Ask the Rabbi

If you have any questions about Judaism at all, please direct it right here and Rabbi Spivak himself will answer it. The most interesting questions will be posted weekly... right here!

Q1: Why do the righteous suffer together with the wicked? Why isn't each person judged on their own merit? Examples: holocaust, pogroms, inquisitions, natural disasters
A: The question you ask was posed by none other than Moses. In Hebrew it is known as "tzadik v'ra lo" - the issue of the righteous individual who suffers. Sages have struggled with this question for centuries. There are those who say that it is presumptuous to attempt to answer such a question; the human mind, some say, is incapable of a satisfactory answer. Then there are those who say the former answer is presumptuous, that saying such a thing presumes that one has scanned all the extant literature on the subject and can confidently state that an answer does not exist for man. I am from the school of those who believe that one of man's purposes is to struggle to understand the Nature of God. Therefore, I cannot walk away from the question without attempting some answers. Let's start with the explanation that seems to be the most difficult to comprehend: "hester panim" - what I call the Evil Forces' Blank Check. There are two ways which God can relate to us: either with "causing his face to shine upon us," ("ufaniti aleychem") meaning that He is there to protect us against all evil, or, Heaven Forbid, with "hester panim," which, in human terms, is the equivalent of the Almighty turning His back on us. 
In the case of the Jewish People, their survival in the face of centuries of persecution is nothing short of miraculous. It is encapsulated in the "chad gadyo", the Passover Hagadah song which allegorically depicts the rise of huge nations that sought to destroy the Jewish People, but, instead, were themselves destroyed, while the "gadyo", the little goat of a Jewish Nation survived its persecutors. The list of nations who rose and fell while oppressing Jews is, indeed, impressive, among them: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and, in modern times, Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany. The historian Arnold Toynbee, who seems to have a formula for the rise and fall of nations, has reduced the Jews to a footnote and he refers to the Jews as "the fossil of civilization," evidently due to the fact that their survival does not fit neatly into his equation. This Jewish survival is due to nothing less than God causing His Face to shine upon His people.
Now, however, that we have hopefully established that Jewish survival defies all historical analysis save for the explanation of Divine Intervention, we must come to the corollary, the result of the absence of that Divine Presence - the aforementioned "hester panim." Should the Jew turn his face away from God, the Almighty has warned us that He will reciprocate. This turning His face away from His people - this hiding His Face from us - Heaven Forbid, is the equivalent of giving the Evil Side a Blank Check and saying "Let the natural forces of history do what they may, I will not intervene." Until a "hester panim" situation, Jews are protected from the ups and downs of history which first exalted and then consumed Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, Czarist Russia and Nazi Germany. Instead, the pressures of history's natural courses build up around the Jewish People, but are unable to penetrate, to break their protective walls. When Creator's Face is removed from His people, there leaves along with Him the protective shield which has kept out the forces of destruction. These forces would have ordinarily annihilated Jews long ago as they did the other nations who walked the pages of history. Thus, we see the Jews of Poland, who survived more than nine hundred years in that country, being wiped out by the nazis in less than four years - relatively overnight - because the Holocaust was unquestionably a period of "hester panim."
The next logical question is: "What about the innocent men, women, and children who did not turn their backs on God - the innocent babies who were tossed into the fires - why should they have perished along with the sinners?" For the answer to this, one must rise above the natural inclinations of a flesh-and-blood creature in order to see that were it not for the Hand of God, these babies would never have been born in the first place - their potential great-grandparents would have ordinarily been wiped out in a pogrom through the natural courses of history long before them. Knowing this, knowing that God is the Giver of Life to a human being who has no right to that life other than being the beneficiary of the Almighty's kindness, helps one to begin to fathom the depths of the nature of human existence. 
With this in mind, we can ponder what seems to be a very troubling saying of the Sages: "The Destroyer, having been given permission to inflict damage, no longer distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked." This is the "Blank Check" granted to The Evil Side in times of "hester panim".
Granted, you say, that humankind is the beneficiary of the gift of life, but why would the Almighty allow such a blank check to the Forces of Evil? The answer to this lies in the kabbalistic explanation of why man exists in the first place. God is the Essence of Good, say the kabbalists. God initially was everything; there was nothing outside of God. This presented a contradiction: if it was the nature of God to bestow Good, but there was nothing outside of God upon which to bestow that Good, how could God fulfill His Nature? The mystics explain, that for this reason, God "withdrew," ("tzimtzum") so that there would be a world outside of Him upon which to bestow His Kindness.
God, having "withdrawn", then created "vessels" which He filled with Himself. These vessels, or Souls, if you will, were therefore the beneficiaries of God's Goodness, owing the enjoyment of their very existence to His Benevolence. But, these souls, possessing a bit of God within them, therefore wanted to reciprocate, and bestow goodness upon their Creator. But what can one give God? There is only one thing, reasoned these souls, and that was loyalty.
In order to prove that loyalty, the souls would have to descend into the Lower World (that's us) cloaked in the flesh-and-blood of man, and be tempted by evil. Should a soul succeed in avoiding evil it would be rewarded with returning to the Upper World to bask in the Glory of the Divine Presence. If a soul succumbed to evil it would endure punishment. In order for this to be an honest test, man would have to be given free will ("bechira") which meant that he would have to bear the consequences of his actions. The implication being that when a person of power acted in an evil way, the consequences of his evil deed could not always be interfered with if the Lower World were to truly be a test of "bechira"/freewill.. Otherwise, no one would take the choice of good versus evil seriously, being that they did not have to bear the consequences. The concentration camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka stand as an indictment of man, not of God. Life on this earth is not a rose garden, it is serious business, and man is given the free will to create an environment of righteousness and love or an environment of evil and hatred with all its consequences - including the death of innocents. As unfair as this may seem to some, if one views true existence as that of the soul, with the life on earth as merely a narrow bridge to a life dwelling in the Divine Presence, this answer may suffice. If one's understanding of what constitutes life is strictly physical and material, it will not be sufficient. This answer is but a drop in the sea in relation to the discussions on this matter. If you wish more, let me know.

Q2: My wife lost her Kesubah. Are there any ramifications?
A: Yes. The Halacha is that a man and wife are not allowed to live under the same roof if the Kesubah is lost. What you have to do is get a form called a Kesubah D'Irchasay (A Lost Kesubah) and ask a rabbi trained in Halacha to fill it out for you.

Q3: I heard that one is not allowed to take a fellow Jew to a civil court, only to a Beis Din, a rabbinical court. Is this true?
A: No. There are times when a rabbinical court will allow someone to take his case against a fellow Jew to a civil court. If the Beis Din issues three hazmanos (subpeonas) and the other party ignores them, the Beis Din can issue a Ksav Seruv, which is a declaration that a party has refused to respond to its subpeonas. The Beis Din can then give the plaintiff permission to take his case to a civil court.

Q4: I am a Christian who has been following the Creation vs. Evolution debate going on online (Neither I nor my church believe in a literal account of Genesis 1 and 2) Anyway, I am struck by how all the defenders of the literal account are fundamentalist Christians. Is there a comparable position in the spectrum of Jewish thought? I assume that the Reformed Jews would accept the scientific findings and treat the creation account allegorically, but what about the Conservative and Orthodox end of the spectrum? Is there any consensus or even a minority opinion that the world was literally created in six days? Or is the general tendency to treat such stories allegorically? I'm curious, because the entire debate seems to be between fundamentalist Christians and rabid atheists, with only an occasional voice of moderation showing up.
A: We are all finite creatures - minute dots in the Universe - trying to figure out the work of an Infinite Being - The Creator. In spite of it being a tough job, here are some Torah thoughts on your question. The medieval scholar and kabbalist Nachmanides (The Ramban) held to a literal interpretation as to the time of Creation - he believed that it took place in six, twenty-four hour days. But his position is not the only one. According to others, the Almighty created the world in what He - and only He considered days - that is, as stated in Psalms: "For a thousand years in Your Eyes is like yesterday." That being the case, each day could have been thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years. Here's something else to think about. That which determines that a day is twenty-four hours is the relationship between the Earth and the Sun. If the Sun is not present, there is no reference point with which to determine when the Earth has made a full twenty-four hour revolution. Please note that the Sun was not created until the fourth day; the light up to that time was not from the sun but from another source and was therefore not bound by the twenty-four hour system. The first three days then, could have been millions of years. As to your question of evolution, please note that the Talmud does not reject certain aspects of Evolution. For instance, Hillel was asked why the feet of the Africans were wider than those of other peoples. He answered that since they lived in swampy lands, the "makom" changed their feet to give them better traction. You may translate "makom" as the environment, or, as others say, the Almighty Himself. It really doesn't matter, since the Talmud, the Jewish book of wisdom, in the final analysis, accepts the idea that there occurred physical changes in the species in order to better adapt to a particular environment. The commentary by Yonatan Ben Uziel points out that Cain, the son of Adam, was "lo dami leh," meaning a different kind of creature than the rest of his family. We know from rabbinic literature that Cain looked more animal-like than did they. There were seven generations of Cain - hundreds of thousand of people - whose unearthed remains could very well be what archaeologists might have interpreted as a stage in the development of Homo Sapiens - man. All the best to you.

Q5: I would like to know your opinion regarding Kosher Cheese. As I understand it, the big objection to most cheeses is that they are made with rennet, whose origin is from beef. However, is it not true that there is a halachic concept that if something of animal origin is reverted to a chemical and even a dog wouldn't eat it and does not recognize it as edible, then it is in fact chemical, therefore, permitting so-called non-kosher cheeses. In our family we have accepted this halachah. In fact, when I was a youngster (now I'm 63), I do remember Orthodox rabbis themselves permitting regular cheese. I am not certain, but the tendency for more strict use of cheese might be at least in part associated to the availability of Kosher cheese.
A: You have touched on one of the most complex and controversial issues in Halacha. I will discuss it this once, and that's it! Even in the Talmud, when the subject was brought up to a rabbi, we are told that after a certain amount of discussion, "hayseo ledavar achayr," meaning he simply changed the subject. You mentioned rennet which is a coagulant ("davar hamamid"). The problem with rennet is not that it is made of beef, as you say, but that it could come from a non-Kosher animal. Your point about the condition of the beef is mentioned in Halacha in relation to it being "Naaseh KoEytz," meaning hardened like wood. Rav Chaim Ozer and others discuss this. Also, today, although non-Kosher rennet is still occaisionaly used, it is my understanding that the majority of rennet is microbial in origin, and the major brands of rennet have hechsherim. Having said that, would I eat cheese without a Hechsher? The answer is NO. There is still the issue of Gvinas Akum, which I shall translate here to mean that Halacha requires the manufacture of Kosher cheese to be under Jewish auspices. Although Rav Moshe Feinstein did, under certain circumstances, permit Chalav Akum (milk) to be used because FDA guidelines negated the problem that had caused it to be banned - and some would like to extend that "heter" to cheese as well - I still would not permit the consumption of cheese without a Hechsher, especially since there is an easy availability of Kosher cheese on the market.
To summarize:
1. One should not eat cheese without a Hechsher.
2. Should anyone ask me anything further on this issue, I will follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned Talmudic Sage and change the subject.

Q6: In a recent discussion with my father we disagreed on whether Halachah allows for organ transplantation. My father took the position that a body is to be buried whole. A friend indicated that the 'drash' is that since a body (dead or alive) contains a soul, when the Messiah arrives, the body's soul needs to be available for reunion. When I studied bio-medical ethics I recall an article arguing the following.
1) Modern medicine requires new law because it has changed what we can do for the ill.
2) Organ transplants are a very new procedure.
3) Because this procedure is so new, older law is inappropriate because it could not imagine or consider this possibility.
4) Often organ transplants 'save' a life.
5) Given that this is the case, then the question is whether not donating organs can be justified.
6) There are few situation in which a Jew can avoid not attempting to save a life.
7) So the question is whether donating an organ for use after one's own death one of these situations that would prevent attempting to save a life.
8) No. I can not find my source for this. Can you identify the source(s) and does the logic hold against the law? Thanks.
A: Yours is a very complex question. Here is a brief discussion of the issues. The question is: what is Halachic death, brain death or cessation of cardiac activity? It is generally necessary for an organ to be removed when the heart is still beating. If the determination is cessation of cardiac activity, then removal of an organ while cardiac activity is still there constitutes killing of the donor. If death is determined by brain death, modern medicine can sustain a heart when brain activity has ceased. Therefore, if one does not remove the organ and give it to a recipient who would otherwise die without it, is that considered causing the death of the potential recipient? On the other hand, even if brain death is the criterion, what of Nivul HaMet - desecration of a dead body by removing parts of it? Does Pikuach Nefesh - the need to save the life of the recipient - negate the prohibition of desecrating the body of the donor? In modern Rabbinic literature there is to be found a prohibition against heart transplants in the responsa of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. This decision was written before 1980 when the success of heart transplants was very low. There is a rabbi who claims that Rabbi Feinstein later reversed himself on the issue when the success rate improved. I suggest, that for a list of source material, you obtain the book "Medicine and Jewish Law - Volume 1" edited by Fred Rosner, M.D. On page 162, Dr. Rosner states, "Other Halachic problems in organ transplantation include the question of desecrating the body of the dead donor, the prohibition of deriving benefit from the dead, and the postponement burial of the dead...The great majority of the poskim permit organ transplants if the life of the recipient can thereby be saved, the foregoing considerations are set aside for the overriding consideration of saving a life"

Q7: I am attending a weekly Talmud class at the local university run by the Hillel rabbi. We were studying chapter VII of Baba Mezi'a (p. 83a). In the Mishnah, the concept of "local custom" (Minhag Hamedina) was used. We were all surprised that the Law, which is usually so specific, would allow so much leeway. When is it valid to use "local custom" to justify one's actions in Jewish Law.
A: The Sages tell us "He who wishes to become wise should involve himself in civil law." You have chosen your area of study wisely. The concept of Minhag HaMedinah, the authority of local custom, refers mainly to contractual relationships between parties. In the case of the Gemara you are learning, the responsibilities of laborer and employer to one another are contingent upon local custom. The Mishna considers the question of what time the employer may demand of his workers to arrive or stay for work, but the question (in light of NAFTA) might just as well be: May an American company with a plant in Mexico demand of the workers that they work through the time that they normally take a siesta? (if there is still such a local custom). Probably, due to cultural differences, it would be impossible for the halacha to prescribe uniform practices on such local levels. The diamond district on New York's forty-seventh street has its own minhag when it comes to closing deals. When a pesrpective buyer and seller verbally agree on a price and then shake hands with the words "mazel u'bracha," meaning good fortune and blessing, the deal is considered finalized, even though the rest of the world would require a signed contract for such a finalization. The minhag hasochrim - the custom of the dealers - in effect, the forty-seventh street minhag hamedinah, supercedes the halachic requirement of a shtar mechirah - a written contract of sale. It is important to note that the primacy of minhag hamedinah exists only in the world of local contractual relationships, not in the other sections of the Shulchan Aruch such as Yoreh Dayoh and Even Ho'Ezer which deal with, among other things, laws of kashrut, and laws of marriage.

Q8: I am interested in understanding G-d's decision to ask Abraham to slay his first born son Isaac. Why would G-d ask Abraham to do something that is clearly so painful to Abraham, let alone Isaac. I understand that it was a test, but why would G-d put anyone through the anguish of killing their own child? To ask it another way, if Abraham would have decided to not kill Isaac, would it be a sign that Abraham loved G-d less? I think not. In fact, G-d would arguably fully understand the choice, and respect Abraham for not killing his son.
A: Your answer is rooted in certain kabbalistic concepts. Man's purpose on this earth is to prove his loyalty to G-d. G-d is the Giver and Taker of life. He Who could have taken the life of Isaac, asked Abraham to do it to prove his loyalty. Had Isaac died, instead, of a heart attack, would you have had the same complaint to G-d? In the end, Isaac did not die at all. 

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