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Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Recent Questions:

Optimism and Pessimism

Time Magazine recently ran an article based on the book "The Optimism Bias." The subtitle, which sums up the article, read "Those rose-colored glasses? We may be born with them. Why our brains tilt toward the positive… in spite of all the negative." It outlines how, based upon so many negative life experiences, we should collectively be much more pessimistic about events and their expected outcomes, yet we remain much more positive that we should be based on reality. Although hope and optimism are healthy for us, they are often counterintuitive.

This article postulates that positive thinking is hard-wired into our brains. Optimism was naturally selected during our evolutionary process because without the anticipation of a future reward man would have giving everything up. Even the knowledge of our mortality to should lead us to a "dead end," to despair leading our survival activities to stop because, after all, why is it worth it? They use evidence from MRI scanners showing activity in certain sections of the brain which might indicate those areas are responsible for our positive thoughts and keep us thinking optimistically and happily, when we otherwise logically wouldn't.

Personally, this article, though fascinating, did not make me happy at all. I am a very optimistic person but would be greatly deflated to learn that all my optimism is simply a chemical reaction in a deep section of my brain. Does Judaism have anything to say about this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I looked at the article that you mention and, though intrigued by the suggestion, felt much as you did from this theory; to think that my optimism or anyone else's is simply the result of hard-wiring is not very optimistic! I find it very disempowering to think that our optimism is not the result of a conscious effort to be that way, and those who are depressed or negative is simply because of some malady or hormone dysfunction.

According to Jewish thought, optimism and pessimism are included in the larger body of actions and thoughts about which we can and need to exercise Free Choice. In general the concept of free choice applies to things we are obligated to do, i.e. mitzvot, and deeds or thoughts which we are proscribed from performing, i.e. misdeeds. Which mitzvah would obligate one to be optimistic and proscribe us from being pessimistic?

The answer is the mitzvah of bitachon, or "trust" in the Almighty. The concept of trust is predicated upon the core Jewish belief in God's unlimited power, giving Him the ability to affect the results of any given situation. Hence the Talmudic statement, "even if a sharp sword is raised above your head, do not give up hope for Divine intervention."

The notion of bitachon is further based upon the Jewish understanding that God is all-knowing, and is fully cognizant of all our needs down to the most precise detail. Furthermore, He loves us all more than anyone else and, although He's busy with many others, never takes His eye off of any of us for a moment. All this teaches us that whatever happens to us is, ultimately, for the good. If the result of any given situation is not to my liking, I can still rejoice in that outcome because I know it is truly the best thing for me, whether I ever find out why so, or not. To live this way brings about serenity, you're not nervous and worried what will happen, and brings about a life of optimism and joy.

This realization is, in fact, "hard-wired" into our souls, which deep down contain a spark of Godliness and know this well. It is our choice whether we tap into that wellspring of knowledge within ourselves and live with optimism and serenity, or to heap layers of darkness upon our souls and live solely with the realities of the physical world; leaving God out of the picture, and allow pessimism to take over!

Vasectomy

I’m getting to that stage in life where I don’t want to have any more children. I’m considering getting a vasectomy. My wife thinks it's better to leave the body as nature intended. What does Judaism say about all this?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

According to Jewish law, a vasectomy is absolutely forbidden.

Further, Jewish law states that one who undergoes a vasectomy is classified as a "kroos shafcha" (Deuteronomy 23:2) literally meaning one whose "flow has been cut.” Jewish law states that that one who falls into this category may not be married to a woman who is Jewish from birth. (He is however, permitted to marry a convert.) In fact, if he was married to a woman who was Jewish from birth and he underwent a vasectomy, he must get divorced.

Exactly who is classified as a "kroos shafcha" according to Jewish law? It includes any one of the following three people.

1) One whose penis has been severed

2) One whose testicles have been crushed

3) Or one who has undergone a vasectomy and has severed the tubes that bring the seed up from the testicles

These laws can be found in Maimonides (Laws of Forbidden Relations, Chapter 16), and in the Code of Jewish Law (Even Ha'ezer, Chapters 5 and 16).

To understand the reasons for these laws, consider:

1) Mutilation of a limb is a disruption of the Divine Plan. Given that man is a creation of God, it is imperative that every limb in the body is there for a reason. God is not fickle to create anything unnecessarily. Indeed, according to one who believes that God created man, there are no "vestigial organs" or anything of the sort. Nothing is extra, and removal or mutilation of organs is permitted only under very specific guidelines, for example, when the limb is endangering the person's life.

Mutilation or removal of an organ without halachic license is either ignorance or arrogance. Even if one thinks he has a good reason, he must submit to the superior wisdom of God who has determined that the reason is not good enough.

2) Mutilation of a limb is an act of ingratitude. One’s body is not his own property. One’s body is a gift from God and it belongs to Him. We were not given the right to mutilate our bodies at will. Mutilation of this gift is an act of ingratitude before God. Imagine getting an expensive painting from a dear friend. Upon receiving the painting you promptly pull out a pocketknife and slash a hole in the painting. Does this not show a lack of appreciation and gratitude for this wonderful gift?

3) Mutilation of a limb disrupts spiritual growth. We are taught in Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), that every part of the body represents a physical vessel for the spiritual counterpart in the soul. In kabbalah it is taught that there are 613 limbs in the human corresponding to the 613 mitzvot.

According to kabbalah, the soul attains perfection by using its physical counterpart according to the will of God, through the performance of positive mitzvot and through the abstention from negative commandments. Keeping that in mind one can begin to see how by damaging a physical organ one can affect the soul. And how by mutilating the body intentionally one can even cause imperfection in the soul that can change the person's halachic status.

This discussion pertains to those who are considering having a vasectomy. How about someone who already has a vasectomy and is married? In order for Jewish law to permit staying married, the person would need a vasovasostomy done to repair the vasectomy. If the experienced surgeon/doctor declares that semen flow has been restored to the previous condition, then he may remain married. The vasovasostomy success rate is high for those who were vasectomized within 10 years, and is conceivable that they may remain married. (source: "Igros Moshe" E.H. 4:31) In such a case one should be in touch with a competent halachic authority to find out what is required for this second operation to be considered a successful reversal of the status of a "kroos shafcha."

Moreover, if the vasectomy was done in a manner that the vas deferens was cut outside the scrotum (the section within the body cavity), then one may remain married to (or marry) a Jewish-born woman. ("Chazon Ish" E.H. 12:7)

You may be interested to read an interview with Dr. Sherman Silber, a leading international authority on vasectomy reversal: www.aish.com/ci/be/48880577.html

Have Her Convert?

I’ve been dating a young woman for the past two years and we are starting to think about marriage. The problem is that she is not Jewish. I would want her to convert, but in a way where there would be no doubt about its validity, so that we and our kids don’t have problems later on. How do you recommend that I proceed?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

I appreciate your desire to resolve this in an authentic, non-contentious way. Unfortunately, it is going to be quite difficult for your friend to go through a real conversion.

First she has to believe that Judaism is the true religion. not just accept it by default.

This means that she believes that there is a G-d who gave the Torah to the Jewish people.

Then she has to study what it says in the Torah.

Then she has to commit herself to observe all the commandments in the Torah.

Once she gets to this point, she is ready for a real conversion.

Ironically enough, If she ever did get to this point, she may never want to marry someone like you, who may lack this level of appreciation and commitment.

My advice is to try a separation from your friend and ask yourself this question: "Do I need to be married to this person to find happiness in life, and is it worth all the trouble of converting? Or would I be better off looking for someone else to marry?" Until you have done that trial separation, you do not have clarity about the right thing to do.

Another key step should be to find out more about your own religion. I can see that you are an upright fellow who wants to do the right thing. So find out what's been driving the Jewish people to greatness for the past 3,000 years. I suggest attending a Discovery seminar, an excellent presentation of Jewish history and philosophy which is given in hundreds of cities throughout the world. For the current schedule, visit www.aish.com/dis/