A damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

Physician Brings Relief, Finds Religion on a Mission to Puerto Rico


A few days before heading to Puerto Rico last month to pitch in with relief efforts following Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island on Sept. 20, Lori Shocket was running on the treadmill in her Thousand Oaks home, sweating, her mind racing.

It wasn’t nerves.

She and her husband, Neil, both licensed physicians, have more than 15 years of volunteer experience, responding to natural disasters in places like Haiti, Guatemala and even Houston, where Hurricane Harvey hit in August.

But mid-workout, a thought struck her: Something about this time was different.

“I realized we would be in Puerto Rico on Yom Kippur,” she said from San Juan via spotty cellphone coverage.

Even though Shocket calls herself “mostly not religious” and the couple isn’t affiliated with a synagogue, Shocket had scoured the internet for a place to attend services on the island while still on the treadmill.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur,” she said. “I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.”

After several attempts, she finally spoke to Diego Mendelbaum, the religious leader and community director of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of Puerto Rico in San Juan.

“He instantly told me, yes, you’re welcome to come to services,” she said.

Then she mentioned that her group of 10 also needed a place to say. With the island ravaged and accommodations hard to come by, Mendelbaum offered up the JCC ballroom, its event space, as a place to stay.

Founded in 1958 by American Jews, the JCC of Puerto Rico serves 130 families in and around San Juan, the capital. It has a sanctuary, a ballroom for events like b’nai mitzvahs and weddings, a cemetery, a Holocaust memorial monument, a garden, a religious school and an active youth group associated with Young Judea. Puerto Rico as a whole is home to approximately 1,500 Jews.

The Shockets arrived on Sept. 29, erev Yom Kippur, in one of the first waves of volunteers flown in by Project Hope, a global health education and humanitarian assistance nonprofit organization they had worked with previously. Their impact was almost immediate.

Just an hour before taking off for Puerto Rico, they secured a leukemia medication they had been asked to procure for a 59-year-old man who was in desperate need of the life-saving drug. When they stepped off the plane in San Juan, they were met by the patient’s nephew, eager to get the medication to his ailing uncle.

“He was incredibly grateful,” Shocket said.

Shocket’s group rented cars at the airport and drove straight to the JCC. Upon arrival, they were greeted by warm smiles and a chorus of nearly 100 chanting voices in the middle of Kol Nidre services.

“We just dropped our bags and followed the music. It was a very cool way to begin this whole process and this mission,” she said. “People knew who we were and they were very warm when they met us. Everyone was dressed beautifully, and we were filthy and gross with our big backpacks on.”

Mendelbaum, although not ordained, functions as the JCC’s de facto rabbi in leading services. He also runs a small law practice in San Juan. He was there to welcome Shocket and her colleagues. In a phone call with the Journal, he praised them for interrupting their busy lives.

Lori and Neil Shocket at the JCC of Puerto Rico.

“I think that it’s a mitzvah, and it’s unbelievable,” he said. “They stop their lives, they stop earning money for their own sustenance to help people in need and volunteer. There’s not much to add to that. It’s the ultimate in tzedakah.” 

Mendelbaum said this year’s services made for an inspiring showing, perhaps “more meaningful” than past years, given the circumstances.

He told the Journal that almost everyone in his congregation has at least some damage to their homes in the form of fallen trees, downed power lines and flooding. Most, including his family, he said, are “living uphill” without electricity, and some don’t have running water.

The JCC itself incurred some flooding and damage to its garden and outer gates. Many congregants, about half by his estimation, fled to Florida or other parts of the United States to stay with family.

After settling in, Shocket and her fellow volunteers got to work, setting up a base in the ballroom, laying out medical supplies they brought and their own drinking water and food. They slept there and showered in a basement bathroom normally reserved for the center’s security guard. With the building’s electricity running on diesel generators and a finite amount of fuel, there was no air conditioning.

“It’s freaking hot and miserable,” Shocket said, adding that it was difficult to sleep there. “And I’ve been to a lot of developing countries and dealt with heat and humidity.”

For the next week, Shocket and company woke up early each day, sneaking out before 7 a.m. when services began in the adjacent sanctuary. The days all started with a stop at the local Walmart, stocking up on as many supplies as possible. Wearing scrubs and flashing medical-volunteer paperwork, they were allowed to bypass snaking lines that kept people waiting for hours. Their main relief target was Loiza, a small coastal municipality just over 20 miles east of San Juan that was gutted by the storm. Mendelbaum and JCC volunteers have donated more than 1,200 tarps to Loiza residents so far to serve as makeshift roofs for damaged homes.

“It was important to me to seek out a service on Yom Kippur. I felt it was important to connect to a Jewish community when you’re putting yourself in an uncompromising, uncertain situation.” – Lori Shocket

“The farther away from San Juan [you go], the worse it is and the harder it is to communicate with cellphones,” Shocket said.

In Loiza, Shocket and her group used walkie-talkies. They spent most of their days going back and forth between the two cities, making Walmart runs and delivering prescription medicines, water, food and other supplies to people in schools made up as shelters.

Shocket said people in San Juan were waiting in line for more than two hours for a cold Coke at a Burger King, one of the few restaurants still open.

Most of the medical conditions Shocket has encountered in Loiza are chronic. People need their prescriptions filled. Stress and the struggle to fulfill basic human needs like hygiene also are evident, she said. One of her patients, a diabetic amputee woman, told her she hadn’t showered in over a week.

“She gave me detailed instructions on where to find her favorite perfume at her house and I got it for her,” Shocket said.

Shocket told the Journal that she draws inspiration from the strength of San Juan’s Jewish community in the midst of such trying times.

“To see that community getting together in the middle of all this desperation — because, remember, the people in the sanctuary are victims, too, and have lost homes, businesses — to see them still in shul listening to music and davening, it was pretty incredible,” she said. “Despite everything, they’re still there. That was special to me.”

To donate to the relief efforts in Puerto Rico, visit projecthope.org or jccpr.org.

Photo from Wikipedia

Jewish identity beyond bagels and lox


As always, the time for panic about Jewish religious identity is now.

That’s been true for some 3,000 years. Judaism has never been great at retaining a crowd. Since the Exodus from Egypt, Jews have been fractured and fractious; censuses of the Jews in the books of Exodus and Numbers famously show identical numbers, despite the passage of years. Even when we’re not assimilating, we’re winnowing out ourselves somehow.

But a new poll from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) shows that American Jews younger than 30 are particularly unlikely to identify as religiously Jewish (47 percent); the rest identify as culturally Jewish. That contrasts sharply with Jewish seniors, who identify as religiously Jewish rather than culturally Jewish by a 78 percent to 22 percent margin. Furthermore, fully 37 percent of all Jews in the United States refuse to identify an affiliation with a particular religious movement; they identify as “just Jewish.”

These numbers aren’t particularly shocking — another PRRI poll from 2012 showed that only 17 percent of Jews found their Jewish identity in religious observance, and only 6 percent found that identity in cultural heritage or tradition. Most shocking, only 3 percent said they found a general set of values in Judaism. Fully 46 percent cited a belief in “social equality” separate from Judaism as somehow creating a Jewish identity.

The effort to somehow carve off Jewish religious activity from Judaism has been ongoing since the Enlightenment. But it’s a project destined to fail. That’s because the unifying factor among Jews has been religion. Trash the Torah, trash the identity. We can find values of social justice in John Rawls or Robert Nozick; we can find “culture” in Woody Allen movies. But we can’t find a common identity.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from God. That doesn’t mean that you have to keep kosher or turn off your phone on Sabbath to experience Jewish identity.

But it does mean that you have to respect the notion that Judaism is concerned with such matters — and more importantly, that Judaism reflects God’s immanence in the world, and that the revelation of His presence passed down from generation to generation is worth honoring.

Over the course of the holiday season, beginning with Rosh Hashanah, we work to recognize this truth. And then we celebrate this truth during Sukkot. When we sit together in the sukkah, we aren’t just eating good food and enjoying good friends. We’re not just hanging out with family. Sukkot isn’t an outdoor meal at the Olive Garden. It’s a representation of the fragility of our world — a metaphor rebuking materialism. It’s a reminder that all the things we value mean nothing without the God who infuses our lives.

And it is our task, collectively and individually, to experience the joy of knowing God. The Torah commands us no fewer than three times to rejoice on this holiday. And as Maimonides says in “Guide for the Perplexed,” we have the capacity to experience joy in what we understand of God, when we turn our intellects to Him.

Jewish identity isn’t merely a shared reference to a set of movies or foods. It’s a set of values springing from religious identity — from god.

So, how do we understand God on Sukkot?

First, we understand that there is a meaning behind the material world. Atheist materialism posits that we live in an accidental universe devoid of meaning, and wander through it alone in deterministic fashion. Sukkot and the history of the Jewish people rebuke this notion. We are participants in history, and our participation matters. We know the sukkah is temporary, but we beautify it anyway because we have been commanded to do so.

This is a uniquely Judaic notion, and one that animates even the most atheistic, secular Jews who spend inordinate amounts of time fretting over “social justice.” Why bother unless we have independence of action and a mandate to better our world?

Second, we understand that our heritage doesn’t spring from ourselves. We honor our ancestors with the ushpizin — we remember Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David. We are not the source of our tradition or our values. They come from a more ancient source.

Finally, we understand that God cares about all of us. We are commanded to pick up the lulav (palm frond), along with the hadas  (myrtle) and the aravah (willow) and the etrog (citron). According to the midrash, the lulav represents those who study Torah but do not do mitzvot; the hadas represents those who do mitzvot but do not study; the aravah represents those who do not study Torah and do not do mitzvot; the etrog represents those who both study and do mitzvot. Why not pay homage to God with the etrog alone, then? Because the Jewish people are composed of all of these sorts of people — and only together, recognizing our inherent worth and value to God, can we stand before our Creator. We can’t leave one another behind.

All of which means that Sukkot is an ideal time to reach out to our fellow Jews who see themselves as cultural. God doesn’t care; they are welcome in the sukkah. It is their job to join with us, no matter our different priorities; it is our job to infuse our sukkah with light, so that they may see a world filled with the presence of God, not merely an ancient superstition with bagels and lox.


BEN SHAPIRO is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the most listened-to conservative podcast in the nation, “The Ben Shapiro Show,” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

A woman praying during a Women of the Wall service at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on Oct. 24, 2014. Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90

Worried about Jewish pluralism in Israel? So are Israelis, new poll shows.


For non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews worried by the Israeli government’s unfriendly policies toward them this year, a new poll has some good news.

The 2017 annual survey by Hiddush given to JTA ahead of its release Monday offers indications that the Israeli Jewish public is as supportive as ever of religious pluralism, if not more so. Few are happy with how the state handles religion, and record number would like to disentangle Judaism and politics.

“When you look across the years, there is a consistent high-level, and on many issues a growing level, of support of freedom of religion and equality,” said Hiddush CEO Uri Regev. “As a result, the gap between the public and the political leaders is growing.”

The Rafi Smith Institute in July conducted the survey for Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, based on a representative sample of 800 Israeli Jewish adults. The margin of error is 3.5 percent. Hiddush has commissioned a version of the survey since 2009.

Many of this year’s findings are in line with those of previous years. Notably, 65 percent of Israeli Jews support giving Reform and Conservative Judaism equal official standing to Orthodox Judaism. Among secular Jews, who account for some 40 percent of Israeli Jewry, the number was 92 percent. Such a radical move would amount to dismantling the Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s haredi Orthodox rabbinical authority, which controls marriage and other Jewish services in the country.

Also, 84 percent of Jews agree Israel should uphold the freedom of religion and conscience promised in its Declaration of Independence, 67 percent support state recognition of non-Orthodox marriage and 50 percent would personally prefer it.

Haredi Jews trying to prevent a group of American Conservative and Reform rabbis and Women of the Wall movement members from bringing Torah scrolls into the Western Wall compound during a protest march in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nov. 2, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

At the same time, the survey reveals a significant spike in support for separation of religion and state. Fully 68 percent of Israelis Jews embrace this principle, which Regev said they interpret as entailing a depoliticization of religion rather than a more complete American-style division. Support is up 5 percent from last year and 13 percent since 2010.

Zooming in on recent government policies on religion and state, the Hiddush survey found 73 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the new conversion law, which grants the Rabbinate a monopoly over officially recognized Jewish conversions in Israel. Were the government-backed nation-state bill to pass, for the first time enshrining in law Israel’s status as a Jewish state, 65 percent want it to explicitly protect religious freedom for all.

The survey did not ask about the agreement to create an egalitarian prayer section at the Western Wall, which the government retreated from in June, outraging many Diaspora Jews and inspiring petitions now being considered by the Supreme Court. But a June survey by Hiddush found 63 percent of Israeli Jews oppose the government’s action.

In general Israeli Jewish support for separation of religion and state and pluralistic policies is correlated with secularity and voting for more left-wing and less religious parties. Voters for haredi political parties overwhelmingly oppose both.

Despite recently escalating political rhetoric and legislation aimed at weakening the Supreme Court for its alleged disregard of Israel’s Jewish values, the survey found widespread support for the principles underlying many of its recent rulings and, at least relative to other government institutions, for the court itself.

An Israeli soldier walks among haredi Orthdox men in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, June 6, 2008. (Lara Savage/ Flash90)

The Supreme Court last week broke the Rabbinate’s monopoly over kosher certification and struck downlegislation from 2015 meant to delay efforts to increase the rate at which haredi yeshiva students are drafted into the military.

According to the survey, public support for opening the kashrut market to competition with the state acting as a supervisor continued to rise, to 80 percent of Israelis Jews. Among secular Jews, the number was 95 percent with 80 percent backing the introduction of non-Orthodox certification. As in previous years, 83 percent think yeshiva students should be required to do military or national service, though a third would settle for national service and 14 percent are OK with some exemptions.

Asked for the first time this year which institution they most trust, a plurality of Israelis, 39 percent, chose the Supreme Court over the government, the Knesset, the Rabbinate or the rabbinical courts. The least trusted institution is the government followed by the Rabbinate.

The survey indicates that the state’s handling of issues of religion and state is one cause of its lack of public support. A large majority of Israeli Jews, 78 percent, are dissatisfied with the current government on such issues. Only a majority of voters of the Mizrahi haredi political party Shas are satisfied.

According to Regev, there is growing frustration in Israel with political kowtowing to the haredi parties. After their opposition led to the suspension of the Western Wall deal, the parties in July pushed through a law allowing state-run mikvahs, or ritual baths, to bar non-Orthodox Jews from entry. In September, they brought to a sudden halt repair work on trains tracks across the country by threatening to bolt the government over the issue, wreaking havoc on the workday commutes of tens of thousands of Israelis.

A Jewish couple standing underneath the chuppah during their wedding in a synagogue in Paris, France, July 21, 2013. (Serge Attal/Flash90)

However, Regev predicted, the haredi community will continue to call the shots as religion and state issues remain low on the priority list of most Israelis. A Channel 10 poll ahead of the 2015 election found that for most Israelis cost of living and social issues would be the main determinants of their vote, followed by security. Only 9 percent said they would vote primarily based on religion and state issues.

Hiddush Chairman Stanley Gold called on Diaspora Jews to step in. The Hiddush annual survey found 55 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in religion and state issues.

“Jewish Diaspora leaders concerned for the future of the Jewish people and concerned with strengthening Israel as a Jewish and democratic state must partner with Israeli organizations working in this field to bring about the necessary change: Full freedom of religion and conscience and total equality, regardless of religious identity,” he said in a statement.

Regev — who last week issued a statement signed by dozens leaders from across Judaism’s religious spectrum calling for sweeping reforms to Israel’s official religious establishment and its policies — suggested a shift in focus to those issues that most affect the daily life of Israelis. In a survey last December, Hiddush found that the Rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish marriage and divorce in Israel is by far the most important religion and state issue to Jews, while prayer at the Western Wall is by far the least important one. The same survey found that 60 percent of Israeli Jews support American Jewish involvement in the marriage issue.

“There is dissymmetry between areas Israelis feel are important and the focus of many American Jews in the past few years,” Regev said. “But Israelis are frustrated with the status quo when it comes to marriage and so are more open to Diaspora intervention.

There are reasons to believe religion and state issues will not remain on the Israeli political back burner indefinitely. According to Hiddush’s annual survey, Israeli Jews think the political conflict between haredi and secular Jews is among the most challenging in the country, at least as much so as the one between the political right and left. Seething secular anger has erupted at the ballot box before, notably with the rise of Yair Lapid in 2012 and his father, Tommy Lapid in 2003.

“Politicians should be wary,” said Regev. “They don’t know when the hurricane is going to hit. It hit before, it will hit again, and it may be this time around.”

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan


Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

There’s an old joke that underscores our almost impish impulse for our streams of Judaism to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two  places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have been reciting it for my father who died last December. In some synagogues, only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each procedure. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, like a scarlet “M” has sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes my feelings or minimizes them as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention, of course, is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, as a rabbi I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually say the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it! Everyone recites, but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to amazon.com. There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. She has recently authored a second book, Curiosity Seekers which is gentle science fiction about an endearing couple in the near future (Paperback or Kindle).

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GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).

CLASS SESSIONS

The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute course 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 at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or phone at 410-733-3700.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/, or email info@jewish-funerals.org.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to 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, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, 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, both 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) organization, 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 a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog 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, courses planned, 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.

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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 unpublished 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, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Photo from Wikipedia

Study finds more than half of young Jews have ‘no religion’


A new survey examining the religion of Americans shows a growth in the number of Jews of no religion, compared to findings of the PEW survey of American Jews from four years ago. It also shows that the numbers of Jews claiming to be Reform and Conservative are declining while the number of those who identify with no denomination is on the rise.

The PRRI survey found that among the 2.3 percent of Americans who identify as Jews, about a third are “cultural Jews.” The study found that among those under age 30, fewer than half, 47 percent, identified as religiously Jewish while 53 percent are Jews of no religion (which this study calls “cultural Jews”).

The main part of the study deals with the general state of religion in America, naturally focusing on changes concerning Christian America. White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., the study tells us, “now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country.” Moreover, “fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian.”

What follows is an attempt to explain some of the data concerning the Jewish community and the possible implications of it.

1.

The most dramatic finding of this study concerns the “Jews of no religion,” as PEW’s study, Portrait of Jewish Americans, referred to them in 2013.

PEW reported that 22 percent of all Jews are such people of “no religion.” Namely, Jews who do not respond to the question — What is your religion? — by saying Jewish, but do indicate in a follow-up question that they are Jewish in some other way.

The PRRI study indicates that the number of such Jews is rapidly growing. It calls these Jews “cultural Jews” and explains that 1.5 percent of Americans “identify as Jewish when responding to a question about their religious affiliation.” An additional 0.8 percent of Americans “identify as culturally but not religiously Jewish.” So about a third of all Jews are cultural Jews.

“Cultural Jews” are the PRRI study’s version of “Jews by no religion” from the PEW study. “To identify culturally affiliated Jews,” the PRRI study explains, “we asked all respondents who claimed no formal religious affiliation the following question: ‘Do you consider yourself to be Jewish for any reason?’ Any respondent who said ‘yes’ or ‘half’ was classified as culturally Jewish.” This methodology is practically identical to the one used by PEW to identify “Jews by no religion.”

So according to PRRI, about a third of all American Jews are people who have no specific answer when asked about their religion. What does this mean? A paper I wrote for JPPI a while ago argued that calling these Jews “cultural Jews” would be a wrong choice: “Jews ‘not by religion’ are not ‘cultural’ Jews, they are disconnected Jews,” I wrote, based on the clear-cut data from PEW.

Here is more from what I wrote three years ago:

There can be no doubt that the data point to the possibility that about a quarter of American Jews will find it much harder to pass on their Jewishness to the next generation (and the one after that). Those who reacted to the Pew survey have taken care — and rightly so — to emphasize that there are many exceptions in the Jewish story and that among “Jews not by religion,” too, there are those strongly committed to the Jewish people. The statistical picture, though, does not change because of anecdotal exceptions. The value of a comprehensive quantitative study is precisely that it allows us to adapt policy to large groups.

What changed from PEW to PRRI? I assume nothing much, except that now it is not “a quarter” of all American Jews — it is a third.

1a.

Or maybe something else changed.

Prof. Uzi Rebhun noted that according to PRRI the share of Jews in the U.S. slightly increased, from 2.2 percent (PEW) to 2.3 percent. So it is true that the share of Jews not by religion among the total Jewish population increased, according to PRRI, but so did the total number of (adult) Jews in the country (a 0.1 percent increase is equivalent to an absolute growth of some 250,000 people over a period of only three years).

Hence, we can make another assumption by way of interpreting the data: some Jews are, indeed, becoming less connected (cultural Jews), but at the same time there are also people who avoided identifying themselves as Jews in the past and now feel a need to identify as such and connect themselves, albeit weakly, to the Jewish people.

2.

The change is clear when PRRI examines the differences between age groups. “Among Jews under the age of 30, fewer than half (47 percent) identify as religiously Jewish, while a majority (53 percent) identify as culturally Jewish. In sharp contrast, more than three-quarters (78 percent) of Jewish seniors (age 65 or older) are religiously Jewish, while 22 percent identify as culturally Jewish.”

To understand what this means, I will refer you to another JPPI study, by my colleague Shlomo Fischer. When we spoke yesterday, Fischer reargued his case: this change reflects a change in what Jewishness means in America. For many Americans, it is no longer a defining feature of identity — it is an anecdotal fact of which they are proud (as the PEW study proved), but not much more than that.

“Jews of no religion,” he wrote, “accept their Jewishness as a matter of fact, like having blue eyes. It does not enjoin much of a sense of solidarity or any normative commitment to the welfare or continuity of the Jewish people or to Jewish culture.”

What changed? In the PEW study, Millennial Jews (born after 1980) of no religion were 32 percent. In the PRRI study, Jews of no religion under 30 are 53 percent. So nothing changed, except the even higher numbers. These numbers present the organized Jewish community with a challenge of abandonment that is not even close to being resolved.

3.

Denominational belonging of the Jews is always a topic of discussion, and the new study presents us with a question. Its denominational portrait is significantly different from the one presented four years ago by the PEW Research Center. The main question we need to ask as we look at the numbers is as follows: is this a result of a different survey methodology and articulation of questions — or the result of rapid changes in the community (of course, the same question should also be asked about Jews of no religion).

If the latter is the correct answer — if what we see here is rapid change — there are more worrying signs in this study for the two main Jewish progressive movements, Reform and Conservative. Reform Judaism still tops all other denominations in numbers, but the gap is shrinking. Seven points down in four years is significant. Conservative Judaism is also continuing to shrink. It is now not much larger than Orthodox Judaism.

4.

When we look at denominational questions, age is again the key to understanding the trends. To make it easy, here is a table of how Jews older than 65 define themselves and how Jews aged 18 to 29 define themselves. Note how among young Jews the Orthodox group has already surpassed the Conservative group and is getting close to the Reform group. Also note that close to half of all younger Jews do not belong to any denomination.

“Jewish seniors are about 10 times as likely to identify as Reform as they are to identify as Orthodox (35 percent  vs. 3 percent, respectively).” Among Jewish youngsters, the difference is just 5 percent. Three Orthodox for every four Reform.

Where is this going? Easy: “More than six in ten (62 percent) Orthodox Jewish parents say they have at least three children living in their household, compared to 17 percent of Jewish parents who identify as Reform who say the same.”

5.

The study is based on interviews with more than 100,000 Americans. Most of them are not Jewish. But changes among them will have a huge impact on America, and hence on Jewish America — and also on Israel. One such important change is the decline of white evangelist America. “Fewer than one in five (17 percent) Americans are white evangelical Protestant, but they accounted for nearly one-quarter (23 percent) in 2006.”

This group is one of the most supportive of Israel in the U.S. and is considered by some right-wing Israelis to be even more important than the Jews of America when it comes to backing its security and strategic needs.

But as Israel ponders its future relations with America, as it worries about trends concerning American Jews, and about trends concerning the American left, it ought to also consider these larger changes that could reduce the influence of evangelical whites (in the shorter term: 35% of all Republicans, more than a third, identify as white evangelical Protestants).

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).

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.

Rabbi Sharon Brous. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

It’s time to reclaim religion


This is a transcript of a speech delivered at TEDWomen 2016.

was a new mother and a young rabbi in the spring of 2004 and the world was in shambles. Maybe you remember. Every day, we heard devastating reports from the war in Iraq. There were waves of terror rolling across the globe. It seemed like humanity was spinning out of control.

I remember the night that I read about the series of coordinated bombings in the subway system in Madrid, and I got up and I walked over to the crib where my 6-month-old baby girl lay sleeping sweetly, and I heard the rhythm of her breath, and I felt this sense of urgency coursing through my body. We were living through a time of tectonic shifts in ideologies, in politics, in religion, in populations. Everything felt so precarious. And I remember thinking, My God, what kind of world did we bring this child into? And what was I as a mother and a religious leader willing to do about it?

Of course, I knew it was clear that religion would be a principal battlefield in this rapidly changing landscape, and it was already clear that religion was a significant part of the problem. The question for me was, could religion also be part of the solution? Now, throughout history, people have committed horrible crimes and atrocities in the name of religion. And as we entered the 21st century, it was very clear that religious extremism was once again on the rise. Our studies now show that over the course of the past 15-20 years, hostilities and religion-related violence have been on the increase all over the world. 

But we don’t even need the studies to prove it, because I ask you, how many of us are surprised today when we hear the stories of a bombing or a shooting, when we later find out that the last word that was uttered before the trigger is pulled or the bomb is detonated is the name of God? It barely raises an eyebrow today when we learn that yet another person has decided to show his love of God by taking the lives of God’s children. In America, religious extremism looks like a white, anti-abortion Christian extremist walking into Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs and murdering three people. It also looks like a couple inspired by the Islamic State walking into an office party in San Bernardino and killing 14. And even when religion-related extremism does not lead to violence, it is still used as a political wedge issue, cynically leading people to justify the subordination of women, the stigmatization of LGBT people, racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This ought to concern deeply those of us who care about the future of religion and the future of faith. We need to call this what it is: a great failure of religion.

But the thing is, this isn’t even the only challenge that religion faces today. At the very same time that we need religion to be a strong force against extremism, it is suffering from a second pernicious trend, what I call religious routine-ism. This is when our institutions and our leaders are stuck in a paradigm that is rote and perfunctory, devoid of life, devoid of vision and devoid of soul.

Let me explain what I mean. One of the great blessings of being a rabbi is standing under the chuppah, under the wedding canopy, with a couple, and helping them proclaim publicly and make holy the love that they found for one another. I want to ask you now, though, to think maybe from your own experience or maybe just imagine it, about the difference between the intensity of the experience under the wedding canopy and maybe the experience of the sixth or seventh anniversary.

And if you’re lucky enough to make it 16 or 17 years, if you’re like most people, you probably wake up in the morning realizing that you forgot to make a reservation at your favorite restaurant and you forgot so much as a card, and then you just hope and pray that your partner also forgot.

Well, religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That’s when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don’t mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that’s completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that’s the way things have always been done.

Religion is waning in the United States.

Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself. And what they need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.

Of course, there is a bright spot to this story. Given the crisis of these two concurrent trends in religious life, about 12 or 13 years ago I set out to try to determine if there was any way that I could reclaim the heart of my own Jewish tradition, to help make it meaningful and purposeful again in a world on fire. I started to wonder: What if we could harness some of the great minds of our generation and think in a bold and robust and imaginative way again about what the next iteration of religious life would look like? Now, we had no money, no space, no game plan, but we did have email. So my friend Melissa and I sat down and we wrote an email, which we sent out to a few friends and colleagues. It basically said this: “Before you bail on religion, why don’t we come together this Friday night and see what we might make of our own Jewish inheritance?”

We hoped maybe 20 people would show up. It turned out 135 people came. They were cynics and seekers, atheists and rabbis. Many people said that night that it was the first time that they had a meaningful religious experience in their entire lives. And so I set out to do the only rational thing that someone would do in such a circumstance: I quit my job and tried to build this audacious dream, a reinvented, rethought religious life which we called IKAR, which means “the essence” or “the heart of the matter.”

Now, IKAR is not alone out there in the religious landscape today. There are Jewish and Christian and Muslim and Catholic religious leaders — many of them women, by the way — who have set out to reclaim the heart of our traditions, who firmly believe that now is the time for religion to be part of the solution. We are going back into our sacred traditions and recognizing that all of our traditions contain the raw material to justify violence and extremism, and also contain the raw material to justify compassion, coexistence and kindness — that when others choose to read our texts as directives for hate and vengeance, we can choose to read those same texts as directives for love and for forgiveness.

I have found now in communities as varied as Jewish indie startups on the coasts to a women’s mosque, to Black churches in New York and in North Carolina, to a holy bus loaded with nuns that traverses this country with a message of justice and peace, that there is a shared religious ethos that is now emerging in the form of revitalized religion in this country. And while the theologies and the practices vary very much between these independent communities, what we can see are some common, consistent threads between them.

I’m going to share with you four of those commitments now.

The first is wakefulness. We live in a time today in which we have unprecedented access to information about every global tragedy that happens on every corner of this Earth. Within 12 hours, 20 million people saw that image of Aylan Kurdi’s little body washed up on the Turkish shore. We all saw this picture. We saw this picture of a 5-year-old child pulled out of the rubble of his building in Aleppo. And once we see these images, we are called to a certain kind of action.

My tradition tells a story of a traveler who is walking down a road when he sees a beautiful house on fire, and he says, “How can it be that something so beautiful would burn, and nobody seems to even care?” So too we learn that our world is on fire, and it is our job to keep our hearts and our eyes open, and to recognize that it’s our responsibility to help put out the flames.

This is extremely difficult to do. Psychologists tell us that the more we learn about what’s broken in our world, the less likely we are to do anything. It’s called psychic numbing. We just shut down at a certain point. Well, somewhere along the way, our religious leaders forgot that it’s our job to make people uncomfortable. It’s our job to wake people up, to pull them out of their apathy and into the anguish, and to insist that we do what we don’t want to do and see what we do not want to see. Because, we know that social change only happens when we are awake enough to see that the house is on fire.

The second principle is hope, and I want to say this about hope. Hope is not naive, and hope is not an opiate. Hope may be the single greatest act of defiance against a politics of pessimism and against a culture of despair. Because what hope does for us is, it lifts us out of the container that holds us and constrains us from the outside and says you can dream and think expansively again, that they cannot control in you.

I saw hope made manifest in an African-American church on the South Side of Chicago this summer, where I brought my little girl, who is now 13 and a few inches taller than me, to hear my friend Rev. Otis Moss preach. That summer, there had already been 3,000 people shot between January and July in Chicago. We went into that church and heard Rev. Moss preach, and after he did, this choir of gorgeous women, 100 women strong, stood up and began to sing: “I need you. You need me. I love you. I need you to survive.” And I realized in that moment that this is what religion is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about giving people back a sense of purpose, a sense of hope, a sense that they and their dreams fundamentally matter in this world that tells them that they don’t matter at all.

The third principle is the principle of mightiness. There’s a rabbinic tradition that we are to walk around with two slips of paper in our pockets. One says, “I am but dust and ashes.” It’s not all about me. I can’t control everything, and I cannot do this on my own. The other slip of paper says, “For my sake the world was created.” Which is to say, it’s true that I can’t do everything, but I can surely do something. I can forgive. I can love. I can show up. I can protest. I can be a part of this conversation. We even now have a religious ritual, a posture, that holds the paradox between powerlessness and power. In the Jewish community, the only time of year that we prostrate fully to the ground is during the High Holy Days. It’s a sign of total submission. Now, in our community, when we get up off the ground, we stand with our hands raised to the heavens, and we say, “I am strong, I am mighty and I am worthy. I can’t do everything, but I can do something.”

In a world that conspires to make us believe that we are invisible and that we are impotent, religious communities and religious ritual can remind us that for whatever amount of time we have here on this earth, whatever gifts and blessings we were given, whatever resources we have, we can and we must use them to try to make the world a little bit more just and a little bit more loving.

The fourth and final is interconnectedness. A few years ago, there was a man walking on the beach in Alaska, when he came across a soccer ball that had some Japanese letters written on it. He took a picture of it and posted it up on social media, and a Japanese teenager contacted him. He had lost everything in the tsunami that devastated his country, but he was able to retrieve that soccer ball after it had floated all the way across the Pacific. How small our world has become. It’s so hard for us to remember how interconnected we all are as human beings. And yet, we know that it is systems of oppression that benefit the most from the lie of radical individualism.

Let me tell you how this works. I’m not supposed to care when Black youth are harassed by police, because my white-looking Jewish kids probably won’t ever get pulled over for the crime of driving while Black. Well, not so, because this is also my problem. And guess what? Transphobia and Islamophobia and racism of all forms — those are also all of our problems. And so too is anti-Semitism all of our problems. Because Emma Lazarus was right.

Emma Lazarus was right when she said until all of us are free, we are none of us free. We are all in this together. And now somewhere at the intersection of these four trends — of wakefulness and hope and mightiness and interconnectedness — there is a burgeoning, multifaith justice movement in this country that is staking a claim on a countertrend, saying that religion can and must be a force for good in the world.

Our hearts hurt from the failed religion of extremism, and we deserve more than the failed religion of routine-ism. It is time for religious leaders and religious communities to take the lead in the spiritual and cultural shift that this country and the world so desperately need — a shift toward love, toward justice, toward equality and toward dignity for all. I believe that our children deserve no less than that.


SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles

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.

A new vision for the secular left: How do we need to change ourselves in order to change reality in


I am a human rights professional, peace and anti-occupation activist and have been committed to these values for as long as I can remember. All these years, my colleagues and I have been working to change the reality in Israel by removing the blindfolds of Israeli society, exposing the wrongdoings and violations of the occupation, the discrimination against those who are marginalized in society (such as Palestinian citizens of Israel, African asylum seekers and migrant workers), and the implications of the dire social and economic gaps between the center and the periphery.

But there is a blindfold we are ignoring: the one covering our own eyes.

Our blindfold is made up of two layers. The first is the inability to see what is looking at us in the mirror: most of us are Jewish, white, Ashkenazi, secular. We are the privileged elite: Israel was built in our image and our image only, in culture, narrative, politics, history and traditions.

The second layer is a result of the first: our blindness to the validity of points of views that are different from ours, points of view that are deeply rooted in worlds of justification that are sometimes the opposite of ours — not liberal, not leftist, not secular. Our expectation to change everything around us is flawed so long as it insists on avoiding the need to change ourselves, to remove these layers of blindness.

My vision includes a first step: to remove my blindfold before or at least concurrently to the process in which I ask other Israelis to remove theirs.

I have to face the mirror, acknowledging the many privileges that come with my white skin and blue eyes, and understanding that these privileges mean power, even though in the complex reality of contemporary Israel, we, the left, feel most of the time powerless. We must also admit to our own orthodoxies, the kind that in other groups, we tend to condescendingly disrespect. We have our own kashrut (being vegetarian/vegan, not buying products made or grown in the settlements); we have our own practices (going to the annual/weekly protest against the occupation); we have all sorts of rules of behavior and politically correct language, and we so easily judge anyone who does not comply with them. Just like any other group.

We must also proactively work to see and hear the voices and justifications of those who are not like us: Mizrachim, Orthodox, ultra-Orthodox, right wing, Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, Russian-speaking Jews. We must listen, without trying to persuade or convert, yet without compromising our values and ideology. I have learned that listening opens up so many windows of understanding and empathy.

To make this change, we, the secular left, must also proactively release the power that comes with our privileges: to engage in social change from a humbler approach, not to be the sole leaders, and to be able to join the causes identified and framed by others who may be different than us. Once we release power, a space is made for the articulation of other visions that stem from very different worlds of justification. In this process, we must not be intimidated by the fact that for some, honor and dignity come before equality, and tradition and family are more important values than universalism and secularism. Despite these differences, we can still collaborate, finding shared values and common good to achieve the changes needed to make this a better place.

And so I begin with myself and my professional context. As co-director of the Department for Shared Society at Sikkuy, I am working to promote education for shared society with a focus on Jewish-Arab relationships. In Israel’s sectoralized educational system, to even talk about shared society and Arabs in the religious and ultra-Orthodox streams is a challenge. In order to succeed at this task, I needed to understand that we, as outsiders of those communities, can’t dictate to them what education for shared society means, and how it should be done in their communities. 

Instead, we need to release power: to enable leading educators from within these communities to articulate the problems and proposed solutions, emerging from their own sense of urgency, in dialogue with my colleagues and me. For this purpose, Sikkuy has convened, with the help of Shaharit, a group of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox educators who have expressed their concerns with the way their education system raises children to treat Arabs, and have engaged in a conversation with them as to how they view the problem, and what could help create a solution. 

In this group, I have a voice, but it is not my voice that dictates the conversation: The dialogue is one of listening and sometimes arguing, but at the end of the process, they will decide what the outcome will look like in their community. 

Releasing power is not an easy task. It does not mean giving up on my identity; on the contrary, it can provide a strong base for my identity to dwell securely and even proudly alongside other identities. But it does mean giving up on my power to decide how to frame the struggle, my power to choose the actions and partners, the strategies and stakeholders. Once this process is in place, we can then reconvene, a diverse group comprising many voices, identities and powers, and begin the task of addressing Israel’s most aching issues, in conversation, together.


Gili Re’i has nearly two decades of work experience in non-profit organizations in the fields of education, social change and human rights. Formerly the Deputy Director of The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), since 2015 she has been working at Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, as co-director of the department for shared society.  While at ACRI, Gili was a member of the steering committee of a dialogue group between human rights professionals and Sephardic Ultra-orthodox rabbis and educators, facilitated by Shaharit.  Gili resides in Jerusalem with her family and also serves as the co-chair of the Parents Committee at the Max Rayne Hand in Hand Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where both her children are students.   

This is the third in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision: a politics of the common good.

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.

Christians and Jews, united in conversation and shared values


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Franklin Graham: America’s failure to understand religion foils cogent Mideast policy


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

Franklin Graham, the son of legendary evangelical preacher Billy Graham and heir to the religious empire his father built has worked extensively in the Middle East and has watched America’s Mideast policies evolve over the years that Graham, Senior offered counsel and support to successive US presidents.  From the assent of ISIS to chances for an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement, Graham was blunt and to the point as he spoke with The Media Line’s Felice Friedson.

TML: Your humanitarian aid organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has worked extensively in the Middle East. Given recent events from the rise of ISIS to the implosion of Iraq, do you believe it’s possible for the West to have influence – humanitarian or otherwise – in the Middle East?

Graham: Absolutely. The United States and the West have influence. But at the same time, to have influence, you must have trust. The problem that America has today is that countries that have been our friends in the past don’t trust us now. And I would take Libya as an example; Mu’amar Qaddafi. This guy is a bad guy. There are a lot of bad guys in the world. He gave up his weapons of mass destruction and his plans for weapons of mass destruction: he surrendered that. He wanted to make peace after [the bombing of the airliner over] Lockerbie. He saw Al-Qa’ida and it scared him — that’s not what he wanted his country to be. But our government backed Al-Qa’ida and Qaddafi fell and now the country has disintegrated into tribalism with many different Islamic factions. And it is now a far more dangerous part of the world for the West. When the other countries around Libya see this, they ask, “How can we trust the United States here?” Qaddafi had given up his weapons of mass destruction and done all the things that the West asked and then the West bombed him and destroyed him and took him out of power. It’s the credibility. You can only have influence if you also have trust. Those you want to have influence on must trust you and I’m not sure America has much trust in the world.

TML: You bring up an interesting point: has America gotten it wrong over-and-over in terms of understanding what is happening in the Middle East? That country-by-country, the people on the street were saying something very different and America would go in and sometimes arm the wrong side?

 Graham: First of all, America does not understand religion. They do not understand the Christian faith, they don’t understand the Jewish faith, and they certainly don’t understand Islam. Islam is a very dangerous belief system. Because the Quran teaches what we’ve been seeing: the beheadings of people, the killing of Christians, the killing of Jews. The Quran teaches and advocates that. You can take Christian property, you can take Jewish property. You can warn them. If they don’t convert, then they can pay a tax. If they don’t pay a tax, you can kill them. The Quran gives them permission. So Presidents Obama and George W. Bush were absolutely 100 percent wrong when they said Islam is a religion of peace. It absolutely is not.

TML: The plight of Christians in the Middle East has garnered headlines and prompted strong reactions, but in your opinion, is their situation also provoking appropriate actions by Western governments? I want to know if you feel the response of the United States and other Western nations has been adequate and if note, what should they be doing?

Graham: Adequate to the person that has lost their life, village, and everything they own? For the president to make a speech saying that we will defeat ISIS I don’t think means a whole lot to the person who buried their father, buried their son. The president had an opportunity to keep Iraq together and he didn’t do that, so again, it comes back to trust. The president says he is going to declare war on ISIS. But what does that mean? I don’t know.

TML : What should be done?

Graham: I believe the United States should do what it can to protect the Kurdish areas. And I think America should not put soldiers there again. America should use its airpower to target — and we can target for the next 50 years — a mosque, ISIS military points, training camps. And let the [Kurdish] Pershmerga and the Iraqi and Syrian armies fight it out with ISIS. Let’s keep our soldiers out of it but let’s protect at least the Kurdish areas because that’s the only safe place remaining in Iraq for Christians. I’m not sure any Jews are in Kurdistan. There might be a few and I don’t think [Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud] President Barzani would bother them if they were there; they have the Yazidis and other groups. But it’s the only safe place left. So I would hope that we will continue to protect that, but let’s keep our soldiers out.

TML: Your operation Christmas Child has become legend. Tell us where it came from and what you project for this year.

Graham: It started during the war in the Balkans. We started taking children gifts in Sarajevo and Croatia in orphanages to try to do something for these kids that had lost their families. It was wintertime and that project grew from just a few thousand [gift boxes for children were distributed] to where today we are in 110 countries and 10 million boxes this year, and over 100 million boxes over 20 years. It just continues to grow. But it’s more than just giving children gifts. I want children to know God. I want Him to know that God loves them and cares for them and has a plan for their life. As a Christian, I believe God sent his son Jesus Christ to take our sins; that he died on the cross for our sins. Many people in our history have blamed Jews, saying it was the Jews who killed Christ. It wasn’t the Jews who killed Christ. It wasn’t the Romans. It was you and me and every person who has ever sinned. It’s the entire human race. We are responsible for Jesus Christ going to the cross. And he went willingly because he loved us and took our sins and he died in our place. He is the Messiah; He is the Kings of Kings; He’s the Lord of Lords. And the Bible says that he is coming again. And the Bible predicts, the Old Testament prophesizes as well as the New Testament, it’s all beginning to align. I believe that return will be someday soon. We give the boxes to children and we share God’s love with them.

TML: You created a program for “wounded warriors” — soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. How are returning veterans being treated?

Graham: Well, I think that like any government, bureaucracy that you have to deal with, whether it’s the post office or whatever, there’s only marginal care. When the soldiers are first wounded, they have excellent care as far as the facilities to save their life. Once they get out of the hospital, the government, that’s where they drop the ball. Their solution is that you give medication to soldiers — prescriptions for life for whatever they need and you let them fend for themselves. This is where we are there. The treatment is not adequate. They need a lot of follow up and they need more and more help. Some of these soldiers have been wounded for over 10 years and they’re not getting the care they need.

TML: Your father had enormous impact on the Israeli-Arab conflict many years ago. Do you believe that there is a possibility that there could be an Israeli-Palestinian rapprochement? Could that ever happen?

Graham: You mean peace? I’ve been to Shatilla, Sabra and outside of Beirut. I’ve been to the refugee camps in Jordan. I’ve been to Gaza. And the hatred for Israel that is being preached and taught from the mosque is that they have to avenge the blood of their grandfathers. And to one day go back and take their grandfather’s farm back. Wherever their grandfather’s farm is today may have a six or ten story apartment building on it. There’s no solution to this. It can’t be solved. You’ll never be able to set aside the people because of the hatred that has been preached and taught in the schools and in the mosque and on Arab television and radio. Unless there is a huge change in the authorities in the Arab world, I don’t think there will ever be peace.

TML: Franklin, the world has now witnessed several beheadings by ISIS, aiming to shock.  Do you feel that was a tipping point for anyone?

Graham: For our liberal media, all of a sudden it’s a wakeup call. And they’re saying, wait a second; they just cut the throats of our own people. The President will still not call Islam wicked, or evil. He calls it a religion of peace and there’s nothing peaceful about it. So I think the media is now beginning to wake up. The media now realizes that [former president] George Bush was right and Obama has been completely wrong on this issue.

TML: What are your hopes in looking toward the future in terms of leadership from the United States?

Graham: I don’t have a lot of hope. I don’t see any Democratic or Republican leaders that are strong. People are more concerned about polls. They’re more concerned about whether they got a good sound bite. The days of the Ronald Reagans have passed. We don’t have that kind of leadership.

Healing: Where religion and science meet


What does Judaism have to do with healing?  This was the topic of the lively conference, “Healing: The Interplay of Religion and Science,” October 26 and 27, 2014 at Arizona State University.  Three local attendees were Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rector and Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at American Jewish University, myself from The Lippman Center for Optimal Health and Neil Wenger, MD  Chair of the Ethics Committee at UCLA Medical Center and Director of its Center on Ethics. 

Rabbi Dorff described Judaism's emphasis on maintaining our health and the various community resources that contribute to assisting people in that endeavor.  The emphasis on addressing the whole individual, not just a symptom or an organ system, carried through the entire conference.

I discussed the similarities between alternative medicine and Judaism.  Drawing upon some of the resources Rabbi Dorff described, as well as his writings, I noted that taking a proactive approach to our health and asking questions are two commonalities.  Additionally, I showed how keeping ourselves as healthy as possible facilitates our vitality as well as easing our ability to connect to God, a particularly important topic during the High Holy Days.  It is easier to change our habits and to improve ourselves when we feel better.

Dr. Wenger's summation of research on religiosity and health was enlightening.  Scientific studies reveal that those who are more religious tend to live longer than the general population.  On the other hand, praying for the health of another, while it might benefit the person doing the praying, does not seem to improve the outcome for the ill individual. 

Throughout the two days, the importance of empathy by the health practitioner became one of the most desirable characteristics.  There was general consensus that the empathetic doctor creates the space where better healing can occur.  Amen to that.

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 Jews unite more than Christians


Imagine that you are a Jew, and that you are president of the United States. Your security adviser has just whispered in your ear that 200 Jewish girls in Africa have been kidnapped and are being threatened with rape.

Or imagine that you are the most prominent rabbi in the world and you’ve just heard that a Jewish village in Iraq has been massacred by terrorists.

What would you do?

I ask those questions because of two parallel items. One, the frightening persecution of Christians throughout the Middle East and parts of Africa over the past few years, and two, the frightening silence of the world’s two most prominent Christians: The President of the United States and the Pope. 

How could they stay so quiet when people of their own religion are being massacred?

Call me politically incorrect, but for Jews, this is a natural question. We can’t imagine keeping quiet when “one of our own” gets hurt. When a Jew gets attacked in Paris, Tel Aviv or Buenos Aires, Jews in Los Angeles and Montreal go nuts. That’s just who we are.

But why? 

The question came up last Friday night at my friend Jonathan Medved’s home in Jerusalem, where I was invited for Shabbat.

Medved’s answer was so simple and yet so resonant, that it lingered with me for several days. It’s hardly the first time I’ve heard it– we’ve all heard it. But maybe it was the wine, or the war, or something– this time the answer hit home a little stronger.

Unlike Christians, he said, we’re more than a religion, we’re a people.

It felt right to hear that answer at a Shabbat table, the Jewish ritual that, perhaps more than any other, has kept the Jewish people together for millennia.

When one of the great scholars of our time, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, had to describe the Jewish people, he had plenty of options to choose from. After all, we are the people of the book; the wandering Jews; God’s chosen people; the people of Jewish law; the citizens of Zion; we are so many things, in so many expressions, in so many places and times.

Steinsaltz found a way to wrap all these complexities of identity in one neat, elegant package. He went even further than peoplehood. 

Jews are a family, he wrote. 

However schmaltzy or idealistic that may appear to the cynic who sees Jews fighting all the time, there is an intuitive plausibility to that idea.

For one thing, since when does a family never fight or argue? A family that tells you it never fights is either a family that lies, or a family that never sees each other. 

But more importantly, the idea of “family” speaks to the marriage of diversity and identity. In Judaism, regardless of what you do or believe, you're still part of the Jewish people.

You may be an atheist, your brother may be ultra-Orthodox, your sister may be a poet who plays in a punk band, and your younger brother may be dabbling in Buddhism, but still, you are all family.

When your ultra-Orthodox brother invites you to the marriage of one of his ten kids, chances are, you will show up, even if you don't believe in God. And if your hippie sister doesn’t show? So what. She’s still his sister, and he’s still her brother, and that still counts for more than something.

Simply put, Jews and Judaism are too diverse, and the Jewish story too complex, to wrap up in one identity or ideology. This has been both a source of confusion and alienation (who are we?) and a source of strength (we are all).

It makes sense, then, that in times of danger, the cerebral confusion of identity would dissipate and the primal clarity of family would rise to the surface. Even if you can’t stand the ideology or crazy lifestyle of your sister, when you get a phone call that she's in danger, how can you not go nuts?

In the multicultural zeitgeist of America, where we worship the secular religion of inclusion, it’s often uncomfortable to express this tribal impulse. It’s more acceptable to express the sentiment of caring for all humans, which many Jews see as the ultimate Jewish value, since it honors the Jewish teaching that every human is created in the image of God.

But just as there’s a difference between friends and family, there’s a difference between sentiment and impulse. In times of safety, I have the luxury of expressing sentiments of love for all my neighbors. But in times of danger, I am moved by an impulse to protect my people; the same impulse, perhaps, that would make me instinctively protect my daughter.

Does this explain why our Christian president and our Pope have been so lethargic in their response to the persecution of Christians? I don’t know. It may explain the unique bond between Jews, but ultimately, at the level of global leadership, none of that should matter.

If I were president, every human being would be a Jew.

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.”

[Related: 

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).

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.

No faith, no Jewish future


In my last column, I suggested a number of reasons for the rise of Orthodox Judaism and the decline in membership among non-Orthodox denominations. 

In this column, I would like to discuss one important reason that often goes unnoted.

That reason is faith — not only faith in God, but specifically faith that the Torah represents the word of God. 

“Represents the word of God” does not necessarily mean that God dictated every word to Moses. Nor does it necessarily imply any specific form of divine communication. How the Torah came to be is an entirely different question from whether it ultimately comes from God. 

Having taught the Torah much of my life, I am well aware that there are challenging, even difficult, parts of the Torah. However, in almost every case, with intellectual honesty coupled with a belief in the divinity of the Torah, those difficulties can be surmounted. 

Take the often-cited example of the law demanding that a son who will not listen to either his father or mother and who is “a stubborn and rebellious glutton and drunk” be stoned.

As it turns out, this law was one of the most morally elevating laws in mankind’s history. By stipulating that the son must be taken to a court and that only the court can execute him, and that the son had to revile both his mother and father, the law permanently took away the right of a father to kill his child. 

This was likely a first in human history. Throughout the world, as in the Code of Hammurabi, children were the property of their father — who was, therefore, allowed to kill his child. The Torah law ended that. Moreover, it is unlikely that one son in Jewish history was ever stoned by a Jewish court. On the contrary, thanks to the Torah, Jewish family life was the most peaceful in every society in which Jews lived. Would that those who in believe in “honor killings” today had inherited such a law in their holy works.

Whatever the difficulties moderns may have with believing that the Torah is divine, the difficulties with believing that the Torah is just a creation of men are far greater.

Of course, many Jews who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah — or even in the God of the Torah — feel Jewish and some are deeply devoted to the Jewish people. Indeed, it was secular Jews, not Orthodox Jews, who founded Israel. But over the course of a few generations, without belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah coming from God, most Jews will gradually leave Judaism and eventually the Jewish people.

Take Shabbat observance as an example. There are excellent rational, non-God-based  reasons to observe the Shabbat. But the reason the vast majority of Jews who do not work on Shabbat (or on the Torah’s other holy days) refrain from work is that we believe God commanded us to. Over a few generations, those who believe that men wrote the commandment to observe the Shabbat will eventually abandon it. But those who believe that God gave the commandment will not.

Similarly, if one does not believe that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, let alone that God took the Jews out of Egypt, one can be a committed Jew and even celebrate Passover. But over time it strains credulity to believe that generation after generation of Jews will celebrate an event they don’t believe ever happened. They may celebrate family time together at a seder, but not Judaism.

The centrality of belief in a God-given Torah obviously challenges most non-Orthodox Jews. But it should also challenge many Orthodox Jews. 

Many Orthodox Jews think that observance of halachah, more than faith, is what ensures Jewish survival. Every yeshiva student is taught the famous line from the Midrash: “It would be better that the Jews abandoned Me [God] but kept my commandments.”

But Conservative Judaism provides a nearly perfect refutation of this idea. Many Conservative rabbis in the past, and many today, have led thoroughly halachic lives, virtually indistinguishable from many modern Orthodox rabbis. If halachah is what keeps Jews alive, the Conservative movement should not be in decline — and it should certainly attract more Jews than Reform, the least halachic of the major denominations. 

Furthermore, if halachah is the single most important thing to the Orthodox, why has Orthodoxy been so opposed to Conservative Judaism and to Conservative rabbis who have been scrupulously halachic? The answer is that the Conservative movement dropped belief in a God-given Torah. (Jewish Theological Seminary Web site: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font.”) And it is that, not lesser observance of halachah, that is the primary reason for Conservative Judaism’s decline. 

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.


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).

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.”

Letters to the Editor: Judaism in Poland, Jewish values and cleaning up Mount Zion


Judaism in Poland

I want to thank and congratulate you for again getting it right (“It’s Warsaw, Jake,” Oct. 18). It’s amazing what happens when power and authority are motivators. Since the Twarda has dealt with only the Orthodox community under Rabbi Michael Schudrich for years, it’s an uphill dynamic to move the pendulum at all or at least incrementally. Protectionism at its worst has allowed the selling off of valuable resources, but times may be changing with articles like this and the tireless effort of Severyn Ashkenazy, Rabbi Dov Beliak and a few others. Terrific insight, thanks.

Barbara Yaroslavsky via e-mail

The future of our people is in danger if we keep silent when such massive corruption is exposed.

Gil Nativ via jewishjournal.com


The Changing Face of Judaism

In David Suissa’s column “Can Common Sense Save Judaism” (Oct. 11), he states that Judaism in America is in trouble. I must tell you, with all due respect to the excellent job the Jewish Journal does in addressing the various issues and concerns of the Jewish community in Southern California, that I find both the ancient and recent reportage of this kind a lot of paranoid hooey.

I grew up in politically conservative Orange County in the early 1960s, at a time when Orange County’s residents were not exactly welcoming of Jews, and there were only two Jewish synagogues in the entire county. Now, they dot the map there, and I have no doubt that every one of them was packed to the gills on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I accompanied my parents to their synagogue there for High Holy Days and took note of Hispanic, Korean and Japanese converts to our faith. Surely, that must tell you something. I would not be surprised if what I observed played out all over our nation in spite of intermarriage and other factors that Jewish pundits continue to cite.

Marc Yablonka, Burbank


A Plea for Funds to Repair Cemetery Damage

In May, the Journal printed articles describing the destruction of graves at Mount Zion Cemetery, one of the oldest burial sites in Los Angeles. At the time, three men donated $285,000 of the estimated $750,000 needed. 

In “Funds Needed for Mt. Zion Gravesites” (Oct. 11) it states they have only raised $300,000. In this city of hundreds of thousands of Jews, only an additional $15,000 has been contributed to this important cause. This is shameful and an embarrassment.

Please donate at RestoreMtZion.com so Mount Zion Cemetery can be a place of peace and rest for those buried there.

Ilene Karpman, Woodland Hills


Why Marry Young?

Dennis Prager’s column on the advantages of early marriage (“Marry Young,” Oct. 11) constitutes a powerful argument for same-sex marriage. It is a positive gain for the entire community when all couples experience the benefits of marriage that Prager enumerates: accelerated emotional maturity, responsibility, hard work, career success and a stable home life.

Donald Bing, Moorpark


Religious Disconnect

Dennis Prager is right again.

In the article on Erica Hooper by Kylie Jane Wakefield (Conversion, Oct. 11), Wakefield writes: “Hooper, 30, grew up in East Los Angeles in a Catholic home. She attended Catholic school and considered herself religious — that is, until she went to college.

“ ‘There was this disconnect between things I learned in high school and the questions I asked as I got older,’ she said. ‘I didn’t feel like I was getting answers to certain things, and it made me feel disconnected from religion.’ ”

That is a perfect example of what Prager has written about in the past: Our education system and our colleges are indoctrination centers designed to discredit religion and morality in order to advance their leftist agendas.

Please ask Dennis to write more on this subject.

Mike Mains via e-mail


Heartfelt

Thank you for sharing such a heartfelt and beautifully written piece about your dear son (“A Mother’s Prayer,” Oct. 18). This makes me proud to work in clinical research.

Juliet Reiter via jewishjournal.com


‘Monday’ Cookbook Great Every Day

I have been cooking nonstop with this cookbook [“Monday Morning Cooking Club: The Food, The Stories, The Sisterhood”] since I purchased it at the book signing at Joan’s on Third a few weeks ago (“Australia’s Jewish Cooking Club,” Oct. 18). Everything I have made has gotten five stars in our house! This is a great go-to cookbook for everyday as well as Shabbat recipes. I have the orange cake in the oven right now!

Wendy Perla Klier via jewishjournal.com


correction

In “Who Decides Who’s Hungry” (Sept. 27), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program passed the House of Representatives on Sept. 19. 

correction

An article about Cantor Joel Pressman (“Unafraid of Death, Cantor Offers a Philosophical Love Fest,” Oct. 4) mistakenly reported that a cover story on Pressman had appeared in the Beverly Hills Courier. It was the Beverly Hills Weekly that published the story. 

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).

In the face of strangers: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)


This week’s Torah portion begins: “YHVH appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent … looking up, he saw: behold, three men standing opposite him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing down to the ground he said: ‘Adonai, if I have found favor in your sight, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under that tree.’ ” 

This verse is the proof text for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham — still recovering from his circumcision surgery! — gets up, welcomes these guests, makes them comfortable and feeds them. We learn in the Talmud that hachnasat orchim is one of the activities that benefit us not only in this world but also in the World to Come. However one might understand the idea of the World to Come, there seems to be the suggestion that a big tent is a kind of heaven.

Later, we discover that these guests are angels who have come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. But Abraham doesn’t seem to know they are angels. To him, they are just three strangers. He calls them Adonai (My Lords, Sirs). Rashi offers a different interpretation of why Abraham calls them Adonai. Rashi imagines that Abraham was in the middle of praying when he noticed the strangers. So Abraham says: “Adonai, God, excuse me for a moment while I tend to these strangers.” In other words, the moment the strangers appeared, he interrupts his prayer to welcome these strangers and to take care of their needs. 

Paying attention to strangers, welcoming guests and caring for their needs appears to be even more important than talking to God!

Abraham is the living embodiment of his tent. The Midrash tells us Abraham designed his tent intentionally to be open on all four sides — open to every stranger passing by from any direction in the desert. Abraham has an open heart and an open hand. He is not content to wait for guests, but rather seeks them out, runs to greet them, brings them inside and takes care of them. 

The first blessing of the Amidah ends with the words: “Baruch Ata Adonai, Magen Avraham — Holy One of Blessing, the Shield of Abraham.” Traditional commentary interprets this first blessing as our presenting our credentials before God. “Hello, God,” we are saying, “you might not know me very well but you remember my parents, don’t you? I am the child of Abraham and Sarah. Remember them? Remember all that they did? Remember all you did for them? You are the One who helped Sarah and protected Abraham. You were the shield of Abraham, remember? For their sake, could you do the same for me?” 

But Chasidic commentary reads the prayer differently. It suggests that when we call God Magen Avraham, we are asking God to shield the “Abraham” inside of us — to protect the dimension of us willing to see God’s face in the faces of strangers. We are asking God’s help to protect the part of us that wants to have an open heart and to be an open tent. That part of us needs protection because it is so very fragile and perhaps not instinctive.

It is hard to see God’s face in the face of strangers. It is even hard for us in our synagogues to look up from our own prayer books and notice newcomers; to stop what we’re doing and make them feel welcome. How much harder is it to invite them to sit with us at the Kiddush, or to invite them home for Shabbat dinner? Ron Wolfson argues that the first step in creating sacred communities is establishing a “welcoming ambience” for newcomers and spiritual seekers. Imagine what a synagogue would be like if it were really a place of “radical hospitality,” a genuine Abraham’s tent!

And as hard as this might be, it is easy compared to seeing God’s face in the faces of those who do not come to our synagogues — all those people who really are strangers, people we don’t usually interact with, or people who serve us, but remain largely invisible: undocumented immigrants, people from different backgrounds or of a different economic status.

Those biblical strangers turned out to be angels. But Abraham only discovered this truth by welcoming them in and taking care of them. Imagine the angels we could meet if we could shield the Abraham in each of us. 


Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

The Pew survey: What’s missing from the conversation


The ink is barely dry on the latest Pew report on declining Jewish affiliation and concerned community leaders are quickly weighing in on what to do to attract the unaffiliated back under the tent.  Notwithstanding all the good ideas, something, from my experience, is missing from the conversation.

Ten years ago, I was one of the unaffiliated, the consummate once-a-year Jew, with little connection to our tradition.  Now I’m in shul every Shabbat morning — enjoying it, appreciating it and looking forward to it each week. 

What happened?  How did I find my way back?  It was not so simple. 

I knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t want to be too Jewish.  I was secular.  Religiosity, whatever that was, was for the Orthodox, whoever they were.  God was an interesting concept to talk about in college, but I certainly wasn’t going to believe in Him, whoever He was.

And while I knew that we Jews have had notable success in the world, I also figured that we’re a provincial bunch — a small community with an ancient religion, an obscure language, an old text filled with anachronistic stories, with religious men with long beards in black coats and black hats — amidst a big world of non-Jews.

Then, several years ago, things began to change.  At the recommendation of friends, my wife and I visited Ohr HaTorah, and we decided to join.  The temple has one requirement for parents with kids in religious school.  We needed to attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning.  Were they joking?  That was my day to be out and about having fun.  But, off to temple I went, every Saturday morning, reacquainting myself with Judaism — pretty strange stuff for a secular Jew.

I kept showing up and I kept learning.  Over time, unexpectedly, I came to realize something.  My entire view of Judaism was totally inaccurate.  Throughout my life, I had been inundated with many pervasive secular ideas – secular myths actually — that held me back from any serious interest in the Jewish tradition.  Overcoming these secular myths has been, for me, quite a journey.

What are these secular myths?  First, I had thought that, to be Jewish in any meaningful way, one had to believe in some archaic theology with God perched high up in the sky overseeing everything.  After all, the Hebrew prayers are subsumed with God’s name in all His glory – “Lord our God, King of the Universe.”

In thinking about God, however, I’ve found that it’s helpful to begin not with theology but rather with the soul.  Do we not have souls?  Do our souls not experience a common transcendent reality?  Do our souls not yearn for universal and enduring values like love and goodness, and truth and justice?  Are these values not divine in some sense?

The introduction to one of the Bibles that I study is entitled “Textbook of the Soul.”  I now recognize that there is a window into Judaism and into the idea of God that does not require the indoctrination of specific theological propositions.

Second, I had thought that traditional Judaism, like any religion, is inevitably dogmatic – incompatible with the modern era, with the free exchange of ideas, with the pursuit of knowledge, scientific and otherwise.

But I’ve learned that the Jewish tradition is anything but dogmatic.  It is grounded in the free inquiry of ideas, in the constant yearning and struggle for what’s true — no more exemplified than the ancient rabbis’ discussions and disagreements recorded in voluminous detail in the Talmud.  The Shabbat service implores us to seek truth.  As is said in the morning prayers, “One should always … acknowledge the truth, and be truthful in one’s innermost thoughts.”  Judaism as dogmatic?  How wrong I was!

Third, I had thought that Judaism, like other religions, inevitably gravitates toward theocratic government.  After all, history is replete with theocracies run by religious leaders.

However, I’ve now learned that religiosity does not necessitate a theocratic perspective.   Actually, modern conceptions of republican forms of government can be traced back to the Jewish religion, as Harvard University professor Eric Nelson writes in his book The Hebrew Republic: Jewish Sources and the Transformation of European Political Thought

In the late 17th century, John Milton opposed theocracies, as well as monarchies, based in large part on his readings of Jewish texts, and he became one of the leading supporters of republican forms of government.  One hundred years later, in arguing for republican government in the United States, Thomas Paine, not exactly the most religious figure, referenced the same Jewish sources in his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.  It’s not surprising that Michael Novak’s book On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding begins with a chapter entitled “Jewish Metaphysics at the Founding.”  No theocracy here.

Fourth, I was under the impression that the Bible was not to be taken seriously.  After all, I presumed that it’s an obscure text filled with ancient stories, absurd commandments, a wrathful God, verses of brutality — all based on someone’s strange interpretation of what they thought was the word of God thousands of years ago.

I’ve now learned that Biblical stories are anything but anachronistic.  They are about the human condition – about slavery and freedom, exile and redemption, justice and injustice, morality and immorality, good and evil, life and death.  The concept of equality – equal justice under the law — comes from the Bible, as Joshua Berman explains in Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.  Not take the Bible seriously?  Its stories and interpretations continue to provide invaluable moral insight and wisdom.

Fifth, I had thought that a religion that’s based in part on revelation — the revealed word of God at Mount Sinai – was in conflict with reason.  Isn’t any such revelation just theological speculation?

I’ve since learned that revelation does not obviate the need for reason, nor does reason negate the possibility of transcendent experiences.  Revealed truths need not entail fantastical ideas.  On the contrary, they can reflect something enduring and endemic in the human condition. 

Yoram Hazony, in his seminal book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, goes even further in arguing that the distinction between reason and revelation is actually alien to the Hebrew Scriptures.  While the Greeks conceived of revelation as an “inpouring” from another realm, Hebrew Scripture defines knowledge and truth in terms of only one realm, implying that there’s been a false dichotomy between reason and revelation.  I now realize that the Jewish religion is anything but unreasonable.

Sixth, I had thought that I could not be both assimilated and Jewish.  I certainly was not about to don Chasidic garb.  But more than that, I was not even comfortable with a religious identity that’s uniquely Jewish.  How parochial!  How exclusivist!

I now understand that the concept of total assimilation within the context of a free society is unrealistic.  We inevitably live within communities — from the family on out.  Moreover, the idea of total assimilation is untenable.  Free and open societies are premised on differences – differences in identity, culture, ethnicity, race, religion.  The title of Natan Sharansky’s important book on the subject says it all — Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy.

So, for most of my life, I had been living under a myth — actually several secular myths – which kept me away from Judaism.  Overcoming these myths is what it took for me to find my way back under the tent.  This is what it may take for many of the unaffiliated today to reconnect with our community and our tradition.

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