Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Chilul HaShem of Doing a Mitzvah Illegally

One of my pet peeves is the way Shaimos is treated today. It has now resulted in yet another Chilul HaShem.

Shaimos is the Hebrew word for names and specifically refers to the names of God. The Torah prohibits us from erasing or in any way destroying the names of God written in Hebrew. The Gemarah in Shavuos (35a-b) discusses which specific names are considered the names of God such as Yud Keh Vav Keh, Elokah, and a few others that are very familiar to Orthodox Jews.

There are some references to God that are not considered Shaimos such as HaKadosh Baruch Hu. These are not technically forbidden from erasure.

There is voluminous discussion and disagreement among Poskim about what else constitutes Shaimos. But one thing is certain - anything that contains one of the specific names of God must not be erased or destroyed. The Halacha dictates that it must be buried. This is what is meant by Shaimos today. It is material with God’s name printed or written on it ready for proper disposal via burial.

Because the details of this Halacha are not that familiar to most of us - it has become customary to treat all religious literature as Shaimos which increases the volume. That is an erroneous approach. One should ask a competent Posek about whether something they own constitutes Shaimos. But by far the biggest contributing factor that has caused a virtual explosion of Shaimos is the ease of copying and printing today. For example it is not unusual to find multiple copies of the weekly Torah portion - the Parshas HaShavuah printed on a few sheets of paper, stapled together, and distributed to a Shul for a Bar Mitzvah. It is used only that one time and then put into Shaimos to be disposed of properly. Which means burying it.

The incidence of such practices keeps increasing as the religious population grows. Copying passages from the Torah which contain the names of God has become so widespread that it poses a real problem. The volume of Shaimos today is enormous! I think this practice is wrong and ought to be stopped - precisely because of the problems this massive new volume creates.

In the not so distant past, Shuls had Shaimos boxes. Those boxes would fill up at a modest pace and once a year usually before Pesach they would dispose of it by burying it indiscreetly somewhere. I am now seeing signs telling members not to bring Shaimos to the Shul anymore because they simply cannot handle the volume. People are being told to store it at home until there is a community wide drive to collect it and bury it.

Where do we bury so much Shaimos? Is it legal to bury it anywhere? The answer is no. Hopefully community organizations like Agudah and the CRC – two of the organizations that do it here in Chicago – have permits from the appropriate authorities to bury it where they do. Unfortunately this is not the case in Lakewood.

Here is a quote from an editorial about it in the Asbury Park Press - the local newspaper of the city of Lakewood:

Thousands of trash bags filled with religious artifacts that were illegally dumped in a 100-by-150-foot hole in a wooded area in Lakewood caused a justifiable stink among residents last week.

Why is it so difficult for the religious establishment of Lakewood the city which houses the premier Charedi Yeshiva in the United States to follow the law? Why must they skirt it? Why create yet another Chilul HaShem in the Torah world? It cannot be the will of God to skirt the law of the land even – and perhaps especially - when they are performing a Mitzvah. Do these Rabbanim and Roshei Yeshiva hold that it is permitted to skirt the law that way?

I cannot answer for them. But this event seems indicative of the overall problem this community has with certain laws. Apparently they do not look at the letter of the law on what they consider minor issues. They therefore didn’t bother to find out what the law is - thinking that the government doesn’t really care.

It’s kind of the same thinking - on a smaller scale - that other Charedim had when they committed financial crimes. They saw those crimes as beneficial to themselves - or their causes - and harmless to anyone else. They too thought that the government didn’t really care. Certainly not enough to pursue and prosecute. Lakewood religious leaders who are responsible for Shaimos projects may have noticed other people using a landfill for all kinds of private disposal and thought what harm can a ‘few’ bags of paper do to the environment? Nobody will care.

But they are wrong. When is that community going to learn that they should never operate under assumptions that nobody will care so they can do what they want?! …that they will never be prosecuted for breaking the law because they don’t think it is a big deal?! Obviously as one can see form the picture above– it is a big deal. The neighbors don’t like it. And I don’t blame them a bit.

I await a public response from Lakewood community leaders for this new Chilul HaShem ( if we needed one added to our ‘Chilul HaShem resume’). Perhaps they can explain what happened and why it should not be seen that way. I doubt it but… we’ll see.

Updated: 3:40 PM - CDT - My apologies to anyone offended by the original post which was in error.