with G_d and Man Too

While G_d runs the big picture, G_d has given over to man the power to control his destiny and helps man in the way he wants to go.  It is up to us to make sure the way we want to go is in accordance with G_d’s will and so we have the Torah, commandments, and davening to bring us there.  We talk to our Creator, contemplate, think it over, a discern right from wrong when we are honest with ourselves and the Torah.  The mitzvos which must take a child out of his child state and a black an right right vs. wrong are now a vehicle to connect to your Creator in a more complex manner.  The tefillin on the head relates to thinking and contemplating.  The tefillin on the arm is reminiscint of G_d redeeming us with an “outstretched arm” – it represents action and doing.

Adam left the garden, Moshe left the palace, and Yehoshua’s generation left the desert for battles to conquer Israel.  Sometimes we want to go back – we want the simple life.  We want the garden, we want the midbar (desert) where our clothes didn’t wear out and food was never scarce.  We want to return to being that young child or even return to the womb.  Every step forward is more challenging, but every challenge brings more choice, more freedom, and more return through work and effort.

Jewish History and Changing Times are Like this Too

Your great-great-great grandfather Kreitman was, according to my genealogy research, a water carrier in Chelm.  From the looks of his son’s signature on the marriage record (an X) and family stories passed down, the family was illerate.  The simple Jew, the pashut yid of Europe was known to have emunah (faith/trust) far greater than most of us today.  Then everything changed – a new world with new opportunities opened up, and the old world was literally destroyed.  The faith of Avraham gave way to the questioning of Moshe or Iyov.  How could this happen?  There are some answers, but we has not privy to seeing even the knot at the back to know where it all comes together, let alone the front where the ‘magic’ happens.  

There’s no going back – only forward into the world where trust in the Creator must be based on action.  An illiterate water carrier’s 13 year old great-great-grandson can factor quadratic equations and calculate the slope of the water bucket, but still follow the same eternal Torah and find his connection outside of ‘playpen Earth’.  The meaning lies outside the system.  The rat running the maze doesn’t know why it’s running the maze.  Having a job or even learning lots of information is not meaningful, but connecting to something larger outside of the maze is meaningful.  (Paraphrased from The Great Partnership by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) 

Now My Son, It’s Your Turn

About 40 generations from Moshe, my namesake, and Yehoshua ben nun, your namesake, and you begin your journey leaving the safety of the parents nests to go forward.  Moshe stayed in the desert while Yehoshua left for Israel.  This Moshe has found his place an Yehoshua, you are to venture forth to places your father cannot or does not go and find your place.

My interest in Jews of the Dominican Republic piqued (or peaked, or maybe peeked) after my visit to the country.  The Rabbi on my Dominican Republic kosher vacation casually mentioned how hundreds of Jews were saved from the holocaust not too far from the resort with kosher restaurants where I was staying.  Why hadn’t I heard about this before?  Two books later, I’m here to report what I know.  One book is “Dominican Haven: The Jewish Refugee Settlement in Sosua, 1940-1945”  by Kaplan.  The other is “Tropical Zion” by Wells.  Both books are similar – they’re written by academics in largely high handed and detached academic style with a whole lot more about the geopolitics involved in what was an agriculture project to resettle displaced Jews from Europe to the Dominican Republic.  Very little is told about the personal stories and struggles of the individuals whose lived it.  In many respects, they’re similar to books like “Six from Leipzig” which is about my partner’s former partner at my law firm – big on politics, short on personal story.

Short Answer

Here’s the short answer why there aren’t 100,000 Jews in the Dominican Republic today: economics, the United States, and Israel.  The long answer follows.

Rafael Trujillo and the Jews

Peurto Plata airport departure area - Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Peurto Plata airport departure area – Jewish settlement pictures in Sosua.

Rafael Trujillo took over the Dominican Republic by military force in 1930 and lost power in 1952 after his assassination.  He feared takeover by Haiti – the French, black, and poor country that shares the island.  He also feared and needed the United States, the economic giant in the hemisphere.  He was a ruthless dictator but an ally of the United States in whatever it wanted.  In return, the United States largely looked the other way after his army slaughtered 20,000 Haitians.  While being part black himself (he lightened his skin with powder in official photographs) he desired a whiter population.  Lest there be any doubt about his racism, he stated his opinions clearly upon the inauguration of the Jewish settlement of Sousa.  His desire was to make his island lighter skinned and differentiate it from Haiti while keeping the blacks at bay by raising his white population to compete with the Haitians who had many more children per woman.  History hasn’t changed much – look at the news in 2015.

Meanwhile in Europe, Germany was systematically stripping Jews of their rights, taking over neighboring countries where they then stripped those Jews of their rights, and creating a human catastrophe.  It all seemed horrendous until we consider what came next.  Each year the exchange rate given to a Jew was decreased until he could get maybe 10% of the actual value of his money out of the country if he could still find a way to leave and had any money left after a depression and his business was destroyed.  The rest of the world, still feeling the Great Depression, had no desire to take in poor refugees except one country – the Dominican Republic.  The Dominican Republic stood up at two refugee conferences organized by the United States and declared the intention to take in 100,000 Jews.  Various reasons are given but race seems to be the most convincing argument to me.  As racist as Hitler was towards Jews, Trujillo was favorable because European Jews are white.  Countless times in history, one country expelled Jews while another absorbed them.

The Dominican Republic, it is said in the books, probably managed to save a few thousand Jews by issuing visas.  Even if a Jew couldn’t or didn’t want to make it to the Dominican Republic, a Jew in Lisbon, Portugal (a transit point out of Europe) could remain there until finding another refuge.

Why So Few Jews Made it

So why were only 1% of the spots filled?  First and foremost, the Dominican Republic was poor.  It was in receivership to the United States and under a corrupt dictator who controlled most business.  Even once the settlement got started, sugar was out of the question as this was part of a state monopoly.  Most other businesses failed as the cost to import and export was prohibitive.  Meanwhile, most people lived in dirt floor huts.  Why would you want to live there?  Those who came usually wanted to leave for the United States as soon as they could.  In fact, around this same time period, 20,000 refugees from the war in Spain came to the Dominican Republic . . . and left.

Next, Trujillo and those selecting Jews for the settlement wanted the young and strong who could work the fields and do hard manual labor day after day.  Jews in Europe were mainly city dwellers and mainly attached to families.  Those who did come were largely single and male with a huge dearth of young women.  The women weren’t desired, nor did they desire to leave their parents on their own.  This meant the settlement couldn’t populate future generations and those who were there had every incentive to leave to find a wife, without a family or homestead to tie him down.  (Trujillo hoped for intermarriage which was exceedingly rare.)  There were plenty of children from those who came over married and wanted to replace what was lost.   Other Jews, who weren’t up for the labor, lived in handouts from Jewish philanthropists in the U.S. but were teh subject of complaints by Trujillo and the settlement administration causing “evictions” of Jews from the settlement to the capital city.  It wasn’t until after WWII that Sosua really functioned as a place work as opposed to a place of refuge largely by those not fit for the task circumscribed for them.

The next problem: the United States.  Why the Dominican Republic or the Jewish financiers of the operation did not send ships to Lisbon, Amsterdam, or Italy and just take over boatloads of Jews while bypassing the United States, I do not understand.   Many Jews, especially those who made it to Italy, held out for transit to Israel which was almost non-existent in the 1940s.  However, I say this with the power of hindsight.  Most didn’t expect extermination and the “slow growth” of the settlement was considered necessary as well as keeping on good terms with the United States.  The State Department in the U.S. had to approve every application.  This bigoted department (then and now, actually) usually served to make it next to impossible.  For years, it was completely impossible to get a transmit visa from Europe through New York.  When they did, a Jew in Ellis Island was a closely guarded prisoner for fear he’d escape to the United States.  More often, the papers weren’t all in check for a valid or bogus reason and with the winds of war coming, the United States claimed to fear spies or those with relatives stuck in concentration camps who could be bribed to hand over intelligence information.  Nasty rumors spread about spies already who came as refugees.  After the first arrivals from Germany in 1940, Germany soon too closed it’s borders.  In other words – those who needed refuge the most and would have most readily come could not.

After the war, the United States actually didn’t change it’s laws one bit… they just changed policy in the State Department and all of the sudden all the unused spots from years past were made available to refugees.  This caused an exodus of Jews from Sosua to the United States as well as an exodus of remaining Jews in Europe to the same location.  Some, especially who stayed the war in Shanghai, did join the settlement in Sosua.  Most others chose Israel.  Over time, the settlers who remained grew old and their children did not remain except to visit.  Had the Jews been welcomed as merchants, doctors, and lawyers (as is more of our calling, it seems) as entire families maybe there’d be a larger Jewish population there today and the DR might also have a much stronger economy.  As it is, the largest milk and cheese factory in the country was founded by the Jews of Sosua.  Instead, the children of the settlers went to seek their education and technical jobs largely out of the country with many resettling to nearby Florida.  The synagogue remains, but hotels and tourism have taken over what is now a “working class” travel destination in Sosua, a town filled with street names like “Dr. Rosen” and “David Stern.”

Final Thoughts

Not long ago I wrote to a law firm in the Dominican Republic which handles trademark applications throughout Latin America.  A client of mine wanted a price quote to file same in a smattering of countries.  I added to my letter that I stayed close to Sosua (in what is a very nice resort with the kosher food and synagogue, the only one of it’s kind in the Caribbean) and would be happy to send my money through a country that would have saved my life.  At the airport today, an Israeli flag is listed on every customs sign showing that is one of the few countries where the passport holder need not pay an entrance fee.  Dominicans are so much the opposite of anti-semitic that they want to marry Jews and look at it as almost a status symbol to say they are descended from a Jew.  The attorney’s answer fell along these lines: “There is a huge Jewish community and its descendants have integrated completely in the Dominican Republic making many cultural and trade contributions. For your information my wife last name is Hazim and Majluta” which are Sefardi names, reprensentative of the large number of such Jews who settled the island throughout the 1800s.  With mixed emotion, it’s nice to know there are places in the world that have been and probably will be friendly to the Jews for a long time but not so nice to know that the Jews there that forget what they’re supposed to do in the world.


The Attack on Christians & A Defense

tattoosThe news as of late about the United States granting legal marriage certificates to couples of the same sex got me thinking.  The Jewish view is clear (it’s legalizing abomination) but then memes fly around the internet attacking Christians for their hypocrisy.  They seemingly pick and choose which versus to apply out of the Bible.  Take a look at “God Hates Shrimp” and some of my favorites to the right.  The book of the Torah, Vayikra, known to English word as “Leviticus” calls homosexuality a “toeivah”, an abomination.  So too does it say this about separating from your wife when she’s unclean and eating “sheretzim”  or the insects that crawl on the ground and various other things.  Up until about yesterday, I actually believed like the Christian scoffers . . . it doesn’t make sense to say you are supposed to keep some things from the Torah (like the Sabbath and heterosexual marriage commitments for intercourse) and not others (like circumcision and keeping kosher) no matter what you want to add in the “new” testament.  I changed my opinion today and post this defense of Christianity’s beliefs (which is weird since I’m a Torah observant Jew, but read on).  Here’s why, at least pre-Constantine Christianity is internally consistent.

Genesis –> Noah –> Avraham –> Moses

526242_262822630502988_1148684695_nAs some brief background in what the written Torah says: Bereshis [Genesis] takes us from Adam (first man with an elevated soul) through Noach (father of all people today) through Avraham.  Noach is given laws for all man kind.  Avraham is “chosen” from among the people for a special purpose and he and his descendants, through trials and tests and found most worthy of a special task of taking on and doing more in this world.  It’s a large world and things are funneled down and selected – each of the 70 nations has a purpose, and one of those nations is chosen for a specific purpose: following the Torah to live in the physical world while also infusing the spiritual realm within it.  This is what Avraham stood for (after all, the mere existence of G_d was known in his time … Noach was still alive).  An entire genealogy is here.

Pauline Christianity = Noachide Laws

Fast forward to early Christianity and we have a turbulent political time with Rome controlling Israel, civil wars, and the destruction of the Temple.  A sect of Jews believe, out of this, the messiah has come.   It was the beginning of the time period in history (4000 years of Adam) when it was believed the messiah could come, and this is not the only occurrence of Jews believing in a messiah coming . . . Rabbi Akiva and others believed it was Bar Kochba.  Many famous Romans converted to Judaism in this time period including Onkelos, daughters of Roman emperors, etc.  As one historian, Ken Spiro once put it, Judaism was the “spiritual religion of the Far East” making a comparison to how Westerners and Israelis flock to Buddhist and Hindu things in the Far East.  Problem for the Christian sect: they are a tiny minority.  Problem for the majority Jewish people: Non-Jews want to join Judaism but don’t want to chop their . . . .

So what happens – it seems Paul (who was Saul, changed for astrological reasons) could have been on the Jewish side.  He takes the Christian sect, divorces it from Judaism and states in Acts 15, among other things, ““Known to God from eternity are all His works.[c] 19 Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, 20 but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality,[d] from things strangled, and from blood. ”

In context, this makes a whole lot of sense.  Paul, a (former?) Jew, is preaching as to what non-jews should do.  They don’t need to keep the 613 categories of mitzvos of a Jew . . . they just need to be Noachides.  That is, people who follow the 7 categories of commandments meant for all time!  That’s it.  Whether or not they believe the messiah has come or not doesn’t change their status as good Noachides who believe:

  1. Do not deny G_d.
  2. Do not blaspheme G_d.
  3. Do not murder.
  4. Do not engage in incest, adultery, pederasty or bestiality, as well as homosexual relations.
  5. Do not steal.
  6. Do not eat of a live animal.
  7. Establish courts/legal system to ensure law and obedience.

It could be ‘coincidence’ that there is such large overlap, but this is doubtful when we’re talking about Jews or former Jews who believe the Torah is the word of G_d and are proselytizing to non-Jews.  This proselytization is not to convert to Judaism, for the say the exact opposite.  The prosletyization is to a belief system separate from Judaism that follows the laws of Noach.

Source for Christianity’s Stance Against Homosexuality

I’d like to suggest, therefore, that the reason Christianity is anti-homosexual relations has nothing to do with Vayikra [Leviticus] calling homosexuality an “abomination”.  Rather, it has to do with a source in Bereshis [Genesis] which applies to all man-kind.  Shellfish, tattoos, and whatnot in Vayikra applies only to Jews, but the laws given to Noach are those taken up by Christianity (with one omission of the most obscure one that people generally don’t do anyway).  The sources for the Noachide laws are nicely written up over here.  So is the source, in specific, for homosexuality – Sodom and Gemorrah.  In fact, the English word “sodomize” comes from the name of this city, destroyed by G_d, for being evil towards their fellow man in a way in which was beyond repair.  Specifically, Lot (Avraham’s nephew) lived in the city and had guests when men of the city came to “know” the men and he offers his virgin daughters to them instead.  It’s a pretty clear reference to their intent to sodomize their guests by force.

It is not until the Roman Empire and their ruler, Constantine, gets ahold of Christianity making it the state religion almost 300 years later that we see the real introduction of influences from idolotrous religions.  The myth of the “son of G_d” comes into play (Nero called himself this) as does the dualism between good and evil which do battle and original sin (this comes from myrthism, the dominate religion of Rome until that time.)  Judaism, and for that matter, islam, obviously disagree with these beliefs of Christians . . . but the stuff they follow from Noach – right on.

That, in a nutshell, is my current hypothesis for why Christians eat shellfish, get tattoos, and don’t get circumcised . . . but believe that homosexuality is wrong.  They are right about their beliefs in this and I support them for upholding it.


Typically I post when I feel I have an answer.  On a high level, I’ve written about things why good things happen to bad people and how there can be seeming evil in the world.  In this personal story, I am left with unanswered questions.  If I don’t tell the story, I don’t think anyone else will, but the details are changed.

The Reuven I knew

Ricardo Gonzolez came from a family of J-Witnesses in Ecuador.  He converted to Judaism after his own attempts to convert a Jewish friend to his former faith backfired on him.  He was something of a language aficionado, earning a degree in English and knew it near perfect, while also learning read both the Torah and New Testament in the original language.  Though he started out Sefardi in Ecuador, as that is the nature of the Jewish community there, he decided he was going to be Ashkenazi and pronounced the Hebrew letters better than the rest of us, adding the Ashkenazi “hhh” to a “hey” with a dagesh (dot) in it, and “th” to the “tav”.  I met him in yeshiva in Israel, my first memory of him being when he stood up on a bench and swung a large soup ladle over his head during a lively song while I ducked for cover from bits of flying soup still on the spoon.  Soon after, i was paired with him as my learning partner (chavrusa).

Some people change chavrusas, find theirs isn’t suitable for them, or one person simply moves on to another shiur (level) or even a different yeshiva.  Not Ricardo and I.  We moved up together and I learned with him six days a week for almost a year.  When you argue back and forth over how to understand complex topics, you begin to understand how the other person thinks.  Even if I didn’t always agree with the way Ricardo looked at, say, a talmudic argument of whether a person with a barrel and a person with a beam who ran into each other were responsible for the damages, there came a point where I could anticipate what his argument would be, and he mine.  We could argue each other’s arguments and, at least for my part, I really felt like I understood how my very bright chavrusa thought.  At the same time, there are jokes about how guys in yeshiva who have learned with the same other guy for many years.  One day, one of their wives asks them a basic question like, “how many kids does your chavrusa’s have?” and they have no idea.  Guys are like that.

Still, we did talk some about personal details.  Ricardo, now going by Reuven, came from a dirt poor family where they did things like wash their underwear in freshly cleaned … toilet.  That’s where they had water and couldn’t afford to use more than needed, I suppose.  His father had come to terms with his conversion but warned him, “just don’t marry an American.”  Meanwhile, he was the most compassionate and deeply feeling person around.  If a joking comment was made about someone, he’d be the first in there to defend them.  If you needed something, he was there.  He prayed at dawn every morning and was my right hand man when I prepared for my wedding.

Soon after I married, as I was leaving yeshiva, a girl was recommended to Reuven for marriage but … she was American.  He didn’t want to do marry her and upset his father, but alas, he did.

Reuven’s Mug Shot

Reuven never contacted me after yeshiva.  Strange, but I did seek him out and found him in Virginia.  He welcomed me and I stayed in his house while traveling to the nearby U.S. Patent Office (I am a Patent Attorney).  He was married and had adopted a baby boy.  His wife had clearly helped him along in adjusting to the much higher standard of living we have in the United States versus his poor Ecuadorian background.  All seemed to be in order, except for his distance from his biological family.

He moved again, and I lost contact again.  Not too long ago, I ran into a friend of his wife and mutual acquaintance and asked if she had any news.  She said she had no contact but knew something wasn’t right.  She didn’t have any details.

I searched for Reuven on Google … nothing.  Then one day LinkedIn recommended I befriend his wife.  I recalled it was her email address, but the last name was different.  He changed his last name too.

Then I found his mugshot.  Then I found his guilty plea.  Then I found his crime.  Reuven is a pedophile serving a 30 year sentence.  Huh?

Immediately, I contacted one of our Rabbis from yeshiva.  He was sure I had the wrong guy.  Reuven?  No way.  Must be a different guy with the same name.  He was so compassionate, ran to the defense of everyone, and certainly wouldn’t hurt someone!  Nope – that’s him in the mug shot.  That’s his name.  That’s the current location of his ex-wife.  No one else has that name in the world.

I contacted his widow (for practical purposes, he’s dead to her).  She told me the bais din (Jewish court) ordered him to divorce his wife, and he did.  He was honest and upstanding like that, but apparently … he also heard voices, had a psychotic break, and has been attracted to little girls since he was in high school.  He hid it so well from everyone, including his own wife for years.  I had seen family pictures where I saw his brother.  It turns out, according to his ex-wife, he has a lot more siblings … all in mental institutions.  I had no idea and neither did she.  We speculate that he must have had a very abusive childhood that he hid well.  He changed his name, his religion, his location … everything to escape himself, but only for so long.

Criminal Defense

The news hit me like a ton of bricks.  This is such a shock.  Yet, I have experience with people who have committed some of the most heinous of crimes.

In law school, I took part in a juvenile defense clinic in Newark, NJ.  Most of the crimes were petty theft, maybe joyriding (driving in a stolen vehicle), and drug use and abuse.  On the advice of a psychologist with whom I consulted before beginning, I used to listen to each kid and then say something like, “You seem like a decent fellow.  How did you get into this mess?”  The answer, 99% of the time was, “it’s my friends – it’s who I’m hanging out with.”  It’s hard to change your peer group and find better people.  If you read “The Pact”, you can see how hard it was for three such kids to become doctors, getting into trouble along the way.  One, Sampson Davis, now a doctor, almost lost everything when he broke the bones of someone in his freshman dorm in what was a verbal scuffle.  That person decided not to press charges and let the whole thing go, understanding where this, now doctor, came from.  He saved the life of a man who now saves others.

These people are largely a product of their environment, and breaking out of it is no easy task.  The one thing I learned as that no matter how uneducated or bad, these people the same feelings as everyone else.

There were, however, a few “untouchables” in my book.  The 12 year old sitting in a holding cell, separated from the rest of the prisoners for his own safety among much older kids was one of them.  He had been accused of a lewd act with an even younger child and videoed it to make it even worse.  He was scared as anything, but it was my job to defend him.  I had trouble entering the cell with him and spoke as little as necessary.  The judge, typically compassionate and ready to hear all sides before rendering a judgment summarily handed him very restrictive terms, including electronic monitoring, until trial.  I didn’t represent him after the initial hearing.

What to Do With a Person Like Reuven

Based on the facts I have, Reuven deserves the punishment he got.  He knew what he was doing, understood that it was wrong, but went ahead and did it after some prior failed attempts.  Even if he gets out of jail as an old man, if he is well enough to not be in an institution like his siblings, he will be on every sex offender registry and monitored like crazy to keep him from hurting another.  The Torah tells us that it is incumbent upon all people, not just Jews, to set up courts and punish the offender.  How the world does that is largely left to people.

There is a flip side to everything.  Things can be used for good or for bad.  There is a midrash that we don’t have prophecy today because the flip side of that is idolotry.  Jews prayed for the end of the old-style idolotry because it was wreaking such havoc, but we also lost prophecy in the process.  The midrash goes on to say that King Solomon also asked for the end of sexual immorality, but saw that same drive that brings about new life in the world.  Without it, the world would wither away.

Yet, on a personal level, I knew Reuven.  He was a guy that always sought to do right.  He doesn’t fit the characteristics of the client I felt so disgusted by that I wouldn’t enter the room.  His wife of more than a few years didn’t see it.  I didn’t see it.  His Rabbi didn’t see it.  The people who agreed to convert him didn’t see it.  The government panel that approved him for adoption didn’t see it. He was a smart guy with a college degree who hid it from everyone.  Now that I see what has been revealed, I still see the honest and otherwise compassionate and caring person who will now languish in jail for substantially or fully the rest of his life.

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

On a higher level, as in … why does G_d create a world like this … I am at a bit of a loss.  The abused becomes the abuser.  People are allowed a lot of free will to create systems as they choose and then live in them, but the neural pathways in Reuven’s brain are aligned in such a way due to no fault of his own.  He sought meaning and sought to do good by becoming more religious than most of us.  No one changes their life around if they don’t feel a need.  For me, it was reaching a point where I had every materialistic desire more than met, getting straight A’s, and finding it all meaningless.  I had higher needs.  For Reuven, he tried to escape demons that overtook him.  Could he control who he was attracted to?  Maybe it is explained by reincarnation, but otherwise, it seems simply unfair.

Could he have passed the test and continued to excel as he was for a time?  I don’t know, but I suspect so.   if I had such drives as Reuven, I would voluntarily undergo chemical treatment to remove the drive.  So yes, despite having the inclination to do wrong, he is at fault for not acting to prevent carrying out that wrong.  On a societal level, courts in the United States, based on arguments by the ACLU, have called that unconstitutional when judges order it.  I disagree. It is better that a person sit in a small cement cell for the rest of their life wasting away, than to be able to work and live a somewhat productive life?  Give a person punishment surely, but if you take away the ability or drive to do harm, you can let the person live.  If I ran the system, there would be prison time … but then instead of 30-50 years in his state (other states are often far less), I’d give the person a choice: 30 years of jail + be on the registry for life, or far less jail time plus a suspended sentence for the rest with some combination of chemical treatment to take away the desire combined with an electronic monitor.  The sentence returns if you break any of the conditions that you voluntarily agreed to do.

When King Dovid [David] did something wrong, he asked that he be punished by G_d, not by people.  He feared that people would take it too far and punish too harshly.  While I don’t have the facts at hand as to what Reuven did in detail, if I didn’t know him and only had court records to read, I’m sure I would have agreed with the outcome.  When I know there’s more to the person than the crime, after a certain amount of time in prison to punish, the rest of the sentence solves nothing but keeping them away from others.  There has to be a better way.  Maybe I’m wrong about this, and maybe putting a person like this away until they die is the only answer to protect society.  It seems like there must be a more just way of preventing harm to others while giving people a chance to live again, just like the college freshman did that for Dr. Davis.


an-eye-for-an-eye-233x300Every now and then, an email or meme mocks words from the Torah, preying on the unlearned.  Sometimes, the writer shows themselves to be extremely unlearned as in the case of the alleged letter to Dr. Laura.  Other cases include witticisms like, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind.”  This was actually a question that led me on a religions search in the first place.  I asked myself, “If it’s so obviously true that there are so many silly things in religion, how could my great-grandparents, who were smart people, believe in it? ”  Today, I’d add that given that half the world’s population is living in societies based on the Torah’s guidance, it can’t be that simple as to be so obviously false.

If a person wants to scoff at anything, there’s always a way to scoff, and it’s not to those people that I address this article.  As King Solomon said, “Do not reprimand a leitz [clown / mocker] lest he hate you” (Mishlei 9:8).  I would, however, like to post explanations to a few words from the Torah which people have challenged me with and for which … there are answers.

An Eye for an Eye

Taken out of context, Vayikra [Leviticus] 24 reads:

. 19 And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him [namely,] יט. וְאִישׁ כִּי יִתֵּן מוּם בַּעֲמִיתוֹ כַּאֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה כֵּן יֵעָשֶׂה לּוֹ:
 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. Just as he inflicted an injury upon a person, so shall it be inflicted upon him. כ. שֶׁבֶר תַּחַת שֶׁבֶר עַיִן תַּחַת עַיִן שֵׁן תַּחַת שֵׁן כַּאֲשֶׁר יִתֵּן מוּם בָּאָדָם כֵּן יִנָּתֶן בּוֹ:

The Talmud actually discusses whether it means literally that we take out someone’s eye (Bava Kamma, page 83b-84a), because, well, the Talmud discusses just about everything.  You can find an analysis about it over here by Nechama Leibowitz.  I’d rather not rehash what the Talmud has to say about it, but rather, put into practice something I learned very early on from Rabbi Tuvia Singer; if you see something in the Torah being read for something that it probably shouldn’t mean, look a few verses backwards and forwards and it will probably make sense:

18 And one who slays an animal shall pay for it  a life for the life [he took]. יח. וּמַכֵּה נֶפֶשׁ בְּהֵמָה יְשַׁלְּמֶנָּה נֶפֶשׁ תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ:

That is, just one verse prior, it is written yishalmena, from the room “shalem”, to pay money.  Even in modern Hebrew, one might say, “Ani yishalem 10 sheklim”, meaning “I pay 10 shekels.”  Though “pay” was not repeated later, from the context, it’s seems clear that “life for a life” is referring to payment of money … that is, the worth of the life that was killed, whether that life be killed by your animal or self.

(The literal translation is also more clearly translated as, “eye under an eye”.)

A Bride for One Night

Recently, someone showed me the book, “A Bride for One Night” by Ruth Calderon.  This is a book which seeks to sell itself by sensationalizing a few lines from the 2800+ page Talmud.  This is the line in question, removed from the context it is trying to present:

When Rav visited the town of Darshis he would announce: Who wants to be my wife for a day? – Yoma 18b

While Calderon proceeds to develop a whole narrative out of this, much as a sports announcer does from a new weighted random statistic about an athlete, she neglects to provide any context to the statement or any description of how the Talmud works.  While admitting that “I don’t know how one learns a story like this in yeshiva” because she never asked, she throws out such gems as let’s read this “in the spirit of the 1960s” and spends pages suggesting how this is just an example of women being oppressed.

An anthropologist, she is not.  One doesn’t read a different time and place into someone’s life.  Comparing 3rd century Babylonia to 1960s American hippies is like comparing crickets to rubidium.  Even the line of the text itself doesn’t support her assertion.  It says not a thing about any woman being oppressed, forced, or without choice in the matter.  This does not stop her from building an entire feminist narrative out of a false premise, doing a disservice to feminism by standing on the back of fluff and feathers.

The text in Yevamos 37b (which she does not quote) repeats Rav’s statement, but clearly states in direct response:

“A Tanna taught: R. Eliezer b. Jacob said: A man must not marry a woman if it is his intention to divorce her, for it is written, Devise not evil against your neighbor, seeing he dwell securely by you.”

A “Tanna” is an earlier and more authoritative source which remains unchallenged, here, in the Talmud.  This throws Calderon’s “free love” assertions out the window but she chooses to ignore the obvious.  Any interpretation of Rav’s statement needs to fit within this context to make any sense.

Read a little closer, the text only says “who wants to be my wife.” Calderon has enough intellectual honestly to praise the Talmud for not hiding anything, but neglects to mention that the strongest arguments are posited.  I’m not a major scholar, but Yevomos 37b is discussing the problem of marrying women in other towns and children marrying their siblings by accident.  Rav’s statement is then used to try and say that can’t be, because Rav said “who wants to be my wife…”.  Wouldn’t the stronger argument be, “Rav went to Darshis and married so and so for a day.”  Yet, it does not say that, so a better assumption, and one which fits with the text, is that Rav did not actually marry any woman for a day because the Talmud would then have used such an act to argue better.

So why did Rav go to Darshis and make this statement?  The Talmud doesn’t tell us, but one reason may be to show that even get Rabbis have sexual needs and desires which control us.  By having no possible outlet, one is more likely to “do it wrong”, and in the Torah, that is a big, big problem.  Just by knowing that there is a possible outlet available to you, you’ll be more able to control yourself psychologically, even if you never use that outlet.  It may prevent you from doing the harm in the first place – compare to Rambam and The Art of War which both say that when you are conquering an army, leave a way out for them to retreat because if you back someone into a corner, they’ll come out swinging at you like a superman, with no other choice.  (Here, we want to keep superman in the pocket…)  A woman might very well would have wanted to marry, or at least be there for such a great Rabbi … and this may well have been acceptable in such a society which was both extremely moral and lacking in the public repression of today’s society.  Cauldron would rather read into this her 1960’s societal experience which is the polar opposite in sexual morality and comfortableness with one self.  No wonder she doesn’t get it.

I did some further reading and decided one can take this even further to show that Rav did nothing of the sort.  Why not say, as the Talmud normally says, “Rav holds X is the law” or such a statement.  Rather, it says, “Rav went to Darshis and called out…”  Why mention the place and his actions?  Telling us the name of a place is a strange thing to do if we’re setting out a law.  There is teaching message here which has nothing to do with the face value of the words.  This seems to be a lesson for the people in the town on the importance of marriage, and not to wait to do so.   It’s a statement to shock the town into moving forward with their lives and getting married, much as one might walk into the museum of tolerance and say, “I hate you all!” to shock people out of their complacency with their own bigotry.

In fact, others discuss this and have also posited such answers: See Daas Torah and The Talmud Blog.

Stuck with the Rapist

This allegation comes in various forms.  Here’s one I found based on quick Googling:

Deuteronomy 22:28-29
NLT) If a man is caught in the act of raping a
young woman who is not engaged, he must
pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then
he must marry the young woman because he
violated her, and he will never be allowed to
divorce her.

Put into present day western connotations of man-woman relationships, that sounds pretty bad.  Except for one thing – if there is a law for your benefit, you can waive such a law.  As the Talmud tells us in Bava Kamma and Kiddushin, one can say “I do not care for the enactment of the sages (for my benefit)”.  In this case, it’s a Torah law in the written text and not a later enactment, but Kesubos 39a is clear that the same principle applies … the rapist is required to marry the woman, and that is who is being spoken about.  The woman, however, has no such obligation nor do the words say that she does.

So why would a woman ever want to marry her rapist?  Simple – the man is also required to support her.  It is a deterrent to tell a man that if you rape someone, you might just be stuck with her the rest of your life and have to take care of her, and further, in a system of relationships that doesn’t hold of alimony (only lump sum payment) and the woman might never get remarried, the woman could choose to extract financial payment from this man for the rest of their lives.  While being supported, which in a time and place where that’s very valuable to her (which is almost all times and places), she is not required (in Jewish law) to ever have relations with him during this ‘marriage’.

Let Us Make Man in Our Image

This comes from the description of creation of man …

Then G_d said, “Let us make mankind in our image …  – Bereshis [Genesis] 1:26

Who is G_d talking to?  This one is easy – the angels.  There is a midrash about this as explained by Rashi that this teaches us to always consult with others.  The entire first book of the Torah is about relationships, which comes before most of everything else.  Even in the act of creation, G_d is teaching us by example – here’s a partnership in creation itself.  As Rashi tells us, Moshe [Moshes] questioned this because people will make a mistake and think there’s more than one Creator.  G_d said something like, “write it properly.  Those who want to read it improperly will do so, and those who want to read it properly will do so.”

We can Quote the Bible Too


Under the file name “gays strike back” this meme claims the Torah says that a marriage is valid only if the wife is a virgin, otherwise she should be executed.  Obvious question: the sign has two versus but the alleged reference has nine verses.  Answer: the Torah doesn’t say that at all.

Here’s a link to read what it really says.  The gist of the nine verses is that if a man accuses a woman of lying about her past relations, if he’s found to be wrong, he’s fined and has to support his wife.  If she’s actually married already, well, that’s bad but the case is nothing like what the sign says.


If you take any document thousands of pages long and want to mock it, you can take a sentence here and there out of context and/or into your own worldview which is inconsistent with that of the document itself.  Almost always, it shows ignorance and an inability to look beyond one’s own viewpoint.  However, sensical answers are there for a person who is open minded.  When the document in question is the basis for the societal organizaiton of half the population of the planet (or more), a thinking person will take a deeper look.

 Les Miserables

Last year, the Maccabeats, best known for the most popular mainstream Chanukah song since Adam Sandler, released their Passover music to Les Miserables:

It fits all too well, but this shouldn’t be surprising when the basis for each is the same source.  For that matter, it’s been done before … Dudu Fischer combines “Who am I?” from Les Miserables with Kol Nidre (from Yom Kippur).  I can’t find a link to it, but his Hebrew Les Miserables is pretty good.

It seems apparent that Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, knew his bible well.  One could also chalk this up to having a commonality of Jung’s archetypes, but if you believe that the Torah is the instruction book from the Creator, then certainly it’s all going back to this source.  In a nutshell, the story of the Torah and so much of western literature is the story of starting out “free”, being cast down, and then earning your freedom and growing into something more than you were.  Take a look at these lines:

Les Miserables (the musical):

Before you chain me up like a slave again
Listen to me! There is something I must do.
This woman leaves behind a suffering child.
There is none but me who can intercede,
In Mercy’s name, three days are all I need.
Then I’ll return, I pledge my word.
Then I’ll return…

You must think me mad!
I’ve hunted you across the years
A man like you can never change
A man such as you.

Peruse Chapter 8 of Shemos [Exodus] and a few chapters back and forward and it’s like reading the conversation between Moshe [Moses] and Pharoah complete with a three day journey to the desert to “serve time” not to Pharoah/Javert and the state, but to a power of Moshe/Val Jean’s own choosing … ” Let us go [for] a three day journey in the desert and sacrifice to the Lord, our God, as He will say to us.” (Shemos 8:27).  In both cases, I’ve never found an answer the fully satisfies me – why ask for three days when you know you’re not going to be granted it?  I suppose it shows the reasonableness of the merciful one (Moses / Val Jean) and the unreasonableness of the unyielding one (Pharoah / Javert), which only plays into the hand of the one willing to bend.  It is the rigid one who is broken in both cases, in the Torah by watching his land destroyed, son killed, and army drowned … in Les Miserables by watching his land destroyed, and being left to live with his own defeat.

Now that the link is shown, take it a bit further …

Moshe’s life: a) can’t live at home (will be killed if found); b) matures under the care of Pharoah’s daughter, Basya; c) tastes freedom and rises up against Egyptian power and forced to flee; d) returns to face Pharoah; e) leads people to freedom.

Val Jean’s life: a) can’t live at home (no food); b) matures in jail until the care of the state, as represented by Javert and shown kindness by the priest; c) tastes freedom and rises up against the state, forced to flee; returns to face Pharoah; e) leads Cosette to freedom from the cycle of servitude.

We could go into more details, but I would posit that Moshe –> Val Jean, Pharoah and Egypt –> Javert and France, the Jewish people –> Cosette and even the French revolution sort of matches up with the 10 makkos.  It’s a tragedy leading to freedom which teaches the ultimate power and trust in the good.  Though the army wins in Les Miserables because, well, the French revolution didn’t have the miracles of the exodus and Hugo wrote it while in exile for 19 years (e.g. “19 years a slave of the law” for those who know the line in the musical).

In Dudu Fischer’s version of kol nidre, at about “c” in the above list, he links “Who am I?” directly into Kol Nidre and confessing our wrongs to G_d and owning to the truth.  This is, in fact, the focus of “Who am I?”  Admit to who you are and speak the truth so you can move forward and grow to even higher heights, despite the pain of admitting to do so.  One could read the entirety of Les Miserables as the metaphysical struggle in one’s mind, but there’s only so long I want to make the article. 🙂  Still, what a great teacher of one of the aspects of the Pesach [Passover] holiday.

Lord of The Rings and Torah

According to this source J.R.R. Tolkien was asked by the nazis whether he was Jewish.  The nazis were considering a ban on the book from England and had quite a knowledge of Judaism.  His response included the line, “I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.”  It seems he is quite familiar with Judaism, himself.  The story line, similar to Star Wars, the Matrix, the new Star Trek movies, and so many other works of science fiction follows the story of man, in general, and resonates with us in the western world.  (For example, having once taken a course in Indian subcontinent literature, it can be summed up as, “bad stuff happens to us and ends worse”, and what I’ve read of Chinese literature or something like, “I’m trapped on a box and can’t get out so I will kill myself honorably”.)

Back to the Lord of the Rings series … it goes something like this: a) kingdom of man prospering; b) kingdom goes to war with evil kingdom which destroys it 3000 years ago; c) king exiled, wait for descendant of the king to reclaim the throne; d) numerous warring races in the meanwhile fight it out for power, sometimes with long period of peace … all look down upon man for having fallen; e) all because man became corrupted by power (the rings) which led man to be evil; f) righteous man reclaims thrown and brings in prosperity.

This is a clear take-off on the Temples, destruction thereof, and waiting for the moschiach [messiah], a descendant of Dovid [David] to reclaim the throne.  a) First temple period with rule of King Dovid and Solomon and others (actually, the Temple was built after Dovid’s death), b) kingdom destroyed by Persians 2500 years ago and then Romans 2000 years ago; c) Jews are exiled and wait for a descendant of Dovid to return to power; d) numerous countries and kingdoms fit it out in the meanwhile, often with long periods of peace, but all look down upon the down trodden Jewish nation; e) man was corrupted by the power given … towards idolatry, sexual immorality, and so forth.  The ring represents power to do good or be overtaken by evil, and the simple Hobbit who is humble with no desire for power is not controlled by such things.

The symbolism goes even further … I haven’t read the books into 20 years or seen much of the movies in 10, but here’s some other comparisons:

– the king had the chance to destroy the ring … throw it into the fire and it was over.  He did not.  King Solomon had the chance to destroy Amalek, the nation of evil in the world (e.g. Mordor).  He failed in that task and so the evil remained to cause trouble until today.

– gollum is Cayin [cain] who kills Hevel [Abel] to get the ring … overcome by his own desires for power and acceptance.

– The eye of Sauron is watching.  From Pirkei Avos, Jewish ethical teachings – “Contemplate three things, and you will not come to the hands of transgression: Know what is above you: a seeing eye, a listening ear, and all your deeds being inscribed in a book.”  That is, if you constantly remember that you’re “being watched” by the “eye” of the Creator you would never do anything wrong. Coincidence or not, Tolkien seems to make this fairly literal.

– The black riders – they cannot go in living waters.  They are former humans who have become so corrupted.  In Judaism, a mikveh, living waters purifies you.  The bodies of water would make them pure so they can’t enter or they’d lose their … evilness.

Still Other Western Literature References to the Torah

I’m not sure whether this is just what resonates with the western world, people aren’t as creative as they think, or it’s purposeful (it’s probably a mix) but it’s seen all over.

In the new “Outer LImits” it’s clearly written by people familiar with their bible.  In “The Camp” humans are held captive by robots as prisoners of war.  The humans have their workload increased, and various other iterations straight from the Torah.  When I first saw this, I had no idea I was watching a biblical story.  After the escape, a sequel episode called “Promised Land” has those who disobey and complain live was better back in the camp eat the first food they find, only to die of poison very similar to the biblical episode.  In yet another episode, a Supreme Court judge in the future is held hostage until he admits to hiring a conjurer to raise his dead daughter … this is the story told in sefer Shmuel [Samuel] regarding the witch of Endor.  (This, uncoincidentally, is the name of the witch in “Bewitched.”)

In the new Cosmos series, filled with excellent production quality on various cosmology and scientific theories, they are unable to get away from Biblical narratives.  Tyson, the narrator, describes evolution as a “tree of life” and makes some very obvious logic flaws only made by fundamentalists such as, “trees and humans have almost the same DNA.   … this is undeniable proof that one evolved from the other.”  People who speak in absolutes are always wrong (paradox intended) and certainly there’s at least one other possibility … but suffice to say, in a work about scientific theory, the theory follows the progression in Bereshis [Genesis] itself, and those explaining it are referencing it.  We didn’t see the theory come out of China or India for a reason.  To put it another way / quote Rabbi Shlomo Singer, no one spends their life trying to show the moon isn’t made out of cheese, but people spend their lives trying to show there is no Creator.  Apparently, there’s not as sure as they claim or they wouldn’t be dedicating their lives to disproving something so silly.

I have hard that much of Sigmund Freud’s theories come out of biblical relationships, though I am not familiar enough with works to know.  I did find this interesting link which is suggestive that it did at least influence his thinking, and therefore, modern psychology.

Feel free to add your own references in the comments that you think I should have included.

Introduction to Tzedekah

The Torah commands us to give Tzedekah.  It’s translated as ‘charity’ but the root of the word, ‘tzedek’ really means that it’s the right thing to do.  You aren’t giving just to help someone, you’re giving because the money belongs to the poor person.  It was just given to you, to give you the opportunity to pass it on.  The more you give, the more you become a conduit to do so.

That being said, money isn’t the only way to give.  The other way is to give of your time or simply listen to a person who is in need.  If you give 10% of your money, then shouldn’t it follows that you should also give 10% of your time?  It won’t take away from your time either, as doing these things gives you a long life.  I suppose I need a source for that, but I don’t have one readily available.

Tzedekah Collectors at Your Door

Collector at Your Door - Is he real?  If you give, with you be inundated?

Collector at Your Door – Is he real? If you give, will you be inundated?

In a Jewish community, try giving someone who knocks at your door $50.  Next thing you know, it will be very easy to spend your time talking to poor people.  Why?  Well, as it turns out from a recent article in Mishpacha Magazine, 1/3 typically goes to the driver.  He’s going to wisely spend his time taking poor people to those houses that give the most money.  Your time is his money.  Personally, I’ve had this happen to me and I’d rather not support the taxi driver.  On top of this, the cost of the flight goes to the travel agent who has “invested” in the oni on the opposite end.  He gets paid only after the poor person has returned with the dough.  Add on to this the extra cost of food from eateries, lost hours of learning Torah, and detriment to health from the travel and time zone adjustments, and it’s quite some cost that your money is buying.  Meanwhile, the collector’s bed at home goes to waste while your donation supports his temporary bed abroad.  (Worse yet, some of those at your door collecting are nothing more than scam artists.  If you take time to try and decipher the teudah [certification], you’d also better give him a decent amount of money.  If you don’t, it’s considering an insult to spend too much time reviewing his papers and then not give a lot of money!) This is the price that both you, the donor, and he, the collector must pay for that personal connection.

Efficient Tzedekah Investing Has No Personal Touch

The efficient but highly impersonal way to give

The efficient but highly impersonal way to give

One one side, it is very easy to find the expense ratio of non-profits. An organization that I give to, American Friends of Yad Eliezer gives directly to the poor in Israel.  Charity Navigator gives them five stars – 96.8% of their funds go to the poor. If you give $100, you can expect upwards of $90 to reach aniyim [poor people]. That’s a pretty good tzedekah investment!  However, I once asked them if I could “adopt a family” anonymously or something of that sort.  Nope.  This is much less efficient than simply buying, say, mass amounts of chickens and distributing them.  When I give to Yad Eliezer, I have no idea which chickens I bought or who got them.  Yes, this is quite a high form of tzdekah, but there’s no feeling in it.

What if We Used Technology to Increase the ROI for Personal Tzedekah Giving?

The middle of the road approach?

The middle of the road approach?

It seems to me that with technology, there is a middle road between the low return “personal connection” and high return “faceless giving”. Let’s borrowing the idea from “Kickstarter” and other websites used to raise funds for needy projects.  A person can create a profile and a video and explain why they need funds.  imagine a video of mechanah [teacher] showing the kids in his yeshiva and his recent paycheck . . . of a few hundred dollars for the month and six months behind.  If Individual aniyum [poor people] could be verified by an organization right in Yerushalim [Jerusalem] or B’Nai Brak and tell their stories on a website, we could have some of that personal connection.  In addition to being more dignified than having to go door to door begging, a certain amount of anonymity could be provided. Meanwhile, after finding the office of the tzedekah in Yerushalim and spending maybe a few hours gathering paperwork and creating a short video of his family, yeshiva, and so forth, he gets to go to sleep in his own bed next to his wife. Unless you see the same rented kids and wife in a lot of videos, chances are much greater that you’re really giving to a person in need than the guy who knocks at your door.  You have no idea who he is and have little to no time to check him out.

After start-up expenses, givers could easily see an 80% or 85% return on investment while having something closer to the one to one relationship with the person at your door.  This is comparable to the percentage for the anonymous chicken that you buy someone en masse, but with a personal touch.

I, for one, would be interested in helping get such a project get off the ground.  Until then, unless I know you, at my door expect $1 or $2.  The highest return on investment seems to be the impersonal way . . . for now.


Forced Ethical Dilemma (Updated Trolley Car Problem)

Imagine this scenario: You buy a self driving car, say, like Google’s ( and your driving along at 65mph.  The brakes fail.  The sensors tell the car that if it continues to drive forward 5 people in the crosswalk will die.  If it cuts the wheel in either direction, it can avoid that person but will certainly kill another person walking on the sidewalk, no where in the current path of car.

How do you program the car?  Do you tell it – don’t take action … let what happens, happen, or do you say… take an action and surely kill someone, but save more?

Does it matter who the people are?

What do you do?


Answer 1: Act to Kill One Person, Save More

If we kill the one person so five can live, I point you to Pol Pot who said in a public radio address on May 10, 1978, “Exterminate the 50 million Vietnamese… and purify the masses of the [Cambodian] people.”  That is, he thought it better to kill ever Vietnamese person, and even if Cambodians died in trying, there were more Cambodians so they, the ‘superior’ would survive.

Compare this to the story that Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, late Rosh Yeshiva of the Mir Yeshiva in jerusalem, Israel who said the message of the holocaust was that when 1 blanket was available to cover 5 people in the freezing cold, the blanket was shared.  “It was during this defining moment that we learned the power of the human spirit, because we pushed the blanket to five others.”

. .. but what if we’re forced to make the choice?  We can’t make the choice to kill because we’re using our value judgments to decide who should live and who should die, and we see that if we allow people to make value judgments over who should live and who should die, well . . .

Answer 2: Don’t Act, but Kill More

Better not to act, you say?  Kill the five?  How can you kill five over one?  How do you know which to kill?  Does it make a difference to you if the one person who will live is on the verge of curing cancer and will save millions?  Does it make a difference to you if one of the five is a mass murderer condemned to death, anyway?  Should it make a difference to the programming of the automated car (assuming it’s possible, and why not?)?

What if you’re watching this out of control car and you can push an old blind man into the path?  This will save the other five.

What if he has 1 month to live?

What if your act will save not 1, but 500 people?  Would you be a hero or murderer?  Still you say, don’t act?

Culpability of the Driver Matter?

Does it make a difference if you got the car into the situation to begin with (e.g. excess speeding, failure to maintain breaks) or were an onlooker once the moment of decision arrives?

Suppose the car is programmed with patient information – there are currently no organ donors for five patients who will die.  The driver of the car is healthy and he, who got himself into this ethical dilemma in the first place, can be smashed into a brick wall, killing him but providing organs to the five people he would have killed / who would have died?

If you say to the above, “sure, we can punish the guy who created the someone-is-going-to-die situation by having him be the person dying and on top of that, using his organs to save five others … then let’s change another variable: why can’t we just have the car drive him to the hospital where men with guns drawn will be waiting, and harvest his organs to save the five others?  We can save five people’s lives with this one’s man’s life!  Would that be okay?

Consequentialist Reasoing vs. Categorical Reasoning

The above answers are not easy.  In modern philosophy, this is consequentialist moral reasoning (morality based in the consequences of act) versus categorical moral reasoning (morality in certain duties and rights).  The strict side of each places us in dilemmas we don’t want to be in.

The fact pattern is discussed in the Talmud:

“Two people were traveling, and [only] one of them had a canteen of water. [There was only enough water so that] if both of them drank they would both die, but if one of them drank [only] he would make it back to an inhabited area [and live]. Ben Petura publicly taught: ‘Better both should drink and die than that one see his friend’s death,’ until Rabbi Akiva came and taught: ‘Your brother should live with you’ (Vayikra 25:36) – your life takes precedence over the life of your friend’s.'” (Bava Metzia 62a)

Here, the variable is changed a bit because it is about protecting your life, rather than another.  It seems that Rabbi Akiva wins the day with his argument that your life always takes precedence and we cannot make moral choices about the lives of others.  When forced, we make no choice.  Still, in the Holocaust story above (see “Answer 1”) we “share the blanket”.  This, in fact, according to Rav Berel Wein, is how we do quite a lot of things.

I have grappled with the forced ethical dilemma above from a standpoint of Jewish law, and I have no clear answer.  It seems I’m in good company.  See for a intricate discussion of these dilemmas in Jewish law.  Also, take a look at the “Justice” series by Michael Sandel, a professor of ethics at Harvard who discusses these issues based on modern philosophers –

I wonder if such questions have ever been posted to Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein, expert in Jewish medical ethics?


Okay, so this blog already includes articles on mikveh and men and woman in relationships, woman and men in Judaism (part 1 and part 2), and so forth.

Now for something different – Neither of the below videos are particularly Jewish – rather, they’re just plain old universal.

Giving Emotional Support

This first video probably explains about 70% of marriage:

Dealing with Children (and who does)

Then this one from Jim Breuer.  it’s excellent:

… these videos are funny only because they’re true.  Along with a prenuptial agreement, these videos should be required for anyone about to get married.

David_BrooksThe New York Times has an extremely positive article about Torah observant Jews, starting off with a discussion about a really nice and upscale supermarket in Brooklyn, called Pomegranate.  They’ve got kosher everything – cheeses, meats (including duck, deer, and lamb), cakes, sushi, prepared foods … all very good quality.  It’s best compared, as the article does, to a kosher Whole Foods.

Interestingly, the author, David Brooks, is Jewish but not Torah observant himself.  Rumor has it that he has learned Torah with observant Jews, however, and it seems to make quite a difference on his impression, looking at it with understanding, rather than judging based on lack thereof.  Here, he says it better than I’ve heard anyone else say it:

At first piano practice seems like drudgery, like self-limitation, but mastering the technique gives you the freedom to play well and create new songs. Life is less a journey than it is mastering a discipline or craft.

Exactly!  At first, it’s a bunch of rules, but when you live it, and indeed, Rav Shach said that if you try and look for a logical understanding alone, without practice, you will fail.  This, says Rav Shach, is the reason why when wise first son at the Passover seder asks, “What are all these laws and statutes?” we answer him with how we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt.  Feel it, and experience it, and use the rules to develop the craft and do more.

More Related Articles

Self-limitation in the field of relationships

Religion and the Paradox of Choice

Always Listen to Your Rebbe