Optimist or a pessimist?

April 4, 2022 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi.


Rabbi Raymond Apple

Q. Are you an optimist?

A. I am not sure. I looked up “Optimism” in my book, “Eighty Days and Eighty Nights: Wise Words for Everyday” (https://www.oztorah.com/2012/11/eighty-days-and-eighty-nights-wise-words-for-everyday/), to find the answer, but there wasn’t a chapter on the subject. So let me confront myself and discover what I am – an optimist or a pessimist.

It seems to depend on the day. Some days I am an optimist, and things look good. God is kind, the world is smiling, people are thoughtful, the human mind is advancing, and I say with Browning, “God’s in His heaven – all’s right with the world!”

On good days like that, Jewish things are also doing well: Jewish life is on an upward swing and Mashi’ach is on his way.

Some days, though, I look out and see grey and gloom. Bad things are happening to good people. The world is a grimace. I’m uncertain whether civilisation will survive. God does His best, but we aren’t helping Him much.

It’s happening with Jewish things too. Not just because of external factors, but assessed internally. Quantity and quality are both a worry. Will Judaism last? “O Lord God, only You know!”

I never know from day to day what I am, an optimist or a pessimist. Probably – to use a 19th century concept – I am a meliorist, who believes that things can get better if humans put in the effort; the world has weathered storms before and historically things tend to get better. Think only of medicine and health, of living conditions and culture.

The Talmud tells of a long debate (for two and a half years) between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel, who asked whether it would have been better if God had not made man and the world. Thanks to Bet Hillel they concluded that yes, it would have been better, but now that we have a world we have to look after it and help it to flourish.

Leibnitz, who created the term “optimism”, said this was the best of all possible worlds; Jewish thought says that with effort we can make it so.


Q. In Mah Nishtanah, what is meant when we say “we recline””

A. Reclining is an ancient part of the Seder, but it was not part of the original Mah Nishtanah.

Originally there was a question about why on this night we eat only roast meat, which is a reference to the paschal lamb. When the Temple was destroyed the roast meat question was replaced by one about why we recline, and reclining became not just a custom but a law.

According to the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 472), “a person should prepare his place at the Seder table so that he can recline as free men do”.Deriving from the Roman custom of eating whilst reclining on a couch, this meant more than just leaning in a certain direction (the left).

What about a poor person who has no couch? The Rema says one may recline on a bench.

Does this apply to women as well as men? The Talmud states, “A woman does not recline” (Pes. 108a), though some texts say, “A woman sitting with her husband does not recline”.

The Talmud however adds that “an important woman” should recline, and the Mordechai quotes in the name of Tosafot, “Nowadays, all our women are important”.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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