Thursday, March 06, 2008

If You Prick Us Do We Not Bleed?

Some pupils at the Yesodey Hatorah girls’ high school not too far from where I live have attracted UK and international news overage (see, for example, here, here, here and here) over their refusal to answer examination questions about Shakespeare. Apparently, the pupils declined even to write their names on the papers, in protest at Shakespeare’s ‘anti-Semitism’, despite the fact that they had not even been studying ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and that by doing so they would forfeit the entire examination. As a result, the school has fallen drastically in the performance tables (it was, quite remarkably, first in the entire country last year and is now 274th albeit out of over 3000).

I should interject a word here about the school system in the UK. Many Jewish schools here have what is known as voluntary aided status, which entitles them to state funding for buildings, general studies teaching and a host of other things, leaving the parents to pick up the tab for the Torah curriculum. Of course, this requires the school to meet government educational standards in all relevant areas. The examination in question was a standard government test on material for which the Shakespeare section is a mandatory part of the syllabus.

The principal of Yesodey Hatorah, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, has been interviewed several times about this curious episode, including on the prestigious BBC Radio 4 ‘Sunday’ religious affairs programme. (You can listen to the interview here: click on the link for ‘Shakespeare and anti-Semitism’). He walks a fine line between supporting the girls in their principled stand, while indicating that he doesn’t really agree with them. It is clearly not the school policy to eschew Shakespeare, since it has bought into a system that requires his works to be taught; at the very least it tolerates its inclusion in the English syllabus and assumes that its students will do likewise.

I think that the issue as to whether Shakespeare was an anti-Semite is irrelevant – it has been debated for centuries. My own opinion (to the extent that I know enough about the subject to have an informed one) coincides with Rabbi Pinter’s. While the portrayal of Shylock has anti-Semitic overtones, there are also very humane, sensitive (dare one say philo-Semitic?) aspects of his character. The bard lived in an age when anti-Semitic sentiments were common; actually it is likely that he was writing with little first-hand knowledge of Jews, as he lived at the end of the 16th century, long after the expulsion in 1290 and some while before the resettlement in the mid-17th century. As such, I am not inordinately troubled by Shakespeare’s alleged anti-Semitism.

However, two other aspects of this incident have given me cause for thought. First, even if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite, should this influence whether his works ought to be taught in Jewish schools? Second, should a school support pupils’ principled objection to a syllabus item even if by doing so it significantly damages the school and its reputation?

Tacking the second question first, one could argue that the students (and their parents, who are reported as supporting them in this case) are bound by some kind of understanding with the school, in which they have agreed to engage fully in the stated programme of study. They ‘breach’ this ‘contract’ if they do not participate in the examinations. I don’t accept this argument, as I feel that the very essence of a quality education must encourage a degree of independent thinking and allow for the students to take informed decisions, especially when they are fully aware of the consequences. This is all part of growing up, something which a school must foster; in that respect, Yesodey Hatorah and Rabbi Pinter should be very proud of their students.

Yet there must be limits to this type of freedom within an educational environment. When I was at high school, one of my co-students became an anarchist, changed his name from Darren to ‘Grover Herbivores’ and refused to wear shoes. This provoked consternation and, finally, rage from the school administration, which eventually excluded him from school life. While this extreme example is no more than quaint, it illustrates the fact that conscientious objection to accepted school norms must have limits, otherwise the institution become ungovernable. Of course, at least in the minds of the students, there is a perceived moral dimension to the Shakespeare issues which is patently absent from ‘Grover’s’ unwillingness to wear shoes. Nonetheless, there has to be a balance between personal expression and potential damage to the school resulting from the students’ ethically motivated objections. If students fail to sit examinations or perform very poorly in them the school will eventually be subject to government scrutiny, which will influence the life of every student in the school. Striking that balance is very difficult – this is a genuine clash between private and public need. We all draw the line in different places, but I would advocate maximising the students’ opportunity for personal expression (based on informed choice and awareness of the consequences), only invoking the need for public responsibility when the potential damage is significant. I, like Rabbi Pinter, do not believe that to be the case in the recent school case.

However, before voting too firmly for the girls of Yesoday Hatorah, I would like to challenge the notion that if Shakespeare was an anti-Semite (accepting this for the purposes of this discussion), Jewish schools should not study his works. I find this incomprehensible, especially in a complex and open world where it is impossible to avoid a broad range of views about Jews and, indeed, everything else. Surely studying Shakespeare, even if one vehemently disagrees with his premises, is of great educational value anyway. Perhaps ‘The Merchant of Venice’ should be discussed in a Jewish school in the context of a lesson on the history of anti-Semitism. Perhaps the students should be encouraged to debate whether Shakespeare actually was an anti-Semite and if so, consider from where he derived his information and attitude. Are we so weak-minded that we need restrict our syllabi to the comfortable, familiar and unchallenging? I certainly hope not.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

Must Your Online Shop Shut On Shabbat?

Widespread internet use has transformed the way many businesses operate. It is possible to use the internet to sell clothes, household appliances, books, or almost anything. And as websites are ‘open’ around the clock, this raises new issues for Jewish law: since commerce is forbidden on Shabbat, must one close down one’s internet site on Friday afternoon to prevent purchases being made?

Another related ‘hot’ topic is the issue of on-line auctions. May one bid for an item if the auction will end on Shabbat? What if the system bids automatically on Shabbat (when you are outbid in an on-line auction, such as eBay, but have indicated that you will pay more than the current highest bid by putting in a maximum bid before Shabbat)? The core issue is whether a transaction that takes place with no human involvement on Shabbat, even without one’s knowledge, remains prohibited by the laws of Shabbat.

By way of introduction, many authorities assert that the entire corpus of laws regulating commerce on Shabbat is of rabbinical, rather than Biblical origin. While this means they must be taken very seriously (and observed without compromise), in a case of uncertainty, the final ruling may allow for some flexibility.

Some 200 years ago, Rabbi Akiva Eiger considered the permissibility of selling an object when the money is handed over on Friday but remains the property of the vendor until Shabbat. Even though the acquisition happens automatically on Shabbat, he adopts the stringent position and prohibits this.

This point is qualified by Rabbi Zvi Pesah Frank, who asserts that when the entire process occurs on Shabbat, both the vendor and the purchaser transgress, but when the purchase is started before Shabbat and concludes on Shabbat, only the purchaser transgresses. While the owner of a website might not actually sin by ‘trading’ on Shabbat, he or she may be enticing a potential (Jewish) purchaser to sin!

According to this view, it would be difficult to allow a website to remain open on Shabbat, since any purchase made would result in transfer of title to the goods on Shabbat. However, if the vendor’s website can be designed not to actually process the charge on Shabbat, but instead wait to receive payment until the goods are available and ready for shipping, there may be no halachic problem.

Based on this ruling, Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, senior halakhic authority of the American Orthodox Union, is quoted as prohibiting ‘proxy’ bidding for an item when the internet auction ends on Shabbat. However, his ruling seems to ignore the fact that when the sale ends, all that actually happens is that one becomes legally committed to buying the item; until one pays for it after Shabbat, there is no actual transfer of title. This should remain permitted even according to Rabbi Eiger, since no acquisition actually happens on Shabbat.

Offering a fresh approach, Dayan Yitzhak Weiss considered the permissibility of a Jew trading on Shabbat using a vending machine. As the device is left in a public place and is freely accessible to passersby, it provides an excellent precedent for its ether-equivalent, the e-commerce website. After an extensive discussion of the issues, Dayan Weiss permits the use of vending machines when the following conditions are met:

  1. The owner of the machine must declare that the proceeds of the sales won’t be acquired until after Shabbat (to avoid the above-mentioned concern of Rabbi Eiger).
  2. The owner must have in mind that any items purchased on Shabbat are notionally considered to have been acquired by the purchaser before Shabbat commences. In certain circumstances, Jewish law allows the status or ownership of items to be determined in this way, even though the actual selection takes place on Shabbat.
  3. The vending machine is in a public place, which avoids the appearance that the product has been bought from a Jewish business on Shabbat.

It seems reasonable to apply these conditions to e-commerce websites. The website may be considered to be a ‘public place’, and, as discussed above, the site can be designed to avoid the issue of actual acquisition on Shabbat.

While beyond the scope of this study, modern sources also consider the issue of enticing another Jew to sin and the concern that trading in a technically permissible manner degrades the sanctity of Shabbat. However, while there is indeed room for concern that internet trading interferes with the sanctity of Shabbat, even when no humans are involved, many modern halachists have adopted a lenient stance.


The rabbis forbade many things on Shabbat, some because they resemble Biblically prohibited acts and others because they may lead to committing a Biblically prohibited act. (Rambam, Laws of Shabbat 21:1)

Re: the sale of an item on Friday for money on the condition that it becomes your property the next day, such that the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat. Is it permissible, as no prohibited act takes place on Shabbat since the acquisition happens automatically, or forbidden, as the acquisition is concluded on Shabbat? It is forbidden. (Responsa of Rabbi Akiva Eiger 1:159)

The purchaser transgresses by acquiring title to an item on Shabbat, even if the contract was made on Friday… (Responsa Har Zvi, Oreh Hayyim 1:126)

In conclusion, when one fulfils all the conditions: the machine is not in a Jewish place and located such that no-one can identify the owner and all the preparations are made before Shabbat… there is room to permit its use. (Responsa Minhat Yitzhak 3:34)

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission.