Ask the Rabbi
Q. It says in Pir’kei Avot that we should judge each person favourably ("dan l’chaf z’chut"). Does this apply to terrorists? If so, how?
A. The quotation is from Pir’kei Avot 1:6. The author is Yehoshua ben Perachyah.
At first sight it might appear that he is in favour of being kind even to terrorists. This might mean that once you understand the pressures and problems in the terrorist’s personal life, you might be inclined to pardon or condone their actions, and this clearly cannot be allowed.
The way to understand Pir’kei Avot is delineated by Maimonides, who says – I quote his statement in extenso – in his commentary:
"If there is some person whom you do not know to be either righteous or wicked, and you see him doing something or saying something which might be interpreted either favourably or unfavourably, interpret his action favourably and do not suspect him of evil.
"But if the person is well known as a righteous man, always doing good, and some action of his seems to be bad – then it is proper to judge it favourably, since there is at least a remote possibility that the action is a good one; and it is not permitted to suspect such a person of evil.
"It is in this connection that the sages said (Shabbat 97a): ‘He who suspects the upright should be whipped!’
"However, if there is a person notorious for his wicked ways, and you see him do something which seems to be good, but there is a remote possibility that it is evil, then it is wise to beware of him, not to assume that he is doing good.
"It is of such a person that the verse says, ‘He that hates dissembles with his lips… when he speaks fair, believe him not’ (Proverbs 26:24-25)."
On the basis of the Maimonidean explanation, there can be no exoneration or whitewashing of terrorists or terrorism.
CHASSIDISM & WOMEN
Q. What is the Chassidic view of the way women should be treated?
A. Chassidism honours the kabbalistic doctrine that there is a feminine side to God.
The Baal Shem Tov also taught that women’s beauty was an emanation of the Divine, and he and countless Chassidic leaders paid great honour to mothers, wives and daughters.
Some Chassidic women were scholars in their own right, known for their wisdom, piety and Torah knowledge. The fact that they could not conduct synagogue services was part of normative Judaism, but some were honoured leaders of women’s prayer gatherings where they fostered spirituality and Jewish knowledge.
WHY WE COUNT THE OMER
Q. Why do we count the Omer?
A. The Torah commands (Lev. 23:15), "You shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest (i.e. after the first day of Pesach)… seven complete weeks".
Two earlier verses indicate that on the second day of Pesach an omer (about seven measures) of barley was presented to God out of the first fruits of the harvest. The forty-nine days of the Omer lead up to the festival of Shavu’ot.
Maimonides says, "We count the days that pass since the preceding festival just as a person who expects his close friend on a certain day counts the days and even the hours.
"This is the reason why we count the days that pass after the offering of the omer, between the anniversary of our departure from Egypt and the anniversary of the giving of the Torah which is the aim and object of the exodus from Egypt."
YOM KIPPUR DURING THE OMER
Yom Kippur is still months away. We are only part-way between Pesach and Shavu’ot. We still have the months of Sivan, Tammuz, Av and Ellul ahead of us before we observe the Solemn Days.
Yet the Torah reading on Shabbat dealt in detail with the atonement rituals and focusses on a fast which has not begun to make its presence felt in the calendar or on the Jewish agenda.
There actually is a link to be discerned between the counting of the Omer for seven weeks and the lead-up to Yom Kippur for forty days from the beginning of Ellul.
What does the Omer do for us? It joins Pesach, the festival of freedom, with Shavu’ot, the festival of law. Shavu’ot is the culmination of our celebration of freedom. When you have freedom you have to know what to do with it, and the answer is that by living by the Divine law you learn to use your freedom responsibly.
For its part, Yom Kippur is also the culmination of a lead time. Rosh Chodesh Ellul was when Moses ascended the mountain to ask forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf. It took forty days of hard work on Moses’ part to secure the response he sought, "Salachti" – "I have forgiven!"
This is also a stage in the moral development of the people of Israel. First the people gained their freedom. Then – as we have seen – they heard that by means of the Torah they would possess the guidelines to responsible use of their freedom.
But what would happen if they lapsed and failed to live responsibly? Would they lose everything?
The episode of the golden calf was an example. God had told them not to apply their freedom to the worship of other gods. They disobeyed. But they did not forfeit either their freedom or their future. Moses showed them the way to proceed.
"If you sin," he implied – but he did not say, as did classical Christianity, that they were bound to sin because of a taint inherited from Adam – "you will have to work hard and to plead with the Almighty to forgive you.
"If he is convinced that you really mean it, He will not abandon you. He will listen and, hopefully, give you the same message He gave me: 'Salachti kid’varecha' – ‘I have forgiven as you have asked’."
SPEAKING WELL OF THE DEAD
One should speak well of a person "acharei mot", after their death. It is good advice for rabbis, who sometimes have to give eulogies for people who were not always upright.
How is one to handle the "acharei mot" situation? Beth Hillel and Bet Shammai debated how to describe a bride. Bet Shammai said, "Tell the truth"; Bet Hillel said, "Say nice things!" (Ket. 16b).
On the one hand, one can more or less whitewash a person: on the other hand, there is a poem, "Be the matter what it may, always tell the truth!" In Jewish ethics, one may tell a white lie for the sake of peace in a marriage or family.
A eulogy would possibly follow the same rule. It depends on the circumstances, and one should try to speak "l’kaf z’chut", kindly and charitably, about everybody, whether they are live or dead.
Rabbi Raymond Applewas for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Judaism. After serving congregations in London, Rabbi Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held many public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and Freemasonry, and is the recipient of several national and civic honours. Now retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com