A Jewish Approach to the Plastic Straw Debate

Image: A person drinks from a plastic straw. (Anemone123/Pixabay)

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. — Pirkei Avot 5:17

The recent disagreement between some environmental activists and disability activists about efforts to ban plastic straws has been food for thought lately.

In brief, environmental activists are concerned about the impact that plastic straws have on the marine environment, especially on the animals in that environment, and they’d like to see an outright ban on plastic straws. Disability activists have pointed out that some people with disabilities need a straw to drink liquids, and that neither the biodegradable paper straws nor rigid metal straws meet their needs. The paper straws tend to biodegrade while still in use, and the metal straws are dangerous for a person with a palsy or an uncertain grip.

That much is a rather standard ethical problem – how are we going to meet two competing sets of legitimate needs?

Let’s look at the issue through a Jewish lens, because there are a number of Jewish values involved. First, the values:

Bal Tashchit – “Do not destroy” is a staple in halakhah (Jewish Law.) It is based in Deuteronomy 20:19–20. The command is given in the context of wartime and forbids the destruction of fruit trees in order to assist in a siege. This principle expands to cover many environmental issues, and it certainly applies here, since (1) the production of plastic is destructive to the environment and (2) plastic waste is destructive to the marine environment.

There is also a strong Jewish tradition for preserving God’s creation, as in this midrash:

13) Look at God’s work – for who can straighten what He has twisted? (Ecclesiastes 7:13). When the Blessed Holy One created the first human, He took him and led him round all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him: “Look at My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are! And all that I have created, it was for you that I created it. Pay attention that you do not corrupt and destroy My world: if you corrupt it, there is no one to repair it after you. — Kohelet Rabbah 7:13:1

We have to balance those values with the value expressed in this commandment. All human beings are infinitely precious and worthy of care:

(26) And God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. — Genesis 1:26

And specifically, regarding disabled persons, we have very precise direction:

Do not curse the deaf, and do not put a stumbling-block before the blind, but fear your God: I am YHVH. — Leviticus 19:14

With regard to access to nourishment, including liquids:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the Eternal your God for the good land which He gave you. — Deuteronomy 8:10

This last verse describes the act of consumption of nourishment as a complete cycle. First “eat” then “be satisfied” and the “bless.” It is wrong to say to a subset of customers, “This is a place of nourishment, but you will receive no satisfaction, because you are unable to drink without a straw.”

Finally, there is the issue of hospitality. Starbucks management would tell you that they are in “the hospitality business.” They refer to their customers as “guests.” While I realize that Starbucks is not a Jewish business and certainly is not run on halakhic principles, when I hear those words, I cannot help but think of the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Our role model for hospitality is Abraham our father himself, who ran to greet guests and serve them despite the fact that he was recovering from circumcision. The rabbis underlined the very high value we put on hospitality:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of  Rav: Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as when Abraham invited his guests it is written: “And he said: Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please pass not from Your servant” (Genesis 18:3). — Shabbat 127a

Conclusion: At this time, it is not possible to meet both sets of needs perfectly. Disabled persons need plastic straws in order to consume liquids. But it is also true that the oceans are in a terrible state. Here are some possible solutions to the dilemma:

  1. If a total ban on the straws is important to the environmentalists, then research needs to be done first to find a true and adequate substitute for the plastic straws. Until then, saying to an entire group of people, “You may only eat at home” is not reasonable.
  2. In the meantime, until a truly adequate substitute is found, those for whom the straws are merely a convenience can help by choosing not to consume plastic straws.
  3. Businesses could supply plastic straws by request but without comment. A server saying  “Oh, so you hate sea turtles!” is attempting to shame the guest. Shaming is cruel and it is generally ineffective in changing behavior.

There are several opportunities for learning within this debate, should we choose to take them:

  1. It is important to learn about the impact of our consumption habits on the seas.
  2.  It is also important to learn about the impact of rigid regulations on people with disabilities. Accomodations for disabilities rarely come in one-size-fits-all packages.

If we are willing to have what our ancestors called “an argument for the sake of heaven’s name,” in which we seek the truth of all aspects of a discussion, and hope to find the best possible solution to a dilemma, we can accomplish wonders. If, on the other hand, we seek to score points, and “win” some illusory prize, we will accomplish nothing,

The choice is ours.

 

 

 

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How to Make Friends at Synagogue

Some advice from the sages for making friends at synagogue:

Shammai said, make your Torah study fixed, say little and do much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance. – Pirkei Avot, 1:15

“Make your Torah study fixed” – As Woody Allen famously said, most of life is simply showing up. If you come every week to services, people will begin to recognize you. Opportunities for small talk will increase. If you only show up for High Holy Days or a yahrzeit,  don’t be surprised if you feel like a stranger!

“Say little and do much” – If you really want to make friends at synagogue, volunteer for something. My personal favorite is “clean up crew” after an event.  The people who always do it are anxious to have help, they will want to learn your name. Generally people chat while they are clearing away tables or folding chairs. By the end of 30 minutes, you are practically guaranteed to have the beginnings of at least one synagogue friend. Usually the work is not onerous, and the next week, there will be someone smiling in your direction.

“Receive everyone with a cheerful countenance” – When you make eye contact with someone at a synagogue event, what do you do? When you have a chance to exchange a few words, what do you talk about?

I am an inveterate greeter of newcomers, and I’m always a little surprised at the number of people who begin a conversation by complaining about something. I’ll say, “Hello, I am Rabbi Adar” and they’ll counter with something like, “Why don’t you have gluten free food?” or “The music here is not very good.” (Honest to goodness, people have said those things to me.) Others walk around scowling, and it takes a bit of nerve to walk up and say hello.

If you volunteer for the clean up crew, don’t grouse about it. Just get on with it, and make cheerful conversation as you do. If you would rather do anything than clean up after other people, take a class or volunteer for a task where you can put on a “cheerful countenance.” Grumbling about what pigs people are will not make friends for you.

It’s not easy to be new. However, it is a curable condition, if we take Shammai’s advice. Show up, volunteer, and be friendly, and before you know it, you’ll have a friend or two at shul.

 

 

Shimon Says: Listen!

Shimon the son of Rabban Gamliel said: All my days have I grown up among the wise and I have not found anything better for a man than silence. Studying Torah is not the most important thing rather fulfilling it. Whoever multiplies words causes sin. – Pirkei Avot 1:17

Here I am on the Internet, multiplying words – the irony does not escape me.  We live in talky times. Nothing goes uncommented: Bruce Jenner, Nepal, Supreme Court, Hillary, Iran, Syria, Baltimore, Baltimore, Baltimore.  The news is rarely merely reported; it is interpreted, commented upon, analyzed. Multiplying words.

We talk, but we rarely listen. When we listen, we wish to comment. We want our news to be interactive, because we all have something to say.

But Shimon tells us, “Listen.” Be quiet and just listen, really listen.

Listening without comment is hard work. Listening and just taking it all in will exhaust most people. Listening and imagining the world of the person talking will make a strong woman want to lie down for a while.

Talk is, as they say, cheap. It is easy to have opinions. It is easy to tell others what they should do, ought to do, need to do. It is hard just to listen.

And yet recall the time someone listened, really listened, to you. Recall what a gift it is, just to listen.

If this post inspires you to listen, here’s a project for listening.

Meet Ben Azzai: “Despise No One!”

Ben Azzai used to say: Despise no one and think nothing impossible, for every person has their day, and every thing has its place. – Pirkei Avot 4:3

So who was this Ben Azzai? His full name was Shimon Ben Azzai, and he lived in the early years of the second century. He was a brilliant student of the rabbis, famous for his diligence in study and for his piety. Despite his youth, his words appear in several places in the Talmud. However, his is a sad story, because he had a very short life. He died young in a tragic accident and never married, so he left no children.

There’s a very famous story in the Talmud about Ben Azzai’s death. He was one of four pious Jews who were doing mystical meditation or kabbalah. Rabbi Akiva was truly ready for the experience and survived it. Ben Zoma was driven mad by it. Elisha ben Abuya rejected the vision and caused great destruction. Shimon ben Azzai died.

When you hear that a student “should be married and older than 40” to study Kabbalah, this is the story behind that saying. Even though these four were brilliant, only Rabbi Akiva survived the mystical union with God, because he was the only one sufficiently prepared for the experience. Ben Azzai became the example of the pure, young, brilliant soul who flew too high and too fast, a Jewish Icarus.

So back to our passage from Pirkei Avot. The first time I read it, I was reassured by it. It seemed to say to me that there was hope for me, even though I was beginning my studies late in life, even though I struggled to learn Hebrew. “Despise no one, even yourself!” I imagined Ben Azzai saying to me.

Then I learned who he was, and the saying deepened in its meaning. “Despise no one” is a nice thing to say, but when it comes from the mouth of a young prodigy it is particularly touching. When one is young and brilliant, so brilliant that Rabbi Akiva invites one to study with him, one is rarely wise enough or humble enough to say, “Despise no one.” Now I imagine Ben Azzai saying it to himself: “Yes, Ben Azzai, you have been given brains and great teachers – but despise no one!”

“…for every person has their day…” Each of us has some important piece of Torah to do in our lifetime. We don’t know what that piece of Torah might be. Maybe I’ve already done mine; maybe it’s still ahead of me. But if I skip some mitzvah, dodge some responsibility, I might miss it, and what a tragedy that would be!

Ben Azzai argues for the importance of every life, no matter how humble. He is arguing even for the importance of things: every little part of creation has its place. We must never forget that every one of us is included in God’s summary of creation, on the sixth day:

And God saw every thing that God had made, and, behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. – Genesis 1:31

Rabbi Chaninah: Pray for the Government!

Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim said: Pray for the welfare of the government, since but for fear of it men would swallow each other alive. – Pirkei Avot 3:2

There are several passages in Pirkei Avot that warn against getting too comfortable with the government (e.g. Avot 1:10.) Lest we decide that Jewish tradition leans towards a particular ideology or form of government, Rabbi Chanina Segan HaKohanim comes along to warn us that we may not like the government, but it still has its purpose. In his eyes, the purpose of government is to keep people from “swallow[ing] each other alive.” How’s that for vivid imagery?

To understand why he would say this, we have to look at Rabbi Chanina and the times in which he lived. He is identified here and elsewhere in the Mishnah as Segan HaKohanim, the deputy of the high priests. In fact, he was an essential member of the staff during the final days of the Temple. The office of Kohen Gadol, High Priest, had become a political appointment, and many of those who filled it were qualified because they were descendants of Aaron, but less than completely knowledgeable about their responsibilities. As Segan, Chanina served under several High Priests (hence the sobriquet “Deputy of the High Priests” plural.) He was the expert who saw to it that things were done properly, and should the High Priest become unfit, he had to be prepared to step in and serve in his stead:

R. Chanina Segan haKohanim said, “Why is a ‘Segan’ [Deputy] appointed? In case the high-priest became unfit for service, the ‘Segan’ [Deputy] should enter at once to do the service.” – Sotah 42a

Rabbi Chaninah was the man responsible for making sure that everything ran smoothly in the great Temple. He filled that role in an era of legendary upheaval. He served several different High Priests. He saw the political chaos leading up to the Great Revolt against Rome beginning in 66 CE, when different factions among the Jews fought each other as bitterly as later they would all fight against Rome. He watched the brutality of Rome come crashing down upon all the Jews. He was a witness to the horrors of the Destruction of the Temple in 70 CE and the events following.

When Rabbi Chaninah speaks of men “swallowing each other alive,” he is speaking colorfully, but it is hardly an exaggeration. He could remember a time when the government was disliked by most residents of Judea, but life was livable. By the time he died (according to some sources, martyred by Rome) life in Judea had gone through utter chaos and had been returned to order by a brutal army.

If we were to update Chaninah’s words today, he might say: “Be careful what you wish for: there are worse things than a government you don’t like.”

Hillel: Do Not Separate Yourself!

Hillel used to say: Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.  –Pirkei Avot 2:5

Here’s one of my favorite sayings by Hillel, who said a lot of famous things.

Whenever I find myself drawing away from Jewish community, I think of this passage. I usually have what I think are excellent reasons: someone was unkind, I was feeling bored, there’s some sort of squabble going on and I hate squabbling, etc. I have been a member of the same Jewish community for most of 20 years, and from time to time these things come up.

But whenever I notice that I have pulled away with these excellent reasons, I am reminded of this passage: “Do not separate yourself from the community; and do not trust in yourself until the day of your death.” Now I will grant that this is a multi-part verse, but notice the word “and.” These two phrases were meant to go together.  Hillel is saying to me, “Oh? You have separated yourself for excellent reasons? And who has decided those reasons are excellent, pray tell?”

At that point I have to admit that the only person I’ve consulted is myself. I’ve decided to separate from the community because I’m hurt, or mad, or bored, or whatever. Hillel reminds us that when we are feeling all “I vant to be alone”-ish, we are not necessarily employing our best selves or our best judgment. That moment, when I most want to pull away and sulk or feel superior, is exactly the moment when I should be talking to someone.

When I talk, it should be either to the person with whom I have the problem, or with someone who can help me put it into proper perspective so that I can do something about it. Simply “venting” to a friend or an outsider can do terrible damage, because it spreads poison without actually resolving anything.

Talking to the person with whom I have the problem, or to someone who can help me resolve matters is a lot harder than fussing to my friends. A good advisor will listen to me, but they also won’t let me get away with judgmental talk or cryptic statements. Talking with them ultimately means re-engaging with the community.

And if it turns out my reasons really are excellent, a good advisor will affirm that. There are times when a situation is so destructive that the only thing to do is leave. A good advisor will help me discern if that’s the case, and help me figure out what I need to do to leave with integrity. That’s very different from hiding out at home in a bad mood.

Hillel is often contrasted with his colleague Shammai. Of the two, Hillel has the reputation for being patient and kind. I suspect that while he may indeed have been patient and kind, he was also a shrewd old bird who would not let his students get away with foolishness. Certainly he doesn’t let me get away with much, every time I read him!

Avot: Meet Shammai

Shammai used to say: Make your Torah permanent, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance. (Avot 1:13)

It’s traditional to study Pirkei Avot during the time between Passover and Shavuot, and I thought it might be fun to take a look at some of the less-familiar sayings in it. The entire text of this section of the Mishnah is available online in both Hebrew and in several different translations.

Shammai was a first century rabbi, one of several pairs of teachers mentioned in rabbinic literature. His opponent and pair was Hillel, one of the most famous of the early rabbis. Shammai was an irascible fellow, if we believe some of the stories told about him. He didn’t suffer fools. However, judging from this aphorism, he aspired to be more like calm, kind Hillel.

“Make your Torah fixed” – has been translated many different ways. Often it’s translated “study Torah at a fixed time very day.” However, I don’t see anything about time in the text. I think he’s telling his students (us) to fix Torah in our minds. Don’t “sort of learn” it: learn it, memorize it, engrave it on our minds.

“Say little and do much” – What counts for more, words or deeds? It is easier to talk about what we are going to do than to actually make the time and effort to do something. What is the good of talking about politics if we don’t vote? What good does it do to talk about writing a thank you note, if we never actually write it?

“Receive every person with a pleasant countenance.” – In Shabbat 31a, there are several stories about people approaching Shammai, wanting to convert to Judaism. Shammai chases them away because they ask rude or stupid questions. Hillel is more patient. It is amusing, therefore, to read here that Shammai says to “receive every person with a pleasant countenance” – really? What about the fellow at whom he threw the builder’s tool?

I admit that there are some lessons I teach that I do not yet practice perfectly, including this one. I worry sometimes about hypocrisy. The only way I know to deal with that is to be honest about my own imperfections.

What do you make of Shammai’s words? And what do you think about the fact that he taught a lesson he had not yet mastered?