Dating 101: George

I have been dating a new man for 6 weeks. We met online, chatted for a couple of weeks before meeting in person, and are now falling into something comfortable. We have practically nothing in common, and he is unlike anyone I have ever dated. He is a father and a grandfather, not Jewish, and a Republican. He works in law enforcement, and has a world view that is different than mine. We debate politics, speak about faith, and feel connected without words, which has value.

“George” is a lovely man and my long time readers will understand why I have called him George :-). I have struggled to write about this man.  Not because there is nothing to write about, but rather because I have doubted myself for dating a man who is so different from me. I define myself as a Jew, and have written for years about my search for a Jewish man. I do not often write about politics, but when I do, it is often about my difficulties in respecting the Republican party.

How do I tell my beloved readers, people who have become invested in my search for love and happiness, that I am dating someone who is the opposite of everything I told them I want? It then felt strange that I was concerned about what other people would think of me, when I have built a career on not caring what anyone thinks of me. At the end of the day, after much soul searching, it turns out my search has never been for one specific man. It has been a search for happiness.

I am a list maker. I like to not only make lists, but cross things off those lists. I love the feeling of accomplishment I get when a list has been completed. I have made a couple of lists about George. The list is long, and while one or two things may never be crossed off, the rest of the list is not only getting longer, but the checks are adding up. I keep adding things to perhaps make me walk away from the Republican goy, but instead he inspires check marks.

George takes care of my heart. He is thoughtful about things I had no idea would matter to me. He makes choices based on what I want, what I need, and what he feels I deserve. He puts me first. He has a genuine interest in my happiness on a level I have never experienced, except when offering the same care to men who did not appreciate it, or ultimately deserve it. George treats me in a way I have craved, but thought was perhaps only in the movies or imagined in my mind.

There are no uncomfortable silences. There are fair and interesting discussions. There is a desire from both of us to not only understand what is being said, but be kind when faced with differences. There is a meaningful and decent tone in the way we engage with each other, which is refreshing. I like this man and that is huge because rather than worry about whether or not I can love him, I am enjoying the simple pleasure of liking him, which I suppose is the moral of this story. I like him.

In the search for love we need to enjoy the story, rather than rush through to the ending. George is an interesting man and our story is a good one. I have no idea what the ending will be, and that is okay. In a time when I am working on being brave, our story has been a revelation. The bravery is coming not from searching for love as I originally thought, but instead in letting it find me. I am writing a new story for myself, trying to convert a Republican to a Democrat, and keeping the faith.

Dating 101: Snakes & iTunes

My dating life is interesting. By interesting, of course I mean slightly more pathetic than interesting, but still interesting. I truly have to laugh at the absurd things that happen to me, otherwise I would cry. Cry and scream. Cry and scream and adopt a cat. By cat of course I mean a dozen cats, two dogs, and perhaps a parrot. One I could train to laugh every time I said “I have a date”.  I am good at a lot of things, but detecting crazy in men is not one of them. I suppose in the big scheme of things this is not a terrible gift to be saddled with, but some days the inability to see exactly how insane a man is exhausts and depresses me.

I was chatting on Match with a man from Beverly Hills. He works in mining, was sweet, and if you took out one contact lens and squinted with your other eye, looked a little bit like Kelsey Grammer. We were texting back and forth as I am in London, and made plans to go out when I get back. He asked me to tell him something interesting about myself every day that I was in London. Seemed like a cute thing to do. I told him I was Canadian and had a Canadian flag tattoo. He told me that he had a very large penis, that he refers to as “snake”, and you can see it even when he is wearing a suit. You can’t make this stuff up people.

I marveled that of all the things he could have told me as we did the dance of introduction, he opted to tell about his genitals. I told him I thought it a was strange and disrespectful choice. He told me he meant no disrespect and was simply sharing. I reiterated it was offensive, and he told me I had no sense of humor, sent him mixed messages, and should “fuck off and die”. He then proceeded to tell me I would remain alone because I hated men. Dear Lord. I don’t think I hate anything, other than Donald Trump as President, so his outburst was hilarious. The snake charmer was anything but charming and I was in shock.

He was texting nonstop, then started to talk about my son, who he knows nothing about. Well that’s no fun, so I blocked him on my phone, blocked him on Match, and sent them a screen shot of his text telling me to die. This is a guy who has put his picture online, given me his phone number, then threatened me, all because I told him it was disrespectful to talk about his penis with a stranger. His name is David and he’s 48 years old with glasses, so if anyone comes across him run because he is unstable and dangerous, with or without his snake. As of this morning Match had not suspended him. Dating is strange to be sure, but this is terrifying.

Cut to James, also from Match, who also happens to do something with mining. He is originally from Brazil, and is looking for love after having his heart broken. We exchanged a few emails, then exchanged phone numbers and started to text rather than call as I am in London. He wrote to say he was going to Boston and would let me know when he had arrived. He did as he said he would, and when I asked him how it was going, he told me he got an iPhone. I am a diehard Apple person, so I congratulated him on stepping into the light. I asked what he was up to on a Sunday in Boston, and he told me he was downloading an app he needed for work.

He then told me he did not have his credit card and could I buy him an iTunes card and send it to him by email. Really? Yes. Really. I’m not sure how he bought the phone since he said he left his credit card at home, but I’m guessing details are not important to James. Details or the truth. When I told him he was insane to think I would send him anything, he stopped writing. Not a word since I said he was creepy and I would report him to Match. It makes me sad because there are women who will fall for things like this and in an attempt to not be lonely or feel desired, will buy into this type of scam. James should be arrested, not dating.

Cut to today, when James wrote to tell me I misunderstood him and he expected more from me. He doesn’t know me, so I’m not exactly sure what exactly he was expecting, or what was disappointing. He said he wasn’t asking for money, just asking for an iTunes card to get some apps, for his work, so he could give a great presentation. He said he has a daughter, and friends, and a boss, and family, so why ask a woman he does not know? This is insanity and makes me sad for people who are dating from a place of deep loneliness, as I am sure money is being sent and snake selfies are being taken. It is very sad and frightening.

I looked this morning and the profiles for both James and David are now hidden from the Match website. I am not sure if that was done by them or Match, but they should be looked at more closely. These men are predators and ruin it for others who are online genuinely trying to meet someone. I invite Match to get in touch with me at and I will give them the details of these two loser who are polluting their website and good work. Dating is scary in general, but when you do it online, there are risks involved that perhaps women don’t think about. It can be creepy, but if you want to find someone, a necessary evil.

I date not because I love to date, because who would love something so revolting? I date because I would like to share my life with someone, and dating is how I will meet that person. I am hopeful, which is truly the most important thing to have when dating, because without hope you’ve got no shot in hell of ever meeting anyone. Please just be careful out there, and I don’t just mean the ladies. There are women online who are scamming people just as often as men. Do not send anyone any money, do not tell anyone where you live, meet in a public place, and don’t let anyone pick you up at home. You cannot be too careful.

It is sometimes hard to trust people you know, let alone strangers, but you really must try to be aware. If you come across people you sense are dangerous, tell someone. Write to the dating site you are using and tell them. You owe it to yourself, and also to the other people who will innocently stumble across these people. If you’re wrong and they are not dangerous, just crazy, still better to have said something than to be quiet. James and David are bumps in the road and I will not be scared off by a couple of idiots. I will be cautious and I will be brave because my bashert is out there and he is keeping the faith.

Passover: Faith and freedom

My local Ralphs has begun stocking its shelves with Passover goodies. The resonant voice of Charlton Heston can be heard on t.v. This can only mean one thing: the Jewish holiday of Passover is coming. Again, as every year, Jews around the world are instructed to personalize the Exodus story, “as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt.”    

Judging from the therapy clients coming through the doors of my office, there is plenty of resonance to be found. These days, few of us are actually physically enslaved.  Yet we are often trapped internally. We lives our lives in restricted, confined routines because we are afraid of making changes without any guarantee. 

Many people feel stuck internally, and don’t realize that they can empower themselves to change.  Although it is not a conscious choice, we often choose the safety and familiarity of routine.  But we  disengage from our daily lives in subtle ways.  We stay busy.  We lower our expectations.  We become slaves to our internal inertia.        

I never realized this, but the Hebrew word for Egypt, mizrayim,  can be translated as tight place. Place of constriction.  The Israelites were physically constricted.  Yet even when Moses offered them instant freedom, they hesitated. They weren’t sure that they wanted to exchange the familiar for danger and uncertainty. 

When the Israelites approached the Red Sea, G-d had not yet parted the waters.  According to the Rabbinic Midrash, a man named Nachson ben Aminadav responded by jumping into the sea without hesitation.  Only after he was up to his nose in the water, did the sea part so that the Israelites could cross in safety. He had to take a leap of faith in order to go forward. 

In a way, the therapeutic process requires that same leap of faith.  Many of us have difficulty imagining that lasting change can be possible. One of the best parts of being a therapist is that I am blessed with the chance to offer my clients the idea that change is possible. That often leads to a sense of hopefulness that can lead to significant shifts. 

Often, people engage in magical thinking. “I could leave my current circumstances and start all over again.”  Unfortunately, it is never that simple. The grass is rarely, if ever, greener on the other side.  It is not enough to move to a new physical destination–we need to work on our internal landscape.   Part of that process involves being able to be compassionate to ourselves.  To accept our imperfections and flawed selves. Only then can we become truly free.

Roni Blau is a licensed clinical therapist practicing in Santa Monica.  She can be reached at

Calendar: February 26 – March 3

FRI | FEB 26


Join AMI for an interactive and family-friendly service, followed by a Shabbat dinner and kids program. The evening will illuminate the meaning of Shabbat — sanctifying the week and unifying the Jewish people. 5 p.m. service, 5:30 p.m. dinner and kids program. $70 per couple; $15 per child; free for children 3 and under. Pat’s Restaurant, 9233 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 278-1911. ” target=”_blank”>

SAT | FEB 27


Come hear what this experienced writer and commentator has to say. Nathan Miller is president of Miller Ink, a strategic communications consultancy, but he has served as the policy director of the Homeland Security Advisory Council and as the director of speechwriting for Israel’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations. As a senior communications adviser and the chief speechwriter for Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, he was instrumental in crafting some of the most acclaimed and highly scrutinized speeches delivered on the floors of the U.N. in recent memory. 10:30 a.m. Free. The Beverly Hills Hotel, 9641 Sunset Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 276-4246. ” target=”_blank”>


Enjoy Havdalah and a hot dog dinner! This year’s theme: #BeJewish24/7. There will be crafts and activities for the whole family. Hot dog dinner will be served from 5:30-6:15 p.m. followed by a service and evening festivities. 5:30 p.m. $7. Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-6891. SUN | FEB 28


The feature-length documentary “Most Likely to Succeed” examines the history of education and reveals the growing deficiencies of the school model in today’s world. For most of the last century, entry-level jobs were plentiful and college was an affordable path to a fulfilling career, but that is no longer the case. The film explores compelling new approaches in project-based learning that aim to revolutionize teaching as we know it. This event is presented by the Sholem Community. 10 a.m. coffee and bagels; 10:15 a.m. screening. Discussion to follow. Free for members and pre-registration; $5 donation at the door. Westside Neighborhood School, 5401 Beethoven St., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. ” target=”_blank”>


Kehillat Ma’arav is launching a new program, JAWS (Jewish Arts Workshop Series), with a Betzalel Fest! There will be activities for all ages, such as candle making, kosher wine tasting, silk challah cover making, challah baking, arts and crafts, and a musical performance featuring flutist Susan Greenberg and pianist Louise Lofquist. 1 p.m. Free. Kehillat Ma’arav, 1715 21st St., Santa Monica. (310) 829-0566. MON | FEB 29


Eve Jochnowitz, the author of “The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchen,” will explore Fania Lewando’s extraordinary Yiddish vegetarian cookbook from 1937. Lewando’s cookbook is filled with recipes from Jewish tradition, European cuisine and the booming 20th-century health food movement. Jochnowitz also will engage in conversation with Evan Kleiman, host of KCRW’s “Good Food.” 12:30 p.m. Free. Tutor Campus Center at USC, 3607 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles. (213) 740-2311. WED | MARCH 2


While California is in the midst of its worst drought on record, Israel has emerged from years of chronic water shortages thanks to its water management and technology. Seth M. Siegel, author of “Let There Be Water: Israel’s Solution For A Water-Starved World,” will detail how Israel’s expertise can help solve water problems around the world. Hosted by the Jewish National Fund in collaboration with the Consulate General of the State of Israel, the City of Beverly Hills and the City of Los Angeles. 9 a.m. Free. RSVP by Feb. 29. Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills. (323) 964-1400. ” target=”_blank”>



Baladino combines everything from Egyptian darbuka to Armenian duduk, from Ladino classics to rare tunes. The Israeli group has stunning vocals, unexpected instruments and a perfect sense of arrangement. During their live performances, there are often instrumental improvisations driven by Mediterranean-Gypsy grooves with rock and electronic influences. Their vibrant and organic sound will be accompanied by special guest La Victoria. 8 p.m. $25. Pico Union Project, 1153 Valencia St., Los Angeles. (818) 760-1077.

The meaning of coincidences

One of the most powerful ways we experience God’s closeness is through coincidences.

I know this is certainly the case with me. Stuff happens to me all the time that I can’t explain.

Here are two examples.

One Friday night, I was in shul and my mind wandered a bit. I realized that this was my anniversary of keeping Shabbos for the first time. In fact, it was exactly 20 years ago to the day. I wondered how many Shabboses that was. I did the math and multiplied 20 (years) times 52 (weeks) and arrived at 1,040 Shabboses. Then I realized something that made my head spin: That same week I began a new job. The street address number was 1040.

Another story.

One of my favorite Torah commentators is Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Chaver, a tremendous 19th- century Torah scholar and kabbalist from the school of Vilna Gaon. The book of his I’ve been studying is called “Ohr Torah” (The Light of Torah). When I learned that he’d also written a commentary on the aggadot, the more esoteric sections of the Talmud, I ordered that, too. When the books arrived, I was overcome by emotion. I sat in my favorite chair, brought the books to my heart, and hugged them. At that moment, the phone rang. My daughter ran in to tell me that someone was calling for me. “Who?” I asked. “Ohr Torah,” she said.


There is a shul in the community called Torah Ohr, but the caller ID on our phone reverses first and last names, so the screen read “Ohr Torah” — the name of the book I was hugging at that moment.

How do you explain occurrences like these, and what are we supposed to do when they happen?

Usually, we throw our hands up in the air and say things like, “What are the odds!” or “Can you believe that?” But the sheer miraculousness of the events always left me feeling as if I wasn’t fully appreciating their significance.

So for years I struggled with what the appropriate response to coincidences is — or put another way — given that that just took place, what am I supposed to do now?

I once heard that coincidences were God’s way of waving, “Hello!”

Although that’s a lovely thought, there’s something problematic about it. Namely, God is waving, “Hello!” every moment! So given that, what makes coincidences any different from every other moment?

The question perplexed me.

Clearly there is a difference. But how do we express it exactly?

The question stayed with me until I reflected on the following teaching.

In Pirke Avot, a volume of the Talmud also known as Ethics of Our Fathers, Rabbi Akiva says, “Beloved are people for they were created in God’s image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to them that they were created in God’s image, as it is said: ‘For in the image of God, He made human beings’ ” (3:18).

Rabbi Akiva is telling us something amazing here.

You see, something can be true, but it’s indicative of an even greater love when God shows us that it’s true.

Imagine this exchange between a parent and child. Child: “Do you love me?” Parent: “Of course, I love you.” Child: “Then how come you never tell me?”

The parent loves the child. But it’s indicative of a greater love when the parent makes it known to the child that he loves them.

Yes, God is everywhere.

Yes, God is saying, “Hello!” to us every nanosecond of our lives.

But when we experience a coincidence, God is, so to speak, “going out of his way” to make it known to us how present he is in our lives.

Contemplate how awesome that is! God is literally customizing a series of events unique to you just to make known to you how close he is.


In Torah, this is what we call an “ays ratzon,” a favorable moment. But if we translate the Hebrew literally, it’s even more powerful. It means “a time of desire,” meaning a time when God is expressing his longing for us.

During these moments, the rabbis teach us that the gates of heaven are open to our prayers.

Now we know what to do the next time a coincidence happens.


Pour your heart out and ask God for everything. 

David Sacks is an Emmy-winning TV writer and produces

Calendar May 24-30

SAT | MAY 24


The Jewish Women’s Theatre invites you to the world premiere of a show that takes ancient Bible stories and weaves them into music, poetry and plays — modernizing the text. From comparing Eve’s fig leaf to a tattoo, to slavery in Congo, to sibling rivalry, these
vignettes are funny, poignant and relevant. A Q-and-A will follow the show. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $20 (presale), $30 (door). National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 651-2930. ” target=”_blank”>

SUN | MAY 25


With director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan and star Harrison Ford, this will be a very Jewish cinematic experience! Come for “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” the film where Mr. Jones is hired by the U.S. government to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do, and stay for “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Sometimes it’s important to start the week with a little Spielberg. Sun. Various times. Through Tues. $8 (general), $6 (seniors, children under 12). New Beverly Cinema, 7165 W. Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 938-4038. ” target=”_blank”>

TUE | MAY 27


Catch him before he’s gone! The Piano Man is at the Hollywood Bowl for a closing night that will leave you wanting him onstage … for the longest time. Responsible for such classics as “Vienna,” “Uptown Girl,” “Movin’ Out” and so many more, the six-time Grammy winner belongs to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Long Island Music Hall of Fame. Don’t miss this music legend. Tue. 8 p.m. $45.50-$249.50. Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood. (800) 745-3000. WED | MAY 28


It’s the Jewish collaboration you didn’t know you were waiting for. Based on the teachings of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ “Songs on Meditations,” “Sacred Transitions” is composed by Russell Steinberg, who recently premiered his project “Cosmic Dust” with the New West Symphony and is the artistic director of The Los Angeles Youth Orchestra. Schulweis — who has been with Valley Beth Shalom for more than four decades — and Steinberg offer a world premiere that is as religiously significant as it is artistically unique. A dessert reception will follow the concert. Wed. 7:30 p.m. Free. RSVP requested. Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000. THU | MAY 29


 A Jew, a Christian and a Muslim walk into a temple. Sounds like the setup for a bad joke, but this Thursday, it’s actually happening. Salvador Litvak, Jason VanBorssum and Rahmi Mowjood, all friends, are strongly united in their desire to change current multifaith dialogue, stressing the importance of 21st-century spirituality. Moderated by Jewish Journal senior writer Danielle Berrin. Thu. 7:30 p.m. Free. RSVP requested. Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 652-7354 ext. 215. ” target=”_blank”>

FRI | MAY 30


When a young man goes to see his dying father, he’s confronted with the finiteness of death and the strange nature of time. Based on stories by Jewish author Bruno Schulz, director and writer Wojciech Jerzy Has brings a dreamy surrealism to the complexities of mortality and family. Has also reflects on the Holocaust, Schulz having been killed by a Nazi in 1942. Winner of the Jury Prize at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival, the movie promises a timeless quality. Fri. 7:30 p.m. $3 (members), $5 (general). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 857-6010.

George W. Bush and Jews for Jesus

Former President George W. Bush spoke for the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute (MJBI) this past week, and this has led to a good deal of writing on Jews for Jesus and the ex-president’s address.

Some observations:

• Like nearly every other Jew, I was saddened by the news. The MJBI is not some quiet Messianic congregation consisting of Christians and born-Jews who affirm Jesus as their Lord, Savior, and Messiah; its entire raison d’etre is to convert Jews to Christianity. Needless to say, in a free society, such as ours, one should be free to engage in proselytizing. And if President Bush had spoken before a Christian organization whose purpose was to spread belief in Jesus, no one would have said a thing. 

But the MJBI is different. First, it is devoted solely to bringing Jews to Christian faith. Second, it does so by telling Jews that they do not become Christian when they accept Christ; they stay Jewish. They simply become “fulfilled” Jews. So unlike every other case of religious conversion in the world, the Jew who converts to Christianity remains a member of the religious group he previously identified with.

To most Jews, that is intellectually dishonest. Such Jews should call themselves by the name of the faith whose religious doctrines they now embrace — Christian. Jews may be saddened when a Jew leaves Judaism, but they can respect the decision. After all, if Christians can become Jews, Jews can become Christians. What Jews cannot respect is when Jewish converts to Christianity deny they are Christians, call themselves Jews, and devote their lives to converting other Jews.

• Even many Evangelical Christians who are genuinely and selflessly devoted to fighting on behalf of the Jewish people and Israel find it difficult to understand why Jews react so negatively to Jews for Jesus. The best way I have found to explain this to them is by comparing the Jews’ attitude toward Jews for Jesus to Evangelicals’ attitude to Mormons. Evangelical Christians have no more problem with there being Mormons than they do with any other religious group; their problem is with Mormons calling themselves Christian — just as Jews have no problem with the existence of Christians, only with Jews who convert to Christianity who still call themselves Jews — and claim that the only authentic Jew is one who is a Christian. 

• Jews should not allow their opposition to Jews for Jesus to bleed over to opposition to Christian Zionists, as a writer on this subject recently irresponsibly did in the liberal Jewish newspaper The Forward. Christian Zionists have been the best friends Jews have had for most of the last two centuries. As Andrew Brown, the religion writer for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote this week:

“Without the belief of Victorian upper class evangelical Englishmen — almost exactly the equivalents of George W. Bush — there never would have been a Balfour Declaration. And without that declaration, there could not have been the Jewish immigration to Palestine that laid the foundations for the state of Israel.”

Today, groups such as Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and other Evangelical pro-Israel groups are the Jews’ and Israel’s best friends in the world — and they are not working to convert us. If the Evangelicals turn against Israel the way the liberal churches have, we will be in deep trouble.

• Concerning George W. Bush, it should not be difficult for Jews to object to his address to MJBI while continuing to express gratitude for his steadfast support for Israel while president of the United States. I think it is fair to say that nearly all the Jews of Israel are far more angered by President Barack Obama’s policies toward Iran than George W. Bush’s appearance at a Jews for Jesus institution. As Yossi Klein Halevi said this week (on my radio show), “a majority of Israelis today have no faith in the Obama administration’s will to stop a nuclear Iran.” Israelis did have faith in George W. Bush’s will to stop Iran. So, let’s not lose perspective because of one address to a group of Christians few people have ever heard of.

• For 40 years I have argued that Jews for Jesus pose little or no danger to Jewish survival. We Jews should be preoccupied with all the Jews for Nothing, the Jews for anti-Zionism, the Jews for radical Leftism, the Jews in PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) who developed the obscene vegetarian campaign called “Holocaust on Your Plate” that equates the barbecuing of chickens in America with the cremating of the Jews in the Holocaust.

Our sons and daughters in college are not being alienated from Judaism, the Jewish people, and, of course, from Israel by Jews for Jesus, but by the secular left-wing professors who teach contempt for God, for religion, for Zionism and for Israel.

• The claim of Jews for Jesus that they are not Christians but Jews is false advertising, but the claim that they remain Jews is not false. Take, for example, the late Roman Catholic Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger. He was born a Jew, Aaron Lustiger, and converted to Catholicism. On becoming Archbishop of Paris, Lustiger said: “I was born Jewish and so I remain, even if that is unacceptable for many. For me, the vocation of Israel is bringing light to the goyim. That is my hope and I believe that Christianity is the means for achieving it.”

Yet, Jews around the world came to revere Cardinal Lustiger for his unceasing efforts to rid the Catholic Church of anti-Semitism and to help Israel in the Catholic world. This Catholic, who considered himself Jewish, was a regular speaker for the World Jewish Congress and was even invited to speak at the Modern Orthodox Jewish seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York.

Of course, Lustiger did not devote his life, as Jews for Jesus organizations do, to converting Jews. But Jewish law regarded him as a Jew, mainstream Jews honored him, and he asked that the Kaddish be recited for him upon his death.

• The only positive Jewish response to Jews for Jesus is to figure out how to keep Jews Jewish so that they will not leave us for other secular or religious faiths. And the way to achieve that is to instill in young Jews faith in the Jewish trinity: God, Torah and Israel. Then they won’t seek any other trinity.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

EVENT: Hot & Holy — A provocative discussion on sex and spirituality

A provocative discussion on sex and spirituality. Whether you are single, married, have a great sex life, or want one — join the conversation as we talk about what sex means to a relationship and how it is reflected in our faith.

Moderated by Ilana Angel, panelists are Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, Sex Therapist Dr. Limor Blockman, Dating Coach David Wygant, and Hollywood Jew Danielle Berrin.  Ticket price includes admission and hors d'oeuvres.  Cash Bar. Special Valet Rate of $7.00.

Click here to buy your ticket online and secure entry. Some tickets will be available at the door. First come, first served.

No immediate threats for High Holy Day security, but warnings to stay vigilant

The Los Angeles Jewish community is not facing any security threats related to the High Holidays, but local institutions should still be vigilant, the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Southwest division said at a community briefing Tuesday.

“We want to be open and welcoming, but we also want to be safe and secure at the same time,” ADL associate regional director Ariella Schusterman said appearing at a recent ADL security briefing for the Jewish community. “The question is, ‘Can these two things be married together?’ And the answer, actually, is ‘Yes.’”

Held at the Century City headquarters of the ADL-Pacific Southwest, the security seminar’s theme focused on suspicious behavior: what qualifies, and how to respond to it. A national agency that emails security alerts, security bulletins and non-alerts to institutions and oversees regional offices that partner with law officials on security issues, the ADL holds this security briefing annually, always prior to the High Holy Days. The agency invites community leaders, security personnel and others to the event. 

It’s important to focus less on a person and more on a person’s behavior, said Jason Pantages, assistant federal security director at the Transportation Security Administration at Los Angeles International Airport. “People aren’t suspicious—their behavior is suspicious,” Pantages, the program’s main speaker, told the group.

Pantages provided examples of suspicious behavior, such as a person leaving a bag behind or parking an unfamiliar vehicles in an prohibited area; an unfamiliar person photographing loading docks, security cameras or other building features; or a stranger who is unusually curious about an institution’s’ security and asks questions about it.

Both speakers gave individual presentations. It’s important to maintain “domain awareness,” which is the knowledge of what’s normal activity at your institution and what’s abnormal, Pantages said. That baseline will help you identify suspicious behavior, he said.

And always trust your instincts, Schusterman said. “If it looks wrong, if it feels wrong, then do not be afraid to contact somebody, whether it be your security person, or whether it be the police,” she said.

During the High Holy Days, police “are all on higher alert,” Schusterman said, to the question of audience member Joanne Feldman, assistant office manager for the Pacific Jewish Center, who asked if it’s a synagogue’s responsibility to liaison with police for extra security on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But, if an institution wants additional security – such as a patrol vehicle or a decoy vehicle parked in front of its location when services are taking place – it’s the institution’s responsibility to coordinate that with police, Schusterman said.

Approximately 60 people from various synagogues, schools and other organizations attended, including Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, the Skirball Cultural Center, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; the Los Angeles Jewish Home and IKAR, as well as police officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Burbank Police Department and Beverly Hills police.

For further information on ADL security measures—including the online security manual, “Protecting Your Jewish Institution”—visit

The rebellious man of faith

The patriarch Jacob, my namesake (Jacob Shmuel) of whom we have read the past few weeks in the Bible, is the most maligned of all the patriarchs. He is the one whom non-Jews can do without. The Christians claim to have been grafted onto the seed of Abraham and the Muslims make equal claim to the father of Monotheism as the Jews. But Jacob, with his seeming deception of his blind father to gain the firstborn blessing from Esau and his commercial manipulations of his father-in-law Laban, most of whose flock he eventually owned, is treated by anti-Semites as the prototype of the wily, cunning, dishonest Jew who will do anything to profit. Jacob is the forerunner of Shylock who mourns more for his lost ducats then his lost daughter Jessica. He is the father, they say, of the modern State of Israel that will engage in questionable moral tactics to fight off its enemies.

And yet, the Jews celebrate Jacob and call themselves his, rather than Abraham’s, offspring. We are the children of Israel, the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with, and defeated an angel. Why celebrate a man of seeming deceit?

Because Jacob was the first patriarch who decided he would enter into the arena with evil, fight it, and defeat it. He was unconcerned at what damage this would do to his reputation. He knew Esau was violent and dangerous and would have abused the power that would have come with the firstborn blessing. He was determined to stop him one way or another, even if it partially impugned his soul. The same was true of Laban, whose wealth would be abused and misused and was in any event owed to Jacob for fourteen years of unpaid labor.

There are those who believe that religion should distance itself from the corruption of the world and maintain an unblemished integrity. Monastic life, divorced from the affairs of a society ruled by greed and avarice, is where the pious flourish. Even in the Jewish world there are many who believe that the righteous man spends his life studying unsullied by materialism or commerce. They should likewise avoid service in the Israeli army because fighting evil taints the fighter and lacks the innocence of pure Torah study. And in any event, the army is not sufficiently religious and ritual commitment will suffer in its godless environment.

To some degree this was the posture adopted by Abraham who was known as Ha’ivri, the Hebrew, the man who sets himself apart. The kernel of monotheism, having just been birthed by Abraham was, he felt, too vulnerable to be exposed to the world malevolent influence. So he cloistered himself from immoral people like Soddom and Gomorra’s inhabitants. Yes, he would pray for their welfare from afar, but he would not live among them, attempt to influence them, or even combat their wickedness. Isaac, who was a holy offering brought on G-d’s altar likewise lives apart and is prohibited by G-d from sojourning in the fleshpots of Egypt.

Only Jacob engages the world and courageously confronts the wicked allowing goodness to triumph. Yes, at times he will fight them on their own terms – even employ their own means – to defeat them. But he will not let the world be ruled by wicked men. One way or another, he will stop them. And it is as a result of this courageous posture to fight G-d’s battles that his name is changed from Jacob – he who is stepped on by the heal – to Israel, he who wrestles with G-d and man and triumphs. In the act of this constant struggle against malevolent forces who seek to defeat him, Jacob gives birth to a new concept of religion whose theme is captured by that name. Not the subservient man of the spirit, but the rebellious man of faith.

Indeed, it is those who are prepared to fight evil even when accused of becoming unethical in the process that are vindicated by history as having saved civilization from monstrous injustice. Lincoln suspected habeus corpus, insisted on continuing the bloody engagements of the civil war when there was an outcry for peace, and was labeled a bloodthirsty tyrant for doing so. Today we remember him as our greatest president who purged America of the abomination of slavery and kept the Union intact. While Chamberlain waved his useless piece of paper proclaiming ‘peace in our time’ and portrayed himself as an ethical man unwilling to shed blood, Churchill was dismissed a warmonger and alarmist provoking a fight with Hitler. He would later be accused of mass butchery in leveling cities like Hamburg and Dresden to finish off the Third Reich. Yet today he is remembered as the 20th century’s greatest statesman.

When I was in Oxford I heard world-renowned Jewish academics lamenting the State of Israel’s existence. Prior to its creation, they maintained, the Jews had the respect of the world as the people of the book and the pity of humanity as Hitler’s victims. Now we were the people of the M-16 and seen as oppressors of the Palestinians. Yet these moral cowards would have Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran take over the Middle East in order for the Jews to maintain a false morality, predicated on ethical self-preservation while the world is overtaken by darkness. The desire to remain aloof from the world’s affairs and allow wicked men to gain supremacy is piety of cowards and betrays a fraudulent faith.

For thousands of years religion has been perceived as demanding and inculcating obedience. Faith demands the bowing of the head to the unassailable will of G-d. Islam translates literally as submission and a Muslim is one who lives a life of obedience to G-d’s law. The great Danish Christian theologian Soren Kierkegaard likewise said that true Christianity demands not understanding or challenge but a leap of faith.

But Judaism imparted to the world a revolutionary vision of global social transformation and change. The time would come when men and women, through their defiance, would cure the world of seemingly intractable ills. War itself would be defeated as would disease and hunger. Human suffering, Judaism taught, was not the fault of sinful man. Rather, the man of faith was he who demanded of G-d Himself to keep his promises and His injunctions to choose life. After sending Moses to free the Israelite slaves of Egypt and Pharaoh’s cold response that their suffering would increase through the withholding of straw, Moses does not return to G-d with head bowed low, accepting the brutality inflicted on his people as G-d’s will. “Why have you acted so wickedly to this people,” he says to the Creator of the Universe, “and from the time you have sent me you have done nothing to save this nation.” The rebellious man of faith will continue to worship G-d after Auschwitz but He will never excuse G-d’s seeming callousness in allowing a holocaust against innocents. To the contrary, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the greatest Jewish religious leader of modern times, shouted in public on countless occasions, defiantly and with fists pounding the table, “Ad Mosai,” How long Oh Lord will you remain silent as people suffer and die? How long will it be before you fulfill your promise to perfect the world and defeat death. It’s flaws are now Your responsibility. We have been a faithful nation for generations. Our suffering is due not to our sin or shortcoming but to Your failure to keep your promise.”

While his own father-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneerson, the previous Rebbe, whom he adored and to whom he was incomparably devoted, wrote of the holocaust as possible divine retribution from Jewish abrogation of G-d’s covenant, on this matter and on this alone the Rebbe broke ranks. We could never understand why G-d would allow such suffering to be visited on his people, he said. Week after week, well into his eighties, he would thunder in front of thousands of his students. How long will Israeli soldiers die for simply protecting the Jewish people from further annihilation? When a bus carrying Israeli school children was hit by a train, killing 27, and the orthodox Israeli minister of the interior said they had died because of Israelis’ disrespect for the Sabbath, the Rebbe dismissed his chutzpah in adding insult to injury and raged against the heavens instead. There was no reason for these children to die. G-d had commanded through his prophet Moses to choose life. Why had He not chosen thus Himself?

And, my G-d, my G-d. If only our Muslim brothers and sisters did the same, ceasing the bowing of heads to fanatical Mullahs who pervert Islam in favor of their personal hatreds and insist that the faithful accept their exhortation to violence even as these foul teachings betray the humanity of a religion that took in Jewish refugees after the Spanish and Portuguese expulsions when the Jews were the most hated nation on earth.

The faithful have been obedient long enough. It is time for the emergence of the new defiant man of faith, steeped in the tradition of Jacob, refusing to allow the iron hoofs of evil to tread upon the vulnerable flesh of the innocent and the soft and trusting heart of the righteous.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has just published Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself (Wiley) and will shortly publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley

An enduring miracle

This coming Shabbat, together with Jewish communities around the world, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah. Most of us are quite familiar with the story of Chanukah and the miracle that our tradition recalls.

We learned as children that when the Maccabees rededicated our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they found enough oil to light the menorah for only a single day. God’s miracle, we learned, was that the oil that should have lasted but one day lasted, rather, for eight days.

The rabbinic sages, explaining the ritual lighting of Chanukah, recounted in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat the miracle noted above. We might wonder whether this miracle actually occurred. And, if it did not occur, we might question whether we should continue to observe the ritual lighting associated with this nonevent.

In order to understand the original and continued significance of the lighting of Chanukah’s flames, we might explore the manner in which we light the chanukiyah — Chanukah’s eight-branched menorah. We can thereby gain a deeper and enduring appreciation of the lighting, one that chronicles a miracle we live today as much as it commemorates a miracle of long ago.

The Talmud instructs us to observe Chanukah’s ritual lighting in accordance with the sage Hillel’s practice. We are to kindle one additional flame for each successive day of the holiday. On the first day, we kindle one flame; on the second, two flames; etc. According to the sage Shammai’s dissenting opinion, we ought eliminate one flame for each successive day of the holiday; on the first day, eight flames; on the second day, seven flames; etc.

At first glance, Shammai’s approach seems compelling: In recounting the miracle of the single jar of oil that lasted eight days, we should acknowledge that, despite our rational conclusion to the contrary, there was in actuality enough oil on the first day of Chanukah to last eight days, on the second day to last seven, and so on. In other words, Shammai suggested that the proper way to recount the miracle is to recall what once occurred from the perspective of one who knows how the story ends.

Still, the Talmud rules in accordance with Hillel. I believe Hillel’s view prevailed because it reflected a belief that the ritual lighting of Chanukah is more than commemorative; it exists very much in the present tense, experientially. Standing outside the miracle, remembering it historically as Shammai did, the focus is simply on how much oil remained each day. However, when we use the ritual to relive the miracle in our present, when we experience each day of it anew, we are not certain that our oil will last yet another moment. We cannot be sure that the lights we revisit from our ancient Jewish past, or even those we strive to preserve and nourish today, will endure. Will the Jewish flame of our era burn forth unto our children and our children’s children? Are we any less at risk of losing our light than the menorah in the Temple was so very long ago? Might it have been the case for the rabbis long ago that the “miracle” of Chanukah was a metaphor for our people’s unlikely but persistent survival and flourishing, against all odds? Is it possible that the miracle that we celebrate in our own era, when kindling our own flames of Chanukah, is the ever-constant miracle of our presence in this world, altogether, as Jews?

The flames of Chanukah, as Hillel had us kindle them by adding one more flame each day, express our enduring faith that our flame of today will grow ever stronger, in our own generation and beyond. The flames we kindle on Chanukah represent our commitment to the work we must do to enhance and clarify the light of our people and the beauty and depth of Jewish meaning and purpose. Ultimately, from within the annual and ongoing miracle of Chanukah, we might even come to recognize that we, ourselves, are the flames; we are the enduring miracle of Chanukah, if we make it so.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit

We felt so safe there

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with

Religion: The ‘first and worst’ explanation

Until about 1832, when it first seems to have become established as a noun and a concept, the term “scientist” had no really independent meaning.

“Science” meant “knowledge” in much the same way as “physic” meant medicine, and those who conducted experiments or organized field expeditions or managed laboratories were known as “natural philosophers.”

To these gentlemen (for they were mainly gentlemen) the belief in a divine presence or inspiration was often merely assumed to be a part of the natural order, in rather the same way as it was assumed — or actually insisted upon — that a teacher at Cambridge University swear an oath to be an ordained Christian minister.

For Sir Isaac Newton — an enthusiastic alchemist, a despiser of the doctrine of the Trinity and a fanatical anti-papist — the main clues to the cosmos were to be found in Scripture. Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, was a devout Unitarian, as well as a believer in the phlogiston theory. Alfred Russel Wallace, to whom we owe much of what we know about evolution and natural selection, delighted in nothing more than a session of ectoplasmic or spiritual communion with the departed.

And thus it could be argued — though if I were a believer in god I would not myself attempt to argue it — that a commitment to science by no means contradicts a belief in the supernatural. The best known statement of this opinion in our own time comes from the late Stephen Jay Gould, who tactfully proposed that the worlds of science and religion commanded “nonoverlapping magisteria.”

How true is this on a second look or even on a first glance? Would we have adopted monotheism in the first place if we had known:

That our species is at most 200,000 years old and very nearly joined the 98.9 percent of all other species on our planet by becoming extinct in Africa 60,000 years ago, when our numbers seemingly fell below 2,000 before we embarked on our true “exodus” from the savannah?

That the universe, originally discovered by Edwin Hubble to be expanding away from itself in a flash of red light, is now known to be expanding away from itself even more rapidly, so that soon even the evidence of the original “big bang” will be unobservable?

That the Andromeda galaxy is on a direct collision course with our own, the ominous but beautiful premonition of which can already be seen with a naked eye in the night sky?

These are very recent examples, post-Darwinian and post-Einsteinian, and they make pathetic nonsense of any idea that our presence on this planet, let alone in this of so many billion galaxies, is part of a plan.

Which design or designer made so sure that absolutely nothing (see above) will come out of our fragile current “something”? What plan or planner determined that millions of humans would die without even a grave marker, for our first 200,000 years of struggling and desperate existence, and that there would only then at last be a “revelation” to save us, about 3,000 years ago, but disclosed only to gaping peasants in remote and violent and illiterate areas of the Middle East?

To say that there is little “scientific” evidence for the last proposition is to invite a laugh. There is no evidence for it, period. And if by some strenuous and improbable revelation there was to be any evidence, it would only argue that the creator or designer of all things was either (a) very laborious, roundabout, tinkering and incompetent and/or (b) extremely capricious and callous and even cruel.

It will not do to say, in reply to this, that the lord moves in mysterious ways. Those who dare to claim to be his understudies and votaries and interpreters must either accept the cruelty and the chaos or disown it. They cannot pick and choose between the warmly benign and the frigidly indifferent. Nor can the religious claim to be in possession of secret sources of information that are denied to the rest of us. That claim was once the prerogative of the pope and the witch doctor, but now it’s gone.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books

This is as much as to say that reason and logic reject god, which (without being conclusive) would be a fairly close approach to a scientific rebuttal. It would also be quite near to saying something that lies just outside the scope of this essay, which is that morality shudders at the idea of god, as well.

Religion, remember, is theism, not deism. Faith cannot rest itself on the argument that there might or might not be a prime mover. Faith must believe in answered prayers, divinely ordained morality, heavenly warrant for circumcision, the occurrence of miracles or what you will. Physics and chemistry and biology and paleontology and archeology have, at a minimum, given us explanations for what used to be mysterious and furnished us with hypotheses that are at least as good as, or very much better than, the ones offered by any believers in other and inexplicable dimensions.

Does this mean that the inexplicable or superstitious has become “obsolete”? I myself would wish to say no, if only because I believe that the human capacity for wonder neither will nor should be destroyed or superseded. But the original problem with religion is that it is our first, and our worst, attempt at explanation. It is how we came up with answers before we had any evidence.

It belongs to the terrified childhood of our species, before we knew about germs or could account for earthquakes. It belongs to our childhood, too, in the less charming sense of demanding a tyrannical authority: a protective parent who demands compulsory love even as he exacts a tithe of fear.

This unalterable and eternal despot is the origin of totalitarianism and represents the first cringing human attempt to refer all difficult questions to the smoking and forbidding altar of a Big Brother. This, of course, is why one desires that science and humanism would make faith obsolete, even as one sadly realizes that as long as we remain insecure primates, we shall remain very fearful of breaking the chain.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of “God Is Not Great” and the editor of “The Portable Atheist.” This piece was commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation as part of an essay series that can be found at

We were intended by God — we’re not afterthoughts

The magician succeeds by misdirection — look here and you will not notice everything that I am doing with my left hand.

Part of Christopher Hitchens’ magic in his essay is misdirection: He would have us ignore ourselves. How do human beings know? If we are, as scientific materialists tell us, nothing more than an accident of ancient chemistry, haphazardly evolved with no thought, no design, no intelligence behind the universe, then how do our minds draw correct conclusions about the origin of things? In Hitchens’ article he makes numerous assertions about the way the world began and will end and what God would or would not do, without wondering if it is wonderful that he can know this at all.

Minds evolved to survive on the savannah do not need to invent, much less master, nuclear physics. “I am awesomely, wonderfully made” sings the psalmist. The addition of evolutionary mechanisms to our stock of knowledge makes that declaration more potent, not less.

Evolution tells us that random mutations followed by adaptations to environment account for who we are. If we are adapted to fit an ecological niche, and our minds are as random and limited as our legs, ears and eyes, why can we understand truths about the world? Even more powerfully, where would free will enter this story? Products of heredity and environment do not get free will: No one picks his or her environment or his or her genes, so where do we get this glorious ability to choose?

It is possible that we are determined and all of our conclusions are limited or simple illusions. I cannot argue against the certainty that people are robots. But if you believe that what we know about the world has some relationship to truth, and that we are free agents, then you are driven to the conclusion that materialism may be too simple a conclusion. Perhaps God has something to do with this remarkable pageant.

The improbability of human existence can be seen from two different directions. Hitchens writes that given the ages Earth was without us, the close brush we had with extinction and the universe’s constant threat to wipe out life on our planet, we are clearly a wild card in the deck, products of happenstance.

There is another way to view the same set of facts: Given how long the Earth prepared for our appearance, however, (the midrash actually talks about how God set everything like a table for the guest of honor) and the unlikelihood of our being here and surviving, we could equally argue it is clear that we were intended. Once again, what Hitchens writes as conclusive — we were afterthoughts — can be seen in a very different light.

Rabbi David Wolpe and Christopher Hitchens will debate religion and faith on Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m. at the Wilshire Theatre Beverly Hills as part of the Celebration of Jewish Books

Physicist Robert Jastrow famously remarked, “At this moment, it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Faith is not a cowering born of fear, to be discarded when a vaccine proves more efficacious than a prayer. Two thousand years ago the rabbis taught us that faith from love is more powerful and lasting than faith from fear. They understood the uncertainty of reward and punishment in this world, teaching explicitly that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (B.T. kidd. 39b).

There are religious people who are credulous and narrow. To set up these straw men is one way of disputing, but there are religious people who both contribute to and learn from the intellectual advances in the world. For we believe that God intends us to learn, to grow, to discover and to create. These things are not contradicted by a tradition that pictures God as a creator; rather creativity is one of the ways of imitateo Dei — becoming more like God in our conduct in this world.

Hitchens does not mention that people who are religious give more to charity, have more stable lives, are less addicted to drugs and alcohol and form more cohesive communities. None of this proves religion is true, of course. Things can be false and still good for us.

What it suggests, however, is that faith is far more complex than a simple ancient illusion. Only a narrow antagonism assumes religion can be replaced with the Hubble telescope.

Disdain is an ugly quality on either side of the debate. Humility and goodness are a prerequisite if one wants not merely to score points but to touch souls. Belief is not a static illusion to be knocked down at the introduction of a new scientific hypothesis or discovery. Faith is an orientation of soul, a posture toward God’s universe that finds expression in many religious traditions. God is not a magic dispenser of favors in the sky but a creator whose presence is a challenge to create goodness and a call to humility.

Those who value religious traditions should value thoughtful opposition, because it forces us to re-examine our own lives. In the end, however, I believe that questions honestly asked lead us back to the Source of all.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple.

Who shall live and who shall die: God’s iPhone, Rosh Hashanah 5769


On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning,
Who shall have rest and who shall wander,
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
Who shall become rich and who shall be impoverished.

But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.

From the cover story by Marty Kaplan

The U’Netaneh Tokef prayer—or piyyut—was the subject of last week’s Torah Slam. Read Danielle Berrin’s report, and watch the video here.

No healing the world here — Humanistic Jews are ‘building’ the world

Rabbi Greg Epstein, the young Humanist chaplain at Harvard University, maintains that the question “Do you believe in God?” is totally meaningless and that “tikkun olam,” to repair the world, is the wrong concept.

But he also affirms that religion will never disappear and that the “New Atheists” don’t have the answers to meeting human needs.

In his 31 years, Epstein seems to have done most everything, from being a singer and composer in a professional rock band to studying ancient Aramaic literature at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

During a lengthy phone conversation, he previewed some of the points he will raise when he speaks at Rosh Hashanah services at Adat Chaverim, the local Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, points that he analyzes more deeply in his forthcoming book, “Good Without God.”

Humanistic Jews do not believe in an omnipotent supernatural power, “but in this day and age, the term God can mean anything you want it to be,” he said.

“If you mean a bearded deity on a throne who worries about your personal lifestyle and issued 613 commandments, we reject that. But if your god stands for nature, or the universe, or love, that’s fine,” he added.

“The real point is that this is the only world we can ever know and that this life is the only chance we get to make a difference.”

Epstein also thinks that the oft-repeated injunction to repair the world misses the mark, because it assumes there once was a perfect world, which degenerated and must now be fixed.

“I prefer the phrase ‘bniyat olam,’ to build the world,” Epstein said. “Humanistic Judaism teaches that there never was a utopia, but this lack of perfection is no excuse for intellectual or spiritual laziness.

“We must build our relationship to our fellow humans and the world brick by brick, for we are responsible for one another and no one else will do the work.” He added facetiously, “The most pernicious rhyme in our language is ‘Humpty Dumpty,’ the idea that there was once a perfect white egg which shattered into a million pieces, and no one could put it together again.”

Many, but not all, Humanists are atheists or agnostics, but Epstein is no fan of such popular proponents of the “New Atheism” as writers Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens.

In an early story about these writers in Wired Magazine, the cover proclaimed “No heaven, no hell — just science.”

That distillation oversimplified a “painfully complex” question, Epstein said. “Science is the best tool for determining the truth about us, but that is not the same as doing something about it. It is not enough to just observe, we must engage in our community and do something.”

Epstein also distinguishes his philosophy from that of Jewish, mostly Yiddish-speaking, secularists of previous generations, who maintained that religion would ultimately disappear as mankind became increasingly rational.

“Religion is not primarily about faith in God; it is about community, identity, heritage and being of service to others,” he said. “We Humanists must also do more to meet these needs, rather than complain about what others believe.

“As a friend pointed out to me, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his most famous speech, he did not say, ‘I have a list of complaints,’ but ‘I have a dream.'”

Questioned about the role of religion in the current presidential race, Epstein recalled that slamming the other candidate’s religion or piety has a long, dishonorable tradition in American politics.

In the election of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson challenged incumbent John Adams, the Federalist Alexander Hamilton, an Adams partisan, swiftboated Jefferson in the following advertisement.

“The Grand Question Stated: At the present solemn and momentous epoch, the only question to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, is ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to GOD _ AND A RELIGIOUS PRESIDENT; or impiously declare for Jefferson – and no god!!!”

Epstein was born in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y., then a widely diverse, multiracial community, and he had his bar mitzvah in a local Reform synagogue.

“It seemed to me then that no one took the message of religion seriously, and everyone recited prayers just by rote,” he said. “So I soon started exploring everything except Judaism and visiting every place except Israel.”

After graduating from the University of Michigan, Epstein studied Buddhism in Taiwan and China, then joined the rock band Sugar Pill and recorded two albums. Like many of his contemporaries, Epstein said, “I wanted to express myself through art and music, rather than religion.”

At this point, Epstein discovered the pioneer Humanistic Judaism congregation established by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in suburban Detroit, and “I finally connected to my heritage, but also realized that I had a lifetime of learning ahead of me.”

The process began with five years of study in suburban Detroit and Jerusalem at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, followed by a master’s degree in Judaic studies at the University of Michigan, and another master’s degree in theology and comparative religion from the Harvard Divinity School.

Four years ago, he became a chaplain at Harvard, where he advises students in the Secular Society, Interfaith Council and the Harvard Humanist Graduate Community.

Epstein’s thoughts are frequently expressed in national publications and on radio networks, and he is one of a select group of invited panelists for the On Faith blog, started jointly by Newsweek and the Washington Post.

According to the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there are 1.6 million American adults and children who define themselves as “just Jewish,” and who are either secular or without any denominational affiliation.

Epstein said that one out of five young American Jews between ages 18 and 25 fall into that category, and that globally 1.1 billion human souls do without formal religion.

If all secular and unaffiliated American Jews joined together, they would form the country’s second largest Jewish denomination, barely trailing Reform membership.

The problem for Epstein and other Humanist leaders is that the 1.6 million are not organized and are not joining the existing congregations/communities of the Society of Humanistic Judaism.

After more than 40 years on the North American scene, the movement claims only some 10,000 adherents and 30 congregations, according to national executive director M. Bonnie Cousens.

Only six of the congregations are led by ordained rabbis, the others by lay leaders or “madrichim.”

What accounts for the low figures, given the large pool of potential members?

There are no clear-cut answers, but Cousens and other national leaders speculate that secular Jews, having arrived at this state through personal doubts and mental wrestling, are just not prone to join any organization.

Another cause may be that there is still, at times, an onus attached to “coming out” as a secular or atheistic Jews, though reactions by more traditional Jews seem less shocked and outraged than in the past.

Rabbi Miriam Jerris, president of the Association of Humanistic Rabbis, bemoaned the society’s lack of popular visibility, saying, “There are so many Jews out there just waiting to discover us.”

Epstein is more upbeat. Drawing on his four-year experience at Harvard, he said that in the beginning only four students regularly attended his meetings.

Now his meeting rooms are crowded and last year, when he organized an international conference on “The New Humanism,” some 1,100 people attended.

“We may be a small minority, but minority groups can have a profound impact on mass movements,” he said. “Even now, I believe, liberal mainstream congregations are speaking more to human needs than divine needs.”

To have a growing impact, Humanistic Jews “must sing and must build, and I mean that literally and metaphorically,” he said.

So Epstein is hopeful, but within reason. Quoting playwright Tony Kushner, Epstein said, “We are optimists, but we are not stupid optimists.”

Is our fate really sealed? Is change possible?

These are nervous-making times.

No, I’m not talking about the damage the capital campaign may do to you, or — at my temple, anyway — whether you’ll find a parking place for services, which is enough to make anyone want to reach for a Xanax.

What I mean is this protracted season of suspense we inhabit, this waiting for the other shoe to drop, this not knowing what comes next.

The uncertain outcome of the presidential election would by itself be enough to give anyone the jitters, no matter which way you want it to turn out. The economy, both national and global, seems to be lurching from one meltdown to another. Hotspots and tragedies on the international scene may have fallen off the radar screen of the ADD-afflicted news media, but anyone who continues to pay attention to the Middle East or Russia or Darfur, to name just three, has reason to be plenty anxious. Terrorists, loose nukes, avian flu, climate change, the lurking Big One: it’s a wonder anyone can get out of bed these days.

Yet even though the country has a bad case of shpilkes, and despite the nervousness that comes from uncertainty, both presidential candidates have hitched their campaigns to the bandwagon of change. From Barack Obama: “Change You Can Believe In,” “The Change We Need. “From John McCain: “The Change You Deserve,” “Change Is Coming.”

Clearly it’s a welcome message. Eight out of 10 Americans say the country is on the wrong track. All the polls say that the country wants change. Despite the upheaval and disorientation that change often brings with it, nearly all of us want a divorce from the present, a clean break, a fresh start.

But can one leader — whether Obama or McCain — really change us? How much can any one man, no matter how vigorously he exercises his powers, no matter how energetically he uses his bully pulpit, change us, let alone change Washington, or America, or the world?

The answer, of course, depends on how capable of change you believe anyone is, or can be.

I’m not asking whether the next president, whoever he is, will have an impact on our lives. For better and worse, presidents have changed the course of innumerable American lives, and their actions have remade the nation’s place in the world. The issue I’m trying to get at — and I’ll be the first to admit that the question may be unanswerable — is the human capacity for change, the malleability of our individual souls.

Some people maintain — and there is a long tradition that this conception arises from — that people really can’t change. People are inherently good, or they are inherently bad, or they are inherently programmed to be selfish or altruistic or whatever innate characteristics you believe are built into our species. In other words, human beings are limited and run by something called “human nature.”

Yes, there is variety within groups; yes, personal circumstances and social experiences also shape us along the way; yes, we do develop along several dimensions during the course of our lives. But all these variations occur — says this point of view — within the framework of our hardwiring, our genetic givens, our fundamental nature. When real change does occur in our species, it happens during a glacial time frame, not within individual lifetimes; it arises from random variation and natural selection, not from new leaders and new policies.

But the contrary view has just as long a history. It says that conscious human evolution is possible. It maintains that free will can move genetic mountains, that big ideas can change civilizations, that consciousness is not a prison, but a battlefield. Where the notion of human nature leads ultimately to a tragic sense of life, the concept of conscious evolution is ultimately utopian — the belief that there is something perfectible about society, and not over the course of eons, but within our own lifetimes.

José Ortega y Gasset put this way: “Man, in a word, has no nature; what he has is — history.” Yes, there may be local and temporal limitations on our freedom to act, but if someone tells you that you can’t change human nature, beware of power politics masquerading as evolutionary biology. Just about every progressive social movement — abolition, suffrage, civil rights, gay rights, feminism, environmentalism — starts from this premise. So does what Philip Rieff called “The Triumph of the Therapeutic”: the culture of self-help, the faith that each of us has the power to change our own life.

Which brings me back to the High Holy Days.

Within the calendar that constitutes the Jewish cathedral in time, no days are more saturated with the experience of human nature, and with experiments in human change, than the Days of Awe. This is when we are asked, paradoxically, both to steep in our powerlessness to escape our species’ fate, and yet also to try out behaviors that can rescue us from our destinies.

This is a good moment for me to confess that I have never been particularly comfortable with the grand narrative of the High Holy Days liturgy, the story of the Book of Life.

There’s too much religion in presidential campaign, says ADL’s Foxman

NEW YORK (JTA)—The political campaign season is now in high gear as the curtain falls on the Democrats in Denver and the Republicans in Minneapolis-St. Paul.

While much of the media’s focus has been on handicapping the candidates and their chances in November, we would like to call attention to one less-publicized aspect of the U.S. political scene in 2008, which we find troubling.

This year, there have been increasing signs that the presidential race will present the American public with a profoundly unsettling infusion of religion and religiosity.

The trend toward this growing insertion of faith into the presidential race was first evident in Denver, and then equally so in the Twin Cities.

At the Democratic National Convention, the program included panels on “How an Obama Administration will Engage People of Faith,” “Moral Values Issues Abroad,” “Getting Out the Faith Vote” and “Common Ground on Common Good.”

Members of the clergy from across the religious spectrum had a significant presence, conducting Scripture readings at a multifaith “kickoff event” and offering invocations and benedictions. There was a clear effort to be interdenominational, but it was also apparent that the Democrats felt compelled to infuse religion into their convention in order to be politically viable.

At the Republican convention, religiously themed events played a prominent role as well. Members of the clergy led the convention in prayer each day, and there was considerable time devoted to discussing subjects such as “faith-based initiatives and family values,” which one Republican spokeswoman recently identified as being “at the heart of our party.”

There was less focus on religious diversity and less of an effort to call public attention to the convention’s religious content, probably because it was less of a departure from past Republican programs.

In raising our concerns, we mean no disrespect to religion or to family values. But there comes a point when being open about faith crosses a subtle line into pandering.

Some of what we have been seeing in this campaign is excessive and aggressive. It goes beyond a candidate’s discussing how religion shapes his or her worldview. Rather, it’s saying, “Vote for me because I’m a person of faith”—and that is directly contrary to the constitutional principle that there shall be no religious test for public office.

Both parties seem to have reached the conclusion that appealing to religious voters is good politics. But what kind of message does it send, in our religiously diverse society, when the two major presidential candidates sit in a church and forthrightly answer Pastor Rick Warren’s questions about their personal relationship with Jesus?

Renewed faith-based initiatives, religious outreach teams and religious programming at the conventions all work to curry favor with those who care which party is most favorable toward the religious.

This may be good politics, but it is not healthy for our nation.

This is not to say that Americans should oppose candidates who are religious, or that candidates shouldn’t feel free to discuss their religious beliefs with the body politic. It is understandable that candidates, from time to time, will want to express their religious beliefs—and how their faith will inform and influence their policymaking. And there’s nothing wrong with a candidate expressing his or her religious perspective—especially when confronted with misinformation, innuendo and rumor.

However, appealing to voters along religious lines can be divisive, and it is certainly contrary to the American ideal of including all Americans in the political process.

It is deeply troubling when religion is no longer just an element in understanding the character of a candidate but becomes a central part of a party’s efforts to win votes or to pander to a certain religious group or constituency. Government should not endorse, promote, or subsidize religious views—and particular religious views should not be the determining factor in public-policy decision making.

Anyone who legitimately aspires to public office in the United States must be prepared to set an example and to be a leader for all Americans, no matter his or her faith, or whether he or she even has a faith.

When candidates campaign, they should be encouraging voters to make decisions based on an assessment of their qualifications, their integrity and their political positions, not on how religious they are.

The next time a debate moderator asks the candidates to discuss their personal relationship with God, it would be refreshing to hear an answer similar to the one President Kennedy gave nearly 48 years ago, when he confronted questions about his Catholicism: “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president who happens also to be a Catholic.”

Religion, he was saying, is part of him, but it does not define him, and it should not be the primary lens through which Americans view him.

In this season, it is important to remind all political players that in this religiously diverse nation, there is a point at which an emphasis on religion in a political campaign becomes inappropriate and even unsettling.

(Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author of “The Deadliest Lies: The Israel Lobby and the Myth of Jewish Control.”)

How to comfort and be comforted

Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

The Great Awakening

The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church will hold back-to-back public conversations this Saturday, Aug. 16, with the two presumptive presidentialcandidates, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. The conversations, on the topic of “Compassion and Leadership,” will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on CNN.

This is not a debate; it’s two civil dialogues between a Republican and a Democratic candidate for president, which will be moderated by the evangelical leader of a 23,000-member megachurch in Orange County.

But it’s also something else, something historic a victory for the good guys in the cultural wars.

That’s right: After years of watching the debate over faith and values in America play out with all the finesse of MTV’s “Celebrity Deathmatch,” we will now get to see what happens when a thoughtful adult takes over from the goofballs, windbags, con artists and media whores who have led most of the battles until now.

“Rick Warren is this new generation,” Shawn Landres, CEO and Director of Research of Jewish Jumpstart, told me. “This is not the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson generation. This is the generation of evangelical leaders who want to engage with American political culture, who want to reach out.”

“James Dobson and Robertson and Falwell preached to their choirs,” Landres continued, “and they could move mountains when they got their choirs excited. But Warren is playing for the middle. He’s trying to recapture the center.”

(Landres, by the way, didn’t use words like windbag and con artist. Those are mine.)

Remember the center? As the Christian right alloyed itself to the Republican Party over the past two decades, the center people of faith who didn’t believe that God only attended one party’s convention got squeezed. And every debate that touched on values and morality was turned into a politically charged, zero-sum wrestling match, fueled by columnists, talk radio, TV talking heads and bloggers.

Abortion, later-term abortion, stem cell research, “The Passion of the Christ,” gay marriage the loudest voices on all these issues have been the least compromising, the ones least interested in reaching out.

But Warren is different. In one sense, he recalls the Rev. Billy Graham, who self-consciously sought to serve as “America’s Pastor.” But Graham was a product of simpler times, when being inclusive meant reaching out to white men of several Christian denominations.

Warren is bringing the discussion of faith and values into a marketplace that has grown much more heterogeneous, even as our ability to discuss these complex and delicate issues has remained stunted. Can we talk about treating the plague of HIV/AIDS in Africa without getting into a screaming match over safe sex? Can we talk about indecency as something other than seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple on television? Can we talk about Israel in terms of complex political and moral issues and not as a simplistic character in some end times fairy tale?

I think Warren can. I saw him two years ago at Sinai Temple, where he spoke to a crowd of some 1,700 people at Friday Night Live. We met in a small preshow reception. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University, Warren’s longtime friend, introduced us. I stuck out my hand, and Warren barged past it and gave me a great big bear hug.

“Rob!” he said. “Brother!”

The warmth was genuine, and boy did it throw me off my game.

Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple

I’ll be surprised if his conversations on Saturday don’t go beyond the obvious professions of faith that have become standard issue for political candidates these days. And I’ll be very disappointed if Warren doesn’t take the opportunity to throw our leading candidates off their game.

“The purpose of influence,” he said at Sinai Temple, “is to speak up for those who have none.”

If McCain says faith calls upon him to care for the poorest and weakest among us, Warren can ask him how he squares that with his shifting stance on illegal immigrants.

If Obama says, as he did in Time magazine this week, how his own Christian journey has brought him to see how “all Americans can live together in a diverse society,” Warren can ask him how he squares that with his loyalty to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons were often hateful and divisive.

In challenging the candidates, Warren has a chance to reframe what has passed for a national discussion about faith.

He began that process by inviting Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton to speak at his church, despite their well-known pro-choice stands. Warren took, and continues to take, heated criticism from within his own movement for offering his pulpit to more liberal speakers. But he hasn’t backed down.

“The first thing we have to learn [from Warren],” Landres said, “is the courage to engage with people with whom we disagree for the sake of having a healthy communal discussion.”

He has also broadened the definition of overused words like “morality” and “faith.”

Inspired by his wife Kay’s work with AIDS victims in Africa, Warren has expanded his church’s mission to include development abroad and poverty relief at home. You don’t hear Warren going on about gay marriage in the press. You do hear him talk about the moral imperative to fight global warming.

That’s not to say as a pastor he has come around on those hot-button cultural issues. I’m sure he still opposes safe sex, stem cell research and showing Janet Jackson’s nipple on television. But for Warren, and an increasing number of influential evangelical voters, these are not the issues.

“I want what’s good for everybody, not just what’s good for me,” he told Time this week.

Such an outlook brings us closer to the faith of the Founding Fathers, who believed that intertwining religion and politics could only strangle both.

I, for one, am looking forward to going back.

It’s not about a plan

“Remember a time that you felt everything was right. The world just worked. You were in the moment. You felt calm, alive, complete. There was no other place you wanted to be but right there. Everything about that moment worked,” Rabbi Sherre Hirsch writes in her new self-help book, “We Plan, God Laughs: 10 Steps to Finding Your Divine Path When Life is Not Turning Out Like You Wanted” (Doubleday).

What Hirsch most wants is for people to find their “sparkle,” as she writes in Step 7, “Finding Your Divine Spark.”

That’s why she left her job as rabbi at Sinai Temple a year and a half ago. Although she had wanted to be a rabbi since she was 19, after serving at the Conservative synagogue in Westwood under Rabbi David Wolpe for eight years, she decided to move on.

“It was an incredible position for me, and I loved my congregants, I loved teaching and counseling,” she said. But “there were other things I wanted to do,” including spending time with her husband and three kids, and, it turns out, broadcasting her messages of spirituality and hope to a much broader audience.

On a recent day that meant a morning interview with Sam Rubin at KTLA and an afternoon at CBS, with The Jewish Journal sandwiched between—and there have been appearances on “The Today Show,” “Tyra,” Naomi Judd’s “Good Morning” and PBS’s “Thirty Minutes.”

Which may be because Hirsch does sparkle. In a black satin shell and immaculate ivory pants, the 39-year-old’s blue eyes, framed by purple mascara, shimmer as she talks about her message.

“I want people to take a risk, to believe that life may not have turned out like you planned,” she said, leaning forward eagerly on her hands. “I wanted people to have hope more than anything, in an age where people lose hope and get stuck.”

Hirsch knows from plans and getting stuck. Her mother was a small-town Midwesterner who met her knight in shining armor when she was 15. She got married at 19 and had two kids by the time she was 24. But her husband lost his job, became depressed and verbally abusive. After Sherre and her brother left for college, her mother, in her early 40s, finally left her husband. Eventually she rebuilt her life and remarried.

“When I officiated at [my mother and stepfather’s] wedding, my mother wore my wedding dress. What I said then under the chuppah was that, at her first wedding, she was waiting for someone to rescue her. But at this wedding she had rescued herself,” Hirsch wrote in her book. “She had taught us all that to live the life you want, you have to be willing to leap. You have to be willing to realize that your life is not scripted. The happy ending starts with you.”

In recent years many self-help gurus—and rabbis—have taken on the subject of happiness in books and lectures. So what makes this one any different?

“I think that when people say something in a new way, people hear it in a new way,” said Hirsch, who lists Rabbi Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen to Good People”) and Rabbi Ed Feinstein (of Valley Beth Shalom) as inspirations. She also admires Oprah and Katie Couric as “communicators,” which is how she sees herself.

“Do I think I’ve written Aristotle’s new treatise?” she asks. “No.”

She focuses on tried-and-true concepts, such as “finding meaning” and “celebrating the divine in you.” But Hirsch said she didn’t want to write a “rabbi’s” book—i.e., a Jewish scholarly book.

“I wanted them to feel like they were talking to their friend, not being preached at by a rabbi. ‘What would I say to my best friend, and what would they say back to me?’ I wanted a different level of intimacy.”

Every chapter is infused with personal stories—of herself, her family, her congregants and Judaism. She chattily intersperses stories about God’s 13 attributes to teach about our own 13 positive attributes. She uses the Jewish new moon to show how we express our faith in the future, and shows how Moses’ doubting God means that only with doubt can one gain true faith.

What may appeal to a national TV audience—and on the Web site—is that Hirsch, in her own words “is a Midwestern girl.” (She was born in Ohio, although she grew up in Palos Verdes.)

That and the fact that she’s a female rabbi.

“Many of the audiences are women. I’m relatable, a mother with kids, I dated a ton—I struggle with the regular challenges that everyone struggles with, and I’m not afraid to be vulnerable or real,” she said. “I hope that people feel my authenticity.”

“I think everyone makes plans and things don’t go the way we plan,” she said.

People need to stop being so focused on the plan and just take action and see where it unfolds: “We’re not in charge—we can control our actions, but we can’t control our results.”

For her, spirituality is part of the equation, something that should be more than a yearly event on holidays.

“People can incorporate faith into their daily lives,” she said.

“I’m interested in helping people come closer to their faith,” she said. “If you find your faith, you find a way back home.”

Finding the sacred in the mundane

My grandparents were not big readers. Their English was slightly accented but fluent — they both left Poland in their early teens and came to America in the 1920s. But like many Orthodox Jews of their generation, when they had “leisure” time (although I’m not sure they knew the concept), it was spent reading Tehillim. They would sit at the table or on the bus or on the wooden bench outside their two-family brick house in Brooklyn chanting psalms from a weatherworn leather book.

Jewish presses hadn’t yet emerged as an industry, and the publishers at that time printed prayer books, Hebrew holy books and explications of the Hebrew holy books. Half a century later, the market was thriving for Jewish books in English: novels, kids’ books, poetry and non-fiction — clean and kosher enough for a religious, somewhat sheltered audience.

Now, following the latest publishing craze of themed Jewish anthologies comes “Bread and Fire: Jewish Women Find God in the Everyday” (Urim Publications, 2008), edited by Rivkah Slonim (with consulting editor Liz Rosenberg). The 400-page compilation features writings from 60 women on topics including modesty, faith, childbirth, prayer, family, community, feminism and, in one way or another, Orthodox Judaism.

“What can it mean to be a Jewish woman today? Does the Jewish tradition offer ways in which a contemporary woman can bring spirituality and meaning to her life? How and where does one begin in a practical way?” writes Slonim, a lecturer and Chabad shaliach, or emissary, of the Lubavitcher movement who works with her husband, Rabbi Aaron Slonim in Binghamton, N.Y. Slonim also edited “Total Immersion: A Mikvah Anthology” (Jason Aaronson, 1996, Urim, 2006).

“We all have moments of existential reflection. We might question why we are here. We might doubt our ability to make a difference, or despair of connecting to our inner self and to God,” she writes.

But this is not a book about existential reflection, doubt or inner despair. It’s not even a book about questions. It’s more of a collection of writings from people who have already found the answers. Some have had questions in their past — a number of the writers are ba’alei teshuva, or newly religious.

In Elizabeth Ehrlich’s essay “Seasons of the Soul,” on gradually becoming kosher over the course of a year, she writes: “Here are the things I have to give up: lobsters in New England, oysters sensually slithering down my throat, the French butcher. I give up calamari on Christmas Eve with a favorite friend, a traditional meal that links her to her Italian grandparents, and thus connects me to my friend’s childhood. I sacrifice bacon at my aunt’s house, crisped and greaseless beside a home-baked corn muffin, forgo Western omelets at diners I once loved to frequent. I give up being able to eat comfortably anywhere, able to make casual assumptions. It is like being an immigrant, maybe; never quite feeling at home.”

There’s the famous modesty queen Wendy Shalit, in a excerpt from her book “A Return To Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” on her fascination with “modestyniks” — her word for young single women raised secular who decide to become religious, wear long skirts and abstain from touching men until marriage.

There’s also Jan Feldman’s essay, “How a Daughter of the Enlightenment Ends Up in a Sheitl”: “I began to take on mitzvot sequentially in a way that appeared rational, at least to me, though perhaps irrational to others,” she writes.

First Feldman focuses on family purity and mikvah, then starts keeping kosher and finally becomes shomer Shabbat. When she and her family moved to Montreal, she decided to cover her hair, first with a tichel (kerchief) and later with a sheitl (wig).

“Donning a sheitl represented the seriousness of my commitment to Hashem,” she writes. “The sheitl will continue to be a symbol of beauty and controversy, but mostly, it will continue to be a source of blessing.”

Most of the notes of controversy — on covering hair, being modest, keeping kosher — while mentioned, are explained away in each essay. But that’s OK; these are women who have chosen to lead a religious lifestyle and to air their thoughts and feelings on subjects by which they are disturbed (Passover cleaning), pained (circumcision), inspired (chevra kadisha, or burial preparation) and awed (birth).

“Birth transforms the birthing couple and their caretakers. Meeting the dangers with awe, stepping out of our normal realms of control into God’s vast and magnificent dance, can renew all involved,” Tamara Edell-Gottstein writes in “Birthing Lives.”

This is an anthology for anyone interested in religion, in the religious experience, in a community of women who have chosen to live differently from the norm. Varda Branfman, for example, in “The Voice of Tehillim,” writes that during her first year in Jerusalem she was “peeling off the layers of my American cultural identity until I was left with what I had been all along, a Jew.” She discovered a custom of saying the psalm that corresponds to the number of years one has lived. At 29, she recited psalm 30:

“Hashem, my God, I cried out to You and You healed me. Hashem, you have raised up my soul from the lower world, You have preserved me from my descent to the pit…. Hashem my God, forever I will thank You.”

Perhaps this is what my grandparents had been doing all that time — they were reciting Psalms, although I am not sure they’d have been able to express it in Branfman’s words: “Even before we begin to say them, the act of taking the Tehillim down from the shelf returns us to the calm at the center of the storm. By saying these words, we climb into a lifeboat that carries us beyond this moment, beyond peril, beyond our finite lives.”

Passover scholastic debate conflict resolved, sort of

After months of contentious back and forth over the scheduling of the statewide high school debate tournament on the first night of Passover, Jewish leaders and tournament organizers have reached a half-hearted detente that will not change the date but will ensure such a scheduling snafu will not happen again.

As part of the compromise, orchestrated by State Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), the California High School Speech Association also wrote a letter of apology to its coaches, teams and the Jewish community — a move the independent umbrella organization had refused to make at a board meeting in September.

“The California High School Speech Association regrets the unfortunate and unintentional conflict of the 2008 state championship tournament with the important holiday of Passover,” the statement reads. “The California High School Speech Association takes enormous pride in the diversity of its membership. It is our desire to express our apologies that our actions will cause Jewish members of the speech community distress at having to choose between the Passover celebration and participation in the state tournament.”

Jewish leaders were satisfied with the statement, but disappointed that the date was not changed.

“Obviously we did not win on the most important point, changing the date, but the board’s actions in [January] were far more sensitive to the Jewish community than they had been in September,” said Doug Lasken, a debate coach at Taft High School in Woodland Hills and CHSSA board member, who brought the conflict to light last June. “For this reason we feel the struggle has been worthwhile.”

More than a thousand coaches, parents and students will spend three days, April 18-20, at Santa Clara University at the annual tournament, which culminates the year of debate competitions for schools across the state. The second day of the tournament — a date set more than a year before the event — coincides with the night of the first seder, the most observed and family-oriented ritual on the Jewish calendar.

Lasken and more than half his team could not attend the tournament, so they voted to boycott the event. Debate teams from Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies and Oaks Christian High School in Westlake also voted to boycott the state debate tournament.

They will attend an alternative debate tournament on March 29, sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which wrote a letter of concern to CHSSA in October.

The Anti-Defamation League, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Jewish Community Relations Councils of Los Angeles and San Francisco spent seven months trying to impress upon CHSSA how central the seder is to the ritual and family life of a broad swath of the Jewish community. They lobbied the group to explore a date change and offered their help to do so, but CHSSA continued to maintain that because venues were booked and paid for it was too late to change the date, which had been set more than a year in advance.

“Renowned pitcher Sandy Koufax never played on Rosh Hashanah and chose not to pitch during the World Series because it conflicted with Yom Kippur — the World Series was not moved,” Sharon Prefontaine, CHSSA president, told the Daily News in November. “Hank Greenberg, on the other hand, played on Rosh Hashanah but not on Yom Kippur.”

“As much as we might want to protect them from it,” she continued, “we understand that our students will have to make some difficult choices, at times, relative to their personal beliefs.”

That attitude toward any religious or ethnic community was not acceptable to many in the Jewish community.

“We don’t feel that high school students should have to make that kind of decision,” said Alison Mayersohn, senior associate director of the ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region. Students who work toward a goal all year shouldn’t have to “make the choice between your religious observance and your family holiday, or to reach the pinnacle of success in an extracurricular activity.”

Levine got involved this fall, meeting with both sides and bringing them together for a meeting in December. As a result of those meetings, the CHSSA board voted in January to insert into its bylaws a stipulation that it will avoid scheduling the tournament on major religious holidays, “within reason.” It also voted to issue the apology, but voted not to have the apology posted on its Web site. It left up an earlier explanation that does not contain the words “regret” or “apology.”

In a final irony, the alternative debate is scheduled for a Saturday.

While Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, who was not involved in organizing the LAUSD debate, says he would have preferred a date that would have included Sabbath observers, it is Passover’s near universal observance among the Jewish community that made this scheduling conflict akin to having the tournament on Easter Sunday.

“What I have said from day one, what we have been repeating over and over again to speech association officials, is that this conflict is so poignant and gut-wrenching for families because Pesach is a home-centered observance,” Diamond said.

The alternative high school debate tournament, sponsored by LAUSD to accomodate Jewish students who cannot attend the statewide debate tournament scheduled for Passover, has been expanded to two days, Saturday, March 29 and Sunday, March 30. For information, contact tournament director

But Mom, I don’t want a bar mitzvah!

I saw the blinking light on my answering machine and listened to the frantic voice of my girlfriend, Debbie, as I put the groceries away.

“Heeeeeelp! Jason says he doesn’t want to do his bar mitzvah anymore. We’ve got the date and the place, I’ve hired the DJ and he’s already begun to prepare. He’s making me crazy. What should I do? Call me.”

Wow, what a bummer, I thought to myself.

I really wasn’t sure what to say in response to Debbie’s S.O.S.

What would I have done if my son had said, “No, thanks, Mom. I just don’t want one.”

Would I have forced him to do it anyway, because I knew that he would be sorry later?

Probably, until an experience I had recently completely changed my mind about when is the right time to have a bar or bat mitzvah.

In Hebrew the words bar/ bat mitzvah literally mean “son/daughter of the Commandments.” It is an ancient Jewish ritual dating back to the first century C.E., marking the religious and legal coming of age of a Jewish male at 13 and of a Jewish girl at 12. In the Jewish tradition, the bar mitzvah marks the transition from boyhood to manhood in terms of Jewish communal prayer life, enabling the child to be counted as part of the minyan (the quorum of 10 adults Jewish males necessary for certain prayers) and permitting him to read from the Torah. On an individual level, it establishes the age of legal responsibility and obligation to follow all the commandments.

But what happens later in life to the many Jews who grow up without having a bar or bat mitzvah?

I found out when I was asked to work with a group of Jewish college students who expressed an interest in having one. As I listened to the students share their stories about why they hadn’t done it earlier in their lives, I realized how lucky I was to be able to be a part of their journey. Some, like Debbie’s son Jason, just didn’t want one when they were younger. Others came from interfaith families where it wasn’t an option or from Jewish communities to which they didn’t feel connected. But each one now had a personal desire to learn more about Judaism in order to understand his or her relationship to faith, Jewish traditions, God and Israel.

We studied Jewish history, holidays, ethics, rituals, liturgy and prayers while building a trusting and genuine spiritual community. We shared holidays, birthdays, news about boyfriends, exam anxiety and weight gain. I watched them struggle with questions of faith and heard them talk about doubt, guilt and fear as they actively sought out meaning in and from Judaism.

Our year culminated in a Shabbat morning service where each student read from the Torah and offered a d’var Torah, a personal teaching, about something important that he or she had learned or grappled with during the year.

Anyone who had ever struggled with issues of faith, God or family was able to glean both wisdom and inspiration from my students that day. Individually and as a community of learners, they had engaged in the type of serious Jewish study that would now enable them to become responsible Jewish adults. And that, in a nutshell, is the crux of what it means to become a bar or bat mitzvah.

At the end of the service, I offered my students the following words, which I shared with my friend Debbie in the hope that they might offer her a different perspective on Jason’s reluctance to have a bar mitzvah.

“Being Jewish is not like being in a race. You don’t have to worry about getting to the finish line or keeping pace with other runners. There is no record or timekeeper, other than your innermost self, to mark your spiritual growth and progress.

“Being Jewish is about making the journey, about finding your own stride, about determining your own path. It is about taking that leap of faith and crossing through waters of doubt, discomfort and fear in order to better understanding yourself, your family, your traditions, your culture, your ethics, your history, and your people. And it is in this way, when you are ready, that you will come to appreciate your uniqueness as an individual and your special destiny as a member of the Jewish people.”

Amy Hirshberg Lederman is a nationally syndicated columnist, Jewish educator, public speaker and attorney. She can be reached at

Chanukah and adult faith

A lot of people have trouble with Chanukah. I did, for years. I’d go to parties and nibble on my latke or sufganiyot while grumbling under my breath about how there was nothing here to celebrate. I’d light my Chanukiyah, but I’d only do the bare minimum needed to fulfill the mitzvah and I’d do my best not to enjoy it.

My problem then, and the problem of the people who this year have already informed me that they’re all but going to boycott the holiday, is that the history of this particular celebration is, well … complicated.

The war through which we celebrate Chanukah was, in part, a Jew-on-Jew civil war, in which zealous traditionalists attacked and killed the more assimilationist Hellenized Jews. The catalyst for the violent revolution was the reigning Syrian Greek king, Antiochus IV, who demanded that Jews worship false gods and violate the Sabbath, or die. The Jews who refused to do this were not very pleased with the ones who did.

Historically speaking, the miracle of Chanukah is that this small, bandit guerrilla army (the zealots) triumphed over Antiochus’ large army and formidable weapons, against all odds, not only taking back the desecrated Temple, but re-dedicating it as well.

The “Chanukah miracle” with which most kids are raised was apparently invented by rabbinic sages living 300-600 years after the Maccabean events took place — the first time we hear the story of oil that was meant to last for one day but instead burned for eight is in the Talmud. It’s not clear exactly when the story originated, but some scholars posit that the tradition originated when some of the rabbis still living under Roman rule figured it wouldn’t be that clever to publicly celebrate a holiday marking the violent overthrow of a foreign government, particularly (possibly) in light of the failed Bar Kochba rebellion. Instead, they came up with the much more kid-friendly version about the oil which, conveniently, lends itself much more to spiritualized interpretations of Chanukah.

Why was it eight days originally? There are a few theories. One suggests that the Maccabees were too busy waging war to celebrate Sukkot on time, so they did so later — but that doesn’t explain why Chanukah became a separate holiday in subsequent years. Two others offer a little more irony: one suggests that an eight-day winter festival of lights was widespread in Greek, Roman and Babylonian antiquity, and another notes that that’s how long the Greeks celebrated their military victories.

All this, frankly, wasn’t even enough to bother me — not even the Jew vs. Jew part. That’s nothing new as Jewish history goes. What happened afterwards, however, was really disturbing. After the Hasmoneans-Maccabees-zealots-heroes of our story won, once Israel was reclaimed and the Temple restored, Judah, the Hasmonean leader, and his brothers set to making a mighty Hebrew nation — by force. First they attacked the non-Jews on their own Hasmonean turf. As it says in the Book of Maccabees, “they forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (I Maccabees 2:46) as a way of Juda-izing them — making them all Judean-like. (Again, note the irony — they had been upset when the Hellenizers imposed their own cultural signifiers as a way of denoting allegiance.)

It got worse after that. Judah “Maccabee” “took [a non-Jewish filled] town, and killed every male by the edge of his sword, then he seized all its spoils and burned it with fire” (I Maccabees 5:28). He then did the same thing to the innocent people in Maapha, Chaspho, Maked, Bosor, other towns in the region of Gilead, Hebron, Marisa, Azotus and other places in the land of the Philistines. There are a lot of stories: when the army “saw a tumultuous [wedding] procession with a great amount of baggage, they rushed on them from the ambush and began killing them … the wedding was turned into mourning and the voice of their musicians into a funeral dirge” (I Maccabees 9:39-41).

The people that were killed or circumcised here were innocent. I don’t feel any more OK that it was “our guys” doing the unprovoked attacking and killing; that makes me feel worse, more uncomfortable, more upset, and I feel compelled to take some sort of responsibility for it.

One can, perhaps, understand why this holiday made me so angry for so long — why I’d go to synagogue and blurt uncomfortable facts about military history while everybody else was trying to enjoy a nice game of dreidel. It wasn’t really a fun place to be.

Then something shifted. I don’t know what, or why. One year, though, I started sitting and meditating in front of my Chanukiyah every night, sitting and breathing with the candles as they burned, thinking about renewal, rededication, how to make something from what seems to be the utter desolation of nothing. It’s not that I had forgotten the atrocities committed at the end of the Hasmonean war, it’s that … they didn’t block me anymore.

A mature adult faith demands that we take in difficult, painful facts and allow them to become part of our understandings of God, our language of faith and connection. Chanukah is not a holiday about innocence. Neither is Purim, actually — Jews did some slaughtering there, too.

Part of adult faith is being able to look truth in the eye, to take responsibility for it, and to not get stuck by the fact that it’s not an easy story. It certainly requires us not to take out our frustrations on God. I know too many people whose faith was seriously shaken by biblical criticism — as though God changes just because our understanding of history might. As though God weren’t bigger and far more expansive than that. As though it’s God’s fault that we’re just getting some new information. As if it’s God’s fault that human beings sometimes behave in ways that are unforgivable. As though God’s Divinity might not shine through texts written at different times and places, for different reasons.

An adult relationship to this stuff has to include the facts of, in this case, bad human behavior and Jewish culpability, and yet also maintain the awe and reverence that God deserves. Is there any reason that I can’t be grateful for the survival of the Jewish religion while condemning the actions of those who were involved in its (miraculous) survival?

Shalom Auslander is my failure

A review of Shalom Auslander’s new memoir caught my eye — was this author the curly-haired boy who had been my ninth-grade student at Yeshiva University High


Reading the review confirmed, first, that it was the same person, though now the curls had given way to a contemporary buzz cut, and second, that his writing was to Noah Feldman, another controversial former yeshiva student, what Junior Classics are to Shakespeare.

Then I saw his eponymous Web site, and realized that my initial estimate had been over generous. Self-promotion, biblical inaccuracies, shock value, uber alles. I have no admiration for what my former high school student has done. I can sympathize with his pain growing up, but abuse doesn’t produce pseudo-philosophy of this caliber. Neither does a school.

If Feldman wants acceptance, Auslander wants a book tour and a cheeseburger without the guilt. But shorn of the elaborate gyrations that don’t quite succeed in justifying a lifestyle of pot, pork and pater-bashing, Auslander has hit on a point that troubles every thinking religious person.

It’s a lot easier to believe in an omnipotent and omniscient God than a benevolent one. Bad things do happen to good people — all the time — and the believer spends a great deal of spiritual energy putting aside, and keeping aside, creeping doubts in God’s goodness. When I let it, my mind wanders to my first trip to Israel in 1983, when I was accompanied by my 22-year-old sister, and seriously dated a former classmate from Ramaz. A dozen years later, both women would be dead from cancer, and I would be a rabbi, teaching people that there is a good God and a reason for everything. They would forever be connected in my memory to Effi Chovers, my sister’s classmate at Ramaz, who was killed in 1982, in Operation Peace for the Galilee. But God has His reasons.

In my pastoral work, the instances of suffering are multiplied. A couple, long infertile, finally pregnant, struck with a miscarriage; a congregant’s child afflicted with illness; a wrecked marriage leaving both partners savaged — sometimes the emotional effect feels cumulative, and it is very tempting to point an accusing finger upward. I can walk into a wedding, and feel tears fill my eyes from the knowledge of the silent sorrow of so many families around me. And, of course, looming above my life is the spectre of the Holocaust, in which my father’s whole family perished, and whose icy grip accompanied me growing up.

Part of me wonders: Am I blinded by self-interest to take up the cause of God simply because He is not currently aiming his bow at me? Am I dishonest to preach belief in a good God, when so many around me are suffering? When I help comfort a mourner or ease the pain of another human being, am I God’s partner as I preach, and as I dearly want to believe, or am I cleaning up after Him, saving His creatures from His wrath?

But I am not the first to struggle with these questions. From Abraham to Aher, Jeremiah to Job, the Aish Kodesh to Elie Wiesel, those who have seen and understood more than I, have struggled to keep love in their lexicon. And one of the least-answerable post-Holocaust questions is how so many survivors succeeded in rebuilding not only their lives but their faith. My father (z”l) was one such survivor, but his formula was ineffable, nontransferable, to be emulated, but never duplicated, even by a son. And yet I remember the hours he spent, staring out our apartment window, murmuring niggunim, laden with unshed tears. I never asked him about the inner struggles of those moments. I didn’t have to.

In this area, like dieting, you can only adopt what works for you. For Sherlock Holmes it was the aroma of the rose, wholly unnecessary from an evolutionary point of view, that “proved” the existence of a benevolent God. For others it is a personal experience of miraculous salvation. For me it was a chocolate cake.

It was 1985, and I was back in Israel, at a yeshiva. It was my birthday, and I was unutterably lonely. My mother’s care package, having arrived early, was long-since dismembered, devoured and forgotten. It was my first birthday away from home, and nobody remembered. In my mind, I played the maudlin and the miserable to the hilt. I decided to visit married friends in a nearby neighborhood. Their door was open, but no one was home. On the table stood a homemade cake and a note — “Sorry we couldn’t be here in person. Happy Birthday and many happy returns.” That cake did more than sate my sweet tooth. People like that convince me that God is good.

So, too, does the rabbi whom I call upon to answer questions posed to me that I can’t handle myself. He has yet to tell me how inane my queries really are, or that if I cracked open a Shulchan Aruch, I could find the answers myself. And the people of my community who rallied around us when my wife was on bed rest during a difficult pregnancy, or when I sat shiva. From people like these, I extrapolate to God.

This doesn’t answer my questions. It doesn’t staunch my tears. I don’t sleep better. I don’t justify terrible things when they happen to others, and I don’t know why they don’t happen to me. But I know that just as surely as there is inexplicable evil in the world, there is inexplicable good, as well. It’s something to put on the other side of the scale, something to attribute to a good God.

And while I am awake at night I also ask myself: Should I have baked Auslander a chocolate cake?

Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg serves as rav of Congregation Etz Chaim of Kew Gardens Hills, N.Y., and teaches at the SAR Academy.

TV: Suze Orman isn’t all about the money — she has a spiritual side, too

Every morning in the shower, financial guru, TV personality and best-selling author Suze Orman says a prayer — “I ask for forgiveness and relief for all whom I did harm, and forgiveness and relief for all who harmed me” — and she has been doing so for as long as she can remember.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, during a trip to Chicago for an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” that Orman learned the provenance of the prayer. She happened to be in town during Yom Kippur and decided to join her mom for High Holy Day services.

“I realized it came from Yom Kippur,” she said. “I left the synagogue hyperventilating.”

Orman’s hands-on style and natural charisma have made her a favorite of many, particularly women, who used to avoid financial guidance. This is largely because Orman’s approach to handling finances, as seen in her best-selling books and in her popular TV program on CNBC TV, is part of a larger path to self-empowerment. There are also a few subtle spiritual elements in her road to stability and contentment.

After giving a recent talk at Manhattan’s 92 Street Y, Orman spoke to the Forward about her connection to Judaism. Though Orman is not a practicing Jew, her people-first attitude and spirituality have nonetheless been impacted by her Jewish roots.

“Growing up, I asked the questions nobody wanted to ask. I wanted to find the purpose,” Orman said. “It was the force of a Jewish household.”

She grew up on Chicago’s south side with a father who had come from Russia and a mother whose family had emigrated from Romania a generation before. Her father was a feather plucker of nonkosher chickens, and her mother worked for a rabbi at a local congregation. Occasionally the mother’s work, the rabbi, would stop by when her family was eating the father’s work, nonkosher chicken, and they would quickly scramble to hide the treif.

In 1971, during her sophomore year in college, Orman borrowed $400 from an aunt and then headed to Israel to work on a kibbutz.

“I was going to Israel to find God,” she said. “When I told Israelis this, they would spit on the ground and say, ‘The earth is God.'”

Orman was ultimately heartbroken by the trip. Unable to feel any closer to Judaism in Israel, she came back disheartened about the religion. Years later, after her interest in eastern spirituality was piqued, she made a similar quest to India, though she did not end up finding any answers there either.

Despite the fact that Orman has not been associated with Judaism in any traditional sense for decades, this search for purpose continues to inform her work. She says she is still a spiritually inquisitive person and that she has never stopped contemplating the concept of God.

“Faith plays a prominent role in my life,” she said. “Without faith, nothing matters.”

In fact, when Orman was in the process of writing her book “The Courage to Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance” (Riverhead Trade, 1999), one of six that have spent a considerable amount of time on the New York Times Bestseller List, she called upon her aunt’s rabbi for title ideas. She had been thinking about the haftorah portion she read at her bat mitzvah, and she wanted to be reminded of its significance.

“He started to explain, and I said, ‘Rabbi, I don’t have time for a sermon. Just tell me in one line,” Orman said. “He said, ‘Anything is possible with faith, integrity and courage.’ I thought, ‘Yes, it took courage to be this rich.'”

How rich? Orman’s net worth has been estimated at more than $25 million, with more coming in from her real estate investments, media appearances and books. (Her most recent book, “Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny,” was published in February by Spiegel & Grau.) As for Orman’s courage, it’s evident in both her approach to financial investment and her personal life: She caused a media stir — a risky move for such a high-profile media figure — when she came out as a lesbian last spring in a New York Times Magazine interview.

While Orman credits Judaism with some of the philosophical aspects of her advice, she doesn’t feel the same about her aptitude for managing money.

“I know there is this perception that Jews are really good with money. I don’t know if it is a reality,” she said.

In fact, she offered some specially tailored advice for the current generation of 20- and 30-somethings who — as a result of being raised by an overall successful group of second- and third-generation Americans — might not be so good with money.

“You better get a grip on reality,” Orman said in her typically frank manner. “The rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting poorer. Certain rights that you think are coming to you may not be there anymore. You will have it harder than any other generation I have seen.”

This article originally appeared in the

Four simple words

“Because, I said so!”

Four simple words effectively restore order when alternative tactics for ending the cacophony of whys or pleases have not. This declaration can render the most persistent young kvetchers powerless against their authority’s final say on the matter.

Considered a major no-no in child psychology, experts in the field call it “emotionally abusive talk,” which embeds shame, fear and victimization in youngsters. According to Chick Moorman, author of “Parent Talk: Words That Empower, Words That Wound,” such responses send a “silent message [that] ‘I’m big and you’re little. I’m smart and you’re dumb. I have power and you don’t.'”

Juvenile development literature suggests replacing these words with patient listening and reasonable responses that respectfully communicate feelings to the little whiner until they understand. One parenting guru suggests saying something like: “It’s frustrating for me, Mike, when you continue to ask, ‘Why?’ As the grown-up here, I make some of the decisions. This is why I have to say no, because (insert reasons)…. I won’t be changing my mind on this one.”

I’m no child development specialist, but as an educator and rabbi, my professional response is: Ummm, are you kidding?!

Here on earth, anyone who has been around children knows that sometimes — when your 11-year-old is protesting your refusal to let her have three friends over for the weekend while your 2-year-old asks for the 73rd time why he has to stay buckled in the car seat, all while in bumper-to-bumper traffic — the only thing left to communicate is: “Because, I said so!”

And if the result is kids believe they are at the humble mercy of a greater power who needs no reason whatsoever to tell it like it is: good.

I’ve got the Torah backing me up on this one — those four words are the greatest gift a child can be given. Within them lie the secrets of God, creation, personal empowerment and the alchemy of miracles.

In Bereshit we read of creation: beginning with the genesis of light and culminating in the formation of humans — made in their Creator’s image.

Genesis 1:3 explains that from out of chaotic darkness “God said, let there be light, and there was light.” With the declaration of these four words, the Source began to manifest the perfect order of reality: in which what is “is” — because, He said so.

And had Adam been shmendrik enough to nudge for a reason why, that’s what God would have answered. Why does the earth bring forth grass and herb yielding seed? Because God said it did, end of story (well, beginning of story, actually).

There are no reasons offered in the text; no explanations or justifications or rational interpretations exist in the account of Divine creation. God was not reasonable. He didn’t provide logic or meaning for his manifest designs; doing so would turn Him into their effect rather than their cause, which is impossible in the Chief’s case.

And this is how it ought to be for us, when we are truly realized in His image. In Bereshit, humanity is charged with the responsibility of mimicking God’s acts of Genesis: through the power of our words, we are blessed with the capacity to declare from out of the chaos what is — because we say so.

The only thing hindering our creating those direct experiences is the introduction of reasons for why we are generating them. Because with every reason, we further distance ourselves from the truth of what is and what we will allow to become of it.

Reasoning dismantles our power of creation, our ability to be source and master of reality; it locks us into the illusions of mind, where descriptions about something inhibit the emotive experience of it. Every word we waste detailing some interpretation for why something is interferes with a direct experience of its being; we become liars with each story told of some external source that has caused our present circumstance.

Patient explanations for why our assertions make sense are, according to this parsha, the very way we abuse our children. Our being reasonable delivers silent messages that destroy their capacity for greatness, and their reverence of ours. Rationale and justification for our actions convert them instantly into reactions — rendering us at the effect of something out there that is capable of causing in us limitation and powerlessness.

We end up perverting the obvious and necessary inequality between adult and minor. Grown-ups are supposed to be smarter. How is that shameful? How else will children learn to revere the word of their creator if not for their own maker’s effective mastery over reality? If we portray ourselves as victims to rational, out-of-our-control elucidation, how will we inspire creativity or self-empowerment — let alone deference before God — in children?

Bereshit calls for our re-creation; we are reminded to be at the cause of the reality we experience — made manifest by our unreasonable words. We are invited to remember our truth: in the Divine image, we must demonstrate for our young ones the accountability and illogical declarations that are the stuff of miracles manifesting.

While I agree with child psychologists who espouse the value of listening, it’s more important that the child listen rather than the adult. If we teach children to listen well, they will hear in our terse and tired responses the one instruction that can forever set them free to be, do and have the most glorious of life experiences. We’re telling them how they can be liberated from their feeling like powerless victims: “Because, I said so.”

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Torah study builds unshakable conviction in faith

As the ’07-’08 school year is well under way, are you sure you’ve got everything you need? Pens? Check. Cool new backpack? Check. New makeup set? No need, I go to an all-girls school. Cute shoes? Check. A real understanding of the significance of a Jewish education? Eh, not so much.

With a modicum of disbelief, I have embarked on my senior year at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles. While printing out applications for colleges and seminaries in Israel — which will likely stay on my desk until immediately before their due dates — I ran across an interesting question: “What do you believe to be the most essential thing you’ve learned throughout your high school career?” I was truly puzzled. They see my grades and SAT scores, and now they actually want me to remember what I learned?

I have been fortunate enough to attend Orthodox private schools for my entire life, privy to an in-depth study of scripture. As I entered high school, and the learning became both more challenging and fascinating, I wondered whether my rapid note taking was simply in order to pass a test or for true spiritual enlightenment. The lives of Abraham and Sarah? The importance of lighting Shabbat candles? The mitzvah of buying new clothing for a holiday (which for any Jewish girl is almost every day)? What is the most important thing I have learned?

Suddenly, it dawned on me. On Yom Kippur afternoon, we read the book of Yonah, a minor prophet with a major message. All too well do we know the story of Yonah being swallowed by a whale and saved from the fury of a terrible storm. But right before Shamu entered this story, the sailors who suffered due to Yonah’s indiscretions cast lots to find the perpetrator who caused this storm to befall only their ship. As each lot fell on Yonah, the sailors asked what big “no-no” he had committed to incur the wrath of God. “Tell us now, because of whom has this evil befallen us? What is your trade? And from where do you come? What is your land? And of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8). In Yonah’s reply, I found the answer to my intriguing question and a potentially great college essay.

“I am a Hebrew and I fear Hashem, the God of the heavens, Who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9).

I know what you’re thinking: How is that an answer? Was Yonah’s seasickness affecting his thought process? Nope. Before understanding the brilliance of this answer, think for a moment about how you would answer these questions. “Well, um, I didn’t follow what God told me to do. I’m, um, a student and I hail from the Valley. And, oh yeah, I am of the Jewish people.” That’s all I’ve got. But no, in Yonah’s answer he searches within himself to find who he truly was — a God-fearing Jew.

Our sages pass down the idea that only through concentrated learning of the Torah and other books in scripture can we truly understand our world and how we must survive within it. By means of learning we come to understand laws, philosophy, and develop a true pride in being a son or daughter of Israel; thus, becoming more than just what we are, we can become who we are.

As I begin my college search, there is one question I can’t help but ask myself: Will living in a world where language, fashion and food are constant battles lead me to forget my upbringing? Will I be just another addition to the melting pot? No, I assert, I will not. And I know why — because of everything I learned throughout my long years in Jewish day school.

Voila! I finally had an answer. Through myriad hours of learning, I have managed to cultivate a strong conviction in the Jewish faith that I am sure cannot be damaged. Every time that I open the Torah and learn the secrets that lie behind each word, I feel a great surge of pride that I can call myself a Jew.

So, what will I tell the seminaries (when I finally get around to filling out my applications)? There is not one thing that has changed me or led me down a God-fearing path, but, rather, it is the accumulation of my many years of Torah study that have come together to define my true persona, that of a modern Jewish woman.

My advice to teens and adults alike is to take advantage of every moment you can learn, whether through speaking to someone knowledgeable, reading a book, or even taking a quick peek at the explanation of the week’s Torah portion online. You will be surprised how quickly these fragments influence your daily life and improve the foundation of your faith and Jewish identity.

Now, equipped with new notebooks, a laptop, and an understanding and appreciation of talmudic study and my role as a Jewish woman — I’m off.

Jina Davidovich is a senior at YULA Girls High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the November issue is Oct. 15; Deadline for the December issue is Nov. 15. Send submissions to

Books: The bible and history — facts or truth?

“From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible,” by Eric H. Cline (National Geographic, $26).

Consider with me the following curious intellectual position: Religions make spiritual claims, such as “God cares for me,” and insist, quite rightly, that science cannot pronounce on that claim. But they also make historical claims, such as “Jericho was destroyed by Joshua” or “600,000 men, plus women and children, crossed the desert from Egypt to Canaan,” and insist that historians and archeologists cannot evaluate those claims either. To make a historical claim, however, is to invite the scrutiny of history.

The position becomes more curious. When a historical discovery is made that validates a biblical claim, traditionalists are rightly jubilant. Yet when a discovery is made that contradicts the Bible, the reaction is too often angry or dismissive. This is inconsistent with a tradition that teaches “God’s seal is truth,” and we ought not be caught espousing such intellectual inconsistency that can too easily shade into intellectual dishonesty.

Across the world there are serious scholars who work on ancient biblical history. Serious means they read the cognate languages, are familiar with archeological finds and publications, read and comment on each other’s work. Eric H. Cline is among their number and he has written a book, “From Eden to Exile: Unraveling Mysteries of the Bible,” which brings the interested reader up to date on the state of the field in some of the Bible’s most intriguing mysteries.

Cline’s book considers the location of the Garden of Eden; whether Noah’s Ark exists; the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah; the truth of the Exodus story; whether Joshua indeed fought at Jericho; the location of the Ark of the Covenant; and the fate of the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

Cline lays out the biblical account and the history of each issue. For example, since 600,000 men would mean some 2.5 million people in total, forming a line 150 miles long if they marched 10 across, could that really have been the state of the Israelites for forty years? If not, could the word alef — usually translated as “thousand” — mean “family” or “clan,” thereby making the numbers more manageable? And if so, can the other difficulties with the Exodus story — the absence of evidence in the desert and the absence of settlement evidence in Israel itself — be explained?

For each of these areas there is a tantalizing hint, but no certainty. Is the Ark of the Covenant in Ethiopia? Cline makes it quite clear that this is a fantasy — an appealing one, but still a fantasy. Has anyone come close to discovering Noah’s Ark? Once again, Cline sifts through the evidence, and proves that the pseudoscience, the DVD mavens and the credulous seekers are simply ignoring the contrary evidence. For those looking for answers, Cline does provide some, for example the fate of the 10 lost tribes. He contends, convincingly, that they were never really lost.

In reading such a book the primary question is what the reader makes of the Bible. There are roughly three possible positions. One assumes that everything in the Bible is literally true and therefore such a book serves no purpose. It does not matter what the evidence says or suggests; unless it reinforces the biblical account, it is of no interest. The second position is the other extreme, which sees the Bible as special pleading, unlikely to be true; this is the position of the minimalists, who concoct outlandish theories about the Bible having been written in the Persian period and suggesting that David and Solomon never existed. No scholar in Israel, and I am tempted to say no scholar, takes such claims seriously.

The third position is that the Bible contains a great deal of history but is not intended to be history the way we conceive of it. So the Exodus, for example, has a real historical memory behind it, but the telling of it was not constrained by literal adherence to the facts. For the intent of the Bible is a spiritual history, not a factual recounting. Thus the Bible is not factual; instead, it is true.

This third position, as some readers may know, was the position I sketched out in a sermon several years ago about the Exodus. It is the position I still hold and one that seems to me, as the years go by, more and more self-evidently true. That God speaks through the Bible, I do not doubt; but that it is a human story and therefore filled with rhetoric, imagery, exaggeration, hope, hyperbole and the imperfections of memory, I also do not doubt. Increasingly Jews are learning about this approach, which is both modern and traditional.

Cline’s book is a dispassionate recounting of the central issues that preoccupy scholars and pseudoscholars of the biblical text.

Closing the book, one understands that some things can be proved or disproved and many must simply be taken on faith. There are, of course, questions that no historical investigation can ever prove. Archeology may one day tell us how Solomon’s Temple was constructed and when Jericho was destroyed. What happened at Mount Sinai, however, is the summit of spiritual history. Here the investigation stops. Here we stand as Jews to declare that God is One and that we seek to do God’s will in this beautiful but benighted world.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books appears monthly in The Journal.