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Rabbi offers counsel on ethics, forgiveness
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Rabbi offers counsel on ethics, forgiveness

Joseph Telushkin says religion is not only about ritual precision

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, speaking at Congregation Beth El on Oct. 26, said, “The primary demand of religion must be to bring about ethical behavior.”    
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, speaking at Congregation Beth El on Oct. 26, said, “The primary demand of religion must be to bring about ethical behavior.”    

Speaking in South Orange, Orthodox rabbi and author Joseph Telushkin endorsed the often controversial notion that ethics must be considered when Jews decide what should and shouldn’t be eaten.

Although he stopped short of saying ethics ought to inform standards of kashrut, he did give an example of a butchering practice some Jewish groups have called a violation of tza’ar ba’alei chaim, the mitzva mandating the ethical treatment of animals.

“Veal should not be eaten even if its slaughter is carried out as painlessly as possible,” he said. “Kosher slaughter does not justify the pain it endured beforehand.”

Telushkin, best known as the author of Jewish Literacy, spoke Oct. 26 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange. He delivered the inaugural Rabbi Jehiel Orenstein Memorial Lecture, honoring the religious leader who served Beth El for 35 years and died in May 2013. More than 200 people attended the talk.

Telushkin is also author of the two-volume A Code of Jewish Ethics. He expressed dismay that “religious” has come to be associated with observance of specific religious rituals rather than with ethical conduct. 

“If you see two Jews discussing a third and they ask if so-and-so is religious, the only criterion they will use is ritual observance,” he said, adding, “It leaves the peculiar impression that ethics is extracurricular.” 

“Belief in God is not enough to make people good,” Telushkin said later. “The primary demand of religion must be to bring about ethical behavior.”

In 2011, a Conservative rabbi in Minnesota founded Magen Tzedek, which provides a stamp of approval for foods found to be produced using ethical practices. Although meant only to supplement kosher certification, which focuses primarily on ingredients and methods of slaughter and manufacture, Magen Tzedek did not catch on widely. Uri L’Tzedek, an Orthodox social justice organization, promotes workers’ rights in kosher restaurants and industries. 

Telushkin also discussed forgiveness, a particularly poignant topic for this audience, which included many who had left the congregation in a rift several years ago and had not been back since. 

“There are times when forgiveness is required, there are times when forgiveness is optional, and there are times when forgiveness is forbidden,” he said. 

The formula, as he laid it out, turns out to be simple to understand, if not to follow. 

“Forgiveness is required when there is particular damage caused that is not irrevocable and the person who caused it asks for forgiveness,” he said. “Let’s say you are still angry. You still have to forgive, but you may have to struggle with yourself to do so.” 

In that case, he added, the other person has to ask three times for forgiveness on three different occasions. But if you do not forgive the person after three requests, “you are considered to be acting in a cruel manner.”

Forgiveness is not required if the person does not ask for it, or if irrevocable damage is caused, he said. “The example given in the Talmud is if someone slanders your good name,” he said.

However, even in these cases, he suggested it is usually best to forgive. He mentioned the case of a divorcee, terribly wronged by her former husband, who let her anger burn for 10 years. “You’re holding onto a burning hot coal that you want to throw at your husband. But all you’ve done is burn a hole in your hand,” he said.

Finally, you cannot forgive something done to someone else, he said. He offered the example of certain clergy asking people to forgive others who commit heinous crimes of various sorts. “I’m not sure why [they] are asking for forgiveness,” he said.

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