Oz Torah: Believing others – Ask the Rabbi


Q. Should you believe what people tell you?

A. Yehoshua ben P’rachyah’s principle in Pir’kei Avot is,

“Hevei dan et kol ha’adam l’chaf z’chut” – “Judge everyone in the scale of merit” (Avot 1:6).

In other words, give other people the benefit of the doubt, and put the most positive construction you can on what they say (and do).

Nonetheless, people do let us down often enough to make us disillusioned. I for one try to believe what I am told, but I examine the evidence closely. There are certainly times when it is obvious that someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes.

I recall the London Jewish Chronicle saying that they wouldn’t take at face value any communication that was signed “Sh. Lemiel”, though they once got a letter from “M. Le Goy” and subsequently discovered that there was a real person of that name, who was of French-Mauritian descent.

The rule I have adopted is the Biblical verse,

“Chacham einav b’rosho” – “The wise person has eyes in his head” (Kohelet 2:14).

Try to use your eyes and not be too gullible. It doesn’t always work, but it helps.


Q. Why is a cemetery called “Bet Olam” (“Place of Eternity”)?

A. The term derives from the end of Kohelet chapter 12 (verse 5), which speaks of a person who dies going to their “long (i.e. eternal) home”.

This is only one of the terms for a cemetery. Another is “Bet Chayyim” (“House of Life”) in which the word “life” is a euphemism that really means the opposite, or, which fits in better with Jewish thinking, it is where a body is laid to rest when the soul is now in another dimension of life.

Since we believe that there are two worlds, this world and the World to Come, the person who has died remains alive in some sense.

Another term is “Bet K’varot” (“Place of Graves”). In England there is a colloquial custom of calling the cemetery “the grounds”, which might have begun as a softer alternative to the blunt word “grave”.

There are a number of colloquial distortions of the Hebrew name for a cemetery, e.g. “Bsaylum”.


Q. Why do Jewish sources insult women so much?

A. They don’t. Classical Jewish literature is far more appreciative of women than are other cultures, which at one and the same time regarded woman as both angel and demon.

Babylon had a mother goddess but also routinely degraded women. Greek society was a man’s club. A Greek thinker, Hipponax, even said that woman gives a man only two days of happiness – her wedding day and her funeral.

Roman law decided to keep women in a subservient position by reason of their “imbecility” (the Romans actually used this word). Islamic writings considered man had God-given qualities not shared with women. These societies thought that what was wrong with women was their womanness.

Jewish writings were far more positive. The Bible was not anti-woman. Its women had minds of their own and never hesitated to criticise their husbands’ judgement or actions.

Sarah stood up to Abraham. Rebekah stood up to Isaac, and the commentators blame her for not being more self-assertive. Hannah, Deborah, Esther, Naomi and Ruth are personalities with opinions and common sense.

Rashi points out that the wives of the patriarchs were often cleverer than their husbands; Rav Soloveitchik says that it was the wives who often saved the situation.

According to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah (Talmud Niddah 45b),

“The Holy One, blessed be He, placed more intelligence in women than in men”.

So why do the women not have to keep all of the commandments? It is explained that they do not have to observe positive duties carried out at a set time, because there are competing duties that must be attended to – yet in many cases the women voluntarily assumed the extra commandments from which they were technically exempt.

Actually, many authorities say that a “distinguished” woman may override the general exemption, and “in our days all our women are distinguished”.

Women as rabbis? In the historic sense the rabbi was a scholar and teacher, and women are recorded as fulfilling that role.

Women as prayer leaders? They are recorded as fulfilling that role too, amongst the women.

True, not in the synagogue amongst the men, but historically the synagogue and its services were never as important as they seem to have become since the modernist Emancipation movement, probably influenced by the pedestal on which the gentiles placed the worship rituals and services of the church.

For too long the Jewish woman has been put down by anti-female prejudice; for too long the Jewish woman has acquiesced in the thought that she is merely a chattel, handled at her menfolks’ whim.

To suggest that Judaism connives at the insults to women found in other cultures is unfair to say the least.

Some Jewish men, in ancient times and throughout history, have tried to denigrate their women, but have they ever asked God whether He agrees?

Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem. Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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