Tag Archives: Responsibility

Amazon.com and Pedophilia: A Call to Action!

I was sent, in an email, a link to an article on MSNBC regarding Amazon.com’s refusal to remove a self-published book entitled The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct from their website offerings. The book was authored by a depraved and sick man named Philip R. Greaves II, and offers advice to pedophiles along the following lines:

“This is my attempt to make pedophile situations safer for those juveniles that find themselves involved in them, by establishing certian rules for these adults to follow. I hope to achieve this by appealing to the better nature of pedosexuals, with hope that their doing so will result in less hatred and perhaps liter sentences should they ever be caught.”

(all misspellings are Greaves’)

Despite the uproar from Amazon.com’s customers, the retailing giant has until this point refused to cease carrying the title, which is available electronically through their Kindle option. I have not given any of this information in order to facilitate acquisition of this dangerous item, but to underscore the fact that, given the book’s electronic format, it can be downloaded by an unlimited number of people; stock quantity is no longer a barrier to its dissemination. You don’t have to be a professional in my line of work to be able to imagine the potential damage, hurt, pain and trauma that may befall children as a result of the strategies provided by the book’s demented author.

Amazon.com’s position is that it continues to carry and distribute the book in deference to principles of free speech and in opposition to notions of censorship. However, I contend that Amazon.com, like every other business, has the ability–and the obligation–to choose its merchandise in a responsible manner. Amazon.com is not the ACLU; it is a business, a publicly-owned book retailer with stockholders. The company does not bear any responsibility for being the vanguard of free speech. I do not know if Amazon.com also has titles that instruct readers how to murder people, how to torture animals or how to successfully pull off a Ponzi scheme, but it would be patently obvious if so that Amazon.com would be making itself somewhat of an accessory to potential crime, heinous crimes.

I have been a customer of Amazon.com. However, I refuse to buy another book from them until they remove this and all similar titles from their catalog. I call upon the readers of this article to take the same stand, and to communicate to Amazon.com accordingly. Pedophiles do not deserve encouragement to concretize their deranged fantasies upon innocent children, destroy the lives of their victims, and leave their noxious imprint upon our society for generations to come. You can contact Amazon.com by clicking on this link and tell it to them straight!

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Gimmel Tammuz 5770: Remembering the Lubavitcher Rebbe ztvk”l

There are certain people that I wish I had met personally. It frustrates me to no end that I was born and raised mere blocks away from 770 Eastern Parkway, but did not have the presence of mind or the awareness–and hence, not the desire–to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of blessed memory. It’s as if I had entered the proverbial room just after he’d left it. It amazes me to think that I was born in Methodist Hospital on Seventh Avenue in Park Slope, swung my Louisville Slugger for the Saint Francis Xavier little league in Prospect Park, and spent hours in the candy store on Ninth Street in front of a Pac Man machine, while a few steps away, someone was changing the world.

Last night, as the Rebbe’s yahrtzeit swept in, I pulled the Sefer Tanya off the shelf and flipped it open to the place where I had left off a while ago.

On that page, the Alter Rebbe gave a deep explanation of the verse, כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ “for this thing (the Torah) is very close to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, to do it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). Incidentally, this is the key verse upon which the first section of Tanya is based, and serves as the source for the three-tier model of thought, speech and action–three main areas where a person’s spiritual work lies.

There, the Alter Rebbe quoted the Zohar in explaining that “to do it” refers to the “fuel” that keeps the flame of G-d burning on one’s head, the holy fire of the soul. What is this fuel? Ma’asim tovim, good deeds and actions. This is the purpose and mission for which the pure and perfect soul’s descent into the corporeal realm, which is fraught with so much darkness, is justified: so that goodness will be wrought in the physical world.

Upon reflection, I don’t know what could sum up the essence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe more accurately. The Rebbe lived this teaching so concretely, always placing the emphasis on the doing. Even though Chabad has an enormous proprietary system of mikvaos, yeshivos, seminaries, batei din, and hechsherim–all of the things required to sustain a worldwide community of Lubavitcher Chassidim, this was not enough for the Rebbe. The Rebbe could not be satisfied with a following of chassidim observing the mitzvos while the rest of the Jewish people languished and atrophied spiritually. He sent his people everywhere to help their brethren “do it”: learn Hebrew, learn Torah, daven, put on tefillin, light Shabbos candles, give tzedakah–actualize the Torah in their lives, and hence, in the world.

But lest one think that this is merely the stupendous account of a successful kiruvmagnate–think again. The Rebbe’s efforts flowed forth from a deep and genuine sense of caring about other people, from a desire to transform this into a better and more meaningful world for all of its inhabitants (the Rebbe’s outreach efforts went beyond the Jewish people to non-Jews as well), and from an unquenchable thirst for closeness to G-d Himself. This is evident in the interactions he had with everyone with whom he came into contact. This genuineness and caring is such a rare and precious commodity, as hard to find as common decency and honesty in our own age.

Again, however, caring was not enough. Many of us spend time taking pride in the kol torah of our batei midrash and wondering what will be with our fellow Jews out there. The Rebbe built an army of caring soldiers committed to implementing his vision in every corner of the world–which is where you will find Lubavitcher sh’lichim(emissaries). Steven Covey, in his well-known self-development book The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People, writes in a section on pro-activity that one should focus on “be” and not “have”. The Rebbe went a step forward; he focused on “do”. His efforts continue to keep the holy flame of Jewish souls burning.

May his merits protect us.

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Conscience: Its Risks and Returns

In Logotherapy, there is a strong emphasis on conscience. In Frankl’s lexicon, the word differs from what many call conscience, which is closer to Freud’s concept of superego (I’ve mentioned this in a previous blog post). The logotherapeutic conscience refers to the mechanism, as it were, that exists in each human being, that enables him or her to perceive what life demands of him or her. This could mean perceiving meaning in a situation, sensing one’s own responsibility in that situation, or detecting one’s own sense of mission in life. The point is that in logotherapy, the idea is the conscience detects or receives these messages from beyond the self, as opposed to from within the self. Frankl illustrates this by pointing out the fact that, very often, situations arise where, due to the demands of one’s conscience, one goes against all of the didactic, parental, moral, and societal “rules”.

The person who comes from a conservative, patriotic family whose members have served in the military, but who becomes a conscientious (note the term) objector to an army draft, is a classic example of this. Here, it is possible to see the distinction being made between conscience as Frankl sees it and the superego proposed by Freud. If the conscience and superego were identical, this person should not be able to muster the strength to avoid army service, as all of the inputs in his life that have contributed to his superego have told him that serving in the army is a positive, even obligatory item. Yet, for reasons of conscience, the CO is able to take a stand against the values of the people around him and choose an alternative that he feels is right.

Does the fact that the conscience detects meaning from beyond mean that the person will always understand the message being delivered to him or her accurately and do what is objectively “right”? Isn’t it dangerous to live according to one’s intuition. What if is one is wrong? The Taliban also believe in their mission of conscience.

The mechanistic alternative, of course, is to view oneself as a collection of synapses and ego drives, taking every step to satisfy one’s desires and thereby bringing homeostasis to one’s system.

This is a topic that has come up recently in our training meetings. I have come to an idea that being right in an empirical sense is not the issue; rather, it is living one’s life according to one’s conscience that is of value in and of itself. A conscience-based life. Being directed by conscience, rather than mechanistic ego drives, has value in and of itself. It puts people in touch with what they believe in, enables them to live more congruently with their values and to detect their missions in life as they see them. The world we live in, influenced by mechanical materialism, does not allow people to listen to their consciences; it’s too “pre-scientific” and “metaphysical”. But this has brought about a world that suffers from a sense of meaninglessness. It’s not the being right that is meaningful; it is getting attuned with, and acting according to, what one perceives to be right. This is what can restore meaning to a person’s life

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Names and Redemption: Shemos 5770

This week’s parsha begins with the phrase,ואלא שמות בני ישראל הבאים מצרימה, “these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Mitzrayim”. Since the arrival of the bnei yisrael in Mitzrayim was already mentioned only six chapters before this one, it seems superfluous to repeat the idea as if was never stated.

Why does the Torah have to say this here?

The Ramban explains that this first verse in Shemos is actually a direct continuation from the topic begun earlier in Bereishis. There, we are told that, “Israel dwelled in the land of Mitzrayim, in the land of Goshen. They had a portion in it, were fruitful and multiplied greatly.” This sounds very positive. However, the Kli Yakar informs us that the verse is telling us something very negative. Despite the Jews’ original intention to live temporarily in Mitzrayim, i.e. for the duration of the famine, they became so ensconced there that G-d had to forcefully take them out with a “strong hand”.

A few verses later, in Parshas Vayechi, we read that after Yaakov Avinu passed away, the eyes of the Bnei Yisrael “closed” to their own pilght; they became unaware, like the mice in a mine shaft who cannot detect the subtle changes in the quality of the air available to them—until it is too late. What does this mean? It means that the golus Mitzrayim (the Egyptian exile) began way before a “new king arose in Mitzrayim” and enslaved the Jews; it began when everything was prosperous. But the eyes of Israel being closed also implies that whatever happened during the 210 years after the twelve tribes arrival in Mitzrayim was essentially tangential.

The Ramban refers to the book of Shemos as Sefer Galus v’Geulah—the book of exile and redemption. Not simply, “Exodus”, which refers only to leaving Egypt, but also geulah, being redeemed. It’s not enough to leave; you have to be redeemed. Leaving Egypt did not make us free. We did not only gain freedom from the enslavement of Egypt; we went towards the awesome responsibility of being servants of Hashem.

Exile, says the Ramban, would not be concluded until the Jews returned to their place and to the spiritual level of the forefathers. This was achieved through the milestones of Har Sinai and the building of the Mishkan, which created the context for an indwelling of the Shechinah. True redemption.

By dint of the fact that this section of the Torah has two names, “Shemos” and “Sefer Galus v’Geulah”, the Ramban is telling us that there is an intrinsic connection between names and redemption.

The Midrash tells us that one of the things that the bnei yisrael did not change while enslaved in Egypt was their names. This continued for the entire 210 year period of their servitude. If you stop to think about this for a second, very few of us can claim that type of Jewish continuity for that length of time, no matter where our families come from. Even in this country, where the language is Hebrew, many people do not have traditional Jewish names.

What is a name?

There are many views on this topic. Here, the words of Rabbi Moshe Shapiro, shlit”a, are precise. The words shem and sham are interrelated. First of all, they have the exact same shoresh—even the same letters. What is the difference between sham and shem? We use the word sham to indicate where something is located or contained. In fact, the word shamayim is simply a plural form of the word sham; shamayim is the ultimate sham, the totality of sham. There can be no more sham-ness than the seemingly endless shamayim. Shem, on the other hand, is a word that indicates both the content of an item and its purpose.

Consider another word: shomem, which means both astonishing and desolate. When we describe a place in this way, we mean that there is no content and no purpose there; it is the exact opposite of shem. And it just so happens that the word Mitzrayim has the same gematria (numerical value) as the word shomem (380). Later in the parsha, when Paro is first told to release the bnei yisrael so that they could serve G-d, his response is, תכבד את העבודה על האנשים ויעשו בה ואל יעשו בדברי שקר, “increase the workload on these people, and keep them busy, and do not let them busy themselves with falsehood”. As if to say that the prescription for our lives was to be slaves, to work purposelessly for the duration of our miserable lives, without any deeper meaning. That is Mitzrayim. The Ramchal says that Paro’s response is the classic technique of the yetzer hara: keep the guy busy, so busy that he never has time or energy to take stock of his life.

Why was it so important for the bnei yisrael to retain their names?

A name tells us about the essential purpose and mission of the person to whom it belongs. The fact that the Sefer Galus v’Geulah begins with the names teaches us that people of the tribes of Israel, because of their names, were able to remember their mission even in the darkest stages of exile and slavery. The Midrash goes through each name, from Reuven to Binyamin, describing how each relates to the essence of that tribe, its tachlis, and a different aspect of geulah.

This applies each of us. When life seems purposeless, when we do not clearly sense our place in the world, we experience golus , exile, on a personal level. But that name brings us back; it tells us that we are needed in this world, that we each have a mission and a contribution to make. Sometime, a long time ago, we were welcomed into this world by our parents, and they delivered this message to us, the most affirming message possible: we wanted you here, and we have called you by name!

The Midrash tells us that this is precisely how Hashem feels about each one of us. שקולים הם ישראל כצבא השמים נאמר כאן שמות ונאמר בכוכבים שמות שנאמר מונה מספר לכוכבים לכוכם שמות יקרא, “Israel is like the stars in Heaven; here the verse mentions names, and there regarding stars, the verse mentions names”. מנא מספרם כמה היו ולפי שהם משולים לכוכבים קרא שמות לכולם, “He counted how many of them there were, and because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them.” I couldn’t figure out this Midrash; because they are like stars, He called names upon all of them? Are we being told that, just like Hashem knows about each star, He knows about each Jew? There would not be much of a chiddush here; He created everything, after all!

Rather, as Rashi statesלהודיע חבתן שנמשלו לכוכבים שמוציאן ומכניסן במספר ובשמותם שנאמר המוציא במספר צבאם לכלם בשם יקרא, “the Torah tells us here to inform us that we are beloved to Hashem; Israel is compared to the stars, as the verse states, ‘Who takes out the stars by the number of their host, He calls each one by name'”.

Why are stars so important?

The Malbim tells us, regarding that verse in Yeshaya, כל אחד יש לו שם מיוחד על פי פעולתו, “each one has a special name, in accordance with its purpose.” Now, we can understand the comparison, because each one of us has a unique name that hints at the awesome, unique mission each one of us has. And Hashem counts each one of us.

One other point: stars have a special quality of being points of light against the dark background of space. They glow even in the ultimate darkness, all the time. This is like klal yisrael, who, by tapping into the power of a name, are able to find light in the darkest moments, sparks of geulah that remind us that the true geulah is on its way, bimheira v’yameinu amen!

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Rabbinic Scandals and You

The current scandal involving Rabbi Leib Tropper is the latest in a series of “spiritual abuse” cases that have occurred in the Orthodox community in recent years, to the horror of all of us.

This case, however, is particularly intriguing for several reasons: first, it is the first instance that I know about where a major personality in the religious world was brought down via a headlining expose that ultimately originated in an internet blog. Second, it is a very dilated and distorted window on the relationship between Jewish organizations, their directors and their donors. Third, it clearly exemplifies the words of our Sages. “Rabbi Yochanan ben Broka said, ‘Whoever desecrates the Name of Heaven in secret, they will exact punishment from him in public'” (Avos 4:5). And were it not for the instantaneous speed with which information can be posted and sent to a virtually unlimited number of people via the internet, this problem may have gone on undetected and unnoticed for years. It appears that uncovering deception happens very quickly these days.

I don’t personally know Harry Maryles, or the authors of “the unorthodox Jew” or failedmessiah.com, but I do have a message for them and everyone who reads their blogs: instead of simply using our soapboxes to judge and castigate others with the rationalization that we are simply trying to restore honesty and transparency to the religious world, we should realize that these events happen in front of our eyes because they have a message for us; we have to take mussar from these events. We have to realize that “there but for the grace of G-d go I”. Quite literally.

Anyone who reads the accounts of the snake, Esav or Lavan, would be letting themselves off easy if they simply snarled, called these personalities, “bad guys”, and flipped to the next page. Hashem gives us detailed accounts of these people because He wants us to take it to the second level, and ask ourselves, “how am I like the snake, Esav, or Lavan?” From there, we can work to eradicate these personality traits.

Parenthetically, I am very dismayed at the proliferation of frum internet tabloids, blogs that symbiotically live off of systemic problems in the religious world and supply their readers with a type of Orthodox (or, really anti-Orthodox) pornography that serves to confirm their suspicions that every religious Jew or rabbi is actually an evil pervert, while eroding the emunas chachamim of others. Solutions or invitations to substantive discussion are rarely offered on these sites. Lots of people have an axe to grind; I suggest that maybe it’s not such a responsible thing to do in front of six billion people?

I say this because I am a therapist, and because I am essentially “one degree of separation” from many of the people who make it onto these unsavory lists. I am a YU musmach, I have been an assistant rabbi in Monsey myself, and I work with this underbelly of the frum world professionally. I consulted to NCSY leaders immediately after the Baruch Lanner affair several years ago, and I listen to the thought distortions of offenders on a weekly basis; it’s harrowing. But a person should thank G-d that he or she has not been given the impairments of conscience coupled with the overactive yetzer hara that have led other people down the path of destruction.

One addictions treatment expert has put it this way, “every single person who has come into my office has said initially that they never imagined this could happen to them.”

If you think about it, these high profile cases of corruption may simply be a very monstrous, pathological version of the “disconnect” that affects everyone according to their level, the incongruity that comes from knowing what is right and not doing it–or doing the opposite. How can people smoke, when the label on the box clearly tells them that doing so will kill them? They light up anyway. How can people talk in shul, insult people, cheat on tests, run cash businesses, overestimate accident damages, double park, ignore newcomers, drive over 25 miles per hour in a school zone, not call their mother, get to work late, submit restaurant receipts as tax write-offs, etc., etc., etc.?

On a clinical note: in these very awful cases that have surfaced in recent years, I propose that, if you examine each one, they probably all adhere to a set of diagnostic criteria for pathology that predisposes them in this direction. It does not excuse the actions of these people, of course, but it would be very beneficial to the Jewish community if some type of screening test could be developed and administered to people who would become the heads of our institutions.

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Frankl’s Conscience Versus Freud’s Superego

In the course of my training in Logotherapy, I have been asked to define my perception of the difference between an experience of true conscience and superego-type pressures. First, let us define the two things according to their respective models.

Frankl’s notion of conscience is a spiritual mechanism possessed by every human being for detecting the transcendent meaning that comes from beyond him or herself and his or her situation, that enables him or her to make the one right choice in that moment. Note that several assumptions are implicit in this idea. One, that there exists an objective meaning that transcends the subjective context in which an individual finds him or herself. Two, that there is a realm called “beyond”. Three, that there can be one right meaning, decision, task or exercise of responsibility in a given moment.

Of course, Frankl’s use of the term “spiritual” accords with a more secular understanding of that term that the more specific manner in which a religious person understands it, and I am personally wrestling with the question as to whether it can be adapted to accomodate the Torah’s definition of spiritual. At present, I have concluded that Frankl’s spirituality is a step down from religious spirituality, but his model can be stepped up, or a new dimension added to it based on Torah.

Freud’s superego is the third character in his structural model of the personality, the others being the ego and the id. The id is the conglomerate of all the raw drives that demand satisfaction in a human being, whereas the superego is its opponent, an internalized policeman or a father figure, that subdues this id through guilt and allows the person to thus function normally within the context of society, according to that which is deemed acceptable behavior in society. The superego is fueled by the didactic instruction we have received in many forms, whether through parental discipline, religious training, school, etc. Although the superego has two divisions, the ego ideal and the conscience, we will focus here on the conscience.

Clearly, Freud’s model does not allow for there being an objective meaning (read: morality), but rather, what is right and wrong depends on the cultural or societal context in which the individual is. In addition, a person’s ability to manifest right or good is essentially only a function of the repression of their animal-like id drives. This is how Freud defined conscience. For this reason, we might view a criminal as being unable to make moral decisions because of his impaired–or absent–superego.

Frankl would disagree. A criminal is no different from any other human being in his or her ability to tune into meaning and hear the demands that meaning makes upon him or her! Hence, Frankl’s emphasis on the uncovering of responsibility in the client. Freud’s client, by contrast, can plead insanity. There was a notable incident in Frankl’s life when he spoke to a group of prisoners who were slated for execution, and he prefaced his remarks by telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they were all guilty of their crimes. Here, Frankl was demonstrating his idea that becoming guilty is one of the prerogatives of man, and therefore functions as a result, not of his being disadvantaged, but of his freedom to choose. The inmates indicated that they had never felt so understood by any of the psychological professionals who had addressed them previously.

But then, the question, which appears in my mentor Dr. Teria Shantall’s book The Quest for Destiny (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 2003) is: how do you differentiate between an experience of true conscience (i.e. according to Frankl’s model) and superego-type pressures? In other words, how do you know that you are not simply acting out of guilt or because of demands, but are responding to a call to meaning where your desire to do what is right is authentic?

It seems to me that if we are to be able to answer this question, we would have to subvert some basic paradigm assumptions that we customarily make about life. Also, the difficulty in answering this question on highlights just how deeply embedded Freud’s model is in the subconscious of the average Westerner.

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