By All Means…Paint!

Multiple selves might be the truest self.

“It’s just not me.”

“I know who I am and I know my strengths. This just doesn’t fit.”

Have you ever thought something similar? You understand your capabilities and your skills. You are aware that some things are beyond their range. It can take courage to look at yourself so frankly, but you summon the fortitude to make that assessment. That is being true, forthright, and honest.

Or is it?

Self awareness might have its downside. We might feel so in touch with who we are that we restrict ourselves. Our previous experiences mold our identity, our concept of who we are and the behaviors that we engage in. When we face situations that challenge those familiar identities, we can be reluctant to embrace them. Instead, we might try to avoid those experiences or alter the circumstances so they still fit with how we see ourselves. If we are unable to change that environment, we might feel stress and tension as we are pulled between our identity and the reality we encounter.

On the other hand, becoming involved with a circumstance that does not fit with how we see ourselves might provide phenomenal opportunity. It can push us to expand who we are and what we can do. New situations unmask our different capabilities. Events that challenge our identities can help us embrace a larger sense of who we are and who we could be. Truth and honesty mean to uncover the panorama of one’s abilities, not to falsely limit oneself.

Yet, we often do not like our identities to get shaped as life progresses. Even when we consciously make a change, our identities might lag behind. One example is what social psychology terms the “impostor syndrome.” Someone who begins a new profession or job might have an acute awareness that he is in his new position, but might remain partially incredulous. It can be hard for the former medical student to see himself as a practicing resident, much less an attending physician. It might be challenging for the former pupil to feel comfortable on the opposite side of the teacher’s desk. They can feel like charlatans, imagining that the patients or students see right through their ruse. In reality, it is usually only the practitioner that has the doubt. Everyone sees him as qualified…except his own mind. He views himself as the person he was, not the one he became. Social psychology suggests that the best cure for the impostor syndrome is to keep on doing his job. As one is more involved in that behavior, his identity gradually welcomes it as part of him.

Over a century ago, a young artist began to carve out his way in the world. He realized the joy, excitement, and vitality that he had from painting and made it his full time occupation. Meanwhile, his younger brother contemplated becoming an artist, too. In a letter, the older brother lucidly painted a picture of his own journey to becoming an artist. He described that he was not born with remarkable artistic talent, so many advised him to take a traditional approach to earning a living.  They encouraged him to give voice to his then present abilities and use them to find a way to make ends meet. They recommended that he find reasonable aspirations. He retorted that the human mind and soul has so much ability and capability that sometimes creating aspirations and goals can be a way to contain oneself. Man is so majestically powerful and multifaceted that seeing oneself in a certain way can be deceiving. With a veiled reference to the soul he declared boldly, “it is the height of conceit to try to force one to define what is indefinable.”

The artist continued to pursue his passions and crafted his career in art. He vividly described that his choice in dedicating his life to painting was still replete with uncertainty. He had to contend with a voice inside him that asked, “are you a painter or not?” He counseled his younger brother that if he were to become an artist, he would face a similar internal challenge. “If you hear a voice within you saying, “You are not a painter,” then by all means paint, boy, and that voice will be silenced,” he recommended.

When the older brother composed his insightful letter at the age of 30, he hardly imagined that a century later one of his portraits, Portrait of Dr. Gachet, would become one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold, at over $82 million (currently adjusted to approximately $150 million from that 1993 price). That artist who eloquently penned his thoughts was Vincent van Gogh. By following his heart and expanding his identity, he became one of history’s most acclaimed artists.

Van Gogh’s words ring true beyond his specific situations. Most of us can have van Gogh moments, experiences, or episodes. We may have a preconceived identity which we don’t want to alter. Sometimes, fighting the change might be productive. In many other situations, allowing ourselves to expand and embrace a larger identity can be a glorious experience and golden opportunity.

The Sages express that some righteous Biblical figures, such as Abraham, experienced Divinely ordained adversities. Nahmanides explains that G-d designed those hardships to draw out those individuals’ internal character strengths. Encountering hurdles and overcoming them provided opportunity for those righteous people to actualize fortitude that was latent and dormant. Nahmanides is addressing the extraordinary tests of Biblical proportions, such as the injunction to sacrifice Isaac. Interestingly, contemporary challenges and upheavals can have similar results. Shifts and new developments can enable one to expand his identity and reveal talents and abilities that were dormant and unrealized.

One might see a large part of psychotherapy as helping one manage and embrace change. In therapy one can find words to describe life changes, summon his abilities to cope with them, and perhaps use the experiences to grow. One’s past can predict his present, but his approach to the present predicts his future.

This psychotherapeutic perspective was expressed autobiographically by Salvador Minuchin at 95 years old. Minuchin was a pioneer of family therapy and a well known icon. He recently published a brief retrospective in which he described some of the changes he went through in life. Minuchin explained that his experiences shaped him and helped him both discover and rediscover himself. The helped determine who he became as an individual and how he crafted his psychotherapeutic attitudes. His blend of candor and insight are a tribute to him both as a person and as a therapist:

“I grew up in a Jewish family in a small town in Argentina that was a kind of shtetl where, up until the age of 12, I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Jewish. Then at 18, I went to medical school, and my world grew larger. At 20, I was put in jail for three months with a group of other students for protesting against [Argentinian President Juan] Perón, and my concept of myself changed again: I became an Argentinian Jew who was committed to social justice. From then on, I was a revolutionary and a fighter for social justice, and it seemed natural that I should join the Israeli army, in which I served as a doctor during the War for Independence. Later, when I emigrated to the United States and was on the staff at Wiltwyck School, I was a cultural outsider and found myself identifying with poor black people as I learned to speak English. And as I came to feel that I belonged with the staff and children and families at Wiltsyck, I felt I expanded.”

Minuchin’s multiple experiences unmasked several parts of his personality. He identified with each new experience and embraced it. Minuchin narrates that he took that idea with him as he became a therapist. He drove to encourage his clients to see new circumstances as opportunities to expand and see who they were capable of becoming. He explains:

“I wasn’t interested in their “true self”: I wanted them to experience a series of selves and the expansion of possibility that can grow from that experience. Above all, I wanted them to recognize that there were more ways of being than what their life experience so far, whatever it was, had made them aware of. What I did in therapy was say to people, “You know, belonging may give you a sense of security, protection, harmony, but it also limits you and creates an invisible pattern of relationship that fools you into believing it’s the only way of being.”

Minuchin developed an inspirational level of cognitive malleability. He had the courage to let his experiences shape him, and to embrace both his multiple situations and his transformation. He then used that mindset to create his therapeutic approach.

Minuchin concludes: “At 95, I think of myself as having journeyed through life as many different people, and I think of a line from Antonio Machado, one of my favorite Spanish poets: “The road is not the road; you make the road by walking.” I hope in my own walking I’ve cleared away some debris for those who will follow.”

Like Minuchin and van Gogh, we have different experiences through life. Sometimes they are the results of choice, like following one’s passion and becoming an artist. Other times they are the product of our circumstances, like some of Minuchin’s realities . Either way, we might cling on to our past identities and make minimal alterations. Alternatively, we can allow ourselves to embrace our shifts and appreciate the new selves they uncover.

As you go through life, circumstances will probably change. They might challenge your identity and convince you that you are an impostor. They might communicate to you that you are not a painter. Yet, perhaps you can make your own road by walking.

By all means…paint!

Do You Have A Shalom Bias?

Your marital bliss might depend a lot on what society you are part of

A married couple harmoniously navigates decisions, raises a family, and resolves its occasional arguments. Is this amicable relationship a happy marriage? Whether or not their connection is a content one might depend on their personal, mutual, and sociocultural views of marriage. For some, matrimony might be synonymous with teamwork and synergy toward common needs, tasks, and goals. For others, it also demands something else – a deep, emotional friendship and connection. How strongly the individuals value the former, the latter, or a combination of them will usually determine how satisfied they are with their relationship.

Marital relationships have undergone tremendous transformations over the centuries. These can result partly from changes in broader societal, communal, and religious norms. In many contemporary environments, there is an expectation that married spouses relate to each other as intimately close friends. As integral as this aspiration is in current Western society, marriage was not always viewed with that perspective. For example, in Victorian England, where women could not vote and were largely unexposed to education, it would have been untenable for most couples to assume that they could become closest friends. One does not even need to stretch so far back in time. Astonishingly, the first study to investigate and discover empirically that many British women felt emotionally lacking in their marriages came out in 1993. Many British women expressed that their husbands seemed to have an inability to do the emotional work that was deemed necessary to have a happier marriage. The findings themselves might not be so surprising. But it is astounding that research was just beginning to explore the emotional needs that British couples have from each other in marriage only twenty five years ago.

In many contemporary societies, women and men have similar sociocultural and educational opportunities. In this unique setting there is both a possibility – and often a demand – for a couple to have an emotionally mutual relationship. Consequently, a large part of what can make a present-day marriage satisfying and successful is that both members interact with each other as intimate friends. Mutual connection, sharing, and discussion of each other’s vulnerabilities can create a powerful connection that helps two partners feel emotionally satisfied and close.

A deep, satisfying marital relationship is possible now more than perhaps ever in history. Correspondingly, if this profound friendship is perceived as lacking or insufficiently developed, it can severely hurt a couple’s marital satisfaction. A sense of harmony and “getting along” can feel grossly inadequate for many modern day couples. Since they see themselves as having the potential to create an emotionally deep relationship, they also view their marriage as under stress when that connection is lacking.

Despite the general cultural shift toward marriage as an intimate friendship, dating or married individuals still might have very different expectations for their marriage. Cultures, subcultures, personality, and other factors can shape an individual’s emphasis on the emotional aspect of the marital connection. Couples experience marital strife when there is a large gap between what they thought their marriage would be like and what it ends up being. If both members of a couple feel content with a relationship that fulfills their individual and familial goals but does not need to penetrate emotional depths, they might consider a marriage without intimate friendship very fulfilling. It can satisfy their personal and collective needs. Similarly, if both members of a couple desire a deep, emotional feeling relationship, and they provide that for each other, their marriage might be thriving. Discontent and disconnect often takes place when one’s expectations and one’s reality differ.

The implications for dating or married couples can be widespread. If an individual or couple feels lacking in marriage, it might be important for them to be in touch with their expectations for marriage. Conversations about marriage can be most productive when each spouse is open to explore – individually and as a couple – how they see their ideals and goals for marriage. In order to create an ideal relationship it can be important to conceptualize – and often discuss – what that would look like. Differences and similarities might be discussed by individuals themselves or in therapy.

The first step on the journey to a stronger marriage might be becoming more in touch with one’s own conceptions of marriage and relationships. When one becomes more aware of how he would like his marriage to be, he can focus his effort toward creating that reality. It might take effort, energy, and work on the part of both him and his spouse to proceed along that path. But the more one knows where he is going, the more likely he is to get there.

See You Next Fall

Are you able to have a nice trip?

I think of myself as an adequate ice skater. I am proficient enough to go around the ice with my family and enjoy it. My ankles still turn in and my feet ache afterward, but my skill level is satisfactory enough for my occasional ice endeavors. There is one thing I aim not to do. I dread falling. The bump. The sting of the ice on my hand. The awkwardness of others seeing me go down. I skate and and I try very hard not to slip. Despite my trying, I often slip at least once a session.

Recently I went ice skating (in the summer!) with some of my family. As usual, I was trying not to fall. For most of the time I was successful. And then…plop…I hit the ice.

When I got back up, I noticed that I felt a degree of freedom. I was able to skate faster, have more fun, and be more relaxed. Soon, I fell again. This time I laughed at myself. “Falling is not so bad,” I said to myself. “ It’s also normal for many novices. And it doesn’t hurt too much. Besides, who is really watching me?” I continued.

As I contemplated my skating, I observed that when I was assiduously trying to protect myself from falling, I couldn’t enjoy the ice to its fullest. Part of my attention was focused on staying up. I couldn’t appreciate skating while I was also concentrating on not falling.

When I reflected on my ice skating experience further, I reached new appreciation of an age old Jewish tradition that elevates failing and falling. The verse in Micha (7, 8) states, “Let my enemies not delight over me because I have fallen – I have risen.” The simple meaning of the verse is that the speaker is exhorting his enemies not to rejoice over his decline, because he already bounced back. But the seminal work Shaarei Teshuva (Gate 2, 5) quotes a tradition from the Sages to interpret the verse differently by splitting it. The second part is is its own statement, “Because I have fallen, I have risen.” The speaker in the verse means, “Had I not fallen, I would not have reached the heights that I did.” In its new interpretation, that meaningful statement is a clarion call to look at failures as facilitating improvement instead of providing setbacks. It is an important mandate to normalize failure and use it as a catalyst for religious growth.

My experiences on the ice helped me with an additional perspective and deeper understanding of, “because I have fallen I have risen.” When I was distracted by trying not to fall, I couldn’t allow myself to be fully involved with the skating experience. Protecting myself was the inverse of immersing myself. But once I fell the first time, I allowed my defenses to dissipate. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to embrace a fall as an event that I should expect. When I slipped, the wall began to crumble. I didn’t need to skate an Olympic 10, I was just going to enjoy the ice. Had I not fallen, I would not have been able to rise to the occasion of enjoying the experience. I would have still been protecting myself instead of immersing myself.

As we skate through life, we might dread failure and falling. Yet, If we unduly focus our energy on propping ourselves up and not allowing ourselves to fall, we might be stifling our accomplishments. Thomas J. Watson understood this as he charted his path to success in founding IBM. He coached the world, “if you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” If you are exceedingly cautious about falling, your energy is being used for protection and perfection instead of rising and realizing. That seems like a pretty slippery situation to slide into.

Drive Slowly In The Passing Lane

This too shall change…if you help.

King Solomon elicited a challenge from his subordinates. He dared them to create jewelry that could both relieve sorrow and temper mirth. Most that heard the challenge saw it as insurmountable. Yet, one loyal servant thoughtfully produced a ring with simple phrase, “gam zeh yaavor – this too shall pass.” These words are both simple and brilliant; they pithily summarize the temporary nature of most experiences. King Solomon was overjoyed and handsomely rewarded his insightful subject.

When one is experiencing the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, or any feeling in between, it can be helpful to recall that many strong emotions are short lived. Even a situation that is prolonged will probably will not last for one’s entire life. “Gam zeh yaavor” provides a reminder that difficulties often blow over and opportunities don’t always remain.

Although King Solomon, or any other Jewish leader, is not actually recorded as having coined that phrase, its phenomenal ability to express a deep philosophical idea made it attractive to leaders such as Abraham Lincoln (here, in closing) and led to widespread use. Most would probably expect it to be found somewhere in Scripture or in Rabbinic literature, although it does not appear in any classical Jewish source. (For more on its origins and use in Jewish and non-Jewish sources, see this brief article by Dr. Shnayer Z. Leiman.)

Yet, sometimes “gam zeh yaavor” can provide an inappropriate allure. It can shield us from acknowledging and appreciating the facts and the feelings of the present. We can misconstrue “gam zeh yaavor” to endorse an attitude of ignorance and irresponsibility in the face of struggle. If we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, it can be significant to appreciate the gravity of the situation, explore means of ameliorating it, and move in that direction. It can be powerful and helpful to fuel ourselves with the knowledge that adversity usually blows over. At the same time, it is pragmatically and emotionally important to take the bull by the horns, analyze our responsibilities, and act to change our current reality.

This duality was personified by the behavior of Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American to be held hostage in Vietnam. He was subjected to extraordinarily difficult prison experiences, and finally regained his freedom after eight trying years. Stockdale explained that he took a two-pronged approach to his life in captivity. On the one hand, he realized that he needed to remain brutally aware of his current reality. His life was next to meaningless to his captors and he needed to exert extraordinary effort just to remain alive. He had to have his wits about him and appear reasonably obedient to the guards. He had to exercise constant vigilance and devise his own methods of physical survival. At the same time, he hoped and imagined that one day the war would finish. He fostered confidence and optimism that he would survive and be united with his family. This dichotomy became coined “The Stockdale Paradox.”

Stockdale’s tempered optimism allowed his to survive his brutal imprisonment and return home. He eventually became a lecturer at the Hoover Institute at Stanford and was also nominated as a vice-presidential candidate. He was able to hold the beauty and sweetness of hope, yet did not allow it to shake his full awareness of the brutality of his reality.  That balance is essential to thriving in life. Optimism can sometimes obfuscate reality, and realism can sometimes eclipse hope.

This dialectic approach also distills the basis of most psychotherapy. One usually needs to appreciate some aspects of his current reality to make therapy meaningful. It is important for him to acknowledge an impediment so that he can reach out and so he can internalize the discussions he has with is therapist. At the same time, he can usually most effectively engage in the psychotherapeutic process armored with hope that his situation can change.

There is great wisdom in realizing that “gam zeh yaavor.” There is also great importance in being aware and mindful of a current situation and its demands. Combining future perspective while embracing current reality can sometimes seem to take the sagacity of no less than King Solomon.

Hard To Swallow: Controversies Over the Kashrus of Contemporary Toothpaste

Does your smile reflect halacha?

May this special post be an iylui neshama (merit for the soul) of my dear mother, Mrs. Joan Maybruch, Yocheved Pesha bas Hillel a”h, on her yahrzeit (date of passing).

Is Kosher Toothpaste A Paradox?

Toothpaste is on a very short list of items that many people put into their mouth without a concern for kosher supervision. This is a curious phenomenon, because commercially made fluoride toothpastes contain glycerin. Glycerin is a syrupy, sweet liquid that can add both texture and taste to the paste. There are many sources for glycerin; some are vegetable and some are animal. Manufacturers frequently alter the type of glycerin they use based on the market price. That means that many products that have glycerin as an ingredient might contain a non-kosher meat byproduct, which is prohibited.

There are two angles from to explore this question. Firstly, toothpaste is not eaten altogether. It is just used in the mouth and expectorated. Does that pose a kashrus concern? Secondly, toothpaste is a non-food. Is there a need to be concerned about its kashrus?

Tasting a Non-Kosher Food Without Swallowing

The first issue, if brushing with toothpaste is considered eating, hinges on a century-old debate. The Talmud discusses an ancient practice of smelling the scent of wine with one’s mouth, without touching the actual beverage. Abaye prohibits smelling non-kosher wine and Rava permits it. Rava maintains that fragrance alone has no substance and cannot be considered non-kosher (reicha lav milsa hi). The Rivash (Responsum 288) notices that the Talmud stops short from allowing one to actually taste the wine, even if it would not be swallowed; it only permits smelling it. This implies that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth without swallowing it is prohibited.

The Rivash is curious as to why tasting non-kosher is prohibited, after all it is not full-fledged eating? He advances two possibilities. First, he suggests that it might go along the lines of the prohibition of eating miniscule amounts. Although halacha only exacts punishment for eating a specific amount of prohibited food, less than that is also included in the prohibition. This is termed chatzi shiur – less than the requisite amount. Similarly, the Rivash suggests that when one puts non-kosher food in his mouth, he is doing part of the act of eating, and it is prohibited. Chatzi shiur usually applies to eating small amounts, here it applies to a small part of eating. The Rivash then rejects that possibility. He highlights that the Talmud (Yoma 74a) explains why eating less than the requisite amount is still prohibited. If one would keep on doing the same act of eating, it can become a full-fledged violation of halacha. Therefore, even ingesting less than the punishable amount of a forbidden substance is prohibited, lest he continue. In contrast, putting something into one’s mouth without ingesting it cannot become a full prohibition. It requires a new action – swallowing – for it to become a prohibition. Since the act of tasting itself is not the same as eating, the Rivash shies away from saying that the Torah would prohibit tasting as a part of eating.

The second rationale the Rivash advances for prohibiting tasting without swallowing is that it is simply a rabbinic enactment. The Sages wanted to ensure that a person would not mistakenly swallow non-kosher, so they added a restriction on tasting, too. The Rivash concludes his responsum in favor of that logic. Tasting without swallowing is a rabbinic prohibition lest one come to swallow.

This ruling of the Rivash is codified by the Rama in Shulchan Aruch (YD 108, 5).

Two Are Better Than One

Although tasting without swallowing is prohibited, a fascinating leniency is advanced by Rav Menachem Mendel Krochmal of Nikolsburg (1600 – 1661) in his Responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. (This work is not to be confused with the work of Rav Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (1789 – 1866) who also composed responsa entitled Tzemach Tzedek. Both authors had the same names and both chose the same titles because the gematria of “Menachem Mendel” is equal to that of “Tzemach Tzedek.”)

The Tzemach Tzedek (Responsum 47) was asked about the permissibility of a soaper tasting his soap while it was being made to check the ingredient proportions. The soap contained non-kosher fats, as well as ashes and lime. Although it was not a foodstuff, since it contained non-kosher, it might be prohibited to taste.The Tzemach Tzedek rules leniently. His logic is based on a combination of rabbinic prohibitions which synergize to make it permissible.

Firstly, soap is not fit for human consumption. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 67b) rules that a prohibited food which becomes inedible is no longer forbidden. The Talmud hermeneutically deduces this from the unique phraseology used in the Torah (Devraim 14, 21). It describes that if one finds an animal that died without shechita in his possession, he should give it to a non-Jewish neighbor. The Talmud understands that the Torah is hinting that a non-kosher item remains non-kosher only as long as it is suitable to share with another person. When it decomposes or reaches an inedible state, it is not longer covered by the prohibition of non-kosher. (This is termed nosein taam lifgam.) Although a now inedible food is biblically permitted, it is still rabbinically prohibited. As mentioned, tasting a prohibited food without swallowing it is also rabbinically prohibited.

The Tzemach Tezek rules that those two rabbinic prohibitions combine to create permissibility. While the Sages prohibited ingesting inedible food, they did not prohibit tasting it without swallowing. Full consumption of an inedible food is rabbinically prohibited, but the Sages did not prohibit mere tasting of it. Therefore, the soaper may taste his soap.

Don’t Swallow!

The Nodah B’Yehudah (YD 52) clarifies the ruling of the Tzemach Tzedek. He accepts the permissibility of tasting non-food items theoretically. Yet, he is concerned that if one puts a non-kosher food into his mouth, it is almost inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it. Swallowing non-kosher is a biblical prohibition. Therefore, even if the food itself is inedible, the act that one is doing should be prohibited. How can one allow putting a rabbinically prohibited food in his mouth – if it will result in ingestion of a small amount? Consequently, the Nodah B’Yehudah maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek wrote that one is allowed to taste an inedible food, he only meant to permit tasting it with his tongue, which will not lead to ingestion.The Tzemach Tzedek concurs that putting a non-kosher food in one’s mouth fully and expectorating it is still prohibited because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some of it.

The Pischei Teshuva (YD 88, 1) quotes the Nodah B’Yehudah and disagrees. He maintains that when the Tzemach Tzedek permits tasting of inedible food, he even means inserting it fully into his mouth. It appears that the Pischei Teshuva is not concerned about the minute amount a person may swallow. SInce the prohibition of eating inedible food is rabbinic, the Sages did not include ingesting a minute amount while tasting in the prohibition.

In summary, in the view of the Nodah B’Yehudah, one may not put a prohibited food in his mouth, even if it is no longer edible, because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow a bit. In contrast, the Pischei Teshuva maintains that one may put food that is inedible in his mouth completely. Even if he swallows a bit, that is not included in the rabbinic prohibition of eating inedible foods.

Brushing With Toothpaste

This dispute has direct relevance for using toothpaste. Toothpaste contains abrasives, such as hydrated silica. This substance renders the toothpaste on the whole a non-food item. If it would contain animal glycerin it still would be rabbinically prohibited to eat, like any other food that is nosein taam lifgam. Yet, it would not be biblically problematic.

Consequently, it falls into the dispute between the Pischei Teshuva and the Nodah B’Yehudah. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put it into his mouth and then dispose of it. Even if it is inevitable for him to swallow some of it, that minute amount was not prohibited by the Sages. However, according to the Nodah B’Yehudah, putting non-food items in the mouth past the tongue is prohibited. Therefore, one might not be able to use toothpaste that contains glycerin. Since toothpaste is a non-food that is rabbinically prohibited, he may not brush his full mouth with it because it is inevitable that he is going to swallow some.

[It is curious that Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi Responsum 95, where I first encountered the citations of many of these sources) writes that brushing teeth with prohibited toothpaste should be permissible even according to the Nodah B’Yehudah. Since one expectorates, even the Nodah B’Yehudah would allow it to be fully in the mouth. Yet, that sentence appears to be difficult to swallow. The Nodah B’Yehudah unequivocally rejected having non-kosher in the mouth beyond the tongue. He reasoned that one always swallows a bit. Consequently, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank’s stating that even the Nodah B’Yehudah would agree that toothpaste may be used seems to go against the thrust of the Nodah B’Yehudah’s words.]

Rocky Ground

The second perspective that one can explore to allow using toothpaste containing glycerin is the rule of nullification. Halacha states that if a non-kosher substance is mixed with a kosher food, the mixture may be eaten if there is a ratio of 60:1 of kosher to non-kosher (Shulchan Aruch YD 98). That ratio does not usually exist in toothpastes. Even if it did, glycerin is intentionally added to the paste for taste and body and its effect on the mixture is noticeable. Therefore, it falls into the category of products that impact their mixtures (milsa d’avida l’taama) and is not nullified even after 60, as codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Rama YD 98, 8).

Yet, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky (recorded in the footnote to Emes L’Yaakov YD 103) used an intriguing and novel idea to permit toothpaste with glycerin. He states that in most cases of halachic nullification, a proportion where the kosher food is in a simple majority to the prohibited food is permissible. There is no need for a ratio as large as 60:1. Halacha only demands a proportion of 60 in order to obliterate the flavor of the non-kosher food. If it would not give flavor, the simple majority would suffice.

Rav Yaakov maintained that in non-food items, a simple majority is always sufficient. Since it is a non-food, the addition of flavor by the prohibited food is irrelevant. Therefore, there is no need to have a 60:1 ratio. A simple majority of kosher to non-kosher is enough to permit using it.

Consequently, Rav Yaakov would say that as long as toothpaste is less than 50% glycerin, it is permissible. Since it is a non-food item, it only needs a simple majority to nullify the glycerin.

Not Too Abrasive

There are different approaches regarding if Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s fascinating leniency applies to contemporary toothpaste. When Rav Yaakov issued his ruling, there was a large amount of abrasive (originally calcium carbonate) in toothpaste. Toothpaste was mostly tiny pieces of mineral rock, with some glycerin, water, and other ingredients added. Rav Yaakov even refers to toothpaste as “stone.” In the toothpaste of Rav Yaakov’s day, the abrasive alone was enough to outnumber the glycerin; it was a direct majority in proportion to it. In that toothpaste, Rav Yaakov maintained that since it is mostly abrasive, there was no need for a proportion of 60.

More recently, the American Dental Association advocated severely reducing the amount of abrasive in toothpaste. The abrasive (now commonly hydrated silica) is much less prominent as an ingredient. It usually takes up no more than 20% of the volume of the toothpaste and does not have enough volume to halachically counteract the glycerin. Yet, aside from the glycerin and abrasive, the toothpaste contains halachically and gastronomically neutral ingredients such as water, fluoride, and flavorings. The volume of all the other ingredients compared to the glycerin is still greater than 50%, even though the abrasive alone does not outweigh it. Since the abrasive does not outnumber the glycerin, but the ingredients combined still do, may one use Rav Yaakov’s leniency that non-foods needs a simple majority?

Two major American Kashrus organizations, the Orthodox Union and the Chicago Rabbinical Council, maintain that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s leniency would not apply anymore. They explain that because many of the other ingredients in toothpaste are easily ingestible and the non-food abrasive does not directly outweigh the non-kosher glycerin, Rav Yaakov would no longer say that a simple majority against the glycerin is sufficient.

One might cogently advance a different approach. Although the direct ratio of abrasive to glycerin has greatly changed, toothpaste is still fundamentally a non-food. The addition of even a small amount of silica, a mineral rock, should still warrant categorizing toothpaste as a non-food item. Since it is a non-food, it would governed by Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky’s principle that in non-foods a simple majority outnumbering non-kosher is enough to permit it. The abrasive and halachically neutral ingredients in toothpaste together may be considered a simple majority against the glycerin, rendering all toothpaste kosher.

Which Tube To Use?

In conclusion, toothpaste is a non-food, which still might be rabbinically prohibited. Yet, there are at least two reasons to permit toothpaste even if it contains animal glycerin:

  • One does not swallow toothpaste but expectorates it. In the view of the Pischei Teshuva one may put a non-kosher non-food fully into his mouth. Yet, the Nodah B’Yehudah disagrees because one will inevitably swallow some.
  • Toothpaste itself has a simple majority of kosher ingredients that can nullify the glycerin. Although the usual proportion that is necessary to nullify non-kosher taste is 60:1, Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky maintained that in non-food items a simple majority is sufficient.

Whichever toothpaste you use, I hope you have a lot to smile about!

What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

Is anything really “simply stated?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“It’s not my fault. I just work here!”

Life experiences might have demonstrated to you that when someone says those excuses, he is usually slithering out of his own responsibility. Curiously, for the ill-fated spies that went to explore the Land of Israel, that claim seems to have had veracity. The Jews in the wilderness, led by Moses, had dispatched them. The spies were deployed to research and report the physical nature of the Land of Israel and how easy or difficult it might be to conquer its inhabitants. When the scouts came back, they reported truthfully. They described the land as bountiful and its residents as strong, formidable opponents who were battle-ready. When the Jews assimilated the account of the fortitude of the Canaanites, they felt dejected and hopeless. They mourned their lot and dreaded fighting battles for Israel that they might lose.

G-d punished the Jews for being fickle and having lack of faith. Surprisingly, the spies got penalized too. Something appears unfair. The Jews’ outlandish behavior demonstrated that they were skeptical of Divine assistance. Why were the spies punished? They reported back what they saw. Don’t shoot the messengers!

This question has been addressed and readdressed by commentators through the ages. The Ramban advances an extraordinary approach. At first, the spies faithfully reported facts back to the Israelites. They described the agricultural abundance of Israel and its succulent fruit. They also related truthfully that the current inhabitants were strongly armed and well prepared for battle. Their description was not only truthful, it was responsible. It was their job to report about the land and its people, and they did as they were charged.  The spies would have been negligent if they omitted the description of the Canaanite nations as robust and substantial. They conveyed the information as they saw it. Yet, the foible of the spies was the word that they added to their communication: “efes,” which means “zero,” zero chance and zero possibility. They added that they saw no odds for the successful conquest of Israel. “No way!” they exclaimed. “The nations that are there are too strong.” The spies conveyed to the Jews that they had absolutely no opportunity to ascend to Israel.“ It is impossible to enter the Land!” they proclaimed. “Disregard any previous positive information. There is absolutely no possibility that we will succeed.”

According to the Ramban, the spies were culpable for simplifying their situation. They took a complex reality and saw it as binary. If the question was, “Can we succeed or not?” the answer the spies gave was a resounding “No, not a chance!” The fundamental error of the spies was that they did not allow themselves to see ambiguity and complexity. For them, the situation was black and white. The case was open and shut.

A more truthful response would have taken into account the components of the situation. They might have considered the different aspects of their combat. They might have posited, “The current inhabitants are strong. We also have an army. We have a large population. We might need to devise strategic methods to fight. We have Divine protection. G-d has provided miracles for us during our Exodus.” They did not allow themselves to see the equation as complex. Instead, they looked it at with a simplistic vantage, “The enemy is robust, so we can’t succeed.”

It is common to think that a major aspect of the sin of the Jews and the spies was that they did not trust in G-d and his ability to follow through on his commitment to bring the Jews to the promised land. It was more basic than that. There was nothing to begin to trust G-d for. In their minds, entering Israel was an impossibility that warranted no further discussion. To the contrary, in their immature simplicity, they might have seen entering Israel as prohibited. If there was no possibility for success, waging a losing battle would be suicide. Jewish law demanded that they did not enter!

Life is complex. We might have a desire to simplify our situations, our interactions with others, and our thoughts. Yet, most often there are shades of grey and webs of complexity instead of the black and white we pine for. Many errors in religion and relationships have their roots in unjust simplification of a complex situation. It is easy to see one’s specific religious practice as correct, with all others lacking. In certain situations that might be true; in many others it is a cry of simplistic judgement where more complexity is warranted. In relationships, it is so tantalizing to aim to isolate wrong from right and correct from incorrect. On might gain from observing that almost never – since Creation – is there a relationship disagreement where one party is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. Human relations and human relationships are sophisticated and multifaceted. It is easy to simplify, but that is often not truthful.

Developmental psychologists note that adolescents often think in black and white terms. As they begin to be exposed to life and its experiences and their minds develop, they tend to passionately see circumstances and positions as simply wrong and right. As one matures, he ideally departs from this more simplistic tendency, and begins to appreciate life’s complexities. It has been stated that most extremists are either young or unintelligent. It can be easier to be an extremist, but it might not truly reflect life’s intricacies.

Similarly, Korach rebelled and desired to serve in the Tabernacle like Moses and Aaron. He shamelessly demanded that he be given a chance to serve. Korach was guilty of the same error as the spies. He oversimplified. Korach didn’t allow himself to appreciate the complexity of laws, of societal differentiation, of different strokes for different folks. He passionately desired to work in the Tabernacle and rebelled. He died because of his undying dedication to simplicity.

If some of life’s greatest sins and mistake come from using binary, simplistic thought, then the converse is also true. One of the greatest strides one can make psychologically, religiously, and in relationships, is to appreciate the complexity of most situations and experiences. It can be enriching, gratifying, to embrace life’s complexities. It’s not simple, but neither is life.

Oiling a Change?

Shift into “How” with a resounding question mark.

Do you know how to change your car’s motor oil? I don’t. When the indicator light is on in my car, I bring it to a mechanic. He changes the filter, puts in new quarts of oil, and usually attaches a clear colorform-like sticker to the top left of my windshield.

I don’t know how to remove the oil, dispose of it, or replace the filter.

But there’s one thing I am sure of. As long as I keep on saying, “I don’t know how to,” that will still be true.

What if I decide that I want to be independent of the gas station and do my own oil changes? I might explore how to do it. I could research it online, ask a handy neighbor’ s advice, or watch a mechanic several times. Perhaps I would do all of those.

A powerful shift would take place as I journey from being unaware to accomplishing. I would go from saying, “I don’t know how to change the oil,” to “How do I change the oil?” Instead of making a statement, I would begin to ask a question. When I would make that shift, I would be speaking volumes. By changing from a statement to a question, I then allow myself to entertain the possibility that I can do it. My sedentary nature becomes activity when I change around a few words and I go from declaring that I don’t know how to to inquiring how to.

Sometimes the most significant transformations in life are represented by moving from a statement to a question. When you ask “How,” you are digging yourself out of the quagmire of helplessness to vistas of possibilities. That shift is the key to any successful endeavor, change, or accomplishment.

When you say “I don’t know how to,” the punctuation is a period. The sentence is over. There is nothing more to discuss. Intervention, learning, or change can only begin to happen if you append an inquisitive, somewhat mischievous hook to its top. It turns into a question mark. One might say that the goals of teaching and psychotherapy are to put that crooked mark on top of the period.

Consider trying this exercise. Next time you find yourself stating “I don’t know how to” do something, change around a few words. Cut of the first three words, “I don’t know,” and begin your sentence with “How.” That seemingly small word shift opens up a universe of possibilities. It dramatically declares to yourself that there are ways for you to do it. Even if you don’t have the requisite skills, knowledge, or acumen, you are indicating that it’s something that you can theoretically accomplish.

Positive experiences begin by changing “I don’t know how” to “How do I?” The boring period becomes an exciting, daring and perhaps impish question mark. That phraseology and bold punctuation mark is the harbinger of being able to achieve.

I still don’t know how to change my oil. I am complacent with keeping that as a statement. But if I want to, or to oil any other change, I would need to make a word shift. I would discard the “I don’t know” and begin with “How do I,” ending with a question mark that hints that a world of possibilities is dawning.