Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Balance and Extremism in Judaism

The issue of extremism and moderation is being discussed in the comments section of the previous post, and I would like to dedicate a post of my own to the subject. I would divide the topic into the following parts:

  • Cosmic Balance
  • Personal Avodah
  • Communal Decsions
  • Tolerance For Others
  • Bloggers and Extremism

Cosmic Balance

There is tension and balance in the physical universe. Hashem provides balance between opposing forces in nature, and regulates the movement of ocean waves, gravitational forces, and motions of the planets. Perhaps this can be the meaning in the blessing of Yotzeir Ohr, which speaks of light and darkness, and then mentions peace.

Rabbi Shimon Leiberman writes about the Divine attribute of Tiferes:

Tiferet then is not a "compromise." A compromise has no overriding vision of integration. Rather, when two sets of horns are implacably locked, one whittles down enough of each to remove the danger of mutual destruction. Tiferet is, rather, a long and more unifying picture which gives each set of horns their rightful place, so that they are no longer locked in combat.

This is why it is called tiferet, "beauty," for beauty is always attained by integrating elements and playing them off against each other. Black and white are opposites; their proper integration creates beauty. Beauty does not adjudicate contrasts and turn everything gray; rather, beauty integrates both black and white into a picture of depth.

Personal Avodah

On the Avodas Hashem level, one should be as passionate as possible in serving Hashem. The Mesilas Yesharim criticizes those who would be happy with an average seat in Olam Haba. Aim high, and one will end up at least in the middle.Passion notwithstanding, nuance and balance is crucial in balancing tendencies, as well as in decision making.

Concerning tendencies and character traits, the Rambam in Hilchos Deios(1st chapter) writes that the middle points are the proper place to be--haDerech haYesharah he middah beinones sh'bchol deah v'deah. The Rambam derives this obligation from the pasak of v'halachta b'derachav, which Chazal tell us is imitatio dei . The Rambam cites Avroham as well as having followed this. The Rambam, however, makes exceptions for humility and anger(2nd perek, ibid).

Concerning decision making, the Mesilas Yesharim devotes a chapter to the topic called Mishkal Hachassidus. From Peninim al Hatorah by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum, linked here :

A chasid is defined as one who goes beyond the letter of the law, who truly loves Hashem and is not satisfied with merely getting by. He always endeavors to do more. Mishkal hachassidus focuses on weighing one’s actions, especially those that are laudatory, to be sure that what appears to be a positive gesture is truly what it seems. The yetzer hora, evil-inclination, is crafty and has the ability to paint a sin as a mitzvah. What begins as a righteous deed can sometimes end as a tragedy. The classic case is the reaction of Bnei Kehas to transporting the Mishkan. What should have been noble, lofty and honorable was transformed into a chillul Hashem, desecration of Hashem’s Name. Had they weighed their good intentions, it would be apparent that Hashem’s will could not be fulfilled by bickering and in-fighting.

In his inimitable manner, Horav Avraham Pam, zl, dedicates a shmuess, ethical discourse, in The Pleasant Way, to this malady. He first cites a number of narratives in which the father of the Mussar movement, Horav Yisrael Salanter, zl, demonstrates the importance of thinking before one acts piously. In these instances, to act piously would have meant taking advantage of someone else. The Rosh HaYeshivah then concentrates on some practical issues to which,regrettably, many could relate.

Hachnosas orchim, welcoming guests to one’s home, is one of the benchmarks of the Jewish People which we inherited from our Patriarch Avraham Avinu. Yet, the husband and father should take into consideration that he also has a wife and children at home. His wife also puts in a hard day, and his children would like his attention at the meal. The number of guests and their frequency should be considered. Another example is that when the Chafetz Chaim had guests at his home on Friday night, he would first recite Kiddush, make Hamotzi, eat, and only then, after his guests had eaten, did he sing Shalom Aleichem. He felt that his guests, who ere usually poor Jews who had not yet eaten, should eat. The Heavenly Angels could wait for their Sholom Aleichem.

Reciting Kaddish for a parent is a halachah. It is a merit for both the parent and the son. To contend in shul about who and when one says Kaddish is not only demeaning for the son, it also detracts from the parent’s merit. It is probably a greater zchus, merit, for the parent if his son is mevater, concedes, and does not compete for the Kaddish.

While rejoicing with a chassan and kallah at their wedding is a great mitzvah, those who have young children at home should not do so at the expense of the grandparents, who are usually the babysitters. Even when the babysitter is a teenager who can use the money, she still has to go to school the next day. In addition, bachurim who insist on dancing into the wee hours of the morning should consider the fact that the parents of the chassan and kallah areundoubtedly exhausted and would like to conclude the festivities.

Last, is sholom bayis, matrimonial harmony. Rav Pam describes a scenario in which a young wife prepares a special dinner for her husband. I might add that she, herself, has put in a full day at two different jobs, so that she can support him in kollel. Supper is called for 7:00PM. At 8:00PM, her husband comes home. He probably has forgotten about using his cell phone for something as insignificant as notifying his wife that he was occupied with a mitzvah, so that he would be late coming home. Is this a mitzvah, or is it a lack of sensitivity?

Communal Decisions

In Burning Down Our Own Neighborhood, Rabbi Rosenblum writes:

Using one's sechel requires matching means to goals, and recognizing that improper means can damage, sometimes irreparably, the best of causes. Even when the goal is achieved the damage caused by poorly chosen means can sometimes outweigh any possible gain...

Another aspect of sechel is the recognition that almost any course in life involves balancing competing values. In the case of the parade, for instance, the necessity of protesting the parade had to be weighed against the impact on the image of Torah in the world from the means chosen to make that protest. In addition, there is almost always a balance between short-term goals and long-range consequences. The capacity to keep both in mind is the hallmark of a person guided by his sechel.

Tolerance for Others

This applies both on the community and individual level, and is a challenge in today's splintered world.On both communal and individual levels, there is always tension between maintaining ahavas Yisrael and fidelity to Truth, or hashkafic purity. There is a good shiur from Rabbi Mayer Schiller on this topic which can be downloaded here.

On the organizational level, leaders and organizations have to make decisions between effective rebuke and setting limits, versus the possibility of pushing people away from Orthodoxy, or a particular segment thereof, and I have written about that here. This applies to individuals as well, but an organization also has the very practical question of how diverse a group can be included in one umbrella organization.

The following gemara is sometimes used in connection with defining the parameters of inclusiveness:

The Gemera states(Sotah 47A):

l'olam tehei smol doche v'ymin mekareves, a person should always push away the sinner with the left (generally, the weaker) hand, but hold him close with the right (generally, the stronger) hand. Not like Elisha who pushed away Gechazi with two hands, and not like Yehoshua ben Perachiah who pushed away his student with both hands.

At the most recent Agudah convention, one of the speakers defined the purview of the organization. While stating that "we can not always be engaged in y'min mkareves because the truth we hold sacred most forever be upheld" , it was also noted that "neither do we want to be busy too much with s'mol docheik, because ultimately, it is not very productive", and that " we will never be yotzei for those who think us to be too little imbued with kannos".

Bloggers and Extremism

  • Is there a concept of a collective Jblogosphere which marches towards a positive goal, or is it a collection of disparate individuals?
  • What is the obligation of tochacha , if any for bloggers?
  • Is extremism in the Blogosphere in either direction good or bad for the blogosphere on a whole, for Judaism, and for people's individual interests?
  • Should there be things that bloggers agree to disagree on, or does that take away all the fun of blogging? Does it depend on the site?

I leave you with these qustions.

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