Pope Francis in Genoa, Italy, on May 27. Photo by Giorgio Perottino/Reuters

Leftism’s influence on Western religion

Last week, the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, the religious leader of a billion people, gave the visiting president of the United States, the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, a parting gift.

It was a copy of something the pope had written. A papal encyclical, in fact.

Was it on the annihilation of Christians in the Middle East? Was it on the ongoing disappearance of Christianity in Western Europe? Was it on evil in the name of God being perpetrated by radical Muslims around the world, especially in Europe, the Middle East and the United States?


It was on climate change.

It was not surprising.

Last year, five days after an 86-year-old French priest had his throat slit by two Muslims yelling “Allahu Akbar,” Pope Francis was interviewed on the papal airplane returning to Rome from Krakow, Poland. A Catholic journalist, Antoine Marie Izoard, with i.Media, a French Catholic news service, asked the pope about the French priest and Islam:

Izoard: “Catholics are a bit in shock, and not only in France, after the barbarous assassination of Father Jacques Hamel — as you know well — in his church while celebrating the Holy Mass. Four days ago, you here told us that all religions want peace. But this holy, 86-year-old priest was clearly killed in the name of Islam. So, Holy Father … Why do you, when you speak of these violent events, always speak of terrorists, but never of Islam, never use the word Islam? … Thank you, Holiness.”

As reported by the Catholic News Service, this is what Pope Francis responded:

“I don’t like to speak of Islamic violence, because every day, when I browse the newspapers, I see violence, here in Italy … this one who has murdered his girlfriend, another who has murdered the mother-in-law … and these are baptized Catholics! There are violent Catholics! If I speak of Islamic violence, I must speak of Catholic violence.”

In other words, the pope likens: 1) a person who happened to have been baptized a Catholic as a child — and who may have no Catholic identity as an adult — with an adult who affirms a religious identity; and 2) the murder of a girlfriend or a mother-in-law — most likely a crime of passion — with the ritual murder of a Catholic priest.

Pope Francis then added that “Terrorism grows when there are no other options, and when the center of the global economy is the god of money. … This is a basic terrorism against all of humanity!”

The idea that Islamic terrorism is a desperate act arising from poverty is widely held among people on the left. But it is completely untrue. Most Islamic terrorists come from the middle class or above, as did the 9/11 hijackers.

The only explanation for these statements is that Pope Francis has inherited his theology from Catholicism but, unlike his immediate predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, he takes much of his moral outlook from leftism — in his case, the leftism that permeates Latin America, including Latin American Catholicism. This is not conjecture. In addition to the comments cited already, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica last November, the pope equated Christianity with communism:

“It is the communists, in all cases, that think like Christians. … What we want is to fight against inequality, the greatest evil that exists in the world.”

The Western combination of Judeo-Christian morality and classical political liberalism — with their doctrines of moral accountability, moral absolutes, confronting evil, and political and social freedom — has produced the most moral societies in world history.

The pope of the Roman Catholic Church should be its greatest advocate.

But because of leftism, he isn’t.

Leftism has had an identical impact on mainstream Protestantism, non-Orthodox Judaism and, of course, secular Jews and non-Jews.

In the past 100 years, leftism has influenced Judaism and Christianity far more than Judaism or Christianity have influenced the world. If you want to understand the modern world, that may be the most important thing to understand.

And that explains why the pope gave the American president his writings on climate change and why he says almost nothing about Islamic violence generally or the decimation of Christianity in Muslim lands specifically. On the left, carbon emissions and economic inequality are the greatest problems confronting humanity. On the right, which includes traditional Jews and Christians, evil — the inhumane treatment of people by other people — is the greatest problem confronting humanity.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the great evil was Nazism; after that, it was communism. And in our time it is Islamism, the movement that seeks to impose Islam on humanity.

But the pope is more concerned with climate change than with slaughtered Christians; mainstream Protestant churches seek to economically strangle Israel; and most non-Orthodox Jews fear climate change more than they fear the Ayatollah Khamenei. Such is the state of mainstream Western religion in our time.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard weekdays in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Donald Trump says he would remove ban on religious nonprofits endorsing candidates

Donald Trump told conservative Christians he would work to remove restrictions on churches endorsing political candidates.

“I think maybe that will be my greatest contribution to Christianity — and other religions — is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it,” Trump told the group of conservative Christian leaders on Tuesday.

Speaking at his corporate headquarters in New York, the real estate magnate and presumptive Republican presidential nominee told the group that restrictions placed in the 1960s on explicit political endorsement by tax-exempt groups inhibited free speech.

“It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions,” he said in an audio recording obtainedby the Washington Post.

A number of major Jewish groups, led particularly by the Reform movement, oppose direct political participation in the political process, arguing that it breaches church-state separation. Conservatives deride the restrictions, saying they are more often ignored than observed, noting as an example get-out-the-vote drives in black churches, where Democrats are favored.

At the same meeting, Trump said he would protect Israel should he be elected.

“I can’t imagine that Bibi likes Obama so much,” Breitbart News quoted him as saying, referring to tense relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.

Trump said that Obama’s actions, including a retreat from involvement in Iraq, had empowered Iran. Trump has said separately that he opposes U.S. intervention in the Middle East, especially in Iraq.

Also Tuesday, Jewish Insider reported that Trump blasted the Obama administration for allowing Boeing to sell parts to Iran for civilian aircraft. The Obama administration argues that the sale is permissible under the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal between six major world powers and Iran. The deal’s critics say it is a violation.

“Iran, the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, would not have been allowed to enter into these negotiations with Boeing without Clinton’s disastrous Iran nuclear deal,” Jewish Insider quoted the Trump campaign as saying, referring to the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s first secretary of state. The Trump statement noted past Boeing contributions to Clinton campaigns.

The newsletter noted that Trump has previously argued that the Iran deal should have allowed U.S. companies, like Boeing, to trade with Iran.

You are an Islamophobe

Most thoughtful people recognize that the world is a complicated place. And most also understand that serious and stubborn problems are complex and not easy to solve. One of the most frightening and stubborn problems we face today is the terrible violence and suffering that we observe in the Middle East and North Africa, and which is being exported increasingly to many other parts of the world.

Why is it, then, that so many thoughtful people conclude that the root cause of this suffering is simply and entirely the religion of Islam? The horrific behaviors of some Muslims we observe today are hardly different from those of some Christians in other times. Think of the Crusades and the Inquisition, for starters. But most people do not assume that Christianity is inherently a violent and bloody religion.

There is a reason for our hyperbolic reflex. Violence perpetrated by Muslims triggers deep-seated anxiety about Islam borne of many centuries of cultural baggage. We are all Islamophobes. We come by it naturally.

Islamophobia has been deeply embedded in Western culture from nearly as far back as the birth of Islam in the seventh century. Here is why that happened (in a moment I’ll explain how it happened).

Monotheism engenders a religious perspective that assumes, logically, that because there is one God, there can be only one real Truth. Why would an all-knowing and all-loving God give different and contradictory revelations to different peoples? If different revelations appear to be inconsistent or contradictory, it seems impossible that they could have come from the same divine source. And they certainly can’t all be true. The logical religious response to this unimaginable situation is to conclude that only one can be correct. But then how does one determine which is the correct one?

That problem has never proven very difficult to solve. For most people, the answer is simple: ours is correct. All others are false.

1700 years ago and long before Islam came on the scene, Jews and Christians disagreed fiercely over this problem of conflicting revelations. Which of their communities was in possession of the real Truth? The argument remain unresolved for centuries; meanwhile both were persecuted severely by the pagan Roman Empire, which didn’t appreciate that believers in these religions refused to make offerings to the gods on behalf of the emperor.

Christianity finally won the competition when it became the state church of the Roman Empire in the year 380 with the Edict of Thessalonica. The change was drastic and very swift, and Christians at the time could still remember family members being torn by beasts at the “spectacles” in the Roman arenas simply for being Christian. The change from being a despised religion to becoming a beloved religion seemed miraculous. How could it be that within a generation, Christianity transitioned from a reviled religion to the official religion of the most powerful entity on earth?

Theologians and Church leaders at the time drew their own eminently logical conclusion: sic deus vult– “so God wills.” To the Church, history proved theology. The fact of Christian ascendency and domination proved that the Christian understanding of truth was the real Truth.

That perspective was a wonderfully satisfying way to see the world, and it was a successful worldview for some centuries.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, another group of monotheists emerged onto the scene. They came from the parched desert sands of Arabia in the seventh century and quickly became not only a successful competing religion, but also creators of a brilliant and expansive civilization. This new historical reality seemed to disprove the earlier Christian theology of supremacy. How could it be possible, Christians asked, that such an uncivilized people could become so powerful, so successful?

The Muslims, meanwhile, like monotheist believers before them, naturally assumed that their vision of truth was the real Truth. And given their amazing successes, they quickly came to the same conclusion that Christians had assumed for their triumph centuries earlier. The victory of Islam is the will of God. History proves theology.

The extraordinary success of Islam was a crushing blow to Christianity and the Church needed to find an explanation.

Various rationalizations were soon put forward to account for the extraordinary success of Islam. One of the earliest was penned by St. Theophanes, an eighth century Byzantine monk and chronicler who wrote that Muhammad was a clever and ruthless epileptic. In order to protect himself from ridicule when he fell into seizures, Muhammad invented the story that he went into trances in order to receive messages from a divine being.

Since Theophanes in the eighth century theologians and historians have come up with many scenarios to explain away the success of Islam, including the myth that the revelations Muhammad had received were not from God but from Satan. These and many other hurtful allegations have been circulating for centuries in traditional media ranging from Church histories to theological tracts, legends and folklore, art and music. The constant reinforcement of such falsehoods embeds them within the cultural assumptions of a civilization.  When they persist for long enough they seem conventional, natural “facts” of life.

And this explains how fear and anxiety about Islam became a part of Western culture.  When stories are told and retold countless times, they become part of the fabric of a civilization. They become, in effect an accepted fact.

The Chanson de Rolande is a classic example. It is a song and poem depicting the treacherous Muslim massacre of Charlemagne’s army when it had let down its guard after having accepted an offer for peace. The Song of Roland is the oldest work of French literature and became a template for the development of European literature in general. As it turns out, however, it wasn’t Muslims who caused the massacre, but a band of rebellious Basques. But no matter. Through countless stories, songs, turns of phrases and other means, the message of Muslim treachery became a basic part of European cultural assumption for centuries.

We Americans absorbed the bias through our cultural identity as an extension of European civilization. We come by it naturally, of course, but we have added to it as well. Our most obvious contribution has been through the movies.

Nobody in Hollywood sat down in the 1920s or 30s and planned to make Arabs or Muslims into villains. Their presumed villainy is simply an extension of cultural stereotypes. The first portrayal of an Arab hijacker in film, for example, was not about Entebbe in the 1970s, but a 1936 movie called The Black Coin in which an Arab threatens to blow up an airliner. And the 1920s Rudolph Valentino movies The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1929) already depict Arab Muslims as thieves and murderers.

So don’t be surprised at your Islamophobia. I have it too. It is passed on to us, as it were, with our mothers’ milk. But now that we recognize it, we need to think about how it affects our thinking about important issues.

As thoughtful people, most of us feel badly for those suffering in portions of the Muslim world, and we rightly fear the violence emanating from it as well. If we want to put an end to it we need to act effectively, and acting effectively requires smart analysis and good decision making. Attributing the problems simplistically to Islam is natural because of our cultural baggage, and it may be personally reassuring because it absolves us of all (even indirect) responsibility.

But that approach is doomed to failure because it does not explain what is driving the rage that fuels the violence. And it results in the demonization of an entire community. Succumbing to Islamophobia will not solve problems. It will only exacerbate them.

Reuven Firestone is Regenstein Professor of Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College, and author of Who Are the Real Chosen People? 

Christians and Jews, united in conversation and shared values

There exists a deep relationship between Judaism and Christianity rooted both in a shared history and religious values. History shows us that Jews and Christians once knew one another very well, recognizing that in some way we were brothers, like Jacob and Esau. In fact, in the Middle Ages, Jews used to call Catholics and Christians “Esaus” — brothers that had to overcome jealousy and heat, but at the end, both of them recognized their fraternity. 

Pope Francis and I became friends in the mid-1990s, after spending time together at official state ceremonies in Argentina. A humble man, with deep understanding and reverence for prayer and the power of God, the future pope and I were able to connect on a spiritual journey together, discussing interfaith issues and doing so without apology or hiding ourselves. Of course, there also was time to debate whose soccer team was the better club. Over the years, we delved deeper into our interfaith discussions, recognizing the important lessons that both religions hold dear — including the so-called Golden Rule. 

Leviticus 19:34 teaches, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.” We should honor this message by welcoming all to discuss their faiths, to engage in open dialogue so that we are no longer strangers but rather neighbors. While the pope and I have had our differences of opinion on certain issues, it was clear that these discussions were not only enlightening but a way to publicly present, at first to Argentine society and now to the world, a way of holding open , honest interfaith dialogue.

Today, both Pope Francis and I believe that we must work to revitalize the type of conversations between our faiths that existed from the beginning of the first century and into the second century. By speaking openly about our faiths, and yes, even delving into and focusing on theological issues, we can better understand not only our differences but our similarities in how we interpret Christian Scripture and Jewish texts. Only by coming to the table with open minds can we truly understand the relationship between Judaism and Catholicism that goes back 2,000 years, to understand who the other is and the significance each faith holds for the other. 

This same goal brings me the United States this month as I travel to Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; and Southern California to join my colleagues from the Church in open dialogue about religion and politics. Our religious views have great influence over our political beliefs and religious leaders can have a particularly strong impact on their communities’ views. In better understanding each other’s religions, we can better understand each other’s political beliefs. 

In politics, as in religion, it is important to understand the views of those with whom you disagree to better understand how we all fit together. I do not understand the resistance to interfaith dialogue by some, or dialogue across the political aisle by too many. Individuals who are steadfast in their beliefs should have nothing to fear in exploring why they believe what they believe. 

As I travel around the U.S., I do so not as a representative of the Jewish people as a whole, but as a rabbi hoping to engage in meaningful dialogue with all communities, which is why Masorti Olami, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, is holding open community events throughout the country. I hope that these conversations will inspire others to do the same. 

While in California, I will have the opportunity to speak with Archbishop José Horacio Gomez, the fifth Archbishop of Los Angeles, and with Bishop Kevin Vann at events at Loyola Marymount University and the Christ Cathedral, respectively. We plan to discuss the Latino world’s impact on both religion and politics, with discourse about the intersection of these two worlds and how religious leadership can influence policy. I hope these conversations can provide some fresh perspective to those who join us and encourage them to also discuss, analyze and study the issues from all viewpoints. Everyone is welcome.

At a time of increasing strife and violent extremism, it is even more important for us to engage in open interfaith dialogue and move to better understand one another and our intertwined history and morality. In this new year, let us resolve to work together to bridge the aisle, to begin to speak as brothers and truly learn about one another. Let us remember Jacob and Esau, their meaningful embracement and the rich history that connects us all.

Rabbi Abraham Skorka is currently the rector of the Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer, which trains Masorti/Conservative rabbis, cantors and educators in the Latin American Jewish community. The rabbi and Pope Francis co-authored “On Heaven and Earth,” a book on interfaith dialogue. He will be in Southern California for various Masorti Olami-sponsored events Jan. 22-25. For more information, visit masortiolami.org and follow the rabbi on Twitter at @RabbiSkorka.

The convert and the Christmas tree

For me, Christmas was always something other people did. Growing up in a Jewish home, I watched the holiday’s rituals unfold in movies, on TV and in the homes of friends: hanging ornaments on a tree, unwrapping presents and singing songs of Yuletide cheer (whatever that means).
As a kid in the United States, it’s literally impossible to avoid Christmas, unless you live in certain neighborhoods of Brooklyn. The music blasts from every radio station and department store, and the shopping mall Santas beckon you nearer. I secretly wanted to celebrate Christmas so I could be like everyone else. The Chanukah candles were nice, but their soft glow paled in comparison to the tinsel and bulbs of the Christmas tree. And how can “I Have a Little Dreidel” even compare to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” perhaps the greatest Christmas song of all?
I’m now 34 and have never had a Christmas tree in my home. My girlfriend, Amanda, who is not Jewish and who I live with, has suggested buying one, but I always tell her that it feels weird to me. Even though I don’t keep kosher or maintain Shabbat, somehow having a Christmas tree feels like a repudiation of my Jewish upbringing.
We’re now enrolled in “Judaism by Choice,” a weekly class for those interested in converting or at least gaining a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish. We learn about the history, traditions and practices of the Jews. We were even “married” in a fake wedding in class, to learn about the customs of Jewish marriage. It’s basically Hebrew school for grownups. 
In a lecture on Christianity and Judaism, our instructor, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, explained that a Jewish family should not have a Christmas tree in their home. And no Chanukah bush, either.
“There can’t be fusion of different religious groups,” Weinberg told me in an interview. “It can be confusing to children. They’re wondering, why are we doing Christian holidays in our home? If you’re Jewish, you’ve got to get across to your children that you’re Jewish. We have our own holidays. We respect other people and their holidays. But that does not mean that we have to incorporate [them] into our home life.”
After class, Amanda was clearly upset. A Christmas tree, she explained, is symbolic of her childhood. It means family, togetherness and unity. As someone who loves crafting and worships the ground that Martha Stewart walks on, she had looked forward to someday teaching her children how to hand-paint ornaments and hang lights and bake cookies. She wanted to decorate the house and make eggnog and throw Christmas parties.
I feel like a jerk for denying her this. What’s wrong with a Christmas tree? Amanda is not religious and sees the tree as a purely secular object. Why can’t we celebrate both holidays? 
I sought a second opinion from Rabbi Susan Goldberg, who mentors converts at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. She also was the consulting rabbi on one of my favorite shows this year, “Transparent,” on Amazon Prime, and is well-versed in the challenges facing young Jews.
Goldberg agreed that Jews shouldn’t have a tree in their homes and acknowledged that December can be the most grueling month for someone wanting to convert to Judaism. Many fear that disconnecting from the faith of their upbringing also means disconnecting from their families. 
“For most folks in our dominant Christian culture, this is a big question, and it generates a lot of emotion,” she said. “The Christmas tree is this very powerful symbol when it’s in the home.” 
I asked some of my classmates how they’re handling the idea of relinquishing the Christmas tree. Sarah Reeves, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, is in the process of converting to Judaism to marry her fiance, Ben. She had an artificial Christmas tree that he didn’t want in the home because he saw it as a Christian symbol. She didn’t see it that way.
“Because I didn’t grow up in an organized religion, it just seemed like American culture. I never really associated it with any kind of religion,” she said.
Reeves still bakes Christmas cookies with daughter Sophia, 7. They hang stockings and go to Christmas parties. But she agreed to let the tree go.
“I donated the tree to my daughter’s school, and I took all the ornaments, and I had to get creative about how to display them in our home, so I ended up stringing them on ribbon. And I tried to make it a thing for my daughter and I to do together,” Reeves said. “I just couldn’t get rid of all the ornaments because I’d collected them over the years.”
“I’m a little disappointed that we can’t have a Chanukah tree,” sighed Emily Fredrick, a real estate agent in Beverly Hills. “I was really looking forward to that.”
Fredrick was raised in a religious Baptist home in Dallas and went to church three times a week. She’s excited about converting to Judaism but acknowledges that there are some things about Christmas that she’ll miss. 
“As a child growing up, we would get up at 4 in the morning for Santa to come,” Fredrick said. “I’m thinking, like, ‘How am I going to make it exciting for my children?’ ”
Danielle Sebring, a first-grade teacher in Los Angeles, had similar concerns. “I had always had this image of decorating a Christmas tree with my children someday, because that’s what I did growing up, and making cookies and leaving them out for Santa,” she said. 
Sebring converted to Judaism this year after marrying her husband, who is Jewish. Before converting, she said, “I almost had to go through this grieving process for these expectations that I had around the holidays.”
The first year Sebring and her husband were married, they had a Christmas tree and they also celebrated Chanukah. Last year, she had a small, tabletop tree with lights. This winter will be her first without a tree.
“It’s a very nostalgic thing. For me, it was a big part of my family growing up, and so it really makes me feel connected to them. And that can be hard to let go of,” Sebring said.
Clearly, Christmas is connected to a lot of deep-rooted feelings, and most of them have nothing to do with religion.
“I don’t think, for most of the people who go through my program, that the struggle in giving up Christmas is about a struggle in giving up Christianity,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, who leads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.
“I think it’s a struggle in giving up a piece of their cultural and family story, at a time that they associate with really warm and wonderful memories.”
Greenwald tells converts to examine the emotions they associate with Christmas and look for ways to celebrate them in a Jewish context.
“The Jewish calendar is replete with holidays, certainly more holidays than are practiced in the Christian tradition. And I think there are opportunities to do all of the kind of sweet family experiences around those holidays that one does around Christmas,” he said.
As kids, we’re taught that Chanukah is a celebration of the rededication of the Second Temple and the last flask of ritual olive oil lasting eight days instead of one. As grownups, we learn that before the Maccabees waged war against the Syrian Greeks, there was a fierce and often violent internal conflict between traditional and assimilated Jews over whether to adopt a Hellenistic lifestyle.
The same debate exists today, and Christmas is a perfect example of a mainstream practice that’s hard to avoid or to resist. 
“Wrestling with these questions is very much the heart of the Chanukah story. That’s why it’s wonderful that it happens this time of year,” Goldberg said. “Those questions of assimilation and distinctiveness are really useful conversations to have.”
Amanda is still deciding whether she wants to convert to Judaism, and I’m still deciding whether Christmas is OK to celebrate as a Jew. We spent Thanksgiving at her sister’s house, where we helped buy a Christmas tree and decorated it with Amanda’s 8-year-old niece. It was a beautiful experience, but I’m not sure it’s one my children will have — at least, not in their own home. There are no easy choices or easy answers. 

Why Jews unite more than Christians

Imagine that you are a Jew, and that you are president of the United States. Your security adviser has just whispered in your ear that 200 Jewish girls in Africa have been kidnapped and are being threatened with rape.

Or imagine that you are the most prominent rabbi in the world and you’ve just heard that a Jewish village in Iraq has been massacred by terrorists.

What would you do?

I ask those questions because of two parallel items. One, the frightening persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa over the past few years, and two, the frightening silence of the world’s two most prominent Christians: The President of the United States and the Pope. 

How could they stay so quiet when people of their own religion are being massacred?

Call me politically incorrect, but for Jews, this is a natural question. We can’t imagine keeping quiet when “one of our own” gets hurt. When a Jew gets attacked in Paris, Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires, Jews in Los Angeles and Montreal go nuts. That’s just who we are.

But why? 

The question came up last Friday night at my friend Jonathan Medved’s home in Jerusalem, where I was invited for Shabbat.

Medved’s answer was so simple and yet so resonant, that it lingered with me for several days. It’s hardly the first time I’ve heard it– we’ve all heard it. But maybe it was the wine, or the war, or something– this time the answer hit home a little stronger.

Unlike Christians, he said, we’re more than a religion, we’re a people.

It felt right to hear that answer at a Shabbat table, the Jewish ritual that, perhaps more than any other, has kept the Jewish people together for millennia.

When one of the great scholars of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, had to describe the Jewish people, he had plenty of options to choose from. After all, we are the people of the book; the wandering Jews; God’s chosen people; the people of Jewish law; the citizens of Zion; we are so many things, in so many expressions, in so many places and times.

Steinsaltz found a way to wrap all these complexities of identity in one neat, elegant package. He went even further than peoplehood. 

Jews are a family, he wrote. 

However schmaltzy or idealistic that may appear to the cynic who sees Jews fighting all the time, there is an intuitive plausibility to that idea.

For one thing, since when does a family never fight or argue? A family that tells you it never fights is either a family that lies, or a family that never sees each other. 

But more importantly, the idea of “family” speaks to the marriage of diversity and identity. In Judaism, regardless of what you do or believe, you're still part of the Jewish people.

You may be an atheist, your brother may be ultra-Orthodox, your sister may be a poet who plays in a punk band, and your younger brother may be dabbling in Buddhism, but still, you are all family.

When your ultra-Orthodox brother invites you to the marriage of one of his ten kids, chances are, you will show up, even if you don't believe in God. And if your hippie sister doesn’t show? So what. She’s still his sister, and he’s still her brother, and that still counts for more than something.

Simply put, Jews and Judaism are too diverse, and the Jewish story too complex, to wrap up in one identity or ideology. This has been both a source of confusion and alienation (who are we?) and a source of strength (we are all).

It makes sense, then, that in times of danger, the cerebral confusion of identity would dissipate and the primal clarity of family would rise to the surface. Even if you can’t stand the ideology or crazy lifestyle of your sister, when you get a phone call that she's in danger, how can you not go nuts?

In the multicultural zeitgeist of America, where we worship the secular religion of inclusion, it’s often uncomfortable to express this tribal impulse. It’s more acceptable to express the sentiment of caring for all humans, which many Jews see as the ultimate Jewish value, since it honors the Jewish teaching that every human is created in the image of God.

But just as there’s a difference between friends and family, there’s a difference between sentiment and impulse. In times of safety, I have the luxury of expressing sentiments of love for all my neighbors. But in times of danger, I am moved by an impulse to protect my people; the same impulse, perhaps, that would make me instinctively protect my daughter.

Does this explain why our Christian president and our Pope have been so lethargic in their response to the persecution of Christians? I don’t know. It may explain the unique bond between Jews, but ultimately, at the level of global leadership, none of that should matter.

If I were president, every human being would be a Jew.

The psychology of repentance

In addition to his vast experience as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst treating survivors of childhood and adult trauma, Dr. Stephen Marmer is known by many of his patients as someone who has a positive view of the role religion can play in one’s psyche and happiness. 

Marmer serves on the faculty of UCLA’s medical school and has a private practice in Brentwood, and his patients have come from almost every large faith tradition, including Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. Speaking both as a professional and as a self-described “serious-minded” Jew, Marmer recently talked with the Journal about the intersection of the psyche and religion with regard to some of Yom Kippur’s main themes — forgiveness, repentance and God. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

Jewish Journal: From a psychoanalytic perspective, what does Yom Kippur mean?

Stephen Marmer: It’s an opportunity to take a compassionate but searching inventory of who you are and how you’ve acted, and to know that if you make a sincere effort to improve you will be written in the Book of Life. 

JJ: What does that mean — to be written into the Book of Life?

SM: Not necessarily for more years, but for more richness in your life. It’s an opportunity, through honest reflection, to reduce shame and guilt and to add to growth.

JJ: How can examining your past actions lead to growth?

SM: You see your strengths, you see your weaknesses, you see the people whom you care about and whether you’ve lived up to your ideals in the way you treat them. It’s also a reminder that we don’t have forever to improve. Hillel’s third saying, “If not now, when?” really makes sense on Yom Kippur.

JJ: Where in the Torah does the theme of forgiveness appear?

SM: The most dramatic moment of forgiveness in the Torah comes after the sin of the golden calf, when God says to Moses that He’s so angry that He wants to destroy the entire people. Moses uses every wording that he can to persuade God not to do that and to forgive the people.

JJ: Can you talk about the themes of repentance and forgiveness that run through Yom Kippur?

SM: Forgiveness and repentance are two sides of the same coin. If you repent, you will earn forgiveness. If you forgive, you will reinforce others’ repentance. It’s obligatory to forgive those who make true repentance — it frees you of corrosive grudges. If you repent, it frees you from destructive shame and guilt. 

JJ: Are there different levels of forgiveness?

SM: Yes. The first and most complete type of forgiveness is exoneration, in which you completely wipe the slate clean and restore a person to a full standard of trust.

In the second kind of forgiveness, which I call forbearance, you know that you can’t wipe the slate clean because the other individual hasn’t fully repented. But the relationship is still important, and you don’t want it to be destroyed by grudges. So you exercise forbearance to maintain the relationship while still keeping a watchful eye. This is very close to the concept of “forgive but don’t forget” or “trust but verify.”

The third level of forgiveness applies when the other individual is either no longer alive or has no intention of making any kind of reparation. But the preoccupation with what they’ve done to you is eating away at you, and for that you need to release. You don’t have to exonerate, and you don’t have to have forbearance. But, for your own sake, you have to let it go.

JJ: Which level of forgiveness did God exercise at Sinai?

SM: I think He exercised forbearance. I think He knew that we were very flawed, but He loved us and it was still important to Him to maintain that relationship.

JJ: Is there a proper way to apologize to someone whom you’ve hurt?

SM: You take responsibility and you don’t push it off on the other person. You have to try to give them reason to believe that you sincerely will put forth the effort to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. 

JJ: Is an apology that is mixed with an excuse truly an apology?

SM: Try not to blend your apology with accusations. You make your apology based on your actions. It’s OK to give context if you are asking for forgiveness. It’s OK to try to explain what was going on that prompted you to do these missteps. But try not to do it in a way that puts blame on the other person for provoking you.  

JJ: But what if the other person really did do something that, in a way, provoked your hurtful action?

SM: If there’s another issue about how they provoked you, then that’s an additional conversation for which they may want to ask for your forgiveness. If that’s a matter of concern, you need to make that a separate type of interaction. 

JJ: Should someone hurt by a loved one give the person who hurt him or her opportunities to forgive?  

SM: I like to say that it takes a little while for ink to dry. Before it completely dries, you can wipe the slate clean. What I mean is that if I say something, and I observe that it’s hurtful to the person whom I said it to, I want them to give me a minute or two in which I can recognize what I said, come to my senses and then retract what I said. 

And I would like to grant that same privilege to anyone who hurts my feelings. If you leave a little bit of space to allow a person to retract a misstep, you are going to have fewer hurt feelings. It’s much harder to reverse something once the ink has dried.

JJ: What impact does holding a grudge have on someone?

SM: First, it diverts a lot of energy from living your life. Second, it’s a constant preoccupation — you are letting the other person and the way they hurt you live rent free in your mind. And third, whenever you think about it, you go back and relive the hurt. All three of those things take away from productivity and happiness.

JJ: What does a refusal to apologize suggest about someone?

SM: It risks losing the relationship. It keeps you in a state of uncertainty and guilt and shame. It deprives you of the joy of healing. Some people think that an apology or repentance or reparation is too humiliating. But usually we have the choice of “being right” or “being friends.” In almost every case, it’s more important to choose being friends.

JJ: Is it ever appropriate for a third party to offer forgiveness on a victim’s behalf?

SM: For really serious matters, only the person who is hurt can offer forgiveness. I can’t forgive you for something you did to somebody else. I can only forgive you for what you did to me. When the pastor in Columbine said that he forgave the shooters for the murders of those kids, I thought, “You don’t have a right to forgive the murderers for the murders of those kids. Only the kids who were murdered have a right to forgive.” Only the victim can forgive for what was done to them. 

JJ: In the Hebrew month of Elul and in the days around the High Holy Days, do you do anything personally in terms of seeking forgiveness?

SM: I have a personal tradition with my two daughters (ages 28 and 31). We use the week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to sit down, one on one, and I start by telling them all of the things that I regretted that I had done to them in the preceding year. Then I ask them if there was anything that upset them that I left out. I ask them for forgiveness and understanding.

JJ: And do they ask for your forgiveness?

SM: I say, “Is there anything that you want to say to me?” referring to things they may have done that hurt me. 

JJ: For how long has your family had this tradition?

SM: We’ve been doing this for over 25 years. 

JJ: Have Jewish teachings or wisdom helped you in your career in terms of how you counsel people?

SM: Yes. The whole general outlook of Judaism is very much like my psychiatric perspective. We have a yetzer hatov (good inclination) and a yetzer hara (evil inclination), which is very consistent with my view of human nature from a psychiatric perspective. 

JJ: From a psychological perspective, which Torah characters stand out to you as particularly interesting?

SM: For a long time I’ve wanted to write about how people changed in the Torah. And the character who changes the most is Joseph. I want to write about what religious and psychological forces helped turn Joseph from a bratty, spoiled, over-indulged, entitled teenager to a noble, wise, loving and generous brother and leader.

JJ: What transformed him?

SM: He acquired humility in jail. He was a big shot in his family, since he was Jacob’s main connection to Rachel. And he lorded over his brothers. Even when he went to Egypt he was a big shot in the Potiphar household. 

JJ: And what happened to him in jail?

SM: He was not bitter, he was not resentful, and he rose to the occasion. He behaved in such an exemplary way that the head jailer gave him additional responsibilities. A few years later, Joseph is summoned to Pharaoh, and instead of being angry at the wine steward for letting him languish in jail, he shows no grudge. His bad experiences cured his entitlement and his arrogance, and they made him gracious and humble.

JJ: And when does he show humility?

SM: When Pharaoh praises him for all kinds of wisdom, Joseph says humbly, “It’s not me, it’s God.”

JJ: Tell me about your relationship with Judaism.

SM: I am the gabbai of our Shabbat morning minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple. I blow the shofar at the main sanctuary services on Rosh Hashanah. I have the great honor and responsibility of sometimes singing the afternoon service on Yom Kippur to give the cantor a rest.

JJ: Do you study Jewish texts?

SM: I am always studying. I’ve written an 180,000-word Torah commentary that I’m in the middle of revising now. 

JJ: Do you identify with any denomination?

SM: I consider myself a post-denominational, serious-minded Jew. I don’t find that any of the denominations quite fit my ideas or my level of practice.

JJ: Have you counseled victims of immense cruelty whose relationships with God have been damaged or severed due to what they experienced?

SM: Yes.

JJ: Can you tell me about any of those instances?

SM: Holocaust survivors are the most dramatic example, although I’ve had a number of patients who were severely abused or tortured as children. They just cannot accept that God would permit a world in which cruelty of that magnitude would be possible.

JJ: And how does that manifest itself in terms of their belief in God?

SM: Some of them hold a grudge against God, and some of them reject God. I don’t even try to challenge them on that. I don’t challenge them on theological grounds. I just try to help them live as good a life as they can live. The only thing that I would try to help move them toward is release. What happened to them should not be something that they think about every minute.

JJ: Do you discuss forgiveness toward God with them?

SM: It’s not anywhere near the top of my agenda. If it comes up in context I will, but it’s not something that I push.

JJ: Why not?

SM: Because I can’t speak for God. I can’t blame them for their anger and disappointment. I am not a direct party to their relationship with God. It’s an issue between them and God. I’m a psychiatrist, not a rabbi.

JJ: Is there anything you’d like to add?

SM: No, I think we’ve covered enough for a New Yorker profile.  Thank you and have a meaningful and easy fast.

Kosher Shmuley?

I was asked to comment on the unprecedented hullabaloo over Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s latest book Kosher Jesus on his recent visit to Australia. I wish to emphasize that I make my remarks in my personal capacity as a Rabbi and declare I am a friend of Rabbi Boteach. I do not represent any movement or organization nor should my remarks be construed as representing the view of any organization or person other than myself. I write solely in the pursuit of truth and giving a friend a “fair go”.  I have read the book and spoken to Rabbi Boteach about it, and I make the following observations.

I think Rabbi Boteach’s intentions are proper and sincere. The suggestion that he is a heretic is simply ludicrous and those who make that charge simply do not know Rabbi Boteach. I know him to be fully devoted to authentic Torah Judaism.

Furthermore, one who suggests that the book is in some way a support for Christianity and its teachings, has obviously not read the book. It is a comprehensive, conclusive and systematic theological refutation of the major tenets of Christianity. (See in particular Part iv of the book.)

Where Rabbi Boteach is controversial (but in my view not heretical) is in his attempt to rehabilitate Jesus himself a hero and a loyal Jew from whom Jews can learn , and in similarly making the message of Jesus a message primarily for the pagan gentiles bringing them to belief in the one G-d . In that assertion he strays from the mainstream Jewish understanding of Jesus including that of Maimonides and others who considered Jesus at best mistaken and at worst a heretic.

It must be said that there were those such as Rabbi Yaakov Emden who took a more sympathetic and positive approach to the persona of Jesus and Paul and their teachings for the gentiles , however to date I have not found any Jewish teacher who extends that positivity to Jews learning from Jesus as a hero, as Rabbi Boteach suggests we do. He also has an inherent problem in that suggestion as clearly, from a Jewish perspective, the gospels are influenced by pagan teaching and early Christian teaching much of which is antithetical to Judaism, so how does Rabbi Boteach know which teachings in the gospels are indeed authentically those of his “rehabilitated” Jesus?

Furthermore a title such as “Kosher Jesus” as well as sections praising Jesus may be taken out of the context of the rest of the book by missionaries and used in their work to mislead and proselytise Jews. Indeed many who may have otherwise not been critical of the book are severely critical of the title. When I discussed this with Rabbi Boteach he was convinced in his mind that the average reader was of sufficient intelligence to read the entire book where the refutation of the Christianity of the missionaries was apparent. Those who I have spoken to in the anti-missionary movement are not so convinced. 

All that said none of the above criticisms leads to a charge of Heresy. Heresy is when one denies any of the principles of the Jewish faith and Rabbi Boteach does quite the opposite. He explains how the tenets of Christianity as practiced are indeed totally unacceptable to Judaism and attempts to show how Jesus never deviated from traditional Jewish teaching. According to Rabbi Boteach it is Christianity that has got it wrong, both about Jesus and Judaism.

To differ on the understanding of the persona of Jesus and whether or not Jesus was an observant believing Jew who taught Rabbinic Judaism, is not in and of itself a matter of Heresy, it is a matter of historical interpretation. Boteach is not attempting to change or re-interpret Judaism at all, rather he is attempting to fit the historical Jesus into the mold of a believing Jew. He passionately believes doing so will lead to a greater rapprochement between Jew and Christian and lead to a better world. One may consider his approach unwise, or even erroneous, but I cannot see how it can be considered heretical.

That said , there is one theme in the book, which I have raised with Rabbi Boteach, which on face value is heretical . It can be summed up in Chapter 36 where he writes ” I don’t believe G-d gave only one truth…. Judaism is true … but… Judaism permits and encourages a diverse world”. This theme is I believe heretical. Unequivocally Judaism believes that G-d gave only one truth to the world, the truth of the Torah. Everything in the world, every belief every ism is assessed through the prism of the Torah.

If Rabbi Boteach means that not every human being has to worship G-d as a Jew , that is correct and gentiles can find a portion in the world to come through the seven Noachide laws – living just lives believing in G-d. However this is not an alternative truth. This is because the Torah says that is how Gentiles can reach the world to come. They must believe in the One G-d and they must practice the Noachide laws as principles taught in Torah. There is indeed no other truth – only the truth of Torah. The truth of Torah allows diversity – but all within the context and approval of Torah.

Rabbi Boteach assures me his intent was not to suggest multiple truths other than the Torah, but rather that not everyone has to believe as a Jew. He in facts alludes to this when he writes “Judaism permits …a diverse world” – he knows that for something to be permissible Judaism must permit it. However the wording as published is certainly very problematical and I have suggested that to be true to himself and Judaism he corrects the language for future editions.

Is “Kosher Jesus” kosher? My friends in the anti-missionary movement say definitely not. On the other hand some of my rabbinic friends say they don’t understand the fuss – it has been said before by Rabbi Yaakov Emden and others – and other than the title it is spot on. Shmuley believes his book will change the world. Will his aspirations come to fruition? You and time will be the best judge of that.

Is Jesus really Kosher?

Shmuley Boteach’s “Kosher Jesus” (Jerusalem and New York: Gefen, 2011) is a bold attempt by a person of great ability with no formal training in New Testament studies or the study of Second Temple Judaism to present a Jewish treatment of the founder of Christianity, his relationship to the Jewish people, and the narrative of his life in the Gospels.  Beyond that, Boteach sets forth an entirely new and controversial paradigm for Jewish understanding of Jesus and for Jewish-Christian relations.

From the beginning, Boteach wants us to see his book as totally revolutionary.  Yet parts of it are, in fact, totally unoriginal, and that those parts that are most original put forward rather questionable suggestions. One of the supposedly original theses of this volume is that Jesus can only be understood by Jews and Christians if placed in the context of Second Temple Judaism.  But actually, this is an axiom of all contemporary New Testament scholarship and nothing that Boteach has just discovered. 

What is unfortunate is that an entire world of scholarship on Second Temple Judaism, much of it the result of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, makes absolutely no appearance.  This research has shown us the background of the apocalyptic messianism of Jesus and his disciples, and has revealed that the movement he created cannot simply be seen as a Pharisaic, proto-rabbinic movement in spite of some similarities in interpersonal ethics. The messianic teachings and numerous terms and symbols of early Christianity are derived from a world of Second Temple Judaism that included sects that followed an alternative system of Jewish law and extremely apocalyptic messianic teachings that do not accord with later rabbinic teaching.

Boteach argues that the descriptions of Jesus in the Gospels do not represent in any way an accurate picture of him. In his view Jesus was a rabbi who did not deviate from the observance of Jewish law, and was a heroic revolutionary opponent of Roman rule. This view has been suggested before, but it has failed to be accepted, precisely because there is absolutely no real evidence for it in the New Testament.  Such claims represent speculation devoid of any kind of historical basis, driven by Boteach’s attempt to reconstruct history in the image of his own beliefs.

Jesus’ teachings, as quoted in the Gospels, certainly in the ethical sphere, seem to be based on those of the Pharisees. But to call him a “Rabbi” is a ridiculous anachronism. (Boteach admits this but does it anyhow.) The term “rabbi” in his time, by which he is sometimes addressed, is to be translated “my master.”  There is no evidence that Jesus ever sat in a rabbinic academy, and no system of ordination or designation of any individuals as rabbis existed at this time, the title “rabbi” beginning only with the gathering of the sages at Yavneh, ca. 80 CE.

The notion that Jesus in no way disagreed with, rejected, or opposed any aspect of Jewish law and practice of his time is a necessary pillar of the author’s claim that Jesus can be reclaimed by the Jewish people as a loyal “rabbi.”  The earliest layers of the Gospels already relate certain disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees where Jesus as arguing subtly against specific Pharisaic laws.  We find that Jesus represented the most lenient approach; the Pharisees represented a middle-of-the-road approach; and the Dead Sea sectarians preserved for us a much stricter view.  While it is convenient for Boteach to dismiss the accounts of the disputes in the Gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls confirm that these very issues of Jewish law were being discussed by all Jewish groups, making the Gospel accounts highly credible, contra Boteach’s claim. Furthermore, the author compares rabbinic literature with the teachings of Jesus in an attempt to demonstrate that Jesus adhered to rabbinic law.  This approach ignores the chronological problem of the dating of rabbinic teachings, many of which are explicitly shown to have appeared after the death of Jesus and the rise of Christianity.

Boteach claims that Jesus ought to be reclaimed by the Jewish people as a great teacher, despite the fact that he thought of himself as a messianic redeemer.  He correctly asserts that it is no transgression to identify oneself or anyone else as the messiah.  Boteach’s also asserts that Jesus did not consider himself divine.  This is probably correct, specifically because the Gospel accounts do not in any way impute this point of view to him.  However, shortly thereafter in the Pauline Epistles (c. 50-60 CE) and the Gospel of John (c. 90-100 CE), this identification is made explicitly.

Yet these are not the fundamental questions to be asked regarding the reclamation of Jesus as a Jewish teacher.  It seems that such a step is fraught with numerous difficulties:

We have no scientific way of establishing what the actual teachings of Jesus were in order to define them as legitimate expressions of Judaism.  We cannot simply accept Boteach’s claim that whatever Jesus says that we like is an accurate historical portrayal while whatever we dislike comes from later strata of Christianity. This is simply an arbitrary assumption and not scholarship.

The author denies that the Talmudic references to Jesus (found only in uncensored manuscripts) really refer to the early Christian teacher.  Rather, he claims that the Talmudic Jesus is someone else.  In reality early Jews had little accurate information about the period, especially in Jewish Babylonia where the Talmud was assembled.  These sources give the wrong names for Jesus’ students and provide incorrect dating for him, but we cannot deny that the Talmudic accounts intend to describe Jesus despite their incorrect historical details.

Instead, traditional sources do, indeed, refer to Jesus and set forth the way in which Jews have understood Jesus.  These sources include Talmudic references, Maimonides’ Code of Jewish Law, and numerous medieval polemical texts that resulted from the Jewish-Christian debate.  Our sages have held what is essentially an ambivalent view of Jesus and, I would submit, such a view is appropriate even in modern times. 

Let me explain: Our sages recognized that Jesus was associated in some way with the Pharisaic-rabbinic tradition, but they also understood that in some ways he deviated from that tradition, such that he led many Jews astray.  For this reason, they did not seek to reclaim him as one of their own.

Further, our sages understood that it was impossible to disentangle his image from the claims of messiahship and divinity.  These images are so strong in Christian texts and tradition that the assumption that one can reclaim for the Jews a different, Jewish Jesus is simply naïve.  Jews are better off continuing to see Jesus as “the other,” but at the same time treating our neighbors with respect.  Most importantly, such an approach allows us to define ourselves and Jesus in a way that makes clear the lines between us and our Christian neighbors—lines that must be clear both to our community and to theirs, and especially to our children and youth.

Boteach explains in detail why the distinctive Christian beliefs, such as virgin birth, the Trinity, the divinity and messiahship of Jesus, and the abrogation of the law are totally opposite to Jewish beliefs and must be rejected by committed Jews. Furthermore, he explains, it is impossible to consider one who did not bring about the long awaited, complete redemption as the Messiah. It is this aspect of the book in which the author is most at home. Nevertheless, he asserts that reclaiming Jesus the Jew makes it possible for Jews and Christians to continue the development of their new relationship launched with Vatican II—a new friendship between the Catholic Church, Evangelical Christians, and the Jewish people.

My problem here is not with the author’s argument that the relationship of the Jewish people with many Christians has changed radically for the better—I completely agree.  My problem is with the strategy with which he wishes to expand and maintain those relationships.  This gets to the very heart of intergroup relations.  I would argue that our good relations with Catholic and Evangelical Christians stem from a full recognition of our disagreements.  For me, true openness and tolerance come when we cooperate with and maintain friendship with those with whom we fundamentally disagree.  I find greatly mistaken the author’s claim that Jewish-Christian relations would be advanced by a Jewish re-acceptance of Jesus as a hero and teacher. It is a step that would, in fact, work against rather than for close relations with Christians.  My own experience in Jewish-Christian relations tells me that when we recognize and overcome our differences, we create stronger and better relationships than when we minimize these differences.

One of the main principles of interreligious dialogue must be that we not try to tell our Christian neighbors what to believe.  Yet so much of this book aims to do exactly that.  For underneath its argument is essentially a claim that the Jesus that Christians believe in is not the historical Jesus but rather a falsification by Paul and other later Christians.  Such arguments do little to enhance Jewish-Christian relations. 

Most difficult to accept is Boteach’s claim that Jews should re-accept Jesus as one of their own teachers, so that Jews and Christians will share this common teacher and unite in our service of God. This notion is probably the cause of the great controversy that already surrounds this book.  In making this proposal the author ignores two major issues: 1) The symbolism of Jesus in Western culture where Jews were taunted, persecuted and killed in Jesus’ name. It is simply insensitive to expect, as Boteach does, that this experience should be forgotten so quickly. 2) The need for Judaism to draw clear lines between itself and Christianity to avoid losing adherents to the dominant faith.  The Jewishness of Jesus is regularly used in evangelizing Jews by Christian proselytizers to ease the way from Judaism to Christianity.  So there is no sense to the proposal to reclaim Jesus as a teacher and hero.  He is best left to his Christian adherents, even if he was once a fellow Jew who lived by the Jewish tradition. 

Lawrence H.  Schiffman is Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and Edelman Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.  He is author of numerous books and articles on the Dead Sea Scrolls and early Judaism, including Who Was a Jew?  Rabbinic and Halakhic Perspectives on the Jewish-Christian Schism (Ktav Publishing). He represents the Orthodox Union on the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC) which he currently chairs.

Letters to the Editor: Kosher lettuce, Christianity, children’s art and Eric Roth

Following the Letter and Spirit of Kosher

Reading Jonah Lowenfeld’s “Can We Afford Kosher Lettuce?” (Jan. 27) was a déjà vu moment for my wife and me. We, too, bought the special worry-free, super-kosher romaine lettuce with the rabbinical seal of approval for our Pesach seder — and immediately came face to face with an enormous slug.

According to the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), that’s not a problem, because “that’s not the bug we’re worried about.” Well, I have news for the RCC: That very much is the kind of vermin consumers don’t want to find in their pricey, rabbinically supervised, guaranteed-kosher vegetables. Our family is not bothering with RCC-certified lettuce again, unless the RCC somehow wins back its credibility — especially after the article indicates that our own vegetable washing can be more effective.

Paul Kujawsky
Valley Village

Thanks to Jonah Lowenfeld for a very interesting article on kosher salad. Jews should keep kosher in observance of the Torah mitzvot, but not to the exclusion of other mitzvot, such as to not waste (Deuteronomy 20:19–20). How many thousands of gallons of water go down the drain washing off those insects in arid Los Angeles, where most of our water is taken from the Owens Valley, the Sacramento River Delta and the Colorado River? Which of God’s creatures suffers as a result of our letting the faucet run endlessly?

And what about the mitzvah of the Torah to not leave the land beyond reclaim, because God is the one who owns the land (Leviticus 25:23)? Does the amount of pesticides applied to kosher lettuce exceed the proportional amount applied to non-kosher lettuce? Is it possible that application of excessive pesticides to eliminate every last insect on the lettuce is inconsistent with this mitzvah? What happens to those pesticides after they are applied? How do they affect the rest of the ecosystem, including ourselves and our children? Is that really kosher?

Let’s keep kosher, but let’s be “eco-kosher,” too, for the sake of protecting and respecting all of God’s creation.

Elihu Gevirtz
via e-mail

I was appalled by the comparison of eating a bug to [eating] a Big Mac. Eating a salad with a few bugs is a rabbinic violation, whereas eating a Big Mac is a violation of a Torah prohibition. Additionally, if we must use anything other than the naked eye, like a microscope, then even water would be prohibited. The Avnei Nezer said halachah is based upon what the eye can see.

Rashi said one must wash vegetables, which would remove all of the prohibited insects. Rashba said one must wash vegetables and inspect them for anything that was immediately evident and all other insects that were not prohibited. This was also the position of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, unquestionably the greatest halachic authority.

According to Pitchei Teshuvah, anyone who is strict about something not found in the Talmud is to be thought of as an apikores (heretic). Why should being strict make a person a heretic? It’s because you say you know more than God. The Torah has the exact number of prohibitions and obligations, and we may not change it.

Rabbi David Rue
Los Angeles

Don’t Underestimate Threat of Missionaries

It is painfully irresponsible of Dennis Prager to trivialize the loss of Jews to missionaries, saying that our fear “is out of all proportion to reality” (“Time to Rethink How We Relate to Christians,” Jan. 27). Tell that to the heartbroken families of thousands of children converted to Christianity by deceptive missionaries.

Our sages say the loss of a single Jew equals an entire world. Today, there are 250,000 messianic Jews, and according to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, “More than 500,000 adults who had a Jewish mother follow another religion, overwhelmingly some form of Christianity.”

Shifting the blame to secularism and apathy is like saying, “Don’t worry about pancreatic cancer because heart disease kills more people.” This ignores the multimillion-dollar crusades that deliberately misquote our Bible, fabricate rabbinic statements and promote a hybrid Christianity that masquerades as “kosher pork.” Millions of Evangelicals have adopted this deceptive ploy to entice Jews into their midst.

Unlike secularism and apathy, missionaries intentionally target Jews, infiltrating Jewish neighborhoods, distributing DVDs and flooding the Internet and airwaves with propaganda. This March they will descend on Los Angeles and replicate a crusade that sent shockwaves through New York’s Jewish community.

To dismiss these realities turns a blind eye to the truth and increases our vulnerability.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Founder, Jews for Judaism

Children’s Art or Propaganda?

With his article “Who’s Afraid of Children’s Art?” (Jan. 27), Jonathan Maseng legitimizes the propaganda of the totalitarian Islamo-Nazis of Hamas and the efforts of “peace activists,” who are either enemy agents or useful idiots. I especially liked the phrases “art is an incredibly important tool for peace” (too bad the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto didn’t melt the hearts of the SS with children’s drawings), and the reference to a participant in this farce as being “all about the children.” The next time Islamist rockets are fired into Israel, perhaps the rockets will see the art of Jewish children and say to themselves, “It’s about the children and peace,” and will change direction and fall harmlessly into the sea.

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

Tossing a Kosher Salad

I didn’t realize that by eating lettuce I might become less Jewish (”Can We Afford Kosher Lettuce?” Jan. 27). Are our learned rabbis now studying and debating how small an insect might be to render our fruits and/or vegetable treif? Is this problem so significant that our rabbinical councils must figure out how kosher is kosher? I wonder if the same attention is given to illegally downloading music, videos or even “sharing” software.

Frank Ponder
via e-mail

Your article leaves out one important “ingredient,” Jewish holiness. Not only do secular Jews not understand the “bug” issue, they don’t understand the “holiness” issue. Kashrut is not a health code; it is a holiness code. When a Jew eats treif, he damages the soul, not the body. The essence of Torah Judaism is holiness, which emphasizes food (kashrut), marital intimacy (mikveh) and time (Shabbat). Elevating and sanctifying these aspects of Jewish life connects the Jewish soul with God.

Asher Norman
Sherman Oaks

Screenwriter Roth and ‘Munich’

In the penultimate paragraph of the article “Writers Guild to Honor ‘Extremely’ Talented Screenwriter Eric Roth” (Jan. 27), Naomi Pfefferman quotes Eric Roth’s attempt to justify the morally senseless treatment of Israel in the film “Munich.” Roth reported that in some way he was sympathetic to the operation targeting the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre but, “then the next day the Israelis had bulldozed some house with people [in it]. … “

Roth and Pfefferman might believe that Israel bulldozes houses with people in them or that it, at least, did so while he was working on the “Munich” script. Roth and Pfefferman might believe that. They might know that. But, they are wrong. The assertion is a lie, a falsification, a slander. Such a slander is altogether in keeping with the casual defamation of Israel found in many recent Journal articles, but it is profoundly objectionable to any decent person.

Chip Bronson
Stephanie London
Beverly Hills

Can Christians, Jews Be Friends?

Several ideas spring to mind why we should give pause to cozying up to our nouveau friends the Christians (“Time to Rethink How We Relate to Christians,” Jan. 27):

1) The idea that Jews are Christ killers will always be present in a segment of the Christian population despite repeated repudiations from the Christian world against that belief. These groups will always, therefore, pose some threat toward us Jews.

2) In a country where free speech and democracy flourish, anybody or any movement can rise up to a level of prominence to become a negative force.  Couple this with groups that read the New Testament literally and the potential for harm against Jews will always be present.

3) Mainstream Christianity believes that Jews are all damned to hell. Some in Christendom may use this belief as an excuse to perpetrate evil upon us.

4) The proselytizing nature of Christianity can give rise to zealous behavior that may adversely affect our people.

Our friends the Christians come to our doors with some heavy negative baggage, and, while they certainly aren’t the threat at the moment that other groups appear to be, let’s not make our pragmatisms the decider over our principles. As a people, we are better than that.

Elliot Semmelman
Huntington Beach

Pros, Cons of Nuclear Attack on Iran

In my mind, The Jewish Journal has not presented a fair assessment of the pros and cons of an attack on Iran (“Why We Should Attack Iran” and “Why We Should Not,” Jan. 20). M.J. Rosenberg’s arguments that we should seek to use negotiations and diplomacy are unconvincing, although I believe the efforts should continue. I believe a more effective argument is that an attack would: (1) not halt, but only slow down Iranian pursuit of atomic weapons and (2) most definitely solidify Iranians’ support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as an attack would validate his assertions that the West is out to control Iran. Hence, an attack on Iran would further reduce the probability of regime change, the essential element to control Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and, in effect, hinder achievement of a key objective of the United States. There is no good approach to the problem, so we’ll continue playing “chicken” until someone gives in. Unfortunately, the most likely result is going to be a military confrontation and still further weakening of U.S. influence over Iran.

Michael Ernstoff
via e-mail

I have read several stories about Iran and its nuclear program. I think I am in the minority when I say we not only should not be concerned about Iran getting the bomb, but we should be helping them. I say this with the idea that the United States and the other countries in the nuclear club issue a warning to Iran and any other country that gets the bomb: If you use the bomb, you lose your country.

The nuclear club, with the United States in the lead, should warn Iran that if they use the bomb or if terrorists use one of the their bombs, it is the end of Iran. If any country, like Iran or Pakistan or Israel, is the origin of a nuclear bomb that is exploded anywhere, the nuclear club nations use nuclear bombs to wipe out the entire country where the bomb originated. A warning such as national extinction has a powerful deterrence on using a nuclear bomb.

Masse Bloomfield
Canoga Park

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Time to rethink how we relate to Christians

Jews are known for their intellect, and for legitimate reasons. The number of Jewish recipients of Nobel Prizes, for example, is wildly disproportionate to the Jewish proportion of the world’s population. Jews make up about one-fifth of 1 percent of the world’s population, yet they have received about 20 percent of the Nobel Prizes for chemistry, 41 percent for economics, 26 percent for physics and 27 percent for medicine. In other words, Jews are about 125 times overrepresented among recipients of Nobel Prizes in the natural sciences. Jews likewise make up a disproportionate number of students enrolled in elite American universities.

If as a people Jews were as wise — make that even half as wise — as we are individually intelligent, we would have far fewer problems than we do.

But, alas, we are not.

One glaring example is Jews’ attitudes toward Christianity. Though, as Rambam pointed out almost a thousand years ago, Christianity carried knowledge of God to the world, and though tens of millions of Christians are the Jews’ best friends today, Jews fear Christians and Christianity as if we were living in medieval — that is, anti-Semitic Christian — Europe.

So much so, that fear of, hostility to, Christianity is perhaps the only thing that the Jewish left and the Jewish far right agree on.

An example of this is the fear of Christian missionaries that pervades Jewish life — a fear that is out of all proportion to its reality.

It is one reason some Jews do not attend any of the pro-Jewish and pro-Israel events sponsored by organizations such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI). I have spoken at about a dozen CUFI events around America and have met Christians who can only be described as chasidei umot ha’olam, “righteous Gentiles.” There are many campuses in America on which the Christians are more proactive on behalf of Israel and in fighting anti-Israel leftists and Islamists than are the Jewish groups.

I am happy to report that more and more Jews attend CUFI and other pro-Israel Christian organizations’ events than ever before. Nevertheless, while one increasingly meets Jewish federation heads and Orthodox and Conservative rabbis at these events, one rarely encounters a Reform rabbi at any of them. (One prominent exception is Stephen S. Wise Temple, which invited Pastor John Hagee, the founder of CUFI, to speak.)

The Reform movement has issued statements opposing Jews attending CUFI events because these pro-Israel Christians often hold conservative positions that the Reform movement opposes — a sad example of placing leftist social positions above Israel’s security. Despite the fact that Israel is under existential threats to its very life, and despite the fact that Jews have fewer and fewer allies, the Reform movement opposes helping the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish parts of the American population because, to cite one example, these Christians think marriage should continue to be defined as between a man and woman.

And on the religious right, there are rabbis and other Jews who refuse to attend such events because they are certain that these groups have a stealth agenda — to convert Jews to Christianity (despite CUFI’s explicit vow that it is non-conversionary).

Many Orthodox rabbis and other Orthodox Jews now attend pro-Israel Christian events. At the last CUFI national convention in Washington, D.C., I saw one of the most revered Orthodox rabbis of this generation, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat. And of particular significance has been Rabbi Aryeh Scheinberg, Pastor Hagee’s close friend, rabbi of Orthodox Congregation Rodfei Sholom in San Antonio, Texas. Ordained by Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, Rabbi Scheinberg has shown great courage and foresight in supporting CUFI.

But many Orthodox Jews still fear anything having to do with Christians including, perhaps even especially, Christians who devote their lives to helping Israel. The reason? Christians want to convert Jews to Christianity and those who work to help Jews are lulling naive Jews into lowering their guard. That is why there are Jews who have devoted their lives to, in their words, combating missionaries.

When I first began speaking in Jewish life 40 years ago, after almost every lecture some member of the audience asked about Jews for Jesus and how to counter their threat.

I have had the same response for 40 years: We should be far more concerned with Jews for Nothing than with Jews for Jesus. The number of Jews who convert to Christianity is infinitesimally small compared to the number of Jews we lose to apathy. Moreover, I am quite certain that there are far more young Jews joining anti-Israel left-wing groups than joining Jews for Jesus or converting to mainstream Christianity.

It’s time to get over Jewish preoccupation with Christianity as the enemy. The real enemy of Jewish identity is secularism. There are many wonderful secular Jews, but the children of most Jews who become irreligious do not retain a Jewish identity. Moreover, Europe is no longer Christian, it is secular, and it is no friend of the Jews. Religious America is the Jews’ best friend.

And, in any event, it is not up to Christians to keep Jews Jewish. It is up to us Jews, and if we can’t keep Jews Jewish (sometimes even in the Jewish state), that, not Christianity, is the problem.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Messianic truth in advertising

The growth of the Jews for Jesus and messianic movements in Israel, especially during Israel’s 60th anniversary, is unprecedented and an outcome of unrestrained relationships with fundamentalist Christians.

There are more than 15,000 messianic Jews residing in Israel and more than 275,000 in the Diaspora. Jews for Jesus now has an office in Tel Aviv, with a staff of 10 that includes several Israeli-born messianic Jewish couples, and they have launched a five-year crusade to proselytize Israelis. Last month they spent over $500,000 for full-page ads in four Israeli papers and ads on buses and billboards. They have already handed out more than 75,000 missionary tracts and received contact information from 850 Israelis.

Furthermore, some Israeli politicians and prominent rabbis are associating with messianic Jews, inadvertently lending them credibility. Others rabbis were outraged about a messianic Jew in the International Bible Quiz for Jewish youth and called for a boycott. Of grave concern are the actions of messianic lawyer Calev Myers, who has been fighting in the Israeli Supreme Court for messianic rights, including initiating changes in the law of return that recently enabled a dozen messianic missionaries to become Israeli citizens.

Myers and the messianic movement are trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the Israeli public. It is misleading for them to claim that the only difference between messianic Jews and other Jews is their belief that Jesus is the Messiah. This was highlighted by Myers’ recent quote in the Jerusalem Post comparing messianic Jews to messianic Chabadniks. In fact, messianic Jews intentionally avoid mentioning a fundamental difference. In addition to believing Jesus is the Messiah, they believe he is God in the flesh and part of a Trinity. All denominations of Judaism considered these beliefs to be idolatrous for Jews.

As early as 1980, Jews for Jesus founder Moshe Rosen in his book, “Sharing the New Life With a Jew,” advised messianic missionaries to avoid mentioning their belief in the deity of Jesus because it makes witnessing to Jews extremely difficult. Additionally, attempts by the messianic movement to prove their theology from biblical and rabbinic sources are based on misquotations and mistranslations.

Even before Christianity, Jews rejected these anti-Jewish nonmonotheistic beliefs. We also realize they were introduced into Christianity due to the influence of pagan cult gods like Osiris and Dionysus.

Obviously, there are other differences. Messianic Jews accept the Greek New Testament as divinely inspired scripture and they believe that all Jews who don’t believe in Jesus face eternal damnation in hell. However, historically it is their idolatrous beliefs that have ultimately placed “Jews who believe in Jesus” outside the pale of Judaism.

Christian friendship is appreciated; however, we must be cautious and call for truth in advertising by the messianic movement. We should also call on messianic Jews to reject these foreign beliefs and return to the pure monotheistic unity of God that defines our identity and personal relationship with God.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz is the founding director of Jews for Judaism International, which has offices in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Toronto, Jerusalem, Sydney and Johannesburg. He can be reached at RabbiKravitz@JewsForJudaism.org

Israel [hearts] Valentine’s Day

Although many people today correlate St. Valentine’s Day with Christianity, the contemporary, commercial holiday of love is actually rooted in paganism. In honor of the goddess of marriage, love, fertility and women, Juno Februata, the Romans held a pagan festival in which girls and boys were matched for erotic festivities by drawing names from a box.

With the rise of Christianity, the priests substituted the girls’ names with those of saints. Scholars disagree about who the enigmatic Valentine may have been, but according to one legend, he was a priest who defied Emperor Claudius II by continuing to marry couples despite the edict against it during a time of war (single men made better soldiers). His purported execution occurred on Feb. 14, and in homage to his bravery he was given sainthood and honored during the St. Valentine’s Day celebration that still bears his name. Another version of the story claims that the emperor had Valentine imprisoned for life for his crimes. There, he fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. His supposed habit of writing her love notes signed “your Valentine” is one good explanation for the custom of exchanging Valentine’s Day cards that remains so popular in the United States today.

About 10 or 15 years ago, the celebration of this holiday began to show up in Israel. According to professor Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University, Israelis want to participate because it includes them in a larger cultural pattern.

“Just as English has taken over signage at the mall, be it English in English or English in Hebrew, Valentine’s Day offers an opportunity to connect with the West in a non-problematic and universalistic way,” he said. Despite being St. Valentine’s Day, Cohen explains that the holiday has become religiously neutral in recent years. Thus, it doesn’t conflict with Jewish identity for most Israelis.

So what spin do Israelis put on their version of Valentine’s Day? Other than sometimes writing cards in Hebrew, not much of an Israeli angle exists. On a smaller scale, the celebrations in Israel are almost identical to those for the Jewish day of love, Tu B’Av. And both love holidays so closely resemble traditions in the United States that one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference. The scads of nicely wrapped boxes of chocolate; the fuzzy, red-felt-pelted, stuffed hearts; the long-stemmed red roses; the ridiculous epithets for love in stock greeting cards; the expensive gourmet meals; and the couples-only, exclusive spa packages are no different.

Nevertheless, in a country associated far more with war than love, many Israelis are extremely proud to celebrate two days of love rather than just one.

Our image problem: Jews have no ‘big picture’

Christianity has an image problem, and Christians ought to pay earnest attention to it, rather than dismissing it as the product of media bias. That’s the message of a new book that should be of interest to Jews, because it shows the kind of questions that Christians have started asking themselves — questions that we Jews don’t seem to be asking ourselves. Yet we, too, have an image problem.

The book is “unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity … and Why It Matters,” by David Kinnaman (Baker Books, 2007). President of the Barna Group, a Christian polling organization, Kinnaman produces data that show how young, religiously uncommitted gentiles view evangelical Christianity.

A conservative Christian leader I admire, Chuck Colson, recommended the book to his radio listeners, commenting: “Let’s be honest. Sometimes we do come across as judgmental, anti-homosexual and excessively politicized.”

Colson thinks it’s worth being frank and self-critical because he sees a bigger picture. Christians sabotage their efforts to reach out to the unaffiliated if simultaneously they are contributing to a negative public picture of their own faith.

Jewish groups take polls to precisely determine how much mindless bigotry against us there is at the idiot fringes of the culture. While the exercise is conducted with all the gravity and attention to precise measurement that you’d associate with having your blood pressure gauged at the doctor’s office, there’s little to learn from it. A population of 300 million will inevitably cast up its share of crazies.

I’m not aware of any source of data comparable to Kinnaman’s book that asks what normal people think about Judaism. I can only surmise, based on many conversations with Jews and Christians. If such data were available, I bet it would reveal, along with many small interesting points, one big point.

While Colson worries that attitudes toward his faith get in the way of a key aspect of Christianity’s big picture — namely, evangelizing — the most worrisome fact that would come out of polling information about us is that people associate Judaism with no big picture whatsoever.

By “big picture,” I mean the answers to basic questions: What did God have in mind in making Jews? What purpose does the world itself have in God’s plan? What meaning is there in a Jew’s life or in the life of any human being? How does Judaism fit into that meaning?

Unlike evangelical Christians, Jews don’t see it as our mission to move others to become Jewish. But having a big picture matters, because all committed Jews care about inspiring our children, along with lost and unaffiliated Jews, non-Jewish spouses married to Jews and, indeed, ourselves.

Though inspiring the rest of the world is no longer widely seen as the overriding purpose of Jewish existence, that was in fact long accepted as being the whole picture itself. Just read the classic Torah commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th century German Orthodox leader.

He writes about how God established the “Abrahamitic nation” to “save” mankind, which was then “sunk in materialism” — and still is. By materialism, Hirsch didn’t mean consumerism but the conception of reality as purely of physical stuff, physical processes. He meant the ideological outlook that gave us modern secularism, and which, as its chief effect, undermines belief in moral free will.

If asked what Judaism’s “big picture” is, neither most non-Jews, nor most Jews — Reform, Conservative or Orthodox — could give an answer worthy of being taken seriously. Substantiating the claim is as easy as doing a quick Google news search on phrases like “Reform Judaism,” “Conservative rabbi,” “Orthodox Jews” and so on.

You’ll find many things in the countless media references to Judaism’s main denominations, but one thing you won’t find is a discernible pattern in the carpet. Here we have Reform Judaism reconsidering its longstanding rejection of the Sabbath, now praising Shabbat as a lifestyle enhancement in a stressful world. Here we have Conservative synagogues fretting about how to make intermarried couples feel welcome without seeming to approve of rampant intermarriage itself. Here we have the Orthodox Union bewailing the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to divide Jerusalem.

Ultimately, what is at stake in Sabbath observance, Jewish marriage and a united Jerusalem? Anything beyond pragmatic, pedestrian considerations of the passing moment? From the public statements of the relevant organizations, it’s far from clear.

Is there anything timeless here? Anything cosmic? Anything that confronts us with the invisible, immaterial reality of God that once preoccupied the Jewish people?

Last year, the Modern Orthodox community on the East Coast was gnashing its teeth over a New York Times Magazine article by an ex-Orthodox Jew who married a gentile woman and went on to become a Harvard Law School professor. Noah Feldman had attended a premier Orthodox day school, Maimonides, and wrote of his disenchantment.

I’m Orthodox, too, but I don’t blame Feldman. Judaism certainly has answers to the big questions about ultimate cosmic meaning, but those answers — whether found in Jewish mysticism or in the moral philosophy of a rabbi like Hirsch — are not much talked about in Modern Orthodoxy, which places more emphasis on fundamental matters like: Can you observe Shabbat and kashrut and still land the plum job teaching at Harvard Law? Answer: Yes. Baruch Hashem, yes.

Feldman stirred outrage because he seemed to call into doubt this foundational belief.

The Orthodox readers of his essay rightly worry about their kids at the Maimonides School and its analogs. Children, like adults, need deep answers to deep questions — and we do an inadequate job of supplying them.

David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, is the author of the forthcoming “How Would God Vote? Why the Bible Commands You to Be a Conservative” (Doubleday).

The Bible for dummies — and experts

James L. Kugel figures his book will attract readers from diverse religious backgrounds, both those who are well-versed in the Bible and those who’ve never read the ancient text. He understands both audiences well.

He begins with a cautionary note to those of traditional faith — and he counts himself as part of this group — explaining that the book deals with modern biblical scholarship, including many ideas that contradict the accepted teachings of Judaism and Christianity.

In “How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now” (Free Press, $35) — which recently won the 2007 Jewish book of the year prize of the National Jewish Book Awards — Kugel’s interest is not only in what the text says, but in what a modern reader is to make of it.

Kugel’s approach is compelling and original: A professor emeritus at Harvard and professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, he looks in tandem at two different approaches to studying and understanding the Bible — those of the ancient interpreters and those of modern biblical scholars. The former was a largely anonymous group of scholars, living from 300 B.C.E. to 200 C.E., who set about explaining the meaning of the texts; their stories, prophecies and laws have been passed on for generations. As Kugel, who speaks 10 languages, explained, “For most of our history, what the Bible meant was what the ancient interpreters had said it meant.”

The latter, scholars at work for the last 150 years or so, integrate the work of archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists and historians, trying to find the original meaning of these texts, before the ancient interpreters added their own meaning. They study the Bible the same way they would approach any literary text, and theorize that the texts are from different sources and by different authors.

The author of several books including “The God of Old” and “The Great Poems of the Bible,” Kugel spent 21 years at Harvard, where he taught one of the most popular courses: an introductory Bible class that enrolled more than 900 students each semester. This more than 800-page book has its basis in that course.

Kugel believes that the author of a work of scholarship should remain in the background, but he recognizes that readers will want to know who he is and where he stands. An Orthodox Jew, he says he sees the divine origins of the text, but has also devoted much of his life to studying and teaching modern biblical scholarship. Brutally honest throughout, he admits that certain aspects of his studies have been troubling to him over the years.

“If we adopt the modern scholars’ way of reading,” he writes, “in a very real sense the whole Bible will be undone — much of its ethical instruction, its basic commandments, prophetic visions, and heartfelt prayers will turn out to be something other than what they have always seemed; indeed, the divine inspiration of all of Scripture will be seen to be undermined. But surely we cannot simply hide our heads in the sand and pretend that modern scholarship does not exist.”

His advice to readers: “Keep your eye on the ancient interpreters.”

The ancient sages, scribes and teachers shared four assumptions: that the Bible was essentially a cryptic text and one thing could mean another; that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day; that the Bible contained no contradictions or mistakes; that the Bible was entirely a divinely given text. Modern scholars try to undo these assumptions.

Kugel writes with ease and wit; he’s at home in the world of serious scholarship and makes it accessible, as he leads the reader through the Bible. He also enjoys an occasional pop culture reference, like citing, in his chapter on Isaiah, Woody Allen’s cautionary reworking: “The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep.”

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Law and disorder

Only in Los Angeles can you have a convention of Orthodox Jews where the keynote address is given by a woman named Bacon, the special guest speaker is a famous

Hollywood film critic and the executive director begins his Shabbat sermon by talking about Christmas.

I’m referring to the Orthodox Union’s (OU) annual West Coast Convention, which ended last week. Here in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you couldn’t go too far without seeing their colorful blue banners promoting the event.

This year, I noticed a tinge of anxiety percolating just beneath the surface of the convention, a sense that there are big challenges ahead for the Orthodox movement.

Of course, the Orthodox are hardly alone in feeling anxious. These days, every movement in Judaism seems to be going through some sort of defining challenge. The Reform Jews are dealing with how to accommodate a growing interest in religious rituals among some of their members, while staying true to the movement’s liberal identity. Conservatives are in a state of perpetual crisis — whether dealing with specific issues like gay marriage, or larger philosophical ones like how much pluralism they can tolerate in their own movement and stay viable.

And the Orthodox, well, they might look confident on the outside — they are, after all, the champion protectors of God’s commandments — but dig beneath the surface, and you’ll see a healthy dose of anxiety.

Just look, for example, at some of the subjects at this year’s OU convention: “Guaranteeing Continuity: Keeping our Children Jewish and Orthodox” (Karen Bacon); “The Jew in the Modern World, the Modern World in the Jew: Are we too Integrated?” (panel discussion); “Media Messages vs. Jewish Messages” (film critic and conservative talk show host Michael Medved); “Jewish Continuity and Destiny” (Rabbi Marvin Hier); and “The Tuition Crisis and Seven Ways to Address It: An Existential Challenge for the Jewish Community” (Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb).

Those are not the subjects of a cocky movement.

They feel more like the subjects of a marketing seminar, as if an OU committee got together and said: Our brand is being threatened by a secular world that does not share our values. How do we deal with this threat without isolating ourselves?

I sensed some of this anxiety when I went to B’nai David Judea Congregation on Shabbat morning to hear Rabbi Weinreb, the executive director of the OU, give the weekly sermon.

Right off the bat, the rabbi brought up that all-consuming annual threat to Jewish identity: Christmas. How should Orthodox Jews navigate in a Christian world, especially at this time of year, when the symbols of Christianity are so dominant?

Rabbi Weinreb quoted a scholar who is part of the Conservative movement (professor Elliot Dorff) to explain a key difference between Judaism and Christianity: In Judaism, beliefs flow from behavior, while in Christianity, behavior flows from beliefs. The Jewish tradition doesn’t ask us to believe in doing good, or even to feel good, before actually doing good. We’re supposed to do it anyway.

And what is this “good”? For the Torah observant, the rabbi went on, it revolves around the Shulchan Aruch, the code of halacha (Jewish law) compiled in the 16th century. Just like the Constitution of the United States is the timeless code of law that protects our free society, the halacha is the timeless code of law that protects Judaism’s and the Jewish people’s continued survival.

In this world of law, no subject is too small. Is the new coloring agent on M&M chocolates kosher according to the OU? No sweat, the rabbi assured us. The Shulchan Aruch provides the answers.

Then the rabbi complicated the picture: The halacha doesn’t have all the answers, he admitted. How could it? Who knew, for example, about stem cell research 500 years ago? What do we do when the halacha doesn’t spell things out?

The rabbi used the Torah portion of the week to introduce the metaphor of the bow and arrow. When the law is not clear, the rabbi explained, we must tremble before God and aim very, very carefully, as with a bow and arrow. It’s with this metaphorical bow and arrow that the OU decided to come out in favor of stem cell research a few years ago.

The Orthodox way, the rabbi concluded, is not that it refuses to re-examine Jewish law to reflect changing circumstances, but that it is extremely careful before doing so. He called it the “poetry in Halacha,” and quoted a well-known saying by Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook: “Just like there are rules in poetry, there is poetry in rules.”

Apparently, though, that is too much poetry for some people.

When you talk to Orthodox machers behind the scenes, you hear about this silent anxiety today in the Orthodox world about some of its members “flipping” into the Yeshiva world and becoming ultra-Orthodox. This subject didn’t make it to the OU Convention, and it’s not likely to ever make it. It’s simply too awkward for an Orthodox movement to acknowledge that it is not Orthodox enough for some of its members.

Maybe that’s why we’re always hearing about the Orthodox movement moving more and more to the right. It’s one thing to feel threatened by the seductive come-ons of a secular society, but to feel threatened by a “more religious” movement, one that is even more obedient of Jewish law? That cuts too close to the bone.

This might also explain the safe public agenda of the OU convention, where the “enemy” is that easy target used by religious movements everywhere: The modern world and its empty values.

No wonder there’s anxiety in the Orthodox world. As if the white beard of Santa Claus wasn’t enough, now you have the black beards of the ultra-Orthodox, which seduce you with their own antidote to the modern world: the promise of absolute certainty.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Interfaith panel wrestles with troubling texts:<BR>Will the real ‘chosen’ please rise?

“We learn who we are through struggling with text,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. “We must learn from the scars, from the blemishes, from the ugly parts of our textual tradition, our history and our faith.”

Scholars, clergy and seminarians gathered this week at the Luxe Hotel to discuss troubling passages and ideas in Christianity, Judaism and Islam, and ways of understanding them in modern times, as part of “Troubling Traditions: Wrestling With Problem Passages,” a conference co-sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University.

While many of the presenters and attendees at the Oct. 15-16 conference were from the more liberal strands of their religions — few mainstream Orthodox or hardcore evangelicals were present — the hope for the meetings is that it will slowly transform the more extreme pockets, or at least save the moderates from them.

“I think we have to teach these texts to our children,” Diamond said. “I worry if we don’t, others will take them out of context and put a real negative spin — with potentially very dangerous consequences.”

In a session on chosenness — a timely talk given Conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s Oct. 11 comment, “We just want Jews to be perfected … that is what Christians consider themselves: perfected Jews” — speakers addressed how adherents have taken troubling passages literally and disseminated the resulting ideas to the world.

The Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, refers to a problematic passage in the Gospel of Mark: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” He says the authors of the text were primarily concerned with the faith of Christians in the second century.

“Even today some narrowly define it even further, that outside the Catholic church there is no salvation,” he said.

However, he said, the modern interpretation is that believers of other faiths who engage in “the sincere practice of what is good in their own religion,” will receive salvation.

“And they shall receive salvation in Jesus Christ even though they do not acknowledge him,” he said.

In the end, Smith said, the task set before his co-religionists “is to formulate a theology of the multiplicity of God without diminishing the unique privilege of our belief.”

How does any religion assert its own uniqueness while at the same time allowing for other faiths?

Each faith stakes a claim over chosenness.

Jews turn to Deuteronomy, “For you are a people consecrated to the Lord Your God: of all the peoples of the earth, the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people.”

In the Christan Bible, it says in Peter, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the glorious deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

And as it says in the Quran, “You are the best community that has been brought forth for humanity, commanding the reputable and forbidding the disreputable, and believing in God”; and in the Sura it says, “This day I have perfected your religion for you, completed my favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.”

“The real origin of chosenness has to do with the structure of tribalism in general,” said professor Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the study of Jewish-Muslim interrelations at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Israel’s God was the God of Israel just as the Moabites God was the God of Moab.

“It’s logical that the relationship would be unique,” he said.

“Just as the God of Israel fought for Israel against its enemies, the God of Moab fought its battles,” he said. “The notion of chosenness became a powerful tool to claim authenticity to critique the authenticity of others.”

This is not to say that Firestone rejects the notion of the Jews’ chosenness.

“I am not able or willing to throw it out,” he said. “I remain perched on the sharp horns of a dilemma. I can’t disregard the texts – they are part of the divine word; they can’t simply be jettisoned,” he said. But on the other hand, “they can’t be taken as a simple truth.”

Definitive answers on Jewish chosenness are not exactly forthcoming.

“A good Jew doesn’t want to find definitive answers,” said conference attendee Gerald Bubis, the founding director of the School of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles School of HUC-JIR. “A good Jew wants to find new questions.”

UCLA Director Rabbi Chaim Seidler Feller, who chaired the session on chosenness, offered a different, psychological perspective: “It sounds like the ploy of minority — we may be insignificant numerically, but we are God’s chosen; if you are going to be beaten up, it might be comforting to know that you are chosen.”

But in today’s world, Seidler Feller suggested, the concept of being the chosen people may have to be discarded. He himself revises the prayers, “Ki Banu Bacharta Mikol Ha’amim” (For you have chosen us among all the nations), to say: For you have chosen us with all the nations.

In a subsequent Q-and-A session, the Rev. Vartkes Kassouni of the Morningside Presbyterian Church of Fullerton suggested: “Chosenness can be understood in terms of mission than instead of identity.”

Firestone agreed. Perhaps this is all God’s plan: if he’d wanted everyone to be the same religion, he would have made everyone the same religion; maybe there are different religions so “they would compete with one another in good works,” he said.

The conference was heavily attended by Christians and Jews from various denominations, but there was a dearth of Muslim attendees and lecturers.

Too-bright spotlight on religion marks Presidential bids

Should candidates for the White House have to pass a religious test? The Constitution says no, but increasingly American political culture says otherwise.

The excessive focus on religion is already evident in the early days of the 2008 presidential race. That’s bad news for the Jews who, for all the talk of Judeo-Christian values, don’t meet the religious benchmarks of those who have set themselves up as the political judges of a nation they still insist is a Christian one.

You don’t need to dig very deep to find examples of this partisan piety. It’s not as prominent on the Democratic side, because the party’s liberal base generally draws from faith groups that do not like to make a big production of religion in politics.

Still, most of the Democratic contenders are already working steadily to establish their religious credentials, anticipating faith-based attacks from the eventual Republican nominee in next year’s general election.

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) sometimes talks like a church vestry member; Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has appeared behind high-profile pulpits and has frequently invoked his Christianity. Former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) offered a public prayer for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre “in Christ’s name” — not a mortal sin but hardly typical talk for a liberal Democrat running for president.

The faith-based politicking is far more intense in the Republican realm, where the evangelical vote will play a key, and perhaps, decisive role in 2008 and where a handful of key Christian leaders have become religious kingmakers.

The arbiters of political piety, such as Focus on the Family leader Dr. James Dobson, appear willing to judge candidates not just on the issues but on whether they are sufficiently Christian. That was the case earlier this year when Dobson seemed to dismiss a possible campaign by former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) by telling U.S. News and World Report that “I don’t think he’s a Christian.”

Thompson is, in fact, a Christian, but some evangelical leaders imply you’re not a real Christian unless you subscribe to their particular version of the religion and to their political theology, as well.

At the same time, Dobson gave his tacit blessing to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who came on the Focus on the Family radio program, confessed his adultery and sought Dobson’s absolution. He got it. Dobson, so critical of former President Bill Clinton’s infidelity, apparently had more Christian charity for Gingrich.

You’d think that double standard would turn Dobson into a political joke, but it hasn’t. On the contrary, Republican candidates continue to court him and his fellow Christian right political leaders with a desperation that speaks to their huge influence in American politics.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who once described the late Rev. Jerry Falwell as an “agent of intolerance” and said that close ties to religious right leaders were hurting GOP interests, is now fervently courting those same leaders. Gingrich, widely thought to be just biding his time before tossing his hat in the presidential ring, recently gave a speech at Falwell’s Liberty University that was more sermon than political pitch, attacking a “growing culture of radical secularism [that] declares that the nation cannot publicly profess the truths on which it was founded.”

Last month, evangelical activist Bill Keller told 2.4 million subscribers to his e-mail list that “if you vote for [former Massachusetts Gov.] Mitt Romney,
you are voting for Satan!”

It’s not just the religious conservatives who are bashing Romney not for his political views — which, after all, are hard to pin down, since they change from minute to minute — but for his faith.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, in a debate on politics and religion, said “as for the one Mormon running for office, those that really believe in God will defeat him anyway.”

Huh? Does that mean Mormon’s don’t really believe in God or the right one, anyway? Sure sounds like it.

The Romney situation is shocking both for the openness of the sectarian attacks against him and for his defensive reaction as he tries to show he’s as much a conservative Christian as the Dobsons and Pat Robertsons.

Most other Republicans are responding similarly, as religion takes on a greater political role than ever in 2008 — not just a generic faith perspective based on the core values most major religions share but a kind of “I’m more Christian than the other guy” competition.

In 2000, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) sharply criticized Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), then the Democratic vice presidential nominee, for his frequent references to his religious faith on the campaign trail.

Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, wasn’t trying to convert anyone or say his religion trumped others, but the ADL rightly argued that when religion becomes just another campaign talking point, it both debases faith and leads to the use of religious tests and benchmarks in the political process.

That, the ADL argued, undermines American democracy and our tradition of religious tolerance. But as the 2008 elections move into high gear, it is evident most politicians have not gotten the memo.

Who was Moses? Oh wait, I think I know that one…

Stephen Prothero, author of the new book “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know-And Doesn’t” and chair of the religion department at Boston University showed up on “The Daily Show” recently, hawking the fact that his book contains a quiz to test the reader’s “religious literacy.” Which raises the questions: Can a 15-question quiz test religious literacy?

Should we gauge religious literacy in this way?

As a divinity school student, I understand that Prothero, a professor of religious studies, is not advocating a simple solution to the problem of American religious illiteracy. His book is meant as a starting point for Americans; but with what aim?

In the book’s introduction, Prothero insists that religious literacy is a “civic enterprise,” and citizens should be sufficiently educated on religion(s) to be capable of taking part in “religiously inflected public debates.”

Every important moment in American history was influenced by religion and religious values, including the Civil War, the fight against slavery and the civil rights movement. To understand our history requires that we understand religion. But Prothero fails to acknowledge that he means “Christianity” rather than “religion.” This misuse of religion (in general) where Christianity (specifically) should be used is rampant throughout his book.

His first chapter gives some troubling statistics: only one-third of American adults surveyed know that Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount; most couldn’t name the first book of the Bible; and only half of American adults could name one of the four gospels. Interestingly enough, evangelical Christians performed only moderately better than other Christians on the survey. (Prothero hopes to demonstrate Americans’ religious illiteracy by demonstrating their Christian illiteracy; again we see his Christian-centric tendencies.)

At first these statistics seemed somewhat drastic. Can Americans be so biblically uninformed? But an anecdote from my recent Birthright trip to Israel seems to support the case. One night, as we gathered in a desert tent, some of my fellow (Jewish) travelers asked me, the divinity school student and (apparent) resident expert on all things religious, to give them a crash course in Judaism.

“Who was Moses, again?” one woman asked.

Maybe Prothero’s depressing snapshot of Americans is accurate.

But Prothero’s attack on religious tolerance isn’t accurate. He laments how the push for tolerance “obscured” the differences between faiths and set us on the dark and doomed path toward “religious amnesia.” Americans chose to “jettison particulars” between traditions in order to bow down to the “altar of tolerance.” However, religious tolerance doesn’t require watering down traditions. Rather, recognizing similarity among traditions is merely the starting point for learning about different faiths.

It is easier to think that Islam, Judaism and Christianity all worship the same God than to recognize the deep differences among them; but we don’t need to stop there in our religious education.

Prothero’s attack on tolerance doesn’t recognize the very basic ways in which we make sense of differences. Since “(il)literacy” is academia’s new buzz word for religious issues, I want to examine the question of religious education through the metaphor of linguistic literacy.

When I started learning Spanish, I constantly translated what I heard or read into English. My ability to understand without immediate translation slowly improved. Finally, after many years, I studied in Spain. I found myself writing in my journal in a mix of Spanish and English — what a glorious yet hard-won moment.

Comparing religious literacy to the experience of linguistic literacy, Prothero’s downplay of traditions’ commonalities is problematic. How can a person learn without making connections to his or her own faith or life? If language learning is any indication, we must have some shared points in order to move forward, so we may eventually be fluent. Language programs don’t expect students to be fluent from the beginning; why should we expect that from religious learning?

The more important question is: how do we recognize religious literacy? Perhaps we will be religiously literate when we no longer need to translate a new faith into our own terms. When we can think in the language of a new faith, then we will be religiously literate in that particular faith-language; but again, common terms are a great starting point on the path toward literacy.

An observant Jew can begin to understand the experience of Ramadan by considering the experience of the Yom Kippur fast; of course, there is still much to learn about Ramadan, and it differs from Yom Kippur in many ways. A Jew who is religiously literate in Islam becomes so when he or she no longer needs to look for some similarity in Judaism when facing Islamic practices.

We must try to become literate in the languages of diverse traditions. While Prothero acknowledges that we cannot speak a general language but must instead choose just one, he doesn’t explain the importance of this choice. He stresses the differences between religions while insisting on the need for basic “religious literacy.” It seems more helpful to know how to speak one language fluently than to know how to ask for the bathroom in seven. If we don’t have time to become literate in multiple traditions, then a more narrow but thorough focus is best.

The “civic enterprise” is best served when we can speak intelligently about our own faith, and use that faith as a way to begin to understand other faiths. Of course, the more languages we acquire, the better; but we can’t value the importance of basic religious knowledge above deep understanding.

Accepting that each religious tradition is its own complex language clarifies why Prothero’s quiz is troublesome. No student would consider herself literate in Spanish if she knew 15 Spanish words. Prothero acknowledges that his quiz and dictionary are only preliminary tools; yet the subtitle of the book insinuates that it provides the American reader with the necessary tools.

As stated in his introduction, Prothero aims to enable readers to discuss political issues involving religion in acceptable terms and appropriate language. This is not religious literacy. Perhaps the book’s title should be “How To Gain Very Basic Religious Fluency for Discussions on American Politics.”

Then again, I doubt such a book would have earned Prothero a spot on “The Daily Show.”

Alexis Gewertz is currently pursuing her master’s degree at Harvard Divinity School and specializes in Judaism, Islam and religion in education.

Missionaries impossible

When I walk into the Santa Monica restaurant, it’s easy to spot the Sisters, as they are young, fresh-faced, sitting straight backed, looking expectantly at the door.

They’re not nuns, but missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which means Mormon by the way, although I know as little about their religion as they know about mine.

I promised a Mormon friend I would meet with them. They had met with some Orthodox rabbis, but my friend thought I could give them a broader, nondenominational perspective on Judaism.

“We wanted to understand your religion,” says one of the sisters in a lilting South African accent. Incongruously, she works Beverly Hills and Bel Air.

“There are a lot of Jews there,” she says ruefully implying that it’s not easy for a black, South African Mormon missionary to go cold-calling there.

“We want to know about all religions,” says the other, a blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked 22-year-old straight from Central Casting (Salt Lake City).

What they want from me is a basic understanding of Judaism.

“Why?” I ask.

“We don’t want to say the wrong things, come at the wrong times. We want to know who we are talking to.”

“Talking to about what?” I ask.

“The message of Jesus,” they say.

Duh. They’re missionaries.

It’s at this point of the lunch that many others would walk away, or maybe start a covert disinformation campaign (“Jews have horns and worship the grass and they eat shoes”) just to thwart them.

But I don’t. Hasn’t Borat done enough?

Besides, aren’t Jews meant to be a light onto other nations?

They pull out their questionnaire.

“What are the fundamentals of the Jewish faith?” they ask.

Hmm. Good question.

“What’s a fundamental?” I ask.

“What do Jews think about the afterlife? Do they believe in reincarnation? What do they think about the Messiah?”

“Did you ever hear the phrase, ‘Two Jews, Three Shuls?'” I say.

They shake their heads keenly, as if I am about to pass on a most important tenet of my faith. I consider telling them the joke about the Jews stranded on the desert island (the one with the punch line: “that’s the synagogue I don’t pray in.”) but I could tell from their earnestness they aren’t ready for the subject of Jewish humor, cynicism and a long tradition of apostasy, Jesus being the prime example.

Even though I can readily explain the concept of the World to Come (“Did you hear the one about the rabbi in heaven posted next to the blonde in the bikini?”), eschatology isn’t my really my strong point, and I’m not sure it’s the point of Judaism.

“The point of being Jewish is here on this earth: To follow God’s commandments, create a Jewish family, contribute to the Jewish community, make the world a better place,” I say.

God help me, I’m beginning to sound like them, I think. On the other hand, my rabbis would be proud.

“There’s so much to learn,” Sister Salt Lake City gushes.

Oh, you don’t know the half of it, sister.

Sister South Africa looks slightly overwhelmed, like she didn’t know how to use any of the information I’d given her in the tony neighborhood of Beverly Hills.

“Are there any times I shouldn’t go into a Jewish house?” she asks.

I decide to be honest with her, poor girl. First apartheid, now this. Why didn’t they send her to an easier neighborhood, like South L.A. or Watts?

“Look, it doesn’t matter when you knock on someone’s door, because if they’re Jewish they’re probably not going to talk to you no matter what,” I say. “They see your name tag, and the words ‘Church’ and ‘Jesus’ and the door will slam.”

She nodded miserably. The past week she’d spent four hours in a Jewish neighborhood and didn’t get invited into one home.

“Jews don’t like missionaries,” I explain. “We’ve had centuries of being persecuted, corralled and decimated — often by the Catholic Church or its adherents — and so we’re not about to convert to Christianity.” (Mormonism is a sect of Christianity, apparently. Who knew?)

“But I don’t want to convert them — I can’t hardly convert Christians. I just want to get the message across,” she says. “And I want to get to know them.”

Hmm. Get to know them. Why would a Jew want to get to know a missionary?

“Well, maybe you could tell them that,” I say. “That you know they’re Jewish, and they don’t like missionaries, but you wanted to have a discussion on the tenets of your faiths,” I offer this though I doubt it will work. But if they only need to say their message, not convert anyone, then who knows? It’s like taking a flyer from an underpaid temp on the street. Even if you’re going to toss it, it helps them.

She looks cheered at the prospect of a new tactic. She recalls some successes: a group of teenagers in Beverly Hills, an old Jewish man who said he didn’t believe in any religion. Nothing to get into heaven with, if you ask me.

As we walk down Colorado Boulevard, they with copious notes they plan to hand out to other missionaries, Sister South Africa wonders aloud why she hasn’t been sent to some place easier, to Kenya, for example, where “my own people are.”

But, “Los Angeles is a strange place,” she says. “There are a lot of lost souls here.”

I don’t know whether I’ve helped her or hindered her, helped my own people or set myself on a path straight to our version of hell, but on this one point, if no other, I have to agree.

Local minister, dressed as High Priest, stages Yom Kippur service for evangelicals

On Sunday morning, while Jews are preparing for Kol Nidre, a group of Christians in Simi Valley will be participating in a Yom Kippur service of their own.

For the fifth year in a row, Kevin Dieckilman, senior pastor of the evangelical Simi Hills Christian Church, will lead a High Holiday service designed to teach Christians their Jewish roots.

Christians have been known to host Passover seders, portraying Jesus as the paschal lamb, but rarely — if ever before — have Christians observed the Jewish Day of Atonement.

For Dieckilman, 56, acknowledging the day only makes sense. “If it’s the highest holy day for the people of God, then Christians should not overlook it,” he said.

On the morning before Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown on Sunday, Dieckilman will don a high priest costume. He will wear a blue robe and white hat, affixed with a golden crown.

Over the robe, he will put on a breastplate with colorful glittered ovals, representing the 12 tribes of Israel.

Bells on the costume will jingle when he walks, because in the time of the Temples, “the high priest never walked in the presence of God without the sound of worship,” Dieckilman said.
For the service, Dieckilman will create a replica of the biblical tabernacle, or “Tent of Meeting,” which the Israelites used as a sanctuary while wandering the desert after fleeing Egypt.

An ark, containing a Torah, a jar filled with “manna” (bread) and a rod representing Aaron’s staff, will stand on stage, as will a sacrificial altar. Red drapes embroidered with golden guardian angels will create a backdrop.

In his sermon, Dieckilman will explain the meaning of these biblical symbols. He will also talk about Jesus.

Dieckilman said the primary goal of the service was to help Christians understand their Jewish heritage. Too often, Christian churches ignore the Torah and focus only on the New Testament, he said. They forget that the Christian religion owes a lot to Judaism.

Christians have a shameful past when it comes to Jews, he added.

“What the history of the Christian church has done to the Jews is despicable,” he said. “We can only come humbly and honestly to the Jewish community to ask forgiveness and offer our apologies.”

Dieckilman has studied Torah, learned Hebrew and been to Israel. In fact, he takes a group of Christians to Israel each year. On Sukkot, Dieckilman builds booths at the back of his church. He has hosted Passover seders. And on Yom Kippur, he fasts.

In his office, Dieckilman displays a Star of David, a shofar and a kippah — but no cross. (“Now that you mention it,” he said with a smile, “I better get one.”)

The way Dieckilman sees it, Jews are God’s Chosen People and Christians are simply “grafted on” to that group.

“There’s no question Jews are the people blessed by God and chosen by God to bring redemption to earth,” he said.

David N. Myers, professor of Jewish history and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA, said, “A Christian church seeking out its Jewish roots without attempting to uproot them is historically significant.”

“Christianity spent a lot of time — centuries — denying its explicitly Jewish foundation,” he said.

Since the conclusion in 1965 of Vatican II, which denied the claim that Jews killed Jesus, many Christians have come to assume more sympathetic attitudes toward Jews, Myers said. Christian scholars have recast Jesus as a Jew, and Jews are typically no longer held responsible for Jesus’ death.

Shimon Erem, president of Israel-Christian Nexus, a nonprofit group that brings together Christians and Jews in support of Israel, has been to the service twice. He went because Dieckilman, a member of the group’s advisory board, invited him.

Erem, an 84-year-old former Israeli military general, said he was “very impressed.” What moved him was the attitude of “great respect and awe” displayed by the Christians attending the ceremony.

Erem praised the service as “only one part of the effort of the evangelical community to respond to the Jewish community with outstretched arms.”

Still, some Jews are troubled by the idea of a group of Christians observing Yom Kippur.
“I just feel that it’s our day, and these are our rituals,” said Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei of the Conservative Sinai Temple in Westwood.

“While I’m sure his intentions are good,” Schuldenfrei added, “I think that … just to look at Yom Kippur in a biblical vacuum doesn’t quite capture the essence of Yom Kippur today.”
Jews do recollect the way Yom Kippur was observed in Temple times, he said. “But we relive it through our words and not through dressing up or creating physical structures. It’s in our poems, in our songs, in our prayers.”

Local Christian Leaders Maintain Support for Israel

Even in the face of recent international criticism of Israel’s war tactics, American Christians, especially Evangelicals, have remained steadfast in support of Jews and the Jewish state. Whereas vicious anti-Zionist attacks in much of Europe and the Arab world have lately bled into rank anti-Semitism, even those American Christians critical of Israel’s recent actions have gone to great lengths to stress their support for the nation’s right to exist.

As a tenuous cease-fire takes hold in Lebanon, local Christian leaders, like the majority of Americans, appear largely supportive of Israel’s military campaigns, according to Board of Rabbis of Southern California Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark S. Diamond. He says that for the most part they believe that Israel has acted properly to ensure its security and bring about a lasting peace.

Simply put, as David Brog pointed out in his recent book “Standing With Israel” (Front Line, 2006), American Christians have a more favorable view of Israel than Christians almost anywhere else in the world, and that sentiment has not abated in the face of the recent embattlements.

The Rev. Lorraine Coconato of the Leaves of Healing Tabernacle in Northridge considers herself among Israel’s staunchest supporters. She said the 70 members of her new Evangelical congregation pray often and passionately for Israel.

Coconato, has visited the Jewish state twice, including a nine-day mission in 2005; she said she has a special relationship with the country.

“To me, Israel is a home away from home,” Coconato said. “The Bible comes alive in Israel.”

She also serves as vice president of the Israel-Christian Nexus, a pro-Israel group.

“When I was there, I felt like this is God’s land; these are God’s people, and I’m connected to them by faith in the one, true living God,” she said.

David Hocking leads weekly Bible classes in Orange County and believes God made an unbreakable covenant with Israel and the Jewish people. Hocking also runs a national radio ministry called “Hope for Today,” and he said he regularly speaks out in support of Israel and encourages all Christians to do the same.

“You know, the biggest subject in the Bible next to God himself is Israel. It’s mentioned 2,655 times,” Hocking said. “Whether we like it or not, God chose [Israel] above all nations of the world to show his love and faithfulness. His covenant is everlasting.”

If Evangelical Christians base their support for Israel and the Jews largely on theological grounds, at least one African American Israel partisan would add the shared histories of Jews and blacks to that equation.

The Rev. Sherman Gordon of the New Philadelphia African Methodist Episcopal Church in Rancho Dominguez said Jews and African Americans have both experienced brutal repression — the Jews with the Holocaust and African Americans with slavery. Both groups also have survived — not always comfortably he added — in diasporas far from their original homelands.

Given those commonalities, Jews and blacks should “come together and sit down at the table of brotherhood,” Gordon said.

Mormons have long felt an affinity for Israel and the Jews, said Mark Paredes director of Jewish relations for the Mormon Church in Southern California. As a reflection of that affinity, he said, the Mormon church recently contributed $50,000 to Magen David Adom, the Israeli affiliate of the International Red Cross, to help with ambulance response, among other needs. The church also sent aid to Lebanon.

On a personal note, Israel has held a special place in Paredes’ soul since childhood. Growing up in Michigan, he said he felt “at home” visiting synagogues. Later, Paredes had several “marvelous spiritual experiences” while posted in the mid-1990s as a U.S. Foreign Service officer in Tel Aviv.

“My support for Israel in this conflict is unconditional,” Paredes said. “I really think they are battling for their survival, and I think all decent peoples need to side with those who are battling terrorism.”

Peter Laarman’s support of Israel is anything but unqualified. As the executive director of Progressive Christians Uniting sees it, Israel’s military campaign in Lebanon went too far and only succeeded in galvanizing support for Hezbollah.

Still, Laarman described himself as a “reluctant critic” and stressed his support for a two-state solution. He said he condemned the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as the latter’s rocket attacks on the Israeli city of Haifa.

“I would never vilify Israel as a bad actor here,” Laarman said. “But I would say I have serious questions about proportionality and where this is leading for Israel and for the region.”

The Rev. Gwynne Guibord also said he has no interest in vilifying Israel or any of the other combatants in the Middle East. Assigning blame, said the officer of ecumenical and inter-religious concerns for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, does nothing but waste time. Instead, everybody, whether Christian, Muslim or Jew, should push to end the fighting throughout the region, she said.
“Everybody lay down your arms!” Guibord said. “Take off your shoes! The ground on which you stand is holy: Palestine, Israel, Iraq and Lebanon. At some point, as the family of humanity, we need to say enough is enough.”

Religious Right, Left Find Political Guide in Bible

The fast-emerging religious left contrasts sharply on many issues — from homosexual marriage to socialized medicine — with its longer-established competitor, the
religious right. Yet these two Bible-citing political movements equally have woken up to the realization that there is something intrinsically American about using the Bible as a guide to practical politics. That’s good news and a blow to secularist orthodoxy.

As I have previously noted, the current debate about immigration signals a major sea change in rhetoric from the left. Against Republicans who want to get tough on illegal immigrants, amnesty advocates like Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) have invoked the Christian Bible image of the good samaritan and Matthew 25 on welcoming the “stranger.”

If Clinton becomes a presidential candidate in the next national election, then 2008 will likely prove to be the year of the Bible. That would please religious left gurus (and best-selling authors) like Rabbi Michael Lerner (The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country From the Religious Right), the Rev. Jim Wallis (God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) and former President Jimmy Carter (Our Endangered Values: America’s Moral Crisis).

When I reported in the book industry magazine, Publishers Weekly, on a raft of forthcoming books dealing with the intersection of faith and politics, I found that a large majority — applying spiritual insights to issues related to sex, race, poverty, the environment, you name it — were by religious writers with a definite leftward orientation. “Spiritual,” of course, is not a synonym for good, true or even credible.

Clearly the religious left reads books. Is it prepared to make a difference at the grass-roots level? Well this month, a new outfit, the Network of Spiritual Progressives, drew a thousand activists to a religious left teach-in in Washington, D.C. — not enough to fill a megachurch but still evidence that something important is percolating.

That liberals would contemplate shrugging off their customary secularism is new. But the insight that government and the good book go together may be traced back to the beginnings of the American political tradition.

Our country’s founders were disciples of the 17th century liberal philosopher John Locke, whose major book is the Two Treatises of Government. When Locke’s work is assigned in college classes, the first treatise is usually skipped over. That’s too bad, because it is devoted almost entirely to biblical interpretation, with numerous citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, including learned commentary on the Hebrew language.

Locke’s more pessimistic counterpart in English political theory, Thomas Hobbes, similarly expends about half of his great book, Leviathan, on drawing out the political lessons of the Bible, contrasting the ideal “Christian Commonwealth” with the “Kingdom of Darkness.” He defined the latter as the condition of “spiritual darkness from the misinterpretation of Scripture.”

Locke and Hobbes followed in the footsteps of earlier thinkers, as Israeli scholars Yoram Hazony and Fania Oz-Salzberger have pointed out recently. When Protestant political theory wished to find a way to cut loose from the Catholic Church and its thinking on the relationship between faith and state, English, Dutch and Swiss Christian Hebraists from the 16th century on pointed to the Hebrew Bible as the world’s first and best political text.

Philosophers like Cornelius Bertram, Petrus Cunaeus and John Selden wrote works with titles such as, respectively, The Jewish State (1574), The Hebrew Republic (1617) and Law of Nature and the Nations According to the Hebrews (1640). Christian-Hebraic political thought achieved a practical breakthrough with the English Puritan revolution, which took the Jewish commonwealth described in the Bible as its model. The Puritans later brought these ideas to our shores, declaring that they would found a “New Israel” here. America’s political roots truly lie in the Bible.

Among these thinkers, it was never the intention to simplistically copy biblical institutions like the Jewish high court (the Sanhedrin), the Jewish king, the Jerusalem Temple with its priests and so on. Rather, the idea was to discover philosophical principles in the Scriptures that could be translated into a modern secular government.

Those principles included the superiority of a transcendent moral law to any law the government might invent and the belief that men and women should be held morally responsible for their deeds.

Such ideas, still controversial today, deserve to be discussed openly in public forums, including political ones, with due attention to their source, the Bible, and its proper interpretation. For what separates the religious left from the religious right is precisely what Hobbes warned of, the question of how to read Scripture correctly. Religious conservatives and liberals can agree that it is important to get the Bible’s meaning right, while debating what that meaning actually is.

So let the debate begin.

Acts of Faith

The Purpose-Driven Friday Night Live
His book has sold 25 million copies, his congregation has 22,000 weekly attendees, and now … he’s coming to Friday Night Live.

The Rev. Rick Warren, who inspired the evangelical church movement with “The Purpose-Driven Life” series and leads the Purpose Driven Network with 400,000 ministers and priests worldwide, will share his insights Friday, June 16, at what is the area’s most popular Shabbat service, Friday Night Live at Westwood’s Sinai Temple.

“He’s built a giant church that attracts people of all ages,” said Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. “There is something in his message that touches the contemporary spirit — and perhaps he can help us learn how to do that.” Although the monthly Sinai service, which draws in more than 1,000 people, usually takes place the second Friday of the month, Sinai added an extra one for June.

“I hope that we can learn from him and he from us,” Wolpe said.

How it came to be that a mega-church leader is coming to speak to the Jewish community goes back some 10 years, to when Ron Wolfson was first planning Synagogue 2000, an organization dedicated to reinvigorating the synagogue movement.

“Back then, most people had not heard of Rick Warren, except a growing legion of pastors,” said Wolfson, dean of education at the University of Judaism.

He and Synagogue 2000 co-founder Larry Hoffman resolved to bring the first Synagogue 2000 conference to see Warren.

“We wanted the people in the synagogue world to learn what we had discovered — how religious organizations were responding to the new great awakening in religious life,” Wolfson said.

Fast forward a decade, and Synagogue 2000 renamed itself Synagogue 3000, with an intention to focus on leadership. Last summer the group invited 17 community leaders to a June conference, where two attendees connected: Rick Warren and Craig Taubman, the musical director of Friday Night Live.

“It’s an interfaith exchange,” Taubman told The Journal. “We’re sharing our faith and the way we practice our faith for deeper understanding of what it is.”

Friday Night Live takes place at Sinai Temple at 7:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.sinaitemple.org.

OU West Coast Honors Bridge-Builder Kalinsky
Twenty years is not a small amount of time, not when it comes to the Los Angeles Jewish community, and especially not when it comes to the Orthodox community.

In 1986, when Rabbi Alan Kalinsky first came out to Los Angeles, there weren’t many kosher restaurants and only a handful of Orthodox synagogues and day schools. Kalinsky had been sent out by the Orthodox Union (OU) to helm its West Coast branch.

“There were many people who were committed to seeing an adult presence here,” said Kalinsky, who is being honored for his 20 years of service at the OU West Coast Dinner on June 19.

His duties were to reestablish relationships between the synagogues and lay leadership from the West Coast to the Orthodox Union’s mission, which seeks to advance traditional Judaism and bring Jews closer to their heritage.

Over the years the Orthodox community, like the rest of the Los Angeles Jewish community, has grown, and along with it the number of kosher restaurants, day schools and high schools, mikvahs and synagogues, and West Coast Jewry has become more important to the East Coast-centric Jewish community.

“I think many organizations have grown tremendously in the last 20-25 years, as there’s been a shift in population to the Southeast and West Coast, and many organizations recognized that there were burgeoning populations they needed to reach out to,” Kalinsky told The Journal.

Like many Jewish organizations, the West Coast OU is looking now to identify future leaders and involve younger people in leadership positions, as well as reaching out to the greater, non-Orthodox community. For example, the OU is teaming up with The Jewish Federation to host a pre-Shabbaton for next year’s General Assembly.

Along with the growth of the Orthodox community has come some problems.

“The greatest challenge is trying to be a unifying factor, trying to bring together the different groups identifying themselves as Orthodox and making themselves conscious of one another — the umbrella is capable of embracing everyone from all the way to the right to the center to those who are somewhat to the left,” Kalinsky said. “We live in a world where people are very judgmental of one another’s position and accepting each other as different. And in the Orthodox community, there’s a lot more that unifies us than divides us.”

Also to be honored at the dinner will be Fifth District City Councilman Jack Weiss, “for his dedication to the safety and security of the citizens of his district and for his special help in protecting the Jewish community during times of crisis.”


Jews-by-Choice: A Look 10 Years Later

It’s a Shavuot tradition to read the biblical story of Ruth, whose marriage to a Jew — and her bond with her mother-in-law — led her to embrace wholeheartedly and inspirationally the Jewish faith.

Even today, many, perhaps most, converts enter Judaism through a relationship with a Jewish spouse. Since 1986, the Lewis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism program at the University of Judaism has enrolled almost 3,000 potential Jews-by-Choice. The vast majority attends the course with spouses and sweethearts, prior to building a Jewish home together. It makes for a heady atmosphere: love and hope are in the air.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned. Some converts simply drift away from Judaism. Although the Miller program provides emotional support for graduates, a crisis — such as an illness, a serious injury, a divorce or a death — can shift a new Jew in another direction.

Ten years ago, I interviewed a dozen graduates of the Miller program who had followed through with conversion. Although Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who has long directed the program, tries hard to keep track of alumni, many slip out of his database. He was able to supply me with contact information for 10 Jews-by-Choice I had interviewed when I wrote my previous article. Of the seven I managed to reach, all still consider themselves Jewish after their own fashion, but only a handful are currently synagogue members.

Here are updated accounts of five converts who consented to have their stories told 10 years later.

Paul and Amber Kalt
Paul and Amber Kalt

The Survivors

Paul Kalt’s mother lost her whole family at Auschwitz. Kalt grew up in a household where the survival of the Jewish people was a central value. So when he fell in love with a Methodist, Amber Davidheiser, he asked her to consider embracing Judaism.

She promised to look into it. Ultimately, she chose to become Jewish in June 1997, five months before their wedding. Never an unquestioning Christian, she feels that Judaism suits her well: “The values and ideals and beliefs are really what I was brought up with anyhow.”

Today, the Kalts, who together run a construction business, have four children, ages 5 years to 11 months.

The biggest surprise for Amber Kalt, 37, is that she’s become an ardent supporter of Jewish day schools. She had worried at the start that her children’s secular education would suffer. But once her first child attended kindergarten at West Los Angeles’ Pressman Academy, which is connected with Conservative synagogue Beth Am, her fears were allayed. Her three eldest are now enjoying what she calls “a phenomenal experience” at Pressman.

A loyal Beth Am family, the Kalts squeeze in Beit Tefillah services when they can. At their Beverly Hills home, they hold weekly Shabbat dinners, complete with candles and blessings, and share festive holiday observances.

“In our house, we celebrate Judaism,” Amber Kalt said.

Her mother-in-law first viewed Amber’s conversion with some skepticism, but the relationship has resulted in Paul Kalt becoming far more of an affiliated Jew than in the past.

Amber Kalt said she feels about “98 percent acceptance” by the Jewish community. It’s only when people unknowingly make negative comments about intermarriage in her presence that she becomes uneasy.

Her children, though, know exactly who they are. A classmate on the playground, hearing that one of the young Kalts had visited his grandparents for Christmas, once challenged his Jewish credentials. Five-year-old Jacob proudly replied, “I am Jewish. My grandma and grandpa aren’t Jewish, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Peach Segall
Peach Segall

Going With the Flow

People assume that Peach Segall became a Jew-by-Choice because of her husband. But that’s not entirely true. They had already been married for several years when she decided to share his Jewish heritage.

Partly it was a matter of raising their 4-year-old daughter in a cohesive way. Segall even gave young Gina swimming lessons to prepare her for immersion in a mikvah, as part of a conversion ritual they underwent together.

But for herself, Segall said, “I had never really embraced Christianity, so I never felt it was any great leap.”

Following her 1997 conversion, Segall outpaced her husband in observance. She instituted weekly Shabbat dinners, experimented with kashrut and began walking to Brentwood’s University Synagogue, a Reform congregation, on a regular basis. Her dream was to study Hebrew, perhaps in preparation for a b’nai mitzvah ceremony in which her husband and stepson would also approach the Torah for the first time.

Today, Segall’s ardor for all things Jewish has cooled somewhat. She has drifted away from kashrut, and the Shabbat dinners occur less often. No longer a synagogue member, she still feels aligned with University Synagogue but occasionally drives from her Brentwood home to join her husband’s cousins at a Reconstructionist house of worship, the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue.

Segall said that “I’ve gone through a lot of phases.” Her current passion is her burgeoning career as a rhythm and blues musician, one who also writes songs and leads her own band. (Her Web site — www.peach.us — notes her selection as Blues Artist of the Year at the Los Angeles Music Awards).

There was a time when she turned down gigs that interfered with Shabbat. Now she accepts those jobs and leaves her traveling set of Shabbat candlesticks at home.

This year, barely moved into a new house, Segall contemplated not hosting the family Passover seder. She relented when her daughter, now 12, burst into tears, saying, “That’s one of my favorite holidays.”

But as for bat mitzvah study, this is something she wants Gina to choose on her own. So far, the subject has simply not come up. Segall seems satisfied with her current brand of Judaism, noting that she’s still more observant than most of her friends.

In the long run, “I feel like what I’ve settled into is being a normal West L.A. Jewish woman.”

Michael Morrisette with his wife, Prissi Cohen; daughter, Tillie; and dog, Marcel
Michael Morrisette with his wife, Prissi Cohen; daughter, Tillie; and dog, Marcel.

What He Did for Love

When Michael Morrisette and Prissi Cohen fell in love, they knew they had a problem.

He was from a staunch Catholic family. Most of his seven siblings were graduates of parochial schools, and several had served as altar boys.

She, out of a strong personal commitment to Judaism, had kept kosher from the age of 14. It was clear from the start, said Morrisette, that “if I didn’t convert, she and I wouldn’t have gotten married.”

The young couple completed the University of Judaism’s Introduction to Judaism course in 1994. But Morrisette was not yet ready to change his religious affiliation. For almost two years, he hesitated, wondering, “Is this really right for me?”

Finally he made his choice, officially becoming Jewish just two weeks prior to his wedding in June 1996. To his great relief, his family proved supportive, even attending the beit din (religious court) that formally welcomed him into the Jewish faith.

Today, at 45, Morrisette is a staunch member of a Conservative synagogue, Santa Monica’s Kehillat Ma’arav, where he feels entirely at home: “I love the community. I love the synagogue.”

A restaurateur by profession, he respects but doesn’t observe kashrut, so his wife has adjusted to the fact that he doesn’t follow her lead outside of their Marina del Rey home. Their 5-year-old daughter, Tillie, understands that her parents differ on this issue, at the same time that she mostly takes her mother’s side.

This appreciation of differences also works on the rare occasions when the Morrisettes visit his parents at Christmas time. He likens these visits to “going to someone else’s birthday party.” As he explained, you can enjoy the festivities, but it’s not your special day.

Morrisette regrets that since his conversion, he’s made little time for Jewish study: “There’s more there for me than I’ve allowed into my life.”

He confessed to a fantasy that in 2009, on the 13th anniversary of the year he became a Jew-by-Choice, he will be called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah.

He said there’s nothing about his original faith that he misses, but “I’m glad I really took the time before I signed on the dotted line.”

Cliff Secia
Cliff Secia

Repairing the World

Cliff Secia, now almost 70, has lived a full life. Born a Catholic of Portuguese descent, he once spent four years in a seminary studying for the priesthood. He found it wonderful intellectual training but described himself as a bad seminarian: “I never got along well with Jesus and the holy family.”

There followed a career in government service, mostly involving, he said, covert operations he can’t talk about. He said he survived some close calls, giving him the sense of having been spared for some higher purpose.

Marriage to a Jewish woman gave him a glimpse of another spiritual outlook, but it was not until 1997, some 15 years after they were married by a judge, that he decided to adopt Judaism. Then nearly 60, he underwent a circumcision.

His elderly mother was outraged and so was his born-again son from a previous marriage. Still, he became officially Jewish, and soon afterward, he and his wife, Vickie, staged a second wedding ceremony, one in keeping with his new faith: “This time we invited God.”

Some hard feelings persisted with his mother, who has since died. Because Cliff’s son, who lives in Louisiana, is suffering from a serious medical problem, the family sidesteps any uncomfortable discussions with him about religion.

As a new Jew, Secia became deeply involved in Ner Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Encino. Secia and his wife held Torah study sessions in their home; he served on the board and walked to services three times a week.

But Secia became disillusioned after a nasty temple squabble resulted in the departure of Rabbi Aaron Kriegel in 2001. He now attends the library minyan at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air when Dennis Prager presides, but he’s still searching for a rebbe to call his own.

Meanwhile, after a brief retirement, Secia has found a new career as a private investigator for a civil rights law firm that represents abuse victims. His clients, mostly black and Hispanic, “think I’m a very good Christian.”

From Secia’s perspective, he’s fulfilling the Jewish mitzvah of repairing the world. His law firm is disappointed that he refuses to work on Shabbat, but he holds fast to his convictions: “There has to be a day when you step aside and don’t do the things of the world.”

At Home With Judaism

In the world according to Jody Gawboy, “You never know why you fall in love with something.”

It all began in the late 1980s, when she was Jody Musengo, an Italian Catholic from Florida, who’d grown up with prayer and regular church attendance. Living in Southern California, she’d begun to date a young college man who was secretive about his course of study. When it turned out he was a rabbinical student, she decided to explore Judaism.

The relationship didn’t last, but her commitment to her new faith did. After formally becoming Jewish, she joined a Conservative synagogue and even played flute in its klezmer band.

But when she married, in a ceremony conducted by a Reform rabbi, her new spouse was not Jewish. Husband Bart, not strongly religious himself but with a fondness for the Native American ritual that’s part of his family background, was happy to let her follow her own path.

Still, Gawboy allowed her synagogue membership to lapse and gradually found herself slipping away from Jewish ritual observance outside the home.

Today, she’s the mother of daughter Hailey, 13, and son Hunter, 10. She reinforces their Judaism on a daily basis, reciting the Shema with them at bedtime, along with the Shehecheyanu prayer (because, as she explained, each day has brought its new experiences that deserve to be celebrated).

She hosts seders and a big Chanukah party for their Venice neighbors; the family also decorates a Christmas tree. On Yom Kippur, she normally stays home, reading from her machzor and talking to the children about the meaning of the holy day.

Gawboy hopes that her son will want a bar mitzvah at 13, but her children have never asked for formal religious education, and she has never offered it.

She said, “I have a great guilt and a great regret that I’m not pursuing it more.”


What About Judas, Mary Magdalene?

Scholars who probe the history surrounding the Bible are mining to decipher a real Da Vinci Code. They seek clues from the past that suggest truths that underlie the narratives of tradition and faith. They seek to understand the origins of modern religion and how these faiths have evolved over time.

During last month’s Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, one panel discussed the roots of religion. All the panelists were as astute and captivating as advertised, but one scholar, in particular, professor Dennis R. MacDonald, spoke to the issue of reality vs. myth in the story of Jesus. And when it came to the myths, he didn’t stop at the work of “The Da Vinci Code” author Dan Brown. MacDonald took on mythmaking around the life of Jesus that is nearly 2,000 years old.

Here are excerpts from the comments of MacDonald, who is John Wesley Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Claremont School of Theology and co-director of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity at the Claremont Graduate University. He is also the author of “Christianizing Homer and the Legend and the Apostle.”

About “The Da Vinci Code”:

Dennis MacDonald: I enjoyed reading “The Da Vinci Code.” It is smart and entertaining and engrossing — and the historian in me gets sick when I read it.

Regarding the recently discovered Gospel of Judas:

DM: The Gospel of Judas is a magnificent discovery. It is extremely important for understanding a group of Christian Gnostics, about whom we knew, but had nothing from them themselves.

These are called the Cainites. And their claim to fame is favoring biblical losers, like the serpent in the Garden [of Eden] and Cain — which is where they get their name — and now Judas. And my attitude is you learn as much about the historical Judas from the Gospel of Judas as you do about the historical serpent in the Garden of Eden.

One early Christian tract has not yet been found, and it may never be. “Q” is considered a key source for the gospels that make up the New Testament. Through careful study, experts have deduced a lot of what “Q” must have contained. So how is “Q” like a real Da Vinci Code?

DM: “Q,” from the German word quelle [source] … is reconstructed by teasing out material painstakingly from the synoptic gospels themselves. [The synoptic gospels are the three broadly overlapping tellings of the story of Jesus that make up Mark, Matthew and Luke/Acts in the New
Testament.] This document is most obvious in places where Matthew and Luke share content with each other they could not have derived from Mark, their primary source. But it’s becoming clear that the author of Mark also knew “Q,” as well.

What is astonishing about “Q” is not only what it says, but what it does not say. And that what it says has such an interesting affinity to what we know about [early Christian evangelist] Paul and the early Christian traditions of Paul.

Show Decodes Early Years of 2 Religions

Whether it’s good luck or good planning, the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage in the Cleveland area has hit the exhibition jackpot with its current show, “Cradle of Christianity,” which runs through Oct. 22. Because while the film version of “The Da Vinci Code” is generating buzz over a purported tale of Jesus, here’s an exhibition with tantalizing real objects that provide an actual glimpse from the years of early Christianity.

The exhibit’s revelations are more subtle than, say, an uncovering of a liaison between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but there is evidence of fascinating links between the older and newer religions: Judaism and Christianity.

That is especially evident in items used in liturgical contexts — two Byzantine oil lamps — one with a menorah and the other with a cross. The fact that both lamps are otherwise virtually identical is a useful reminder that, even in our own time, it’s often the decorative motifs rather than the object’s basic form that identifies the group using it — as, for example, in the case of drinking vessels or candlesticks.

Such a case is even more forcefully made with two almost identical chancel screens. The chancel is the area of the church (or early synagogue) where the bimah was placed. The bimah was (and is) a platform on which the clergy stand. And the chancel screen delineates its separation from the rest of the church, to keep it “inaccessible to the multitude” (as Eusebius of Caesarea wrote).

Each of the two Byzantine stone chancel screen panels on display has a central wreath sitting on a kind of scrolled form that ends in a heart-shaped arrow. But on one there’s a menorah in the center of the wreath, while on the other, the wreath is flanked by a pair of crosses. The similarity between the two suggests that the carvers of these reliefs could have been either Jewish or Christian.

This interplay between traditions should not be surprising; it’s probably a permanent feature of cultural intersection. Many of our most treasured Jewish ritual objects were made by non-Jews.

Yet there’s something magical about coming into direct contact with these works. A first century ossuary (bone box) bears the inscription “Jesus/Jesus son of Joseph, Judas son of Jesus.”

Maybe it would feed your appetite for Dan Brown’s inventions, but more important, it’s eloquent testimony to the fact that Jews were commonly using these names at the time. In other words, the Jesus/Judas reference is likely meaningless, in so far as the Jesus and Judas that people want most to know about.

That’s not the case with another artifact, the stone inscription, 26-36 C.E., found in Caesarea and originally part of a building constructed there by Pontius Pilate to honor the Emperor Tiberius. The Latin writing on stone bears Pilate’s name and title, the only such archaeological find.

Traditional Western Christian iconography developed early on; there’s a Byzantine pottery pilgrim’s flask with a worn but recognizable, depiction of the Annunciation and a small ceramic blessing token from the sixth or seventh century, showing the adoration of the Magi.

As for Jewish symbols, the menorah is the most important Jewish signifier in this exhibition, not the Magen David, whose common usage is much more recent.

The time of early Christianity also was a rich era for Jewish history. And this exhibit, put together by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, offers a rare opportunity to perceive this coexistence, contrast and clash through objects from that epoch. The Israel Museum’s co-curator of this exhibition, David Mevorah, said that it was this convergence of familiarities that made the exhibition such a hit in Jerusalem.

It ought to be exciting for Jews and Christians to see their earlier visual traditions in this kind of exhibition face-off. It’s enough to make one put down the fictional potboiler and discover the revelations to be found in museums.

Tom L. Freudenheim is a retired museum director who writes about art and cultural issues.

Misguided Passion About Gibson’s Film

The great 20th century philosopher, Martin Buber, had an uncanny ability to speak to ecumenical gatherings. He would often begin his lectures highlighting the many theological tenets shared by Jews and Christians.

“Jews,” he said, “believe the Messiah has yet to come.” To which he added, “Christians believe the messiah has come, and they are waiting for his — Jesus’ — return.”

Concluding his introduction he quipped, “Let us pray and work together for the Messiah’s arrival, and when he gets here, we’ll ask if he’s been here before!”

In anticipation of Easter, a slightly modified version of “The Passion of the Christ,” the film by actor and director Mel Gibson, and screenwriter Benedict Fitzgerald, has been re-released. The second coming if you will. This re-cut version is widely available in a DVD gift format.

In light of the film’s reappearance, it is worth recalling what happened before the movie’s initial debut back on Good Friday of 2004. At the time, much of the Jewish community was in shock — panic struck — worried the film would stir-up anti-Semitic feelings. The Anti-Defamation League, under the direction of Abe Foxman, led the charge.

Newspapers and magazines were filled with articles largely condemning the work. Opinions were cast like stones, often expressed by those who had not even seen the movie. From Jerusalem, Rome, New York and Los Angeles, and all points in between and beyond, comments flew every which way. Even ailing Pope John Paul II at the time allegedly uttered an opinion on the film that sounded more like a papal edict. “It is as it was.”

After people started seeing the film in huge numbers, another shock was in store for many Jews, who continue to hold a medieval understanding of Jewish-Christian relations: Anti-Semitism did not re-surface or intensify as a result of the film’s release.

In fairness to those who continue to hold anachronistic points of view, such fears about Christianity were not always unjustified. Throughout history, mainly European history, the passion plays’ depiction of deicide generated horrific hatred against Jews. Such performances were banned in Rome in 1539, because they led to murderous rampages on the Jewish ghetto. Much later, in 1934, Hitler himself referred to the plays as: “precious tools.”

Now, with a perspective on Gibson’s film that comes with experience, hardly a sound can be heard from Jewish leaders: no outcries; no expressed, projected worries of accelerated anti-Semitism. But there also have been no apologetic retractions of the earlier aspersions. Given all the negative reactions and expressed fear prior to the film’s original release, an open re-evaluation by Jews is in order.

All along, “The Passion of the Christ” ought to have been seen as a t?te-?-t?te opportunity, a chance to inaugurate a dialogue to elucidate and clarify the similarities and differences of these two great, monotheistic religions. The movie understandably targets a largely Christian viewing audience, but its platform is derived from Judaism. Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew and, yes, died a Jew. Over time, like Judaism, Christianity evolved. For any number of reasons, it parted with conventional Jewish thought and theology.

Consider the following three examples from “The Passion of the Christ” and the theology it embodies.

1 — Original Sin.

Derived from the Bible’s Garden of Eden narrative, most Christian interpretation holds human beings inherently sinful because of Adam’s (and Eve’s) initial disobedience of God. Unlike Christianity, Judaism holds the human soul is born pure and unadulterated. The Jewish perspective grows out of the ideal that holds individuals accountable for their actions — not their ancestors, biblical or otherwise.

2 — Faith vs. Law.

The apostle Paul — also a Jew by birth — had an all-or-nothing perception of Jewish law: If you have not fulfilled all of the Bible’s laws perfectly, then you are a sinner. But think about it: It would be a virtual indictment of God to suggest that God would create less-than-perfect human beings and then condemn them for being imperfect.

3 — The Messiah.

This subject is, of course, the thematic crux of the blockbuster film. The substantive difference between Jew and Christian on this issue revolves around the divinity of Jesus. “The Passion” has generated so much passion because it tells not merely of the death of Jesus the man, or even Jesus the messiah. Far more significant for Jews is the indictment in the film — drawn from the New Testament — that some Jews collaborated in the death of God. Call it what it was: an unadulterated deicide.

As a Jew, what is baffling to me is how anyone thinks you can actually kill God. Ignore God — yes; disbelieve in God — of course that happens. But if there is one area where Jews and Christians ought to agree, it is this: God is infinite, omnipotent and transcendent. Further, all human beings are created by God and in God’s image — no matter one’s faith.

These are just three important points of discussion the film raises. Their consideration can and should lead to honest, inspiring, open, soul-searching questions. Maybe that is why so many Jews feel threatened by the devout Christians who championed this movie, as well as by the film’s several incarnations. Some Jews remain suspicious of Christian friendship; they suspect that Christians’ love for Israel and the Jewish people is for another motive: to convert unknowing Jews away from their faith.

But Jews have no one to blame but themselves if they are so increasingly unaware of and despondent regarding their great, age-old religious tradition that they cannot even debate and discuss these theological divides. In the meantime, movies like “The Passion” will continue to generate wonderful opportunities for Jews and Christians who are eager to engage in an ongoing spiritual dialogue. Perhaps this exchange will bring the Messiah sooner to the world if, for nothing else, to set us straight on whether he’s been here before.

Michael Gotlieb is rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav Synagogue in Santa Monica.


Exodus’ Trail of Woe

Just outside the gates of the Jewish aid compound in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a shantytown of decrepit tin shacks, overcrowded homes and debris-filled byways beckon the reticent visitor.

Barefoot children stumble amid the flotsam, part of the milieu of stray dogs, mule-drawn carts and mendicants that comprise the dusty street scene in this part of Addis Ababa.

Here, among the fetid smells and homes fashioned from scrap metal, live several thousand Falash Mura — Ethiopians linked to Jews whose progenitors converted to Christianity, but who now are returning to Judaism and bidding to immigrate to the Jewish state.

They’ve come here and to slums in the city of Gondar from their rural villages, abandoning their farms and occupations as blacksmiths, potters and weavers to live near the aid compounds and, more importantly, to be close to the Israeli officials in whose hands their fate rests.

Every month, about 300 of the luckier ones are selected to be taken to Israel. Once there, they are granted Israeli citizenship and taught Hebrew and Judaism, while residing in absorption centers. In due course, they are provided with about 90 percent of the funds they need to buy a home.

It is a generous package, and one that has more than a few Israelis and American Jews concerned that there will never be an end to the Ethiopian aliyah.

This fear — and stories of Ethiopians fabricating Jewish ties to escape Africa’s desperate poverty by way of a visa to Israel — has stalled plans to end mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel by the end of 2007.

The Israeli Cabinet decided in February 2003 to bring up to 26,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia to Israel. A year ago, Israel agreed to expedite the pace of aliyah — immigration to Israel — for the 20,000 the state was told remained, setting in place detailed procedures for an operation that would double the rate of aliyah to 600 persons a month, bringing over the total number of those deemed eligible by the end of 2007.

But so far, none of the plan’s key phases have been put in motion, a fact many attribute to the disappearance of the plan’s key political champion: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

“Sharon was the engine behind this. He pushed this through. He took the decisions. He set the timetable,” said Ori Konforti, the senior official in Ethiopia for the Jewish Agency for Israel, which is responsible for immigration to Israel. “Now there is no engine for this.”

A 36-hour visit to Ethiopia this month by a delegation of approximately 70 American Jewish federation leaders, including a delegation from Los Angeles, aimed to change that. The mission to Ethiopia came five months after the umbrella group of the North American federation system, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), launched Operation Promise, a $160 million campaign for overseas needs. Of that total, $100 million is to go for Ethiopian aliyah and absorption; the other $60 million is designated primarily for elder care in the former Soviet Union.

The goal of the five-day trip to Ethiopia and Israel was to motivate federation leaders to go out and raise the money needed to reach the $160 million goal. The Ethiopian project already was a centerpiece focus for one official on the trip, John Fishel, head of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

UJC’s hope is that moving forward on that pledge will prompt Israel to begin expediting the Ethiopian aliyah. So far, more than $45 million has been raised for the operation, according to UJC officials.

“The money needs to be there, and all the rest flows,” Howard Rieger, president and CEO of UJC, said in an interview at the time the pledge was made.

“Frankly, I think we came to the conclusion that we need to hold up our share of the bargain, so to speak, and by moving forward and taking this action — which we very much plan to implement — at least we’ve carried out our responsibility,” Rieger said. “Will the government carry out theirs? I hope and expect they will.”

Even if the $100 million for Ethiopian aliyah is raised quickly, the lion’s share of the burden will continue to rest squarely on Israel. On average, each Ethiopian immigrant costs the state approximately $100,000 over the course of a lifetime, according to Israeli government estimates. And more money for Ethiopian immigration means less money for Israel’s other pressing needs.

“It’s very difficult to absorb them, and there are so many poor Israelis who need help, too,” said Nachman Shai, director general of UJC Israel. “This will happen, but it will take time.”

Money will not solve some of the most significant problems that have riddled the Falash Mura aliyah since its inception in the early 1990s, after the final group of practicing Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel en masse in Operation Solomon in 1991. The conundrum of the Falash Mura aliyah is tied up with the questions of how many potential immigrants exist among Ethiopia’s 70 million citizens, how to stymie unqualified Ethiopians from emigrating to Israel and the cost of absorbing the immigrants.

The most important piece of the puzzle, by many accounts, is nailing down the final list of who is eligible for aliyah. That would enable Israel and American Jewry to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian aliyah and get a real sense of the total cost and scope of the project. Without such a list, officials fear, the number of Ethiopians seeking to emigrate to Israel will perpetually grow.

“If you ask me today how many people are waiting for aliyah, I can’t tell you how many,” acknowledged an Israeli Interior Ministry official working in Ethiopia.

The Interior Ministry is the Israeli government body charged with determining who is qualified to immigrate to the Jewish state.

“It’s hard for us to bring an answer,” the official said. “People are still in the villages who have not yet come.”

Last year, a special investigation by this reporter found indications of thousands of heretofore unknown Falash Mura in the Ethiopian hinterlands of Achefar, potentially adding thousands to the number of those seeking to immigrate to Israel.

“I hear stories about Israel from the elders,” said Guade Meles, 46, one of the Falash Mura living in the Ethiopian countryside. Guade — Ethiopians are known by their first names — is from the town of Ismallah, in Ethiopia’s rural Gojam province. “They told me there are benefits there. My cousins have gone to Israel. My wife’s brothers have gone to Israel.”

Other accounts exist of Falash Mura communities scattered elsewhere in the country, and there are many individual Ethiopians of Jewish descent living among non-Jews in places like the northern Ethiopian province of Tigray.

In the hovels of Addis Ababa and the mud-and-straw tukuls of rural Ethiopia, it’s difficult to sort out exactly who is and who isn’t Falash Mura.

The Ethiopians seeking to emigrate today call themselves Beta Israel, a caste designation associated with the smithing trades the Ethiopian Jews — known pejoratively as Falashas — traditionally performed during centuries of prohibition against land ownership.

While the Jewish state decided in the early 1980s to welcome Beta Israel who had kept their Jewish faith and identities — and facilitated their aliyah in Operations Moses and Solomon in 1984 and 1991 — Israel turned away the Beta Israel who had abandoned Judaism generations ago when their ancestors converted. These people are called Falash Mura.

Israel’s policy on the Falash Mura changed in the 1990s, largely due to advocacy by American Jews and vocal protests by relatives of the Falash Mura who had made it to Israel.

In the countryside of Gojam province, the Falash Mura can be found in clusters of mud-and-straw huts built amid eucalyptus trees. In one village, a pair of women are bent over incipient clay pots, their mud-covered hands shaping the wet earth into new jugs. Not far away, a few dozen men work barefoot in the field, cutting hay for the roof of their church.

Although they pray in a Christian church and hang pictures of the Virgin Mary in their home, these people call themselves Beta Israel. Many of them have relatives who have gone to Gondar and Addis Ababa, some of whom have since made it to Israel.

Those who have left their villages and gone to live in the cities, closer to where Israel’s representatives in Ethiopia work and live, say they have ceased their Christian practices. Some of them don yarmulkes while in the Jewish aid compounds, many take lessons in Judaism and all hope that embracing the Jewish faith will help get them to the Jewish state.

Abeyna Worku, 33, came to Gondar from the nearby village of Alefa four years ago. Most of Alefa’s residents have left for Gondar, but about 200 remain in the village, he said.

“Most of my relatives are in Israel, and I want to join them,” Abeyna said. “Israel is good since it’s the promised land from our grandparents.”

It is difficult to prove the Jewish heritage of these Ethiopians, most of whom were practicing Christians until they were told they needed to embrace Judaism to be eligible for aliyah. As a result, they are not petitioning to immigrate to Israel under the Law of Return, which grants automatic citizenship to anyone with a Jewish grandparent.

Rather, Israeli officials are verifying whether the Falash Mura qualify for aliyah under Israel’s Law of Entry, a humanitarian law designed to enable relatives of Israelis to immigrate to the Jewish state. So rather than having to come up with documents proving they are Jews, which nobody in Ethiopia has, these Ethiopians are trying to prove they are the immediate relatives of Ethiopians already in Israel.

That also means that some of those seeking to qualify under the Law of Entry are not Jews at all, but Christian relatives of Jews. Some estimate these Christians constitute up to 30 percent of Ethiopian olim or immigrants.

Habtu Gidyelew, 32, is one of those people. He married an Ethiopian Israeli six months ago and now hopes to join her in Israel. She moved to Israel 15 years ago, and the couple met during her visits back to Ethiopia.

“I met her three years ago,” Habtu said. “I want to be with her because I love her.”

The eligibility verification process for Ethiopian aliyah is slow and painstaking, and it is plagued by the problems of trying to verify who is related to whom when there are no birth certificates or written records. It also requires running an operation simultaneously in Israel and Ethiopia and weeding out the liars from the truth-tellers among people who know that demonstrating one’s ties to Jewish kin is a way to get a free ticket out of Africa, automatic Israeli citizenship and access to a broad array of social services in Israel.

More than 75,000 Ethiopians have immigrated to Israel since the early 1980s. Because it is so costly to absorb these immigrants in Israel, this means the stakes are extremely high both for Israel and for the Ethiopians seeking aliyah.

At the moment, it is American Jews like the federation leaders on the mission who are trying to grease the wheels of the aliyah operation.

“I think the government plan that was approved was a good plan, and I think it needs to be implemented,” said Barry Shrage, head of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

“The worst thing that happens is they take them out, and there’ll be another 20,000,” Shrage said. “But I’m not going to be suicidal if in the end it’s 40,000.”

That sort of attitude is precisely what worries officials in Israel, who will have to bear the burden of absorbing the immigrants.

Some of the Falash Mura’s advocates — namely American Jews and Ethiopian family members and community leaders already in Israel — accuse the Israeli government of indifference or racism in dragging its feet on accepting these Ethiopians as immigrants.

There are Ethiopians who have been waiting in Addis Ababa and Gondar for as long as eight years, impoverished by the loss of their livelihoods in their move to the city, susceptible to the HIV-infected prostitutes that ply their trade on the city’s streets at night and dependent on assistance like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s feeding program for young mothers and their babies.

For their part, many Israelis, including some Ethiopians, blame the Falash Mura’s advocates with creating this state of ongoing misfortune. These critics say groups like the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), which has been the primary advocacy and aid group for Ethiopian aliyah in the last decade and receives funding from Jewish federations, created a crisis of internal displacement in Ethiopia by maintaining their aid compounds.

By doing that, NACOEJ has tacitly or intentionally given Ethiopians with no knowledge of their Jewish lineage the expectation that they will be able to get to Israel if they move to the cities and turned communities of self-sustaining farmers and craftsmen into aid-dependent internal refugees, impoverished and condemned to a hardscrabble urban life.

NACOEJ rejects such arguments, saying that if not for its work, not only would Beta Israel migrants starve in the cities while awaiting aliyah, they also would be far less prepared for life in the Jewish state once they arrived there.

This claim is belied, however, by the current situation in Addis Ababa, where the community continues to survive despite the closure of NACOEJ’s compound there about 18 months ago, following legal troubles. Those troubles prompted Ethiopia’s Justice Ministry to bar the group from operating in Addis Ababa .

Privately, some Jewish officials herald this as a positive development, because they say that NACOEJ’s advocacy has helped swell the number of Ethiopian petitioners seeking to immigrate to Israel. Both these American Jews and officials in Israel worry that once the Falash Mura now in Gondar and Addis Ababa emigrate, thousands more will show up and demand to be taken to Israel.

“We’ll take these 20,000, and then there’ll be more,” said one senior American Jewish organizational official who asked not to be identified. “This could be 1998 all over again.”

In 1998, Israel’s government held a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport welcoming what then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heralded as the last planeload of Falash Mura to arrive in Israel. A month later, 8,000 more people poured into NACOEJ’s compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar demanding to be taken to Israel. The number soon swelled to 14,000.

This time, having learned some of the lessons of 1998, Israel plans to have the Jewish Agency take over the NACOEJ compounds, which provide food aid, schooling and some employment but not places to live. The goal is to shut the compounds down as soon as the current group of immigrants, now estimated at 13,000 to 17,000, are brought to Israel.

Acknowledging that U.S. Jewish federations had a role in keeping the compounds open in 1998, Robert Goldberg, chairman of the UJC, said, “In some way, we’ve encouraged these people to come. Nobody’s perfect. We do our best, and we have the best of intentions.”

Now, Goldberg said, “The compounds have to be closed.”

“What I would like to see is all of them come in a weekend,” Goldberg said of the Ethiopians awaiting aliyah. “If you can prepare everything in Israel, you don’t have to wait and bring out 600 a month. You can bring them all out. I’m going to push for it.

“Unless there’s a good plan to end it, there will be more,” he warned. “We don’t even know if they’re telling the truth. They just want to get out of here.”

One thing seems certain: The longer it takes to close the chapter on mass Ethiopian immigration to Israel, the more immigrants, there will be. That infuses the current push to speed up the aliyah process. And for the first time in a long time, it seems that many of the necessary ingredients are in place to accelerate the aliyah of the Falash Mura and write the last chapter on Ethiopian immigration to Israel.

The Jewish Agency has trained 40 to 60 workers to take over the aid compounds in Gondar and Addis Ababa from NACOEJ, which has promised to cease its advocacy work for Ethiopian aliyah once the expedited aliyah process begins.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry signed a deal with the Ethiopian government last fall on coordinating the aliyah eligibility verification process, and Israel’s Finance Ministry says it has allocated an extra $45 million for the accelerated aliyah operation in 2006. But Israel’s government has not yet given the green light to begin the operation, and nobody is quite able to say why.

The Interior Ministry blames the Finance Ministry. The Finance Ministry says it is waiting for the government to decide on an exact date. In one sign of the mishandling of this issue by the Israelis, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently declared that the expedited aliyah already had begun. It had not.

Many observers say the accelerated aliyah will not commence until the prime minister himself gives word. Earlier this month, Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, canceled a meeting in Israel with the American delegation that had visited Ethiopia. By all accounts, Ethiopian aliyah is far down the list of priorities for a state dealing with a comatose prime minister, upcoming elections and a new Hamas terrorist state on its doorstep.

Meanwhile, the Falash Mura continue to wait in Ethiopia, their fate in the hands of faraway Jews in New York and Jerusalem.



Jack Abramoff

David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).

Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”

There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.

My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.

To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.

E. Hil Margolin

Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.

Jeremy Sunderland
West Hills

Positive News

I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.

I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?

I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.

Dena Schechter
Los Angeles


The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.

The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.

Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism

Misleading Essay

Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).

Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”

I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.

I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.

Mark Paredes
Los Angeles

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