Refinement

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A reader took me to task for referring to spitters and bodily-assaulters as “unspeakable primitives.” He saw the word primitive in the sense of old, pre-modern, and rightly argued that having derech eretz has nothing to do with modernity.

He was quite right, of course, although what I meant by primitive is untouched by refinement. Refinements are added on and shape the earlier, more basic forms. I will stand behind the assertion that there are people in our midst who are untouched by the refinements we have the right to expect from enlightened humans, and especially Torah Jews whose lives are supposed to be shaped by the consciousness of the Divine.

But is this really so? Is there any innate value to “refinement,” or are such graces simply the accoutrements of snobbery and pretentiousness? Are the refinements of etiquette an externally oriented veneer covering up for a black hole where real substance belongs?

A dear talmid (who left LA today to make aliyah) gave a weekly halacha shiur in the shul in which I daven, often covering off-the-beaten-track topics. A Harvard Law grad, he brought meticulousness in research to his shiur. At some point, he got around to dealing with what we generally call “manners.” He often checked his results with Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a. He asked him whether there was any reason to eat with a fork and knife, rather than with one’s fingers (as the amora’im clearly did). Rav Schachter replied that the best halachic makor in favor of cutlery was the admonition not to deviate from the general custom! One who lives among people who use cutlery should use cutlery; one who does not, need not.

I would offer some non-halachic sources to argue that what we call “refinement” has intrinsic value. Chazal tell us that the “two nations/ goyim” that Rivka was told she carried in her pregnancy can be read “two important personages/ gai’im.” Furthermore, this alludes to Rebbi and his friend/ patron Antoninus (Marcus Aurelius Antonius?), from whose table neither radishes nor lettuce were absent.

Maharal (in Gur Aryeh) explains that Chazal do not mean these two individuals, but the nations they represent. We have more in common with the Roman (i.e.Western?) world of Esav’s descendents than we want to admit. Common to both of our societies, he says, is that we appreciate and take pride in what it means to be human. Some societies, he says, “eat their food like animals.” Yisrael and Esav alike are different. They eat special foods, and dress in a manner that brings honor to them – unlike Yishmael, that is not given to these niceties. Maharal seems to make oblique reference to the gemara (beginning of Avodah Zarah) that sees Roman society as stuck on the pleasure principle. Nonetheless, he finds some good in that it recognized the specialness of human beings.

There may be nothing terribly wrong with eating with one’s fingers, but whoever invented cutlery perhaps deserves came up with a good thing. Keeping one’s shirt tucked in may not be a bad idea either.

A famous letter of R Yerucham Levovitz zt”l castigates a talmid for sending him a letter that seemed to have been written hastily and carelessly. R. Yerucham argues that the halachic requirement of “Zeh Keili v’anveihu”/ embellishing and adorning mitzvos applies to interpersonal mitzvos as well. In writing a letter, he says, this requirement calls on the writer to find good paper, to write neatly, and to choose words carefully, all of which will enhance the experience of the recipient.

If niceties like these should be part of the Torah personality, it goes without saying that a frum person, even in the heat of passion, should be incapable of spitting at someone. I recall from my early yeshiva days a wonderful vignette concerning R. Gavriel Ginsburg, z”l, a Telsher who later became Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel Toronto before his untimely petirah. At the time, he was a high school principal in the same building that housed the bais medrash in which I learned. Some of the high school students had attracted the attention of some rabble at a large public school. One thing led to another, and soon busloads of the riffraff stood across the street from the yeshiva building. The administration tried valiantly to keep all the talmidim inside and avoid a battle, but its efforts failed.

That proved to be more of a problem for the visitors than the home team. They hadn’t reckoned on the presence of the bais medrash students. Someone rushed into the bais medrash, and signaled that the yeshiva was under attack. People rushed out, and before long, one of the starting lineup on the other team had a fractured skull, compliments of someone whom I will not name who is now a rosh yeshiva in Israel.

The guests decided to make an unscheduled departure, but some of us were in hot pursuit of the ringleaders. Realizing that the tide had turned, they sought refuge by running to a nearby church. Apparently not regular churchgoers, they didn’t realize that the main front doors would be locked during the week. They wound up pinned against those doors as a superior force of G-d’s Warriors had them surrounded.

The crowed split, as Rav Ginsburg walked, not ran, up the steps of the church. He was not a happy camper, and bursting with anger. Cheek to jowl, he subjected one of the perpetrators to the full measure of his contempt. Shaking with rage, he began to scream at him. We wondered what epithets he would hurl, what expletives were in his vocabulary.

“You…you…HOODLUM!” The heavens shook from this chastisement, but Rav Ginsburg was not capable of letting anything stronger cross his lips. He was far too refined. When the police arrived, “hoodlum” was the worst word that the perpetrator had heard. For him, it was probably a compliment.

The incident is seared in my memory. It taught me a good deal about refinement, about how the behavior of a talmid chacham – even under stress – changes as a result of his Torah.

It never occurred to him to spit.

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31 Responses

  1. Doron Beckerman says:

    Sefer V’aleihu Lo Yibbol, vol. 2, page 49-50

    Q. – Is there importance to the idea that a person should have a clear, organized handwriting, or is the main thing that he be a Talmid Chacham and learn Torah, and it doesn’t matter what his handwriting looks like?

    A. – You don’t need a source for the idea that you have to write in an organized way. This relates to Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah. It is akin to not needing a source in Chazal to explain to a person how to get dressed…

  2. dovid says:

    Comment by S.: “Who are you or I to tell them how to protest and vent their anger using mine and your cultural perception of what is refined?”

    This is called cultural relativism, a post-modern and very non-Jewish concept,that inevitably leads to moral relativism that justifies everything. Rabbi Adlerstein’s concise, no-frills comment that spitting at someone is an actionable tort based on Choshen Mishpat (as is hitting someone, or other comparable actions) is the answer. Every individual is obligated to abstain from spitting or hitting even when getting upset.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by mb — July 16, 2009 @ 1:56 pm :

    The items you listed relate less to good manners than to group self-identification.

  4. mb says:

    “I daresay that such obsessive over-refinement is not an appropriate endeavor for a Ben or Bas Torah. There are far more important things to spend one’s time working on than whether one is using the proper shaped spoon for the soup.

    Comment by Tal Benschar — July 15, 2009 @ 7:57 pm ”

    Right on! Where shall we start? The correct coloured Shabbat tablecloth? Shirt? Style of hat? Etc.Etc.

  5. Bob Miller says:

    Tal Benschar wrote,

    “I daresay that such obsessive over-refinement is not an appropriate endeavor for a Ben or Bas Torah. There are far more important things to spend one’s time working on than whether one is using the proper shaped spoon for the soup.”

    Such obsession is rare, and rightly so. Unfortunately, boorishness is less rare.

  6. Tal Benschar says:

    There’s a whole disturbing line of thought out there that we’re too elevated as Jews to bother about good manners, performing our obligations as citizens, and so on. This comes, not from halachic sources, but from some people’s laziness and arrogance—the opposite of the virtues a Jew should have

    To some extent, this is a matter of degree. Certainly one has to act with basic menschlichkeit to function in society, no matter how religiously elevated one is. But like anything else, societal customs can become an unhealthy obsession onto themselves.

    I remember reading somewhere how in Victorian times (and even into the 20th century) there were very rigid rules about table manners. For instance, there were two kinds of soup spoons — rounded spoons for creamy soups, and oval-shaped spoons for brothy soups. Putting out the wrong type of spoon for the wrong type of soup was considered a major social gaffe.

    I daresay that such obsessive over-refinement is not an appropriate endeavor for a Ben or Bas Torah. There are far more important things to spend one’s time working on than whether one is using the proper shaped spoon for the soup.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    There’s a whole disturbing line of thought out there that we’re too elevated as Jews to bother about good manners, performing our obligations as citizens, and so on. This comes, not from halachic sources, but from some people’s laziness and arrogance—the opposite of the virtues a Jew should have.

  8. Yitz Turner says:

    Re: 13
    The Brisker approach would be… if it is a halachic requierment to eat with utensils vs standard custom what would be the halacha of eating pizza or a sandwhich:)

  9. Shunamit says:

    tsippi–Sorry, the Albert Einstein reference goes back to an old Sam Levenson routine that has become an in-joke with us. Levenson (a stand-up comic from the 50s and 60s and the author of the wonderful “Everything But Money”) frequently discussed the views, values, and life of his family growing up on the Lower East Side. His parents were accustomed to compare their children’s misadventures with what they assumed to have been the behavior of various paragons of virtue, e.g. “Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was your age?” (“I knew what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was Papa’s age, but knew better than to say.”)

    All of which is my roundabout way of saying that OF COURSE one ought to behave like a mensch, OF COURSE one ought not make one’s self vile, and that there was a time when this was not even called into question regarding behavior such as spitting on others. Only a truly misguided and confused generation such as our own could assume otherwise.

    As regards the Nazis (!) as exemplars of etiquette and social refinement, may I refer to the statement of Hermann Goering, y”sh, “When I hear the word ‘culture’, I reach for my revolver”. Again, only in a generation without bearings would such a question arise.

    As far as just spitting, not on other people, but even in more socially sanctioned contexts, Rabbi Berel Wein has claimed that the spittoons in the old Douglas Street synagogue in Chicago did more than anything to promote the Conservative movement. That is, spitting (into a vessel provided for such, and not on others) in shul, while acceptable to the old world parents was such an indignity and embarassment to their American offspring that the latter conflated social custom with religious truth. Rabbi Wein holds very strongly, by the way, that not getting rid of the spittoons was a mistake.

    Derech eretz most certainly does precede Torah, especially when, as in the case of spitting on fellow human beings as described in the article, there is little doubt of the intent. You have to ASK about this? I’m just glad Mama Levenson isn’t around to see it.

  10. Chaim Wolfson says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    That’s a great story with Rav Gavriel Ginsburg. But I think you are selling him a little short when you write, “but Rav Ginsburg was not capable of letting anything stronger cross his lips. He was far too refined.” What I know of Rav Ginsburg leads me to believe that not only was he not capable of SAYING anything stronger, he was not capable of THINKING it either. That is a truer measure of refinement.

    A question for Rabbi Adlerstein: To what do you attribute Rav Ginsburg’s refinement?

    [YA – Good question. I can only speculate. I see three factors:
    1) He took mussar very seriously (Briefly, the best place to find refinement is through Torah learning, simply by taking all the messages to heart. I believe – as did R Yisroel Salanter – that most people simply don’t do that anymore. They need a boost from a special protocol of Torah study focused specifically on midos, etc., or an ongoing relationship with rabbeim who serve as walking mussar seforim. For people who have neither, refinement can be found by imitating the better parts of some non-Torah societies while staying away from the kelipah. Unfortunately, some Jews remain untouched by all three of these methods.) 2) He had a relationship with rabbeim who were the genuine article. He saw enough greatness to both want it, and know what it was about 3) He was passionate about Yiddishkeit. When he learned something, he internalized it with great focus and fervor]

  11. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    Spitting at someone is an actionable tort. See Choshen Mishpat 420:38

    Comment by Yitzchok Adlerstein — July 14, 2009 @ 11:38 pm
    ________________________________________________________________________

    At the outset, let me make it clear that this post is purely theoretical. I do not in any way condone spitting at people or rioting. Rabbi Adlerstein demonstrates that as a matter of Jewish civil law, spitting at someone is a tort actionable at law. Based on his article, I assume he relies on the section of the Shulchan Arukh to bolster his argument (which ought to be self evident from the ethical POV), that spitting on someone is demonstrative of a person’s lack of refinement and crassness. Since this act is proscribed in the body of literature that covers the laws of Shabbat, Yom Tov and kashrut (i.e. non-civil but rather “religious” laws), R. Adlerstein seems to draw a religious conclusion about spitting, that doing so renders one deficient from a Jewish religious perspective and not just stam a tortfeasor.

    Reducing the issue down to a legal principle, invites the legal responses of “eit la’asot laHashem heifeiru Toratecha” or other variants of a justification defense that might be advanced by one who spits in a demonstration of his religious indignation. I therefore think the religious point R. Adlerstein makes needs to be elaborated. Why is it that what are clearly civil rabbinic enactments (the Torah does not prohibit spitting) and their violation speak to religious integrity of the actor? R. Moshe Feinstein famously said that a boy in yeshiva can learn the ins and outs of the Jewish legal principle that “Adam muad le-Olam” that a person is always liable for his acts, and then cry “It’s not my fault, it was an accident” when he un-intentionally breaks his friends possession. As a matter of Jewish law, there is no exemption for the unintentional breakage. Why is it that learning “shnayim ochazin b’tallit” makes us better Jews from the vantage point of religion? How can it be that expertise in shor shenogach es hapara has a qualitative effect on our Shabbat observance? Why does having learned the sugya of takfa kohein enhance my davening on Yom Kippur? And yet mysteriously that is what happens. I think that the extremeist chareidim fail to grasp the point.

  12. Raymond says:

    Tzippi, if you are reading this, I am also at a loss to explain why you were attacked for your very reasonable statement. Maybe that person sees something that neither you or I see.

    To Yonatan Goldson, thank you for that little anecdote by Rabbi Twerski. I used to love to read his many books. They are so accessible, so humane, so appealing to common sense, so sensitive to the nature of human beings. I probably should go back and re-read some of the many books he has written.

  13. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    Who are you to say that the community in question does not see spitting as a valid and understandable expression of anger directed at threatening outsiders?
    Spitting at someone is an actionable tort. See Choshen Mishpat 420:38

  14. Yonason Goldson says:

    Rav Avrohom Twersky writes that when his father was provoked to such fury that he was no longer able contain himself, he would utter the most vitriolic curse he could articulate:

    “May he have soft bread and cold butter!”

  15. tzippi says:

    Shunamit, I’m not sure of your point. Mine was that if we judge a person’s civility based on etiquette, we may make some egregious errors. The Nazis were quite the cultured bunch. (And while I hope I’ve explained that I don’t equate the two, to answer your question, I have no idea how much people know in the olam ha’emes.)

    And it is entirely possible the original baby Einstein did stuff newspaper in the toilet. (Did I miss something as far as this newspaper in the toilet reference?)

  16. L. Oberstein says:

    would anyone care to explain why people in Meah Shearim rioted and threw rocks and injured a man trying to move a burning garbage can? Is it anti semitism to arrest a mother who suffers from Munchausens By Proxy and nearly starved her child to death. She has two other children and is 5 months pregnant. Does anyone in Meah Shearim think that the child should have been allowed to die from abuse and starvation? Are the rabbis in Meah Shearim also powerless, why can’t they stop this behavior, not just say it isn’t nice but actually do something concrete to stop it.

  17. S. says:

    >A dear talmid (who left LA today to make aliyah) gave a weekly halacha shiur in the shul in which I daven, often covering off-the-beaten-track topics. A Harvard Law grad, he brought meticulousness in research to his shiur. At some point, he got around to dealing with what we generally call “manners.” He often checked his results with Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a. He asked him whether there was any reason to eat with a fork and knife, rather than with one’s fingers (as the amora’im clearly did). Rav Schachter replied that the best halachic makor in favor of cutlery was the admonition not to deviate from the general custom! One who lives among people who use cutlery should use cutlery; one who does not, need not.

    I think this anecdote kind of undermines the point. It basically says that societies have their own customs and niceties. I don’t think we can tolerate a cultural quirk which permits physical assault as a valid expression of anger, but who are you to say that the community in question does not see spitting as a valid and understandable expression of anger directed at threatening outsiders? I admit that I do not know this to be the case, but consider, we know that in various Chassidishe communities it is considered perfectly acceptable to eat without utensils, at least at a tish. R. Schachter’s explanation appears to exclude them from the quasi-halachic obligation to use utensils; for that is their custom.

    Who are you or I to tell them how to protest and vent their anger using mine and your cultural perception of what is refined?

    As for the R. Schachter’s answer, I wish he had responded that if his questioner was interested in emulating the customs of the Amoraim, why didn’t he go out and invite all who are hungry to join him in all his meals, as was the practice of Rav Huna (Taanis 20b), before he considers eating with his hands, as did the Amoraim.

  18. Daniel B. Schwartz says:

    I’ve mentioned in other topics, that what has evolved into yeshivish dress was originally an attempt of the Alter of Slabodka to teach his students bourgoise social graces. Thus he had them dress in the business attire of the day. At the same time, I recall once reading, in Alan Nadler’s notorious article about kugel, that among admorim, eating kugel with anything other than one’s hands was frowned upon.

  19. Garnel Ironheart says:

    > He often checked his results with Rav Hershel Schachter, shlit”a. He asked him whether there was any reason to eat with a fork and knife, rather than with one’s fingers

    This is a clear example of how Torah Judaism has veered into a morass of foolishness. Any peasant will use a fork and knife. After all, he’s not an animal. But the talmid chacham has to ask?

    [YA – Not at all. He wouldn’t think of not using them, nor would anyone in the shiur. Everyone in his crowd is at home with behavior that is obligated by sechel and neemus. He called R Schachter to learn if neemus is also subsumed in a formal halachic category with a name. That was important merely as an academic exercise – but could also ratchet up the level of obligation, and narrow the times in which we would make exceptions.]

  20. observer says:

    The question of eating with cutlery or with one’s fingers would seem to be a debate in the gemara itself. See Nedarim 49b.

  21. Milhouse says:

    ואביה ירוק ירק בפניה הלא תכלם שבעת ימים

  22. Garnel Ironheart says:

    Derech Eretz preceded the Torah, didn’t it?

  23. joel rich says:

    R’JW,
    and that tziruf (refinement) is defined by what parameters(e.g. if eating with utensils is refined, is it possible that chazal didn’t? if it only later became refined, who defined it?)
    KT

  24. Shunamit says:

    “My gut reaction is to agree, and yet, bring up the refinement of German Nazis.–tzippi”

    A very nice analogy, tzippi. Does your mother know you equate table manners with the Nazis? Does Albert Einstein throw newspaper in his mother’s toilet bowl?

  25. Raymond says:

    For whatever my opinion is worth, I think that good manners are a necessary, but not sufficient, part of being a civilized human being. The nazis may have come from a highly refined society, but they forgot that true goodness is even more important than manners. Still, it is good to have both. Certainly, that Rabbi Ginsburg in the story is worthy of praise for controlling his language, even during such stressful moments in time.

    Having said that, I do feel on a personal level that sometimes things are so formal in my local religious Jewish community, that I feel stifled, symbolically gasping for breath. Despite all of the arguments I have heard (mostly coming from Rebbetzins, I have noticed), I think, for example, that the dress code in shul is just too much for my more casual, Southern California personality. As much as I enjoy interacting with nice, traditional, religious Jews, there is just so much of it I can take before I long to be home, where I can relax and truly be myself.

  26. josh werblowsky says:

    Of course all are aware of Chazal,Breishis Raba,-44:1 ‘lo natnu hamitzvot ela letzaref bahen es habrios.’ But it appears the mitzvot need to be internalized to effect the refinement.

  27. Zvi says:

    “We have more in common with the Roman (i.e.Western?) world of Esav’s descendents than we want to admit. Common to both of our societies, he says, is that we appreciate and take pride in what it means to be human.”

    I once heard Rabbi Beryl Wein say that the scraps from our table became the centerpiece of Western civilization.

    I believe this puts things in perspective.

  28. Rafael Araujo says:

    HaRav Ginsberg zt”l was my Rosh HaYeshiveh and shadchan. I, and the Jewish community of Toronto miss him dearly. He was a very special Adom Gadol.

  29. tzippi says:

    My gut reaction is to agree, and yet, bring up the refinement of German Nazis (you may have been wondering how long that one would take, yes?).

    Also, I had the opportunity to read an amazing book, Dual Discovery, about life at the end of the Egyptian exile. A fascinating medrash mentioned was that the slaves had poor table manners, not having time to eat, as opposed to the free Levites. Makes me think of my grandfather, who grew up in poverty and couldn’t graduate high school, and grew up in a harried atmosphere, who might not have always known which fork to use (though he implored us not to slurp our soup) but had such inner refinement that I can’t imagine him spitting on someone, cavalierly if at all.

  30. mb says:

    As that epitome of Torah refinement, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, would say, cousins we may be, brothers we are not.

  31. joel rich says:

    R’YA,
    “There may be nothing terribly wrong with eating with one’s fingers, but whoever invented cutlery perhaps deserves came up with a good thing. ”
    How would acceptance of such an innovation, which likely started outside the Jewish community, be reconciled with those that hold the theory that the Torah World is self sufficient and the unique source of all knowledge/definition of life?

    KT