The Torah supports me in an argument with my wife that I will never win – JTA News – Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Posted By on June 26, 2022

(JTA) For years I worked in an office where, in order to make an outside phone call, you had to dial 9 plus 1 plus your number. At least once a week, the police would show up in the lobby because someone had accidentally dialed 9-1-1. The head of HR would scold us for not being more careful, and I would think, just change the system!

In Jewish law there is a name for rules or actions that would tempt even the innocent to make a mistake or worse, a sin: lifnei iver. It comes from Leviticus 19:14: You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind. Beyond its literal meaning, the verse has been used to establish the principle that you should remove temptation from the path of those who may be morally weak.

This became a thing in my house recently, when my wife asked if I could be more careful when opening our kitchen cabinets. The cabinets are off-white, and I was leaving smudges. I replied with admirable honesty, I thought that I couldnt break a lifetime habit of the way I reach for a cabinet handle, and if I said I would try I would probably be lying. Smudges, I said, are the price we pay for beige cabinets and dainty handles. Blame the design, not me.

What ensued was what diplomats call a frank and honest discussion.

Convinced I was right, I sought an outside voice: Judge John Hodgman, the comedian who writes a satiric ethical advice column for The New York Times Magazine. I explained our impasse in an email, and Hodgman replied in the May 20 issue:

Seen from 10,000 feet, I would agree that your wifes request is unreasonable. That said, from 10,000 feet, I cant see your disgusting hands. I cant see what kind of muck you get into, or what kind of smears youre leaving as you blindly paw at the cabinet face until you hit the handle. (Maybe you cant, either. Spouses often see cleanliness differently depending on how they grew up, and some are just dirt-blind.) Even if your hands are clean of all sin, dont meet one marital crime with another. Dont lie and promise to try. Just promise to try, and tell the truth.

The comments that followed were not friendly to my cause, to put it mildly. One reader compared me to Tarzan. Another urged me to be a grown-up.

But my favorite response came from a self-described architect and former interior designer, who I felt got closest to my original point, writing, if your homes aesthetic is so fragile that its ruined by normal daily use its a serious design flaw. Everyone living in a home should feel at ease interacting with their environment, and everyone has different sensitivities and habits. The design should support them all.

In other words, home design shouldnt be a stumbling block before a guy with Tarzan hands. The urban planner Jane Jacobs advocated this sort of user-first architecture, writing, There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them that we must fit our plans. For example, if you want to keep mail from piling up on the dining room table, you need another little table closer to the front door (another recurring argument from what is, astoundingly, my first and still extant marriage).

Probaby the best-known demonstration of user-first design comes from so-called desire lines: the footpaths created by people who ignore the actual sidewalks around a building or park and create their own routes of least resistance. The smart planner pays attention to the routes people actually want to take, and then pours the concrete.

A close cousin of this approach is behavioral design, which tries to influence the way people use spaces and objects. Good behavioral design might, for instance, put a hand sanitizer right near the place where you are likely to pick up or spread germs. Or, in the case of my kitchen cabinets, it would make the handles big enough or inviting enough that my chances of smudging the doors is minimized.

I obsess about this topic not only because I want to win the argument with my wife, but because I think lifnei iver has important public policy implications. As Jacobs understood, good, intuitive design can turn private and public spaces into friendlier, safer places by putting users first. For decades public housing was a disaster in part because designers ignored the ways people actually congregated, relaxed and kept an eye on each other. My son the engineer helps design hospital equipment intended to keep tired, overworked doctors and nurses from pushing the wrong buttons or forgetting a crucial step.

On the flip side, sinister behavioral design might coerce someone into, say, racking up debts on an addictive gambling app, or hooking kids on vaping, as the Food and Drug Administration argued in ordering Juul to remove its e-cigarettes from the U.S. marketplace.

The latter is exactly the scenario that lifnei iver proscribes: setting a vulnerable person up for failure. In an article for, Yehuda Shurpin discusses the possibilities and dilemmas of applying lifnei iver to the current debate over gun safety. On the one hand, he writes, The Talmud tells us that one is forbidden to sell dangerous items including weapons, or anything commonly used to manufacture weapons, as well as their accessories to any person who may have the intent to use them to cause harm or perpetrate a crime.

On the other hand, the law is understandably complex when it comes to determining how to anticipate that intent and under what circumstances the seller is culpable. And yet, the tradition understands that the idea that guns dont kill, people do is specious: We do not want people getting hurt or dying, writes Shurpin. And restricting evil-doers access to materials that make this possible is an obvious course of action.

Whether we are talking about gun control, office phones or kitchen design, the principle is the same: People are inherently clumsy and fallible, and relying on their best intentions to solve a problem is a recipe for failure. Sometimes you have to ban the dangerous tool or change the number from 9 to, well, any. other. number.

Ultimately, I didnt consult a rabbi to solve my kitchen dilemma. ButI did answer to a higher authority: Its now my job to clean the cabinets.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.

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The Torah supports me in an argument with my wife that I will never win - JTA News - Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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