My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for November 2016: Deceased friends, Zipper traffic merges and Biased Jewish historians

My Jewish Standard Dear Rabbi Zahavy column for November 2016: Deceased friends, Zipper traffic merges and Biased Jewish historians

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

Recently a friend and mentor of mine passed away after a long illness. We had been close for many years, but in recent times we were estranged after we had a falling out, precipitated several years ago by my friend’s unethical actions.

I had ample time to make plans to attend his funeral, but it would have meant that I would miss work for a full day. I decided not to go, and then I was not able to go to the shiva. I did send an email and left a voicemail and sent a card expressing my condolences to his wife and children.

Did I act properly?

Chilly Consoler in Cresskill

Dear Consoler,

The conduct in which a person engages related to mourners always is based on complex personal and social issues. It is made more complicated by the specific conditions that you describe. Rest assured that there cannot be absolute requirements about which relative or friend’s funeral you ought to attend, and under what circumstances you should do so. There always are extenuating factors that you have to respect when you make your decision to go or not to go. In this case there are additional items to mull over.

No matter what provoked the breakup of your friendship, and how strongly motivated we might be to dance on a former friend’s grave, the higher path to take is to say and act generously toward the departed and his family. The Talmud prescribes that we refrain from speaking ill of the deceased, since they cannot reply. That seems correctly to be your attitude.

It’s far-fetched to imagine that the family would see your appearance at the funeral as a gloating, but that could be the case, and you should have factored what others might think into your thinking.

In cases of a close friend, you may want to make sacrifices, entailing inconveniences and loss of income, to attend the funeral or shiva. This would be particularly true if you are close to the family as well. But for an acquaintance, or someone who is no longer part of your life, you may feel different. The decision always involves weighing the relationship and making judgments.

As far as your actions regarding other forms of consolation, the same above factors apply.

Our rites of passage connected with death are ancient and simple. You may have observed over time that some people are more comfortable than others with respect to aspects of death and mourning.

Given these circumstances, it seems clear to me that you acted appropriately.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I often travel with a friend who drives aggressively in traffic. It is his practice not to wait in long lines in lanes when merges are coming up. Instead he finds ways to drive all the way up to a merge point and then force his way in line at the last moment.

I think this is a rude and possibly dangerous action, and I have suggested that to him, but he won’t listen to me. What more can I do?

Polite Passenger in Paramus

Dear Polite,

I will agree with you that cutting in line at the last moment appears to be rude and could lead to trouble. In our metro area, the rule to follow is not to antagonize other drivers. You never know what they may do in response. I have seen some New York and New Jersey drivers take it on themselves to block last-minute mergers with lane straddling and other aggressive actions.

By today’s standards of etiquette, line cutting is not acceptable. Studies have shown that people in any line resist being generous to those who wish to cut in front of them. They will allow it only if the cutter has a reason.

Take note. Recently a published study showed that this so-called zipper merging that you describe is in fact beneficial to the smooth flow of traffic. It “helps ease congestion and drivers’ frustrations,” experts have said, according to the New York Times. (“Why Last-Second Lane Mergers Are Good for Traffic,” October 12, 2016.)

The Times cited Tom Vanderbilt, the author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),” who wrote, “Merging late, that purported symbol of individual greed, actually makes things better for everyone.”

Overall, waiting patiently on lines is a varying cultural dynamic. I have observed that Israelis are not always good at it. And in many other societies, queuing up is not highly prized as a sign of sophistication.

Bottom line, there are different styles of driving, ranging from polite and meek to rude and aggressive. If you save two minutes each day cutting in line, yes, that adds up to six or seven hours over the span of a year. Is it worth it to take a safety risk, and to present yourself as overly forceful, to gain that time? Some people will say no, some will say yes.

Yes, consider also that our biblical wisdom literature teaches us the general virtues of patience: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Proverbs 14:29) and “Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city” (Proverbs 16:32). But those maxims were easy for King Solomon to write. He did not have to drive over the George Washington Bridge every day at rush hour.

So finally, if your friend cuts in line, does that make him a bad person? No. But should you continue to protest? Yes, but not based on ethical principles.

Simply put, you have to be comfortable in your travels with your buddy. Ask your friend, as a favor, if he can slow down and be cooler while driving you around. That seems like a reasonable request. You might be surprised by his ready compliance with it.

Dear Rabbi Zahavy,

I had a discussion with my friend in shul about the historical importance of the synagogue dating back to antiquity. He maintains that since the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 CE, the synagogue has been the mainstay of the communities of the Jewish people.

I told him there is little evidence to support that claim. Who is right?

Historical Doubter in Ho-Ho-Kus

Dear Historical,

It would be wonderful if we had surveillance cameras and other recordings from ancient Israelite towns and could examine them and see what the realities of the past were like. But we do not. The evidence we do have, from textual traditions and archaeological digs, is partial at best. Historians who study that material must fill in many blanks to draw their conclusions.

Archaeological finds do confirm that there were many synagogues in the post-Temple periods in Israel and the ancient Jewish world. But the importance and role of those places of worship is not fully understood.

In many cases, it is difficult to say who is right in his interpretation of the past. I recently published a study of the work of several historians of ancient Judaism. I started with a postmodern question: Before we look at their conclusions do we know where they are coming from? Do we take cognizance of each scholar’s personal biases?

I found in critical readings of today’s historians of Judaism that Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform scholars emphasize different aspects of the past, and fill in the gaps of history according to their personal religious viewpoints and priorities.

Writers from the three main schools of scholars varied in their historical accounts as follows.

The Orthodox Jewish writer searched the data of antiquity for “Torah-true” ideals, and emphasized that the ancients such practiced rituals as prayers. He confirmed that the early Jews focused on the value of sacred texts and that they depended on an elite rabbinic leadership for guidance. He highlighted internal sectarian debates, and downplayed the existence of interfaith relations. He denied that there were significant changes and adaptations in Judaism in the past, based on social and historical circumstances. He showed that the ancients considered acculturation and assimilation evil. And finally, he emphasized particularism as a dominant theme of ancient Judaism.

The Conservative Jewish scholar tended toward the discovery and analysis of ancient family structures. He sought to show that Judaism of old adhered to democratic ideals and underwent evolutionary changes. He examined institutional development of synagogues and communal leadership patterns. He suggested that rites of passage, like marriages and funerals, were more important than other rituals. And he suggested that acculturation and assimilation in antiquity were struggles for the Jews, leaving them fraught with contradictions and ambivalences.

The Reform Jewish scholar sought to differentiate ancient Jews from early Christians. He highlighted the opportunities in antiquity for interfaith understanding and cooperation. He emphasized the theology from the past that was expressed philosophically, as Protestants do in modernity. He found signs of ancient assimilation of Jews to other cultures as a positive force.

Do these writers offer us a “full disclosure” in their history books to make their inherent biases and their differing accounts of ancient Judaism transparent? No, they do not. So then, it is up to you to be critical and analytical when you read about the past.

And even if we had the video recordings of the streets of ancient Israel, you do know that camera angles surely would obscure or emphasize various parts of the reality of the past. Historians’ angles of vision do the same thing.

The answer to your question, then, is that we do not know for sure how important the synagogue was in ancient Israel. We know there were synagogues and we assume Jews went there often to pray and read the Torah, prophets, and scrolls in public. Beyond that, be confident that the various experts will help you fill in the blanks of history, in harmony with their own personal preconceptions.

The Dear Rabbi Zahavy column offers mindful advice based on talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally open and meaningful to all of the varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Please mail your questions to the Jewish Standard or email them to zahavy@gmail.com

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