Why I celebrate Israel

For me, a third-generation Israeli-American descendant of Holocaust survivors, Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron always have been and always will be inexorably linked. Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, recalls the fate of our grandparents, who died as helpless victims. A week later, we mark Yom HaZikaron, Israeli Memorial Day, and the fate of their children and grandchildren, who fought courageously and died, not as victims but as heroes. 

As an Israeli American born in Philadelphia, I went one Wednesday with my grandmother to the synagogue to mourn her loss on Yom HaShoah. And the next Wednesday, I went with my father to the Jewish community center to mourn his loss on Yom HaZikaron. Her loss was her entire family — her husband and child included — murdered by hatred and anti-Semitism of the most vicious kind. His loss was his fellow soldiers in an army of Jews fighting for their cherished homeland.

This year, my 97-year-old grandmother died. As a Holocaust survivor living in the United States, she never saw a contradiction between the Zionism that burned in her soul and the choice she made to live a Jewish life in the United States. As evidence of such, she kept a photo with her at all times of all three of her grandsons proudly dressed in Israel Defense Forces (IDF) uniforms.  They were born and raised in America but chose to serve in the IDF.

Imagine her sense of victory as she recalled the helplessness and horror of the Holocaust, and gazed at three young men, strong and passionate, dressed in the uniform of a Jewish country. For my grandmother, every time she saw the Israeli flag waving next to the stars and stripes of the American flag, that was her greatest victory over the Holocaust.

Every year, thousands of people converge at Rancho Park for the Celebrate Israel festival that marks Israel’s Independence Day (Yom HaAtzmaut). I’m one of the organizers of the event. It’s where these different strands of my identity come together, literally. For me, every time I see a little kid sitting on his father’s shoulders at the festival, waving Israeli and American flags, that is the moment when I know who I am as an Israeli, as an American, as a Jew.

Will that kid end up volunteering in the IDF like my brothers and I did? Probably not.

Will that kid become active on his college campus, defending Israel and fighting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement? Maybe.

Will that kid go on a Birthright trip and fall in love with Israel? I hope so. 

Yom HaAtzmaut is our opportunity to say to the young generation, to the boys and girls sitting on our shoulders, “Look at what we did! Not 3,000 years ago, but just two generations ago. Look at what we’ve accomplished together as a nation. We made the desert bloom. We defied the odds. We survived and thrived.”

Hold your head up high. Sing. Dance. Rejoice. You are Jewish.

Im tirtzu ein zo hagaddah. If you will it, it is no dream.

So I hope to see you all, with your kids on your shoulders, waving our flags, on May 7 at the Celebrate Israel festival in Rancho Park.

For me, there is no better place than the Israel Independence Day festival to feel Jewish and  Israeli.

They are, in fact, one and the same. 

Erez Goldman is the Los Angeles Regional Director of the Israeli American Council, which produces the annual Celebrate Israel festival at Rancho Park.

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Commentary magazine donates archive to University of Texas

Commentary, the seminal neoconservative magazine, has donated its archives to the University of Texas at Austin.

Founded in 1945, the New York-based magazine has played an outsized role in American intellectual life as a venue for essays on politics, culture and Jewish issues. Commentary moved rightward along with its editor Norman Podhoretz, who took the helm in 1960, and the magazine became a leading voice of the emerging neoconservative movement.

The Commentary archive that the University of Texas is receiving spans material from 1945 to 1995, including correspondence with S. Y. Agnon, Hannah Arendt, James Baldwin, Saul Bellow, William F. Buckley, George Orwell, Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe.

The archive will be housed at the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum that already houses the papers of a number of prominent American Jewish writers, such as Norman Mailer, Bernard Malamud, David Mamet, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leon Uris.

“The early decades of Commentary, especially its first 25 years, should prove to be an invaluable resource for the social and intellectual history of the postwar years and the gradual assimilation of Jews into the mainstream of American life,” said Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said in a statement released by the Ransom Center on Monday.

Commentary was long published by the American Jewish Committee, though it had editorial independence. Commentary became fully independent of AJC in 2006 and is today edited by John Podhoretz, Norman’s son.

New haggadahs bring fresh approaches to celebration

On Passover, teachers become students and students take on the role of teachers; old and young teach each other.

“The learning is thoroughly democratic, as befits the experience of freedom,” Neil Gillman writes in “The Haggadah Is a Textbook,” an essay in “My People’s Passover Haggadah” (Jewish Lights)

This season, several new haggadahs raise new questions. New interpretations bring new approaches to the seder, enabling readers and participants to bring new layers of meaning to their own celebrations of the holiday.

A fine resource for preparing for the seder and for use at the table, “My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries, Volumes 1 and 2,” edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman and David Arnow, bring together a community of scholars and teachers to reflect anew on the haggadah.

The 12 contributors or commentators come from all denominations, including professor Gillman of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Rabbi Daniel Landes, Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem; Wendy Zierler, Hebrew-Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); and Rabbi Arthur Green, Hebrew College.

The two volumes offer a new translation of the haggadah text and essays about the historical roots of the holiday and development of the haggadah. Commentary is presented in Talmud-style pages, with the different voices framing the text.

Co-editor Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at HUC-JIR, is editor of the “My People’s Prayer Book Series,” which recently received a National Jewish Book Award. Arnow, a psychologist and community leader, is author of “Creating Lively Passover Seders.”

Rabbi Yosef Adler was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, known as the Rav, and served as his personal assistant for two years. Adler attended the Rav’s weekly shiurim, or public lectures, for 13 years, with four sessions each year devoted to Passover. In “Haggadah for Passover With Commentary Based on the Shiurim of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik” (Urim Publishers), Adler presents the profound insights of the Rav, as they relate to the seder and observance of the holiday, along with his own commentary.

Adler is the spiritual leader of Congregation Rinat Yisrael in Teaneck, N.J., and heads the Torah Academy of Bergen County.

In the Maggid section, Adler explains the Rav’s interpretations of issues of time: “The seder itself is reliving the past. Without a historical experience, this type of time experience is lost. Memory is more than a storehouse; it is a reliving of what is remembered. In exploration; we move from reminiscing to anticipation…. The haggadah starts with hindsight and concludes with foresight.”

“Richard Codor’s Joyous Haggadah: The Illuminated Story of Passover,” as told by Richard and Liora Codor (Loose Line Productions), is a concise retelling of the story, with colorful, funny, attention-grabbing illustrations. The pages vary from graphic stories to Chad Gadya told as a pictogram (where pictures stand in for words in the text) to scenes chock full of witty details. Meant for all ages, this is an imaginative and joyous haggadah.

“The Kol Menachem Haggadah,” compiled and adapted by Rabbi Chaim Miller (Kol Menachem), is commentary and insights anthologized from more than 100 classic rabbinic texts and the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Enclosed in a hand-tooled binding, the well-designed pages include the Hebrew text and English translation, with commentary at the bottom.

As Miller points out, the Rebbe’s thinking integrates intellectual, detailed analysis with a more mystical approach, uncovering deeper themes and suggestions for life enhancement. The table of contents includes brief abstracts of each of the Rebbe’s insights as they relate to aspects of the seder. He also explains some particular Lubavitch traditions, like the custom of the Rebbe pouring the wine from Elijah’s cup back into the bottle.

“The Lovell Haggadah,” with illuminations, translation and commentary by Rabbi Matthew L. Berkowitz (Nirtzah Editions), is a beautifully designed edition, with Hebrew text, an egalitarian translation, discussion guides, activities and 27 original color paintings. Berkowitz explains that he retains the text of the traditional haggadah, “with a questioning consciousness,” sometimes wrestling with the text.

He identifies an essential quality, like incompleteness, curiosity, awe and knowledge, associated with each of the 15 steps of the seder. Included are quotes from Ahad Ha’am, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Kotzker Rebbe, Talmud and Midrash and Isabel Allende introducing the Maggid section (the retelling), which he links with the theme of generosity (“You have only what you give. It’s by spending yourself that you become rich.”).

The artwork, or illuminations, incorporate letters and imagery with decorative borders in the style of manuscript painting. Berkowitz, who is formally trained in scribal arts, is the senior rabbinic fellow in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Kollot: Voices and Learning Program.

He also includes a powerful quote from Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg, “Language is the very means by which the imprisoned heart gains freedom.”

“A Mystical Haggadah: Passover Meditations, Teaching, and Tales,” by Rabbi Eliahu Klein (North Atlantic Books), offers the possibility of bringing new readings and new understanding of the haggadah’s hidden symbolism to the seder table.

For Klein, the seder’s 15 rites are “15 steps toward illumination.” He includes mystical reflections and Chasidic stories, alternating between two worlds that are dear to him, “the passionate heart traditions of Chasidism and the possibility of achieving cosmic consciousness through Kabbalah meditation and visualization.”

Before Kiddush is recited, he notes a tradition of Jewish mystics of adding a drop of water to the vessel of wine “in order to symbolically dissolve the wrath of crimson with the kindness of the white water.” Klein has taught Kabbalah, Jewish meditation and Chasidism for more than 30 years in Israel, Great Britain and the United States. He now serves as Jewish chaplain for the California Department of Rehabilitation.

“The Eybeshitz Haggadah: Experiencing Redemption,” by Rabbi Shalom Hammer (Devora Publishing), introduces English-speaking readers to the work of Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshitz. A prolific author, Eybeshitz was an 18th-century scholar of the Talmud, Kabbalah and Jewish law, as well as science and philosophy.

He served the Jewish community in Prague and later in Hamburg, Germany. Hammer describes his subject’s unusual abilities to integrate different approaches, linking and juxtaposing various texts in creative ways.

Women’s commentary offers alternative take on Torah

In 1992, Cantor Sarah J. Sager was struggling with the biblical story of the binding of Issac when, suddenly, she had an idea.

“As I thought about the horrifying image of Abraham with his arm uplifted against his son, I suddenly thought about Sarah. For the very first time, it occurred to me that Sarah was part of this story, that her feelings and her reactions mattered, that if she had been asked to sacrifice her child, the story might have ended right there. I realized that in her absence and her silence there was room for commentary.”

As Sager began her research, she found there were many people — both women and men — who were thinking about the silence of women in the Jewish tradition, and working to create “a sense of women’s presence at the most important moments of our history and in our most sacred text,” Sager later wrote. But there was no one place to find all that commentary.

Sager, who is cantor of Anshe Chesed Fairmont Temple in Beachwood, Ohio, challenged the Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) to create a commentary to reflect women’s voices.

“In every generation, our people have turned to the Torah to seek answers to their needs, their problems, their contemporary challenges,” she said in a speech at the National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods’ (now the WRJ) 1993 National Biennial Convention in San Francisco.

“We are here today, in large measure, because the Torah has yielded meaning and truth to every generation that has sought its wisdom. We can do no less. It is our responsibility to make this book live for us. As men have done throughout the centuries, we must stretch the words, we must invest them with our needs and our imagination. We must struggle with the plain sense of stories, laws and attitudes that exclude, de-value and indict women. We must incorporate women’s history and women’s experience as part of the living memory of the Jewish people.”

Fifteen years later, the WRJ is publishing “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, a professor at the Los Angeles branch of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

The Torah: A Women's Commentary
While there have been a number of “women’s” biblical commentaries over the years — such as “In the Image of God, A Feminist Commentary on the Torah,” by Judith S. Antonelli, and “A Women’s Commentary on the Torah,” edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein — the new WRJ commentary is the most comprehensive to date; Antonelli’s book intersperses biblical and rabbinic interpretations, and Goldstein presents comments from one female rabbi on each portion.

The WRJ commentary, on the other hand, incorporates the work of more than 80 female biblical scholars, rabbis, archaeologists, historians, poets, cantors and philosophers — the “stars” of Jewish scholarship — beginning with Eskenazi, an expert on the role of women in the biblical world and the implications of the Bible for the Jewish world today. Others include Rachel Adler, (sometimes referred to as “the mother of Jewish feminism”), Judith Plaskow, Carol Meyers (“Discovering Eve: Israelite Woman in Context”), Judith Baskin (a major scholar of rabbinic literature), as well as Los Angeles locals Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Sue Elwell and rising “stars” in the younger generation, such as associate editor Andrea Weiss and Rabbi Judy Schindler.

Like the Talmud, this commentary has many layers.

Every weekly Torah portion includes an overview of the parsha, the Hebrew text with an English translation and commentary, plus a line-by-line explication. Four additional commentaries are also offered for each parsha: “Another View,” “Post-biblical Interpretation,” “Contemporary Reflections” and “Voices,” a modern poetic interpretation.

For example, this week’s parsha begins the cycle of reading the Torah with Bereshit, or Genesis. In “A Women’s Commentary,” it begins with the words “When God was about to create heaven and earth …” instead of “In the beginning.” This is because, says first level of commentary, “as Rashi noted, the opening verses do not claim creation out of nothing.”

At the bottom of that first page are the titles of four more commentaries, to be found at the end of the portion. Another View (“A women would have up to eight pregnancies to provide the optimum family size”), Post-Biblical Interpretation (“For the Rabbis, the female also shares in the divine image”), Contemporary Reflections (“Our sexualities seem to point toward some element in the divine nature”) and Voices (“Your hands create my body/Your mouth breathes life in me/my face shines”).

It wasn’t easy trying to gather the myriad modern women’s viewpoints into one cohesive work.

“It is never possible to incorporate all voices,” Eskenazi said. “But we have made a huge step to rectify a situation in which the fact that half of the Jewish community has been left out of the official, public conversation about the Torah that has been going on for nearly two thousands years. We at last live in a time when women can be equal partners in this exchange.”

Women must be included in this conversation, not only because the Torah is the book of our ancestors, she said, but “it is and has been the central wellspring for Jewish identity, a guidance for who we are and how we can live as Jews.”

Eskenazi said the Torah has ramifications in numerous arenas, not only Jewish — it is an important part of the Christian Bible, and for literature and history of Western traditions as a whole. “We all miss out when we exclude qualified women from making their knowledge and insights publicly available to the broad community,” she said.

But some take exception to the notion of a women’s-only commentary. Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, executive vice president of the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis for the last 23 years and the outgoing rabbi of Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, finds the idea of a new Torah commentary only written by women “exclusive.”

“For the past 100 years, women have fought a wonderful fight and have largely succeeded in achieving rights within the Jewish community,” he said of the non-Orthodox movements, especially in ordination as rabbis and cantors and within the synagogue itself.

New commentary looks at Torah from woman’s point of view

How many people know that when the Torah describes Abraham mourning the death of Sarah, it’s the only time in the entire text that a man mourns a woman? Or that Adam and Eve were equal partners in crime? Or that women most likely were instrumental in constructing the Temple?

Too few. That’s why the Reform movement will soon publish a commentary on the Torah that gives the woman’s perspective.

“The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” a project of Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ), the movement’s women’s division, is a collaboration of 80 biblical scholars, archaeologists, rabbis, cantors, theologians and poets from across the religious spectrum — all of them women who came together to present a new perspective on the Bible.

“The goal of this is to bring women’s voices to the forefront,” said Shelley Lindauer, WRJ’s executive director. “History has been written by men; men were the ones who wrote the history of the Torah, and women’s voices got pushed to the background. We want to hear more about what the matriarchs said, some more about the women characters in the Torah.”

The volume won’t be released until the WRJ Assembly and the Union of Reform Judiasm (URJ) Biennial conferences in San Diego in December 2007. However, the Reform movement will introduce a chapter from the book next month. During the week of Nov. 18, when Parshat Chayei Sarah is read, about 250 Reform congregations — approximately 5,000 people in all — will participate in a study program based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

WRJ and URJ Press, which is publishing the book, have released the chapter from the 1,500-page volume for congregations to use during Shabbat services or other study sessions, along with a list of suggested talking points, to give a taste of what the commentary will offer, said Rabbi Hara Person, URJ Press’ managing editor.

The commentary will be laid out differently than many others. Each chapter will offer an overview, followed by Hebrew text and a linear translation, along with a central commentary from one of the 80 contributors.

After the central commentary, another woman will give a short countercommentary, offering a different viewpoint on each chapter. Then another woman will give a post-biblical interpretation and another a contemporary reflection on the parshah or weekly portion. Each parshah also will be followed by a selection of creative writing, most often poetry, that reflects the themes that were just read.

More than traditional commentaries, the new volume will focus on women when they’re in the text of the Torah — and also when they’re glaringly absent, editor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi said.

For instance, Chayei Sarah deals with the death of Sarah and the courting of Rebecca. Abraham’s slave finds Rebecca at a well, where she offers him water, and he asks her family if he can take her back to Canaan to wed Abraham’s son.

The women’s commentary is careful to point out that Rebecca gives her consent. Rebecca is an active, not passive, character from her very introduction in the Torah, the commentary says.

Though he hasn’t seen excerpts of the book, the notion of a women’s commentary garnered praise from Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“Commentators have traditionally been male, so I think the women’s voice and perspective certainly can help to add and interpret and bring the message of the Torah in a way that may be different than a male’s voice,” Epstein said.

But he was a little wary of an exclusively female commentary, just as he said he would be wary of an exclusively male commentary in this day and age.

“We need commentaries that speak to all people and that have male and female voices blended together,” he said.

Differences between the women’s commentary and traditional commentaries start at the very beginning, with the story of creation.

The creation of woman is one of the most misinterpreted passages in the Bible and is fraught with cultural bias, Eskenazi explains in her interpretation, which will be published in the “Women’s Commentary.”

While the description of Eve being created from Adam’s rib is commonly taken as a sign of Eve’s inferiority, it’s more a statement of their equality, she says. They’re described in Genesis 1:26-28 as being of the same flesh, both “created in God’s image and blessed with fertility and power.”

They later are described as partners. And when they sin by eating the apple, they do so together — yet it is Eve who often is perceived as the evildoer and the one who was the impetus for the expulsion from Eden.

An essay by Elizabeth Bloch-Smith in the volume discusses Parshat Trumah, which describes the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple the Jews built in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. Although the gender of the artisans who built the Mishkan isn’t clear, it’s often assumed that they were male.

But based on archaeological evidence from the time that shows women heavily involved in weaving and spinning, Bloch-Smith suggests it was women who provided the yarn for the temple’s Tent of Meeting, according to Rabbi Andrea Weiss, the commentary’s associate editor.

Weiss, an assistant professor of Bible at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, said she’s now teaching a class based on the “Women’s Commentary.”

The volume has been in the works for 13 years, since Sarah Sager, a cantor, challenged the movement to undertake the project in a speech to the WRJ assembly in 1993.

“We’re not trying to make this midrash. We’re not trying to make the text say something that it didn’t say,” Weiss said. “We’re trying to read it closely and to pay more attention to parts not found in other texts.”

Wiesel Adds Sinai to Shabbat ‘Collection’

“I miss Shabbat,” Elie Wiesel told a packed audience at Sinai Temple in Westwood last Friday night.

The renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke at Sinai’s Friday Night Live, a monthly Shabbat service combining music with mingling and prayer geared to young professionals. The evening also celebrated the congregation’s 100th anniversary.

Wiesel’s remarks stressed the importance of maintaining rituals in the Jewish faith — and Shabbat in particular.

“Shabbat transcends time,” he said.

This night it was standing-room only as Shabbat also transcended the service’s typical 25-40 age group, as well as Sinai’s seating capacity.

Having celebrated Shabbat around the world, Wiesel conveyed the novelty of Sinai’s Friday Night Live service, which invites singles to stick around for socializing.

After being welcomed by a standing ovation, Wiesel captivated the audience with anecdotes about his small hometown in Romania and with commentary about a Jew’s relationship to Shabbat.

According to Wiesel, who survived the Nazi camps in Auchwitz, “even the poorest” and even non-Jews in his town celebrated Shabbat. Quoting from “Shir Hashirim,” Wiesel emphasized the need for today’s Jews to retain the practice of setting aside a day for rest, prayer and study.

Wiesel’s output of oral and written histories, including his books “A Beggar in Jerusalem,” “The Golem,” “Dawn,” and the Nobel Prize-winning “Night,” has been relentless, as noted in the introduction by Sinai’s Rabbi David Wolpe.

Wiesel, who ultimately chose to study philosophy over music and conducting, shared stories of his Shabbat experiences and interactions with fellow singers and musicians. He claimed that words, after all, can dance much like a song.

In a time of raised awareness about genocide and recent reports, false it turns out (see page 14) about an Iranian law that would require Jews to wear yellow bands, Wiesel’s speech to Sinai’s audience, which he said represents the “symbol of Jewish survival,” seemed nothing short of inspiring, to many in the audience.

“I collect Shabbats,” he said.

This Shabbat, for many in attendance, was certainly worth collecting.

Wiesel’s speech was followed by a performance by actor-singer Theodore Bikel, additional melodious prayers and a Kiddush wherein the more than 1,500 attendees could mingle, participate in Israeli dancing and meet Wiesel — or their beshert.


Q & A With Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has written more than 60 books on Jewish spirituality, but he is most famous for his translation and commentary of the Babylonian Talmud, which made the complicated text accessible to millions of otherwise ignorant Jews.

Recently, Steinsaltz turned his attention to the classic work of Chabad Chasidism — “The Tanya,” first published in 1797 by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad. In “Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah” (Wiley, 2003) Steinsaltz translates and comments on the text and explicates the Tanya’s philosophical and spiritual messages.

Speaking to The Journal from Rome, Steinsaltz discussed why the Tanya was groundbreaking when it was published, and what he thinks of today’s obsession with kabbalah.

The Jewish Journal: The Tanya has been translated into English before — why the need for a commentary?

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz: It is a tough text in two ways. It is a very concise and precisely written book. Secondly, it is a very demanding book. So many people really don’t understand it. It is not one of those books that you read and you get all palpitating and emotional. It is a tough book, written in very classic language, very precise and very demanding,

So such a book needs lots of broadening in order to make it understandable and in order to get the ideas across.

JJ: So was the Tanya written for lay people or scholars?

AS: Among many other things, it is a matter of time. The lay people of 200 years ago and more, were possibly more scholarly than the scholars of today, and what they thought about a simple Jew in those times is something that you would think about rabbis in our times.

The general level of Jewish knowledge was much higher. Secondly, the book was written at the beginning for a very well-defined group. It was a group of people that were the followers of the author, so in that sense there was some kind of an understanding of what he is talking about.

When the book is read by somebody who is not of that circle, you have to begin a few miles after.

JJ: How and why was the Tanya revolutionary when it was published in 1797?

AS: In this book are many novel ideas, and possibly the most important and significant idea is … that the basic questions of morality are not coming down to a dichotomy. Morality has the notion of dichotomy: you are either good or evil, you’re either a saint or a sinner — it is an either/or way of looking at the world.

In this book comes the novel idea that there are some people for whom the conflict for good and evil is never solved completely, and there are people for whom the struggle will be permanent and eternal. These people are important people, not failures, and are fulfilling the divine plan, by their permanent struggling.

This book is a very comforting book, because it says as long as you are struggling — conquering your own evil desires — you are a hero, and it is frightening because it doesn’t say that you will ever come to the point where everything will be peaceful in your mind. All your life you are going to struggle.

The hero here is the anti-hero, because the hero here is not the conqueror, but the person who does the hard work. The glory is of a very different kind.

JJ: What do you think of Hollywood’s obsession with kabbalah? Do you think that the Kabbalah Centre has anything to offer?

AS: There is no spirit in it, no message in it. This is part of a general term toward the esoteric that seems to be à la mode for the time being, but it is not important on any real level. At best, it is shallow and unimportant. At worst, it may become slightly dangerous for Judaism and for the people who get involved in it. To get involved in any kind of pseudo-science or pseudo-religion is always slightly dangerous for the religion.

JJ: You have spent a lot of your life’s work making Jewish texts such as the Talmud accessible to Jews of our generation. Do you think that by and large Jews today are ignorant of their heritage?

AS: Yes — and in some ways that is the biggest danger because ignorance, unlike a level of commitment, is something that grows without any special effort. You don’t have to create ignorance, it grows on its own. Every year that passes, every generation means more ignorance. What I am trying to do is keep the roads open, the bridges functioning and the gates open.

JJ: You are also known as a speaker on medical ethics. Now we are moving into an era where questions of medical ethics come up all the time, with genetic engineering and stem cell research, etc. What limits can and should we place on these types of experiments?

AS: My basic advice to researchers is that one has to be extremely cautious, because it is much easier to open gates than to go on and close them.

We are now in an era where the possibilities of medical research are so big, that we have far more power than understanding. Creating anything is opening a door to an unknown hell, so we have to be extremely cautious.

Personally and theologically I am not against research or knowledge. I think that we as Jews are basically progressive. But progressing also means you are treading in something that is much worse than a minefield, so you should remember day and night — be cautious.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will be speaking on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, 8906 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information call, (310) 276-9269.

Keys to the ‘Kingdom’

"The ideals that form the moral compass of Western civilization, the belief that every human being has value, the belief that no one is above the law, the belief that how each of us treats our fellow human beings matters — these were all the gifts of the Jews."

So declares Carl Byker, producer-director of "Kingdom of David: The Saga of the Israelites," who has devoted four film hours to trace how a tiny, insignificant tribe exerted such an enormous impact on the history and moral outlook of the rest of the world.

"Kingdom of David" is an ambitious undertaking. It combines a history of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C.E. to the Roman conquest of the first century C.E., together with a parallel track on the evolution of the Jewish religion and of its written and oral law.

The film balances drama with instruction by using actors to recreate the daily life and bloody battles of half a millennium, alternating with the commentary of noted scholars.

And bloody battles they were — by and against a succession of conquerors, from the Babylonians, Assyrians and Persians to the Greeks and Romans. The slaughter, often triggered by desperate Jewish revolts, left the Jews again and again at the edge of extinction, only to recreate themselves and rise again.

To its credit, the miniseries presents both the traditional biblical version of Jewish history, counterpointed by the findings of archaeologists and modern scholarship.

The latter proposes, for instance, that instead of the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were natives of the land of Canaan, and lower-class natives at that. One scholar observes that by conceiving stories to define their identity, "It is as if the stories created the people, rather than the other way around."

Local scholars are prominent among the commentators, including Rabbis Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter and David Wolpe, author Jonathan Kirsch and professor Ziony Zevit.

Among the narrators are Keith David and actors Jeremy Irons, Derek Jacobi, Rene Auberjonois and F. Murray Abraham.

"Kingdom of David" may not represent the very deepest interpretation and analysis, but it is an accessible and lively survey of the genesis of our heritage.

The two-part miniseries will air at 9 p.m. on May 14 and 21 on KCET.

Five Elements of a Fairy-Tale Marriage

“The Committed Marriage” by Esther Jungreis (Harper San
Francisco, $23.95).

At first glance, the title of Esther Jungreis’ new book,
“The Committed Marriage,” seems a bit redundant. After all, isn’t commitment
the whole point of getting married?

But what Jungreis explains is that, too often, husbands and
wives end up living separate lives in the same house — and even those marriages
that begin on the best footing as joint ventures often lose their way.
“Marriage” addresses a variety of challenges along the continuum of marriage,
from what to look for in a prospective partner to navigating a marriage at
midlife and beyond.

Jungreis’ new release is meant to build on her 1998 book,
“The Committed Life,” in which she discusses how making a commitment to a Torah-based
lifestyle can help people become healthy, wealthy and wise. In some ways,
“Marriage” is an improvement on the earlier work; it is better organized with
stand-alone chapters.

The structure of the book is simple: using as a framework
the story of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who sent his five most devoted
disciples out into the world to discover the important qualities for a good
life, Jungreis examines how each of these qualities together comprise a good
marriage. Each section addresses a different element the disciples found
essential: to have a good eye, to be a good friend, to be a good neighbor, to
develop the ability to project the consequences of one’s actions and to have a
good heart. Jungreis then relates the element to couples she has counseled.

Among the advice she imparts are:

On being friends in marriage: “The Hebrew term for
‘loving, kind friends’ is re’im v’ahuvim. The word rei’m is derived from the
Hebrew ro’eh, which means shepherd. The relationship of husbands and wives
should be that of shepherds … always keeping a loving, watchful eye on the

On acquiring “a good heart”: “There are myriad little acts
of chesed [lovingkindness] that can go a long way to generate a good heart and
give us our much-sought-after happiness. You can send an e-mail composed of
just three words: I love you. Make a point of smiling at your mate … as you
pass her chair, you lovingly touch her shoulder, just to let her know you care.
These little gestures require no expenditure, no special energy, but they can
change your life.”

For marriages gone awry, Jungreis tells how Moses dealt
with Korach, a cousin who fomented rebellion against him: “Instead of arguing,
Moses simply said, ‘Morning — wait until morning and we’ll settle it then.’
When troubled couples consult me and one of the spouses is bent upon divorce, I
have often succeeded in forestalling disaster simply by prevailing upon them to
wait until morning. There is always the hope that, if we can buy some more
time, they will perceive their folly and reconsider their decision.”

Despite her sometimes long-winded tales, Jungreis’ ability
to weave Torah and talmudic commentary into each chapter offsets many flaws.
One chapter in particular, “Communicating Without Hurting,” where Jungreis
teaches an especially contentious couple how to talk to each other in more
positive ways, should be required reading for every newlywed.

Jungreis was married to her third cousin, Rabbi Meshulem HaLevi
Jungreis for 40 years, and throughout the book describes their relationship in
almost fairy-tale terms. It can be difficult to believe in marriage in such a
wholehearted way, especially when today’s world often seems to offer no such

But maybe it can’t hurt for even those predestined pairs to
have someone like Jungreis in their corner. And for anyone seeking some
old-fashioned wisdom about love, this book may yet have you believing in the
possibility of your own fairy-tale marriage.

Turn a New Page

Leaders of Conservative Judaism have argued from their pulpits for more than 50 years that the Torah is a divinely inspired document that evolved over centuries, rather than the product of a single encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Starting this month, their congregants will finally be able to follow along in the pews with a Conservative Bible commentary that says the same thing.

Conservative synagogues across the country are receiving shipments of “Etz Hayim,” or Tree of Life, the first one-volume, annotated version of the Five Books of Moses ever put out by the movement. Until now, most of the movement’s 800 congregations have relied on the 65-year-old Hertz Chumash, named for its editor, the late J.H. Hertz, chief rabbi of England, who spiritedly insisted that the Torah was revealed in its entirety to Moses by God at Mount Sinai. The new commentary comes at a time when many of the Conservative movement’s leading academics and pulpit rabbis are attempting to close a yawning religious gap between themselves and their followers. More so than any other synagogue movement in America, Conservative Judaism has been dogged by the claim that its ideology — a hybrid of religious innovation and adherence to traditional rabbinic law — is rarely followed, if even understood, by the bulk of its members.

While Conservative congregants generally practice a far less stringent brand of Judaism than their religious leaders, one Los Angeles rabbi, David Wolpe, sparked a major brouhaha last Passover with a sermon challenging the biblical account of the Exodus from Egypt. Such challenges to the theory of Mosaic authorship, however, are ideological staples at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).

“For the first time in over a generation, we have a Chumash that reflects the ideology of the Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which published the new commentary this month in partnership with the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly and the non-denominational Jewish Publication Society (JPS).

So far, Epstein said, several hundred congregations have ordered a total of 80,000 copies of the new commentary — sight unseen. The list price is $72.50, he said, but synagogues received significant discounts for prepublication and bulk orders.

Several observers said that early sales had been helped by the participation of a pair of renowned author-rabbis, Chaim Potok and Harold Kushner, who edited two of the main commentaries that run through the work beneath the Hebrew text and English translation.

A former JPS editor and author of “The Chosen,” Potok edited the p’shat section, which attempts to explain the literal meaning of the biblical text as understood by the ancient Israelites. It is actually a condensed version of a five-volume commentary published in stages by JPS since 1989 put together by four scholars with historic ties to the Conservative movement: Nahum Sarna, Baruch Levine, Jacob Milgrom and Jeffrey Tigay.

In the d’rash section, Kushner and his contributors draw on talmudic, medieval, Chassidic and modern Jewish commentators to elaborate on the text’s deeper meaning. “I wanted the average synagogue-goer or bar-mitzvah guest to see the reading of the Torah as an encounter with a source of moral guidance,” said Rabbi Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” “I wanted them to see the moral depths of the Torah that a simple reading of the text might not give them.”

The third running commentary on the Torah — co-edited by Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism(UJ), the Conservative movement’s West Coast rabbinical seminary, and Rabbi Susan Grossman, of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia, Md. — attempts to show how various biblical verses served as the basis for later Jewish laws and Conservative practices. “Etz Hayim” also contains 41 essays in the back by leading Conservative rabbis and scholars, in addition to each week’s haftorah reading and a corresponding commentary edited by Michael Fishbane.

Just as important as any of these features, said several Conservative congregants and pulpit rabbis, will be the chance to read from a modern English translation first published by JPS in 1985. Even while hyping “Etz Hayim,” Conservative leaders were quick to praise Hertz, the first graduate of JTS, describing his commentary as venerable and sometimes brilliant. But, they said, the seminal work is outdated in terms of its scholarship and apologetics.

Several observers said Hertz wrote his commentary at a time when Christian scholars were not only rejecting the notion of Mosaic authorship, but dismissing traditional Jewish commentators, attacking the morality of the ancient Israelites and accusing the rabbis of the talmudic era of perverting the biblical tradition by failing to accept Jesus. Today, however, American Jews occupy a much more secure rung on the societal ladder than the Yiddish-speaking immigrants of the first half of the 20th century.

“We have no interest in apologetics,” said Rabbi David Lieber, senior editor of “Etz Hayim” and former UJ president. He noted that the new commentary does not attempt to sugarcoat aspects of the Torah that might offend modern sensibilities, such as its countenance of slavery, unequal treatment of women or elaborate system of animal sacrifice. Unlike Hertz, who often defended Israelite society by presenting it as more progressive than the surrounding ancient world, contributors to “Etz Hayim” do not shy away from criticizing the religion of the early Hebrews.

“We make no bones about the fact that slavery is something that cannot be justified,” Lieber said. “At the same time, we say that the Jewish tradition eventually eliminated slavery because of the spirit of the Torah.”

In his defense of Judaism and the Torah, Hertz rejected the fundamental premise of the emerging field of biblical criticism: that the Pentateuch was really a compilation of several different documents woven together by human “redactors” over hundreds of years. And yet he never hesitated to cull other findings from the field when they supported his belief in a direct revelation at Sinai, the historical accuracy of the Five Books of Moses and the moral superiority of the ancient Israelites.

The editors of “Etz Hayim,” on the other hand, fully embrace the deeper implications of biblical criticism, including the notion of an evolved Torah. In fact, they not only accept this view but consider it vital to understanding the text and the Jewish faith.

“I believe that this commentary does very much underscore and support the things that I was preaching about earlier this year,” said Wolpe, who contributed an essay to “Etz Hayim.” “This commentary embraces the idea that the Torah yields wisdom when examined by both ancient and modern methodologies.”

This embrace of biblical criticism is significant, several contributors said, but should be understood as a means toward providing synagogue-goers with a commentary that will inspire them. “It’s designed to help Jews improve the quality of their lives,” Grossman said.

Grossman and other contributors noted that congregants will now be able to study from a commentary that takes into account the Holocaust, Israel’s founding, technological advances and Western civilization’s elevation of women. For example, the new commentary compares the Egyptian midwives of Exodus who refuse to kill first-born Israelite males to the righteous gentiles of World War II.

While the new commentary serves to highlight Conservative Judaism’s leading scholars and pulpit rabbis, it also provides a rare instance of the movement speaking in a loud, unified, theological voice.

“It’s a good feeling,” said Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “Especially for a movement that is very often not always on the same path theologically, religiously or even programmatically.”


Challenging the Rabbi’s ‘Version’

By Baruch C. Cohen, Esq.

Several weeks ago, The Jewish Journal published a Torah Portion on Parasha Behaalotecha, authored by Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and titled “Striking the S-Word,” wherein he stated:

“Remember the scene in ‘Blazing Saddles’ when Mel Brooks played an Indian chief who, along with his warriors, encountered a black family making its way across the plains in a covered wagon? ‘Hmm, schvartzes, ‘ he said….”

“Some 3,000 ago, Miriam and Aaron ridiculed their brother, Moses, for marrying a ‘Cushite’ woman. A Cushite woman is another way of saying an Ethiopian or Sudanese woman, which is another way of saying a black woman, which is another way of saying schvartze, which, whether we want to admit it or not, is just another way of saying nigger.

“For this obvious racial slur against blackness, God ironically afflicts Miriam with leprous, scaly skin ‘as white as snow….’

“The Torah makes it clear that Jewish bigotry existed at the highest levels 3,000 years ago. It infuriated God and almost killed Miriam….”

Rabbi Leder’s version of the biblical account of Miriam’s treatment of her sister-in-law, Zipporah, is inaccurate and misguided.

The Torah makes it clear that since Moses had to be ready to hear God’s word at any moment, he had to be ritually pure at all times, which meant that he had to refrain from marital relations with his wife, Zipporah. According to Rashi, this intimate matter remained their private affair, until Miriam learned of it from a chance remark by Zipporah. Not realizing that God had instructed Moses to do so, and feeling that it was an unjustifiable affront to Zipporah, Miriam shared the news with Aaron, who agreed with her. They were critical of Moses, contending that, since the two of them were prophets but were not required to withdraw from normal life, neither was Moses. God, Himself, appeared to them, to chastise them, and to testify that Moses’ prophecy was of a higher order than anyone else and, therefore, had to remain pure at all times. God punished Miriam for instigating this criticism of Moses, even though she did it out of a sincere desire to correct what she was convinced was his error, and she spoke out only privately to Aaron, who shared her devotion to Moses.

According to the Ramban, Miriam’s own mistake became an internal teaching to the Jewish people of the gravity of the sin of slander.

Zipporah was from Midian, not from Ethiopia. According to Rashi, the description of her as a Cushite was a euphemistic reference to her great beauty — just as everyone admitted her beauty was to teach us that there are women who are becoming in their beauty but unbecoming in their deeds, and others who are becoming in their deeds but not in their beauty — but Zipporah was becoming in every respect.

It is a shame that The Jewish Journal chooses rabbis to report on the Torah who seem to know more about movies than about our heritage.

Baruch C. Cohen is an attorney in Beverly Hills.

Read Rabbi Leder’s original column on Parasha Behaalotecha

Illustration by Bethanne Anderson from “But God Remembered: Stories of Women from Creation to the Promised Land.”

Rejecting Rambam and Rashi

By Rabbi Steven Z. Leder

When Mr. Cohen berates The Jewish Journal for choosing rabbis to report on the Torah who “seem to know more about movies than about our heritage,” he implies it is my ignorance, rather than my disagreement with his point of view, that is at issue. Firstly, I should point out — since he did not — that Mr. Cohen’s articulation of his point of view is in fact not his at all, but taken verbatim from the ArtScroll Series Stone Edition Torah Commentary.

It might interest Mr. Cohen to know that I read the Stone Commentary, and several others, before writing each of my articles and was therefore fully aware of the Rambam’s and Rashi’s commentaries on the verses in question. I simply disagree with them. Why? Because they are guilty of what people such as Mr. Cohen often accuse non-Orthodox Jews of — namely, ignoring the P’shat (simple, plain meaning) of the text.

Mr. Cohen writes that my “version of the biblical account of Miriam’s treatment of her sister-in-law Zipporah is inaccurate and misguided.” I gave no “version” of the text, but merely quoted it exactly as written in the Torah. It is Rambam and Rashi, whom Mr. Cohen quotes via the Stone Commentary, who are offering the imagined “version” of the text, inventing conversation, numerology and conjecture, which simply do not exist in the Torah itself. They are certainly free to do so, as are we all. But to claim that their interpretations are the only authentic ones, is to demonstrate tremendous ignorance of our Jewish tradition.

Had Mr. Cohen read and studied beyond the ArtScroll Commentary, he would have discovered that I am not alone in rejecting the Rambam and Rashi’s views on this parasha. The medieval commentator Joseph Kaspi asks, “If it had been the intention of the text (to imply that Cushite actually means beautiful rather than black), why did it not say so in so many words?” He then takes the Rambam and Rashi to task for interpreting the text in the “very reverse of its written meaning.” The biblical scholar Everett Fox, in his brilliant new Torah translation and commentary published by Schocken, notes that if Cushite refers to an Ethiopian woman, then it is “clearly a racial slur.” These two commentators and others opened the door for me to begin a Torah-based discussion about the problem of Jewish bigotry — a discussion long overdue in my opinion.

Is there room for disagreement about the precise meaning of the text in this case? Certainly. Sadly, however, rather than limiting the debate between us to the realm of ideas, Mr. Cohen mean-spiritedly and misguidedly chose to frame his critique as the literate Orthodox Jew vs. the foolish Reform rabbi. I hope that my response has elevated the discussion to a more appropriate and enriching level for us all.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.