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.

Pew study finds a vibrant Jewish community


Over the past week, I have seen a flurry of writing about Pew Research Center’s study on American Jews. Several scholars and communal leaders have taken an alarmist stance toward the findings, calling the increasing rate of intermarriage “devastating” and describing non-Orthodox Jews as “demographically challenged.” As an adviser to the Pew study and researcher of American Jewish communities, I would like to offer a more optimistic analysis.

Some of the articles have looked for the most dramatic findings to report. The Forward focused on the fact that in 1957, Jews made up 3.4 percent of the U.S. population, compared to 2.2 percent today. This decrease can be explained by the steady streams of mostly non-Jewish immigrants from Latin America and around the world, which have increased the U.S. population at a higher rate than the Jewish population. To quote the Pew report, “The number of adult Jews by religion rose about 15 percent over the last half century, while the total U.S. population more than doubled.”

So how many Jews are there? It depends on how you count. The study estimates that there are 8 million people in the United States who are willing to tell a phone interviewer that they are fully or partly Jewish. But many of those are also Christian or have no Jewish ancestry and have not converted. The researchers realized that different readers would want to apply different definitions, so they provided a handy calculator where we can check off boxes and come up with our own estimate. (Missing from that tool is a halachic definition: There are no checkboxes for having a Jewish mother and/or conversion.) If we include only people who say they are Jews and do not also subscribe to another religion, we find 6.7 million. Just people who say their religion is Jewish (called “Jews by religion”): 5.1 million. No matter how you calculate our population, we still have an impressive representation.

The New York Times and other venues reported a 71 percent rate of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, a number I have already heard discussed with concern in various Jewish circles. I contacted the Pew researchers to verify this statistic, as it does not appear in the report. It is accurate (actually, it’s 71.5 percent), but it is a bit misleading. First, it includes only people who have married since 2000 and whose marriages are still intact. Second, it includes Jews of no religion. The sample size was too small to calculate the percentage of non-Orthodox Jews by religion who have married non-Jews in the last 13 years. But if we look at all Jews by religion, we find the recent intermarriage rate at 50 percent (marriages from 2000 to 2004) and then 45 percent (2005-2013); note the drop in the last several years. Third, these calculations include many people who themselves have mixed ancestry. If we look only at Jews with two Jewish parents — common practice in demography, as my colleague Bruce Phillips has explained — we find the intermarriage rate is 37 percent, compared to a whopping 83 percent of those with only one Jewish parent. I asked Pew to calculate the intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews with two Jewish parents, and they complied: 43 percent. Again, the sample is too small to divide these results by year of marriage or even age, but it is clear that the “intermarriage rate” can vary widely depending on how it is calculated.

Instead of bemoaning or even debating the numbers, an alternative response to the survey would be to marvel at the fact that so many Jews still marry other Jews. We live in an age of acceptance: Not only are Christians willing to marry Jews, many (an estimated 800,000) feel so connected to Jews or Judaism that they tell a phone interviewer that they are Jewish, even if neither of their parents is Jewish. Why don’t the vast majority of Jews marry non-Jews? I would suggest it is because synagogues, schools, youth groups, Hillels and other Jewish organizations are creating opportunities for Jews to get to know other Jews.

According to conventional wisdom, Jewish organizations are no longer touching most Jews. The survey finds the opposite: 58 percent of all Jews report that they attend Jewish religious services at a synagogue or other place of worship at least a few times a year. There is little difference among age groups in synagogue attendance.

We see similarly high numbers for Jewish education: 67 percent of respondents participated in some kind of formal Jewish education. And when we look at Jewish day school attendance — the most exclusive and demanding form of Jewish education — we see an increase based on age: Only 17 percent of those 65 and older attended day school, compared to 35 percent of those 18-29. (Note that these statistics include many people of mixed ancestry, and the numbers for “Jews by religion” are significantly higher.)

Synagogues, schools and other organizations are, it seems, succeeding in fostering friendships among Jews: 79 percent of Jews say that at least some of their close friends are Jewish. Interestingly, this is the only item for which the report mentions regional differences. In the West, only 67 percent say that at least some of their close friends are Jewish, compared to 77 percent in the Midwest and South and 85 percent in the Northeast. These numbers are likely much higher in densely Jewish parts of Los Angeles, but to confirm this we’ll need to wait for the next (much-needed) L.A. Jewish Population Survey.

To sum up, yes, the report finds that the Jewish population is changing. Boundaries between Jews and non-Jews have become more porous, and Jews continue to marry the people they love, whether or not they are Jewish. This trend may lead to decreasing numbers of non-Orthodox Jews in the future. But the numbers seem less alarming with a bit of explanation. The Pew study clearly shows that we are still a robust and vibrant community, numbering in the millions — no matter how you count.


Sarah Bunin Benor is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management and Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at USC.

Crisis and opportunity — Reflections on the Pew report


Full disclosure: I have been thinking about the results of the Pew report for more than a decade. I understand that Pew didn’t release its results until last week, but these statistics and trends have been obvious to some in the Jewish community for a very long time. Four years ago, I made a major life change and became the president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles because of the revelations now appearing in the Pew report. It is what drives our board, our staff and me every day, and it is what has motivated our Federation’s major reimagination and transformation. It is at the core of our mission and our work.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of reaction to the study’s findings, ranging from defensiveness to rejection with a smattering of thoughtful responses. The truth is that we can no longer afford to look the other way.  We must take a communal approach to building a Jewish community that will not just sustain but will flourish.

I love Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel.  I strongly believe that being Jewish adds immeasurable value to me, my family and our world.

We have a crisis. The numbers and the trending in the Pew report speak out loud and clear. Our crisis is not in the Middle East. It is in America. It is a crisis based on our success. We have truly succeeded in becoming American and in assimilating into this great country. 

The resulting loss of engagement, however, impacts every Jew and every Jewish institution.

But this crisis also offers us an extraordinary opportunity.

What got us here won’t get us there

Marshall Goldsmith, one of America’s preeminent executive coaches, wrote an insightful best-selling book titled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The book’s central tenet provides us with a solid piece of Torah.

We, as a people, have built great synagogues and great organizations. We have created enviable Jewish communities across the Diaspora.

It is clear that what we have built did get us here, but it is now equally clear that if we want to ensure a vibrant Jewish future, that infrastructure may not get us there.

I say this with caution. This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction, and there are no “innovative” quick fixes. This is a time to take a break from our preoccupation with our history to take a long, proactive look at the future, the future we want for the next generations. They are the loudest voices in the study. These voices demand to be in our communal conversations.

We need to learn from Apple

Steve Jobs and his crew understood almost from the beginning that once a consumer is introduced to the power of technology, he or she would be hooked. Once hooked, it was up to Apple to continue to deepen the relationship between the consumer and that technology by listening to the consumer and being ahead of the competition in introducing both new products and new applications.

We need to see Judaism like new and evolving technology, and we need to be more like Apple. We need to create a two-way conversation with our consumers, and we need to reimagine our product line.

This analogy speaks directly to our Millennials and the generations to come.

There is another central change we need to make. We have promoted “episodic” Judaism based on lifecycle milestones and communal events. Our institutions have promoted powerful programs like PJ Library, Taglit Birthright and Jewish preschool.  Our Federation supports these important, highly successful programs. But what this study says loud and clear is that “episodic” Judaism is not enough.

We need to create a Jewish journey for every Jew, a journey that each Jew helps to create. Think of the iPod. Millions and millions of people use the same device to listen to their music but with customized play lists. They listen to their iPods alone, or they plug them into speakers and play for their friends in a communal experience.

We need to embrace our young people, not blame them

Our young people are redefining their Judaism. We need to be an active part of that redefinition process. It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them. 

At the Federation, we are committed to not just engaging our young people, but engaging them in our reimagination and our transformation. They are not the problem. They are a part of the solution.

Many of our organizations have built models based on philanthropy first. We need to move away from “pay-to-play” Judaism. If young people are meaningfully engaged, they will become philanthropists. But we are pushing too many of them away by expecting them to give before they connect.

The challenge

Our future demands our attention. We need a strong, communal approach to build a rich, vibrant Jewish future. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has made the commitment to this process. Will you join us?


Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Can common sense save Judaism?


It’s funny how the American Jewish community has a way of getting all breathless and excited when a new study comes out, as is happening right now with the new Pew survey.

As if we needed all this sophisticated evidence to remind us that Judaism in America is in trouble, and that we must find ways to make it more attractive and relevant if we want a healthy, pluralistic Judaism to survive over the next century.

When it comes to the decline of Judaism in America, we have this habit of getting bogged down with research specifics and losing the big picture.

As I see it, here is the big picture: What Judaism needs more than anything is great ideas and leadership, not more research.

We didn’t need research, for example, to tell us that the best way to connect with Israel is to visit Israel, and that young people love things that are free. The Birthright Israel program was a great idea, not a great study.

The most successful Jewish organization in history — Chabad — didn’t need pollsters to tell them that showing unconditional love for their fellow Jews is a really compelling idea.

Imagine if Chabad had done focus groups asking secular Jewish men if they were interested in having black-hatted rabbis with beards accost them on the street and urge them to put on tefillin

As advertising legend Bill Bernbach once put it, “We’re so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it.”

What will drive the success of future Jewish initiatives is not a sexy finding from a research study, but common sense, creativity and brilliant execution.

We don’t need research to tell us that people generally love to laugh, hate to be bored, want meaning in their lives, want to be successful, have happy relationships, feel a sense of belonging, fall in love, eat good food, listen to good music and so on.

The challenge for the Jewish community is to take these fundamental human truths and creatively and organically marry them to the Jewish tradition so that more people will be interested in Judaism.

Piece of cake.

Let’s take one simple truth: It’s better to have a restaurant with 20 items on the menu than two or three items.

The problem is that most Jewish “restaurants” of today — the synagogues — feature too few menu items, which usually revolve around religion (prayer and Torah) and holiday events.

Religious practice is an essential component of Jewish identity, which I love, but it is not the only one. And let’s face it, not everyone loves “religion.” Thank God, we’re lucky that the Jewish buffet is so rich. If we want to succeed with the new generation, we’ll need to tap into these riches. 

I’d love to see synagogues transform themselves into centers of Jewish celebration that serve up the whole Jewish buffet in all its glory: culture, history, music, philosophy, art, literature, poetry, comedy, Jewish meditation, mysticism, self-improvement, social justice, etc., in addition to prayer, Torah study and everything else they offer now.

If the goal is to build Jewish identity, shouldn’t we put the odds on our side by creating as many connections to Judaism as possible?

Let’s look at just one item on this buffet that consistently gets ignored: telling the stories of our people.

When is the last time any synagogue did an event on the history of the Persian Jews, or the Moroccan Jews, or the Polish Jews, or even the Chinese Jews?

We’re always talking about building Jewish peoplehood, but how are we expected to do that if we don’t teach and celebrate the fascinating stories of the Jewish people?

I don’t buy the argument that synagogues should limit themselves to their individual communities. Every synagogue — including the Orthodox — should serve up, in their own way, the full buffet of Judaism to attract as many Jews as possible. That’s not just good for outreach, it’s also good for members.

To build Jewish identity, we ought to focus on things that are uniquely Jewish. Few things feel more uniquely Jewish to me than learning the stories of our people and their contributions to humanity.

Stories build loyalty. The more I know about my past, the more stories I hear about my ancestors, the more I learn about other Jews, the more I feel I belong to an extraordinary family that I don’t want to break away from. I’m now part of a people, part of a grand story, part of a shared destiny. That’s peoplehood.

Even the tikkun olam movement, as noble as it is, can dilute Jewish identity if it is not solidly grounded in the Jewish experience. As Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary in response to the Pew study, “Simply being a good person or fighting for good causes makes you a nice human being but not necessarily a Jew.”

If all this sounds like common sense to you, it’s because it is — just as sending kids to Israel for free was a great idea based on common sense, and just as taking advantage of the whole buffet of Judaism to attract the new generation is also common sense.

Now, if we can take all that common sense, sprinkle in some creativity and serve it up with great leadership, the only research studies we’ll ever need are those that will measure our success.


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

Jews the ever-dying people: A Reform perspective on the Pew Survey on Jewish Americans


The historian Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay in which he described Jews, with our constant fear of extinction as the “ever-dying” people.  He wrote the essay 27 years ago, does that make him wrong or prophetic?

It seem that every few years, a major Jewish leader or study proclaims the “disappearance of the Jews,” arguing that assimilation and intermarriage place the future of the Jewish community–Jewish continuity–in serious danger.

Such was the case this week with the publication of the

Conversion: Erica Hooper


Falling in love with a Jewish man was Erica Hooper’s introduction to Judaism, but the religion’s ideals were ultimately what made her want to embrace it for life. 

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 the religion.”

In 2007, she met and started dating Robert Mahgerefteh, 31, an Iranian-American Jew. Four years into their courtship, they got engaged and started to talk about the future. Although Hooper hadn’t considered conversion before, she and her fiancé were beginning to think about what their family dynamic would look like.

“That was really the first time we even started talking about conversion,” the Long Beach resident said. “I decided to give it a try and see what we thought. I ended up loving it, so it worked out.”

After researching various options, Hooper decided to enroll in Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program, which is recognized under the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements. When she stepped into that initial class one Sunday morning in the winter of 2012, she felt at home. 

“I liked what Neal said, which was that you’re not converting someone to something that you want him or her to believe,” she said. “You can talk about it, but it’s more about whether or not it resonates with a person when he or she hears it.” 

Hooper began to discover through the lessons that her beliefs were aligned with those found in Judaism.

“I remember saying that I wanted my funeral to be very simple,” she said. “I wanted to be wrapped in white cloth and buried in the ground. My family said I was crazy. Catholics have a fancy casket and get embalmed. I was sitting in that class and the rabbi started talking about the way Jews think about the approach to death and how you don’t put the body on display. I got chills because that was exactly the kind of stuff I was talking about before.”

At that point, she knew she had made the right decision to take the class. 

“I said, ‘Yes, I’m supposed to be here,’ ” she said. 

The more she learned, the more Hooper realized her beliefs were aligned with the ideals behind Judaism. She especially enjoyed learning about tikkun olam (repairing the world), since she works at S. Groner Associates, a social and environmental marketing company that helps foster positive environmental change. 

“The focus [in Judaism] is what are you are doing now in the present moment to be a better person,” she said. “It’s about trying to make this a better place for the people around you.”

Although she began to feel more a part of the Jewish religion, there were some who were not very accepting, she said.

“I would tell some Jews that I was converting, and they’d ask why. The religion I came from before was about trying to actively get people to join them. It was come one, come all. I liked that very welcoming spirit to it. Going to Judaism by Choice was very welcoming, but as a whole it felt more like I had to work my way into becoming Jewish. Some people said that if I convert,  I’m not really Jewish.”

Fortunately, Mahgerefteh’s family was accepting, as was her own. 

“They said they trusted that I was going to do what was best for me,” she said.

In November 2012, Hooper made it official. She converted at the mikveh at American Jewish University, and then married Mahgerefteh in February. Both partners have taken an active role in their religion by partaking in fast days, joining Leo Baeck Temple and keeping a kosher home. Hooper said that celebrating Shabbat every week has added another layer to the couple’s relationship.

“When we do Shabbat on Fridays, we bless each other,” she said. “The rabbi told us the traditions that he and his wife do. They tell each other one of the things they appreciate about each other. That’s what we do. Even if we get into a spat beforehand, it’s Shabbat and it’s time to bless and tell each other what’s great about one another. You follow the rituals, and they bring you closer.”

Whenever Hooper participates in the holidays or goes through Jewish rituals, she knows that she is a small part of a bigger history, people and tradition. 

“It goes back through generations all the way from Moses to the slaves in Egypt,” she said. “I am now one little thread in the huge fabric that’s Judaism. It feels special to be connected to something bigger than yourself.”

Engagement trends are negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study


If you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building, what do you do when a survey comes along showing that the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting?

That’s the question facing major funders of American Jewish life following the release last week of the Pew Research Center’s survey on U.S. Jews.

The study — the first comprehensive portrait of American Jewry in more than a decade — showed that nearly one-third of Jews under age 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, that American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent (71 percent if the Orthodox are excluded) and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews.

For many of the Jewish world’s biggest funders, the answer to this question is clear: Stay the course.

“We’ve known about these issues and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” said Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which with more than $2 billion in assets is one of the Jewish world’s largest foundations focused on bolstering Jewish identity and community among young people.

“We haven’t done it yet, and by no means is success assured, but I do think as a community we have identified significant ways to address these challenges,” he told JTA. “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

The logic to this approach is relatively straightforward: The findings in the Pew survey mostly upheld the assumptions upon which major givers in Jewish life already have been operating. In their view, the survey validates their own philanthropic priorities — even if they disagree about what to prioritize.

“This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus which is literate in Hebrew, and which is engaged in intensive and immersive education and committed to Jewish life and Jewish institutions,” said Yossi Prager, executive director in North America of Avi Chai, a major investor in Jewish education.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, drew a different conclusion: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right,” he said.

“Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues in Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways — through culture, through arts,” Spokoiny said. “I think that’s a key message.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said the study demonstrates a remarkable failure to achieve many of the central goals adopted by the Jewish community in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed what many considered alarmingly high assimilation rates.

“As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree,” Charendoff told JTA. “I would love to tell you I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone’s waking up.”

Jewish foundations need to get on the same page to develop a comprehensive strategy to begin to reverse the negative trends, he said.

“Donors by and large are focused on particular efforts and not focused on the field as a whole,” Charendoff said. “There needs to be more coordination, more resources. We’re only going to have that impact if there’s alignment and not 10,000 people doing God’s work but without regard to what their neighbors are doing.”

Whether the Pew study will prompt a systemic response, or even an attempt at one by Jewish funders, remains to be seen.

Next month, the Jewish Federations of North America will convene its annual General Assembly, which draws fundraisers and leaders from federations throughout the United States. Jerry Silverman, the umbrella group’s CEO, told JTA that this year’s confab is not the place for beginning a communitywide conversation about the Pew study results.

This year’s G.A. will be held in Jerusalem and focus on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Pew study will not be on the agenda, he said.

“You really need to bring together thinkers and thought leaders who can really think this through. I don’t think that’s the G.A. population,” Silverman said. “That’s not the forum to think this through.”

Chip Edelsberg, the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has awarded about $280 million in grants for Jewish education and engagement since 2006, said his foundation needs more time to delve into the Pew data to figure out what changes are necessary, if any, to their strategies for engaging young American Jews.

“It will certainly animate our discussions and have a bearing on the foundation’s decision making, because it is actually good data,” he said.

Michael Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist behind Birthright Israel, Hebrew-language charter schools and a host of other Jewish community programs, said the results of Pew are hardly news: Separate community studies over the last few years have made the trends clear.

“We should not need the Pew study to give us a reality check,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Steinhardt says he isn’t optimistic that the Jewish community will respond effectively.

“Nothing’s a galvanizing event for the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it.”

In the rabbi’s words: A difficult conversation


The conversation is supposed to begin like this: “Will you forgive me for anything I might have said or done this year that has hurt you?” 

You are sitting with a friend over coffee, during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and you ask this question. Not easy. What if your friend responds, “What did you do or say?” Or, “You know, it did really hurt me when I found out that you … shared that story that I told you in confidence, or… didn’t include me when you had that party, or … embarrassed me in front of so and so.” These are not horrible sins, maybe, but they are the kind of interpersonal hurts that erode intimacy. 

Maybe there were more serious breaches. Could you call the relative whom you stopped speaking to over some long-ago insult and ask the same question? What kind of conversation would ensue? Or could you sit down with your partner, or your kids, or your parents and ask the same question? 

Our tradition tells us: “For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur serves as atonement. For transgressions between one person and another, Yom Kippur does not serve as atonement until the one offended has been appeased.” 

To atone, there are specific instructions: You have to acknowledge the hurt you did. Then, if the issue involves money, you have to pay back the money. Next, you have to resolve never to do it again. And finally, you have to discuss the issue with the one you have hurt and ask for forgiveness. This is teshuvah (repentance); this is the work of this season. 

Asking for forgiveness is not easy, but it pales in comparison to how hard it is to forgive. Here Jewish tradition is also very clear: “If the person against whom one had sinned did not want to forgive, then one has to ask him/her for forgiveness in front of three of his/her friends. If he/she still didn’t want to forgive, then one asks him/her in front of six, and then in front of nine of his/her friends, and if he/she still didn’t want to forgive him/her, one leaves him/her and goes away. Anybody who does not want to forgive is a sinner.”

That’s pretty harsh. Aren’t some things unforgivable? Maybe it depends on what you mean by forgiveness. 

Jewish tradition tells us there are three kinds of forgiveness, articulated by Rabbi David Blumenthal in a CrossCurrents article: “The most basic kind of forgiveness is ‘forgoing the other’s indebtedness’ (mechilá) … [after] the offender has done teshuva. … This is not a reconciliation of heart. … The crime remains; only the debt is forgiven. The tradition, however, is quite clear that the offended person is not obliged to offer mechila unless the offender is sincere in his or her repentance and has taken concrete steps to correct the wrong done. … The second kind of forgiveness is ‘forgiveness’ (selichá). It is an act of the heart. It is reaching a deeper understanding of the sinner. It is achieving empathy for the troubledness of the other. Selicha, too, is not a reconciliation or an embracing of the offender; it is simply reaching the conclusion that the offender, too, is human, frail, and deserving of sympathy. It is closer to an act of mercy than to an act of grace. … The third kind of forgiveness is ‘atonement’ (kappara). … This is a total wiping away of all sinfulness. It is an existential cleansing. Kappara is the ultimate form of forgiveness, but it is only granted by God.”

Change is possible; people can learn from their mistakes. Notice that forgiveness does not mean everything returns to the way it once was; it doesn’t mean you have to invite the one who hurt you over for dinner. But it does mean that you can give up your victim status and go on with the rest of your life. 

Every night, before we go to sleep, there is a prayer that is part of the bedtime Shema: “I hereby forgive all who have hurt me, all who have done me wrong, deliberately or by accident, whether by word or by deed. May no one be punished on my account. As I forgive and pardon fully those who have done me wrong, may those whom I have harmed forgive and pardon me, whether I acted deliberately or by accident, whether by word or deed. Wipe away my sins, O Lord, with your great mercy. May I not repeat the wrongs I have committed. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.” 

Try saying this prayer before you go to sleep. Some congregations end their Kol Nidre service with these words. Should we?

Shana Tovah.


Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

High Holy Days: Sharing the love, handling the holidays


Every day in my office, I see parents, embittered by divorce and so grateful to finally be physically and legally apart from a partner they once loved and now hate, struggling to co-parent and jointly make decisions about their children.

Every day, adults who once loved each other so much that they promised to stay together until the end of time storm into my office, dragging behind them children dejected and battered by Mom and Dad’s rage toward each other.

The out-of-control battles parents wage over raising children after divorce leave deep and dangerous open wounds and scars on their children long after the parents have moved on, making their children the real casualties of that war. I see these wounds every day in the children who come into my office. Their grades have plummeted. They act out at school and on the ball field. They are angry or sad. Their physicians raise red flags. Their teachers are concerned. I see children, emotionally and behaviorally hurt by the war between their parents, trying frantically to create stability as their world changes too quickly for them to keep up — and so they fall.

Handling the holidays creates tremendous conflicts in families of divorce. Differences in religious beliefs and observances, demands of extended families and commitments to new relationships all serve to increase the conflicts between separated parents.

There are several different approaches to managing holidays. Sometimes parents alternate years. For others, if the child spends Rosh Hashanah with Father, then she spends Passover seder with Mother that year. Other times, parents prefer to divide up the significant days — Rosh Hashanah with Mother until 3 p.m. and then with Father after 3 p.m. This allows the child to celebrate each holiday with both families. To ensure that domestic law attorneys remain well employed in interpreting documents, both approaches are sometimes combined, alternating years and alternating times. A third approach, especially popular with parents of younger children, may be to try to spend holidays together, believing that maintaining family traditions are better for their children. 

In examining which approach might be the best for the children, one must explore the key factors that influence the impact of divorce on children. 

The co-parenting relationship rests on three broad principles that guide parents after divorce to promote positive growth and development in their children. First, research confirms that children of divorce do better if they maintain positive, meaningful, real and consistent relationships with both of their parents. What parents consider equal parenting means nothing to the child. 

Second, the parental relationship has to be as free of conflict as possible. Both parents are still the child’s parents, and they must model conflict-free parenting. 

Third, parents must work to assure that both parents are actively involved in the life of the child and making decisions for the child. Children are hurt by the divorce, but they are far more damaged by how parents behave following the separation. And one of the biggest sources of that pain is the difficulty parents have in making decisions, or in simply being together at important times of the children’s lives.

The bottom line is that when adults fight — and when they cannot together effectively set consistent boundaries, rules and expectations that will allow active and meaningful relationships with both parents — the child suffers.

The key is flexibility and responsiveness to the child.  

When ‘just be good’ isn’t enough


“Why all these values, rabbi?” preteen Josh asked. “Can’t you just say we should be good people?” Often it is the most basic questions that set me thinking, and Josh’s query sure did. 

My wife, Michelle November, and I are at Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, where we are chaperoning Congregation Or Ami’s 45-person delegation. While Michelle serves as camp mom, answering questions by phone for the next session’s camper-parents, I work as dean of faculty, guiding young people with the camp’s daily middah (or Jewish value/virtue). 

Jewish Values Guide Our Interactions 

Over the course of a session, we explore b’tzelem Elohim (recognizing that each person was created “in the image of God”), kehillah kedushah (that as part of a “holy community,” we have responsibilities to each other) and kavod (that “respect” necessarily guides every interaction we have with other people and creations). 

We embrace ometz lev (being “courageous”), insist on ahavah (the “love” that binds us together) and turn our hearts toward Yisrael (the land, modern state, people and children of Israel). These middot and others permeate the camp, invigorating every moment of the day from mifkad (morning assembly) to sports to hashkavah (bedtime activities). 

When ‘Just Be Good’ Isn’t Enough

Josh’s question penetrates these moments of meaning by asking, “Why do we name and number so many middot, when one simple instruction — Just be good — or one simple Torah verse — v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) — might suffice? 

We find our answer back in the mid-19th century, in a commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner on this week’s parasha, Shofetim. The Ishbitzer (Polish) Chasidic rebbe (d. 1854), whose teachings were compiled as “Mei HaShiloach,” believed that the more clarity we have about how we should live, the purer, more righteous lives will we lead.

Guarding the Gateways Into Our Bodies

Our parasha opens with what appears to be basic instructions for the creation and implementation of a new justice system for the tribes. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the gates [she’arecha] that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). For Rabbi Mordechai, this opening verse points also to the way we guard our lives from sin. He teaches, “She’arecha (gates/settlements): we are to establish magistrates (judges) for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These ‘gates’ are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”

Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality drashes (explains) that “the Ishbitzer is concerned with guarding what enters us from the outside, how we are affected by what we see, hear, say and smell. All of these sense-events/acts are powerful, affecting our inner awareness and our capacity to respond in a balanced, loving manner. Without awareness of the forces at work on our consciousness we are unable to align ourselves with the Divine.”

A Complex World Requires a Multiplicity of Tools

So why do we name and number so many middot? Because we live in a complex world with widespread influences that pull us in all sorts of opposing directions. Because our yetzer harah (inclination for evil) can easily overpower our yetzer hatov (inclination for good). Because we need multiple tools to filter everything we experience. The middot stand as shofetim (judges) at our seven sense-gates, ensuring that everything we see, hear, say and smell can and will be interpreted and moderated for goodness and godliness. 

Sending Kids Off With Toolboxes Filled With Torah 

When we say goodbye to Josh — and to the 1,400 young people who enter Camp Newman’s gates every summer — we know we are sending him home with a toolbox filled with Jewish virtues to keep him on a morally straight path. As the 19th century Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches and the 21st century Rabbi Jonathan Slater reinforces, the overall message is this: We need to establish practices that guard us from passively being affected in negative ways, just as we need to prevent ourselves from affecting the world negatively through our deeds.

For this is our highest hope: that Josh and all the children who attend Jewish summer camps around the country find direction and guidance from the Jewish values we impart to them. And we pray: May all they have learned transform them, so that they come home kinder, more compassionate and more Jewishly self-identified than ever before. 


Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

The war against intermarriage has been lost. Now what?


When the nation’s largest Jewish federation convened its first-ever conference recently on engaging interfaith families, perhaps the most notable thing about it was the utter lack of controversy that greeted the event.

There was a time when the stereotypical Jewish approach to intermarriage was to shun the offender and sit shiva.

A generation ago, the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey showing intermarriage at the alarmingly high rate of 52 percent turned into a rallying cry. No matter that subsequent scholarship revised the figure down to 43 percent, interfaith marriage was seen as the core of the problem of Jewish assimilation in America. Jewish institutions poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building with an eye toward stemming intermarriage.

Fast forward two decades and the question is no longer how to fight intermarriage, but how Jewish institutions can be as welcoming as possible to intermarried Jews and the gentiles who love them.

“Clearly, Jewish communal attitudes have changed,” said David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York, which hosted the one-day interfaith conference in June.

“One of the results of the whole process begun with the 1990 study was that in a free America we’re all Jews by choice. That’s been a profound insight that has permeated a lot of the work of the Jewish community in the last 20-plus years,” Mallach said. “It shifted the discussion from the classic stereotypical sitting shiva and never talking to a person again to saying that if we’re all Jews by choice, let’s also sit with this segment of the community and offer them that choice.”

In 1973, the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, issued a nonbinding resolution opposing officiating at intermarriages. Today, more than half the movement’s rabbis perform interfaith weddings.

In 2010, a task force at the CCAR recommended shifting away from focus on preventing intermarriage to reaching out to intermarried families and adapting rituals to include non-Jewish family members. Now the movement is considering a further step.

Rabbi Aaron Panken, the new president of the rabbinical seminary of the Reform movement, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told JTA last week that HUC is planning to take a “very serious look” at whether to end the school’s longstanding policy against admitting intermarried rabbinical school students.

In the Conservative movement, it’s no longer uncommon to see non-Jews on the bimah during a bar mitzvah service. Some Conservative synagogues even grant voting rights to non-Jewish members. Officially, the movement’s only rules on the subject are that rabbis must neither perform nor attend interfaith weddings. But the latter regulation often is ignored.

“First someone has to make a complaint, and nobody has ever brought a complaint against a colleague for having attended an intermarriage,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “It would be hard to imagine that someone would be punished for it.”

Even in the Orthodox movement, the idea of shunning the intermarried is passe, seen as counterproductive to the ultimate goal of getting unaffiliated Jews to embrace their Jewish identity.

“The preponderance of intermarriage has made it usually pointless to shun those who have married out,” said Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the haredi Orthodox Agudath Israel of America. “Once upon a time, intermarriage was a sign that the Jewish partner was rejecting his or her Jewish heritage. That is no longer the case, of course, and hasn’t been for decades.”

While there have been no national studies of Jewish intermarriage rates since the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, which reported an intermarriage rate of 47 percent, anecdotal evidence and general population surveys suggest intermarriage is on the rise.

A landmark 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-third of all marriages in the United States are now interfaith, and Jews are the most intermarrying ethnic group of all (Mormons are the least). The survey also found a growing number of Americans switching religions: Twenty-eight percent no longer belong to the religion in which they were born, or 44 percent if switching Protestant denominations is counted.

“What was once seen as abnormal, socially taboo, something you did not publicize has become socially acceptable,” Erika Seamon, author of “Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity,” said at the UJA-Federation conference in June. “This is a huge shift.”

Today, the very notion of fighting a battle against intermarriage in America seems as likely to succeed as a war against rain: It’s going to happen, like it or not. The question is how to react.

Given that the children of intermarriages are only one-third as likely as the children of inmarried couples to be raised as Jews, according to the 2000-01 NJPS, the overall strategy appears to be the same across the denominations: Engage with the intermarried in an effort to have them embrace Judaism.

That’s true from the Reform movement to Chabad, with the exception of some haredi Orthodox. Where the denominations differ is how far one may go in that embrace, and how strongly — if at all — to push for conversion of the non-Jewish spouse.

At Orthodox synagogues, non-Jews cannot ascend to the bimah, and many synagogues go so far as to deny certain ritual roles to Jews married to non-Jews.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism leaves it to the discretion of its member synagogues to set the rules on how to treat non-Jews. Rabbi Steven Wernick, the association’s executive vice president, says conversion of the non-Jewish spouse should be a goal. The only question is tactical — how and when to bring it up.

“Do you have the conversation about conversion first, or do you welcome them in and then have the conversation about conversion?” Wernick said. “You build the relationship first and then you have the conversation.”

In the Reform movement, there is some question about the significance of formal conversion.

“There are plenty of people who want to sojourn in the synagogue and not convert and still know they’re part of the Jewish family,” said the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who has advocated a vision for the movement as a big tent with the flaps wide open.

“He’s living in the Jewish community. He’s trying on Jewish commitments,” Jacobs said. “Conversion can’t be the only thing we talk about, but it also should not be off the table. We’d be delighted to have people join the Jewish people.”

Perhaps more than anything, the shift in attitudes has changed the conventional view of intermarriage as a net loss to the Jewish community, in the form of the out-marrying Jew, to a potential gain, in the form of the non-Jewish spouse or children who may convert.

“Once you’ve intermarried, it doesn’t mean you’ve left the Jewish faith,” said Rabbi Menachem Penner, acting dean at Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

“As times go on, we have to constantly evaluate what is the best response,” he said. “Given that it happens, what’s the best way for the community to approach it? The last thing we’d want that person to do is to throw everything away just because they’re intermarried.”