Pacific Jewish Center | Rabbi

The Rabbi on the Beach @ The Shul on the Beach

What Is The Appropriate Reaction?


This post has been cross-posted to DovBear. – more discussion there.

In addition to my work as the Rabbi at Pacific Jewish Center at the Shul on the Beach I am also a Law Student at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. I am part of the evening program and completed my first year of evening classes in May.

In December I was subjected to mid-terms in each of my courses. Many Law School exams are long fact patterns that require the student to analyze the facts and apply all the law that is relevant to the facts and then argue why the law should or should not apply to those facts. Usually these fact patterns are fiction and these essays are typically 3 – 4 hours in duration.

My torts professor gave us a very interesting fact pattern. The basics of the case were, two young boys named Israel and Jacob enter an elevator on their way to school. Along the way the elevator malfunctions and the boys are suspended between the 10th and 11th floor. The doors malfunction as well and the doors are opened. The younger boy, Jacob is 5 and he tries to jump from the stuck elevator to the 10th floor below. Jacob jumps and does not “stick the landing“. Unfortunately, he stumbles off the 10th floor and plummeted 10 stories beneath the elevator down the shaft to his death. Israel is eventually rescued.

There were many more legally operative facts in the fact pattern and our professor wanted us to analyze the claims against the building landlord, owner and elevator maintenance company.

It was a pretty shocking case for all of us. When we returned to school after the break our professor told us that the fact pattern was basically a true story with some of the facts changed to make a clearer essay. Immediately I “googled” “Jacob Israel Elevator”. I found the original NY Times article with the tragic story.

Yesterday the Times had another article on the ongoing litigation. Apparently, the defense wants young Israel, who is 10 and traumatized to testify. This is horrible as any memories of the tragedy could alter his psychological well being tremendously. The case is being litigated as you read this.

I told this entire saga to two people I know. They are both very caring and sensitive people. They both had the same reaction and that reaction is what prompted this post.

When I told the story over, both people had serious looks on their faces and clearly empathized with the poor child.

Then I told them, by the way, the little boys were Chasidish children from Williamsburg.

They both had the same second reaction. Their jaws dropped and they exclaimed Oy! That’s terrible! A much harsher reaction reaction than before they knew the boys’ ethnicity.

At first I was disturbed. Do we care more about some poor Chasidish kids from Williamsburg than anyone else? Is this tragedy worse to us because they are Jewish?

Is this a good attitude? Could this bother non-Jews and provoke anti-semitism?

Or, perhaps it is normal for us to care more about our Jewish brethren. Maybe, we should feel more compassion for our fellow Jews. After all, it is a rule of Jewish law that we are responsible for one another.

This has been gnawing at me for a little while now. Should we care more about a Jewish tragedy than a non-Jewish tragedy?

Even if we are allowed to care more about a Jewish tragedy should we try and mask our feelings to be more politically correct?

Aren’t we outraged when non-Jews do not care about Jewish tragedy as much as non-Jewish tragedy?

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15 Responses

  1. Offwinger says:

    I am not “more” shocked and upset to know that these were Jewish boys. The appropriate reaction is to be sad about the tragedy, no matter who the children were.

    It is only inevitable, though, that people react more when they feel “closer” to the tragedy. If you knew the boys or know people who knew them, you react more strongly too.

    The fact that they are Jewish boys doesn’t make me feel MORE connected to them, but if they were boys that I knew or whose families I knew, it would be different.

    Let me ask a different question: Do you play Jewish geography? Do you understand why people even do?

    I think it’s silly, to be honest. You establish you know people in common. Big deal. But Jews are obsessed with figuring out who they know in common & using that as a connection to other people. I’m sure other groups have their own equivalent.

    I don’t think there is a right or wrong in this. We’re biologically wired to care more about ourselves & our kin than strangers. Personally, the concept of areivut does not mean that I need to feel worse because these were Jewish boys, but I don’t fault someone else who does. I think it only crosses the line when people are NOT shocked and outraged at the death of non-Jewish children!

    Our heuristics on these things will never be perfectly rational. We’re also more “outraged” or horrified when a death seems like a greater tragedy, because we can’t make sense of it. People are in car accidents all the time, but not elevator ones. Adults die often, not childen. It disrupts our general sense of the world; thus, it is more shocking and upsetting.

  2. Mark says:

    E. Fink, what kind of question is this? It is basic human nature, not Jewish nature, or anything else, only basic human nature that people care less and less as the circle of acquaintance (there’s a psychological term for this that I can’t recall at the moment) from themselves widens.

    Basically caring goes from higher to lower [very] roughly as follows:

    * Yourself
    * Your children
    * Your spouse
    (the above 3 are often at the same level, perhaps with children at the top)
    * Your extended family
    * Your somewhat wider extended family
    * Your friends
    * Your neighbors/associates that you depend on (or that depend on you)
    * Your other neighbors
    * Your acquaintances
    * Your tribe
    * Your nation
    * Members of other nations you have some affinity to
    * Members of other nations you have alliances with
    * Members of other nations you have common purpose with
    * The rest of the world

    And this goes for everyone in the world.

    • rabbifink says:

      Mark, you are right that your hierarchy is true in reality but is this morally appropriate?

      In other words, what should our reaction be?

      See what Offwinger wrote? He thinks (- this is mere conjecture as I put words in his mouth) you are morally reprehensible for making your nice looking list. He thinks we should react equally to all tragedy.

      This is the question. This is where the moral tension lies. Is it okay to use your list or is it wrong?

  3. Mark says:

    He thinks we should react equally to all tragedy.

    That’s doesn’t accurately represent exactly what he (Offwinger) said above.

    What he said was that it is morally unacceptable (i.e. “crosses the line”) to NOT be shocked and outraged at the death of non-Jewish children. And I agree with this.

    In your example of 2 caring and sensitive people, they were saddened and empathetic (“When I told the story over, both people had serious looks on their faces and clearly empathized with the poor child.”). Then later when you told them that these were Jewish children, they become even more saddened and empathetic (“Their jaws dropped and they exclaimed Oy! That’s terrible!”).

    • rabbifink says:

      Consider this –

      Is the following statement true / false / neither?:

      “There is no moral obligation to feel compassion for your own child more that another’s child”.

      That is the food for thought here.

      I am not stating that this is my opinion but I think it is certainly worth thinking about…

      • Mark says:

        It’s false (and not stated properly). There IS a moral obligation to care for your child. And there is less of a moral obligation to care for another child.

        • rabbifink says:

          I said nothing about caring for your child. There is a financial responsibility that comes with bearing a child.

          My question is: do you have a moral obligation to FEEL compassion for your own child more than another child?

          • Mark says:

            Part of caring for ones child is compassion. Other parts include feeding, love, educating, teaching them to swim, etc… Caring is a big package and lasts a long time.

  4. Joanne says:

    I agree with Offwinger. We would automatically feel compassion for the child Jacob who fell to his death, but could feel it more when we heard he was from a Chassidic community. We could picture it as possibly happening to someone we knew or could relate better to the Jewish child. We feel a responsibility for the whole Jewish community before the rest of the world. Just human Jewish nature…

  5. Rabbi –

    Sounds like the apocryphal story of the Rav who went on self imposed Golus (exile). Upon his return to town, he heard one of the townspeople saying “Yankel is very sick.” Thinking it was “his” Yankel, he gasped. Upon finding out that it was another Yankel, he momentarily breathed a sigh of relief. He then chastised himself for feeling relief that it was another Yankel that was sick… and promptly turned around and went back to exile without even stopping off at home, saying “I guess I’m not ready….”

    Frankly, while its a nice story, I always took it with a grain of salt….

    L’choira iz pashut… Mibsorcha al Tisaleim… V’ahavta L’reacha Komacha… V’hisalamta… Lo Samod Al Dam Re’acha… Vchulu, Vhculu…

    Uber der internet iz a r’shus harabim und l’choira dus iz nisht fahr rehdin bemakom she’umos haolam yecholim likro…..

  6. Chaim Gross says:

    ul tikri halichot ella halachot.
    Without recognizing the immutable laws of nature, of social psychology that reflects who we are we set up unrealistic moral expectation. Our nature is to protect our closest, our children and extended families first. Morals are the highest expression of our feelings that are feelings, reflect physiologicaly and bias what we think is logical judgement.

    Discussion of what we call morality without the honesty of our inborn tendencies, or how we are hard wired leads to a dishonest morality outside of humanity separated from human experience.

    Of course this is a tragedy for every party involved; if it was Palestinian children or Israeli children that died of an equal tragedy would ones gradation of emotional distress be any different? Who is honest enough to recognise the difference between an idealised morality and every day reality, our humanity is also a moral imperative.

    Family,biologicalconnection,prejudice choices despite this fact we all share our humanity and feel pain at death of innocents.

  7. […] last week I blogged about a tragedy that happened to one of our “closer relatives”. I think a lot of us felt strongly about the issue raised then because we innately feel […]

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