The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage


Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.


Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Jewish pot activist Mason Tvert hits new high with marijuana legalization vote in Colorado


Say what you will about Mason Tvert, the Jewish activist behind the marijuana legalization campaign that passed in Colorado, the man clearly has a sense of humor.

Some years ago, in his efforts to persuade the public that marijuana is far less of a health menace than alcohol, Tvert famously challenged both the mayor of Denver and the heir to the Coors brewing fortune to a sort of intoxication duel: Tvert would smoke pot while the others drank, and they would see who dropped dead first.

Neither man took up Tvert on his offer.

[Related: Recipe for marijuana cholent]

But after Colorado voters on Nov. 6 adopted a newly permissive approach to marijuana following a campaign for which the 30-year-old was the public face and a leading strategist, Tvert's tomfoolery is no longer just a laughing matter. The measure, and a similar one adopted last week in Washington state, is a watershed, permitting residents over 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and to grow up to six plants for recreational use.

Though somewhat overlooked amid the cacophony of a hard-fought presidential campaign, the new laws in Colorado and Washington are unprecedented.

Colorado's Amendment 64: The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act of 2012 is more liberal than even the Netherlands' famously permissive drug laws, which still consider pot possession a misdemeanor. The new law goes well beyond the medical marijuana provisions now on the books in 18 states that permit use of the drug with a doctor's permission, and directly challenges federal authority, which still considers cannabis a Schedule I controlled substance along with heroin and LSD.

“We have forced a major international, let alone national, discussion on this issue,” Tvert, the executive director of Safer Alternative for Enjoyable Recreation, or SAFER, told JTA. “And I truly believe the more people talk about this issue amongst each other, the quicker we're going to see broader change in how our country and our state and our world treats marijuana.”

Tvert grew up in a Jewish family in Scottsdale, Ariz., and attended the University of Richmond. His consciousness around marijuana reform was galvanized in college when, for reasons he claims not to know, he was subpoenaed in a multijurisdictional investigation into marijuana use.

“It was really just a shakedown, more or less,” Tvert said. “They start with college kids who probably have a lot to lose. They work their way up from there.”

Tvert likes to compare that to an earlier incident in which, taken unconscious to the hospital to have his stomach pumped after excessive alcohol consumption, he was later released without any questioning from the police — despite being under age. The discrepancy informs one of the pro-legalization campaign's most frequent talking points: They say marijuana is far less dangerous than alcohol, which itself was once the target of a costly and failed effort at prohibition, and should be regulated as such.

Critics counter that marijuana is a dangerous and addictive drug whose legalization would legitimate its use by the young and lead to a range of social ills.

After graduation, Tvert moved to Colorado and co-founded SAFER, a small group that raised just $132,000 in 2010 and shares office space with Colorado's Jewish newspaper, the Intermountain Jewish News. He was instrumental in two earlier legalization efforts in Colorado: the 2005 adoption of the Denver Alcohol-Marijuana Equalization Initiative, which permitted the possession of marijuana in Denver, and a 2007 measure that required officials to make marijuana offenses the city's “lowest law enforcement priority.” State law remained unchanged, however, and thousands of Coloradans still were being arrested each year for possession of marijuana.

Tvert persevered, developing a reputation as someone with a knack for media stunts.

In 2008, after a rash of alcohol-related disturbances at Denver's airport, Tvert called a news conference to urge authorities to allow marijuana in the airport's smoking lounge to cut down on traveler stress. Two years earlier he had a billboard erected near a speech by the visiting White House drug czar, John Walters, that quoted Walters saying that marijuana is the safest drug around. Tvert has called the state's governor — an owner of a popular Denver brew pub — a “drug dealer” whose product just happened to be legal. In another Tvert billboard, a woman in a marijuana-colored bikini appeared above the caption “Marijuana: No hangovers, no violence, no carbs!”

“He is just almost a media force of nature,” said Steve Fox, the president of SAFER and the director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, which provided about 90 percent of the funds for the $2.2 million Colorado campaign.

“He's just been brilliant in terms of being on message at all times, developing relationships with the media so they trust him and are willing to come out when he's doing some sort of event. And just the body of communications skills were just excellent for this. That's really where he's excelled.”

As the campaign moved to the state level, advocates buttoned up their image somewhat, attracting some high-profile support in the process. Former Republican congressman Tom Tancredo, who is best known for his staunch opposition to immigration, endorsed the initiative. Actress Susan Sarandon recorded a robocall targeting Colorado voters. Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge did a radio spot.

The group also upgraded its message from one that emphasizes marijuana as a safer alternative to alcohol to one that emphasizes the potential tax revenues of regulated marijuana, misplaced law enforcement priorities and overcrowded prisons. Amendment 64 specifically requires the first $40 million in marijuana tax revenues be used to support capital funding for Colorado schools and, unlike a similar but failed attempt in 2010 in California, requires the state to design a tight regulatory regime.

The legalization campaign in Colorado no doubt benefited from a sea change in American attitudes toward the drug. A 1969 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans opposed legalization; by last year the number was down to 46 percent, with 50 percent favoring legalization.

It's unclear exactly what happens next for Tvert and the wider marijuana legalization campaign. Washington could justify a crackdown under the doctrine of federal supremacy, but it's still unclear how the administration will react to the new laws in Colorado and Washington. After years of looking the other way at the budding medical marijuana industry in California, the Justice Department last year cracked down on pot shops in the state.

But it may not have the same incentive to repeat that in Colorado, marijuana activists say.

“There's no need for a knee-jerk federal response,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New York and one of the country's top marijuana activists. “There is ample time for rational discussion of how state regulatory authorities will accommodate federal concerns.”

Besides, Nadelmann added, “Colorado is an important swing state. Why make enemies unnecessarily?”

What is western society’s place in determining halachah?


The Orthodox community is rapidly approaching a moment of truth. The many issues that the Orthodox community is debating internally are rapidly collapsing into one overarching issue, one macro-question, with which it must grapple head-on. And this is: whether the ethical norms of Western society should figure into the process of determining halachah (Jewish law).

Consider the issues that have most roiled Orthodoxy just over the past year or so. There is the controversy over the statement of principles concerning the place of homosexuals within the Orthodox community, a document that while upholding the biblical prohibition on homosexual behavior, mandates that people who are homosexual be afforded full dignity and respect, and that they be included in their Orthodox communities. Signed by 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators, it was flatly rejected by at least as many. There is also the ongoing debate over whether women may serve as synagogue presidents, as well as the sure-to-return debate over women being ordained as rabbis. More recently, we have seen renewed controversy over whether halachah permits us to donate our organs following our brain-stem death, even as it is clear that we are permitted to receive organs from non-Jews who are brain-stem dead. And, most recently, we have witnessed the controversy in Israel as to whether halachah prohibits the sale or lease of apartments to non-Jews in the land of Israel. Each of these issues is complex in its own way, and none can be facilely decided in the absence of rigorous halachic analysis. But over and over again, the wedge issue turns out to be whether consideration of Western ethical norms is relevant to the analysis.

This emerged clearly last week, as the Rabbinical Council of America registered its objection to the ban on renting to non-Jews in Israel, saying that the halachic analysis of this issue demands “special sensitivity to societal realities, widely held ethical principles, and historical injustices.” Which is to say that when we examine our universe of viable halachic alternatives, our choice of alternative can and should be influenced by wider ethical considerations. Yet this is, of course, precisely the point of contention.

The story is the same with regard to the organ donation issue. Here, too, viable and scholarly halachic positions have existed on both sides of this issue for many decades. Last month though, a Rabbinical Council of America report (ironically), which preferred the position that effectively prohibits Jews from donating organs, elicited the following response from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a prominent scholar and bio-ethicist (and a longtime proponent of the brain-stem definition of death, which results in the permissibility of organ donation): “Their final conclusion is that a Jew who is in need of a heart transplant can receive a heart from a brain-dead patient but he can’t donate his heart if he is brain dead. Such a ruling defames Judaism and exposes every Jew to the hatred of non-Jews. It is saying that a Jew can take a vital organ from a non-Jew even though Jews consider him still alive — that his life doesn’t count. How could you justify such a ruling?”

The wedge issue is the same when it comes to the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The opening words of the above-referenced Statement of Principles are: “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” While it is of course true that the idea that all people are created in the image is biblical, its specific application to homosexuals is a distinctly modern historical development. It is our way of clothing in our religious language the modern, Western ethical assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The relevance of such ideas to our halachic calculus is again what stands at the center of the controversy. Similarly, when rabbinic scholars in pre-State Palestine debated whether women ought to have the right to vote in Yishuv elections, the old/new “image of God” idea was one of the main pivots of the discussion. And it continues to play out in today’s controversies over the position of women in the Orthodox community.

Are the ethical norms of modern Western society essential to halachic discussion or are they irrelevant? Are they to be integrated or to be shunned? This is, in the final analysis, the central issue that the Orthodox community is grappling with. And the answer will determine Orthodoxy’s long-term viability as a positive force in the wider Jewish community, and the wider world.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Circuit


The Reagan Library was the setting when more than 500 Jewish Republicans gathered to pay tribute to U.S. and Israeli armed forces.RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman, and Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) set a powerful model of the necessity for firm resolve at this time of international crises.

Guests also heard from California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, Jewish Republican statewide candidate for insurance commissioner, and Tony Strickland, statewide candidate for controller.

After touring the library and taking photos on the impressive Air Force One at the musuem, guests enjoyed a kosher cocktail party and dinner.

Larry Greenfield, Republican Jewish Coalition’s California regional director, says what is motivating their membership is the quality of the conversation.”RJC members and guests consistently value an honest appraisal of the international situation and a realistic approach to a dangerous world that the Jewish community respects,” he said. “Support for a beleaguered Israel, concern about a UN that has broken its promises, and moral clarity about Islamo-Fascism all resonate with American Jews today.”

According to Greenfield, under RJC CA Chairman Joel Geiderman, the RJC would continue to focus on supporting Jewish college students and the need for “fair play.” The RJC has been working with other Jewish groups to confront anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism at universities.

“We have begun to mature as a Jewish political community. Those in attendance included current White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton, past and present Federal Reserve Chairmen Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke; and former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.

“Many thoughtful Jewish Republicans are making a strong contribution rooted in Jewish values, both as, and with senior access to, American policymakers,” Greenfield said.

The Great Statesmen

Van Nuys High School American government students enjoyed an informative Q-and-A with Stanley Sheinbaum and Mike Farrell on June 8. The event, titled “14th Amendment Equal Protection Under the Law,” was the first in a series of discussions produced by California Safe Schools.

The two celebrated statesmen in the social justice community have been recognized for their humanitarian efforts: Sheinbaum for the protection of constitutional rights, education, public justice, human rights and international peace efforts; Farrell for his opposition to the death penalty and children’s rights. Farrell is also well-known for his portrayals of B.J. Hunnicutt on the long-running series “M*A*S*H” and as veterinarian Dr. James Hansen on the NBC drama “Providence.”

“It was inspiring to see the students so well versed in national, international and environmental issues. We look forward to replicating these programs for other students throughout the State and Country,” said Robina Suwol, executive director of California Safe Schools.

Both men were honored at the event with the California Safe Schools Humanitarian Award for their decades of service. The office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) and Assemblymember Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) joined in the celebration presenting additional awards to each. The event as moderated by David Allgood, Southern California director of the state’s League of Conservation Voters.

Fond of the New Rabbi

Native Angeleno Rabbi Devora Fond became the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Torah in Arcadia in July, following her recent ordination by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ). Fond received her bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Santa Cruz in 1991, and a master’s degree in rabbinic studies from the UJ in 2002. She has served in a variety of capacities, including hospital chaplain at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, rabbinic intern at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley and educator and rabbinic intern at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Fond feels called to serve God by helping Jews connect with themselves, others, God and Torah, and through working with people of all faiths to make this world a better place. Fond says she is enthusiastic about having the opportunity to build relationships with the people in her community: to touch other people’s lives and be touched by others. She is committed to reaching out to new members, leading spiritually meaningful and innovative services, and making Judaism come alive through creative programming and thought-provoking teaching.

All About Ethics

Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo nominated Helen Zukin, a lawyer in private practice and an active member of the State Bar of California, to the City of Los Angeles Ethics Commission.

“Helen’s skill as a lawyer and commitment to the highest ethical standards will be tremendous assets to the Ethics Commission,” Delgadillo said. “Her counsel and insight will serve the Commission well as it takes up the challenge of interpreting and implementing changes to our campaign finance laws, as well as maintain its critical role as city watchdog.”

Zukin, who also serves as a temporary judge in the Los Angeles County Superior Court system, served on the State Bar’s Commission on Judicial Nominees Evaluation for nearly a decade. She has a long history of community and professional involvement, including membership on the Board of Governors for the Consumer Attorney’s Association of Los Angeles and as a trustee of the Jewish Community Foundation.

A civil litigator, Zukin’s practice has an emphasis on toxic torts, product liability and environmental property damage.

In addition to the city attorney, the mayor, controller, city council president and council president pro-tem each nominate one member to the five-member Ethics Commission. Commissioners serve staggered five-year terms, and are subject to review by the City Council’s Rules and Elections Committee, and to confirmation by the full L.A. City Council.

The commission was established in 1990 as part of a comprehensive package of local government ethics and campaign finance laws.

Nation-World Briefs


U.N. Asks Israel to Stop Making Nukes
A U.N. commission recommended that Israel refrain from manufacturing any more nuclear weapons as a step to a nuclear-free Middle East. The United Nation’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by weapons inspector Hans Blix, released its 60 recommendations on Monday. Regarding the Middle East, Blix recommended that most nations commit to not possessing any nuclear weapons. However, with Israel he recommended only that it commit to not manufacturing any more weapons. Israel is highly unlikely to agree to dismantle the 200 warheads it is believed to possess as the region’s sole nuclear power. Israel’s agreement would be a start, Blix said.

State Dept. Blasts Israel for Human Trafficking
Israel is on a U.S. State Department watch list of nations that fail to effectively prevent human trafficking. Israel was classified as being on the Tier Two watch list in the report released Monday. Tier Three is the worst classification, reserved for countries that fail to comply with minimum U.S. standards. Israeli law enforcement has made strides in cracking down on sex trafficking, the report said, but the same was not true of labor trafficking and “the estimated thousands of victims of forced labor were not provided with protection.” It described fees demanded of laborers ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, “a practice that often leads to debt bondage and makes these workers highly vulnerable to forced labor once in Israel,” it said.

FDA Approves Israeli Parkinson’s Drug
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved an Israeli drug that treats Parkinson’s, a chronic disease characterized by uncontrolled shaking and muscle stiffness. Marketed under the name Azilect, this is the first once-daily oral treatment for Parkinson’s to be distributed in the United States; it was developed by Technion professors Moussa Youdim and John Finberg and is being manufactured by Tel Aviv-based generic pharmaceutical giant Teva. The drug is expected to become available by prescription in the United States by July or August.

While not a cure, the drug slows the progression of the disease. Azilect works by blocking the breakdown of dopamine, which tells the body how and when to move.

Parkinson’s currently affects 1 million people in the United States.

“This is a welcome development for the more than 50,000 Americans who are each year diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, ” said Dr. Steven Galson, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. “Parkinson’s is a relentless disease with limited treatment options, and each new therapy is an important addition to the physicians’ treatment options.”

However, the FDA is warning that the drug could carry an increased risk of hypertensive crisis — a precursor to a stroke — if taken with tyramine-rich foods (cheese, chocolate, red wine), dietary supplements or cough/cold medicines. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Nazi Papers Declassified
The U.S. government declassified more than 8 million pages of files related to Nazi war crimes. The material including documents relating to the CIA’s employment of suspected Nazi war criminals after World War II. The members of the government’s Interagency Working Group said at a news conference Tuesday that the revelations pointed to the dangers of working with war criminals, as the United States did after World War II. Among other revelations, the papers show that former Nazis employed by the United States were more susceptible to recruitment as double agents by the Soviet Union. Additionally, the papers show that the United States had a strong lead on the whereabouts of Adolf Eichmann in 1958, but did not pursue it because of fears that his capture would expose the Nazi past of high-ranking officials in the West German government, which was allied with the United States.

Trump Fires Jewish Contestant
An observant Jew failed in his bid to become Donald Trump’s next apprentice. Lee Bienstock was fired Monday on the season finale of “The Apprentice.” Bienstock and another Jewish contestant, New Jersey’s Dan Brody, observed Rosh Hashanah together early in the season missing the third episode’s task but only Bienstock, who grew up in the New York area, stayed in the show long enough to observe Yom Kippur, missing another task.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

 

Disengagement Dashes, Spurs Dreams


The evacuation of Gaza Strip settlements is not just a struggle over the question of the future of the territories. At the very core, the pullout was the first big battle on the question of religion and state.

They [religious settlers opposed to the withdrawal] have their own dream. The first stage is the “whole land of Israel,” filled wall-to-wall with Jews-only towns. True, Palestinians and Thai workers can come in to do the dirty work but no more.

The second stage is to transform Israel into a halachic state, a country ruled by Jewish religious law. Elections, the Knesset, the government and the courts may continue to function, but settler rabbis will decide just what issues are appropriate for these bodies to decide and what issues are too “holy” and important to be left to the people and their elected officials.

In their dream world, there is no place for secular Israel: Its culture is not culture; its values are not values; its opinions are not opinions.

In the eyes of the settlers, we are all poor, underprivileged children who never had the chance for a Jewish education. In their dream, our task is to become religious and to join them or at least not to stand in the way while they bring the Messiah.

We must nullify ourselves, and in return, they will hug us, sweetly, of course, and with lots and lots of brotherly love. But if we refuse, the brotherly love and the hugs will go out the window, and we will become little more than traitorous leftists or Nazis.

But we nonreligious Israelis also have a dream. We want to live in an enlightened, open and just country, not in some messianic, rabbinic monarchy and not in the whole land of Israel. We came here to be a free people in our own land.

To be a free people means each person is entitled to choose which parts of Jewish tradition are important to him and which to leave behind. It means to have the freedom to run our country according to our free will, rather than rabbinic dictates.

It means recognizing we are not alone in this land — and demanding from the Palestinians that they do the same.

It means to free ourselves, once-and-for-all, from the nightmare of being an occupying, uprooting, exploiting, settling, expropriating, humiliating, discriminatory country.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has choked the dream of free Israelis. The dream of the whole land of Israel and a messianic kingship drains daily the hope of being a people free to build a just society.

For more than 30 years, the settlers’ dream has trampled my dreams and those of my friends. But because of this, I can understand the settlers’ pain and desperation as they watch their dream collapse before their eyes.

They are experiencing exactly what my friends and I have gone through because of them, all this time. I opposed their project from the onset, from the very first settlement.

I look into their eyes, and I see true desperation and true pain, and without the slightest joy, I can say: The pain you are going through today is very similar to the pain you have put free Israel friends through for more than 30 years.

I will respect your mourning by remaining silent, but I cannot share in your grief.

And what will be after all the grief? Israel, for all her faults, is all we’ve got. It’s easy to throw stones at her, but this is not the country we prayed for.

The floor is deep, the ceiling cracked, the lights go off three times a day.

It’s easy to come up with substitutes for this Israel, easy to build castles in the sky about messianic monarchies on one hand and post-Israelism on the other.

But Israel, for all its faults, is all we’ve got.

Perhaps instead of kicking her, the time has come to get up and start fixing a little bit: to free ourselves of the occupation that continues to corrupt us; to renew our social solidarity.

A bit less “brotherly love,” a bit more responsibility for others less fortunate than ourselves. A bit less holiness; a bit more justice. A bit less of the whole land of Israel, and a State of Israel a bit more whole with itself.

Through the murky cloud of poetic words and sobs, we can sometimes see during these very days the State of Israel’s quiet, beautiful face: [These are] the faces of youngsters in uniforms who chose, despite the pressure and violence, despite the curses and false hugs and emotional manipulation, to get up and protect with their body the dream of being a free people — to not rule over the Palestinians and to not be ruled over by rabbis.

The beaten, humiliated, slapped-on-the-face soldier boy, the police officer who was spat in the face — at this time they are the brave defenders of the State of Israel in the face of the unruly wave of zealousness.

The young soldier girl, her throat choked by tears, barely 19 years old, already carries the burden of the 2,000-year hope to be a free nation in our country on her shoulders.

Not in Palestinian Gaza, but rather, in our country.

With assertiveness and silent courage, but also with restraint, wisdom and compassion, this female soldier is currently protecting our most vital border — the border between what is allowed and what is not.

This is the border without which we will have no state and without which there is no freedom, no society, nothing but fiery zealousness, messianic-hysterical extremism and complete destruction — a state of affairs the Jewish people has known more than once in the past.

Reprinted with permission www.ynetnews.com.

Amos Oz is one of Israel’s most celebrated authors. This essay originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on Aug. 21, 2005, following the disengagement. He will speak at Sabbath services on Friday, May 19, at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood. The public is invited. For more information, call (310) 475-7311.

 

First Person – A Love Story


This is the story of my friend Valerie, whom I first met just last year. Valerie sent me an e-mail introducing herself as Shira, a Jew-by-Choice who worked as a flight attendant. She wondered if I was the same Rabbi Mark her fiancé Glenn knew from his synagogue’s high school youth group. Glenn and I had lost touch with one another when his family moved to California. Was I the same individual, Val asked, and, if so, would I officiate at their wedding?

Thanks to Valerie, two best friends were reunited after more than three decades apart. More importantly, Glenn and Val had found each other. Their love was intoxicating, with family and friends commenting how happy each was to have found his/her soul mate.

On a sunny October afternoon, I performed the ceremony as Glenn and Valerie married in a traditional Jewish wedding on a yacht in Marina del Rey. We joined with their children, parents, relatives and friends for a joyous ceremony on the deck replete with a wind-blown chuppah. Val’s artistic touches were evident in the wedding program she designed, the ketubah she selected and the extra touches that made the day special. Adding to the festivities were other yachts in the harbor whose captains blew their horns in celebration with shouts of mazal tov from their own passengers.

Two months after that glorious day, Glenn called to tell me that his beloved Valerie had suffered a brain aneurism and was in critical condition in an area hospital. I rushed to the ICU unit, only to find our beautiful, 47-year-old Valerie near death. I sat with Glenn, Val’s daughters, and other family members as a neurologist informed them that Valerie was brain dead and being kept “alive” by machines.

Amid the overwhelming shock and grief, the medical staff gently raised a sensitive but timely subject: Would the family consider donating Valerie’s organs to others? Their initial reply was no, since Valerie had thought that Jewish law prohibited organ donation. They too believed that donating organs was a sin. Fighting back tears, I counseled family members that organ donation is not contrary to Jewish law. In fact, rabbinical authorities from all Jewish movements agree that organ donation is a tremendous mitzvah and the highest form of pikuah nefesh (saving life).

An emotional discussion followed. What would Valerie want her loved ones to do had she known that organ donation is permissible according to Jewish law?

In the end, Valerie’s family consented to donating her organs. I sat with my friend Glenn as a nurse from OneLegacy (the Southern California transplant donor network) completed the paperwork to initiate this awesome mitzvah. I witnessed the OneLegacy team spend day and night painstakingly matching Valerie’s organs with compatible donors, as her family and I made plans for her funeral.

On a sunny December afternoon, we laid Valerie to rest in a local cemetery. We remembered her as a fun-loving, vivacious young woman. Val made friends easily and instantly, from passengers on her flights, to total strangers in stores and restaurants. She lived each moment to the fullest, and radiated warmth and joy to those around her.

In life, Valerie gave 100 percent to whomever she was with and whatever she was doing. In death, Valerie gave the ultimate gift. One of her kidneys is now in the body of a 76-year-old man who had been on dialysis for six years. He is married and the father of three children. His kidney function is now good and he is off of dialysis.

Valerie’s other kidney went to a 50-year-old man. He is single, active and used to ride his bicycle 40 to 50 miles a week. Prior to the transplant, he had been on dialysis. Valerie’s kidney was a “zero mismatch,” meaning that it was a perfect match for this recipient. He told the transplant team that he knows he “won the lotto” by receiving such a perfectly matched kidney. He is doing well and his prognosis is quite good.

These are just two of the fortunate recipients of Valerie’s donated organs. The quality of their lives has improved dramatically since their transplants. In some cases, they are alive because of their transplants.

I will never understand why my friend Valerie was taken from us in the very prime of her life. When I sit and cry with her family, I cannot know their pain and anguish nor can I comprehend their tragic loss. I do know that they find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that Valerie gave the gift of life to others. Amid the darkness, they have found a ray of light and hope for the future.

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

 

AIPAC Is Guilty — But Not of Spying


 

As some 1,250 delegates gather in Los Angeles under the banner of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to celebrate the deepening ties between the United States and Israel and to strengthen those ties through political activities, I am mindful of two who will not be there.

Two former AIPAC staffers, Steven Rosen and Keith Weissman, will be back in Washington preparing for their January trial, which could be completed on the eve of AIPAC’s National Policy Conference in March. The timing is ironic given the loyal, instrumental roles that Rosen and Weissman played for AIPAC, and given the extent to which AIPAC has deserted them both.

These two individuals, in fact, deserve the unqualified support of both AIPAC and the Jewish community for their service to Jews and Israel — and also because they are, to all appearances, innocent of any wrongdoing. The current criminal indictment arises out of nothing more than law enforcement entrapment. But even putting that aside, the former AIPAC staffers still acted in a logical, defensible and ethical matter. Jews should be rising to their defense, but there is, so far, only a shameful silence.

Rosen, a longtime Washington lobbyist, was the chief of AIPAC foreign-policy staff. Weissman was a specialist on Iraq. No one who knew Rosen would argue that he was the soul of AIPAC or its most visible public face, but all who came close to the organization swiftly understood that Rosen was its brains.

It was he who shaped the concept of Israel as a strategic ally of the United States, refashioning American support for Israel from that of a big brother assisting a poor relation to a genuine, mutually beneficial partnership.

It was he who shifted AIPAC from an organization that was solely centered on Congress to one that also lobbied the president, his officers and his advisers — in Democratic and Republican administrations alike — as well as the think tanks and policy wonks.

Rosen recognized that he ruffled too many feathers to be out front. So he groomed protégés to assume that role. He mentored one so well that he became the head of AIPAC; another became the first Jew to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

One cannot overestimate his importance to the organization and his contribution to it over the past two decades.

One did not have to agree with his politics or AIPAC’s — as I certainly did not — to recognize the genius: While everyone was focusing on Iraq, he was concerned about Iran and North Korea. Anyone in his position traffics in information, seeking to understand what is known, attempting to fathom what is on the mind of government officials both in the United States and abroad.

What happened with Rosen and Weissman is simple enough. They were set up.

They are victims of a sting operation that relied on government analyst Lawrence Franklin, a compromised source who was in trouble for allegedly keeping unauthorized classified information at home. In order to win a more lenient sentence, he carried out an FBI plan to tell Rosen and Weissman about “secret information” that Israeli operatives were to be attacked in Iraq. Lives were seemingly at stake. Real lives, Jewish lives of people allied with the United States and presumably working in Iraq with the knowledge and consent of the United States, in alliance with the United States. Remember, this information came from a U.S. government analyst. And they had every reason to presume that he was giving them information both with permission and for a purpose.

Not surprisingly, Rosen and Weissman tried to check this information out. At one point, they apparently sought to see what a journalist covering Iraq knew. They also warned Israeli officials of the clear and immediate danger to their operatives. We now know that Franklin’s information was false and manufactured, with the specific goal of ensnaring Rosen and Weissman.

Of course that wasn’t the impression created when CBS broke its sensational account on Aug. 27, 2004, courtesy of a leak from either the FBI and/or Department of Justice.

Elements of the evidence remain shrouded in secrecy — the defendants are currently challenging the government’s attempts to conceal their own statements made on wiretaps.

Why would the U.S. government obstruct the defense in this way?

One plausible explanation is that Rosen and Weissman will recognize the circumstances in which their words were recorded and hence understand the scope of the federal surveillance — not just of them but also of those with whom they were in contact. One wonders: Does the U.S. typically spy on Israeli diplomats or diplomats of other countries?

We shall soon learn whether the government will drop the charges rather than reveal its evidence. The surveillance apparently lasted for five years and yielded such meager results that the defendants had to be entrapped into committing an alleged crime. If they were really up to something, investigators should have found it without the FBI having to engage in a Hollywood-style stunt — fictionalizing a scenario and manufacturing a crime.

This is not the Jonathon Pollard Affair redux. Pollard was a paid agent of the Israeli government who transmitted classified information to Israel. And unlike with the legal principle at stake in the Valerie Plame case, there was no possibility that lives would have been endangered by this leak; no sources were compromised. Unlike Karl Rove and Scooter Libby, Rosen and Weissman wanted to save lives, not weaken political opponents.

Yet AIPAC has run for cover; so have too many Jews. Some members of AIPAC’s own leadership are under the impression that the organization has actively defended its former employees. The word on the street, however, is that Rosen and Weissman have been hung out to dry. AIPAC bylaws require that the organization cover their legal defense, yet Rosen’s lawyers and Weissman’s lawyers have not been paid in many months. A reporters committee has come out against the indictment; a scientific group has challenged the secrecy provisions. But unless I’ve missed something, American Jewish organizations have been virtually mute.

We should be outraged by the setup!

We should be outraged by the selective prosecution — Rosen and Weissman are the first to be charged under the provision of the law being cited. Maybe it’s truly AIPAC and the vaunted American-Israeli alliance that is on trial or that is the actual target.

So why the hushed, muted tones of organizational leaders?

I leave it to their able lawyers to make the legal case for Rosen and Weissman, but the moral case also is compelling. From the standpoint of Jewish principles and tradition, the saving of human lives is an essential.

The Bush administration — or at least some within it — seems determined to crack down on the dissemination of government information, even if it impedes the public’s right to know or the right of citizens to participate in the process.

The Jewish community should not be timid in taking a different view. We dare not be sidelined.

Michael Berenbaum is adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute, whose mission is to explore the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust.

 

 

 

 

 


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Will Successor Tread Pope’s Jewish Path?


 

As the College of Cardinals prepared to begin secret deliberations next week to choose a successor, the question remained to what extent John Paul’s exceptionally proactive policy regarding Jews would endure.

“It seems unlikely that the next pope will have the same interest in the church’s relations with the Jews, and the same sense of responsibility in combating Christian anti-Semitism,” said professor David Kertzer of Brown University, an expert on papal relations with the Jews. “John Paul II had an extraordinary biography for a high church official in his early relations with Jews, and of course, lived through an extraordinary moment in history,” he told JTA from Rome.

Born Karol Wojtyla in the small Polish town of Wadowice, John Paul II, who died April 2 at 84, had Jewish friends and neighbors. During his life, he was an eyewitness to both the Holocaust and totalitarian communism. As a bishop, he took part in the Second Vatican Council, which modernized aspects of church practice and doctrine. In 1965, the council issued the Nostra Aetate declaration that condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Catholics and Jews.

Elected pope in October 1978, John Paul IImade bettering Jewish-Catholic relations a cornerstone of his papacy. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust and met with Jewish leaders and laymen. He also oversaw the establishment of diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Against this background, observers considered John Paul II’s decision to mention Toaff in his will to be highly significant, seeing it as an indication to his successor not to turn back from his path. Toaff and John Paul II’s longtime secretary were the only living people mentioned in the will.

“It is a significant and profound gesture for Jews,” the retired Toaff told the Rome daily La Repubblica. “But I think it is also an indication to the Catholic world.”

John Paul, he said, “wanted to indicate a road aimed at further destroying all the obstacles that have divided Jews and Christians through the centuries.”

He said he hoped the next pope would uphold John Paul II’s legacy and “do even better.” However, he added, “it is unlikely that there will be someone else like him. Even if we are optimistic, I see many difficulties in finding a successor of his stature.”

Much of John Paul’s teachings about the Jews have been promulgated as church doctrine, and thus, technically are official church policy. But even before John Paul II died, there were indications that his policies had not been accepted unanimously among church leaders — or that they had trickled down to the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.

“The most important challenge for Catholic-Jewish relations is to take the historic changes in church teaching concerning Jews, Judaism and Israel from the Olympic heights down to the grass roots,” Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA some time before John Paul II died.

“In many parts of the world there are even bishops who are ignorant of the teachings on this subject, let alone the rank and file,” Rosen said. “Ignorance of this and the concomitant residual anti-Jewish attitudes still prevail in many parts of the Catholic world, and there is still an enormous job to do in this regard.”

Not only that, he said, but “the younger generation of bishops who have not been through the period of the Shoah and were not part of the official transformation of Vatican II do not necessarily appreciate the historical, as well as theological imperatives, involved.”

Brown University’s Kertzer said he already had noted “backsliding in the last few years, when the pope had become infirm and no longer really in control. There has clearly been an important reactionary movement within the church that resents much of the legacy of the Second Vatican Council, and with it the sense that the church has a historic problem with anti-Semitism.”

At a January conference in Washington, for example, Cardinal Avery Dulles, a major Catholic theologian, affirmed the traditional belief that Christians will want “all men and women, Jewish and gentile” to “benefit from Christ’s teaching” and convert to Christianity.

Kertzer also said, “Even John Paul II was unwilling to criticize any of his papal predecessors, nor directly rebuke past versions of canon law. He was thus unwilling to fully come to terms with the church’s institutional responsibility for anti-Semitism in the past. There is little likelihood at the moment that this history will be seriously revisited by John Paul II’s successor.”

Nonetheless, Jewish leaders hope his legacy will prevail.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Manhattan’s Park East Synagogue, who attended the pope’s funeral, said the unprecedented gathering of world leaders, religious representatives and faithful “really showed the capacity and the potential of a righteous person to be a magnet for pulling the world together.”

Whoever was present at the funeral, he said, “would just have to, in his memory, embrace a legacy of coexistence, a legacy of reconciliation.”

Observers noted that in addition to mentioning Toaff in his will, John Paul IIalso highlighted the Second Vatican Council in his testament. He called it a “great gift” to which the entire church and clergy was indebted, and a “great patrimony” he wished to entrust to future generations of Catholics.

“I hope that there is neither a slowing nor an inversion of the road that was opened by the Second Vatican Council and consolidated by John Paul II in the course of his pontificate,” said Tullia Zevi, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It was a pontificate characterized by a dialogue relationship with the Jewish world that was very satisfactory, and I hope that in the future, this relationship could extend also to the other great monotheistic religions, Islam, and to the secular world.”

JTA Staff Writer Rachel Pomerance contributed to this story.

 

Rabbi Expelled Over Sex Abuse Claims


 

The decision of a leading association of centrist Orthodox rabbis to expel one of its members has highlighted for some in the community the difficulties of addressing sexual abuse in the Orthodox world.

Following an investigation into allegations from several women of sexual harassment, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced last week that it had expelled Rabbi Mordecai Tendler.

Tendler had “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refused to cooperate with the committee investigating the claims, the RCA said in a statement.

Tendler referred JTA to his spokesman for comment on the case, though he did say that members of his synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, located near Monsey, N.Y., have been “very supportive.”

Asked if he plans to remain in his pulpit, he replied, “Of course.”

Hank Sheinkopf, Tendler’s spokesman, said the RCA procedure leading to Tendler’s expulsion was “reminiscent of the Salem witch trials,” referring to fraudulent trials in colonial America.

“A decent man has been smeared, his family damaged irreparably and a community injured after a prolonged witch hunt,” Sheinkopf told JTA.

He complained that Tendler was not permitted to confront his accusers and that information on the case was leaked to the media.

The charges against Tendler include claims that over the last few years, he engaged in sexual affairs with several women, among them women who had come to him for rabbinic counseling.

Brian Leggiere, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan whose clientele is comprised largely of Orthodox abuse victims and offenders, said the case highlights the fact that the Orthodox community is beginning to “wake up” to issues of abuse among its leaders, but still has “a ways to go.”

“We imbue our leaders with a great sense of kavod, respect, and usually it’s deserved,” he said. “It’s a wonderful value, but when you have a community that over-idealizes [its leaders at times,] that’s a recipe that allows abuse to occur.”

In the Orthodox world, where marital matches, or shidduchs, are highly valued commodities, even the victims of abuse often remain silent for fear they will damage their chances to find a husband or wife.

Tendler’s expulsion reportedly went into effect immediately, though expulsion from the RCA does not necessarily entail removal from the pulpit. Some 1,000 ordained rabbis in 128 countries have membership in the RCA.

“Synagogues and institutions are entirely independent entities,” Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA. “Therefore, it’s up to every synagogue to decide how it will wish to deal with its rabbi or its clergy or employees.”

Herring declined to comment directly on the case, as did several other RCA members complying with official RCA policy.

One Orthodox rabbi who requested anonymity said it was the first time the RCA had expelled a member following sexual abuse allegations.

The expulsion was based on protocols, instituted in April 2004 for addressing accusations of sexual impropriety against RCA members. The new protocols followed the highly publicized conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox Union official who is serving seven years in prison for sexually abusing a student when he was principal of Hillel Yeshiva High School in New Jersey.

The Lanner case, in which allegations emerged that victims’ complaints had gone unheeded, has been seen as a watershed in the way the Orthodox community addresses sexual abuse.

Tendler’s expulsion is a particularly sensitive issue for the RCA, Orthodox insiders said, because he comes from an important family of respected rabbis. His father is the well-known bioethicist and Yeshiva University teacher Rabbi Moses Tendler. His grandfather, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was among the Orthodox world’s leading experts in Jewish religious law.

Orthodox movement insiders said Tendler gained respect for his work on women’s issues within Judaism, particularly his approach to helping agunot, women unable to secure divorces from their husbands.

“As painful as it has been” for the community to start coming to terms with abuse issues, “I think it’s helpful when it comes to the fore because it helps people respond,” Leggiere said. “Generally, people aren’t going to respond to a situation until you get past a level of denial.”

 

Briefs


 

700 Gather to Protest Suicide Bombings

With the charred remains of Israeli Bus No. 19 as a backdrop, about 700 Angelenos gathered Jan. 30 at the Museum of Tolerance to take a stand against suicide bombings.

In a show of support with the community, guest speakers such as Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn; Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and Carrie Devorah, a free-lance journalist whose sibling perished on the bus, inveighed against the destruction wrought by suicide bombings.

“This is my brother Scotty,” said Devorah, clutching a framed picture of him while fighting back tears. “It’s all that’s left.”

At the exhibition, signatures were gathered to petition the United Nations to declare suicide bombing a crime against humanity. Hier said that the scourge of suicide bombings represented a clear and present danger that called for a unified response from the international community.

“This hate threatens all of us: Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of all faiths,” he said. “Today, these fanatics can murder thousands. Tomorrow, they will have the technology and know-how to murder and maim tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands and more.”

Bus No. 19 came freighted with controversy both for its message and the messenger. Some local Jewish groups opted not to attend the event, because they considered it exploitive, inflammatory and a hindrance to Arab-Jewish reconciliation. Peace Now, the Progressive Jewish Alliance and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles declined invitations to participate.

And then there’s the messenger. Jerusalem Connection, an Evangelical Christian group owns the bus, and the group’s leader has rankled some in the community. Dr. James M. Hutchens said in a recent interview that Palestinians are not a distinct people, that a religious war between Muslims on one side and Christians and Jews on the other is taking shape and that true Muslims believe in Jihad or holy war.

Hutchens’ beliefs prompted the Southern California chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to ask event co-sponsor, the Wiesenthal Center, to call off the exhibit. The center denied CAIR’s request.– Mark Ballon, Senior Writer

Board of Rabbis to Lead Christian Clergy Israel Tour

The Southern California Board of Rabbis is taking a tour group to Israel next week, largely composed of Protestant clergy from churches often at odds with Israeli policies.

“Christians and Jews who visit Israel see different things,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, the board’s executive vice president. “We tend to see things from the Israeli perspective; they tend to see things from the Palestinian perspective. This trip is an attempt to say, ‘Can we do one unified mission, where we visit Israel and also meet with the Palestinians, and see and do the same things?'”

Diamond organized the trip with support of the local Council of Religious Leaders, which he chairs, and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds the Board of Rabbis. The Feb. 7-14 trip, with each of the 19 participants paying their own way, is centered on the council’s leadership of Jewish, Catholic and mainline Protestant leaders and will touch on Jewish-Protestant clashes over the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s calls last summer for divestment of church funds from companies doing business with Israel.

Traveling with Diamond and B’nai David Judea’s Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will be local leaders from the Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian churches, all of which have faced internal divestment debates.

Along with meeting Knesset members and Cabinet officials, the clergy tour group will meet Israeli journalists, such as Yossi Klein-Halevi; politicians from the recently elected Palestinian leadership; and Episcopalian/Anglican leaders at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Diamond said that Saturday, Feb. 12, will be a free day for the Christian clergy to tour Bethlehem and meet their Arab Christian counterparts. – David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Sympathetic Ear

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, chaplain for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, went to the site of the recent Metrolink crash in Glendale to provide counseling and a sympathetic ear. As medical examiners and coroners were removing the 11th and final body from the wreckage, Kravitz rushed to their side and led them in a short prayer. – MB

Synagogue Raises Funds for Darfur Genocide Victims

Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) hosted several-hundred people at its Jan. 31 Darfur awareness event, with the Encino synagogue announcing $45,000 in local Jewish donations for genocide victims in Sudan’s Darfur region.

“We fight with whatever weapons we have, and this is my weapon,” said actor Theodore Bikel, pointing to his guitar, before singing at the evening sponsored by the Conservative shul’s Jewish World Watch (JWW) group. Linking Jewish history to Africans slaughtered in Darfur, Bikel said, “It is always my fight. It is always our fight.”

Speakers stood at the bimah in front of a large picture showing a refugee mother and her child, with the headline, “Genocide in the Sudan: A Human Tsunami.” The event followed JWW’s mid-December Darfur event at the Skirball Cultural Center, which attracted more than 650 people.

Reform shuls Kol Tikvah of Woodland Hills and Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air, Westwood’s Conservative Sinai Temple, the UCLA Hillel and the Jewish Community Foundation, have been sponsoring the Darfur awareness evenings.

“God is not in the cause; God is in the response,” said VBS Rabbi Harold Schulweis. The rabbi is the driving force behind JWW raising the funds for the Santa Monica-based relief group, International Medical Corps, and its Darfur refugee work in neighboring Chad.

Another $13,000 has been donated to the corps by students at Milken Community High School, organizers said. Students have been wearing green Darfur awareness bands. VBS day school students have raised about $1,100.

Human-rights experts have estimated that about 10,000 people a month were killed last year in Darfur, most of the victims were tribal residents killed by Sudanese military and Arab terrorists.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), who sits on the House International Relations Committee, told the VBS audience, “Many other countries do not seem to view the situation with the same gravity as we do.”

On April 6, Sinai Temple will host another Darfur evening with American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger. – DF

 

71: A Vote We Can All Agree On


We Jews aren’t exactly famous for agreeing with one another. Of our community, it is frequently said, “Five Jews, eight opinions.”

Perhaps this is why it is especially noteworthy when an important opportunity for communitywide agreement presents itself. The 2004 election in California offers precisely that kind of opportunity.

Regardless of one’s vantage point on Jewish law, we are all united in the understanding that law is central to Jewish life. Our rituals, our customs and our traditions are animated by the legal discussions of the rabbinic sages. Those of us from differing denominations may disagree about the authority and origins of Jewish law, but we can all agree that the system of mitzvot (commandments) has something important to teach us about how to live our lives.

On Nov. 2, the voice of Jewish law will call to us as we vote on Proposition. 71, The California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. Proposition 71 will create funding for stem cell research that scientists believe will some day make possible breakthrough cures for illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and spinal-cord injuries.

There won’t be a voter on Election Day who hasn’t been somehow impacted by one or more of the illnesses targeted by Proposition 71. Each of us has at least one family member or cherished friend who has battled one of these life-threatening diseases.

We have struggled with them. We have prayed with them. We have wept with them. And we have mourned for them. Proposition 71 represents hope for relief from the anguish we have all known.

What does Jewish law have to say about supporting embryonic stem cell research?

Our tradition is clear — God creates life; we are obliged to preserve it. The Torah teaches: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your fellow.” (Leviticus 19:16)

The medieval sages who codified Jewish law interpreted this verse as a positive commandment to save the lives of those who are in danger, a mitzvah known as pikuach nefesh. Saving lives is so important, argue the sages, that pikuach nefesh supersedes virtually all other mitzvot.

There are those who would suggest that embryonic stem cell research destroys life, rather than preserving it. After all, research on the type of stem cells that scientists think are most likely to yield life-saving cures requires the destruction of a human embryo.

Does the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh permit this type of research, particularly since even the most optimistic scientists admit that cures are still a long way off?

Most Jewish legal authorities, across denominational divides, believe that stem cell research is permitted, indeed must be carried out, despite the destruction of the embryos from which the cells are taken. This position is, in some sense, a reflection of Judaism’s distinction between real life and potential life.

If we are forced to choose between protecting a real life or a potential one, we choose the real life. This distinction alone would not permit us to abort an embryo that is in utero for research purposes.

However, Jewish law further distinguishes between an embryo that is in utero and one that is in a laboratory. An embryo in a research laboratory, not in a womb, does not have the Jewish legal status even of potential life. It’s that simple.

That’s not to say we would support all forms of genetic research without careful consideration. We must meticulously weigh our ethical concerns about how this research is carried out against the benefits to humanity that such science will likely afford.

But protecting realized life always takes precedence in our tradition. So when you think about the real lives that could be saved through embryonic stem cell research — and the estimate is that 128 million Americans suffer from conditions that stem cell research could impact — how can there be a choice?

Many Los Angeles-area rabbis, including us, have studied this issue and the Jewish teachings that relate to it, and after investigating the details of Proposition 71 (which can easily be done by visiting www.yeson71.com), we have decided to endorse the initiative. For us, Proposition 71 is pikuach nefesh of the highest order.

If you’ve ever had to say that horrible long goodbye to a parent or spouse afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; if you’ve agonized as a loved one battled the advancement of multiple sclerosis or diabetes; if you’ve ever escorted somebody you love through the physical and emotional minefield we call cancer, imagine a day when no one will ever have to suffer as you have — as they have.

That’s the potential with embryonic stem cell research. We are not permitted to stand idly by as our neighbors and friends and loved ones lie bleeding. On this, each and every Jew can agree.

We join in urging you to vote for Proposition. 71 on Nov. 2.

Ken Chasen is senior rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform synagogue. Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, an Orthodox congregation.

Frum Frenzy


Visitors trolling for casual sex on Craigslist.org last week were left scratching their heads over an unfamiliar reference that has surfaced in a flurry of recent postings.

"I keep seeing this term ‘Frum.’ Can somebody please clue me into what the hell that is?" wrote Jeff, a 30-year-old regular on the site.

"OK, I give up … what does ‘frum’ mean?" huffed another.

To the posters’ disappointment, frum (pronounced "froom") is not shorthand for a kinky new posture or adventurous attitude. It’s a Yiddish word that technically means "religiously observant," but for all intents and purposes is used by men and women who identify themselves as Orthodox Jews.

Jeff, an events planner who grew up Catholic in the Midwest, said he kept seeing requests from frum men and women seeking frum sexual partners.

"The only thing that was in my mind was ‘fru-strated, m-arried?’ I had no clue what it was," he said. "I didn’t realize it was an Orthodox Jewish person. From what I understand, they’re supposed to put a sheet between them when they have sex."

It turns out that the deeply religious have sexual tastes as mundane as the rest of us:

"Single frum guy for single frum girl for fun!" one 24-year-old wrote. "Married, frum guy looking for a frum girl (married or unmarried) for some NSA [no strings attached] fun. We can have good time ‘learning’ together," a 31-year-old posted.

"Frum married guy looking for frum guy to explore," wrote another, continuing: "I am a frum married 28-year-old guy … during the summer my wife will be upstate and I am looking to explore having sex with a man … please be frum."

That’s not to say that this frum frenzy hasn’t ushered in a whole range of heretofore unimaginable caveats such as "We could do as little as you want," written by a gentle soul seeking a frum woman, and "No Chasidish," written by a 24-year-old married Manhattanite, referring to the ultra-Orthodox denomination whose members wear black hats and suits and sport long sidelocks.

Or, less chastely, a poster seeking "Frum girls gone wild" for an orgy in Brooklyn, or another one advertising a Yahoo group for married frumsters seeking "extracurricular fun."

Though the posters are seeking members of their observant sects to romp in the sack with, none seem to be under the illusion that this is, well, kosher.

"Frum guy seeks frum girl for not such frum fun!" a 32-year-old wrote. And one might question whether picking someone from the notoriously tight-knit community would be a discreet move.

In case there were any doubts, Orthodox Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, confirmed that Jewish law prohibits such shenanigans — either in the form of extramarital affairs or premarital sexual contact.

"Rabbis have taught that there is a prohibition of all contact of a sexual nature between male and female prior to marriage," he said, referring to Maimonides’ encyclopedic code of Jewish law. "But we’re not talking here about a man and a woman who are emotionally bonded and have difficulty with a specific Jewish law. We’re talking about people who are completely disconnected and lonely. It’s sad; it reflects the reality of our time."

Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, director of organizational development for the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, added that while traditional Judaism discourages sexual relations outside of marriage, "Historically some were permitted if the relationship was ongoing and committed" in the case of concubines.

"I assure you, they know very well that society doesn’t approve it — that’s why they’re going to the Net," he added. "If they belong to parts of a classically frum society, they can’t exactly go to a party and say, ‘Do you want to come back to my place?’"

"That’s so funny," said Jessica Ressler, 26, a Modern Orthodox divorce lawyer. "I just posted an ad on there for a nanny. I didn’t know they went on there for that."

Of course, it was only a matter of time before a class of frum frauds emerged on Craigslist. But if the missives from Orthodox neighborhoods are to be believed, where there are frum, there is desire.

"Are there any frum men here that want to meet for real?" one single gal wrote. "I am sick and tired of all the fakes here."

Article reprinted courtesy The New York Observer.


Anna Schneider-Mayerson is a writer living in New York City.

Q & A With Robby Berman


Robby Berman was a journalist living in Israel writing about organ donation when he came across some alarming facts: Out of 200 people who were declared brain-stem dead in a given year, only 70 families agreed to organ donation — giving Israel the lowest percentage of organ donors in the Western world. So while 130 Israelis in that year were buried with viable organs, 114 died waiting to receive organs. The No. 1 reason that both religious and secular Israelis gave for not donating organs was that halacha (Jewish law) forbids it — a common misconception rooted in superstitions and a misconstruing of halacha. That information was enough to make Berman, 37, quit his writing job to found and direct the Halachic Organ Donor Society (HODS). Created in December 2001, the organization has reached more than 8,000 people worldwide.

The Jewish Journal: This issue has been in the news since 20-year-old Alisa Flatow was killed in a terrorist attack in Gaza in 1995 and her family donated her organs. Have you seen a turnaround in the superstitions or a change in the numbers?

Robby Berman: Alisa Flatow was the first blip on the radar of Orthodox Jewish consciousness that perhaps organ donation was supported by halacha. But that blip went off the screen as fast as it went on. J.J. Greenberg’s donation last year was also noted by the public [Greenberg was killed in Israel after his bicycle was struck by a truck that ran a red light], but there has been no long-term change in our educational programming about this critical issue. I will lecture and spend an hour explaining how the Torah supports organ donation and they say, “Yes, yes, yes,” and then they walk out and say, “….Still, I think Jews don’t do that.”

JJ: Have you been successful in turning that around?

RB: We’ve had some incredible successes and also some failures. We have recruited dozens of Orthodox rabbis and over 1,000 laypeople who have registered for the HODS organ donor card. We have distributed 10,000 educational brochures in English and 5,000 in Hebrew. Overall awareness of this issue is growing. There also has been an increase over the past two years in organ donation from Orthodox Jews.

Where I haven’t been successful is in cultivating the necessary resources to take this project to the next level. Major funds are needed to embark on an educational advertising campaign in the major Jewish population centers — New York, L.A., Chicago, Florida — but that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and I have not been able to raise that.

JJ: The difficulty in raising funds may be related to what holds people back from dealing with organ donation — the unwillingness to confront issues of death and dying.

RB: Right. Who wants to talk about dying? There are all those emotional issues attached. I think to a large extent people hide behind the skirt of halacha and use it as an excuse. We try to educate those who are truly concerned about halacha and for those that use it as an excuse, HODS hopefully takes away their excuse.

JJ: What are the halachic issues involved?

RB: Most rabbis will agree that to donate organs from a dead person is a mitzvah. The Torah has three prohibitions concerning a cadaver: You can’t mutilate, get benefit from or delay burial of a body, but all rabbis agree that to save a life you can do those things.

The legitimate halachic issue is defining when a person is considered dead. There are rabbis, such as Reb Elyashiv in Jerusalem, who believe that as long as a person’s heart is still beating — such as someone who is brain-stem dead on a respirator — the person is alive. He does not allow donation from a brain-stem dead person because he believes the person is alive and you would be killing him. Others, such as the chief rabbinate of Israel and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, hold that brain-stem death is halachically death and therefore not only could you donate organs, but you should.

JJ: Do HODS donor cards reflect those halachic issues?

RB: Ours is the only donor card in the world that allows people to choose between these two options. One can indicate the willingness to donate either after brain-stem death or, alternatively, after irreversible cessation of heartbeat. [From a medical perspective the latter option is not optimal because once the heart stops beating certain organs become less viable for transplant.]

JJ: What strategies have you found effective in breaking down the emotional obstacles?

RB: When we stop talking in abstract numbers and start showing faces and real people. Our Web site shows 22-year-old L.A. resident Ariel Avrech, who died this year waiting for a lung transplant. We show a number of Orthodox Jews who died in accidents and had their organs donated…. And, more importantly, we have pictures of people whose lives were saved by receiving organs. These people would be dead if not for organ donation. That has a powerful pull on people.

Robby Berman will speak Saturday, March 20, 10:30 a.m.
at Kehillat Yavneh, 5353 W. Third Street, and 11:15 a.m. at Shaarei Tefila, 7269
Beverly Blvd. To register for a HODS organ donor card or to access more
information, go to www.hods.org  or call (212) 213-5087.

Raising Concerns About Patriot Act


Two years after the USA Patriot Act became law, Jewish groups are still searching for the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties.

The passage of the legislation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks divided Jewish groups who were ambivalent about the legislation from allies in the civil-rights community that immediately sought to have the law revoked.

The central reason for the Jewish groups’ hesitancy to defend civil liberties — one of the causes Jews generally champion — is that the act’s provisions were designed to target groups viewed as hostile to Jews.

"We can’t ignore the fact that every Jewish community is threatened by terrorism," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel of the Anti-Defamation League.

Now, however, Jews are among those behind new legislation that would curtail some of the expanded powers the Patriot Act granted law-enforcement authorities.

On Sept. 24, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who is Jewish, joined Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and other lawmakers and civil-rights groups to introduce a new bill called the "Benjamin Franklin True Patriot Act," which would repeal many of the Patriot Act’s provisions.

The new legislation, Kucinich said, balances liberty and safety.

"There is a sentiment in Congress to move to challenge this idea that we have to forsake the Bill of Rights in order to be safe," said Kucinich, a Democratic candidate for president.

He is supported by many civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Kucinich was also joined by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, one of the first Jewish groups to speak out against the Patriot Act.

Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director, said his organization does not officially endorse every provision of the proposed legislation but agrees that the bill addresses concerns the Reform movement has raised about the Patriot Act.

While Jewish law allows for the infringement of individual privacy when lives are at stake, those intrusions should be as limited as possible, Pelavin said.

"We must be vigilant in ensuring that our effort to destroy terrorism does not undermine the very liberties that make this country worth celebrating and protecting," he said.

Privately, some Jewish activists admit that had law enforcement used the tools in the original Patriot Act to target a minority other than Arabs or Muslims, Jewish opposition to the legislation might have been more pronounced.

Provisions in the bill, such as the freezing of terrorist assets and new rules for border crossing, can be used by law-enforcement authorities to protect Jews, Lieberman said.

"Every congregant who walks through a synagogue" in the Jewish holiday season "will walk past security guards and cameras," he said. "This has an impact on the analysis we do on tools we want law enforcement to have."

The law updated procedures to allow police to track new technology, such as cellular phones and e-mail. It also removed barriers that prevented information-sharing between local and national law-enforcement agencies.

Post-Sept. 11, intelligence groups said those barriers hampered cooperation that might have helped anticipate the Sept. 11 attacks. Civil libertarians say the barriers, which were in place since the 1970s, prevented spying on U.S. citizens.

Proponents of the legislation say the provisions in the Patriot Act are essential for staying ahead of present-day threats of terrorism and for updating law-enforcement tools that were crafted to fight the Mafia, not terrorist networks.

Critics say the new laws reverse traditional American notions that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty and has a right to counsel.

Rep. Filner said, "I have constituents in jail without charges, without their family officially knowing what’s going on."

Pelavin says many of his constituents in the Reform movement are unsettled by a perceived threat to civil liberties. He hopes that Kucinich’s legislation will start a dialogue about the Patriot Act and its effect on individual rights.

"I think many people are concerned that some of the provisions this bill targets do not contribute to security," he said.

Other Jewish groups are hearing the same thing. Some Jewish community-relations councils are backing referenda seeking to recall the legislation.

Some Jewish leaders support the repeal of individual provisions of the law but will not call the entire bill a failure.

"It certainly has not been our position that the USA Patriot Act is a perfect document," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. "If we were not in the middle of a war on terrorism, there would be different judgments made."

That led the AJCommittee to back a sunset for the bill that would force Congress to re-examine the Patriot Act after several years. They also support a bill that would repeal some specific Patriot Act provisions, such as the "sneak and peek" law, which allows delayed notification for search warrants.

Kucinich says the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress before members could take a full accounting of its implications. Jewish groups make the same argument, saying that time has allowed them to better understand the act and the way law enforcement uses the provisions.

"The impact, both emotionally and security-wise, of 9/11 was so big that America needed time and needed to be able to sort out the pieces of it," said Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Even with such reservations, Jewish groups also are wary of Kucinich’s strident tone.

Jews may be frustrated with some actions of Attorney General John Ashcroft, but they don’t want to demonize him, because they believe he is sincere in wanting the bill purely because it is a helpful tool to guard against terrorism.

Jewish groups also are eager to examine new legislation Ashcroft wants, including his Patriot Act II, which would give law enforcement more tools for homeland security protection. Jewish leaders say the approach is piecemeal, separating what is necessary for security from what is superfluous.

What’s clear, Jewish groups say, is that such considerations are uncharted territory. While opponents compare the Patriot Act to the herding of Japanese into detention camps during World War II and other violations of civil liberties, Lieberman says the difference now is that the threat is real, not perceived.

"You have to start from the idea that terrorism is different," he said. "You are not trying to find the criminal, because the criminal may kill himself. You are trying to prevent the crime."

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner


Although it might seem a little early for Passover discussions, Jewish law does mandate that one should begin studying the Passover laws and details at least 30 days before the actual holiday. This is probably because no holiday requires more detailed preparation than Passover. Most of the preparations for this holiday tend to focus on koshering our homes, kitchens and utensils, and, of course, the menu for the big seder meal. What we often seem to forget is that the seder is not a meal, per se, nor a gathering to sing Hebrew folk songs, but it is an educational experience that requires no less preparation than koshering your oven or preparing your main dish.

The seder table is a classroom, with the haggadah serving as a curriculum outline, and the main educators being all those who consider themselves knowledgeable enough to conduct and lead a seder. The educational responsibility of the seder leader is to be prepared to teach the meaning of the Exodus and the Passover rituals to a wide variety of audiences.

Parashat Bo sets the stage for how we are to prepare for this great educational event known as a seder. Based on the rabbinic interpretation of three verses from this week’s parsha and one more verse from the Book of Deuteronomy, the rabbis of the Midrash Mekhilta, the Talmud Yerushalmi and the Passover haggadah all state that regarding the mitzvah of teaching the Passover story: "The Torah speaks in reference to four children." Following are the four key areas of focus:

1. "Your children may ask you what is this service to you? You must answer, it is the Passover service to God." (Exodus 12:26-27)

2. "On that day you must tell your child: all of this is because that which the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt." (Exodus 13:8)

3."Your child may later ask you what is this? You must answer him, with a show of power God brought us out of Egypt, the place of slavery." (Exodus 13:14)

4. "In the future your child may ask you what are these rituals rules and laws that God has commanded you? You must tell him, we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but God brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand." (Deuteronomy 6:20-21)

The rabbis asked why the Torah could not consolidate all of these seemingly repetitive instructions (regarding teaching the Passover story to children) into one unified verse. Why is one mitzvah being repeated four separate times?

The answer is that although on the surface the verses seem thematically repetitive (children, Passover story), each verse actually addresses a different type of child, and, therefore, each verse is teaching its own separate mitzvah. Because of the importance and centrality of the Passover story, the rabbis teach us that each type of child requires a unique and different approach to the effective teaching of this story. When the Mishnah dealing with the Seder in Tractate Pesahim 10:4 states "According to the son’s intelligence, the father instructs him," it means that it is a commandment to address each child in his own appropriate, meaningful and relevant fashion. In other words, know your audience.

The fact that we have an entire year to prepare this Passover lecture implies the power and importance of its message. This annual lecture challenges us to link our past experiences to the present in a relevant, meaningful and updated fashion for every Jew.

So it really isn’t too early to start thinking about Passover. When you stop and think about how difficult and challenging it is to convey a meaningful message to such diverse Jewish audiences, the educational preparation for the seder should take a lot more than 30 days.


Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Balancing the Scales


What is the duty to assist those in danger under Jewish law compared to American law? The question is no mere academic exercise to Neil H. Cogan, dean of the Whittier Law School, who spoke on the topic last week as the inaugural speaker of the recently formed Jewish Lawyers of Orange County.

More than 50 lawyers attended the Newport Beach luncheon at the Pacific Club, the second Jewish professional group organized under the Jewish Federation of Orange County. In addition to a 10-person advisory panel, the group’s honorary chair members include Todd Spitzer, a county supervisor; Joel Kuperberg, Irvine’s city attorney, and Kenneth Wolfson, counsel to developers of the Foothill Ranch and Rancho Santa Margarita.

"What the committee wanted was to tie into Jewish life," said Jeffrey Rips, the Federation’s campaign director and group organizer. Like the Federation’s other professional group, who are real estate executives, the lawyers’ group intends to meet three times a year. In addition to socializing and networking, the goal is for each event to also count as credit toward the State Bar’s continuing-education requirement. Whittier Law School certified the first event met credit requirements.

The school’s dean said such academic-sounding discussions can take on contemporary relevance when considering the extraordinary lengths the U.S. government sometimes takes to aid its citizens throughout the world. Yet, unlike Jewish law, which compels intervention to assist those in danger, most American statutes are absent a legal obligation and instead encourage autonomy, he said.

"Having talks about Jewish law or Japanese law or Islamic law, all of that is helpful because it helps thinking," Cogan said. "Lawyers have been trained to think outside the box before it was a phrase."

Cogan, too, will have to heed his own advice to achieve the goals he has set for himself and the school since relocating from Connecticut last July.

"I hope to take what is already a very fine school and build it into a state and national school," said Cogan, 57, who competed against 100 candidates vying for the job. The school’s previous dean, John A. FitzRandolph, who over a quarter century led drives for accreditation, relocation and growth, died last March, less than a year after retiring.

The 35-year-old law school relocated to a new Costa Mesa campus in 1997 from Los Angeles’ Hancock Park. Next year, two new teachers are to be added to the 27-person faculty, which includes three teaching deans. More than half of the school’s 653 students attend full time and 42 percent are minorities. Among the graduating class of 2000, 86 percent were employed a year later.

Cogan’s goal is burnishing Whittier’s reputation by encouraging faculty scholarship and establishing specialized centers where students learn the rules of their profession. He has also added a summer abroad program, including an alliance with Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University.

"It’s really support and encouragement that will make a difference," said Cogan, editor of three works on constitutional subjects and author of numerous articles cited by law reviews.

When tapped last March for the job, Cogan had been on sabbatical, serving as a visiting scholar at Yale University and coordinator of a distance-learning venture at New York University School of Law. For the previous seven years, Cogan was a professor and dean at Quinnipiac College School of Law in Connecticut.

Cogan, one of the few Orthodox law school deans in the country, often must balance observant practices with the modern workplace. For example, bringing along kosher-prepared food to a lunch meeting would be gauche. "I have to meet people. I can’t bring a brown bag to a restaurant," said Cogan, whose typical order is a tuna fish sandwich. "I don’t neglect any part of my job," he added.

Cogan lives in the Pico-Robertson area of Los Angeles with two of his five children. His wife and three younger children will relocate later this year.

In May, the Federation will consider creating similar networking groups for the county’s Jewish physicians and high-tech executives.

Anxiety about Jewish Literature


As long as the Jewish people lives, it will generate a living culture, and as long as that culture values the written word, Jews will write books.

Individual genius notwithstanding, these books will reflect the Jewish culture of their time. The Talmud was argued and codified when the Jewish elites concentrated on interpreting Jewish law, and the New York intellectuals generated Commentary and Partisan Review when American Jewish elites began "arguing the world." In between, Jews of Spain took up poetry, and Jews of Poland created hagiography about their rebbes, each in creative response to their religious communities. The diarists of the ghettos during World War II raised the pen against the swastika in an appeal to history that was as absolute and passionate as their forefathers’ appeals to God.

Our present anxiety about Jewish literature derives not from a slump in contemporary Jewish writing, but from the insufficiencies of American Jewish life. An ignorant Jewry inhibits even the knowledgeable Jewish writer.

Sholom Aleichem, at the turn of the 20th century, assumed that his main readers would be familiar with the Jewish prayers, though they might no longer be observing the commandments. Thus, when he wanted to create an "ordinary Jew," he imagined a dairyman so saturated with liturgy and Bible that he could improvise riffs on the psalms as he guided his horse over a country road.

But when Tova Mirvis writes in the first-person plural about "the ladies auxiliary" of an Orthodox synagogue, she feels obliged to explain one Jewish ritual per chapter to educate a potential readership of Jews who may know as little as gentiles about their religion. Her self-consciousness about what earlier writers could take for granted — intimacy with Jewish languages, texts and way of life — saps the energy from her voice, which could just as easily belong to the Methodist down the block. Some Yiddish words used to draw a laugh in the general culture as reminders of the immigrant condition that American Jews had outgrown. Nowadays, every manifestation of Jewish observance is played for comedy.

Add indifference to the ignorance, and Jewishness becomes silly putty. Say what you will about the Jews who wrote in German, even Heinrich Heine and Karl Kraus — who accepted baptism as their passport to European civilization — but they never lost their awe or dread of the religion they no longer practiced.

Judaism throbs in their works as pulsating conscience and threat. They registered the high cost of being a Jew. There is no such tension in authors such as E.L. Doctorow or Grace Paley, who treat Jewishness as whatever they wish it to be. Because of the benignity of American democracy, conversion to American liberalism requires no ceremony. Modern Jews don’t have to acknowledge that they are switching allegiances as they substitute leftist pieties for the tough Jewish discipline: They can pretend that they have never defected at all. If American Jews judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times rather than judging The Times by the standards of Judaism, those writers who dream of being reviewed by The Times will reflect its values instead of God’s.

Cowardice is the third and most serious hindrance to the quality of the Jewish book in America. I wonder whether there has ever been in the history of the Jewish people a generation as craven as the one in whose midst we live. The single Columbia University professor Edward Said — who falsified his biography so that he could blame the Jews for losses inflicted on him by the Egyptians — managed to cow thousands of his Jewish fellow academics into apologizing for the existence of the Jewish State. In the 53 years since the Arab countries launched against Israel the longest and most protean war in modern history, the Jews of America have been beating a steady retreat from defense of the Jewish homeland. Most American Jews don’t even have the grit to speak out for what other Jews daily defend with their lives. No wonder Mark Helprin looks for heroes in World War I, and Michael Chabon in the comic book supermen of World War II. They would be hard put to find models of heroism among the Jewish elites of Los Angeles or New York.

The Jewish book reflects this moral collapse, and our best books are those that tell of it most honestly. Saul Bellow’s "Bellarosa Connection" registers the consequence of forgetting and neglecting what is sacred and significant. Midge Decter wrote "Liberal Parents, Radical Children," and Philip Roth adapted it as the superb novel "American Pastoral." Cynthia Ozick is our toughest naysayer, refusing the placebos of a homogenized culture. Those books are the truest that expose the ignorance, the indifference and the cowardice, reminding us through negative, if not yet positive, representation of what the Jewish people could yet become.

Dear Rabbi


Dear Rabbi,

I have been taking on new mitzvot throughout the past years. I have begun wearing tzitzit regularly and have been working at becoming stricter concerning Shabbat. These activities have come from my understanding of the commandments in the Torah and how Jewish tradition has interpreted said commandments.

I am at a loss, however, for the tradition of wearing a kipah. It seems an entirely human invention. I feel that I have a drive to want to wear the kipah more regularly and even when I leave the house. Unfortunately, I find that the drive to wear it is only to be like others, not to be more in touch with my Jewish tradition and God’s law. I feel awkward when I wear a kipah because I feel that I am observing a custom simply to fit in. That said, I also feel awkward about praying without one because I wonder if there is something to the tradition that I might be missing. I am looking for a historical perspective. Is there anything originating from Torah in this tradition, or is it something simply cultural, like the wearing of ties at formal occasions?

Sincerely,

Benjie

Dear Benjie,

You are correct that none of the 613 biblical commandments state that a Jew must wear a kipah. But the logic that flows from your premise requires some fine-tuning.

According to biblical and rabbinic thought, the Torah has been given to humanity. It calls for human interpretation to apply it properly. Were a Jew to fulfill the words of the Bible literally, ignoring subsequent rabbinic interpretation, he or she would be misapplying the Bible, since the Bible itself authorizes the leaders of each generation to interpret it for the use of each new age. We no longer sacrifice goats, we no longer own slaves. By the Torah’s own mandate, the sages of each generation are charged with mediating the Torah and life.

From antiquity, Jews covered their heads as a sign of piety and humility. Headcovering reminds us that we are always in God’s presence. It marks us as distinct, reminding us that the repair of the world is God’s business, our business.

Already by the time of the Talmud, Jewish law required a Jew to wear a headcovering during meals, study, and prayer. Please note that rabbinic law is not mere custom, it is how God speaks to Jews through Judaism. Rabbinic law has the force of divine commandment (like lighting the Chanukah lights and praising God for giving us that commandment even though it is not in the Torah).

By the way, it isn’t necessarily bad to want to be like others. The Mishnah commands us not to separate ourselves from the community, and a healthy respect for the opinions of our fellow human beings is a positive virtue to cultivate. That religious Jews wear headcoverings is a pretty good reason to do the same.

So, to summarize: it is a mitzvah to wear a kipah while studying, praying and eating. Wearing it all the time is more than Jewish law requires but is a laudable custom, since it serves to remind the wearer and those around that there is a God who rules the world and that we are commanded to serve God by repairing that world and by loving each other.

B’virkat Shalom,

Rabbi Artson

All letters to Dear Rabbi require a name, address and telephone number for purposes of verification. The names in letters used are fictitious. Dear Rabbi welcomes your letters. Responses can be given only in The Jewish Journal. Mail letters to Dear Rabbi, c/o Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 15600 Mulholland Dr., Bel Air, Calif. 90077-1599; or e-mail to artson@ni.net

Always Giving Back


Noon at the Newsroom just outside Beverly Hills. Amid the lunchtime din, CNN blares on an overhead TV, but only one diner is riveted: Lindsay Conner. The politician is transfixed, waiting for the crucial announcement regarding the then-never-ending Florida recount saga.

Politics — from international on down — has always been Conner’s passion. Appointed in 1981 to a seat on the L.A. Community College Board at age 25, he was the youngest person ever to win a citywide election in Los Angeles. Two decades have not diminished his interest in working for the community. As chair of the Government Relations Committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles since 1988, Conner works with the municipal and state government.

A young-looking 44-year-old, Conner said people can’t believe he’s been involved in local politics since the early 1980s. Their reaction, he said, usually is something like, “You’re joking! When did you start? 15?”

What sets Conner apart from others is “his persistent dedication,” said Michael Hirschfeld, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), the organization that started the Government Relations Committee.

Born in New York City, Conner’s dedication to his community began at the early age of eight, after a move to the West Coast that also brought a long-time affiliation with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He had his bar mitzvah there and years later served on the board that installed Rabbi Harvey Fields. “My parents were always proud to be Jewish,” said Conner, whose mother’s side traces its lineage to Chassidic rabbis from Russia and the Ukraine. “They certainly instilled that in me.”

With a father who worked in the music industry and a brother in entertainment law, Conner soon followed suit, working as an entertainment lawyer following his 1980 graduation from Harvard Law School (where he was editor of the Harvard Law Review). A former Coro Fellow and Wexner Fellow, Conner spent 13 years practicing. From 1986-93, he was head of entertainment at Hill, Wynne, Troop and Meisinger.

“It was a great experience for a long time,” Conner said of his now-dormant law career. But it was not enough for Conner, who needed to channel his interest in public service. Hence, his years on the community college board: Conner said that working within the world’s largest two-year college system which counts more than 100,000 students in nine colleges, was a “wonderful opportunity to give something back to the community and to L.A.” Conner served on the board for 16 years, stepping down in 1997.

Conner said he is proud of his accomplishments of that period, which included helping to implement writing across the school curriculum, battling to keep open Mission College in the North Valley and working to secure more education funding from Sacramento. “There were a lot of tough decisions to make, particularly when funding was cut in the mid-’80s. It was hard to choose the lesser of evils, but that’s what trustees were forced to do,” Conner said.

His dedication came with a price. The unmarried politician admitted that he worked so hard as a lawyer and community board member that “my social life really suffered.”

Last February, Conner joined forces with Steve Cheslow to create I-Drop, an Internet file-hosting company. As an e-entrepreneur, Conner now has the time to cultivate that elusive social life. While he has put entertainment law behind him, he has not lost the desire to give back to the community. As chair of the Government Relations Committee, Conner said he has met many young people active in JCRC who are knowledgeable and passionate.

“There ought to be a lot more of them. I’m afraid that too many bright and passionate young people in the Jewish community have either ignored or pulled away from political and community involvement,” he said.

“There are certainly a lot of people who don’t get involved. We’re all struggling on how to make the Jewish Federation relevant to a younger generation, to show them that there is value within the organized Jewish community.”

Conner is upbeat about the future, even as his mission to motivate others proves daunting. “My concern is that people may be turning inward toward their own lives and away from the larger community,” Conner said. “If we do, overall community life will suffer sooner than later. Part of the job of community leaders is to find a way to energize. It’s not an easy job. We’re in a cynical age where it has become common, even trendy, to say that what you do doesn’t count.”



Then Conner turned his attention back to the presidential election, a race that underscored, more than anything, the notion that every vote does count.

For more information on I-Drop, contact Lindsay Conner at lindsay@idropstreamnet.com

Ethics 2000


A rabbi in a small community in pre-Holocaust Europe experienced rabbinic burn-out. No matter what he did, no one seemed to appreciate it. Finally he decided to resign and enter business, hoping that this would give him some satisfaction. Prior to announcing his resignation, the rabbi went to consult the saintlyHafetz Haim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, in Radin, Lithuania. The Hafetz Haim listened attentively to the rabbi’s frustrations and his plan to change careers. When the rabbi finally finished speaking, the Hafetz Haim went over to his book shelf and removed three volumes of the Code of Jewish Law, the Yoreh Deah, and asked his guest to hold them. These volumes contained in-depth discussion of numerous rituals including the complicated laws of kashrut, the dietary laws.After the rabbi held the volumes for a few moments, the Hafetz Haim exchanged them for the much thicker and heavier three volumes of the code Hoshen Mishpat, devoted to business ethics. Turning to his guest, the Hafetz Haim asked, “How tell me which are heavier, the Yoreh Deah volumes that a rabbi constantly usesor three volumes of the Hoshen Mishpat that every businessman should know?” With this question, the Hafetz Haim encouraged the rabbi to return to his community, pointing out that being an honest businessman is even more demanding than the rabbinate.

A number of years ago, a letter to the editor appeared in The Jewish Journal admonishing rabbis for not addressing issues of business ethics. The writer argued that rabbis limit sermons to lofty ideals of ritual neglect but rarelyaddress ethical abuses. Whether that accusation is justified or not, it influenced me to refocus my efforts and note the numerous laws that the Torahdevotes to business ethics. Perhaps the most telling comment about the Jewishattitude to honest business practice is found in this week’s Torah portion. In the midst of listing the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years, laws that pertain to human rights and human dignity, the Torah instructs, “You shall not wrong one another, and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” (25:17).

The rabbis in the Talmud wondered why the Torah here repeats its warning to theJewish people that they must not wrong one another when this admonition is statedin numerous other verses. The rabbis concluded that this specific verse forbids a person from “offering advice which is not appropriate but is in accordance with theplan and for the benefit of the advisor.” In other words, it is forbidden to takeadvantage of another person for one’s own gain. In attempting to appreciate the parameters of this statement, the Code of Jewish Law (Hoshen Mishpat 228:4) states that a person must even be careful not to ask a store merchant what an item costs if he has no intention of buying the item from him. This is misleading, warns Jewish law, and is in violation of the Torah’s concern that we not wrong one another. Only if the merchant is forewarned, or itis the standard practice of the store to allow such shopping, may one act in such a fashion.

As the Hafetz Haim so wisely understood, business ethics is just as weighty, just as important, if not more so, than the ritual mitzvot we are taught to observe. The Talmudic sages likewise were certainly astute in observing thatour verse ends with the words, “and you shall fear your God, for I am the Lord your God.” As they noted, this ending teaches us, “Greater is the violation of wronging another with your words… for here it says, and you shall fear your God.”

Elazar Muskin is rabbi at Young Israel of Century City.

History’s First


Since four women became Jewish history’s first yoatzot, or female halachic consultants, a few months ago, they have been flooded with nightly calls with questions regarding everything from the laws of family purity to the ethics of prenatal testing to infertility treatments.

“Women are voting with their feet. The volume of questions is nothing short of a tidal wave. The women are getting 10 to 15 questions a night,” says Rabbanit Chana Henkin, founder of Nishmat, the women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem that runs the two-year intensive program to become a yoetzet, a consultant.

Henkin was in Los Angeles recently as a scholar-in-residence at B’nai David-Judea on Pico, where she was eager to share news of what she considers a historic moment.

“There’s been a sea of change in Jewish life for women in which we’ve watched the emergence of the first generation of Talmudically literate women,” says Henkin. “We couldn’t have done something like this even six years ago.”

There are another 17 women going through the program now, and many more applicants eager to submit to two years of intensive training and rigorous written and oral exams.

Nishmat’s yoatzot are impacting a wide swath of Israeli society. In addition to advising the women who come to them nightly — from communities ranging from secular to Charedi — the yoatzot have been integrated into Israel’s religious establishment as teachers of the laws of family purity in premarital counseling, which the rabbinate requires of all couples.

Henkin is also working with local religious councils to have the women available for questions as part of the council’s services.

Rabbinic support for the yoatzot has been forthcoming from the segment of the Orthodox community that allows women to study Talmud.

“The rabbis have realized that this is promoting a more correct Jewish observance, and at the same time it’s giving women dignity,” Henkin says.

The laws dealing with menstruation and sexual intimacy often hinge on individual circumstances, which need to be investigated and decided upon by a halachic authority. Women who approach rabbis are sometimes reluctant to go into detail about their bodily functions. Often, Henkin says, women ask their questions through the rabbi’s wife and important facts are not elicited. Or, she says, they do not ask the question at all, and impose upon themselves unnecessary restrictions.

“Just as women frequently feel more comfortable going to women gynecologists, there’s a comfort level in speaking to someone who is empathetic and with whom you feel capable of being completely open with in dealing with things that are very personal,” Henkin says.

The yoatzot consult with rabbis on questions that are complex or require original halachic innovation.

“Our women are not replacing rabbis, they are not aspiring to be rabbis and they are not aspiring to replace rabbis,” Henkin says. “They are working in concert with rabbis to provide a real service which never before in Jewish history has been available to women.”

Henkin says the benefits extend not just to those asking questions, but to the yoatzot themselves, who include doctors, lawyers and Ph.D.s.

“We’re creating an avenue for the highly accomplished woman to contribute to Jewish life,” Henkin says.

Nishmat’s other programs, serving 250 women, are similarly rigorous. The 10-year-old school, which includes year-long programs, summer programs and special classes, is at the forefront of providing venues for women to excel at intensive text study.

“Jewish life is dynamic,” Henkin says. “Nobody could have predicted 100 years ago where we would be today.”

For more information go to the Nishmat home page at VirtualJerusalem.com, or call (212) 983-6975.

Precedent Setting


Judge Pauline Nightingale, 90, says her mother taught her never to question the teacher’s authority. But when she entered the workforce after graduating from law school, she had no choice: authorities tried to keep her from practicing law because she was a woman. Not only did she learn to question authority, but she fought back and won.

Born Pauline Friedman to an Orthodox mother and a secular father, she grew up in Depression-era Boyle Heights. At 12 years old, she started working alongside the all-male crew in her father’s auto parts store.

Inspired by news articles about legal cases that her father discussed with her during work, she enrolled in evening classes at Los Angeles College of Law after graduating from UCLA in 1928. Nightingale — the only woman in her class — graduated valedictorian and summa cum laude, and passed the bar exam her first time in 1932.

Anti-Semitism was rampant in the larger legal firms, so she entered a practice with two Jewish men. A few years later, the firm was still struggling and she decided to look for a job in another field.

She took a non-legal interviewer position with the California Department of Employment. “Men [normally] interviewed men and women interviewed women,” she says. “But at that time the war was on and there was a shortage of men. So, I became the first woman to interview men.”

When she heard that there was an opening for a labor commissioner, a job in which she would enforce the working regulations for woman and minors, she realized it was a “golden opportunity” to work as an attorney. But the position was only open to men. “I protested the restriction,” she says.

After she passed the exams, she was told that she would have to work “irregular hours” from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — a last-ditch effort to dissuade her from taking the job. Instead, she accepted the position and worked those hours for a full year.

When she was finally transferred to the day shift, she hoped that she would finally be able to use her legal knowledge. Instead, she was assigned to check businesses to make sure that the urinals in the men’s toilets were adequate. She had never so much as seen a urinal before, but did the job for six months.

Her next job finally put her legal skills to use. She spent 20 years working as counsel for State Labor Commissioner Sigmund Arywitz recovering wages and vacation pay, and enforcing lien laws.

Then in 1963, Nightingale applied for a worker’s compensation judgeship, along with five other women. “They still didn’t want women,” Nightingale says. “All of the women passed the written exam, but we were disqualified during the oral exam.” Three of the women reapplied, and despite some difficulty all passed. Nightingale went on to serve as a judge for 10 years.

After stepping down from the bench in 1973, she became active in ORT, Technion and Hadassah. She belongs to three congregations: Knesset Israel, Temple Shalom, and Temple Emanuel (she is especially fond of Rabbi Laura Geller.)

Nightingale was recently presented with the Outstanding Older Worker in California award and a Lifetime Achievement Award by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. “I was impressed that I received the awards, considering the fact that I’m a woman.”

Despite these and other accolades, she isn’t resting on her laurels. Nightingale spends less time in the courtroom these days and more writing letters to the California Supreme Court. “I still haven’t achieved what I want to achieve. I have cases I filed back from 1986 that I’m still fighting.”

Nightingale is happy to have seen the number of women studying law increase from almost nothing to 50 percent in her lifetime.

“I still think this is a man’s world, but women have made tremendous progress,” Nightingale says.

Alexis Sherman contributed to this article .

The Laws of Life


Among those who left Egypt, there were two — Berel and Shmerel. As slaves, these two had grown so accustomed to looking down at the ground, they could no longer lift their eyes.

And, so, when Moses brought Israel across the Red Sea, Berel asked Shmerel, “What do you see?”

“I see mud,” he responded.

“I see mud too. What’s all this about freedom? We had mud in Egypt; we have mud here!”

When Israel stood at Mount Sinai, Shmerel asked Berel, “What do you hear?”

“I hear someone shouting commands,” he answered.

“I hear commands too. What’s all this about Torah? They shouted commands in Egypt; they shout commands here!”

Finally, after 40 years, when Israel arrived at the Promised Land, Berel asked Shmerel, “How do you feel?”

“My feet hurt,” he replied.

“My feet hurt too. What’s all this about a Promised Land? My feet hurt in Egypt; my feet hurt here!”

Removing the external chains of slavery doesn’t make a person free. The body is unfettered, but the mind remains in bondage. “One of the great liabilities of life,” declared Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in one of his last sermons, “is that all too many people find themselves living amid a great period of social change, and, yet, they fail to develop the new attitudes, the new mental responses, that the new situation demands. They end up sleeping through a revolution.”

Freedom, in the Torah, comes in two parts: the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the revelation of law on Mount Sinai.

Why law? Law seems an odd place to find spirituality. Law is technical and dry. Law is about conflict and confrontation. Law is a restraint on the lowest parts of ourselves. In Western culture, law is an instrument for achieving social order — a way to keep us from killing one another.

Now consider a law from Maimonides Mishna Torah, Code of Jewish Law: You must give charity to the poor. You must give at least one-tenth of your income, but may not give more than one-fifth. When you give charity to the poor, the dignity of the poor must be respected. You may not humiliate the recipient of charity. Anonymous giving, where neither donor nor recipient are aware of one another’s identity, is best. Even better is to provide employment or business opportunity, thus alleviating the need for further assistance.

Notice how this is phrased. It doesn’t say the poor have a right to receive charity. This isn’t an entitlement program. It says you have an obligation. It is a mitzvah, a commandment. This is the core concept of Jewish law: You are obligated because you are covenanted.

This law speaks not to the lowest in us, but to the highest. “You shall be holy, for I the Lord Your God am Holy.” The purpose of law in the Torah is to cultivate the holy, the compassionate, the just, the sensitive within us — to cultivate the divine within us. Law is educative.

Law is a nexus between what is and what should be. Law rests upon a paradox: Because we’re human, we need law. Because we have drives, because we often forget who we are, because we have the agility to rationalize any behavior or attitude…because we’re human, we need law. But we can live up to the law only because we have the divine with us. Every “ought” implies a “can.” The command to be holy — to live a life of justice and compassion — is the strongest possible confirmation that we have the capacity to be holy. We have Godliness in us.

“The great danger facing all of us,” wrote the Preacher Phillips Brooks, “is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life.

“Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning.

“The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life’s greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God, and be content to have it so.

“The danger is that we will wake up to find we’ve missed life itself. Satisfied too soon with too little — with a life that falls short of the best.”


Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Mideast


The government is now trying to pass an updated version of the conversion law, which, it claims, gives consideration to Conservative and Reform Jewry. Yet Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the Israeli Conservative movement, says the new proposal “is merely the old conversion law dressed up in new clothes. If it passes, it will strengthen the Orthodox monopoly on conversion and put a stopper in the effort to introduce religious pluralism in Israel.”

Conversion Conflict, Continued

By trying to pass an updated law, Netanyahu’s government is once again on a collision course with the non-Orthodox movements

By Larry Derfner, Tel Aviv Correspondent

Just when everybody thought the conversion law crisis had somehow miraculously faded away, it burst back into the limelight. The Netanyahu government is once again on a collision course with the Conservative and Reform movements — and, by extension, with American Jewry — over the issue.

The government is now trying to pass an updated version of the conversion law, which, it claims, gives consideration to Conservative and Reform Jewry. Yet Rabbi Ehud Bandel, leader of the Israeli Conservative movement, says the new proposal “is merely the old conversion law dressed up in new clothes. If it passes, it will strengthen the Orthodox monopoly on conversion and put a stopper in the effort to introduce religious pluralism in Israel.”

The initial Knesset hearings on the government’s proposal are scheduled for June 22.

In brief, what happened was this: After the Conservative and Reform accepted the Neeman Commission compromise on conversion last January but the Orthodox chief rabbinate rejected it, the Conservative movement’s legal battle was reactivated. On June 4, the Supreme Court ordered the government to declare its intentions: to let the court decide the matter (which could well result in recognition for Conservative and Reform conversions), or to take the matter out of the court’s hands by trying to pass a law in the Knesset.

The government, under pressure from the religious parties, announced that it would go for the law.

But the Netanyahu government sees it cannot pass the original conversion law, because three of its coalition partners — the right-wing Tsomet (Crossroads), centrist The Third Way, and Natan Sharansky’s Yisrael Ba’Aliyah — oppose it. So the government has come up with a new rendering of the conversion law, which, it claims, includes the conciliatory Neeman recommendations.

Under the new proposal, the chief rabbinate would retain sole conversion authority (which it has always enjoyed, but by agreement, which is open to court challenge, and never by law, which is final). However, a new “Jewish studies institute,” set up by the Jewish Agency and administered jointly by the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, would be open to conversion candidates.

Nothing in the proposed new law, however, requires the chief rabbinate to convert candidates who learn Judaism at this institute, and here is where the Conservative and Reform balk.

They note that the chief rabbinate rejected the Neeman recommendations precisely because they were unwilling to have anything to do with an institute where Conservative and Reform authorities could teach Judaism. The law now being proposed by the government leaves it up to the rabbinate whether to convert candidates who pass through the institute — and the rabbinate has already made its position absolutely clear.

Yet Finance Minister Yaakov Neeman is blaming the Conservative and Reform movements for rejecting the compromise attempts and throwing the issue back onto the confrontation path. Bandel, who sat on the Neeman Commission, and other Conservative and Reform leaders accuse Neeman of deliberately misrepresenting their position.

And now, with the government selling its new proposal as having something for everyone — the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — opponents are having a hard time fighting it in the Knesset.

“It’s a difficult informational challenge because people ask us, ‘How can you oppose a law that includes the Neeman recommendations, when you already accepted the Neeman recommendations?’ And we have to explain to them that the Neeman recommendations called for the chief rabbinate’s agreement, while this law does no such thing. The chief rabbis cannot be forced to recognize us; they can only do so voluntarily. You can’t legislate goodwill.

“I’m very scared. I’m scared that the government is going to succeed in deceiving the Knesset and the Israeli public and the Jewish Diaspora.”

Bandel said that he, too, would prefer that the dispute be settled out of court and out of the Knesset — by agreement between the two sides. But with the failure of the Neeman commission, he says, a new way must be found.

‘I Am Not an Adulterer’


It was Ted Koppel who broke the news to all the world that our president does not consider oral sex to constitute adultery. That being the case, Koppel concluded, it was perfectly correct for Clinton to maintain to probing journalists that he had never had a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The president reportedly had once told Arkansas state troopers that oral sex is not, according to the Bible, adultery.

Is Clinton correct? “The answer is yes,” says Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a pre-eminent Conservative Jewish scholar on Jewish sexuality. Dorff explained that since the penalty for adultery was death, the ancient sages, as was their practice in the case of capital crimes, sought to define the act as narrowly as possible. Adultery, then, was defined as sex with a married woman.

But what kind of sex? Again, the rabbis narrowed their terms. Did the rabbis even know from oral sex? “Certainly,” said Dorff. “They weren’t bashful.”

The great scholar Maimonides, in the first chapter of “The Laws of Forbidden Intercourse,” decreed that adultery can only happen when “the penis of the man enters the vagina of the woman,” paraphrased Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and author of a seminal report on Jewish law and sexuality.

On that score, Clinton is on firm ground: He would not have been strangled — the standard biblical penalty for adultery.

But if he did do what he is being accused of doing, he would have been, under his definition, whipped or fined. Those were the penalties for prostitution, a crime the rabbis defined broadly because no death penalty was involved. Prostitution involved any form of sexual contact with a woman other than one’s wife. In most countries, including Israel, such contact between consenting adults is no crime. “But Jewish tradition prizes marriage,” said Dorff. “The rabbis didn’t see consensual sex as outside the bounds of prostitution,” even if no money was involved.

In that, the ancient rabbis have something to say to all of us today, from presidents to paupers. “Whatever sex act you have [outside marriage] is certainly a breach of trust of the marital bond,” said Dorff, who also served on the Presidential Health Care Task Force headed by the first lady. “If he did what he’s accused of doing, Clinton subjected his wife and daughter to embarrassment and a breach of trust that a man owes his family. He also violated the fiduciary relationship between an employer and an employee. The biblical definition of adultery is the least of his problems.” –Robert Eshman, Managing Editor

Religion and the State


What rights would a yarmulke-wearing child have in a public school that decides to prohibit hats on campus? What about a group of Jewish inmates who want to light Chanukah candles when a regulation clearly bans fire of any kind inside a prison? Or a synagogue or church that wishes to build or expand in a restricted area?

These are among the potential and real-life cases that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) was intended to address. The premise of RFRA was that even though “free exercise of religion” was a constitutionally guaranteed right in this country, laws that were presumably “neutral” toward religion could pose as much of a burden as those intended to hinder religious practice. Therefore, RFRA said, a “compelling interest” test should be applied that would weigh the government’s interest in imposing a law, against the burden that law would place, on free exercise of religion.

Since the United States Supreme Court overturned RFRA in June, a number of states, including California, have launched campaigns to pass similar laws to ensure stringent protection of religion at the state level. A broad coalition of religious and civil-liberties organizations led by American Jewish Congress recently urged a group of California legislators to pass a statute providing “real and enforceable, yet balanced, protection for religious liberty.”

In testimony before a special hearing of the State Assembly Judiciary Committee, Marc Stern, co-director of the AJ Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, told legislators that the danger to religious liberty today doesn’t come from “outright bans on a particular faith” and other clearly unconstitutional actions. Rather, he said, it derives from actions of what he termed “the well-meaning state.”

“The complex society in which we live tolerates, and often requires, regulation to a degree unprecedented in American history,” Stern said. “Oftentimes, the regulations are cast in a form which interferes with the practice of one faith or another. Most of these conflicts emerge because no one foresaw the clash between the regulations and religious practice.”

Stern, one of the principle drafters of the federal RFRA legislation, singled out zoning laws as common examples of how “bias often sneaks in — and sometimes dominates — hearings before zoning officials who exercise vast discretionary authority.”

For Jews, careful scrutiny of laws that affect religion are of particular importance, Stern said. “One of the reasons Jews have been able to flourish is that they’re not put at a disadvantage because of the law,” he said.

Eugene Volokh, acting professor of law at UCLA and an opponent of passing state RFRA, said such legislation would unfairly discriminate in favor of religious individuals or groups, giving them an advantage over those with deeply held moral beliefs not rooted in a particular religion. He also felt it would hand too much power to judges and courts, instead of legislators and voters. “It’s important to protect both the secular and the religious and look at each case on its merits,” said Volokh, a Russian-born Jew who teaches constitutional law. “This overall massive law that leaves decisions in the hands of judges is not a good idea.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, a Sydney M. Irmas professor of law and political science at USC Law School, said establishing a RFRA statute in California “is an essential protection of religious freedom” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the federal version. Since the California Supreme Court has tended in the past to follow the lead of the U.S. Supreme Court, without federal RFRA to turn to, state law becomes even more uncertain, Chemerinsky said.

At least five Jewish groups attended the hearing in support of a state RFRA statute. They included: the Jewish Community Relations Committee of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee and AJ Congress. Also supporting the passage of state RFRA were the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern and Northern California, People for the American Way Action Fund, San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as groups representing Muslims, Buddhists, Lutherans, Unitarians and Seventh Day Adventists. Further hearings on the subject are scheduled in the next few months.

Smooth Sailing?


Binyamin Netanyahu this week put the Bar-On affair behind him. The Supreme Court endorsed as “not exceptionally unreasonable” the law officers’ reluctance to indict the prime minister and Justice Minister Tzachi Hanegbi for the abortive appointment of an underqualified party hack as attorney-general.

The choice of words spoke for itself. The five justices shared the prosecutors’ doubts about the Likud ministers’ motives but acknowledged that the evidence might not be strong enough to win a conviction for criminal conspiracy.

“The prime minister’s decision and the behavior of the minister did not contradict the law,” the court stated. “This does not mean that they did not contradict ethics.”

The ruling was enough for Netanyahu’s purpose.

“This is a day that has made all citizens of Israel happy,” he said. “I intend to move forward and deal now with the problems connected to achieving peace and security and economic prosperity for the state of Israel.”

Not everyone was dancing in the street, but since few bothered to read the small print, the prime minister could indeed draw a line under the affair, at least as far as his own jeopardy was concerned.

There were also ethnic rumbles from Shas, whose leader, Aryeh Deri, alone now faces prosecution as a result of the Bar-On affair (he was said to have pressed for Roni Bar-On’s appointment in the hope of striking a plea bargain in his own long-running corruption trial). Deri’s supporters were quick to point out again that, of the alleged conspirators, he was the only Sephardi.

On a broader front, Netanyahu’s road to peace and prosperity is still paved with mines, not all of them sown by his Arab enemies. The prime minister this week canceled a scheduled visit to the United States. He had to stay home to deal with the accelerating crisis with American Jewry over the conversion bill, which seeks to consolidate the Orthodox rabbinate’s jurisdiction over who is a Jew in Israel.

Netanyahu also faced revolts by Natan Sharansky’s Russian immigrants party, which accused the prime minister of failing to honor his promises to subsidize jobs for immigrant scientists and for neglecting to consult the former Prisoner of Zion over the appointment of a new ambassador to Moscow; and from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism, which was threatening to quit the government’s ruling coalition over ancient Jewish bones dug up by archaeologists at Caesarea.

As if that were not enough, politicians across the right-left spectrum have been shadowed by another scandal: the police investigation of Gregory Lerner, an alleged Russian mafia don now living in Israel, who tried to buy favors by funding party campaigns in the 1996 elections. So far, no politicians have been accused of corruption.

Israelis, for whom Reform and Conservative streams of Judaism are, at best, marginal, are belatedly coming to terms with the depth of Diaspora anger over the conversion legislation, for which the Supreme Court had set a June 30 deadline.

Amid feverish efforts to patch together a last-minute compromise, the prime minister received a high-level Reform and Conservative delegation. “Moderate” Orthodox leaders and coalition politicians were drafted to explore rival formulas. Neither side, however, was disposed to yield.

At the time of writing, the stalemate remained. For Netanyahu’s National Religious and haredi partners, the Orthodox monopoly is a matter of power as well as doctrine. Reform and Conservative Jews, as they see it, are heretics. “Pluralism,” for which there is no Hebrew word, would also threaten their grip on the levers of patronage.

Since religious parties control 23 of the ruling coalition’s 66 Knesset seats, Netanyahu cannot ignore them. Their defection would bring down his government. As he is learning yet again, even a directly elected prime minister is not invincible.

On their side, Reform and Conservative resistance was reinforced by vicious haredi attacks on non-Orthodox worshipers reading the Torah at the Western Wall on Shavuot. They were spat upon, pelted with rocks and bags of excrement, and denounced as “Nazis.” The police asked them to leave because they could not guarantee their safety.

A leading Agudat Yisrael politician, Haim Miller, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, sought to justify the mayhem.

“The very fact that Conservative Jews, who symbolize the destruction of the Jewish people, came to the place that is holiest to the Jewish people is a provocation,” he said. “They have no reason to be in this place.”

In an editorial headlined “One Wall, One People,” the Jerusalem Post countered that if anyone had “no reason” to be where he is, it was Miller, who, “as a representative of the city of Jerusalem, cannot treat a sizable portion of world Jewry as illegitimate.”

The English-language daily added: “The Western Wall is not a private preserve of one branch of the Jewish people, particularly a branch that does not fully accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state in which it lives and flourishes.”

Sadly, in an Israel polarized between Orthodox and secular, the Jerusalem Post remains a small and lonely voice. And Binyamin Netanyahu has many mines to defuse.