Q: It’s that time of year, when everyone everywhere is saying “Merry Christmas” to me, even people who know that I am Jewish. Should I simply smile and repeat the greeting or politely correct the greeter and say, “I’m sorry, I don’t observe Christmas.”
Q: When I daven, I am tempted to ask God for help improving my difficult financial situation. But I always feel this is wrong since so many other people are in worse circumstances involving their health, safety and even worse financial conditions, whereas I at least have a job and a healthy family. Is it unethical to ask God for more money, or should I just be grateful for all the good things I have?
Editor's note: Earlier this year Rabbi Hammerman discussed the ethical implications of exchanging terrorists to save the life of an Israeli soldier. In light of the dramatic news of such a deal emerging from Israel he is revisiting that issue this week.
Q – Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including somewho have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?
As the Yom Kippur approaches, rather than present a specific ethical quandary I present some reflections and tips on what this holy day can mean for us as we perform the sacred act of engaging with other human beings and with God:
Q - My brother and I are running the Chicago Marathon which is the day after Yom Kippur. We want to fast, however we have been told that it is unwise to do so the day before running 26 miles. Since this is an ethical dilemma, we need your advice.
A – Well, at the very least, by observing Yom Kippur you could label yourself a “fast runner.” Sorry.
As we approach the Days of Awe, our annual exercise in self scrutiny and stock-taking can be a daunting task. Rather than highlight a single ethical dilemma this week, I offer here some suggestions, some “ethics-ercises,” as it were, to assist you on this journey.
Q - A few weeks ago an Israeli court is believed to have made history by being the first to allow parents to extract and freeze the ovarian eggs of their recently deceased daughter. I know that's been done with a man's sperm, but this seems to cross an ethical red line, doesn't it?
Q. When I saw the latest Harry potter film I was appalled at the clear use of anti-Semitic stereotype in depictions of goblin bankers, miserly, hooked nose and all. And this is what we're showing our kids? Isn’t a tacit acceptance of such damaging stereotypes if we ignore them? Shouldn’t Jews be boycotting Harry Potter?
Q. The mother of my worst enemy just died and I'm not sure whether to visit during Shiva. In truth, I sincerely see this as a chance to reconcile (we haven't spoken in about five years but have a lot of friends in common). My only concern is that he would misinterpret the reason for the visit and kick me out of the house. I really don't want to cause him any discomfort. What should I do?
Q: An acquaintance of mine recently boasted to me that he had happened upon a bird's nest and seized the opportunity to perform what he considered the mitzvah of shiluach hakan, scaring away a mother bird before taking the eggs. This mitzvah is intended to teach compassion, so that a bird should not have to watch the devouring of its young, but I find it hard to believe that it is meant as a mitzvah to be done in ordinary circumstances if one is not in dire need of the eggs.
Q - I have always been under the impression that cremation and tatoos are forbidden by Jewish law. Yet the recent funeral for Amy Winehouse was very Jewish in nature although the singer — who was amply tattooed — had asked to be cremated. Is cremation now accepted in Jewish quarters?
Q – The recent police detainment of prominent right wing Israeli rabbis accused of incitement has been in the news lately. At issue is the halachic tract “Torat Hamelech," (the “Torah of Kings”) which allegedly condones the murder of non Jews in some circumstances. This is horrible, but how is it different from any artist or politician making an outlandish statement? Certainly those on the left have said equally inflammatory things. Are we discriminating against the rabbis? Aren’t they entitled to freedom of speech?<
Q - I frequently use a 10-trip punch card on the LIRR. Often the conductor fails to appear to punch the card before I get off. What is my obligation here? Should I tear up the card before it runs out to make up the difference or am I free to use it again as it is the responsibility of the railroad to collect the fare? This does not involve deception since I am ready to pay the fare.
Q - I have some sympathy for gay marriage, just legalized in New York, but I can't understand how anyone who takes the Torah seriously could consider it the proper moral choice. I mean, the book of Leviticus is rather explicit in describing homosexuality as "an abomination." How can anyone get around that?
Q - My daughter, a freshman on a large college campus, was invited to the home of a local rabbi for Friday night dinner. The rabbi is nontrivial affiliated with Hillel or any synagogue, but has gotten deeply involved in college life and invites groups of students to his home nearly every week. The kids seem to really enjoy it. Last weekend I found out one reason. The liquid refreshment flows freely, and I'm not just talking about Kiddush wine. On the one hand I'm glad my kid is doing something Jewish, but serving liquor to minors scares me.
Q - I recently heard reports about the creation of artificial meat, using with animal stem cells. To this point, it exists only in a Petri dish, but it's time to start asking the tough questions. As one who keeps kosher and who is a vegetarian, would this kind of meat would be kosher - and would that be true even for pork? And since no killing would be involved, could a vegetarian eat this meat with a clear conscience?
A- As they say at Citi Field, it’s time to “Meet the Meats.”
Q - Does Rep. Weiner's admitted act of sending out explicit photos of himself disqualify him from public office? Is this a new form of adultery? Given the fact that "sexting" is so common these days among young people, will it become a political albatross comparable to pot smoking for aspiring pols who came of age in the '60s? After all, isn't this just a byproduct of the Internet revolution in the way that drug use was the byproduct of the counter culture?
Q -In reading about the recent Mississippi River floods, it was shocking to see how spillways were opened in less populated areas, in effect deliberately flooding out thousands of homes in order to save more populated areas downstream. How can anyone justify wiping out entire communities like that? And conversely, is it right for people to deliberately move into areas that are known "spill zones," where flooding is known to occur.
Q - In the wake of recent sex scandals involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Time Magazine ran a cover story asking the rhetorical question, "What Makes Powerful Me Act Like Pigs?" Ethically speaking, how does Judaism account for this constant abuse of power by piggish men?
Q - I recall reading several years ago about a survivor's son who had engraved a tattoo on his arm to match the one borne by his father at Auschwitz. I understand that he meant it as a gesture of solidarity, but doesn't Jewish law prohibit tattoos?
Q - Every Israeli schoolchild learns the famous quote of a dying hero Joseph Trumpledor, "it is good to die for one's country." The line has always troubled me. Ethically speaking, is it really good to die for your country?
Q - The killing of Osama bin-Laden sent Americans out into the streets in spontaneous celebration. I saw the raucous scene outside the White House and it made me uncomfortable. Isn't it against Jewish practice to rejoice at the downfall of your enemies?
Q - I was shocked to read recently that corporal punishment is still legal in 20 states. I also know the famous quote from Proverbs, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” But on Passover we are taught to answer a child’s questions with patience. Is it ever acceptable for a parent or teacher to hit a child? A - It is never appropriate to hit a child, at school or at home. Period.
Q - "I heard from an observant friend that it is inappropriate to invite non Jews to a Seder; but doesn't it also say in the Haggadah, "Let those who are hungry come and eat?" So am I supposed to invite only Jewish homeless and hungry people? Plus, given my strained family dynamics, I think it would be best not to invite any guests at all. What's the ethical thing to do?
Q - I've heard that pets are supposed to keep Passover. I'm fairly traditional regarding Passover and just got a dog. Isn't it cruel to force an innocent animal to change its entire diet for a whole week? It's hard enough for humans!
A- As the proud owner of two adorable standard poodles, one of whom is extremely neurotic, I can sympathize with you.
Q - I have been struggling with some issues. I am not observant and the teacher of a class I've been taking has led me to believe that this makes me a bad Jew. I do lots of good deeds and am ethical in my actions. So can a good person be a bad Jew?
A - Relax. Loving your neighbor puts you are well on your way to being a "good Jew," whatever that means.
Q - I am the designated medical surrogate for an individual who has a living will specifying DNR/Do Not Resuscitate. The physicians and hospital have been informed and have copies of the living will and DNR. Our loved one took a downward turn but the medical team resuscitated him. The patient prospered from their efforts and returned to his pre-resuscitation health status. Should I report the medical team for ethical non-compliance of the DNR/living will orders?
Q - With baseball’s spring training underway, I’m reminded of an incident from last season. Derek Jeter, one of the few superstars from the past decade not implicated in baseball’s steroid sample, was caught on videopretending to be hit by a pitch.
Q - I am a high school student. My math final was postponed because of a mid-day snow storm, but a friend of mine had taken the test earlier that day. That night while I was studying, I paused to take a peek at my Facebook news feed and saw that my friend had posted a page from the test. I didn't realize what it was at first so I looked at it. But when I realized what it was, I deleted it. I took the test the next day and did not say anything. I had studied hard and would have gotten those answers right anyway. Was I right to say nothing?
Q - I am a traditional Jew who subscribes to the traditional definition of Jewish identity (you are Jewish if your mother is Jewish or if you've converted). By this definition, Gabrielle Giffords is not Jewish. But by other definitions, including her own, she is. Given all she has done and what she has gone through, and given the strong possibility that her assailant attacked her in part because of her self-declared Jewish identity, what is the proper ethical response to all this?
Q - My son's bris is in a couple of days and lots of family and friends will be attending. I'm OK with people taking pictures but I really don't want photos of my son all over the Internet. What can I do?
Q. Has airport security crossed the line? Things were far less complicated back when only Superman had X-ray vision. As long as we stayed clear of the Daily Planet, we were in the clear. Now, with the new airport security measures, nothing is hidden anymore - not even our privates are private. Is this a good thing?
Q: My teacher thinks I plagiarized an essay, but I didn’t. True, I looked at Cliff Notes about the assigned book, Moby Dick, but I also read much of it and only used the notes as a guide. So what’s wrong with that?
Q. My daughter’s bat mitzvah will occur next December, and she is currently in 6th grade. Parents are encouraged to invite the entire Hebrew School class, but because the synagogue office has been giving out addresses by calendar year and not by grade, she is already getting a number of invitations from 7th graders whom she doesn’t know.
Q - Last spring I lent $200 to a woman who works at a midtown coffee shop near my office. I've gone in there every day for years and have gotten friendly with her - in fact, I know her whole life story and we are on a first name basis. When I lent her the money to pay for an emergency medical procedure, she promised to pay me back, although I had my doubts that she would be able to.
I went away over the summer and when I came back to the coffee shop I decided not to mention the loan and see what would happen. But when I went to pay for my coffee she smiled and waved me by and said, "It's on the house." This has now happened for a couple of weeks and I suspect she is giving me the freebies to pay off the loan. The problem is, she doesn't own the shop. What do I do?
Q. While visiting a friend, I almost tripped on an expensive piece of electronics that was not where it was supposed to be - in fact, it was on the floor, sticking out into the hallway, posing a hazard. When I hit it, I heard an ominous "crack." Obviously I did it some real damage, although it was not immediately visible.
Q – An employee of mine has put on a lot of weight. He really looks horrible. We are a service related enterprise and appearance counts. Plus, I’m concerned about the added health risks that could be harmful to his job performance (as well as to his personal life). Do I have the right to warn or suspend him?
Q. I just came from the store, having bought an mp3 player. When I opened it I noticed that they had given me a newer, enhanced model, not the one I had paid for. The store is about 25 miles away. To return it I would be spending as much on gas for the round trip as I would have spent had I purchased the newer model. What is the ethical thing to do?
Q - Is it ethical to download and share current movies, songs and articles without paying for them?
It's hard to find a justification for the free use of video or music that people should be paying for. There's a reason they call it "piracy." But it all comes down to drawing the line between sharing and stealing.
Q- Do you think it's right for people to boycott BP and get their gas elsewhere, as punishment for the oil spill?
There is definitely a "punish at the pumps" mentality afloat with regard to BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I must admit, I haven't stopped at a BP since it happened. Gassing up at BP in this hostile climate would be like wearing a mink at PETA convention.
Q - I'm a shul president and I've just discovered that two of my board members have been carrying on an affair, using board meeting nights as cover for their trysts. I like them both and they are very hard workers. I like their spouses too. I'm not sure what to do. Do I confront them? Do I tell the rabbi? Do I kick them off the board?
Q: You are out for a walk one night and you see a man running towards you. He looks terrified, stressed and panicked. He comes up to you with tears in his eyes and says, “I am going to hide right here. I can’t run anymore. I didn’t do anything wrong. Please, promise me you won’t tell them where I am!”
So you promise the man, he hides behind a bush and you keep walking.
Q: Hey Rabbi-- I have a quick question. I met the Rabbi at the Chabad at our school. Anyways, I had a long conversation with him and when I went to leave I put out my hand to shake his hand and he politely declined. Does my hand have a disease? What's going on here? Thanks and hope everything is well
Q: My wife and I disagree about charitable giving. I believe most of our charitable dollars should go to helping our own Jewish people; she wants to give to local non-Jewish groups, like the homeless shelter and food bank. What's the magic formula about Jewish v. non-Jewish giving, according to Jewish law?
Q: This may sound weird, but I think my neighbor is cruel to his pet beagle. I know that if this was a person we were talking about, Jewish law would obligate me to go to the authorities. But this is a DOG. What's my obligation here?
A. You need to pursue this. I say this not merely because I am life-long pet-o-phile, a vegetarian with two cuddly standard poodles. I say this also because it is the right thing to do. Jewish culture has long championed animal rights.
Q: I'm about to get married to the woman of my dreams. She knows I was married before; what she doesn't know is that the marriage broke up because I was a schmuck. Ethically speaking, how much do I need to tell her?
You have a right to privacy, but a relationship that begins with massive deception has little chance of long term success.
Q. My boss has decided to give me a big bonus for something I only helped with; another worker deserves it more than I do. But I need the money, and she is pretty well off. What's the right thing to do?
A. Maybe your contribution was more integral to the success of the project than you realize. But, regardless, you should be forthcoming. Not only does our tradition demand honesty in how we conduct business, but it's really the most practical professional decision you can make.
Question: My husband wants a lavish bar mitzvah for our son next year. I think it's wrong to spend $ 50,000 on a party for a 13 year old kid when so many of our fellow Jews are experiencing hard times. What does Jewish law have to say about this?
Question: Should Mrs. Madoff have reported Bernie? What does Jewish law say about her obligations?
Let's assume for the sake of argument that Ruth knew about the Ponzi scheme and that Bernie's crimes were committed while of sound mind and body. From the public record there is little information about Bernie's mental state - aside from indications he is a grade-A sociopath, of course.
So should Ruth have blown the whistle on Bernie? By all means.
Family loyalty cuts deep in Jewish tradition, but not that deep.