Rabbis must navigate politics and morality


Like many others, I read Rabbi David Wolpe’s op-ed on politics and the pulpit with a sense of profound ambivalence (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 9). I found myself caught between ovation and objection.

The ancient rabbis begin in a similar place. Religion has no place in the public square because the town center is full of sin, it is depraved and consumed with self-interested politicians. “Be wary of the government, for they befriend no one unless it is out of self interest.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

The English word for holy spaces, “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning separate. Religion is a refuge against all that’s dirty and repugnant in the world. We come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, protection from the harshness of the political world.

There is a something comforting about hunkering down against the weekly tweetstorm. Something heartwarming and freeing to not be bothered by CNN for a few hours. It feels good to rest.

However, our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently.

The rabbis tell us, “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 55a). There is no sanctus in Judaism, nothing takes us out of the world. There is only kedushah a sense of holiness that pushes us back into it.

Hence my ambivalence toward the good rabbi. Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.

A state without a transcendent moral ethic of religion can become imperiled. George Washington, in his farewell address, understood that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” One of Washington’s great fears was that a society that is based in freedom would eventually free itself from morality and succumb to the bare clash of naked self-interest. As my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l writes, “Religion … acts as a check on the State’s politics affirming that that which is harmful to the general good is impious and must be altered immediately.”

Religion is a durable good for society; it can hold the conscience and aspiration that make democracy work. Religion gives a tailwind to those who want to see that the injustices of yesterday cannot dictate the freedoms of tomorrow. The rabbi’s role is not to pick winners and losers in both party and personality, but to be the navigator, making sure that both congregant and congressman do not run aground on shoals of selfishness.

I fear, however, that Washington is proving to be right. In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, Peter Beinart shows convincingly that as Americans participate less in religious activities, the more polarized our politics become. “For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict,” Beinart concludes. “It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

It is because religious spaces like synagogues are some of the only platforms of mediation today between those who look and act enough like us so that we can listen to differing points of view. When we hear a rabbi teach an ethic of selflessness, transcending the ego in service to ideals higher than our own narrow desires, we can build havens of communication and solidarity in the chaos of the political world.

With the loss of these religious spaces we easily lose our affection for one another. Without sacred humility we lose the capacity to hear one another. If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society.

Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.


Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

80% of Reform rabbis are Democrats. That’s higher than any other clergy.


The vast majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis affiliate as Democrats, according to a new study.

The study, published Sunday by Yale University, found that more than 80 percent of Reform rabbis, and about 70 percent of Conservative rabbis, affiliate as Democrats. Both were among the top five most Democratic clergy of the Jewish and Christian denominations in the United States, with Reform rabbis topping the list.

Among Orthodox rabbis, nearly 40 percent identify as Democrats and a quarter as Republicans.

By contrast, Evangelical pastors are almost all Republicans, as are most Baptists. The Black Protestant African Methodist Episcopal clergy, as well as Unitarians, are heavily Democratic. Catholic priests are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The study’s findings reflect existing data on the politics of American Jews. Solid majorities of American Jews consistently vote for Democrats — 70 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the November presidential race — with polls showing that Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican. Reform Jews have been on the front lines of protests against President Donald Trump.

Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, various studies show. One-third, or 35 percent, of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18 percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 6 percent with other movements and 30 percent with no denomination, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Yale study also shows that rabbis’ political views track with congregants’ views on policy. For example, 40 percent of Orthodox rabbis are Democrats, and some 40 percent of Orthodox congregants are pro-choice, while about 30 percent of congregants believe gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry. Likewise, large majorities of Conservative and Reform rabbis are Democrats, and large majorities of their congregants are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA earlier this year that Reform rabbis’ generally liberal politics are a reflection of their Jewish values.

“The idea of Jewish spiritual community being about feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, caring for the stranger — these are fundamental core pieces,” Jacobs said in January. “If we don’t talk about those things in our religious communities, we’re irrelevant.”

Orthodox Jews also cite Jewish values in explaining their support for Republicans, noting a preference for the GOP on Israel and conservative support for school choice programs and religious exemptions for various government mandates.

In total, the data cover 186,000 clergy, including approximately 2,700 rabbis. The data were collected via denominational websites cross-referenced with voter registration records. Some denominations and religions — including Mormons and Muslims — are not included due to lack of reliable clergy lists.

The data also show that the Reform rabbinate is the second-most female of any denominational clergy. Forty-five percent of Reform rabbis are women, as opposed to an average of 16 percent across the denominations surveyed. About a quarter of Conservative rabbis are women; nearly all the Orthodox clergy are men.

An analysis of the data by The New York Times found that rabbis on average lived in the most affluent neighborhoods of any clergy. The median household income of Conservative rabbis’ neighborhoods is nearly $100,000 on average, compared to a national median household income of $53,000. The Times article noted that average neighborhood income does not necessarily reflect pastors’ salaries.

Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel


I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

The Case Against a Kosher Casket By David Zinner


[Ed. Note: Again this week, I am presenting a previously published blog entry. We are working on improving the presentation of the blog articles for readability, style, and appearance. I would appreciate hearing from you about this blog, particularly if you are having any difficulties, problems, or issues accessing or reading it. If you have any comments – or a blog submission, please contact me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org. — JB] 

Kosher Casket

A Kosher Casket?

A Kosher Casket?

Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.

Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.

Simple & Inexpensive

The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.

Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.

 Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.

Jewish Law (Halachah)

The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”

In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.

Plain Pine Box

It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.

David Zinner

David Zinner, Executive Director of Kavod veNichum

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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester starting March 28, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

RECEIVE NOTICES WHEN THIS BLOG IS UPDATED!

Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Pro-Israel supporter in New York City. (photo credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Young Jews in America and Israel: Rising levels of religiosity, widening political gap


Conferences are a good way of meeting people and listening to what they have to say, often based on information that they have and you don’t. So last week, at the JPPI conference on the future of the Jewish People, I listened attentively to Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University as he presented a few numbers from a paper he authored with Ariela Keisar of Trinity College. He then kindly agreed to send me the slides that the two of them presented at the conference of the Association of Jewish Studies back in December of last year.

Like many papers, it has a fancy name: Contrasts and Comparisons of American and Israeli Jews: Millennials Under Scrutiny. Like some papers, behind the name there is information. In this case, it’s information about a group that the professional Jewish world is highly concerned about: millennial Jews in Israel and America. The two studies by PEW, in America and Israel, have comparable numbers to work with. So the authors decided to compare these two groups.

They are different, of course. Beginning with the fact that some Israeli millennials are still serving in the military while their cousins in the US go to college. Continuing with the fact that most US millennials are still single (90%) while their Israeli cousins have already begun getting married (31%) and having children.

DellaPergola and Keisar have discovered a few interesting things about Jewish millennials in the two largest and most significant Jewish communities today. For example: that religiosity among Jewish millennials is on the rise – a result, no doubt, of the demographic composition of this group compared to other groups of Jews (that is, it is more heavily Orthodox). The authors looked at the percentage of Jews agreeing with three statements: Weekly attendance at religious services; Religion is important in my life; I believe in God or universal spirit.

Take a look at the graph: younger Jews in Israel are becoming more religious, and so are younger Jews in America (in which you can also see a clear difference between Jews that were and were not “raised Jewish”).

Gap1

In a similar way – looking at the number of Jews who agree with three statements – DellaPergolla and Keisar examined the sense of peoplehood among younger Jews. The statements are: Being Jewish is important in my life; I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews around the world; and I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In this case, the response is split: those raised as Jews – in Israel or America – feel more Jewish than the older generation. But the sense of peoplehood among those who weren’t raised Jewish is in decline (this should not come as huge surprise).

Take a look:

Gap2

The Israel support index is based on positive responses to two statements – and in this case it is possible to make the case that maybe the questions do not reflect exactly what the authors claim (support for Israel). The statements are “Caring about Israel / Living in Israel is essential to my Jewish identity”; “the Israeli government is making sincere efforts to bring peace with Palestinians.” Clearly, the first statement is direct and reflects support or identification with Israel. But the second question is trickier: does disagreeing with the contention that a certain Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace make a person less supportive of Israel? In recent JPPI studies we asked groups of Jews the same question and found what DellaPergola and Keisar also found: that Israel’s efforts are not considered sincere by many Jews in other countries. But they show us that the lower the age, the higher the skepticism of Israel’s sincerity.

The same doubt can be raised about the index they call Jewish Nationalism and which is based on the following three questions: Settlements help Israel’s security; God gave the Land of Israel to Jews; I do not think a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. Why do I find this index somewhat problematic? Because the first and third statements are political in nature, but the second is a cultural-theological question. In other words: the authors inadvertently assume that believing in a God-given land is connected with believing in the benefit of the settlement project. And while this assumption is probably valid in the real world – I do not think it is valid in the world of ideas.

DellaPergola and Keisar examined other questions, but sticking to politics, their last graph is the most interesting – as it paints vividly what we recognize as the growing political gap between young Israelis and young Jews in the US.

This graph uses again the “Israeli efforts for peace sincere” statement, but adds to it the mirror image statement “Palestinian efforts for peace sincere.” The index based on these two statements shows the percentage of difference between sincere Israeli and sincere Palestinian efforts, among young Israelis, young “raised Jewish” American Jews, and young American Jews (including those who weren’t raised Jewish). The result is a graph that tells the story of a growing gap. Young Israelis have much more confidence in Israel’s sincerity compared to the sincerity of the Palestinians, while US Jews don’t see as much difference between the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Here it is:

Gap3

What do we learn from this? That Israel might be successful in convincing its youngsters of its narrative, but it fails to convince young American Jews that it still wants peace. If young Jews in America, as they grow older, will view Israel as a country that doesn’t pursue peace, it will surely make it more difficult for them to support it – no matter if they are correct in their conclusion or widely off the mark.

The abuse of Halacha: Keeping Halacha under control


Judaism is in trouble. More and more of the unacceptable is being done and said in its name. Besides causing infinite damage to Judaism’s great message, it is a terrible desecration of God’s name. And all of this is seen and heard by millions of gentiles watching television, browsing websites, or listening to the radio. Many are repelled when they witness horrible scenes in which Jews attack each other in the name of Judaism. Media outlets around the world portray religious Jews in most distressing ways. While it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism plays a role and tends to blow the picture out of proportion, the unfortunate fact is that much of it is based on truth. Non-Jews are dumbfounded when they read that leading rabbis make the most shocking comments about them, thereby demonstrating gross arrogance and discrimination. Even worse, many of them read about rabbinical decisions that seem to lack all moral integrity. 

Twenty one years ago, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the name of Halacha (Jewish law), claiming that the prime minister was a rodef (someone who is attempting or planning to murder) because he brought all of Israel’s citizens into mortal danger by having participated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Amir therefore believed that the prime minister deserved the death penalty according to Jewish law. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs in a mosque because he believed that Judaism obligated him to create havoc in order to stop Arab terror attacks, which had already killed thousands of Jews. Several years ago, the book Torat HaMelech was published. The authors, learned rabbis, argued that it was permissible to kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, if they became a serious potential threat to Jewish lives. Minorities such as the LGBT community are being insulted by powerful rabbis who seem to be ignorant of the multifarious circumstances of fellow human beings. Less than two weeks ago, a most important and brilliant ruling issued by the Tzfat Rabbinical Court in 2014, concerning a get in which a woman was freed of her agunah status, was suddenly challenged by the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel. The latter completely ignores the fact that such a move is not only halachically intolerable (See Rabeinu Tam….) but undermines the very institution of Jewish divorce itself. And so on. 

How can it be that such things are carried out, or even expressed, in the name of Judaism and Jewish law? Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Judaism is fully aware that nothing within genuine Jewish law would condone, or even suggest, such outlandish ideas and immoral acts. 

Why does this happen? 

Throughout the years, several rabbinical authorities have made the major and dangerous mistake of reducing Judaism to a matter of law alone, a kind of Pan-Halacha. They sincerely believe that Judaism consists only of rigid rules. In this way, they are paradoxically similar to Spinoza, who was also of this opinion and therefore rejected his faith. He referred to it as obsessive, a type of behaviorism, and an extreme form of legalism. (See, for example, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus III, IV, and XIII.) That Spinoza made this claim is one thing, but the fact that these learned rabbis agreed with him is an unforgivable blunder. Nothing is further from the truth than labeling Judaism a legal religious system without spirit, poetry, and musical vibrations. This is proven by the almost infinite amount of religious Jewish literature that deals with non-halachic matters. 

The main reason for this terrible mistake is that these rabbis have failed to study the basic moral values of Judaism as they appear in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). It is well known that, with a few exceptions, this book does not contain laws; it is mainly narrative. To appreciate this, one needs to consider the following. 

In this first biblical book, we encounter Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as the foremost players. They are considered the first Jews in history. But this makes little sense. How could they have been Jews if the Torah was given only hundreds of years later to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Although a Jew is a Jew even if they do not observe the laws of the Torah, it is still the Torah that defines them as such. How, then, could the Patriarchs be full-fledged Jews when the Torah was denied to them? Would it not have been logical to have given the Torah to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives long before Moshe? Only upon receiving the Torah could they have been real Jews! So why was it withheld from them? (Even though some midrashim claim that they did observe several commandments, it is clear that this was done voluntarily.) 

The answer is crucial. No law, including divine, can function if it is not preceded by a narrative of the human moral condition and an introduction of basic ethical and religious values. These values cannot be given; they must develop within, through life experiences. No academic instruction, not even when given by God, would be of any benefit. Such ethics need to develop gradually, on an existential level, and predicated on innate values that God grants to each person at the moment he or she is born; a kind of categorical imperative in the human soul. 

More than that, laws become impersonal and therefore dangerous because they cannot deal with emotions and the enormous moral paradoxes encountered by human beings. As a result, they run the risk of becoming inhuman and even cruel. 

It is for that reason that God did not give the laws of the Torah to the Patriarchs. First there was a need to learn through personal trials and tribulations. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had to see with their own eyes what happens when people are not governed by law. But most important, they had to become aware of basic moral values, such as the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that all are equal, that human life is holy, and that there is only one God Who is at the root of all morality. Only after people have been deeply affected by these ideas and values can law be introduced as a way to put it all into action. 

It was only after the existential, moral turmoil in which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov frequently found themselves, as well as their often problematic encounters with God, that a virtuous and religious awareness was born. This consciousness continued to work its way, with all its ups and downs, through the bondage in Egypt, the Exodus, and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Not until that point was there a chance that the law could be received and be beneficial when given at Sinai. And even then it was not very successful, as recorded in the many disturbing biblical stories about the Israelites failing to live up to the law in Moshe’s days and long afterwards. 

But it is not just the fact that narrative, ethical values, and encounter with the Divine are necessary to have before the law can be given. There is another important message: no law, including divine, can function without constantly and continually taking guidance from these former values. There is almost nothing worse than divine law operating on its own, without primary, innate moral values. It runs the risk of turning wild and causing great harm. It needs to be constrained. 

This is the purpose of Sefer Bereishit. (See Netziv’s introduction to Bereishit in his Ha’amek Davar.) It is a biting critique of the halachic system when the latter is applied without acknowledging that these prior moral values are needed in order to function. The book of Bereishit, then, keeps Halacha under control. It restricts and regulates it, and ensures that it will not wreak havoc. 

Truly great poskim (halachic arbiters) cannot lay down their decisions on the basis of Jewish law alone. The Shulchan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) by Rabbi Yoseph Karo, and the Mishneh Torah of Rambam can become dangerous if applied in a vacuum. What these poskim must realize is that they need to incorporate the great, religious moral values for which Sefer Bereishit stands. 

To be continued. 


Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

At Maccabi, forging Jewish identity between the baselines


When I was 10, my family got frum, and I started playing baseball. Oddly, the overlap wasn’t a coincidence: Our new rabbi added me to his Little League team and taught me how to throw; I broke in my first mitt — and a new peer group — playing catch with his son. For me, a connection between the national pastime and Judaism is not just easy to make on a personal level. It’s seminal to my interest in both.

I’m not sure that’s what qualified me to coach a cadre of bright-eyed, bar mitzvah-aged ballplayers in this summer’s JCC Maccabi Games, an annual Olympics-style tournament for Jewish teens held in Stamford, Conn., this month. But there I was, shooing a gaggle of over-sugared charges through security and, along with more than 100 other boys and girls from our Westside JCC delegation, onto a plane headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport. That everyone in the group was Jewish — a unique, fledgling Jewish identity for every plane ticket — struck me as remarkable and exciting. There were kids who went to Jewish day school and kids who’d never had bar mitzvahs, and the vast majority fell somewhere in between. In other words, it looked like a cross-section of American Jewry.

At the same time, it seemed clear from the outset that Jewish identities would not be getting the workout on this trip. The chaperones were coaches, not rabbis, and other than the occasional allusion to “Jewish values,” the programming stuck to sports. Religion was more a selection criteria than unifying theme, and it stayed in the background most of the time. Which was fine! The kids were being Jewish without their parents; for more than a handful of them, the games could end up being the only Jewish thing they do all year.

Maccabi’s ideologically aloof playing field instead lent itself to a more organic contemplation of Jewish faith, at least on the team I coached. In fact, it turned out to be the ideal space for dialogue — low-stakes, diverse and totally voluntary. When Judaism did come up, I observed these sunflower seed aficionados shell, chew and spit religious ideas with bracing open-mindedness and originality. The discussions were more brief than shallow; these athletes were also budding intellectuals, which is to say, growing friends.

It started during the Friday night meal at our hotel — you couldn’t really call it Shabbat dinner since there was neither Kiddush nor challah — when the boys started considering who at the table was “actually” Jewish. “Both my parents are Jewish,” our center fielder began, with a modest whiff of self-assurance. “I’m half,” volunteered the left fielder, rather fearlessly. Which half? the others needed to know, for obvious reasons. “My dad is Jewish,” he responded, evidently knowing where this was headed because he then added, “I have Jewish blood.”

The crowd was tougher than the sell. “But you’re not Jewish!” the center fielder exclaimed. Here, I finally jumped in with what is at least tacitly Maccabi’s eligibility guideline: “You’re Jewish if you say you’re Jewish,” I said. “Who’s to say you’re not?” “The Conservative movement,” quipped the center fielder, who goes to Jewish day school. The left fielder (a Hebrew-schooler) called him off, unimpressed: “Who gives a” — and here he said a word that I, his baseball coach, did not teach him and do not condone using — “about the Conservative movement?” They laughed, and went back to testing each other’s memorization of baseball statistics.

Later that week, at an amusement park for their evening activity, two teammates broached the topic of God. While working on a mouthful of hamburger, our second baseman volunteered his theory that the ocean — the origin of life and forever unknowable — is God. Our shortstop countered that God might be the invisible, all-powerful force of gravity. The middle infield got pretty abstract.

All the while, their rookie baseball coach felt stuck, torn between helping them navigate Jewish ideas and just letting them make a fine mess. Was I to join these conversations and risk curtailing their reach? (Is God not on land or in space? I asked, unhelpfully.) What did these restless, creative minds — whose spiritual bandwidth was just beginning to stretch — have to gain from anything I had to say? Sure: God can be anywhere you look. Does saying that really help someone who is already experiencing God at the beach? And of course: Your parents don’t determine whether you’re Jewish, you do. Does that help a young Jew, who’s already comfortable defying the Conservative movement, understand that faith is inexorable, and inexorably personal?

Our oldest player was barely 14 years old — he and his teammates are a long way from answering Judaism’s big-picture questions, and that’s as it should be. What’s important is that they have already started to talk about those questions — and that their new friends will listen to and challenge their ideas as they evolve. They went to Connecticut to play baseball, and yet here they were, negotiating Jewish identity. And, perhaps, forging a meaningful connection between their Jewish experience and their favorite sport. I can’t say where any one of them will wind up. It was just a treat to see all of them on their way.


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles who can now say he has coached baseball. You can find more of his writing on his website at VICE Sports, and at www.keene.la.

Forgiveness


I was standing with my brother on the top floor of a hotel in Atlanta having checked in for a conference he had organized.  The elevators were jammed and they didn’t have enough to accommodate all the guests.  More, some of them went to the lower floors and others to the upper.  We stood waiting for a long time.  I looked at the six doors, and said, “You know, not all of the elevators even come to this floor.” My brother looked at the doors, and then backs at me. “Um, David” he said, “These do.” 

We laughed uncontrollably.  When I told my sister-in-law, she recounted how her brother, a navy seal, was in his final exams for the position and his commanding officer walked him around the pentagon.  “Now you understand the structure of the building?” he was asked.  “Yes” he answered, “its an octagon.”  “Noooo” said his C.O. “it’s a pentagon.” 

We all make stupid mistakes. They are often the basis of humor.  For example: Once Sherlock Holmes decided to take Watson on a camping trip.  In the middle of the night, Holmes looked up at the stars and woke Watson.  “Watson” he said, “what do you observe?”

“Well” said Watson, clearly knowing he was being tested, “I observe a slight trail which suggests a shooting star.  And I see the constellation Orion.  And the moon is slightly less than half, but growing.”  Proudly, he said to Holmes, “And what do you observe?”

“I observe,” said Holmes, “that while we were sleeping someone stole our tent.”

Yes, we make foolish mistakes.  And we make serious mistakes, as well.  Often there is one way to get something right and endless ways to get it wrong. That is true in the moral sphere as well as the physical one.  That’s why the idea that you can just follow your heart, or listen to your dream and all will be well is a fiction.  We feed it to our children, but it is not true.

In fact, in the shema we are told, “do not follow after your heart and your eyes that lead you astray.”   Of course, following your heart can often bring satisfaction and depth.  But it is hardly foolproof.  Is there a parent in the world who with the best intentions and love hasn't hurt his or her child?  Or a child who has not done the same in reverse?  We wound from good intentions as well as bad, and often when we think we are following our heart, in retrospect we wish we had listened to our own reservations. 

It is a paradox that we learn as we get older, but to feel something is right doesn't always make it right.  For the world is more complex than simple guidelines, and there will always be much we do not, and even cannot, know. On Yom Kippur we confess to sins we did knowingly and those we did unknowingly. At times we do not understand the impact of our own actions until much later; the unknowings of life are cumulative, and I know how much more I don’t know now, than I used to know when I knew less! 

We go about jangling the heartstrings of others, carelessly and painfully, often without meaning to.  That recognition should sting; it is not against Jewish law to feel bad, or have a sense of sin or sleepless nights. 

Yet we neglect this lesson with our children.  Too often when I ask the bar or bat mitzvah child, “What would you like to change about yourself,” I get the proud answer – “nothing!” I see that the child thinks it is the “right” answer.  Actually, it is exactly wrong.  Is there nothing to do teshuva for, to improve, to do less or more or better?  The idea that we are perfect on instinct is pernicious and untrue.  We can hone our instincts and be better, but the world does not allow for seamless perfection.  Moral struggle is essential, and we need to teach its reality to our kids.

Heschel was once approached by a man who said he did not feel he needed the synagogue or God because he was a pretty good person.  Heschel answered, “I envy you.  I don’t feel so good – I am always saying or doing the wrong thing, hurting someone by words or silence.  I need God, and I need prayer.”

Just as it is dangerous to be without a sense of sin, it is dangerous to luxuriate in it.  We cannot be stuck in sin, mired in our own mistakes. The Jewish answer to a serious sense of our own moral struggle, mistakes and sin is forgiveness.  Sin is our action, not our identity. 

To forgive is hard.  To forgive someone else, you must give up your power over them, release your grudge.  No longer do you get to feel morally superior, since they hurt you.  We are all in need of forgiveness, human and divine, because no one gets it right all the time.

And if we do some emotional excavation. we discover that the same sense of over-expectation that we direct to others, we focus on ourselves.  As we need to forgive those who have hurt us, we need to forgive ourselves.  If we understand that mistakes and even sins are inevitable, are human – then we can forgive ourselves. 

After all, to judge yourself is to be weirdly split.  Who is the “I” that is judging “me”?  To forgive is to reach wholeness, shelemut.  We recognize that another person is like us, so we reunite as common, flawed humans.  And we realize we are one person, so the sin and the judgment come from the same individual who can let both go.

We all of us, of the broken lives and the picked up pieces, of the faltering promises and mislaid resolutions, we who walk in darkness with flickering lights, who know we might be better.  And we know that the release of forgiveness helps us to be better.

Yes, we have serious requirements for forgiveness.  You have to try to make it right, to apologize, resolve not to commit the same transgression.  Forgiveness is not an escape hatch, it is a struggle and a gift. 

And yet.  If you have ever forgiven, truly forgiven, or been forgiven, you know that it is a transcendent moment.  The moment of forgiveness is one of those in which the human and the Divine touch.  It is the reaching toward one another, as in the famous depiction by Michelangelo of God and Adam.

Michelangelo, we are told, used to keep a candle in his cap, to eliminate the shadows on the picture he was painting.  Forgiveness is that candle, the one we carry with us, that brings light into the world.

You can carry that candle for others, and for yourself. 

Many years ago my father told me a story of Calvin Coolidge, who was famously laconic.  To get more than a few words form him was a chore.  Once, he returned from church, and his wife asked, “What did the preacher talk about?”

“Sin.” He answered. 

“What did he say?”

“He was against it.”

I hope this does not resolve to “What did the Rabbi talk about?” 

“Forgiveness.”

“What did he say?”

“He was for it.”

It isn't that I'm for it.  It is that I believe that without it, we are doomed, and with it we are saved. Not saved to another world, but saved in this one. 

If God can forgive us, surely we can forgive ourselves and one another?  We cannot do it all at once, but begin forgiving others, forgiving yourself.  You will discover when you do the reality of God's light and warmth, and feel some peace.

Happy new year, Pope Francis


Dear Pope Francis,

I’m sure your much-anticipated visit to the United States was not timed to coincide with our season of holy days, a time of personal renewal and return to God, all in celebration of the world’s creation. But we are delighted to share this special season with you, since you are a religious teacher who so deeply appreciates its meaning. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the most urgent task of religion in the 21st century will be that of helping humanity to understand that we must change our attitude toward the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we come to see ourselves as responsible stewards of this planet and its resources, rather than their consumers, we will simply not survive. The changes in behavior that will be required of us, both as individuals and societies, are great. They will not be effective if they are simply imposed upon us from above, either by governmental fiat or international declaration. They must rather be changes of heart and mind, welling up from below and leading to a different and more modest way of living, a sense that we all share this beloved planet with one another and with all of God’s creatures, and that each must be given its due. Religion, including the spiritual traditions of all humanity, is the greatest key to that transformation of human hearts and minds.

Your recent encyclical Laudato Si’, “On Care for Our Common Home,” demonstrates your awareness of this and your readiness to turn the vast resources of the Catholic Church toward this purpose. I greet this document with great and humble gratitude. Your firm leadership on this issue will make a great difference to our world, hopefully opening the doorway to responsible action by political leaders who will follow your example. We, the Jewish people, “the fewest among all the nations” (Deuteronomy 7:7), cannot sway so vast a population. Nor is our voice as united as that of your single church. Nevertheless, we share with you — and with all others whose faith is rooted in the Abrahamic tradition — a most important resource, one I would like to call to our collective attention, working together to make it useful in the great struggle that stands before us. I refer to our shared faith in the world’s creation, that which we celebrate in this season.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stand on our faith in God as Creator. The seven-day creation story of Genesis 1, culminating in God’s sanctification of the Sabbath, is the tale of origins that helped to create and sustain Western civilization over more than 2,500 years. While most of us no longer relate to that narrative literally, accepting that our world is many billions rather than 5,776 years old, it remains a guide to our spiritual sense that the natural world is shaped by a divine hand or infused with divine presence. The Psalmist taught us all to hear the chorus of praise that emerges from every creature and to view ourselves as part of that great symphony.

The transition from literal faith in the Genesis story to acceptance of the current tale of origins as told by astrophysicists, geologists and evolutionary biologists has been a wrenching one. Too many of the forces of our religious traditions were devoted to a hapless fight against the emerging scientific consensus. Instead, they should have been concentrated on preserving what is most important: our ability to view the world with a sense of awe and wonder, an understanding that the miraculous is present within the everyday, that the natural world is the supernatural, if we learn how to truly open our eyes to it.

That is the faith we must work together to preserve, the language we must learn to speak again. The evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all, if we learn how to open our hearts to it. We must learn how to use our faith in creation not to fight the scientific paradigm, but to infuse it with the sense of the sacred that is our true shared mission. That will offer us a vision of sufficient depth with which to turn to humanity and cry out: “Help us to preserve God’s world!”

Since we Jews believe in embodying great truth in concrete deeds of religious praxis, I have recently issued a call to faithful Jews around the world to renew our ancient practice of calling out the day of creation, from the Genesis narrative, on each day of the week. This daily practice is there to remind us that we live in a created world, that such resources as air, soil and water are all gifts of God, that forests and grasslands, birds and fishes, are all divine handiwork. “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was — and still is — very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Welcome, Your Holiness. We are deeply in debt to your wisdom and leadership on this matter. Let us set aside theological divides and painful histories to work together on this most vital of all issues.


Rabbi Arthur Green is rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School and author of “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers.” This column originally appeared in Wexner Fellows newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Power plays


I want to share a story about a couple who’ve been married for 19 years.

Their relationship is a series of power plays in which they subtly and sometimes not so subtly try to control one another.

They're’ from the Boston area. 
They have 2 kids
. Both have special needs – one learning, one emotional. She used to work outside of the home, has a PhD in science, but stopped working when her children’s needs became a full time job.

He makes a good living in law.

Here’s where their control issues come to play: She wants to move from the big city, to be in a house surrounded by trees, have a less-stressful life, downsize their financial pressures and be able to reconnect with her professional passion.

He says she’s not realistic, he needs to work long hours in his big-city practice to support their family’s needs. How could she insist that they move away from his parents just because she’s unhappy with the big city? How could she uproot their family right at the time their kids are finally enrolled in suitable schools that address their learning and emotional challenges?

She says he doesn’t consider her feelings, wants and needs. Though she loves him, she’s lonely and disconnected from her husband.

He says he doesn’t want to leave his city of birth and won’t move just because she’s unhappy.

They’re literally stuck, frozen in their apartment and their marriage – because neither one is willing to compromise. Like two people in a boxing ring they stand in position waiting to see who will fall first.

Their power play deeply upsets me – as hear about how they manipulate each other in order to control their family’s future. Rather than work together as a unit, their marriage is game of who will win and who will lose.

Listen, marriage can be difficult –anyone who tells you otherwise – is lying. But frankly, ALL relationships have the capacity to lure us into power plays – in which we try to gain control over another person or a situation.

These dynamics play out at work and school, between genders, in social media, over the environment, among nations, and between religions.
Exerting one’s control over another is pervasive. And as a result it can rip apart our homes, our character and our world.

Now it’s true that sometimes it’s necessary to control and dominate another person if we’re bullied or if a nation feels its safety is endangered. But today I’d like to look at the many power plays we partake in that destroy our souls, and offer 3 some ways we can avoid the allure of trying to dominate and control others.

Let’s start with Torah.
Unfortunately Torah’s very familiar with power and control. In Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the Israelites:
“Be the head and not the tail.” (Deut. 28:13)

It’s as if to be blessed we need to be both in control of our subordinates, and be controlling of them.
The head looks forward, not back.
The head advances onward, without negotiating with its tail. Yet effective leaders are often those who use their positions of power to empower others.

What about taking the back seat sometimes or listening to the opinion of those we lead?
How about the value of being a follower or collaborator?

It’s a tough tension, because even God teaches us to relish power. Torah describes how God encourages Adam to name all the animals of the earth – an ancient tactic of acquiring control over living beings.

And frankly the power to name, can be a very positive tool of control even today.
As of this February, Facebook gives everyone the option of choosing to name oneself from 51 gender categories.

A person can be: Agender, bigender, cis, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender variant, intersex, pan gender or transgender (to list a few) – & if you don’t know what some of these gender categories are – you’re not alone.
 The point is – I imagine that those of us who are one of these genders feel validated when we can actively name ourselves. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/15/the-complete-glossary-of-facebook-s-51-gender-options.html).

Yet naming others in a demeaning or controlling way can be used as a way of exerting power over someone else. Perhaps you’ve heard of how ISIS “educates” their soldiers to name their captured women ibadah – meaning “worship,” and then instructs their soldiers to pray before they rape them, and then pray after they rape them –
justifying their violation as a “prayer to God,”
telling the women that they are their ibadah – their tools of worship. I find this obscene … (NYT, Enslaving Young Girls, Aug 14, 2015)

The Torah also gives many examples of power plays between brothers and sisters.
Remember when the siblings Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for having a close relationship with God? (Numbers 11)

It’s as if they’re vying for “Big-daddy-in-the-sky’s” attention. Sounds like the dinner fight my brothers and I would have around our table –
who got to sit at the head, how much extra food were we served, who was mom and dad’s favorite & who had to wash the dishes.

And the competition and one-upmanship sadly continues when we become “grown up” siblings:
•Like the tension when a father dies and leaves his children unequal inheritance without an explanation. • or a sister- in-law who’s controlling and pushes her spouse into a family feud…..

These power plays are usually about attention and love ….. and often they leak into our bedrooms.

Think of the power and manipulation our patriarch Jacob held over his two wives -who were sisters – Rachel and Leah.
I imagine they wondered who he’d go home to each night and if he favored one over the other.

Today there are many spouses who wonder whether their partner is out late at a business meeting -
or finding intimacy with someone he met on-line
or through work.

How about the manipulative power in the business world? Think of Korach, in the Torah, who wanted even more control than he already had as a Levite (Numbers 16:1+).
He criticized Moses for being power hungry
even though it’s clear that Korach was really interested in promoting his own ego needs.

This type of power-play in the office is all too common today. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In, cited a recent study that found that when women executives speak more than their peers,

They’re punished with 14% lower ratings,
but when male executives speak more than their peers, they’re rewarded with 10% higher ratings of competence. Sexual hypocrisy has not disappeared from our conference rooms.
(NYT “Speaking While Female”, Jan 12, 2015).

And how about domination over women in many parts of the world today?
 Should we take literally, the Torah’s teaching that when a man goes to war he can take any woman he wants by power after 30 days of bringing her into his house… or should we follow other biblical injunctions that teach that all human beings are created in the image of God? (Genesis 1 and Deut. 21:10-14)

The 14.2 million women and girls who are sold into slavery each year are told they are a man’s booty, while I assume most of us understand this as an outdated justification of holy texts to manipulate and control the vulnerable.

(UNFPA, 2012, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage. New York: United Nations Population Fund).

Then there’s the power we humans have wielded over our environment.

Remember what the Torah teaches: after humanity was created God told us “to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and watch over it.” (Gen 1:28)
But what’s going on today?!
We’re not protecting our environment.
Instead of watching over our earth
we’re watching as we level our forests,
strip the earth of its resources
and create a global warming disaster.

Let’s not ignore our children –
how about the power-plays in our schools?
It’s no wonder many public & private schools have instituted uniforms to try to level the playing field –
and even then it becomes about what shoes you wear,
your haircut or jewelry –
anything to show your status.

Or consider how social media has become a tool to manipulate and influence one’s “friends.”
Now with a swipe of a finger 25% of teenagers report that they’ve experienced repeated bullying via their cell phone or on the internet, and of the teens who reported cyber bullying incidents, 33% of them said that their bullies issued online threats. (http://nobullying.com/cyber-bullying-statistics-2014/

Power in marriages, among friends, between family members, in the work place, between men and women, over the environment and on social media – are constant tightropes we all traverse. How much we dominate, pull, push back, speak out, submit, or resign ourselves to the allure of participating in these power dynamics- constantly changes.
At work we may be submissive, while at home very dominant – Or vice versa….

This year in America, we can’t ignore the light that’s exposed the power-plays between white and black people.
The Midrash teaches that the reason one “Adam”, one person, was created first, and not two people – not Adam and Eve – was so no person could say “My ancestors are greater than yours.”(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

In other words, no matter our color, race, culture or gender – we all come from the same place and we’re all equal.
Yet – that’s not the world we live in.
Just look at the streets of Ferguson, Mo where Michael Brown was killed, or Staten Island where Eric Garner was choked to death.

As a white women reading Ta-Nehisi Coats’ book Between The World and Me I felt embarrassed.
He shares that “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.
The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

His words upset me.

I wondered as a white, relatively privileged American – what I do, subconsciously, to promote and accept racism around me?

Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, taught: “racism is so universal in this country,
so widespread and deep seated, that it’s invisible because it is so normal.”

And I wonder: how have I actively or passively participated in the invisible nature of racism?
Am I engaged in my own power-plays and not even aware of them?

Talking about race in America – and how it’s connected to power is very uncomfortable.
I confess with shame that when I worked in Central Park for 3 summers during high school, I resented and felt deep dislike toward the Puerto Rican community.
You see every year, in early June, there was a Puerto Rican parade down 5th Avenue – right next to the park – and the whole surrounding area would get trashed.
After the parade, the community would go into the park and BBQ (which was illegal),
leave their garbage everywhere (also illegal)
and drink alcohol in public (illegal).
I deeply resented the Puerto Ricans.
And then…. And then a close relative, who I love dearly, married a Puerto Rican. And she’s wonderful.
And her sister and parents are good, kind, caring people.

I had to confront my racism and rework how I viewed the Puerto Rican community.
I was forced to see them as individuals, rather than as one group of people.

And of course I have to make note of some radical Jewish extremists whose warped power-play deeply embarrassed me this year.
Though as Jews we don’t promote racism as part of our ideology, as say ISIS does, I was horrified when a Jewish extremist at this summer’s LGBT parade in Jerusalem stabbed Shira Banki to death, a 16 year old girl.
And then on that same weekend in July, a group of Jewish radicals threw two firebombs into 2 Palestinian homes, in the West Bank, in the middle of the night, killing an 18-month-old boy and his parents.
That’s a sick corruption of Jewish power!

In all these examples of control, dominance and power – whether it’s in a relationship, in the office, between genders, of the environment, among races, religions and nations – what’s gained?

Why is the allure of control so seductive?
And why do we continually fall into the trap of participating in power plays?

Well, first – Clarity.
Being right is so satisfying.

But sometimes our ability to distinguish right from wrong becomes blurry:
whether it’s a spouse gone astray,
a boss who favors men,

a white cop who strangles a black guy,
an ISIS solider before he rapes his “wife”…
we believe we are right because we justify our actions with human desire, history, culture, society or religion on our side.

What else is gained? –
the self-indulgent notion that the most important person is me, my wants, my desires, my point of view.
When we put “me” at the center –
we misled ourselves into thinking that everything that goes my way, is the best way.
And when we only look at one side,
our side,
we strip away any hope for sympathy, empathy and respect – ingredients for a balanced relationship.

And with these false gains of power plays, what’s lost? So much more.

As Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate once wrote: From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled Like a yard.

God made the world with different people, holding several points of views and various dispositions to teach us that one way isn’t the only way.
And ironically – when we focus on dominating or manipulating others, our relationships feel disconnected, stuck and stagnant.

The author Shannon L. Adler describes the effects of yielding our power in relationships:

“When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. (You see) The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road…. but what makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity — while the road to arrogance is paved with the love of self.”

I’d like to offer some ways we can walk the road of righteousness and escape the allure of the road of power- plays- to improve our relationships and the world we live.

First — I’ve found that the less I take the bait of a power-play, step back, take a pause, and recalibrate my goal of connecting rather than dominating, the more I deepen my relationships to those I love.

It’s really about walking the road of Teshuvah. And I don’t mean Teshuvah as a noun – it’s not “say you’re sorry.”
Instead it’s Teshuvah as a verb:
●It’s the act of taking a deep, honest, hard look at oneself.
●It’s the proactive review of one’s strengths and weaknesses. ●It’s the courageous act of sharing those insights with someone you trust or with God.

●And it’s the counter cultural choice to change what’s not working in your life, rather than blaming others.

If we really do this, it’s no longer about whose on top,
who’s right, or who’s winning the competition-
instead it’s about uniting, joining & coming together with those we love, those with whom we work, or those who have a different skin color, gender, culture or religion than we do.

It’s no wonder the NYT Modern Love column “Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” generated more than 5.2 million visits since its publication in January.
In case you missed it, Mandy Len Catron described a Cupid— like technique she developed of 36 questions,

which get increasingly intimate in nature,
that 2 people can answer while facing each other.
Apparently, if you follow her list of questions, any two people, even strangers, can fall in love! (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love- to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html)

The reason this technique is so powerful is because it’s really an act of Teshuvah. Teshuvah as an honest self-assessment
and Teshuvah as a turning toward the person you want to become – which has temporarily been covered with layers of arrogance or inflexibility…..

Take out your mirrors for a moment. (Note: mirrors with questions on the back were put on everyone’s seat)
The ones on your seats.
This is my gift to each of us: Our Teshuvah mirrors.

On it you’ll find 5 questions – like the 5 books of Moses. Each one focuses on a different aspect of our lives that may have succumbed to the allure of power.

The first is about an interpersonal relationship:

1. Think of one person you have hurt this year. How can you address this wound?

The second asks us to focus on our character:

2. What is one realistic change you can do to make yourself a better person this year?

The third challenges us to look at our professional life:

3. What can you do this year to become a better student, professional, parent or retiree?

The fourth expands our hearts to the greater world:

4. What is your prayer for the world this year?

And the last one invites us to open our souls toward a force or power beyond ourselves:

5. What is one thing you can do to strengthen your relationship with God this year?
(based on Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe by Erica Brown, page 126)

Let’s spend the next 10 days between RH & YK contemplating our answers to these questions with humility—
as we walk the road of righteousness.

Our challenge is to remember to not take the bait when it comes to power-plays, control and dominance.
It’s so alluring,
So easy to succumb to its self-satisfying pull, but it leaves us lonely, disconnected, and keeps us from looking at ourselves.

Instead, look into your Teshuvah Mirror, Carry it with you the next 10 days.

I wish each of us the strength to be honest on our journey. Shannah Tova.

A walk to remember: Parashat Behar-Bechukotai (Leviticus 25:1-27:34)


Most mornings, I can be found walking the streets of my neighborhood, shoes laced up, with a baseball cap firmly in place. Especially in winter, I see this as one of the great gifts of living in Southern California, where weather so often permits such a routine. 

I love to witness the lengthening and shortening of days, as well as the changing of seasons, which, as every Angeleno comes to know, may be subtle, but is clearly present. Or, in these days of purple-bloomed jacaranda trees, is advertised brighter than any Sunset Boulevard billboard.

When I walk, I suddenly take in a different view of my neighborhood, from front door colors — orange seems to be (delightfully) trending in Silver Lake — to sidewalk cracks and evidence of drought. I’m quickly connected to a different view of myself, too. I get much of my best thinking done while walking. The acts of moving and mindfully stepping inspire a similar motion in my own reflections.

In this week’s double Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites, “If you walk [telechu] in my laws and observe my mitzvot [commandments] …,” blessings and goodness will come to you (Leviticus 26:3). Leaving aside the challenging notions of reward, not to mention the fear-inspiring punishments that follow this passage if God’s commandments are not obeyed, we are left with a simple spiritual notion: Our engagement with God, mitzvot and sacred practice is meant to be active. Being an engaged Jew means, as Deuteronomy 28:9 echoes, walking in the ways of God. Jewish life is all about walking. This, of course, is the reason that we call Jewish law “halachah,” which comes from the same Hebrew root word, “to walk.”

This week, though, when considering Torah’s message, it is helpful for us to remember: There are many different walking ways and purposes. Sometimes we meander with no end in sight, and sometimes we move briskly, our destination the only point in mind. There are times for touring and exploring, as well as for exercising. Sometimes our walking is meant to be forward pushing, intentional and rhythmic. Other times it involves stumbling or dragging our feet. 

As Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, comes to a close this week, God finishes delivering the collection of laws that are spoken to Moses at Mount Sinai. Moses begins preparing to move the Israelites to their next destination. The Israelites are in a state of transition. With Sinai’s laws received, the priests ordained, the construction of the mishkan (Tabernacle) complete and the sacrificial system in operation, the Israelites are left considering what will come next for them. 

We know, as readers of Torah, that the years to follow will not be easy. As Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers, will soon reveal, the Israelites slip into spaces of doubt and distrust. They will question Moses and God’s authority. They will complain, break into active revolt and invent false memories of Egypt’s bounty. Wandering, we realize, may not be the best backdrop for meaning making, even when it occurs on the heels of incredible miracles and relational moments of awe.

As we read the final words of Leviticus and we, too, prepare to step away from Mount Sinai, we are invited to reflect on the current state of our own Jewish walking. Our ancestors’ missteps provide a cautionary tale for us. The pace we take, the path we choose and our attitude toward our own stepping makes all the difference in the world. 

I am currently enrolled in a parent-and-me music class at my synagogue with my 5-month-old daughter. One song we sing, as we all beat in rhythm on a large drum, has a simple refrain, “Walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking, walking.” I have found myself singing these words as this week goes by, raising Torah’s critical spiritual questions. I invite you to join me:

What is one spiritual practice with which you are currently struggling? Why? And how might you move the practice forward?

Where are you headed in your relationship with the Sacred in your life? Which aspects of the relationship need to be tended?

With whom are you traveling? What are some steps you might take to care for your fellow travelers?

This morning, as I stepped outside, the scent of night-blooming jasmine lingered. The boomerang effect of a series of hot days followed by cooler ones left the air feeling crisp. My mind drifted quickly toward this walking song, my feet began pumping, and my soul lifted a bit higher. Something tells me a grand adventure awaits us all as we step beyond the foot of the mountain.


Rabbi Jocee Hudson is a rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

Father says 7 children who died in NYC fire were ‘so pure’


The father of seven Orthodox Jewish children killed in a Brooklyn house fire told hundreds of mourners at their funeral on Sunday that the only way he can survive the tragedy was “complete, utter and total surrender” to his religious beliefs.

The grieving man, Gabriel Sassoon, spoke at a packed funeral chapel where white curtains separated hundreds of men wearing black hats and yarmulkes from women in modest dress.

His eulogy for the seven children, ages 5 to 16, was broadcast to an even bigger crowd outside. Many of the mourners rocked back and forth in reverence as he spoke.

“My children, they were so pure,” said Sassoon, looking at the seven small, wooden coffins at the Shomrei Hadas Chapels. The coffins were to be loaded into seven hearses headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport, then flown to Israel for burial.

Only an eighth child, 15-year-old Siporah, and Sassoon's wife, Gayle Sassoon, 45, survived the blaze, which the Fire Department blamed on a malfunctioning hot plate that observant Jews use to heat food without violating the Sabbath rules. Both are hospitalized in critical condition.

“I don't know how I could have everything and now I have nothing,” said Sassoon, who was at a religious conference when the flames broke out at his home around 12:30 a.m. on Saturday.

“There's only one way to survive this: It's complete, utter and total surrender,” he wailed.

Around the corner from the charred home, the Fire Department handed out pamphlets titled “Fire Safety for Jewish Observances” as well as smoke alarms and batteries.

Orthodox Jews closely adhere to strict rules that define rest and work on the Sabbath, which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Prohibitions include turning on and off electric appliances, said state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who represents the heavily Jewish district.

“A lot of people use these hot plates to keep food warm for the next day,” Hikind said. “They put them on Friday and they are left on for the entire Sabbath, 25 hours.”

An online version of the Fire Department pamphlet about dangers during the Sabbath and Jewish holidays tops the list with the warning: “Stay in the kitchen – don't leave cooking food unattended.”

Hikind said he uses a water-filled urn that he heats up before the Sabbath starts.

“I called my own daughter, who has six kids, to tell her to stop using that hot plate,” he said.

It was the city's fourth deadly fire in 15 years sparked by hot plates or use of ritual candles, according to the Jewish Forward newspaper, including a 2000 fire in Williamsburg that killed the granddaugther of the Satmar Grand Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum and her 5-month old baby.

Hikind said that scam artists immediately launched a phony fundraising scheme in the Sassoon family's name, and he warned followers on Twitter not to contribute.

“People's heart aches – Jew and non-Jew alike. They want to help. We don't want you to waste your money,” he later told Reuters.

Although smoke alarms are required on every floor of a home, according to a Fire Department spokesman, the New York Times reported the Sassoon home only had a smoke alarm in the basement.

The Fire Department did not immediately respond to questions about the home's smoke alarms or about previous deadly fires tied to religious observances

Eyes open and eyes shut: A pre-High Holy Days meditation


Paul Gaugin, the famous 19th-century French artist, commented: “When I want to see clearly, I shut my eyes.”

He was referring to two different ways of perceiving reality. With our eyes open, we see surface reality — size, shape, color, etc. But with our eyes shut, we contemplate the context of things, our relationship to them, the hidden meanings.

With our eyes open, a dozen roses are 12 beautiful flowers. With our eyes shut, they may be full of memories and associations — roses given or received on our first date; roses at our wedding; roses growing in our childhood home’s backyard; roses on our grandmother’s Shabbat table.

How we see fellow human beings is also very different with open or closed eyes. With our eyes open, we see their physical features. With our eyes shut, we remember shared experiences, friendships, happy and sad moments. When we want to see clearly — comprehensively — we shut our eyes.

Mircea Eliade, a specialist in world religions, wrote in his book “The Sacred and The Profane” about the pagan view of New Year. For them, human life is a series of recurring cycles, always on the verge of chaos. On New Year, people descend into this primordial chaos: drunkenness, debauchery, chaotic noise. 

The Jewish view is radically different. For Jews, reality isn’t a hopeless cycle of returns to chaos, but a progression, however slow, of humanity. Rosh Hashanah is not a return to primeval chaos, but a return to God, a return to our basic selves. Our New Year is observed with prayer, repentance, solemnity and a faith that we — and the world — can be better. 

The pagan New Year is an example of seeing reality with open eyes. Things really do seem to be chaotic when viewed on the surface. Humanity does not seem to improve over the generations. We always seem to be on the verge of self-destruction.

The Jewish New Year is an example of viewing reality with our eyes shut, of seeing things more deeply, more carefully. While being fully aware of the surface failings of humanity, we look for the hidden signs of progress and redemption. We attempt to maintain a grand, long-range vision. This is the key to the secret of Jewish optimism. While not denying the negatives around us, we stay faithful to a vision of a world that is not governed by chaos, but by a deeper, hidden, mysterious unity.

The problem of faith today is not how to have faith in God. We can come to terms with God if we are philosophers or mystics. The problem is, how can we have faith in humanity? How can we believe in the goodness and truthfulness of human beings?

With our eyes open, we must view current events with despair and trepidation. We see leaders who are liars and hypocrites. We see wars and hatred and violence and vicious anti-Semitism. We are tempted to think that chaos reigns.

But with our eyes shut, we know that redemption will come. We know that there are good, heroic people struggling for change. We know that just as we have overcome sorrows in the past, we will overcome oppressions and oppressors of today.

Eyes open and eyes shut not only relate to our perception of external realities, but also to our self-understanding. During the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we focus on penitential prayers. We confess our sins and shortcomings. But as we think more deeply about our deficiencies, we also close our eyes and look for our real selves, our deeper selves, our dreams and aspirations.

Rabbi Haim David Halevy, the late Sephardic chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, noted that the High Holy Days period is symbolized by the shofar. The shofar must be bent, as a reminder that we, too, must bow ourselves in contrition and humility. 

During the month of Elul, which began Aug. 27, it is customary to sound the shofar either as part of Selichot/penitential prayers, or at the conclusion of prayer services. Indeed, the shofar is a vital symbol of Rosh Hashanah services, and also is sounded at the conclusion of Yom Kippur services.

But shortly after Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, with the lulav as a central symbol. The lulav must be straight, not bent over. The lulav teaches us to stand strong and tall, to focus on our strengths and virtues. The holiday season, then, encourages us to first experience humility and contrition; but then to move on to self-confidence and optimism. Our eyes are open to our shortcomings; but when we shut our eyes, we also can envision our strengths and potentialities.

Rosh Hashanah reminds us to view our lives and our world with our eyes open — but also with our eyes shut. We are challenged to dream great dreams, to seek that which is hidden, to see beyond the moment.

Rosh Hashanah is a call to each individual to move to a higher level of understanding, behavior and activism. Teshuvah — repentance — means that we can improve ourselves, and that others can improve, and that the world can improve.

This is the key to Jewish optimism, the key to the Jewish revolutionary vision for humanity, the key to personal happiness.


Rabbi Marc Angel is director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org), and rabbi emeritus of the historic Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of New York City. His most recent book is a collection of short stories, “The Crown of Solomon and Other Stories” (Albion-Andalus Books, 2014).

Why evil committed in the name of God is worse


If I could ask one question of a religious person — of any faith — it would be, “What is the worst sin in your religion?”

The answer to this question can often tell you more than that of any other question about that person’s religion, or at least about that person’s own religious values. If someone were to respond, for example, “non-marital sex” or “atheism,” that would be, most of us would agree, unimpressive. These are sins in every monotheistic religion, but they are hardly the worst sins. Most of us would surely deem murder, or torture, or any serious act of immoral violence as a far worse sin.

The answer to this question is one of the few issues about which most religious Jews agree. When it comes to naming the worst sin in Judaism, they would respond “chillul haShem,” desecrating God’s name. This means doing evil while acting religious — or, to put it more simply, doing evil in God’s name.

From a Jewish perspective, as horrific as murder is, murder committed by an atheist individual or government is not as damaging as murder by a religious individual or government. From the victim’s perspective, of course, there is no difference. 

Why is murder committed in the name of God worse? Because it ruins God’s name. And belief in a morally demanding and morally judging God as the only means to a better world is at the heart of the Jewish message. When God is rendered the source of evil rather than the source of good, hope for a good world is shattered.

That is why the evil committed in our time by Muslims in the name of God and of religion has had a particularly negative effect on this generation’s faith in God. Never has atheism been as robust as it has been in the last few decades. 

It cannot be a coincidence that this period has also seen more evil done in God’s name than any time since the Middle Ages. And while religious spokespeople have, of course, condemned Islamic terrorism, few Jewish or Christian — not to mention Muslim — clergy have regularly spoken out against all this evil in God’s name. Instead, far more Jewish and Christian clergy have devoted considerable time to speaking out against “Islamophobia.” They have inferred from all the murder and maiming done in the name of Allah that it is not God’s name that most needs defending, but Islam’s. In so doing, these Christians and Jews have damaged religion and the essential religious message that God is good and demands good.

One might add that the Roman Catholic priests who molested young boys — and sometimes, but much more rarely, young girls — also not only horrifically harmed their victims but God’s name as well. 

Exactly 40 years ago, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin and I wrote our book “The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism.” One of the nine questions was, “If Judaism Is Supposed to Make People Better, How Do You Account for Unethical Religious Jews?” 

We ended our answer to that question with an appeal to observant Jews who were known to be dishonest in their business affairs: If you are known for keeping kosher and also known for shady business practices, we wrote, please stop those practices. But if you do not stop those practices, please stop keeping kosher.

If Jews and Christians better understood the commandment against “taking God’s name in vain,” perhaps the greatest sin would have been more obvious to them.

“Do not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” is how the King James Version translates what Jews call the third commandment (Jews and Christians number the Ten Commandments somewhat differently). This translation is understandable, but it is a serious mistranslation.

Literally translated, what the commandment states is: “Do not carry [or “lift”] the Lord your God’s name in vain.”

And who is it that carries God’s name in vain? The person who commits evil in God’s name. The proof that this is the correct translation is not only linguistic. The very fact that God says that this is the one commandment whose violation He will not forgive makes it clear that this is the worst sin, and that it cannot possibly mean one who says “God” in a non-religious context — such as saying, “God, that was a terrific movie.”

If religious Jews and Christians want to make a moral dent in the world, there is no greater place to start than by announcing loudly and clearly what the greatest sin is. Until then, atheism will only increase. No atheist arguments alienate people from God as much as bad religious people do. 

And when the religious world is largely silent about the religious evil that permeates our world, it reconfirms the irrelevance of God and religion to making a good world. As I said, the problem is not protecting Islam’s reputation — that is the job of Muslims — it is protecting God’s reputation.


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

Q&A with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks


Jewish Journal: What are you able to do differently now that you are no longer Chief Rabbi?

Rabbi Sacks: My first passion has always been teaching and rabbi means, “my teacher,” and although I did a fair amount of teaching as Chief Rabbi I didn’t have the chance to really focus on it. I think the first and most important thing is to be able to teach. We have not gotten there yet but I hope one day I will have a little more time for writing because I’ve written 25 books so far but the list of books I have still to write, which I’ve carried around in my head for many years is many more than 25. I haven’t even gotten halfway yet.

JJ: What do you see as your role both to the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world?

Sacks: First, as the Jewish people are concerned I repeat, I just hope to be a teacher. Anyone who has had the privilege as I had of leading a community for 22 years has to set as his or her main priority to raise up a generation of successors. So the most important thing that I’ve set myself to do is to try and inspire young Jews to become leaders. That’s what I’m doing here; it’s what I’m doing wherever I travel. I’ve said many times, for many years, that my decisive encounter was with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And I said about that encounter, “A good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates leaders.” My great ambition was simply to travel as far as I could and encourage young people to lead. I once called Judaism “God’s call to responsibility.” What I’m really saying to young Jews is, “Don’t complain about the Jewish world. Go and make the Jewish world.”

JJDo you have any thoughts on followers? Every leader needs people to follow.

Sacks: I’ve been very touched by the extent to which Jews I’ve met in America and in fact around the world have been reading [my work]…the kind of letters and emails they send, the kind of thanks that they give is just incredibly humbling. I just feel that there a lot of people out there who welcome the chance to sit and learn together about what it is to face the challenges of our time through the Torah. And I just find this big audience for that. It’s not a massive audience. But it is an audience of people who think hard.

JJ: Any thoughts on Orthodoxy’s tendency to remain insular?

Sacks: One of the many things I tried to do and, indeed, my late predecessor, Lord Jakobovits also did was to bring the Jewish voice into the public domain. And when you do that people really appreciate it. Whether they agree with you or they don’t, they like the fact that we are joining the conversation. And a lot of non-Jews say, “You know what? Judaism makes sense to me.” It doesn’t mean they are about to become Jewish but they feel reinforced by the knowledge that we are fighting for the same things as they are. And I’d love to see that happen in the States as well. One of the things we did a couple of weeks ago together with Yeshiva University was we had 500 kids who were doing what they called the Model United Nations. I was in a room with 500 kids around 18 years old…all of whom want to play a leadership role, and all of them feel very engaged with the big wider social issues of the day. So I’m getting the feeling that Orthodoxy is developing that sensitivity.

JJ: What should be the goal of Orthodox Jewry when engaging with non-Orthodox Jewry?

Sacks: I think the goal of Orthodox Jews should be to welcome every other Jew in love and respect. I think the rest either follows or it doesn’t follow as a consequence. I just think that anyone who takes a stand on being Jewish, who makes sacrifices for Judaism and the Jewish people is worthy of our respect. As for all other matters, I leave that to God. He does that so much better than we do.

JJ: It sounds like you believe that Orthodox Jews are inheriting the mantle in the U.S. of representing Judaism. If you agree with that, how can the Orthodox prepare for that role?

Sacks: You had sequences of immigration to the States. You had, essentially, the Sephardic Jews who came over, ultimately from Spain, in 1655 and thereafter. And then you had Jews, mainly from Germany, who came in the 1820’s. Little by little those communities kind of married out and assimilated. Orthodoxy found itself in the minority in the United States. There are only two places really where that was true. The United States and Israel. It’s one of the great ironies that America was predominantly non-Orthodox and Israel predominantly secular. So it took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills…to allow them to hold their own. Now, with the Pew report, it has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing. I’ve really been encouraging, as you noticed, throughout the weekend, Orthodox Jews to begin to look outward…They have been very focused inward, “How do I keep my kids frum [observant]?” And that was the challenge of the previous generation. The challenge of the next generation: “How am I going to get my kids to lead?” And that means looking a bit more broadly outward. Facing the challenges of the world.

JJ: Do you believe that religious Jews should disseminate the message of the Torah through any medium possible?

Sacks: Every new form of communication or information technology, whenever it appears, I hear kol dodi dofek [listen, my beloved knocks]. I hear God knocking at our door saying, “Use me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread my message.”…I came into the office the morning after the 27th of January 2010 when Steve Jobs launched the iPad. We all knew that the iPad wasn’t a massive technological breakthrough. It’s basically a big iPhone. But I came into the office, I said, “I have seen the face of the future.” This is the game changer. We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.

JJ: Is the Orthodox world coming around?

Sacks: I hope it is. I don’t mind whether it is or it isn’t. If we have to lead the way, we’ll lead the way. T.S Eliot wrote a poem called, “The Waste Land.”…There’s the poem, right? [Using an iPad app] You want all the commentaries to the poem, mikraos gedolot [great scriptures], right? You’ve got all the commentaries. You want to see the original manuscript with the notes of Ezra Pound. Can you see? But what is magic about this, what is absolute magic is 34 videos from the greats in the world telling you about “The Waste Land.”

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Conference explores potential for day schools


Last weekend’s Ravsak/Pardes Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, “Moving the Needle: Galvanizing Change in Our Day Schools,” focused on ways to transform day schools at a time when external factors such as the economy and demography have negatively affected enrollment. 

Hebrew College President Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, one of three keynote speakers during the Jan. 19-21 event at the Westin Los Angeles Airport Hotel, stressed that day schools are uniquely positioned in communal life to build future Jewish leaders. 

“Jewish day schools are perhaps the only Jewish institution in North America in which the value of general human knowledge and the growth and development of human beings … is so closely linked with Jewish learning and community,” said Lehmann, whose school is located in Massachusetts. 

During a two-hour discussion that kicked off a conference attended by more than 500 board members, educators, administrators, Federation professionals and others, Lehmann explored the needs of the 21st century student. He said that schools must aim to value five qualities — creativity, hybridity, particularity, spirituality and ethical audacity — but that these values must be coupled with an educator’s emphasis on Judaism’s most sacred text.

“Torah, and a community that values creativity and nurtures a strong sense of student advocacy, encouraging learners to take the risk of being creative, will appeal to our generation,” he said.

Showing an appreciation of his forbearers, Lehmann drew on words of leading Jewish thinkers, including civil rights icon Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; Rabbi David Ellenson, chancellor of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; the late Rabbi David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute; and former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Heschel’s “Israel: Echo of Eternity,” which calls for the “concept of spirituality as an education focus in our schools,” helped form the basis for one of Lehmann’s suggestions: that day schools ought to have a national summit on spirituality. Spirituality is a way, he said, to engage those families surveyed in the recent Pew Research Center’s report, “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” who said that it is a belief in God, not observance, that turns them on.

In other suggestions, he said schools should operate a collaborative Web site and that their Israel programs should go beyond “twinning,” which entails an American school partnering with an Israeli school for learning opportunities.

 “We have to push the envelope to develop hybrid institutions with Israeli institutions … [with] common Web sites, blogs and collaborative communities of learning that will fully integrate our students and Israeli peers,” he said. “That is going to excite our students and parents. And it’s a hybridity that we uniquely can milk.”

Ken Gross, Milken Community Schools’ board vice chair, was one of the many local attendees who filled the first and second floor of the airport-adjacent hotel. He attended a set of sessions titled “Board Leadership Institute,” and said the importance of the board to a day school’s function should not be underestimated.

“I believe we are partnering with other people and together we are, in our small way, creating a better world,” he said. “We’re creating future Jewish leaders, we’re creating knowledgeable Jews who can make the decision when they are adults on how they want to practice.”

One of the discussions he attended was led by executive business consultant Ann Cohen, who did not sugarcoat the extent to which day school board members face challenges. From boards’ relationships with day school staff members to board members’ communication among themselves, Cohen offered tips to the dozens in attendance.

The conference’s main organizer, Ravsak, represents, develops programs for and advocates for approximately 130 schools across North America. Its partner, Pardes, serves as an umbrella organization for progressive Reform day schools.

“This year, when we thought of how to better focus on the needs of our network of schools, we invited Pardes to join us, as a smaller organization, but where the student bodies often feel similar,” said Idana Goldberg, associate director of Ravsak.

Attendees represented day schools from a wide spectrum of denominations.

The event featured more than 75 sessions over three days. Discussion tracts included “Small Schools and a Sustainable Future,” “Design Thinking and Adaptive Leadership,” “Tefillah: New Paradigms,” “Effective Technology, Effective Education,” “New Paradigms for Israel Education” and “Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom.”

For Rabbi Andy Feig, school rabbi at Sinai Akiba Academy, diversity was important. He said that a session focused on LGBT inclusion in schools was one of the highlights for him. 

Other local day schoold represented included New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) and Wise School (formerly known as Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School). One of the event’s presenters, NCJHS head of school Bruce Powell, led a talk titled “Head of School Support and Evaluation: How Do Our Jewish Values Inform This Critical Board Role?” 

Sometimes, conferences like these produce inspiration in unexpected places, he told the Journal.

“I would say 50 percent of the work at a conference like this goes on in the hallways, goes on in-between the sessions,” Powell said. “It’s the bringing together of ideas.”

On Jan. 19, outside the ballroom where Cohen spoke, vendor booths lined a hallway in the hotel lobby. Offerings were aplenty, from samples of custom-made kippot imprinted with school logos on them to famous children’s books translated into Hebrew. 

“That’s Jewish ingenuity,” said Leon Janks, Milken board chairman (and also a board member for TRIBE Media Corp., parent of the Jewish Journal) while at the booth for Klipped Kippahs. 

Janks was talking about the bobby pins sewn into the kippahs’ seams, but, with attendees bustling around him, he could have easily been referring to Ravsak and Pardes’ accomplishment: bringing hundreds of educators  together under one tent.

Are Jewish neighborhoods a good thing?


I would like to offer a view on Jewish neighborhoods that is so contrary to accepted wisdom that I can only ask that people read this column with as open a mind as possible.

On balance, after a lifetime of thought, I don’t think that Jewish neighborhoods are always a good thing for Jews or, for that matter, for our fellow Americans who are not Jewish. In fact, committed Jews living among non-Jews often does more good — for Jews, for Judaism, for Kiddush HaShem and for relations with non-Jews.

Having lived much of my life in Jewish neighborhoods, I think I am well acquainted with the arguments for many Jews living in one area of a city. 

One argument is comfort: People prefer to be among “their own.” That is why there are black, Latin American, Chinese, Korean, Armenian and other ethnic neighborhoods. 

Another argument that appeals to Jews in particular is that Jewish neighborhoods help prevent Jews from assimilating.

And for Orthodox Jews, there is simply no choice. If you don’t live within walking distance of a synagogue, you simply cannot attend a synagogue on Shabbat or any of the other Torah holy days. And you will be very lonely on Shabbat, as there will be no one with whom to share Shabbat meals.

These are significant arguments. And in the case of Orthodox Jews, there is almost no alternative.

But there are also powerful arguments against Jews congregating in one area. 

One argument is that Jews (and any other ethnic group) often become better people when they live among those who are not members of their ethnic/religious group.

Most people grow — intellectually and morally — when they have to confront outsiders. There are, of course, wonderful people who never leave their communities. But they are the exception. Most people do not grow when they lead insular lives.

In my travels through the 50 states, my favorite Jews have disproportionately been those who live in small Jewish communities. 

Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn — having only Orthodox Jewish friends, and having attended Orthodox schools and Orthodox summer camps through high school — I know what insular ethnic/religious life is like. And I didn’t find it healthy. Among many other reasons, the non-Jew (and even the non-Orthodox Jew) wasn’t real.

I first seriously encountered Jewish alternatives to my insular upbringing in my early 20s, when I drove from New York to Texas with my dear friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Thanks to the “Jewish Traveler’s Guide,” we found the name of a Jewish doctor in Alexandria, La., who listed himself as providing a place for Jewish travelers in central Louisiana to have Shabbat meals and kosher food.

This man, the late great Dr. Bernard Kaplan, awakened my eyes to the good that a Jew living among non-Jews could do. He was Alexandria’s leading surgeon, and he was loved for his goodness by just about everyone in that town. He was, therefore, a living Kiddush HaShem. (And all his children grew up to be committed Jews.)

Kiddush HaShem is probably the greatest mitzvah a Jew can perform, and it usually concerns a Jew’s behavior in the eyes of non-Jews (that is, after all, the purpose of the chosen people — to be God’s representatives to the world). In that sense, it is obviously more likely that a Jew can serve as a Kiddush HaShem in Louisiana than in Borough Park, N.Y.

I suspect that Chabad rabbis who run a Chabad House outside of Jewish communities can attest to the power of a Jew living among non-Jews to be a Kiddush HaShem.

I also believe that they and most other identifying Jews who live among non-Jews can attest to its transformative nature. It makes you a better person and a better Jew.

Yes, it is comfortable to live among one’s own. But comfort in life rarely leads to personal growth. 

Or to Jewish growth.

It can’t be a coincidence that virtually every great Jewish religious work was composed outside of Israel, when Jews lived among non-Jews. We have, for example, two versions of the Talmud — the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. And it is the former that we study. Maimonides’ works were all written outside of Israel, sometimes in Arabic.

I cannot overstate how impressed I have been when meeting Orthodox Jews who live in small Jewish communities among non-Jews. I will never forget a black-hat Orthodox rabbi I met in the Midwest who founded a Jewish day school for the relatively few Jews in his city. He told me that he allowed non-Jewish students to attend his school. When I regained my composure, I asked him one question: Do your fellow frum Jews in New York City know about this? 

“No,” he responded.

What he did would be essentially impossible in New York.

My wife and I live in a non-Jewish suburb of Los Angeles — so non-Jewish that it doesn’t even have a Chabad House. The closest Chabad House, in Glendale (not a major Jewish metropolis either), is run by the inimitable Rabbi Simcha Backman. He has “appointed” me an honorary shaliach (Chabad emissary) in La Canada.

I think I build the only sukkah there, and when we opened our home one Sukkot, I recall the wide eyes of all the children of Jewish parents who had never seen a sukkah in their lives. Introducing Jews who have had little or no contact with Jewish life to Judaism is another mitzvah that a committed Jew living outside a Jewish neighborhood can engage in. 

I live in a cul-de-sac, and my immediate neighbors are an Arab-American couple, whom my wife and I adore. The other neighbor is Korean. My cul-de-sac is what America is supposed to be about. It’s still a good idea.


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

Ruling returns kosher meals to Florida inmates


A federal judge ordered the Florida prisons service to provide kosher meals to all prisoners with a “sincere religious basis.”

Judge Patricia Seitz of the U.S. District Court in Miami in a ruling issued earlier this month required the order be implemented by July 1, the Miami Herald reported Tuesday.

The Florida Department of Corrections had promised to reinstitute its kosher meal service in all its facilities by the end of this year but had been dragging its heels.

In August 2012, the U.S. government sued the corrections department in the Miami federal court for ending the kosher service, saying the current meal policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 that allows prisoners to worship according to their religious beliefs. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 13 inmates.

Kosher meals are now offered at one state prison, according to the Herald.

The department canceled its kosher meal service six years ago, citing the expense. An average of 250 inmates used the kosher meal service, including Muslims, The Associated Press reported. The state now offers vegetarian and vegan options.

At least 35 states and the federal government provide kosher diets in prison.

Agunah crowd shouldn’t target families


The preeminent sacred cow to many Jews is compassion for agunot (“chained” women whose husbands withhold a Jewish bill of divorce, or “Get”). But enough already: the Internet crowd attacking Avrohom Meir Weiss in his divorce from Gital Dodelson is becoming as heartless and halachically problematic as Weiss himself.

Dodelson fired the first public salvo with a Nov. 4 article in The New York Post stating that Weiss has refused her a Get for more than three years. She provided unquestionably disturbing details, such as that Weiss demanded $350,000 to back down and said “I can’t give you a Get – how else would I control you?”

I sympathize with Dodelson – and here I completely accept her version of the truth. Every agunah situation is a tragedy, more so when children are involved (the couple has a son). Dodelson’s supporters have organized a Web site, setgitalfree.com, and an associated Facebook page.

But their methods reflect poorly on the entire urgent movement to help agunot. Instead of the traditional focus on the recalcitrant husband, this bandwagon mostly targets Weiss’s relatives.

First, Internet warriors boycotted Orthodox publisher ArtScroll until it fired Weiss’s father and uncle. A Facebook commenter claimed victory, saying ArtScroll “heard us loud and clear, and they did exactly what we asked.”

Next, agunah activists turned against Yeshiva of Staten Island (YSI), where Weiss learns and which is run by his grandfather, Rabbi Reuven Feinstein. They demanded that the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) remove YSI’s accreditation and reject rabbis ordained by the yeshiva’s sister school. They also convinced at least one synagogue to cancel an appearance by Rabbi Feinstein.

“Set Gital Free” even bullied Weiss’s elderly grandmother by publishing her telephone number and urging people to “politely and respectfully” inundate her with calls until a Get is granted.

The pro-Dodelson site calls these family members “enablers” who “support” Weiss’s actions. But the relatives are pretty much chained themselves – caught in the no-win position of wishing to succor a humiliated loved one while wanting an ugly divorce resolved. Besides, who knows what they’ve said to Weiss privately?

Those who punish relatives of Get refusers remind me of opponents of Israel’s policies on the West Bank who randomly say “I know – let’s boycott Israeli universities and scholars!” Only this improvisation is worse.

No act, however spiteful, justifies a posse deciding to assault the livelihoods and reputations of relatives and colleagues. It doesn’t seem very Jewish to me: Did a horde attack Jacob because of Esau’s misdeeds, or Jonathan because of Saul’s?

So I contacted RCA Executive Vice President Rabbi Mark Dratch, the rabbi “Set Gital Free” recommended to explain the Torah basis for their strategy. To my surprise, he said absolutely nothing in halachic literature endorses communal pressure on family members of Get refusers, and he never prescribed that approach. Thus, the activists are disregarding the counsel of the man they claim is their rabbi. Orthodox Jews just don’t do that.

I later consulted Rabbi Jeremy Stern from the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot (ORA), who also could think of no text in a Jewish source describing anything like the “Free Gital” tactics – and he would know. ORA’s extensive Web site promotes many ways to pressure husbands but none to pressure relatives.

Rabbi Stern referenced the impressive “Kol Koreh” (proclamation) signed by ten leading American rabbis, including five from the renowned Council of Torah Sages and ORA’s halachic expert, Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

The Kol Koreh imposes more than a dozen harsh penalties on Weiss, but only one regarding his family: that ArtScroll must terminate the father and uncle. That directive clearly relates to the laws of a Jewish court (beit din), not those of agunot, since any man who flouts a beit din’s rulings risks retribution. But the rabbis didn’t call for a boycott. (The Facebook site’s supposed triumph over ArtScroll is absurd – as if it had more sway than our generation’s most respected rabbis.) The proclamation also says nothing about canceled speeches, disaccreditations, rejected ordinations, or harassment of old ladies.

Rabbi Schachter and several other Kol Koreh rabbis have been “consulted” throughout the process, Rabbi Stern said. But he would not answer specific questions whether Rabbi Schachter (who declined comment) approved the extreme actions against the relatives. Surely the Gedolei Hador (today’s leading rabbis) would have demanded further steps against the family in the Kol Koreh if they felt them licit and necessary.

It’s alarming that poor Gital’s agunah case would arouse the most disproportionate response in Jewish history undoubtedly due to a 2,500-word essay in a non-Jewish newspaper. Now, before you get out the pitchforks: I don’t defend Weiss one bit. I just think we should heed the measured voice of the Kol Koreh instead of the “Set Gital Free” overreaction.


David Benkof lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Hebrew at a yeshiva and constructs the weekly Jerusalem Post crossword puzzle. He can be reached at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.

Netanyahu-pope meeting at Vatican explores Middle East, papal trip to Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis in their first face-to-face meeting talked about the Middle East and plans for a papal trip to Israel, among other issues.

Also at Monday’s closed-door, 25-minute audience at the Vatican, Netanyahu presented the pope with a book about the Spanish Inquisition written by his father, the late historian Benzion Netanyahu.  The dedication read, ”To the great pastor and guardian of our common heritage.”

The Vatican said in a statement that the talks focused on the “complex political and social situation in the Middle East, with particular reference to the reinstatement of negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, expressing hope that a just and lasting solution respecting the rights of both parties may be reached as soon as possible.”

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated the invitation to the pope to visit Israel that was extended earlier by Israeli leaders. Media have reported that the pope may make the trip in late May, but Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said no date for such a visit had been set.

Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, who also attended the audience, reportedly told the pope, “We are expecting you, we can’t wait.”

The Vatican statement said that “aside from indicating the Holy Father’s plans for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” the pope and Netanyahu considered “various questions” regarding the status of Christians in Israel.

It said they also discussed lingering financial and other questions that have stalled full implementation of a formal bilateral agreement between Israel and the Holy See “in the hope that the Agreement which has been in preparation for some time may be concluded forthwith.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu held bilateral talks with his Italian counterpart, Enrico Letta.

Netanyahu on Sunday night lit Hanukkah candles at Rome’s main synagogue, where he reiterated warnings about the agreement on Iran’s nuclear program. Netanyahu kindled the menorah with Letta.

Speaking at the ceremony, the Israeli leader repeated his warnings that the recent deal on Iran’s nuclear program was a “historic error.”

Letta said he “knew Israel’s positions, doubts and fears.” He said the current economic and social crisis fed “extremism, hate and intolerance,” and he pledged to resist the “racism, intolerance and xenophobia” that were growing in Italy “in a worrying manner.”

Blind Spot: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)


“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:30). 

If Isaiah is correct, with every step we take, with every breath we draw, we cannot help but encounter God’s glory. And yet who among us is constantly aware of this fact, this daily miracle? 

Lack of awareness of the divine is a unique human flaw. It is both a curse and a blessing — a curse, because we are constantly missing holiness, blind to its astounding beauty; and a blessing, because perpetual awareness would render us speechless and paralyzed.  

Parshat Vayeshev challenges us to examine our own flawed awareness of holiness through Joseph’s journey and through the words and deeds of Jacob and his sons, who find themselves at the turning point of their lives. Through them all, we find ourselves at the axis of our history as a people. 

At the very onset of Vayeshev, Joseph takes over the narrative from his father, Jacob. The second verse of the parasha states: “Eleh toldot Yaakov Yossef ben Sh’va essre Shanna” (This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old”) (Genesis 37:2). There is no break between Jacob and Joseph, as though Jacob flows into and becomes Joseph; as though Joseph is the essence of Jacob; his raison d’etre. We are to understand that the resolution of our story depends on Joseph.

Vayeshev challenges the blindness of the unaware: the blindness of those who will not see the hope and beauty of the future shining through the mundane veil that is their present reality. The blindness of Jacob, who did not see his own father, was not blind when he stole the blessing intended for his brother, Esau; Jacob, who does not see the beauty and the depth in the soft eyes of his first wife, Leah; Jacob, who, in spite of repeated divine visions and promises, does not see that God will always protect him.

This is the parasha of the older brothers who are blind to the gift of their younger brother, choosing instead to see only the annoying, spoiled brat before them, recognizing not a hint of his future greatness.

Vayeshev stands in total opposition to its title. “Vayeshev Yaakov” (“And Jacob sat”), so begins our parasha; Jacob settled. But there is no settling, no sitting, no rest in this parasha; it is a parasha of constant movement. This is the parasha of yerida l’tzorech aliya (descending for the sake of ascending). Joseph descends three times — once, when his brothers throw him into the pit; once when the Ishmaelites take him down to Egypt; and, finally, in Egypt, when he is thrown into the jail pit through no fault of his own. Each time, however, he is raised up again a better Joseph, destined for a better life. 

Judah, Joseph’s older brother, descends three times, both spiritually and physically, when he travels to the Dead Sea, taking for himself a Canaanite wife; then, again, when he wrongs his daughter-in-law, Tamar, banishing her to her father’s house and denying her offspring because he believes her to have caused his sons’ deaths; and, finally, when he sleeps with Tamar, assuming her to be a prostitute. Judah is finally redeemed through Tamar, who reveals her true identity, awakening Judah to his own blindness.

Vayeshev is the parasha of the birth of hope amid despair: the despair of Jacob, who believes his beloved Joseph to have been devoured by a beast; and the despair of Judah, who loses two sons. 

We have all been in dark places, whether physical, financial, spiritual, mental or even existential; places in which it is exceedingly hard to be aware of anything divine, holy or beautiful. We can all relate to Jacob’s darkest moment; we can relate to Judah’s misplaced fear for his last surviving son; we can certainly relate to the jealousy and irritation the brothers feel toward Joseph. But Vayeshev offers us redemption, showing us the birth of light and hope at the very darkest hour.

Vayeshev offers us hope by correcting our vision. Vayeshev helps us to become aware of God’s glory through Joseph’s tormented journey toward greatness — Joseph, who will eventually save the children of Israel by bringing them down to the safety and bounty of Egypt. Vayeshev takes us along Jacob’s journey from depression toward elation when he will finally meet his Joseph again. Finally, Vayeshev shows us that even our lowest moment can eventually lead to redemption, for King David — our greatest king, from whose house Mashiach will come — is the offspring of that dark liaison between Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah.

Indeed, God’s glory does fill the entire earth, but sometimes we need a dreamer like Joseph to help us become aware of it.


Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

George W. Bush and Jews for Jesus


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

Some observations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

On Israeli religious reforms, Naftali Bennett still figuring out road map


Naftali Bennett doesn’t like to waste time.

In the eight months since he took over three Israeli ministries — religious services, economy, and Diaspora and Jerusalem affairs — Bennett has pushed through legislation to give Israeli couples more freedom in choosing which rabbi officiates at their wedding, worked with coalition partner Yair Lapid to lop $11 billion off Israel’s budget and fast-tracked a resolution to the showdown over women’s prayer at the Western Wall.

On this last achievement, Bennett managed an end run around the debate over a controversial compromise proposal by Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky by ordering the construction of a platform for egalitarian services adjacent to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at the southern edge of the wall.

“The guy came and said, ‘Well, let’s bring it to government for approval.’ I said, ‘No, just go build the thing,’” Bennett recalled. “Within six days it was up and now we have an egalitarian pluralistic plaza. Everyone can go, no questions asked.”

But on some of the other issues considered crucial to American Jewish advocates of religious pluralism in Israel — establishing civil marriage, granting state salaries to non-Orthodox rabbis, and recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions — don’t expect Bennett to rush into things, if at all.

“When you talk about marriage, when you talk about conversion, it’s much more sensitive,” Bennett told JTA. “I do want to set expectations: I won’t go all the way. It’s going to be a fine line of balancing everyone’s positions. These are very, very delicate issues. It’s going to be a very slow process.”

In a wide-ranging interview last Friday at JTA’s offices in New York, Bennett, who leads the Jewish Home party, talked about his plans for religious reforms, what sort of Iran deal Israel might be willing to accept and how Israel’s “startup nation” ethos could be extended into good works projects overseas.

He also described how his approach to religious pluralism was influenced by his personal experience. The Israel-born son of American immigrants from San Francisco, Bennett, who is Modern Orthodox, moved to New York in 2000 shortly after marrying his “totally secular” Israeli wife, Gilat. It was in Manhattan that Gilat first began attending synagogue — a beginner’s service at Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side.

“We had to fly to New York from Israel for my wife to get closer to Judaism,” Bennett said.

“Here’s an area that I think Israel can learn a lot from American Jews. This no-questions-asked approach — I loved it,” he said. “I want to import it, albeit cautiously.”

Bennett says his approach to religious reforms is governed by three considerations: The changes must be good for Israel, done in discussion with the relevant constituencies and cannot contravene Jewish law, or halachah. Some Orthodox rabbis merely enabling egalitarian prayer, as Bennett did by building the Kotel platform, violates halachah. Bennett said he’s still figuring out where his red lines are.

“Any move by any Jew that gets him closer to Judaism, to our heritage, is a good thing,” Bennett said. “At the same time, there is a value — notwithstanding the disagreements — there is a value of having, on an official level, let’s say, lines that we don’t cross.”

It’s not clear how much wiggle room that leaves Bennett on such issues as non-Orthodox conversions or Conservative and Reform weddings that do not conform to halachah. He has made clear he opposes civil marriage legislation, though he says he wants to find some kind of solution for couples who have no ability to marry under Israeli law, such as interfaith couples.

“This is perhaps one of the most sensitive issues that we’re only starting to learn and map out what we can do,” he said. “What we don’t want to do certainly is encourage couples that can get married according to halachah and encourage them to get married in a different way.”

Bennett said he met for the first time two weeks ago with coalition partners Lapid, Tzipi Livni of the Hatnua party and Avigdor Liberman of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu to discuss areas in which they can push religious reforms. Bennett already is promoting a bill that as with marriage, would make it easier for Israeli non-Jews to convert to Judaism by enabling them to choose any rabbinical court in the country for their conversion.

Though he leads Israel’s fourth-largest political party, Bennett is a relative newcomer to the Israeli political scene. Following his army service in the elite Israeli Defense Forces unit Sayeret Matkal and law school, Bennett became a successful software entrepreneur. The technology company he founded in his 20s, Cyota, was sold for $145 million when Bennett was 33.

Bennett said his combat experience during the Second Lebanon War of 2006 changed his career trajectory, propelling him into politics. He worked as Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief of staff for a couple of years, returned to the world of technology to run another company (Soluto, which was sold two weeks ago for approximately $100 million), led the Yesha Council of Israeli settlers and decided to run for the Knesset.

Stunning the Israeli political establishment with his meteoric rise, Bennett transformed what had been a moribund political party — the National Religious Party, which held three Knesset seats — into Jewish Home, which captured 12 seats in last January’s elections.

Bennett quickly formed an alliance with Lapid, the other rising star in Israeli politics, whose newly founded Yesh Atid party captured 19 Knesset seats. Together the two forced their way into Netanyahu’s coalition government, sidelining the haredi Orthodox parties, which were left in the opposition for the first time in years.

“This was a tactical alliance, but it grew into something that today is more profound,” Bennett said of his relationship with Lapid, who is now finance minister. On their work together cutting Israel’s budget, Bennett said he and Lapid jumped off the proverbial cliff together, like “Thelma and Louise.”

Bennett says economic issues occupy 60 percent of his time, with the balance divided between his other two ministerial portfolios, being a member of the inner security Cabinet, politics and life. Bennett, 41, has four children under the age of 10.

One of his main economic projects is getting haredi Orthodox Israelis to work. Bennett is promoting a bill that would grant a four-year reprieve from the military draft to 50,000 haredi Israelis if they enter the workforce. He wants to complement this with a $142 million program to train the haredim for the labor market, incentivize them to work and employers to hire them.

Bennett wants to do something similar for Israeli-Arab women, who have relatively low participation rates in the labor force.

Though Bennett maintains a hard line on Palestinian issues — he opposes Palestinian statehood — he says it hasn’t really come up much. Few in the current Israeli government seem to believe the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians will bear significant fruit.

The primary regional issue that preoccupies Bennett is Iran. He spent part of last week in Washington lobbying U.S. lawmakers against easing sanctions pressure on Tehran during the current negotiations, arguing that only economic pressure will prompt the mullahs to agree to a deal.

“We need to create an either-or situation,” Bennett said. “Either you have an economy or you have a nuclear program.”

He also praised the Obama administration for being a “very good friend of Israel” and hailed what he called a “quality leap in defense ties” between the two countries.

But what Bennett seems most excited about is what he views as a historic opportunity for the current Israeli government to tackle domestic issues.

“I call it the 70-70 rule: Seventy percent of Israelis agree on 70 percent of the issues, but we spend most of our time on the 30 percent,” he said. “So this time no, we’ll do the 70 thing.”

Jewish learning goes global


A global conference of Jewish learning, including music and art performances, will take place online over a 24-hour period on Nov. 17. The Global Day of Jewish Learning will broadcast “24×24” — 24 classes from 24 speakers around the globe — free of charge and live using Google Hangouts On Air and YouTube. Scholar Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz will speak at 10 a.m.  

The Global Day will unite 400 communities in 40 countries through the study of Jewish texts. Sponsored by the Aleph Society, the Global Day will be supervised by Rabbi Steinsaltz, who recently completed a 45-volume Hebrew translation and elucidation of the Talmud, the first such commentary since the 11th century. He is also the author of 60 books on philosophy, language, mysticism and history.

Rabbis, scholars, artists and professors will engage with this year’s Global Day theme, “Creating Together: Jewish Approaches to Creativity and Collaboration.”

Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe will teach “How Moses Learned to Speak,” and Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, executive director of Mechon Hadar in New York, will challenge viewers with his talk, “How Can I Pray What I Don’t Believe? Creativity and Prayer Interpretation.” The band Stereo Sinai will perform songs and discuss their Jewish-text-based lyrics in their session “We Steal Lyrics From God.” Multimedia artist Hanan Harchol of Jewish Food for Thought, in his hour on “Making Jewish Wisdom Accessible Through Art,” will screen two episodes from his animated series and give a tour of his current exhibition. Novelist Dara Horn will describe the “The Theological Art of Storytelling.” 

Viewers around the world will be able to sit in on classes broadcast from in-person community events worldwide. Virtual communities and individuals at home will be able to ask questions live on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. These videos will also be available on YouTube.

Karen Sponder, Project Director, explained that “our use of Google Hangouts On Air marks the first time this platform will be used for Jewish learning on a global scale.  We hope that ‘24×24’ will inspire others to use the Internet to unite the worldwide Jewish community and make it easier to access Jewish learning.” 

I will be participating from Gettysburg, Penn., where I will be attending the festivities connected to the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address.”


Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His newest film, “Saving Lincoln,” explores Abraham Lincoln’s fiery trial as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his closest friend, Ward Hill Lamon. Continue the conversation at

Why Bush shouldn’t talk to the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute


A media firestorm kicked up last week after Mother Jones broke the story that President George W. Bush was to be the keynote speaker at the annual fundraiser of the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute on Nov. 14. 

I blogged about the news as soon as I heard about it, and I’ve now had a chance to review what others have written, as well as the online comments. 

Keep in mind, judging the state of the American mind by reading Internet comment sections is like tasting a four-star meal by scooping it out of the garbage disposal. It’s weird and messy and slightly scary. But in Bush v. Jews, one constant refrain emerges: Why are Jews so upset? Religion is a private matter, the majority of commenters say. The people who invited Bush happen to believe Jews need to accept Jesus as the Messiah. The former president wants to speak to them. So what?

So let me explain. There is nothing private about the Irving, Texas-based Messianic Jewish Bible Institute. Its sole purpose is very public — to convince Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah. When Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah, these people believe, Jesus will return to earth and the End Times and Rapture will follow.

That may or may not happen — my guess is we’ll never know. But one thing for certain does occur when Jews believe Jesus is divine: They stop being Jews. This is something all Jews agree on. Think about that for a second: This may be the only thing about which all Jews agree. It’s what makes Jews Jews. 

“‘Jews for Jesus,’” Rabbi David Wolpe wrote on beliefnet.org some years ago, “makes as much sense as saying ‘Christians for Muhammad.’”  

Bush, therefore, is helping to raise money for a group whose reason for being is to stop there being Jews.

It sounds alarmist, but there it is. Success for the group Bush supports would mean no more Jews. 

Of course, that’s not how the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute frames it. It tells those it proselytizes to that they can believe that Jesus is the Messiah and still be Jewish. The thing is, the proselytizers know that not a single Jewish scholar, or text, or tradition, or belief, supports that claim. So, in order to do away with Judaism, they have to lie and engage in subterfuge and double-speak. Bush, a straight shooter, agreed to speak to some of the greatest snake oil salesmen in the great state of Texas.

Keep in mind: Jews have no problem with Christians believing in Jesus. Some of our best friends are Christians. Many Jews, like me, even like and admire Jesus, that fiery Nazarene, for his radicalism, his truth telling, kindness and courage. Don’t forget, as Reza Aslan, author of the Jesus biography “Zealot,” told the Journal, “Jesus was a Jew first and foremost, and everything he said and did has to be understood solely within a Jewish context, that his teachings were simply a form of Judaism that then became what we now call Christianity. He was a fervent, zealous, law-abiding Jew.”

But where we part ways with Christians, where we remain Jews, is that we don’t believe the man was God. 

For the wannabe Bill Mahers out there, this may seem just a foolish fight between two sets of what Louis C.K. calls, “believies.”

But for Jews, the distinction defines us. There are many theological reasons why Jews reject Jesus as the Messiah, but I believe the real reason goes deeper than theology, deeper than text.

For Jews, there is no Father and Son; there is no Trinity: there is only Unity. One. That is a mindset with vast implications for how Jews see the world and behave in it. God is ineffable, certainly not a man, and God’s power lies precisely in that mystery. We accept that the biggest piece of the puzzle is left unsolved — that missing piece is the engine of our spiritual journey. It makes us, as individuals and as a People, inquisitive, skeptical of authority, relatively tolerant, empathetic — for if God is One, we’re all in this together — and eternally dissatisfied. 

That’s why when we start believing in Jesus as God, we stop being Jewish — not just in name, but deep down, in our souls. 

According to its 2011 IRS filing, the Messianic Jewish Bible Institute, the group President Bush is supporting, spent $1.2 million attempting to convince Jews around the world not to be Jews. Read through the filing and you’ll see how the group goes about doing this. It spent $69,000 in Ukraine, $79,000 in Russia and a whopping $203,000 in Ethiopia (note to IRS — that seems like an awful lot of money in an inexpensive place where there aren’t many Jews left, anyway). The group spent only $20,000 in Israel, and no expenditures are listed for the United States or Western Europe. 

The Jews of the former Soviet Union, cut off from practicing their religion first by the Holocaust, then by the communists, are among the world’s least educated about Jewish belief and practice. The Messianic Jewish Bible Institute is piggybacking on a century of persecution to reach the low-hanging fruit of Jewish identity.

And now, they have a former American president to give them a boost.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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


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

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

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

Walking on the wild side and returning to the sacred side: Or becoming a rabbi because of Lou Reed


Word of Lou Reed walking beyond the wild side, never to return, reached me as I was leaving campus, having just finished teaching a class on Modern Jewish Philosophy. As I recovered my copy of Take No Prisoners on my i-Phone and flicking to his 1978 strung-out rendition of “Sweet Jane”, I wondered why Lou Reed ( March 2, 1942, Brooklyn, as Lewis Allan Rabinowitz, later changed to Reed,) was not included on my syllabus for the study of Modern Jewish philosophers! After all, Lou Reed was probably the greatest abiding influence in my life’s journey that lead me to the rabbinate— Lewis Allan Reed was my “Satellite of Love”, leading me time and again back New York from Toronto on a never-ending pilgrimage to CBGB’s in what was then a frightening trip in the Bowery and Bleeker Bob’s in the West Village from my high school days onwards. What was it about this renegade rocker, the punk zeyde I never had, that inspired me to the point of teaching about him in one of my year-long men’s group, strategically nestled off site from my synagogue, once Beeber’s The Heebie Jeebie’s at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk Rock (2006) was finally released. Perhaps Lou Reed— who sang so poignantly about “make-believe love” on that 1978 live recording from the no longer extant legendary West Village watering hole, The Bottom Line—was not included as a Jewish philosopher for the same reason that I had subconsciously excluded Gillian Rose. After all, in the final year of her life, she gave an extraordinary lecture in 1994 with an intense reading of the Rilke sonnet that begins Sei allem Abschied voran or “Be ahead of all departures”. In that same live recording from 1978, decades before his own actual death —even if every moment of his music was always Sein-zum-Todt or “being-towards-death” —Lou quoted Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), while attempting to keep hecklers at bay in his inimitable way, when he retorted: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity’—so you try and figure out where I’m at right now!” At that ever-recurring moment of confronting one’s own death, with less than a year to live, in Rose’s last masterpiece, Love’s Work (1996), she confirmed that studying philosophy at Oxford almost destroyed her passion of the mind, and furthermore “the earnest stupidity of her schooling” was succeeded by “the deeper stupidity of reading philosophy at university.” What Lou Reed, and to a lesser degree Gillian Rose, have taught me is that life is a laboratory and that university should never get in the way of your education about love’s work in life. That struck me the first time I heard “Walk on the Wild Side” – I was fifteen and in love for the first time with Kaza in art school. Something about crossing the lines, and walking on the other side together– the wild side that Kaza took me to– was transformational. Years later, Lou Reed remained that abiding force of embracing the role of the real ‘ivri or Hebrew, which I later learned is how Hasidic master, Reb Nahman of Bratzlav defined the Jew as epitomizing the ‘boundary-crosser’. I came to appreciate this again years later at one of Lou Reed’s “last suppers” at the Downtown Seder that he haunted with his third wife, Laurie Anderson. Last year, Laurie was the Tam or “simple child” intoning “The Dream Before” while Lou was always called upon as the resident Hakham or “wise child” doing his riff on Bob Marley’s “Exodus”. Years earlier, I recall a Downtown Seder in 2004 when Lou was called on again to occupy his seat as the Hakham when he chose to incorporate his recent project of setting of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” to music at an SRO room full of New York Jews reciting his re-writing of the classic in these words: “Sometimes I wonder who am I?/Who made the trees?/Who made the sky?/Who made the storms?/Who made a heart break?/I wonder how much life I can take?”

Lou Reed was that “Wild Child” he sang about on his debut album in 1972. He troubled his Jewish parents— accountant, Sidney Reed and his wife and former beauty queen, Toby Futterman Reed— to the point where they sent him for weeks of electroshock therapy at Creedmoor State Psychiatric Hospital in Queens. Not such a usual chapter for an all-American Jew growing up in Freeport, Long Island. That was only the beginning of Lou Reed’s descent into his decades long inferno, so that even in 1959, while beginning his music studies at New York University, he underwent further treatment. Reed’s transfer to Syracuse University brought him momentary solace inside the circle surrounding American Jewish poet, writer, and English professor, Delmore Schwartz. When Reed met Schwartz, the latter was only six years away from his death in a Bowery room flophouse (doors away from what would later become the renowned punk club, CBGBs). While Lou would ride around on his motorcycle, clad in leather with his guitar slung over his shoulder, never to be caught dead in any frat—much less a Jewish one—he did allow himself to become the mascot for the Jewish “Sammies” of Sigma Alpha Mu, given they were the most progressive of the lot and served as one of his most receptive audiences throughout his career. Unsurprisingly though, Lou skipped classes frequently to play in black bars with his band, LA and Eldorados (for Lewis, his given name, and Allen the first name of childhood friend, Allen Hyman). Although Syracuse University was a time when Lou flourished, the scars of his electrified, broken heart would never fully mend. By the time Blue Mask (1982) was released— a partial eulogy to his all-American Jewish mentor, Delmore Schwarz referred to explicitly in “My House” as “My friend and teacher [who] occupies a spare room/He’s dead—at peace at last the Wandering Jew” —Reed’s scars irrupted as he decried: “Take the blue mask down from my face/and look me in the eye/…Don’t take death away”. By daring to stare death in the face and continue to embrace life as a Jew, Lou Reed defined his own rock n’ roll path as a uniquely Jewish path. Daring to do more than “walk on the wild side” but enter into the realm the Jewish mystics call the Sitra Ahra or the “Other Side” and then return to the Sitra de’Kedusha or the “Sacred Side” was something I only experienced in his music. This musical journey of Lou Reed—one that in 1965 accompanied Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable— is what inspired me along my path to the rabbinate. Through his music as life, Lou Reed reminded me of that annual obligation of crossing all boundaries with the utter seriousness of carnivale that Jews still call Purim—that “Halloween Parade”. That same album New York from1989 is where Lou confronts the Nazi fugitives like Kurt Waldheim and anti-semitic candidates like Jesse Jackson, so that with “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim” Lou dares to remove the mask! Reed saw the absurdity of life surrounding him and despite it all–following Fackenheim’s call for the 614th commandment not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory–he embraced life! May the memory of rock n’ roll animal, Louis Rabinowitz— Lou Reed, be a blessing, and in the final words of the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe in 1943: Es zol zich zingen a shira —“So shall the song sing itself.”

Goy until proven Jewish


“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

The future of Conservative Judaism


Rabbi Artson delivered this address as the keynote speaker of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism “Conversation of the Century” centennial conference in Baltimore, Md. on Oct. 13, 2013.

I will lift my eyes to the mountains from where my help comes.  My help comes from the Holy One who makes heaven and earth (Ps 121: 1-2).

We Conservative/Masorti Jews have forgotten to lift up our eyes. 

We have of late become a little too defensive, as if we could refute our challenges through debating points. 

We have become a bit too brittle, eager to shift the blame to each other or to some third party beyond our control. 

We have become too petty and too small, focusing on issues of denominations,  borders, and turf, as though those were our core missions as Jews. 

It is time to once again lift up our eyes above our limitations, above the statistics, above the unnecessary divisions.

When ancient and medieval Jews did their work, they asked grand, universal questions, and they mobilized Jewish tools to create the answers that could make meaning for their generation.  With the onset of modernity, we have reversed their course.  We, instead, ask parochial Jewish questions and then mobilize universal academic tools to try to address those questions.  Small wonder that so many turn away uninterested.  Once, in Biblical times, Judaism was bigger than religion.  It was the very life of the Jewish People.  Under Roman rule, in the searing heat of oppression, Judaism shrank to become a religio, a binding, a religion.  And so it was for almost two thousand years. But we now live after the onslaught of the Shoah, after the miracle of the reestablishment of the Jewish State in our Homeland.  Perhaps it is not too much to ask: are we not living in the dawning of a new era, a third Jewish age?  A time in which perhaps once again, being a religion is too small, too confining to express the fulness of our aspirations, our capacities, our hope.  Is it possible once again for Judaism to find its rightful and natural place as the life of the Jewish People? As our window into the light? As our portal onto the world?  Now, perhaps, with our challenges so clearly articulated and brandished before us, let us muster the courage to transcend our fears, to rise in vision, and to return to our own truest ways.

“I lift up my eyes.”  Let us all lift up our eyes once again to grandeur, to possibility, to daring to dream God's dreams. 

The Challenge

Conservative Judaism is not alone in confronting this challenge.  All wisdom traditions struggle in an age in which the shifts in culture are so massive that they will not be met by merely a few institutional adjustments, as valuable as those may be.  Nor will they revive because of a changed name or the slick slogan, although those might also be helpful.  No, our challenge is to step beyond habit, to reach beyond fear, to return to a core vision that is worthy of our passion and our talents and our lives.

Our challenge is to provide wisdom, consolation, and courage, as people seek to live their lives and to fashion communities of inclusion and justice. 

Our challenge is to mobilize Torah and Jewish sources to heal those wounded by cultures of brutality and violence, by the crass commercialization of life's most sacred relationships, by the endless dehumanization of work and family and identity. 

Yet this is not merely a time of challenge, this is a time of unprecedented opportunity.  We are called, each of us individually, and all of us together, to be God's melachim, God's messengers, God's angels: to comfort the lonely, to hold the afflicted, to cherish the disdained. 

The Opportunity

I would like us to try, as a venerable and striving religious movement, to build on the remarkable energy of these past several days, this upwelling of Conservative/Masorti passion, depth, and authenticity, to meet these human challenges with Jewish tools.  That is our opportunity and that is our proper struggle.  It is for that purpose that we are here together, so permit me, on behalf of the One in whose service I labor, as do you, to return yet again, to consider four invitations that are really one. 

I will be your God and you shall be my people (Leviticus 26:12).  We are invited to a life of covenant, to be able to enter life not as “I” against the world, but as “we' together in service to the world.  We have been invited by the Oneness who sustains Creation, who brings the world into becoming and invites us to take God's side in the eternal struggle against chaos, to bring cosmos, order, where there was none before.  If you will be my people, says God, then I will be your God.  Let us recommit ourselves, beginning now, to lives of true covenant that radiate out from this room and this place, to embrace all of our people, all of humanity, all life and our entire planet. 

You shall teach these words to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up (Deuteronomy 11:19).  We transmit our covenant through learning, and we always have. There is no instrument in the universe as complex and miraculous as the human mind.  Our ability to internalize the experiences of people we have never met, our capacity to think the thoughts of our sages, and to transmit those insights, to be able to think God's thoughts and to internalize and to translate them into life, this is a uniquely human gift.  Let us commit ourselves here, tonight, to reenter this kind of vibrant, open, aware living.  Such a deep and aware living is only possible through the cultivated and disciplined life of the mind, not of disinterested cognition, but of a mind engaged; learning for the sake of living; learning for the sake of transmission. In contribution to commitment I have a brief announcement to make.  I am happy to let you know that after two years of intense negotiations and extensive cooperation with the other arms of the Conservative/Masorti Movement – Masorti Olami, The Rabbinical Assembly, the United Synagogue – I am proud to let you know that in November the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies will provide religious supervision for the world’s newest Conservative/Masorti rabbinical school, which will serve the entire continent of Europe.  In league with the University of Potsdam, this school will train students for the communities of the European Union in order to energize Masorti Europe and to bring greater glory to the continent where liberal Judaism was first born. The Zacharias Frankel College is yet the latest symbol of the continuing vitality, energy, and power of Conservative/Masorti Judaism unleashed.

Let my people go that they may serve me (Exodus 9:1).  Ours is a life of service, and we find our fullest expression as Jews and as human beings when we ask the question, not “what is in it for me,” but “how may I help?  What may I offer?  What may I do?” Burdens that are unbearable for the solitary soul become possible to manage when there are other shoulders that help us to lift.   Ours is a tradition of engagement and of service.  Let us pledge to think of each other before we act, to integrate each other’s needs and concerns into our own, to be able to act as one, in diversity, with pluralism, but with one heart as Conservative/Masorti Jews worldwide.

Serve God in joy and come before God in gladness (Psalm 100:2).  Let us this night recommit ourselves to lives of passion and joy, not as distractions from a religious life, but indeed as God's greatest hope for us, just as we wish for our children that they should know life's delights, that they should know the beauty of love, that they should know a good laugh, sweet humor, a caring community.  Let us also know that the harvest of true spirit is joy and let us share that joy with each other and the world from this day forward.

The Path Forward

Permit me to invite you to join with me in this passionate path and a worthy way of life.  I was not born a Conservative Jew:  I came to this Movement as an adult willingly, because I loved its peoples, I loved its practice, and I loved its value.  And now, 30 years later, I love these people more; I yet love this way of learning and living Torah.  Conservative/Masorti Judaism has provided a path of life for me as it has for hundreds of thousands of other Jews across the continent and around the world.  Let us share that good news.  Enough with handwringing; enough with despair. 

Let us lift our eyes to a path that eagerly seeks a spiritual quest, mining the writings of our sages and of the world's for ways to break our hearts open so that we feel each others' joys, so that nobody mourns alone. 

Let us walk again on a path that is the halacha – our peoples' way of walking, not as a frozen mandate of unchanging truth, but as the supple, living branches of a magnificent flourishing Etz Hayim, a Living Tree.

Let us join together in a path that reaches out to those previously marginalized; for the many who have not felt the embrace of our community in the past because of our own shortsightedness, perhaps because of our own fears.  Let us leave that fear behind and know that the only risk is passing by the possibility of love.  And let us reach out in love, to everyone who would have our love, because in the end they are us; because we need everyone's wisdom, everyone's passion, everyone's strength and everyone's distinctiveness. 

Let us walk the path that venerates learning as a portal to the wisdom of the Holy One, poured through our ancestors, our sages, prophets, and philosophers to us, their children's children, so that we in turn may harvest new insights and new teachings that add to the glory of our tradition leaving it stronger and more vital for our children.

Let us cherish a path that translates learning into life through Mitzvot, Judaism's sacred deeds; a learning that is engaged; a learning that is not dispassionate, but rather full of passion, full of energy, full of life. 

Let us walk a path that centers its heart proudly in the land of Israel, in the reborn State of Israel, and at the same time wraps its arm around the whole wide world. 

And let us walk a path of the ineffable, dynamic God whose truest name is Hayei ha-Olamim — the very life of life, the heartbeat of the universe, the breath of our breath.

The Blessing

Holy One, You who have invited us to this banquet of soul, to the feast of brotherhood and sisterhood, to this great and raucous mishpacha/family that is Conservative/Masorti Judaism, we know that the task is great, we know that the opportunities are worthy and that a world awaits our touch, Your love, our shared wisdom. 

Help us, Holy One, to embrace our most expansive humanity. Help us to breathe in your energy to renew our Conservative/Masorti family, so that we transcend fear, we leave behind rigidity, no longer look back in the smug self-righteousness that threatens to turn us into sulfurous pillars of salt, and instead, turn us to the Light. 

May we face the future that our choices create with courage, enlisting the same vibrant fusion of old and new as did our ancestors before us, so that then, joining hands with all humankind, we can say, as has your prophet,  On that day, God will be one and God's name will be one. 

And then, for God's sake, let us lift up our eyes!


Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean's Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is a member of the Philosophy Department, he is particularly interested in theology, ethics, and the integration of science and religion. He supervises the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program and mentors Camp Ramah in California. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union. A regular columnist for the Huffington Post, he is the author of 10 books and over 250 articles, most recently God of Becoming & Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology (Jewish Lights).

The two Muslim narratives


The Muslim world finds itself amidst a battle of two narratives — one of oppression and one of justice.

The oppressive narrative enforces death for blasphemy and/or apostasy and wants government that rejects the democratic ideal of separation of mosque and state. It relegates women to second class status and likewise, seeks to establish a Khalifa to unite Muslims in their oppressive cause.

The just narrative uses service to humanity and the pen to present Islam’s true essence. It presents no shortage of scholarly literature to repudiate oppressive interpretations of Islam; see this brilliant work by a twentieth century Islamic scholar and another brilliant work by a former UN President and President of the International Court of Justice. Likewise, the just narrative inspires Muslims to remain at the cutting edge of service to humanity through organizations like Humanity First and the “Muslims for Life” annual blood drive. It inspires women to pursue higher education and become leaders in science, scholarship, and yes, motherhood. This demonstrates that the justice based narrative is not just some theological exegesis of Qur’anic interpretation and theory, but instead it is based in hard reality.

But the oppressive narrative is certainly influential. In a recent Pew survey 75% of Pakistanis replied that Islam needs blasphemy laws and that the government must punish blasphemers. Before his ignoble demise, Pakistan’s Dictator General Zia built and enforced these blasphemy laws with dreams of becoming the Khalifa. Since, this narrative has spread as far east as Indonesia and far west as Canada. Yes, even in Canada clerics like Mullah Tahir ul Qadri, while claiming to be a moderate, teach that blasphemers and apostates must be executed. Women suffer under unconscionable illiteracy, poverty, and abuse. This narrative is not necessarily comprised of monolithic Muslims, but it is united in this oppressive ideology and in the desire to galvanize that oppression with a Khalifa.

So what does the just narrative on Islam have to say about this?

Contrary to the oppressive narrative, the just narrative implores pluralism and democracy. It actively rejects the medieval notions that Islam in any way approves any punishment for blasphemy or apostasy, or that Islam allows mixture of mosque and state. It champions free speech and free expression while imploring self-control, personal civility, and universal service to humanity. It elevates women to an equitable status, ensuring above all the right to self-determination. This just narrative is also not necessarily comprised of monolithic Muslims, but is united in the cause of justice and democracy. Incidentally, many Muslims supporting this narrative welcome a Khalifa to spiritually unite Muslims on the tenets of justice — not oppression.

Maintaining our theme of practical solutions rather than abstract theory — the reality is that such just Muslims are increasingly uniting under a Khalifa who upholds justice and democracy.

His Holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, Khalifa of Islam and head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is not only the world’s only Khalifa, but also continues an unbroken chain of peaceful progress through Khilafat that spans over 120 years. Indeed, Muslims in over 200 nations worldwide find unity under the Khalifa’s leadership. His Holiness continues to open and fund numerous educational institutions for young children, especially girls, of all faiths and backgrounds. Likewise, His Holiness continues to advocate for a moderate Islam while logically and practically refuting irrational, extremist, and unjust interpretations. When asked just a few days ago on whether his spiritual office of the Khalifa and influence over tens of millions of Muslims worldwide is compatible with secular democratic governance, His Holiness emphatically replied, “Khilafat has no relation to government or politics. When [Islam] Ahmadiyyat spreads far and wide the Khilafat will play no role in government and will never interfere with matters of State. We have no political ambitions or desires. We believe entirely in a separation of religion and matters of State.”

Critics attempt to dismiss His Holiness’ leadership and influence, remarking that he commands no army and rule no nation. Such foolish critics forget, that is the whole point of separation of mosque and state. Without worldly force, His Holiness wields immense influence for the good of humanity by maintaining absolute justice in all affairs and relentlessly serving humanity through altruism.

Ultimately, the oppressive narrative of Islam destroys itself, and any hope of ever establishing a Khalifa. Meanwhile, Muslims who follow the just Islamic narrative create an undeniably progressive present, and an equitable future worthy of envy for all mankind.

Thus, the Khalifa of Islam presents a pristine, practical, and correct example of what Islam represents—personal spirituality, secular based just governance, gender equity, and universal service to humanity.

May the best narrative win.


Qasim Rashid is a national spokesperson for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA and author of the recent book The Wrong Kind of Muslim. Follow him on Twitter @MuslimIQ.