Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Hasid Who Went to Law School: Finding our Virtuous Heroes

Rabbi Mishael Zion | Text and the City | Mishpatim 2014

Rav Yehuda said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Damages [Nezikin].
Ravina said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of the Fathers [Ethics of the Fathers,  Pirkei Avot].
Others said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Blessings [Berakhot].
Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 30a

Leading a virtuous life. Does anyone wonder about that anymore? Not the satisfying life, or the happy life; nor the life of impact. The Talmud asks a question about virtue, indeed of heroic virtue: How does one become a Hassid. Or as Calvin’s dad would put it: how best to build character?
To be fair, that is not how most people would translate the word Hasid. Hasid is often reduced to “pious”, meaning “deeply religious : devoted to a particular religion” according to Merriam-Webster, or “a combination of fervor and devotion to God”.
The term Hasid has been repeatedly reborn over the course of Jewish history. From the Hasidim dancing ecstatically at the Temple (1st C), to the prostrating Sufi Jews of Cairo (13th C), the Franciscan style Hasidim of Germany (13th C) and the spiritual revolutionaries of Eastern Europe (18th C). And then of course there are our contemporaries, who seem to share a preference for black clothes and facial hair, and the neo-Hasid’s who prefer colorful tallitot and shamanic chants.
Despite this rich history, most people assume Hasid=Pious, a term which, as Google shows, gets very little traction these days. Indeed, the second definition for pious offered by Webster’s is “falsely appearing to be good or moral”. Thankfully, this Talmudic argument invites us to redefine Hasid.
To be fair, the third answer offered above fits expectations most easily: “One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Blessings [Berakhot]”. Berakhot, the tractate educating in the laws of prayer and blessings, implies that being a Hasid relates first of all to spirituality and gratitude. It is primarily about vertical relationships: God/Man. Indeed, the Mishna tells us that “The pious of former generations used to contemplate for one hour before they would begin prayer.”  which opens a window into ancient Jewish Meditation (I always saw those Hasidim as the ones who are to blame for Jewish prayer sprawling for hours and hours). To be sure, there is a strong argument to be made that a person well versed in the ethics of gratitude, investing time and effort in deepening a spiritual practice,  would be setting to foundations of becoming a Hasid.
A very different definition of Hasid is evoked by Ravina’s position: “One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of the Fathers”. Ravina is probably referring to the Tractate of Mishna often called “Ethics of the Fathers”, Pirkei Avot. Avot fits into the category of “wisdom books” known across civilizations, from the biblical Proverbs to Tao Te Ching: short prescriptive aphorisms that shape behavior and world view. Avot recognizes that there is the “medium” personality and the
Donors fall into four types:
Those who wish to give and others not give – they rob others of merit.
Those who urge others to give but do not give themselves – they rob themselves of merit.
Those who give and urge others to give – those are the Hasidim.
Those who do not give and urge others not to give – these are the wicked. (Avot 5:16)
Where Berakhot is mostly a vertical, God/self relationship, Avot weaves a combination of vertical and horizontal God/other/self. If the Hasid of Berakhot is pious, the Hasid of Avot is ethical – if such distinctions can be made. Yet for all of its inspiring messages, Pirkei Avot takes place in a vaccum. It assumes that ethical behavior emanates simply from the individual, but does not account for the complex realities of interpersonal conflict, the pervasiveness of mistakes or the gray areas of moral decisions.

Which brings us back to the first and most counter-intuitive statement: “Rav Yehudah said: One who wishes to be a Hasid must fulfill the matters of Damages [Nezikin].” The Tractate of Damages (today consisting of three separate “gates” – Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia and Bava Batra) covers 30 chapters of torts and contract law.. What do the ins and outs of financial compensation have to do with being a Hasid? Well, everything.
Where the words of Avot discuss the ideal person leading the ideal life, the Tractate of Damages takes the opposite approach: human beings – and their animals, belongings and agreements – are liabilities waiting to happen. When living in a society mistakes, losses and damages will occur. The challenge is how to fix things. This is not about ideal justice but rather about regaining balance in a broken world. It will never be whole, it will never return to the original state. One who can maneuver skillfully in such a world is a Hassid.
The centrality of the Laws of Damages to Jewish discourse is clear from their location in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, directly after the giving of the Torah at Sinai. To this day traditional Jewish Talmudic education for children begins with the rules relating to lost property – which “findings” belongs to you vs those for which you are responsible to seek out the owner, even though you have no idea who he is. One who wishes to raise a Hasid, first teach them that “Finders keepers, losers weepers” is wrong.
In order to administer the laws of damages properly, one needs to become deeply versed in human needs – physical and psychological. Damages educates one to embrace the perspective of the other, while constantly keeping an eye on the global good (the discussion of Ken Feinberg, damage compensation guru, reflects this point well - thank you Zach Luck for this connection!).
In Damages, as in Avot and Berakhot, there is the “average behavior” and then there are the Hasidim, who accept a higher bar of responsibility, a path of higher virtue. Right before our argument about the correct path to becoming a Hasid, the Talmud gives the following anecdote:
Our Rabbis taught: The Hasidim of former generations used to pick up thorns and broken glasses [from the public sphere] and bury them in the midst of their own fields, at a depth of three handbreadths below the surface so that the plough might not be hindered by them.
Rav Sheshet used to throw them into the fire.
Rava threw them into the Tigris river.  (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 30a)
Waste management is where societies’ values are tested, as the news from West Virginia showed us this week. As we know from environmental studies, waste management is not just about the vertical (God/man), or the horizontal (man/others), it is also about the future (now/later). Most significantly, the Hasid sees the public square as her personal responsibility, even at a cost to her own property. This deeper view of the public domain reflects a flipping of the common instinctual private property perspective (upon which our glorious nation is founded). In the common understanding, what is mine is mine, and communal space is very questionably mine. Since responsibility for it is shared, personal responsibility is highly diminished. The Hasidim stand this idea on its head. Another example of the Hasid of Damages reflects this position well:

Our masters taught:
One should not clear stones out of one's own domain and throw them into the public domain.
Once a man was clearing stones out of his own domain and throwing them into the public domain.
A Hasid saw him and said:
“Empty One, why do you remove stones from a domain that is not yours to a domain that is yours?”
The man just laughed at him.
After a time, the man was forced to sell his field, and, walking on that very public domain, he stumbled over the stones he had thrown.
He said, “How well that pious man put it: ‘Why do you remove stones from a domain that is not yours to a domain that is yours?’”
Bava Kamma 50b
ת"ר: לא יסקל אדם מרשותו לרה"ר.
מעשה באדם אחד שהיה מסקל מרשותו לרה"ר,
ומצאו חסיד אחד,
אמר לו: ריקה, מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך!
לגלג עליו.
לימים נצרך למכור שדהו, והיה מהלך באותו רשות הרבים ונכשל באותן אבנים,
אמר: יפה אמר לי אותו חסיד "מפני מה אתה מסקל מרשות שאינה שלך לרשות שלך"...

May this week be a calling for us to redefine not only where “our domain” is, but also what the term Hasid can inspire in our lives. Few of us might achieve that status, but at least it is something to aspire to.
Shabbat shalom,