Shock is followed by awe over Foer’s new novel

A colleague of mine admonished me to include a warning in my review of Jonathan Safran Foer’s brilliant new novel, “Here I Am” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). And so I will.

Be forewarned, dear reader, that there is plenty of explicit sexual language in “Here I Am.” Or, to be more precise, plenty of sexual imaginings, if not actual sex. For example, when Julia Bloch discovers that her husband, Jacob, has been engaged in sexting, Jacob thinks his wife is hinting that he should actually sleep with the other woman. “If you’re going to write pornographic texts to someone else,” Julia says, “then yes, I want you to have an affair. Because then I could respect you.”

Foer may address such lofty issues as the existence (or nonexistence) of God, the survival of the Jewish state, and destiny of the Jewish people, but he also understands and depicts the workings of human sexual imagination. For example, when it comes to the sex talk among the bar mitzvah students of the Adas Israel religious school, he observes: “If God existed and judged, He would have forgiven these boys everything, knowing that they were compelled by forces outside of themselves, inside themselves, and that they, too, were made in His image.” 

Like his earlier novels, “Here I Am” is both deeply literate and intentionally shocking. Foer’s stock of allusions range from Tolstoy to Yu-Gi-Oh!, from NPR to “Driving Miss Daisy,” from Descartes to Beavis and Butt-Head. Camus is somehow linked with Honey Nut Cheerios. The lyrics of a Kurt Cobain song are deconstructed. Brand names of personal care products are braided together into a kind poetry, and an actual poem, six pages in length, pops up in the narrative. A bathroom encounter with someone who may or may not be Steven Spielberg turns into a short discourse on the mysteries of circumcision. Thus does Foer seek to shock us and make us laugh, and he succeeds at both.

The storyline focuses on a family in crisis. The marriage of Jacob and Julia Bloch is slumping toward failure. “I walked seven circles around you when we got married,” Julia says. “I can’t even find you now.” Their son, Sam, is exploring gender identity through the avatar named Samanta, whom he created in an online game, and he is definitely uncomfortable in his own skin: “I am not good at life,” Sam tells his mother. Yet his bar mitzvah promises to be an extravaganza, if only because Jewish Americans “will go to any length, short of practicing Judaism, to instill a sense of Jewish identity in their children,” as Foer puts it.

At the same time, “Here I Am” presents us with a crisis with global repercussions, a mega-quake whose epicenter is under the Dead Sea. The cataclysm promises to draw Arab refugees into Israel in search of food, shelter and medical attention — and to frighten away Jews. The pope promises to pay for the restoration of the Holy Sepulchre, but the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians protest against papal interference with their holy sites. “Under cover of repairmen,” Foer writes, “a squad of Israeli extremists penetrates the Dome of the Rock and sets it on fire.” A regional war yet again threatens Israel’s survival, and the prime minister considers the nuclear option.

The two narratives collide. “The news that reached America was scattershot, unreliable and alarmist,” Foer explains. “The Blochs did what they did best: they balanced overreaction with repression.” Sam discovers the difference between fantasy and reality when he encounters his adolescent Israeli cousin, Noam, as yet another avatar in the online game that is Sam’s second life, or maybe his real life. On CNN, what may be the death throes of the Jewish state are on view. “It will pass,” Jacob Bloch insists to Noam’s father, Tamir, who is visiting America and is desperate to go back home and fight. “It won’t,” Tamir insists. “This is how it will all end.”

For all of his musings on sex, and his fascination with the downward spiral of marriage and family, Foer insists on confronting us with the most consequential of events and decisions. At last, Jacob vows to go to Israel and fight along with his cousins. Julia taunts him: “I’m guessing you’re not going to be called upon for specialized operations, like bomb defusing or surgical assassinations, but something more like ‘Stand in front of this bullet so your meat will at least slow it before it enters the person we actually value.’ ” But Jacob and other Jews like him are compelled to choose between their private lives and their place in history, a choice that was denied to so many Jews in previous generations. That’s what “Here I Am” is really all about.

The story reaches a moment of stirring moral grandeur when Foer imagines how the prime minister of Israel uses a shofar to summon a million American Jews to the fighting front. “The prime minister inhaled and gathered into the ram’s horn the molecules of every Jew who had ever lived: the breath of warrior kings and fishmongers; tailors, matchmakers and executive producers; kosher butchers and radical publishers, kibbutzniks, management consultants …; the false moan of a prostitute who hides children under the bed on which she kisses Nazis on the mouth …; the final air bubble to rise from the Seine and burst as Paul Celan sank, his pockets full of stones; the word clear from the lips of the first Jewish astronaut, strapped into a chair facing infinity.”

You will need to read Foer’s book to know the outcome of Israel’s imagined war of survival as well as the slow-motion collapse of the Bloch family. The book ends on a sorrowful and deeply poignant scene, but even the moments of pain and loss do not diminish the vital spirit, so authentically Jewish, that is the real glory of “Here I Am.” “Life is precious,” goes Jacob’s mantra, “and I live in the world.”

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Do all believers believe in the same God?

Most Americans, including most Jews — despite the fact that so many Jews are secular — say they believe in God. And around the world, religious Jews, Christians and Muslims all say they believe in God.

But the truth is that this is largely meaningless. If all those who say they believe in God believe in the same God, then “God” and the statement “I believe in God” mean nothing. 

This should be obvious to anyone. To cite but one example, the God in whose name Muslims cut innocent people’s throats and gang rape young girls cannot possibly be the same God as the God of those who believe that God hates such actions.

Likewise, it is also wrong to claim that believing Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in the same God or even that all Christians believe in the same God, or all Jews believe in the same God, or all Muslims believe in the same God.

Given how obvious all this ought to be, who would argue that all those who say they believe in God believe in the same God? Generally speaking, the people who make this argument are people who have an anti-religious agenda. They say that all believers believe in the same God in order to discredit God and religion.

So, then, how are we to know whether any two people who say they believe in God believe in the same God?

The best we can do is to ask the following questions:

1. Do you believe in the God of Israel?

Those who cannot answer this in the affirmative do not believe in the same God that all believing Jews and the majority of believing Christians believe in. Believing Muslims should also answer in the affirmative. But, at least today, many wouldn’t.

The God of Israel is, among other things, the God introduced to the world by the Jews — the God who created the world, revealed Himself to the Jews, and made His moral will known through the Ten Commandments (see Question 3) and the Hebrew Prophets.

2. Does the God you believe in judge the moral behavior of every human being? And if so, does this God use the same criteria in judging all people?

The many modern individuals who say that they believe in God but do not believe that this God judges the moral conduct of human beings do not believe in the same God as those who believe in a God who morally judges. This is not some minor theological difference. Those who believe in a God that is indifferent to the moral behavior of human beings believe in a “God” that is so different from the God introduced by the Jews that, from a perspective of those who continue to believe in the moral God of Israel, they might as well use a word other than “God.” 

I hasten to note that this does not mean that such people cannot be fine upstanding people (any more than anyone who believes in the morally judging God of Israel is necessarily a fine upstanding person). Such people can most certainly be moral. But in general, such people are less likely to be moral for the obvious reason that human beings act better when they believe their actions will be judged (by God and/or by man).

I should also add that one need not be a believing Jew, Christian or Muslim to believe in the God who judges people’s moral behavior. There are many people who affirm no specific religious creed but who believe in a God who judges moral behavior. American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was one such individual. He did not affirm the Christian creed, but he did believe in the morally judging God introduced by the Bible.

Now, one may argue that violent Islamists also believe in a judging God, and that Torquemada, the most infamous head of the Spanish Inquisition, also believed in a judging God. But the argument is not valid because they do/did not believe in a God who judges all people by their moral conduct. Islamists believe and Inquisitors believed in a God who judges people by their faith. Therefore to Torquemada and Islamists, the moral norms that apply to members of one’s faith do not apply to others.

For the record, Jews never believed — and the Jews’ Bible never suggested — that one must believe in Judaism in order to be favorably judged by God.

3. Do you believe in the God who gave the Ten Commandments?

The third question is related to the previous two — it was the God of Israel who revealed the Ten Commandments; and the Ten Commandments are the basis of Western morality. But this question, too, needs to be asked in order to ascertain what God a person believes in. After all, if we have no moral instructions from God, how do we know what moral behaviors God demands from us and therefore judges?

One final issue needs to be clarified. What about all those people who answer the three questions affirmatively but who have additional theological beliefs that separate them from others who believe in those three things? Do they believe in the same God?

For example, what about Christians who believe in the God of Israel, in a God who morally judges human actions, and the God who revealed the Ten Commandments but who also believe — by definition — in the Christian Trinity? Do they believe in the same God as Jews and other non-Christians who believe in those three things? I think essentially they do. And the same would hold true for a Mormon who believes in those three things but also has specific Latter-day Saint beliefs, or a Muslim who believes in those things but also believes that the Quran is the only fully valid revelation. 

Why? Precisely because a moral God judges people’s actions, not theologies — unless those theologies lead to evil actions. 

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

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

How the Bible plays out in hospital intensive care units

In this week's parsha, V'zot ha-Brakhah, we read about the farewell blessing of Moses to the Israelites.  At 120 years of age, Moses views the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendents.  The Israelites will proceed to inhabit this land of milk and honey, but Moses will not.  Moses must die in the land of Moab just short of leading his people into the promised land.  Moses died “al pi adonai,” meaning that Moses died “at the command of the Lord.”

The Rabbis examined why Moses required the Lord's command to die.  In the words of Elie Wesel, retelling the Rabbis' analysis, “When Moses learned that his hour had come, he refused to accept it.  He wanted to go in living — though he was old and tired of wandering and fighting and being constantly tormented by this unhappy and flighty people he was leading across the desert.”  According to the Rabbis, Moses then haggled with God to continue to live, composing prayers, putting on sackcloth, calling on others for support and arguing “Don't you trust me?….Have I not proven my worth?”  God would not back down.  Wesel notes that after being advised by an angel to accept God's decree, Moses should have graciously heeded the sage advice.  But Moses would not and began to bargain according to Wesel:

We went on refusing to die, pleading, crying for another day, another hour, as would any common mortal….So great was his despair that he  declared himself ready to renounce his human condition in exchange for a few more days of life:  'Master of the Universe, he implored, let me live like an animal who feeds on grass, who drinks spring water and is content to watch the days come and go.  God refused.  Man is not an animal; he must live as a human or not at all. 

The Rabbis understood humans' unwillingness to give up life.  But they also understood that all humans must die.  The struggle to survive is innate in each of us, yet we need to learn that this strong impulse must be accede to a greater force.  The Rabbis recognized that humans would be willing to trade one's most precious attribute, humanity, to prolong life, if even for a brief time.  They projected that even Moses, the powerful and great leader of the Israelites, would be willing to give up cognizance of the nature of the world, recognizing others and being part of the human race just to eek out another day.

The Rabbis never could have imagined, but this battle plays itself out daily in intensive care units around the globe.  Man, imbued with the divine spirit, has developed medical advancements that rescue those with failing hearts, lungs, bowels and livers.  People who have experienced “sudden death” are hurriedly hooked up to blood-pumping, oxygenating, continuously detoxifying remarkable machines by amazing clinicians.  Some of these people miraculously walk out of the hospital to continue a renewed life.  But for many, these ventilators, artificial hearts and kidney machines cannot restore humanity. Instead, these machines and feeding tubes and medications yield broken bodies that cannot interact, cannot carry swallow or taste, cannot recognize loved ones.  Many suffer while maintained alive.

A study of critical care physicians at one Southern California hospital system found that more than one in ten patients receiving treatment in their hospitals' intensive care units were receiving treatments that would not benefit the patient in a meaningful way.  These treatments usually would keep a patient alive, albeit briefly for most, but not in a fashion befitting a human.  Many of these patients were comatose with no chance of improving, others could never survive outside of an intensive care unit, but medical technology with tubes and drips and endless effort could keep them precariously balanced between life and death in a room full of machines.  The physicians surveyed in this study, many deeply wounded by the experience, indicated that they should not be providing these critical care treatments.  But they were compelled to do so by families who could not let go, families who were willing to preserve life for an extra day or perhaps several despite the state of their loved one, the suffering and the cost.

The Rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, when herbs and leaches constituted the best medical care had to offer, recognized that man was not served by succumbing to the basic instinct to preserve life at any cost.  We can learn today that it is humanity that we must strive to preserve at all times.  And that there is sometimes a need to say “no, it is time to die.”

Dr. Neil S. Wenger is professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at UCLA and a consulting researcher at RAND. He is director of the UCLA Healthcare Ethics Center and is chair of the Ethics Committee at the UCLA Medical Center.

On faith, belief and God

I love this quip from a favorite comedian of mine: “I have a lot of beliefs.  And I don’t live by any of them!” 

It’s different to have beliefs than to live by them.  And that difference speaks to a little problem we have.  Here it is: I am not sure we all believe in the God we say we believe in. Or that we pray to.  Or that we call upon and complain to when things get rough. Or the God we thank when things go well.  I’m not sure we all believe that. 

You’re all here.  The room is swelled.  You come to shul to be touched.  To grow.  To be in a spiritual place.  And what do we throw at you?  The Mahzor.  It is a beautiful and evocative text. But it is also filled with some of the loftiest images of God we have.  God as King.  God as Father.  God as Judge.  God as Shepherd who literally writes us in for life, or death. 

Is that the best Judaism has for you? Is that the extent of the God that can operate in your lives?

If you wonder a bit when you read those images, you’re in good company.

I’ll tell you a story from the Chasidic tradition.  A group of Chasidim know that their rabbi likes to daven in private.  Something intimate, something exquisite. They know they should let him be. But they can’t contain their curiosity.  They need to hear this prayer!  So they sneak in to a room just outside his chamber.  He’s just finishing up his morning prayers. He has gotten to a section called the Ikkarim, the 13 principles of faith that Maimonides wrote.  They each start with the words, Ani Ma’amin. I believe.  They are customarily said at the end of morning services.  The Chasidim are listening through the wall.  They overhear him crying, singing, daveningAni Ma’amin.  Ani ma’amin.  I believe!  I believe!  But they couldn’t hear the rest of the words.  So they lean in further.  Because it is so important to hear every word of their rebbe. “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleymah…I believe with perfect faith.  Hal’vai Hal’vai Hal’vai.”  Do you know what Hal’vai means?  It is one of those great untranslatable Hebrew words.  Something like, “Oh would it be true.”  “I lashed out in a moment of anger.  Halvai I can hold back the next time my child pushes my buttons.  Hal’vai.”  Hal’vai is a prayer in and of itself.  Put that back into the story.  You have this Chasidic rebbe.  He is considered a paragon of perfect faith by his Chasidim.  They want to hear every word, every syllable of what he believes.  And yet everything he believes, he believes Hal’vai!  Would that he believed with a perfect faith that god gave the Torah at Sinai.  Hal’vaiAni ma’amin be’eumah shleymah…I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiah… Hal’vai

I was unpacking this story with a dear friend of mine, Rabbi David Ingber.  We draw out two lessons from it, amongst many.

The first lesson: Even great men, and women, people you’d consider as religious role models…if we’re honest and true, there is always a recognition that belief and faith are aspirations.  I believe is a “yearning” statement. It’s a “yearning for.” It’s not the pronunciation of a perfect credo.  This rebbe—whatever he believed, he wanted to believe a little more.  In this model, you need to think of faith not as a thing that you have.  “Do I have faith?  Yes I have faith.”  No!  Faith is something you do, that you work on. Jews don’t have faith. Jews should be “faithing,” at all times.  We may ascribe to others that they have it all figured out. We may think they pray because they have faith. When in reality, they may not. They pray in order to try to achieve faith and most of the time they, and we, fail. The liturgy invites us, but believing the words is not a prerequisite to saying them. Often we add a Hal’vai.

The second thing that comes out of the story is that it is both hopeful and sad.  Why is it sad?  Why did the rebbe have to pray this prayer in private?  Why did he have to hide his doubts, instead of modeling them, actively, openly, bravely to his Chasidim?  And the hopeful part?  That is that his struggle for faith is faith.  His hoping to believe is a form of belief.  And it is exceedingly Jewish. Having doubts is a good thing in our tradition.  We shouldn’t have to keep them in the closet.  Our theology could be and should be out in the open.  And it should be all grown up.

That’s what I want to talk about today.  I want to open up for you a grownup theology.  What does that mean?  I’ll give you a slogan from someone I studied with this summer at the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Dani Segal.  He is the rabbi in the town of Alon in Israel.  Whenever he meets with new couples on the way to preparing them for the chuppah, he says that in their new home above their beds, there shouldn’t be a ketubah. It shouldn’t be a picture of them from their engagement. There should be a sign that works a little bit better when stated in Hebrew, a sign that says “Zehirut, Kan Bonim.”  “Careful. Work in progress.”

Grownup theology is a theology under construction. Whether you believe with a full heart in the God of the Mahzor, or you question it.  A grownup theology is a permission to be in process.  I am going to share with you some of the theologies that speak to me, that have redeemed me from pure doubt and a sense of meaninglessness.  Perhaps one or more of them will resonate with you.  But as your rabbi and as your friend, the takeaway is not the particulars of what you believe.  There are any number of images and theories of God that can work, for you, for me.  What I care about is that you are in process, and that what you believe leads you to a Godly life.  That’s the most important thing.

I want to share with you another story about a boy who comes to a rabbi.  He is forlorn and embarrassed.  He goes to the rabbi’s office and confesses,  “I don’t believe in God.”  He expects he will be corrected or reprimanded. Or even shunned and publicly embarrassed. But he can’t lie to his rabbi.  “I don’t believe in God.”  The Rabbi says, “…tell me about this God.”  And the boy says, “…which God?  I told you…I don’t believe in God.”  The Rabbi says, “—Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.”   The boy goes on to describe the God on the throne, the God who punishes and rewards every act.  The God of third-grade religious school.  The Rabbi says, “—you know what?  I don’t believe in that God either.  Now we can talk.”

In the story, the Rabbi echoes this little kid’s apostasy.  Or supposed apostasy. And then learning can begin.  So I share with you some versions of my grownup theology, which remains a work in progress. I share it with you not with certainty, because I don’t have it.  But with earnestness, and with options, and a sense that God can be reclaimed and can matter.  Not just in a foxhole, when you’re in crisis. Not just in a throw-away English phrase when you “thank God” after the last out of a baseball game. But as you construct and try to live through a Jewish life that matters.

These theologies, that are from some of the brightest Jewish minds of our times, are amalgamations of centuries of thought and development of the idea of the Jewish God. 

We’ll start by speaking of a man named Rabbi Art Green, who is a Kabbalist, philosopher, and a theologian.  He directs the non-denominational rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College.  He is a wonderful, ideological thinker for all of us to get to know.  Here is his theology, Rabbi Green’s sense of God, which he hears not as a rejection of traditional Jewish thinking, but rather he hears this idea screaming out from our sacred texts.  Believing in God means believing in a world where the other obligates me.  The fact that you live, and that you are also from God, and of God— that fact puts a claim on me. I cannot ignore you.  Or if I do, I am also ignoring God.  Part of it based on Chasidic notions that emerge from the Talmud and Kabbala. Here is Arthur Green in his own words.  As you hear them, ask yourself, “Can I believe this? And if I did, what would it mean in how I lived my life? My Jewish life?” 

“Listen to one of the great Jewish sages, the Chasidic master Sefat Emet of Gerer, who let this secret truth out of the bag in a letter he wrote to his children and grandchildren:  It is entirely clear to me that the meaning of the Shema, that God is One, is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!).  But rather there is a deeper truth.  There is no other being than God.  Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God himself.”

Does that sound too modern, too 21st century, too foofy, too liberal?  Too universal?  Not specific enough?  This is the Chasidic Rebbe of Ger, giving these words as an inheritance to his children and grandchildren!

Back to Rabbi Green.  He re-reads the Shema, that prayer we are so sure we know.  Hear O Israel Lord is God Lord is one?  No.  That’s not what it means, or at least it’s not the only thing that it means.  Rather, it means this: Listen, Yisrael (from the Hebrew meaning to struggle), all you who struggle, who wrestle with life’s meaning.  Being is our God.  Being is all unified, it’s all one. 

To Rabbi Green, and the Gerer Rebbe, God means that all is one.  God means your understanding that the person sitting next to you, in that nice suit, or the ones across town with different colored faces, and the ones who are hungry and the ones that are lonely, and who are fleeing Syria, are extensions of us, because we are all God.  To Green, that knowledge, that truth, that awareness is God and Godliness.  And acting from that awareness is living with God.  God is obliterating the inconvenient differences between us and them.  And worshipping the Jewish God is doing all of that, in a tallis, holding a siddur, blessing your children and eating flatbread in April.  Can you believe that?  Can you live that?

Here is another grownup theology. It comes from Los Angeles, from Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l of Valley Beth Shalom, a titan of Judaism who died this past year.  Before I share his ideas, a bit of context. As a congregational rabbi, you deal with suffering all the time because you deal with the congregation’s suffering.  You have to stop and consider what you actually believe in, before you rush in.  Because evil and pain and suffering will ruin most theologies, and they ruin many of the prayers we say today.  Imagine a mother or a father who, God-forbid, lost a child.  They come to the rabbi and say, “I can’t come to shul.  I can’t be there for yontef.”  Why?  “Because I can’t sit through one more unetaneh tokef.  Who will live?  Who will die?  Was my child not inscribed last year?  Why not?”  What do I say?  Come to shul anyway?  It will feel good, despite the words?  Reinterpret the words?  There has to be more to offer.  Rabbi Schulweis felt this deeply and intimately. He was born in 1925 and came of age during the Shoah.  He could not live in a world in which God allows children to die. He rejected the idea of a personal God, because it left him, and his congregation, too vulnerable to the question of why all this evil exists, and happens to good people. So he came up with something different. Something possibly radical to our ears, but perhaps not so radical within the kaleidoscope of Jewish God-concepts.

I’ll illustrate with a story.  When Rabbi Schulweis died, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the current senior rabbi at VBS, went into the Day School to talk to kids about his death.  And about his life.  And he did it in a Schulweisian way.  So he asks the kids, “What is a noun?”  They responded aptly: It is a person, a place or a thing.  “Most of us think of God as a noun,” he continued.  “A somebody.  In a someplace. There to look out for us, and take care of us.”  And they all nodded their heads.  Then he asked, “What is a verb?”  Something you do!  And then he pulled a Schulweis turn.  “Suppose the word God is not a noun. But a verb.  What if God is stuff that we do?  What if God is the stuff that we do that is really important?  If that were true, what stuff would you have to be doing to be doing God?”  Hands shot up as if they were theology students.  “Feeding the hungry!  Respecting one’s parents!  Praying!”  Why? “Because it makes people feel better.  And it makes life meaningful.  And it connects you with your people and community.”  Exactly.  To Rabbi Schulweis, that was God.  The beauty is that this approach is universal enough to encompass the wide variety of Jews, people, and believers, but also specific enough to require mitzvah, and doing God as Jews. Not because God, the being, commands it per se. But because mitzvot is how Jews God, as a verb.

Rabbi Schulweis also showed that this conception of a God also has the greatest stickiness and the greatest chance of gaining adherents.  Rabbi Feinstein told me that once Rabbi Schulweis was interviewed by Krista Tippett for the “On Being” program.  He described a class where he wrote two columns on the blackboard.  On column A, a list like this: God is merciful. God is just. God feeds the hungry. God cares for the sick.  And he asked for a show of hands, “Who believes this list?”  Very few hands went up. 

Then he pointed to Column B, which had phrases like this: “Extending mercy is Godly.” Yes! “Doing justice is Godly.” Yes! “Feeding the hungry is Godly.”  “Curing the sick is Godly.” Hands shot up!  Rabbi Schulweis did not invent this.  Maimonides, the Rambam from the 12th Century, popularized it.  Whatever we try to say about God is not true, because it limits that which should be limitless.  But what we do in order to be, to live, Godly?  That list is endless.  And people really believe it!

Can you believe in this God?  The God of the gentle touch of friends who came to comfort a mourner?  Can you worship a God of a loving husband who touches his wife when she is in pain?  Whether or not you believe it…can you do it?

Here is the third theology. And, remember, this is three of hundreds, thousands of workable adult theologies. This one is for me the most wondrous.  It comes from Micha Goodman, who is one of the leading writers, thinkers, and builders of Jewish life today in Israel.  I have had the great blessing of learning with at the Hartman Institute.  This theology has two parts.  The first is a paradox.  The second is a paradigm.

First, the paradox.  And I promise to go into this more deeply in a class I will be teaching this fall on faith, belief and God.  Here it is.  If you really believe in God, religion makes no sense.  And if you really believe in religion, then God makes no sense.  Or, at least, God is a very small thing.  Confused?  Think about it.   If God were real and great, and transcendent, other, beyond, Creator of the Universe, and a commander of humanity—would that God care whether I shake my lulav forward first rather than back?  The greater your conception of God is, the sillier the trappings of religion look.  And the reverse is true.  If you really believed in religion, in the specifics of religious practice as themselves having celestial import…if God cares about all that, how great could God be?  In that construct, haven’t we really replaced God with ritual? Are we not worshipping ultimately small things, rather than a great God?

The more I think about this paradox, the more true it is for me. But it is a confounding truth. Because what do you do with it once you enter into it?

Here is the paradigm.  Micha teaches it through the prophet Jeremiah, who taught that the question of religion is not God’s presence, but rather the people’s presence.  God is not shokhen, dwelling in the mishkan, because we did something.  God is mashkin, making us dwell, because of what we aspire to be.  Religion is not that you will appease God because you prayed.  Religion is that you might change yourself if you pray.  Religion is not that God will be beckoned.  You can’t beckon God.  With a sacrifice?  Or a prayer?  But you can summon yourself. 

Here is Micha’s theology.  When religion, and belief or worship in God does not cultivate spirituality, but rather shuts it down, you’re worshipping the wrong God.  When religion closes your heart rather than opens it, it is the wrong God.  For Micha, salvation does not come from above.  It comes from below.  Don’t listen to the demagogues saying that God is here, therefore you are protected.  What guarantees our protection is not the quality of our rituals, but of our sense of what is just.  Justice replaces rituals as having ultimate import.  Through rituals, Jewish rituals, you may connect with God and Judaism.  I do it too.  But it is not your bond with God that will guard you.  God is not going to come and be present because you prayed. But you might be present!  And you might be a bit more just.  And more alert to the world around you. 

Our childhood theology (which I learned also) is that God is powerful.  And so our relationship with a powerful God will save us.  Serve God and be saved.  Micha says “no.”  It is your relationship with the powerless, not the powerful, that guards you. The orphan. The widow. The stranger.  The lonely. 

You want a theology? Live your life in such a way that everyone who comes into contact with you is a bit less lonely because you were present.  That’s God. Don’t think up.  Think down. Think across.  Think differently. And act on it.

Hopefully some of these ideas normalized the doubts you may be harboring about what to do with God in religion.  Maybe it opened up some pathways, both for belief and action.  I want very much for these ideas to continue throughout the year.  And I want to share with you where I stand, now, as I synthesize these and other theologies. 

To accomplish both goals, consider this.  I am going to share with you now my theology. In about a hundred words. It is what I believe, or reckon with, today.  But it is fluid, and if I wrote this in a few months, it would be different.  In fact, this is an evolved version of something I wrote this past year in response to a prompt from a colleague. It is a current snapshot of my God-struggling, of my attempt to bridge Jewishness and grand religion that matters with a God who is not made small in the process.  After the holidays, I am going to open up a digital portal for all of you to share your theologies. I’m going to ask you what you believe, in one hundred words.  It will be a living portal, on which we can read one another’s beliefs, and perhaps even comment on them, and learn from the discourse.  You may share that you resonate with one or more of the theologies I shared today.  Or you may be fulfilled and enriched by some of the theologies I challenged today, and that is fine too.  If you come to shul to appease God, and to summon, God bless you.  That is Jewish, too.  And to quote Rabbi Donniel Hartman, sometimes we have to believe in the thing that gets us through the day. 

I will teach a three-part series on believing, starting in November.  And I hope that for those of you here today, and who participate in some way moving forward, we can put our heads and minds together to revisit God, to recapture God, to do God even if we struggle with what we believe in about God.  To be comfortable identifying the God we don’t believe in, to admit it, and to orient ourselves, with purpose and dignity, towards a life of God we do believe we are called to live.

Here is my theology in one hundred words.  I believe in a God.  In God.  More than I believe that God commands, I believe that God has a commanding voice.  It is heard through our texts, our nation's narrative, and through all of humanity's shared consciousness.  The voice commands us universally, to care for earth and her inhabitants.  All of them.  And the voice commands us particularly, to care for Torah and build a Jewish life worthy of existence.  There are rewards for living aspiring to Godliness.  And there are deficits to eschewing such a life. They come not from the heavens, or from earthly courts, but rather from an internal calibration.  From the gap between what one experienced and accomplished in life, and what one could have.  Living with mitzvot, attuned to Godliness, is not slavishness.  It is loving devotion.  We fail at it almost as much as we succeed.  We stay committed because the bond is that dear.  I believe in God.  And I believe that God was at Sinai. But more importantly, I know that we were at Sinai.  And we listened. 

As those one hundred words sit with you, and you think about your own vision, remember, I am still in process, as are you.  If you entered my mind as I prayed, you’d see a swirling storm constantly shifting with pristine images that seem to work and make sense, but only for a minute.  They are fleeting.  If you came to me in the middle of my prayers, whatever you think you saw, the little secret is that inside I am whispering, or even shouting, Hal’vai. If it could only be so.  Aspiring.  We could be Hal’vai Jews together.  Hal’vai that we were Hal’vai Jews together.    Because above us all hovers a slogan.  Zehirut, Kan Bonim.  It is a reminder to myself and to all of you.  Careful.  Belief is a work in progress.

God will be our visitor

The Jewish family is in a constant state of mourning. Most of the time, we push our mourning to the back of our collective consciousness and carry on our daily lives as if we’ve suffered no loss. Once a year, though, we allow the misery and pain of our tortuous 2,000-year Diaspora to creep into view and dominate our emotions.

That would be Tisha b’Av, our day of mourning. We cry for all that we have lost, for all that could have been, and for a compromised national identity that was detached from our homeland for so long and without its glorious monument to our God. Once a year, we sit on the floor in agony and feel the dormant pain in our souls.

Mourning is a metaphor that helps us cope with Tisha b’Av, which this year begins on the evening of July 25. Metaphors can help us relate to challenging concepts and they can also shine new light to our traditions and rituals.

Jewish mourning is unique, and the concept of sitting shivah has even been popularized in media and popular culture. If we are mourning on Tisha b’Av, we are sitting shivah on Tisha b’Av.

I see the entire Jewish family sitting on the floor together, sitting shivah together, crying together and mourning together. On Tisha b’Av, our synagogues and prayer gatherings become our shivah homes. 

But something is incomplete. One player is missing from the metaphor. 

Who will do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim — comforting the bereaved? If we are all mourners, we cannot comfort each other. A shivah with no visitors to comfort the mourners compounds the pain of loss. Have we been so abandoned that no one will come to pay a shivah call to us? Who will comfort us this Tisha b’Av?

It has to be God. Our comfort will come from God.

God is our Menachem (“comforter”). God “visits” us on Tisha b’Av. That’s why we go to synagogue to mourn. Generally, it’s easier to feel God’s presence in synagogue, so we mourn in God’s House. But the Jewish laws of comforting mourners require that the visitor wait for the mourner to speak first. When the mourner is ready to talk, the visitor listens and responds as appropriate. Listening is the most powerful tool in our comfort toolbox. 

The character Sadness from the new Pixar movie “Inside Out” taught the world this important lesson when she just listened to Bing Bong and gave him a shoulder to lean on. Somehow, that helped him feel a lot better. A mourner just needs someone to listen.

God is our Visitor. God is sitting in the shivah house. God is just waiting to comfort us. But we need to speak first. We have to give God the opportunity to listen. God is ready to listen; we just need to speak.

Eikhah (Lamentations) and kinnot (expressive religious poems) are our chance to speak. We cry, we lament, we wail, we contemplate, and through the experience, we acknowledge our pain. God listens while we speak. But first we talk. We talk to God about our pain; the new pain and the old. Eikhah and kinnot give us a chance to speak first and it is our way of granting God permission to comfort us.

This Tisha b’Av, let us be conscious of our mourning. Let us imagine ourselves experiencing shivah together in God’s House. Let us remember that we have not been abandoned. God is coming to comfort us. Let us allow God to comfort us by speaking to him first and acknowledging our suffering with our words. Let us experience God’s “shivah call” and may we merit to feel God’s comfort. Let us hope and pray that this year we will get up from shivah after Tisha b’Av and never feel the spiritual agony of Tisha b’Av ever again. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is a rabbi in Beverly Hills. He blogs at

Why does a Jew write for Atheists?

“Are you an atheist?”

No, I explained. I’m a Jew.

“Then why are you writing a book about atheists?”

I’ve run into this line of questioning a lot.

For the past several years, I’ve worked on What If I’m an Atheist?, a guidebook for teenagers who doubt or deny the existence of God. The book answers questions that teenagers have about unbelief (Are atheists immoral? How do I tell my parents I’m an atheist?) and tosses in atheist stuff both trivial (atheist jokes, lists of celebrity atheists) and serious (how to answer popular lies about atheists, where to turn if your parents kick you out).

Finally, the book has been published. But the question remains: Why does a Jew write a book about atheists?

Even worse, why does a Jew write a book for atheists? Worse yet, for young atheists? Am I trying to turn impressionable minds toward unbelief?

No, I’m not – but being Jewish has made me feel a kinship with atheists.

Jews were the original people who said, “No, we won’t believe in your god.” Kill us if you want, but the answer’s still no.

Like atheists, Jews know how it feels to have your viewpoint about religion ignored and slighted, even in Jew-friendly America. Every winter, it seems as if every store window, TV show, and public event is saying: Celebrate Christmas! Sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night”! Get a tree and a ham!

And like many young unbelievers, I spent much of my teens and twenties trying to determine if God exists and why he lets the world be as – there’s no more appropriate word for it – godawful as it sometimes gets. When young people described the path that they took toward atheism, I recognized some of the landmarks.

But that’s not why I wrote this book.

I wrote it because there weren’t any books like it. There were lots of books for young people of religious and spiritual leanings (mostly Christian) but no advice for teenage atheists and other unbelievers.

And a lot of them needed advice. In researching the book, I discovered first-person accounts of atheist and agnostic teenagers who were scared to tell their family and friends what they believed. Some parents yelled or wept. Some teachers and principals criticized and threatened atheist students. Some classmates shunned or insulted them.

I had written a lot of books that had entertained and informed people, but this one could genuinely help them.

So I knew the reasons why I wanted to write the book – but were there reasons why I shouldn’t write it? Was it wrong for a Jew, even (or especially) a secular Jew like me, to make a guidebook for young atheists?

I wasn’t worried about my soul or God’s judgment on it. I figured that if God exists and wants to blame me for being a bad Jew, he’d unspool a long rap sheet of my other sins before he’d get to “…and you wrote a book.”

But I did worry about hurting Jews. Would the book, in its tiny way, hurt Jews or Judaism? Specifically, would it encourage young Jews to reject their heritage?

I had been through something like this before. I had written a coffee-table book about the wild ways in which people light up their houses for the winter holidays. Since most of those people were decorating for Christmas, I wondered if I was doing wrong by, in essence, glorifying a Christian practice.

So I queried ask-a-rabbi websites. Most of the rabbis answered that I’d be doing wrong only if I were encouraging Jews to abandon Judaism. Since there’s nothing un-Jewish about lighting up in December – it’s the time of the Festival of Lights, after all – I reckoned that I was in the clear.

But hanging up lights is just decoration. Going atheist means abandoning religion, exactly the practice that the rabbis warned me about. And I was aiming this book at kids, a very touchy matter.

So I thought and wrote and deleted and rewrote and then rewrote again. The final, published book doesn’t encourage anyone to abandon his or her faith.

It does imply, though, that there’s nothing wrong with being atheist or agnostic. If that offends the Almighty or my fellow Jews, then so be it. Virtually every book offends someone. Some of the book’s toughest critics have griped that I didn’t go far enough – that the book should push young people to become atheists.

Why write about atheism? Because kids needed it. Because I’ve had doubts about God. Because I wanted to make something that would help its readers. Because of a lot of reasons.

The reasons don’t matter, really. Once a writer finishes writing a book, it’s on its own. It will offend or delight the readers no matter what the writer’s motives were. The writer can explain himself at endless length, but the readers will make up their own minds.

Which is what atheists and agnostics have always done. It’s just one more trait that they have in common with Jews.

Hebrew word of the week: Kippah

Kippah is from the root  k-f-f, which means “to bend,” as in zoqef kfufim, “(God) raises those who are bent” (Psalms 145:14,  and prayer), closely related to k-f-y “to compel, force, invert, subdue.” So, kippah is “a bent shape, dome,” as in kippat shamayim “celestial sphere.”

Other related words: kaf  “palm / hollow of the hand/foot,”  the letter kaf (sofit), “(table)spoon”; kappit “teaspoon”;  kappah “palm branch”; kfafot “gloves”; kaffiyyah “(Arab) headdress.”

The Yiddish word yarmulke seems to be from the Turkish (via Polish, Ukrainian) yagmurluk, meaning “rain cover.”

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

My Passover lesson: Don’t wait for God

The Jewish people didn’t bring down the Ten Plagues on Pharaoh, nor did they split the Red Sea, which enabled them to escape Pharaoh’s soldiers some 3,300 years ago. These were God’s miracles, which we all celebrate during Passover.

This year, I found those miracles a little unsettling.

I wondered: How did European Jews relate during the Holocaust to these divine miracles? How do persecuted Jews of any era relate to God’s biblical miracles? Do they expect God will come to rescue them as He rescued our ancestors at Sinai? How do they explain it when He doesn’t?

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

With the growing threat to Israel posed today by terrorist regimes, this reflection on divine miracles seems especially pertinent. When a country like Iran, for example, talks about destroying Israel, who should Jews look to for protection — God or ourselves? How does our faith in God come into play when we have to deal with violent, anti-Semitic enemies?

Jews have been having this “God versus man” argument for millennia — even over the rebirth of Israel. Many religious Jews felt we should wait for God to take us home to Zion. The creation of the State of Israel, they argued, was a messianic act that was above the pay grade of mere humans.

But mere humans like Theodor Herzl decided they couldn’t wait for God to protect their fellow Jews. They had to create a Jewish homeland. By the time that homeland finally came into being and was immediately attacked by surrounding armies, the die was already cast — Jews would no longer wait for divine miracles to save them.

It’s easy to celebrate and idealize miracles when we don’t need them, when we don’t feel persecuted. But what about when our lives are threatened?

At our first seder this year, we read a beautiful meditation from my friend Rabbi Andy Bachman, a progressive spiritual leader and activist who lives in Brooklyn. Bachman took the seder theme of  “four” — four questions, four sons and four cups — and extended it to the “four legs” of being Jewish. 

Jews, he writes, are a family, a faith, a people/nation and an idea.

In the section on faith, Bachman writes: “We believe in the God of Argument. We believe in the God of Questions. We believe in the God of Doubt.” Our biblical heroes, he says, challenged God. At Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham demands of God: “Shall the Judge of all the earth not rule with justice?”

And when Moses is asked to go free his brothers and sisters from slavery, he says, defiantly: “And who exactly shall I tell them sent me?”

The sobering implication of Moses’ question is that “the very condition of the suffering and slavery may be an expression of God’s perceived powerlessness in the face of radical evil.”

It is this perceived powerlessness that we so easily ignore at our seder tables — and who can blame us? God’s miracles in the Passover story are so colorful and dramatic that they inevitably come to dominate our master story. Part of me loves that. It’s comforting to feel that when our backs are against the wall, an almighty Creator will save the day.

But it is the perceived “powerlessness” of God in the face of radical evil that leaves me perplexed, as when God sat silently while 6 million Jews were being murdered in the Holocaust.

Is it possible that that silence shocked the Jews into taking their destiny into their own hands? I wonder what these “new Jews” of Israel were thinking at their seder tables in 1947 and 1948, when they had to fight off invading armies to protect their new home. How did they interpret the Passover miracles?

And when they successfully fought off their enemies, whose miracle was it? Was it God’s or was it theirs?

One of the lessons of Israel in the unfolding Jewish story could well be to teach us to create our own miracles — to have as much faith in our own power as we do in God’s. The ending of the haggadah —“next year in Jerusalem”— is misleading. It implies that we’re still waiting for our Creator to take us home. That’s no longer the case. Jews have made it back to Jerusalem, and they did it very much by themselves.

It’s not an insult to God to use our God-given talents to create our own miracles right here on Earth. It's a way of honoring Him. In fact, should it not give God a little nachas to see His children become so independent? Does He not also have faith in us?

Perhaps the greatest Jewish miracle, even greater than the splitting of the Red Sea or the rebirth of Israel, is the fact that 3,300 years after our liberation from slavery, we’re still sitting around seder tables in Los Angeles, Paris and Montreal, telling the same stories, reading from the same ancient texts and arguing with God.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

If God took the Jews out of Egypt…

If God took the Jews out of Egypt, why didn’t he take the Jews out of Europe during the Holocaust? Or out of Ukraine during the Khmelnitsky pogroms? Or out of Germany when Crusaders annihilated entire Jewish communities there?

What Jew hasn’t asked such questions?

There may be an answer in one of the best known and frequently cited statements in the Torah, one repeated throughout the year and, of course, at the Passover seder:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day, when you went out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, for with a mighty hand, the Lord took you out of here, and [therefore] no leaven shall be eaten.’ ” (Exodus 13:3)

“And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God took you out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.” (Deuteronomy 5:15)

“And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders.” (Deuteronomy 26:8)

And the Ten Commandments begin with:

“I am the Lord, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)

Why all these reminders that God took us out of Egypt — even a commandment to remember that he did?

I have come to believe that the reason it is so crucial that we remember is that God is not necessarily (or perhaps even likely) going to do it again.

Some Jews might find this idea heretical. Emotionally and religiously, they do not wish to confront the possibility, let alone the likelihood, that God won’t intervene to save us from oppressors the way he did for the Jews in Egypt.

But if God will rescue us over and over, why are we constantly reminded that he did it in Egypt and commanded to remember that he did so? After all, if God repeatedly saved the Jews from oppressors, it would be completely unnecessary to remember what God did for us over 3,000 years ago. Isn’t the only reason to remember what was done on our behalf a long time ago that it has not been done since?

That, then, may be the reason it is so important to constantly remind ourselves that God took the Jews out of Egypt.

Just as our parents intervened to save us from danger when we were children, but will not do so once we reach adulthood, so, too, in our infancy God intervened directly. But once we reach adulthood, we are, so to speak, on our own. This doesn’t mean that God doesn’t know us and our suffering. Nor does it mean that he won’t save us again. It means that he cannot be depended upon to save us. 

Of course, we — and all the non-Jews who suffer — wish that God would intervene when confronted with evil. But a moment’s reflection should make it pretty clear that this would end human free will. It would also render life as we know it morally pointless. If God stopped all injustice, we would be moral automatons. And if God stopped some injustices but not all, the question would not only remain, it would be even more acute. Why, God, did you help, let’s say, the Jews, but not the Chinese under Mao, the Ukrainians under Stalin or the Cambodians under Pol Pot? For that matter, why didn’t you save every individual from being murdered and every woman from being raped?

Finally, some Jews might respond that God has in fact saved the Jews from every tyrant just as he saved the Jews from Pharaoh. God, after all, didn’t save all the Jews in Egypt — he allowed hundreds of thousands (adding up perhaps to millions) of Jews to be enslaved over a 400-year period, and only he knows how many Jewish boys he allowed to be drowned at birth, before he intervened. So, then, one can argue today that God has always saved the Jews from oppressors. Not all of them, as we would have wished. But the Jews are still around, and in that sense they were saved from their oppressors.

I, too, believe that God has preserved the Jews since Egypt. It is difficult to offer any other explanation for the unique survival of a people repeatedly exiled, slaughtered and forced to live without a homeland for 2,000 years.

Nevertheless, this survival, as divinely enabled as it may have been, has never been accompanied by anything approaching the overt signs of divine intervention — Moses’ and Aaron’s miracles in Pharaoh’s court, the plagues, the splitting of the sea, the manna in the wilderness, the cloud by day and the fire by night to lead the Jews to Israel – that accompanied the Exodus.

And that is what we mortals have yearned for since Egypt — a miraculous destruction of the gas chambers, for example. 

So, never having had anything approaching that, it is imperative to recall what God did that one time, when he took us out of Egypt. 

Happy Passover.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of

How do you talk to kids about God?

Talking openly with children about sensitive subjects is hard. It always has been. In my parents’ generation, the three-letter taboo was S-E-X. My older sister was 13 when my dad gave a kid “The Talk” for the first time. It was the ’80s, and my dad dodged it like any educated man of his time. He tossed her a sex-education book and said, “Read this, but don’t do it.” 

Discussing sex isn’t quite so scary today. Many modern fathers don’t flinch when their daughters ask about anatomy or start inquiring about how babies are made. But progressive thinking has a way of replacing certain taboos with others. And today, for a great many parents, there is a new three-letter word: G-O-D.

With two of Western religion’s most important holidays—Easter and Passover—in the air, I find myself thinking back to the first time I had the “God Talk” with my own daughter. Maxine was barely five years old when she piped up from the backseat on the way home from her Los Alamitos preschool one day. 

“Mommy,” she said, “you know what? God made us!”

I felt like a cartoon character being hit in the back of the head with a frying pan. My heart raced. I’m quite sure I began to sputter. Visions of Darwin and the evolving ape-man raced through my mind, followed closely by my childhood image of the big guy upstairs in his flowing white robes. I couldn’t speak. 

And, in the awkward silence that followed, I was forced to confront the truth: The idea of talking to my kid about God—and, more specifically, about religion—scared the bejesus out of me.

I swallowed hard and forced myself to speak. “Well,” I said, “Who is God?”

Now, I don’t remember if Maxine actually said “duh,” or whether she simply bounced a “duh” look off the rearview mirror. But I can tell you that the “duh” message came across loud and clear. 

“He’s the one who made us,” she said, her eyebrows knitted. “Okay… well, what is God doing now?” I tried for casual.

Again with the nonverbal “duh.”

“God is busy making people and babies,” she answered. 

This information could not have been delivered with more certainty. My little girl, who had never heard an utterance of the word “God” in our house, aside from decidedly ungodly uses of the word, now had it all figured out thanks to a Jewish classmate who also happened to be her very first boyfriend. I was beaten to the punch by a cute preschool boy. 

I let the subject drop, but my chest constricted all the way home. It stayed that way for hours. Why hadn’t I been prepared for this? What was I supposed to say now that she was getting her information from this boy at school? 

As a science-minded non-believer with a generally non-confrontational personality, I was stumped by how to handle the situation. I wanted to be truthful about what I believed to be truth, but I didn’t want to indoctrinate her into my worldview either. And I certainly didn’t want others indoctrinating her into theirs, either. So where did that leave me? Was I to sit Maxine down and tell her that evolution, not God, was responsible for her existence? Was I to impose my own beliefs on her, the way other parents seemed to be doing? Or should I leave her alone to explore on her own timetable? What was the difference between guidance and pressure anyway? What was I willing to “let” her believe, and what wasn’t I?

Luckily for me, I have a husband who is cool under pressure. Later that day, after I’d rather breathlessly presented him with all the facts of the disastrous car ride, I asked him, “What if she believes in God?” His answer, my wakeup call, has become a mantra I repeat often. He said, “It’s not what Maxine believes, but what she does in life that matters.”

What I took from this was: Relax . . . it’s just God.

So I set aside my own irrational concerns and began to talk with my kid about God—lots of gods, actually. We talked about Brahman and Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad. My husband bought her a Children’s Bible, and I brought home lots of picture books highlighting aspects of various religious cultures.

To my delight, Maxine became genuinely interested in religion—as long as it came in bite-size pieces, rather than overly long oratories. She became engaged in the stories we told, and good at deciphering the various “moral” aspects of various tales for herself. In her hands, the Bible wasn’t a tool of indoctrination, but a tool of religious literacy—even critical thinking. Once when she was reading the 10 Commandments, for example, she got to the 10th and read (aloud): “Never want what belongs to others.” Then she stopped and corrected Moses. “Well, you can WANT what belongs to others,” she said. “You just can’t HAVE it. You can buy one for yourself.”

In the four years that have passed since Maxine first told me about God, we have discussed the subject countless times. I have learned that compassion and an open mind are more important than being right. I’ve also learned that the best way to combat intolerance is with knowledge, and that the best way to combat indoctrination is with critical thinking. No longer is there awkwardness around the subject. We talk about lots of different beliefs, encourage her to learn about what motivates the faith of others, and make clear that there is no shame in choosing an unpopular path. After all, her own parents are happy, well-adjusted, and (I like to think) good-hearted people. 

Today, Maxine is 9 and believes in God “two days a week — on Sundays and Wednesday.” Is that logical or rational? No. But who cares? It works for her, and that’s what’s important. 

I haven’t always done everything right. I have stumbled sloppily through more than a few conversations along my own journey and regretted my word choices now and again. (Our unique biases have a way of filtering through from time to time, despite our best efforts.) But, because the conversations keep coming, I’ve almost always had a chance to right my wrongs, to clarify my position, to bring a new perspective to each situation. The point here is not to be perfect—as my daughter says, “That would be boring”—but to give us something to aim for. 

Exposing kids to various brands of spirituality and religion (not to mention non-religious philosophies) is not only fascinating and surprisingly fun; it also has the potential to improve our children’s— and our own—awareness about and compassion for the multiplicity of kinds of people in the world. Like the “sex talk,” discussions about God may come up sooner (and differently) than you had pictured. But it’s our obligation to embrace it. After all, if we’re not prepared to explore ideas of God, religion, and faith with our curious children, someone else will do it for us.  

Someone cute.

Wendy Thomas Russell is an award-winning journalist and author of Relax, It’s Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You’re Not Religious. Russell hosts a blog called Natural Wonderers at and writes an online column for the PBS NewsHour. She wrote this for Thinking L.A., a partnership of UCLA and Zócalo Public Square.

Buy the Book: Brown Paper Press, Amazon

Pharoah said ‘no.’ You won’t believe what God did next.

Once, at our seder, our friend Ira gave a running commentary on the haggadah, offering a scientific explanation for every miracle and wonder in the Exodus story.    

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it may actually be better if the whole thing really were made up.

I can see why Wolpe got a big pushback. Ingenious alternatives were offered for the truth of the text. Richard Elliott Friedman, for example, a distinguished scholar, built an elegant case that the Exodus did indeed occur, but just for one fierce tribe, the Levites. When they joined the other tribes, the Levites became the Israelites’ priesthood. The task of teaching Torah fell to them, and their own experience became the official version.

“And that is how a historical event that happened to the Levite minority became everybody’s celebration — how we all came to say that we were slaves in Egypt, although that was not the experience even of most Israelites of the period. It’s not so different from practicing, say, the American cultural tradition of Thanksgiving, which most Americans do, even though most U.S. citizens are not descended from Pilgrims or Native Americans.” 

I honor the impulse to rationalize the Passover story, to find a lens through which it looks like history. But I think it actually may be better if the whole thing really were made up.

Wolpe is a bit elegiac when he tells us that the Exodus may not have happened, the way parents in another religious tradition admit there is no Santa Claus. He lets us down easy and guides us to the holiday’s enduring lesson. But I think there’s a huge upside to appreciating it as a fiction, a masterwork of the human imagination, a brilliant narrative, an origin myth whose aesthetic truth leaves me awestruck by its moral truth.

Yes, Passover is about the bitterness of bondage and the righteousness of freedom. But it’s also about — to me, even more about — our telling the story of bondage and freedom.  When we do that, we not only obey a biblical injunction to teach our children where we came from, we communally experience how literally spellbinding a story can be.  

We Jews didn’t just give monotheism to the world. We also gave the story of monotheism to the world. If monotheism had been merely a creed or ideology, the world might have paid attention for a bit and then moved on. But because it’s a story, a breathtaking drama, it has held the world in its grip ever since.

On Pesach, to resort or not to resort?

God miraculously rescued the Jews from Egypt — so the old joke goes — only to see Jewish mothers slave around the house cleaning and cooking in preparation for eight days of Passover.

Or not. 

At least not anymore, not for the many Jewish families who can afford to have someone else prepare the chametz-free environment and delicious leaven-free meals American Jews require over the holiday, doing their best to serve meals that help guests forget the dietary restrictions Passover demands.

And so Jewish families pay — a lot, often upward of $10,000 per couple — to attend all-inclusive, mega-deluxe Passover resorts as far away as Greece and Italy and as near as Las Vegas and Southern California. These Passover getaway programs can be so large that the arriving Jews (many from colder climates, mostly Orthodox) take over entire hotels for more than a week, enjoying a nearly 24/7 buffet of freshly carved meats, sushi bars, expensive (kosher for Passover) wine, hot tubs, pools, lakes, oceans, boating expeditions, scholars-in-residence, prayer services — you name it.

Ellen Katz, a Los Angeles mother of four and grandmother of two, will drive with her husband to Henderson, Nev., a suburb just outside Las Vegas, for the Katz family’s seventh annual Passover reunion at The Westin Lake Las Vegas Resort and Spa for a deluxe holiday program put on by World Wide Kosher Tours, a Los Angeles-based company; rooms this year start at $6,500. 

“We only go away once a year, so this is our only vacation,” Katz said. “It’s nice to go away with your family and not worry about the food-buying. Everything’s in one place, you have entertainment, you have shiurim [Jewish classes], they give babysitting.”

And for someone who never had the Jewish summer camp experience while growing up, Katz said her annual Passover getaway has allowed her to develop some of those seasonal friendships that resume every Passover, just where they left off the previous year.

“I never went to camp,” Katz said, “but like those campers, I have Pesach friends.”

And, of course, there’s the family reunion — an important element as two of the Katz children live in New York and most of Katz’s cousins and relatives live between there and Boston. The annual tradition of cooking for and hosting children, siblings and cousins became exhausting and stressful, so they joined the 1,000-plus Jews, many from Southern California, who do the Lake Las Vegas experience for Passover.

“There’s nothing better in life if you’re healthy,” Katz said about her annual Passover vacation. “I miss nothing at home.”

Just down the street from The Westin, another Passover program — this one run by the New York-based KMR Werner Brothers and primarily attracting New Yorkers — takes over the Hilton. “Every meal is a course in fine food,” states the website, which also describes the program’s outdoor barbecue, on-site bakery and kosher for Passover grocery store, where families can shop for food to take on off-site day trips.

The Westin Lake Las Vegas

Mel Weiss, 94, a Calabasas resident, said he went to Passover resorts with his late wife, Lillian, and their children and grandchildren almost every year for more than three decades, paying anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 as a couple many years. Weiss, a Passover resort world traveler, has been to retreats in Israel multiple times, as well as Italy, Arizona and, this year, he will be enjoying the holiday with his kids in Nevada.

“Everything is taken care of — the whole shebang,” Weiss said. “If I stay home, I have to kosher the whole house, and I live alone. I have to go away.”

But as with so many aspects of the Jewish world, things as seemingly innocuous and pleasure-filled as a luxury Passover getaway are, if not a source of tension, at least a topic that some rabbis think must be regarded with a degree of concern or skepticism. The problem, though, is that few, if any, Jewish community leaders are willing to be openly critical of the phenomenon of turning what used to be days, or weeks, of intense Passover cleansing into simply writing a check and packing a suitcase.

One local Orthodox rabbi, who emailed with the Journal on condition of anonymity, wrote that he believes creating the intergenerational memories and transmitting the lessons and stories of Passover is made more difficult when it’s in a communal setting, even in hotels entirely filled with Passover-observing Jews. 

“There are no preparations for the children to see and share in,” the rabbi wrote. “And even in those [resorts] that are exclusively for frum use, you have some elements of hedonistic and materialistic excess.” He explained that one reason many rabbis may hesitate to speak on the record on this topic is because some of their members attend these programs or even earn their livelihoods running them.

Elchanan Shoff, 32, the rabbi of Beis Knesses at Faircrest Heights, said he and his wife grappled with whether to accept an offer from a Passover program at Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego for Shoff to be a scholar-in-residence, but eventually decided to go, in large part because she’s in her ninth month of pregnancy with what will be the couple’s fourth child.

“It worked out really nicely to not have to make Pesach this year,” Shoff said, noting, though, that he, his wife and their three daughters will feel an “empty space” from not enjoying the time with as much family as they would have had they stayed home. “In the end, we realized that being in the ninth month of pregnancy, the cleaning and the cooking might be really challenging.”

Shoff believes each family needs to decide what will create the most meaningful Passover experience — at home or away. 

“If the mother is going to be cleaning for a month, is short-tempered and has less energy to give her children hugs, it’s really a poor choice for them to make Pesach if they can comfortably afford to go to the hotel,” Shoff said, contrasting that with family experiences where “the cooking and cleaning creates wonderful memories.”

“When it’s waiters and it’s not your mother’s chicken soup or your grandmother’s matzah balls, all the little details that make up so much of our life experience is different,” Shoff said. “It’s not worse or better — it’s just different.”

Marty Kaplan: What matters to me & why

I began making a list of what matters to me. Intellectual curiosity. Climate change. The First Amendment. My family. Giving back. One friend said to me, I know what I’d say: Money. Another friend told me: Those talks can be surprisingly honest.

That got me thinking. What’s the most honest answer I could give?

Right then, I knew. I had to come out. I had to say a three-letter word, beginning with G.


For an academic, saying something good about God can be one of the last great taboos. So let’s break it. I’m talking about my relationship with God and no-God. You know that campaign, “We keep kosher at home,” my mother explained, whispering, so the other Jewish people at Ming’s eating trefe wouldn’t hear.

“But Rabbi Engel says—”

“Don’t tell Rabbi Engel.”

“But why—”

“That’s how we do it in our family.”

Yes, she admitted, later that night, sitting on my bed, after I had done with crying, yes, the Torah does contain 613 commandments, but only certain kinds of Jews obey them all. Fanatics. Our kind, the people of Schuyler Avenue, have made a little accommodation to modern life. We don’t live in the old country any more.

Thus was I introduced to the notion that the Torah was more like a buffet of options than an all-or-nothing proposition. My mother saw no slippery slope between her selective enforcement and moral anarchy. As long as people like us kept certain key commandments inviolable — Thou shalt not marry a shiksa, a Gentile girl, for example — our Jewish identity was intact.

I felt betrayed. It seemed to me that if one rule could be broken, all of them could. And so, perhaps inevitably, I rebelled. As my vision widened, as teachers and books and television and other kids ventilated my thinking, as puberty arrived, I began to question everything.

I confronted Rabbi Engel. If man descended from algae, how could Genesis be true? He patiently explained that some things — the idea of a “day,” for example — need not be understood literally. But Rabbi, I pressed, if one part of the Torah can be explained away as a metaphor, why can’t any other portion be waived as well?

It was like fighting with my parents about keeping kosher, only now it was the rabbi himself playing loosey-goosey with absolutes, and this time I felt not betrayal, but vindication.

I became the Voltaire of Schuyler Avenue, skewering everything on my skepticism. If God is good, I asked anyone who would listen, why did he let the six million die? If I can pick and choose among the commandments — if I’m free to eat shellfish — why isn’t another man free to murder? The answers confirmed my suspicion that religion was a con job, an iconoclasm also spurred by my devotion to Mad Magazine, the South Park of its time.

In high school, in AP physics and chemistry I learned the real rules that governed the universe: not scripture, but science. In AP biology I learned that life randomly emerged from an organic soup stewing for a billion years — no Creator required, thank you very much. In AP history I learned how much blood has been stupidly spilled in the name of an imaginary Deity.

By the time I arrived at Harvard, though I continued to eat matzoh on Passover and fast on Yom Kippur, these were acts of solidarity with my cultural and genetic heritage, not worship of my people’s God.

Harvard, from which I would graduate summa cum laude in molecular biology, completed my secularization. This is not a criticism. If Harvard had made me a more spiritual person, it would have failed in its promise to socialize me to the values of the educated elite.

Those values were, and are, secular. They enshrine reason, analysis, objectivity. The advance of civilization lies in the questioning of received wisdom, the surfacing of hidden assumptions, the exposure of implicit biases.

This view is not the product of a left-wing conspiracy to undermine traditional values; it is the inevitable consequence of an Enlightenment that began with Galileo, Descartes, and Newton… and a modernity launched by Darwin, Marx, and Freud… and a post-modernity postproduced by Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, and Derrida.

The prized act of mind in the Academy is the laying bare of hidden agendas. Nothing in culture is neutral. Nothing is what it seems. The educated person knows that love is really about libido, that power is really about class, that religion is really about fantasy, that altruism is really about self-interest.

At bottom, all values are relative to their communities. At bottom, everything is political. At bottom, everything is contingent, driven by the mores of time and place, reducible to its origins in evolution and history.

In every field, this view was being pursued to its postmodern conclusion; all the leading theorists were busy committing epistemological suicide. Look at the ideas that bit the dust: in aesthetics, the notion that there are objective standards of good and bad; in literary criticism, that there are right and wrong ways to interpret a text; in law, that justice is beyond politics; in psychiatry, that there are fixed distinctions between normalcy and madness; in anthropology, between savage and civilized; in art, between high and low.

The project of thinking, I came to understand, was to dismantle its own foundations.

Even science itself was under siege. The great achievement of the philosophy of science, I learned, was to reveal that science is saturated with politics. When scientists find evidence that conflicts with a paradigm, and they have to choose between discarding the evidence or discarding the paradigm, they make that choice not by applying objective rules, but by deciding who among their peers they trust.

By my last year in college, I was no longer a scientist. I was searching for answers elsewhere. In Dostoevsky, in Nietzsche, in artists who had looked deeply into the human condition, what they found, what I found, was the Abyss. We are alone. Life is absurd. We shiver in the pointless void, haplessly contesting the meaninglessness of our fate. Our yearning for purpose is doomed. It is our burden to live in a time when our minds have deprived us of our capacity for soothing self-delusion. In other words, everything sucks. In other words, nihilism.

A nihilist who doesn’t kill himself is lacking in followthrough, but not in analysis. Though I had thought myself out onto an intellectual ledge, I didn’t jump. I kept going — as many people keep going — by making an armistice with the ways of the world. Call it nihilism lite. It sounds like this:

If everything does come down to politics, it’s still better to know that, so that we can fight for our side’s values, than to pretend otherwise, and be the victim of their side’s values posing as transcendent norms. Even if love can be reduced to evolutionary biology and neurotransmitters, it can still feel like it makes the world go round. Even if values aren’t God-given, moral conduct is still possible. We abide by Kant’s categorical imperative: The rules we should follow are the ones we’d want to be universal laws.

This works. It’s practical. It helps countless people get out of bed in the morning.

But it is an armistice, not a peace. Existential desperation is never far away. It is difficult to face mortality without God. It is hard to tell children that the universe is indifferent to them. Even for the most fortunate, it is painful to confront the night thought, Is this all there is?

No wonder religious fundamentalism is booming. Fundamentalists know who they are and where they fit. They have no difficulty recognizing evil. They are confident that theirs is the one true way. We have Kant; they have God. They live by the literal word of the Bible; we live by its poetry. They are commanded; we are merely moved.

But fundamentalism is not a rational choice. It is not willed by the intellect; it is a mysterious visitor. I have often daydreamed about that visitor. If the God of the Lubavichers or the Satmars were to appear to me and demand obedience, I suspect I would gladly give it. But I am no more capable of partaking in Hasidic ecstasy than I am of heeding the biblical injunction against mixing linen and wool. It is not an option for me. Once the mind thinks some thoughts, it cannot unthink them.

This is the sadness at the heart of secular lives. No one wants to live in a pointless, chaotic cosmos, but that is the one that science has given us. We may yearn for the divine, but hipster neo-Dadaism is the best we can do. Everything’s ironic. Everything’s a joke. But inside, it can feel awful. The things you want a God for — an afterlife, a comfort, a commander — seem unavailable.

That’s where I thought I would spend my life: a cultural Jew, a closet nihilist, searching despite myself for something transcendent to fill the hole where God was.

I found that something in my dentist’s chair.

When he told me I ground my teeth, I denied it. I didn’t think of myself as unduly stressed; I had long ago decided that life is a roller coaster. Stress comes with the territory, and you deal with it, even thrive on it. That I was grinding my teeth suggested I was kidding myself. A part of me, beyond my conscious control, was having a hard time, and taking it out on my molars. Wearing a night guard would be like admitting defeat — letting my unconscious torpedo my equanimity.

“You’d be surprised how many of my patients use them,” my dentist said. “A lot of people hold tension in their jaw. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” I imagined myself reaching to my night table for my night guard. It made me think of the false teeth my Russian grandmother kept in a jelly glass by her bedside.

“Are there any alternatives?” I asked him. He pessimistically suggested meditation.

What appealed to me about meditation was its apparent religious neutrality. You don’ t have to believe in anything; all you have to do is do it. I had worried that reaping its benefits would require some faith I could only fake, but I was happy to learn that 90 percent of meditation was about showing up.

The spirituality of it ambushed me. I saw no visions, heard no voices, felt no caressing hand. But unwittingly I was engaging in a practice that has been at the heart of mysticism for millenniums. I’d read that people of all faiths had learned to meditate without violating their personal beliefs. At the time, I took this to mean that there was nothing inherently religious about meditation, which suited me just fine.

I was wrong. The reason that meditation doesn’t conflict with religious beliefs, whatever they are, is that it shares a highest common denominator with all of them.

To separate 20 minutes from the day with silence and intention is to pray, even if there’s no one to pray to. To step from the river of thought, to escape from monkey mind even for a moment, is to surrender to a transcendent realm. To be awakened to consciousness empty of content; to be thunderstruck by the mystery that there is something, rather than nothing; to be mindful, to be present; to be here, now: this is the road less traveled, the path of the pilgrim, the quest.

When I am asked whether I believe in God, I say that belief is the wrong word to use. I experience God. God may be the wrong word to use, too.

What I experience — no, not always, and sometimes not at all — is known to every mystic tradition. It has been called Spirit, Being, the All. It is what the Kabbalah calls Ayin, Nothingness, No-Thingness. It’s ineffable. It’s why Jewish mystics call God ha-zeh — the This. You can point to it, but you can’t describe it. You can sing it, but you can’t say it. It is better conveyed by silence than by language, by dance than by liturgy. And it is the experience at the heart of all contemplative practices, whether you’re looking for it or not.

The All is a long way from Newark, and silence is a long way from Harvard. As am I.

I used to think scientific materialism was the apex of human evolution. I used to think nihilism was the tragic price of progress. I used to think the soul was just a metaphor, a primitive name for dopamine. Now I think thinking isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

What matters to me and why?

What’s mattered most to me in my life is… wrestling with that very question: What matters?

And why? Why does wrestling with that question matter to me so much?

I can’t help it. I have to. That’s the thing about experiencing the ineffable. That’s the thing about the This.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at

Moving ‘God, Faith & Identity’ passes mantle of remembrance

Seventy years ago, the Red Army liberated the death camp at Auschwitz, an event that now marks the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Ever since that day, we have been struggling to explain and understand what happened in the killing fields and concentration camps where 6 million Jews were tortured and murdered.

The latest such effort is found in “

Christians and Jews, united in conversation and shared values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why religion is a laughing matter

Satire and caricature are funny things. The most effective satire makes us laugh — but then it also gives us something to chew on, to think about.  

Not all satire is humorous, however. In the Middle Ages, caricatured figures were generally not intended to be funny, as for example in the Christian sculptural traditions that depicted Jews and heretics with deformed features. That was essentially an early version of hate speech. Satire runs on a spectrum from humor to bitterness to hatred, a range of meanings that can only be deciphered in their cultural context. We learn to figure out what is funny (think of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), what is trying to be funny but is really in bad taste (“The Interview”) and what is downright mean (Nazi cartoons of Jews).  

But within this complexity, caricaturing and satirizing religion historically have been even more sensitive. The Protestant Reformation produced humorous and heated satire against Roman Catholicism, and even the pope. Once Protestantism was established in a country, however, satire was censored. Humorous cartoons about political issues came into prominence from the Napoleonic Age onward; but the authority of religion protected what was demarcated as holy. In intensely secular, revolutionary France, prelates could be lampooned, but in America it was more often the “enthusiasts” — the wild sectarians such as Mormons and millenarians — who would appear as the object of caricature. Mainstream religion — decorous, solemn and rational — rarely suffered direct attack until the late 20th century.

Why have we not been able to laugh at religion? Underneath it all, are we afraid to take religion lightly? That a wrathful deity might put up with all kinds of other crimes against humanity, life and even lack of devotion to Himself, but not with being laughed at? Would the creator of humanity, who made the world completely good, regret creating a laughing being more than a murderous one? This would be an ironic theological outcome for Western religions. Not that Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism or Hinduism are known for rollicking laugh-fests.

Oddly enough, given its minority status, Judaism seems to be the religion that has produced a larger repertoire of humorous religious satire. The tradition that supposedly invented the absolutist, jealous, wrathful God also produced a people that considers religion pretty funny? That is pretty funny, but true. Jokes about rabbis abound, as well as about Jewish practices such as the Passover matzah and bitter herbs, circumcision, conversion and bar mitzvah, not to mention theological topics such as God, Satan and death. Such jokes are even recited from the pulpits of quite religious congregations. Are Jews secret atheists? Is this revenge?

No. Jewish humor comes from the Jewish tradition of destabilizing structures of power — which is the source of both revolutionary ideology in the sociopolitical realm and humorous satire. From biblical times, our texts recount the overthrow of ancient worldviews that believed in child sacrifice, the rights of the first-born, divine humans, divine rights of kings and dynastic rule. They limit the power of owners over slaves, of husbands and fathers over women, even of humans over animas with the laws of the Sabbath.  

But humor can go deeper, liberating the mind. The Exodus story is in part a satire on Pharaoh who believes himself a god. While he was issuing decrees and whips were lashing the Israelites, women outsmarted him. The midrash tells us of the midwives who said, “We can’t kill the Hebrew boys as they emerge from the womb — the women deliver their babies so fast we can’t get there in time.” Really! And if you believe that, I’ll sell you a bridge over the Nile. Worse yet, modern children’s songs about the Ten Plagues make Pharaoh a laughingstock, a helpless victim of forces he thinks he controls. 

The story of Balaam and his talking donkey in the book of Numbers is a parody of a prophet who thinks he can outsmart the deity and get rich. The tale of Elijah competing with the prophets of Baal in the book of Kings is a hilarious caricature. The book of Esther satirizes the power of villains and foolish kings. The book of Jonah has plenty of irony: Really, Jonah, you think you can run away from an infinite God? The strange ending to that story could almost be a cartoon: You feel sorry for the plant that died, but not for the thousands of people of Nineveh who would have died if they had not repented? And so many cattle?   

Our problem today is that too much of religion has not fulfilled its promise as a disruptive, liberating force. It is another bastion of structural stability and entrenched power. Ironies of divine behavior are interpreted as warnings and punishments. The force of humor is repressed by being associated with arrogance: Religious authorities proclaim it sinful to satirize views of God, religion or its representatives. But, isn’t the arrogant shoe on the other foot?

Religion in most traditions is no laughing matter because it is defined as nonmatter, as “spiritual,” as on a higher level than we benighted humans. But for Judaism, everything human is, simply, human. Everything natural is, simply, nature. There are visible and invisible worlds, but “God” is not defined by any of their terminologies. So everything, including our religions, is subject to critique.  

Humor — as satire, as caricature — is a Jewish way of subverting idolatry. But the best humor comes not with bitterness or revolutionary zeal. It comes with love, or at least appreciation, for the precarious and tender efforts of human and divine partners to be in relationship.  

One of the cartoons that supposedly angered Islamic radicals depicted the founder of Islam, holding his head in his hands and saying, “It’s so hard to be loved by idiots.” The cartoon could have been one of God as the old bearded man in the sky, looking down on His human creations. It must be hard for Him, too, to be loved by those idiosyncratic creatures who forget what He is all about.

Tamar Frankiel is president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a scholar of comparative religion.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis remembered with tears and laughter at funeral

My immortality, if there be such for me, is not in tears, blame or self-recrimination.

But in the joy you give to others, in raising the fallen and loosening the fetters of the bound.

In your loyalty to God’s special children – the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger in your gates, the weak – I take pride.


As was often the case, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis said it best, even at his own funeral service, in the excerpts, (a portion of which is reprinted above), from his poem “For Those Beloved Who Survive Me,” printed in the program.

Despite the rabbi’s admonition, there were tears at the funeral service on Dec. 21 among the more than 1,500 speakers friends, congregants and admirers who overflowed the large Valley Beth Shalom sanctuary and into adjoining rooms. Rabbi Schulweis died on Dec. 18 at 89.

But there was laughter, too, as rabbinical colleagues, family members and others profoundly touched by the rabbi’s warmth and wisdom recalled anecdotes from the rich life of the man who was arguably the most influential synagogue leader of his generation.

Three rabbis who had worked closely with him, Joshua Hoffman, Stewart Vogel and Noah Farkas, recalled Schulweis’ modesty, erudition and their difficulty in addressing their revered mentor as “Harold,” despite the latter’s insistence. “For most of us, the voice of God was Rabbi Harold Schulweis,” Vogel said. But he was also marked by “rabbinic humility.” Vogel added.

Rabbi Schulweis’ younger cousin, Harvey Schulweis, observed that when the former spoke “he looked into your soul, and there was no one else in the room but you and me.”

As if to illuminate these words, sunlight, reflected through a stained glass window, streamed across the bimah.

Janice Kamenir-Resnick, whom Schulweis enlisted as co-founder of the Jewish World Watch, thanked her mentor for “making us leave our comfort zone” and for “opening your mouth and opening my eyes.”