Gambling

While buying the odd lotto ticket is innocent enough, it is fair to say that Jewish ethics has a problem with betting, and in particular Jewish law objects to serious gambling. A committed gambler aims to make a living in a totally non-productive manner, contributing nothing useful to society. Jewish law (Talmud, Sanhedrin 24b) regards such a person to be an idle layabout and is unqualified to give testimony in court.

The odds of gambling are often so low as to be virtually non-existent. Gambling has been called a tax on people who dont understand statistics. Fran Lebowitz summed it up well: "I figure you have the same chance of winning the lottery whether you play or not." Gambling is a fools paradise. The problem is that serious gambling can lead to financial ruin, family breakdown and criminality. As a prison chaplain, I regularly met otherwise successful people reduced to crime due to gambling. Gambling capitalises on human weakness. How many people go into a casino and spend less than they intended to? Gambling sows profound misery on the many occasions that it is misused. For every person who has made wealth from gambling dozens have lost the shirt off their back. Were it not for its compulsive nature, who would want to invest in such activity? Some rabbis considered gambling inherently dishonest, as the one from whom the money is extracted surrenders his money unwillingly. The great medieval Jewish philosopher and legalist, Maimonides, rules: "Playing with wood or bundles or bones and such things and making an agreement that whoever wins the game will take a particular amount from the other; That, indeed, is theft according to the rabbis even though it is by consent, since one takes the money of another for nothing. Similarly, anyone who plays with animals or birds and makes an agreement that the one whose animal wins or runs faster will take a certain amount from the other, all such things are forbidden and are considered theft according to them." To this view, if you win, youre a thief, and if you lose, youre wasting your time. By contrast to a business risk, which is calculated and rational, gambling is where hope and fantasy trumps reason. Gambling is pot-luck.

It involves the suspension of rationality in favour of happenchance. Whether you win or lose, succeed or fail has nothing to do with any logical consideration, but to do with the way the die or ball falls on that particular evening. To the extent that you have gambled, you have left your destiny to accident. Successful people take risks; they generally dont gamble. Inherent in gambling is the rejection of responsibility for ones own fate in favour of chance. Data on the habit of wealthy people shows that they value risk taking while they tend to avoid gambling. In The Millionaire Mind, a study of lifestyles of the wealthy, Thomas J. Stanley writes: "Of the thirty lifestyle activities listed one stands out as having the most significant inverse relationship with net worth - playing the lottery. The higher a persons net worth the less likely he is to ever play the lottery." Risk takers are not likely to be gamblers. When you take a risk you are working on the balance of probability; you know the odds and make an intelligent decision. On a cost-benefit analysis, gambling is mathematically absurd. Personal success is built on feelings of self-efficacy and empowerment. The act of gambling involves a loss of self-control and those caught up in it suffer disempowerment.

 
Gossip

Thankfully, we who live in democratic countries enjoy free speech, allowing us to express our thoughts and views as we see fit. However, being able to say something doesnt make it appropriate. The fact that what you wish to say is legal on your country does not make it ethical to do so. Often the things we say are hurtful to others or cause them damage, and we need to first ask whether we have the right to cause them this hurt or damage. Typically, the answer is in the negative. Jewish values assert that where that our words are against the interest of others we need a specific justification for saying them, as opposed to speaking as we wish unless we have an express reason not to.

The Bible repeatedly emphasises the importance of choosing ones words well. Psalms (34:13) advises, "Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile". Proverbs (18:21) says, "Death and life are in the power of the tongue," and tells us (13:3) that "He who guards his mouth preserves his life." Such is the concern of Judaism about misuse of speech that of the 43 sins enumerated in the confession recited on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, 11 are sins committed through words. The Talmud tells that the tongue is a potentially destructive instrument that is therefore stationed behind two protective walls, the mouth and teeth, to prevent its misuse. An important work on the laws of speech, Chafetz Chaim, lists 31 (!) biblical commandments that may be violated when a person speaks or listens to gossip. The central prohibition against unethical speech is Leviticus 19:16 "do not go about as a talebearer among your people." In Jewish teaching this applies to any derogatory communication about another or one likely to turn people against one another. The gravest of these sins of tale-bearing is lashon ha-ra (literally, "the evil tongue"), which involves discrediting a person or saying negative things about a person, even if those negative things are true.

Indeed, true statements are even more damaging than false ones, because you cant defend yourself by disproving it. Moreover, gossip is inappropriate according to Jewish ethics even if the gossip is true, is not negative, and does not hurt anyone. The person who listens to gossip is even worse than the person who tells it, because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it (Talmud, Arachin 15b). Wronging a person with words, the Talmud states (Baba Metzia 85b), is a worse offence than theft, as you can return a stolen object but never truly take back your words. A man who circulated malicious gossip felt remorse and went to his rabbi to make amends. The rabbi told the man, "Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers and return here." Having done so, the man returned to the rabbi. "Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers." Speech has been compared to an arrow, that once released cannot be recalled.

Tale-bearing is not gossip, however, when it serve a legitimate and constructive purpose. For example, it is mandatory to provide testimony in a court of law or to reveal information that may protect a person from immediate, serious harm. Similarly, to protect someone from entering a potentially damaging personal or business relationship, it is often legitimate to reveal relevant information. Jewish thinkers have argues that the motivation for malicious gossip is intolerance of others. Sixteenth century Rabbe Lowe of Prague, known as the Maharal, stems from an unwillingness to accept that people are different. Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch explains that negative thoughts about others is a form of baseless hatred that emanates from self-centredness, a refusal to accept others as they are.

 
Grandparents

The issue of the role of grandparents present a uniquely contemporary challenge. As family dislocation continues apace, grandparents become increasingly marginalised. With the geographic dispersal of families, grandparents often find themselves physically remote from their grandchildren. Moreover as the generation gap widens, grandparents may find it difficult to communicate with their childrens children.

However, grandparents can play a role that is more important than ever. At a time when we hear the oft lament of poor parenting, grandparents can provide positive role models and guidance to their younger family members. When parents are strained by demanding careers, grandparent can fill the emotional gap in childrens lives. In an age of rapid social and cultural change, older family members offer a degree of stability and continuity. It has been noted that humans are the only species known to maintain a relationship with their childrens children. Being a grandparent is a uniquely human relationship, a special mechanism for passing shared values and common hopes from generation to generation. It is told that one rabbi would greet a new grandfather with the words, "Congratulations, you are now a human." He explained that in the animal world a grandfather has no affinity with his grandchild and would fight and kill it without compunction. Only human grandparents display an extended concern for more than a single generation removed.

The biblical book of Proverbs states (17:6) "Grandchildren are the crown of the aged" and that (13:22) "A good man leaves an inheritance for his childrens children." In the Jewish tradition, the bubbe (grandmother) and zeide (grandfather) were cherished figures, typically held aloft as representing all that is best in generations past. Indeed we find in the Bible (Psalms 103:17; Proverbs 13:22) regular mention of childrens children, this unique interest in the generations to come. The Midrash (Genesis Rabba 63:2) states that Abraham was saved in merit of his grandson Jacob. The knowledge that Abraham would "instruct his children and household after him" (Genesis 18:19) in the way of the Lord so that there would continuity for generations is what secured him salvation.

This was the role of the father of the ethical monotheism and it remains the role of grandparents to this day. Grandparents have a role that goes beyond being a particularly convenient babysitting service. They usually have much to offer their families, providing a link in the religious and cultural tradition and a resource of wisdom born of life-experience. Grandparents should wherever possible be included in family activities, invited to join in the activities of their grandchildren. Grandchildren can gain hugely from reading stories with their elder family members, and hearing the often fascinating answers to questions that begin with the words, "Nana, what was it like when?

 
Gratitude

There are few human instincts are stronger that taking things for granted. For example, we hardly give a moments thought to the gift of clean water on demand, because we have become accustomed to it. We can hardly imagine another way of life. This is a shame, because these blessings cease to make us happy the moment we stop appreciating them. Worse, we can start to take for granted all the many forms of assistance we are given, starting with our spouses, parents, children, and work colleagues.

The Bible (Deuteronomy 15:14) demands that we give gifts to departing employees, which Rabbi Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona and Maimonides explain is meant as thanks for their years of service. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson, suggests that this binds us to show appreciation even for work which we have paid (Likutei Sichot 19 p. 154). Astonishingly, the Bible (Deuteronomy 23:8) called upon the Israelites to show gratitude to the Egyptians as they hosted them in their country, even though they were subjected to slavery and persecution. Upon this the Rabbis say that if the Egyptians who exploited the Israelites and heaped such suffering upon the Israelites were still deserving of gratitude, can you imagine how important it is to show appreciation for those who are truly deserving. Moses, say the Rabbis, was prevented from striking the Nile to turn it into blood, as it afforded him shelter as a baby. If ingratitude towards the inanimate is wrong, how much more so is it inappropriate to fail to show appreciation to living human beings.

A hallmark of decency is the capacity for gratitude. Failure to give thanks is an expression of egotism. So much does such a person think that what they want is coming to them, that he or she feels no urge to show appreciation. The humble person recognises that the world own him or her nothing and is therefore filled with gratitude for everything. The Bible (Deuteronomy 8:10) asked the Israelites to bless (thank) God for the goodness of the land, which the rabbis interpret to mean an obligation to say, grace after meals. Upon awaking, in keeping with Jewish tradition, the person recites Modeh Ani, a short prayer of thanksgiving for the privilege of another day. You may have gone to sleep the night before fully expecting to rise alive and well the next morning, but this in no way diminishes the miracle of renewal that is deserving of heartfelt appreciation. Similarly the central prayer in the siddur, the prayer book, to be recited thrice daily contains a prayer of thanks for all the kindnesses and goodness bestowed upon us daily by the Almighty.

These formal expressions of gratitude develop in us a heightened sense of appreciation for all the good that others do for us - from our doctors, waiters and bank tellers - without whose services we could not manage. When someone holds a door open for us or shares with us a kind word, do we assume such behaviour is normal, or do we show true and humble thanks for having been so blessed and enriched by another persons kindness? We should regularly thank our spouses, children, employees, service providers and kind passersby, rather than treat what they do for us and a given.

 
Green issues

As a young boy, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch carelessly ripped a leaf of a tree and was told by his father that God had his intention for that leaf and he was not to damage it unnecessarily. An almost identical story is told by Rabbi Aryeh Levine about the Rav Kook: "As we were walking I plucked some flower or plant: he trembled, and quietly told me that he always took great care not to pluck, unless it were for some benefit" (Lachai Roi p. 15).

The basics of environmentalism are Torah law. Psalms declares (24:1), "To The Lord belongs the Earth and all it contains." Yet it is not often that I am informed by a Jewish organisation of their environmental policy. So says a Midrash: "When a fruit-bearing tree is chopped down, a voice is heard from one end of the world to the other but it is not audible" (Pirkei DRabbi Elazar, 34). Should this not make us conscious of undue waste of paper products and other natural resources that are being rapidly depleted? The Torah proscribes wanton destruction (Duet. 20:19), even at a time of war. So writes Rabbi Aaron Halevi of Barcelona (Chinuch, 529), "This is the way of the devout and those who seek good deeds they never destroy even a grain of mustard, and are upset at any destruction they see." Scriptural writings are full of natural imagery and are steeped in respect for nature, while biblical and later rabbinic law provide comprehensive legislation on issues such as conservation, animal welfare, species preservation, sanitation and pollution. Two thousand years ago the Talmud (particularly Baba Batra chap. 2) extensively covers the regulation against atmospheric, water and even noise pollution, and arising from Deuteronomy (23:12) issues of waste disposal.

The Torah orders the creation of green belts around cities (Numbers 35:4), and the laws against grafting diverse seeds and cross breeding animal species (Leviticus 19:19) can be understood in modern terms as concern for biodiversity (see Nachmanides on Leviticus 19:19 based on Jerusalem Talmud Kilayim 1:7). Shabbat is a weekly rest for humans, animals and the natural world (Horeb, Samson Raphael Hirsch). We are called upon in Halacha to offers blessings for all manner of natural phenomena (rainbow, lightning, shooting stars, the first blossoms of a tree, etc.). A most dramatic ecological gesture is Shemita, the seventh year rest for the environment, when all fields lie fallow. Maimonides (Mishne Torah, Yesodei Hatorah 2:2) declares that meditating on nature is a one of the key ways a person can fulfil the commandment to "love God with all your heart" There are dozens of exhortation is rabbinic writings to learn self-improvement from natural phenomena and non-human life.

Cruelty to animals is repeatedly prohibited in the Torah and the Talmud and later codes - and notably is considered one of the seven Noahide Laws incumbent on all humankind. Justice and fairness, especially towards those vulnerable, is a theme running through scripture. Every seven years all debt would be cancelled - an interesting model for the issue of Third World debt in our era. A moral consciousness based on traditional Jewish values sees merit in the argument for ethical investments, to ensure that monies are not invested in companies that use child labour, create environmental degradation or are socially irresponsible. After all, "Justice, justice you shall pursue" (Deut. 16:20). Judaism does not endorse animal rights but comprehensively legislates for animal welfare. This raises questions about the morality of the fur trade in our fair climates, now that its cruel practices are public knowledge.