The recently released Pew report on American Jewry has generated anguished discussion on the future of American Jewry. Some of its key findings include an intermarriage rate of 58%, a percentage that rises to 71% if the Orthodox are excluded (in 1970, it was 17%); two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue; and one-third had a Christmas tree last year.
Tragically, natural disasters are a relatively common occurrence. The scene is relatively familiar: pictures of destruction and death, with pale-looking survivors searching eagerly for help. Calls go out for money to help rebuild lives and property. The cyclone in Myanmar has created a second tragedy which, from a moral point of view, surpasses the natural one. The refusal of the country’s “leaders” to accept aid, thereby causing so much death and suffering, is one that taints the image of G-d in which man was created.
Portugal, Greece, Italy. Who might be next? As Europe and the world fret over the possible collapse of the euro, finance ministers, economists and analysts debate and discuss what measures are needed to save the world from possible financial ruin. It is hard for me to imagine that any economic solution will have much long-term impact unless and until a fundamental shift in thinking takes place, and the underlying moral issues are addressed.
The saintly sage Rav Yisrael Meir Kagan (the Chafetz Chaim, 1838-1933) once commented that every technological innovation carries within it a moral message. As one who literally wrote the book on the laws of gossip and slander, he saw the invention of the telephone as teaching—warning, perhaps—that what one says over here is heard over there. He would be kept very busy today with daily moral messages.
The stock market hates uncertainty. This helps explain the wild gyrations of the markets, unable to “decide” whether we are headed for a double-dip recession or whether the trillions in corporate profits are a reflection of the good times ahead. Is it the millions of North Americans looking for work or standing in line to buy the latest iPhone that are the true indicator of our collective economic shape? The fact that the news of both groups is true just adds to the confusion. Spending decisions, business investment and hiring are to a large extent dependent on confidence in the future.
One must be “thankful” when the news coming out of Israel is the high price of cottage cheese. As is so often the case, it is a relatively minor event that sparks major repercussions, often with unintended consequences. This is true not only in national or international relations but in our personal lives as well. Modern technology enables issues that may have taken decades to surface in the past to do so in weeks, days or even hours. Yet despite the power of modern technology, not every problem can be solved as quickly as it surfaces.
As we have often noted, economic decisions reflect moral choices. As the world economy slowly recovers from near-catastrophe, another potential disaster looms in the horizon: that of the United States government defaulting on its debt. While families understand that they cannot live beyond their means, governments worldwide seem oblivious to this fact; after all, they can just print money as needed.
Regardless of their personal piety (or lack thereof), Jewish law affirms that an almost superhuman level of respect be shown to our parents. What is less well known is that, in theory at least, one must display even greater honor to our teachers, “for our parents bring us into this world, and our teachers bring us into the World to Come”. Jewish law even records a practice that requires students to observe many of the practices of shiva upon the death of their (primary) teacher.