September 25, 2018

Yom Kippur 2018

There is something about high holidays services, especially Kol Nidre, that brings me peace. I am a woman of faith and could listen to my Rabbi give a sermon all day long, but I feel like I am in the presence of God on this particular day. Perhaps it is because I am surrounded by a group of people and we’re all praying together, or maybe it is because my heart is open on this day. Open to all my emotions. Kol Nidre feeds my soul in important ways.

 

I like the cleansing that comes with Yom Kippur. I may not always be able to forgive those who hurt me, but I’m able to forgive myself for hanging onto the hurt, which then allows me to let go. If I have hurt anyone, I ask for your forgiveness and offer you a sincere apology. This day is not only about seeking forgiveness from others, but offering forgiveness to yourself. I go into Kol Nidre with an open mind. A mind that tells me I am starving and the fast hasn’t even started yet, but  know it is coming!

 

Yom Kippur is the one day of the year I feel completely free. Free of my demons, of which there are many, and free of the chaos that has been known to dance in my mind. I am able to tune out the noise, permit myself to have honest self-reflection, and simply be quiet with God. I will think about the past year, thank God for standing by me as I went through it, and pray for the strength to be brave, even when I don’t think am. It is a very important day to me.

 

I am not the type of person who looks for guarantees. Things happen, both good and bad, so I’m a roll with the punches kind of girl, but tonight there will be guarantees. Tonight I will search for forgiveness and it will come. I will pray for clarity and it will come. I will count my blessings, hold my son’s hand, pray out loud, and allow my faith to embrace me. May all of our names be inscribed in the book of life, may we have health and happiness, and may God guide and bless us. Thank you for being here and keeping the faith.

 

 

Kol Nidre LIVE 2018

Worshippers will come together September 18 at 6:30 p.m. for a Yom Kippur service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva.

The service will be broadcast worldwide and later archived at kolnidrelive.com. Viewers will be able to follow the service in a downloadable prayer book, and connect via commenting with fellow “congregants” around the world.

Kol Nidre is the evening service of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, will fast and/or will attend services on this day.

Sign up for Kol Nidre LIVE updates!

 

[Support this program by donating to Nashuva]

Levy, a rabbi and best-selling author, whose latest book is Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, was ordained in the first class of women at Jewish Theological Seminary. She founded and leads Nashuva, Hebrew for, “We Will Return.” Nashuva is a post-denominational, non-membership community open to all that meshes spirituality with social action.

You can also preorder the new CD: Heaven on Earth – Songs of the Soul

Tribe Media Corp. is dedicated to improving the world through media. Our brands include Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com, and the Daily Roundtable.

Check back on this page for updates!

 

 

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

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Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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Episode 100 – Hawaiian Jewish Beauty Queen Takes on Israel

What makes someone a Jew? Some might say: I’m a Jew because I believe in Judaism, and I feel Jewish. But to many, including most Orthodox and conservative rabbis, that’s not enough. Some might say: I’m Jewish because I’ve been converted. But the State of Israel, for example, doesn’t recognize Jews who were converted by reform and conservative Rabbis. And to many, even those who converted by the most stringent of laws, are not REALLY Jews, and referred to as “Meguyar” or “Converted”

But some people choose to take their own path, disregarding what others think, and pursue their dream with all their might. Frances Wilson, is undoubtedly one such person. Wilson is an African-American from Hawaii, who converted to Judaism and now came for one year of teaching and volunteering in Israel. Winner of several beauty contests, Frances’s path to recognition in Israel is not without struggle, and she’s joining us today to talk about why she came here, and the bewildering choice to join one of the most exclusive and often loathed religions in the world.

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Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

Follow Rob and Ricochet on Twitter 

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Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Widows, Orphans, and Strangers at the Border

“You will not undermine the justice due to a stranger or an orphan and you will not seize the widow’s garment as collateral.” Deuteronomy, 24:17

“Fathers and mothers have been humiliated among you, strangers have been cheated in your midst, orphans and widows have been wronged among you.” Ezekiel 22:7

“There is no greater or more glorious joy than bringing joy to the heart of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.” Maimonides, Hilchot Magila v’Hanukah, 2:17

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions ordered immigration judges to cease granting asylum in the United States to fugitives from domestic abuse and gang violence. This act should shock the conscience of every American, but for Jews it is a particular outrage.

Why does our Torah, echoed by our prophets and sages, exhort us repeatedly to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger and warn of catastrophes for those who ignore the call? In the patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews, widows, orphans, and strangers were people without protection. They were socially naked, vulnerable, and, according to Jewish values, owed the community’s help.

Vulnerability is no shame in Judaism. We are all “the weak.” We are temporary, puncturable, fleshy creatures, puny even by mammalian standards. We are not made, as tigers are, to hunt alone. We are made to form communities, to speak, and to care. Our founding story of slavery and redemption reminds us of that mutual dependence and obligation which offers whatever glory humans can attain.

Women and children who live in countries where domestic abuse and violence are not taken seriously by authorities and where everyone but the most privileged is subject to impressment by brutal gangs are “members of a particular social group” with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The Geneva Convention of 1951 and U.S. law allow such people to find asylum here.

Yet, when such families present themselves at the border of our country, they have been pulled apart. Children are yanked out of their parents’ arms and forced into detention without explanation, often by people who cannot communicate in the child’s language. They are kept away from parents for months at a time, inflicting trauma that will reshape their brains and wound their hearts for a lifetime. This has been happened to all border-crossers and asylum-seekers since May when Attorney General Sessions declared a “zero tolerance” policy for every person who is caught or who presents themselves without documents at our borders. Previously, such families could remain together until the parents could make their case in court. This brutality does not reflect ‘how things have always been,’ it is a terrible new policy of the current administration.

Now Attorney General Sessions has said that women who have been beaten, raped, mutilated, or threatened with death by domestic partners and been routinely ignored by authorities in their birth countries don’t count as persecuted people who need our help. He has said that teens who have been threatened with torture, including sexual violence, if they themselves do not aid the perpetrators of such violence cannot count on us either.

We American Jews cannot allow this to stand. The fugitives from patriarchal violence who arrive at our borders are the widows, orphans, and strangers of our day. They are precisely the people we are commanded to help—those who, because of their position in society, are denied the political means to defend themselves where they are. We whose ancestors found sanctuary here are obliged to be the welcoming neighbors for whom those ancestors prayed.

There is much we can do. We can support a bill introduced by our state’s Senator Diane Feinstein, the Keep Families Together Bill along with the Help Separated Children Act (S2937) and S2468, which provides free counsel for children in immigration court. We can call and write the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Every day. We can march today with Families Belong Together.

We learn in Gittin 61a that, “The Rabbis taught, we support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, and visit the non-Jewish sick with Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, because of the ways of peace.” We also act on behalf of the widow, orphan, and stranger, no matter where they are from.

Don’t Look the Other Way When Depression Hits

Photo for The Daily Beast by Bebeto Matthews

Refections on the recent suicides of Kate Spade, Avicci, and Anthony Bourdain and how we must act when depression hits

The world was shocked and saddened by the suicide of Kate Spade, a mega-designer, at age of 55 after a long battle with depression. According to her husband, Spade was “actively seeking help for depression and anxiety over the last five years, seeing a doctor on a regular basis and taking medication for both depression and anxiety…”

The immediate reactions have returned the spotlight to the real and immediate crisis that serious depression inflicts on our society. Avicci, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams…Depression not only inflicts pain on the one who bears the illness, but it also has the potential to create significant pain, strife, and damage to others.  

On the community level how do we address this? If you know someone who seems down, not themselves, withdrawn – don’t look the other way or think that only the “professionals” will be able to help them. According to research, “social connectedness and support from friends, family, communities and institutions may also help people who are struggling for any reason.”

In other words, taking pills and seeing a therapist aren’t necessarily enough. It does not mean that a certain person’s suicide could be prevented with these additions, but it can help. 

Judaism Prescribes Community Connections

Many people who are depressed don’t want to be around others, and will push people away. They may retreat into their own worlds making including them in LIFE so much more difficult. They also may turn to drugs to numb the pain of the depression. The self-medication is another malady that compounds the depression and makes treatment more difficult. But don’t give up on them, ever.

We are fortunate that our tradition and Torah prescribes participation in community, ample times for social connectedness, and the mitzvah to look out for one another. Additionally, our daily spiritual practices offers opportunities to strengthen our relationship with our Creator. 

But still people can become derailed, feeling that their life has no real purpose, and that somehow they have failed and they may be doing the world a favor by dying, God forbid.

We must tell everyone we know that seems to be falling off the rails,  “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful.” Throw them a life preserving phone call, house visit, lunch or coffee. Invite them to the movies, a concert, a stroll along the boardwalk. No texting – but real live connections. 

God created everyone of us with an individual purpose and also also created a deep interconnectedness that transcends the individual. When someone falls into depression, it calls us to action.

Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone, 

Let’s turn on and be not alone

Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful

Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful

Oh, gimme your hands

— David Bowie, Rock n’Roll Suicide

We all have to act

The Torah teaches in Vayikra (19:16) “lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa,” do not stand idly by your fellows blood. The Talmud in Sanhderin 73a teaches that if one sees someone in a life-threatening situation they have an obligation to save them.

Kate Spade’s death is tragic. She was one of the 123 Americans that kill themselves every day on average. Depression is a real and life-threatening situation that obliges us to reach out and help.

I pray for all those who are depressed to be able to feel how much God and others love them and appreciate them being in the world. And how their death would pierce our hearts and our world and leave a vacuum that cannot be filled.

And I pray that with God’s help we can prevent future tragic deaths. 

If you would like to learn more about what to do when someone you know is facing depression, check out this recent article.

Comedians Stand Up for Judaism

Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher.

For years before they met, Los Angeles-based stand-up comedians Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher traveled alone on the road.

Today, having now been married for three years, and as parents to a newborn daughter, the couple are able to work together and travel wherever they want.

As individuals, both achieved acclaim on stage and on major late-night television shows. Together, their recent gig in Austin, Texas, was filmed and turned into their new Netflix special, “The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special.” In it, Leggero and Kasher perform two separate sets, then go onstage to roast other couples in the audience.

“We started thinking we could travel together just doing our stand-up,” said Kasher, 38, in a phone interview with the Journal. “We talk about our marriage on stage and do live relationship counseling with couples [in the audience].”

Leggero, 44, was heavily pregnant while filming the special. Onstage, she wore a short, glittery dress with a massive fur coat, which emphasized her belly.

“I was Catholic my whole life, but obviously not practicing, because I’m also intelligent.” — Natasha Leggero

“Having a baby and being pregnant is definitely a new experience,” Leggero said. “It’s something to write jokes about, and it’s something new that’s happening to you. It’s kind of miserable, which for me is always the best for comedy. When you’re falling in love or getting married, or having a TV show, those things feel good but sometimes they’re not the best thing for comedy.”

Kasher joked, “Natasha likes to perform while miserable because her audiences are also miserable while she performs.”

At one point in the show Leggero joked, “I am pregnant. Please, hold your applause. I’m still in the abortion zone.”

In his act, Kasher joked that people were trying to persuade him that being a parent was the greatest thing in the world. “It feels like they’re trying to convince me to eat sh–,” he said.

Kasher and Leggero dated for three years before marrying. During that time, Leggero took conversion classes with Conservative Rabbi Neal Weinberg at Judaism By Choice in Pico-Robertson. The couple attended the course’s 19, four-hour-long classes, where they learned about Shabbat, the prayers and wedding customs.

“The rabbi makes these classes available every single night except for Friday,” said Leggero. “It’s intensive. There’s not even a bathroom break.”

“The rabbi comes into the bathroom, stands behind you as you urinate,” Kasher quipped, “and sings ‘Adon Olam,’ because there’s no rest for the wicked.”

The two were married in their backyard in Los Angeles in 2015. They hold Shabbat dinners every Friday night.

“I was Catholic my whole life, but obviously not practicing because I’m also intelligent,” Leggero said. “The Shabbat practice is really the jewel of Judaism. If I could just do that, and also share it with my child, I’d be really happy.”

Kasher, who has a Chasidic father and whose brother is David Kasher, the newly appointed associate rabbi at IKAR, said, “As a typical convert, Natasha is very evangelical about us keeping Shabbat. Every Friday, she is the one who says we have to light candles, we have to do Shabbat. It definitely is a big part of our lives.”

For now, Friday nights are spent at home, as Kasher and Leggero raise their baby. But they hope to be able to go on the road together again. “I know I’m not doing another special while pregnant,” Leggero said. “I’d like to wait for our darling child to be 4 or 5 so she can open for us.”

“The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Reclaiming Our Mystical Mojo on Shavuot

Rabbi Joseph Karo.

It is time to take back mysticism, and Shavuot is the perfect time to reclaim our mystical mojo.

Modern man has become skeptical and cynical. We demand evidence and logical arguments. Usually, that is a good thing, but without an unreasonable suspension of disbelief or religious imperative, modernity turns mysticism from inspiration into “fake news.”

There is a tradition to study Torah all night on Shavuot. The origins of this practice are cloaked in mysticism and mystery. Rabbis Joseph Karo and Shlomo Alkabetz lived in 16th century Safed, Israel, with a small group of dedicated disciples. Alkabetz, who composed “Lecha Dodi,” was an extraordinary poet and musician. He was pure soul. Karo, compiler of the “Shulchan Arukh” — Jewish Code of Law — was a halachist without peer. His study partner could only be an angel of God. Karo studied with an angel and he recorded their conversations in a book called “Maggid Meisharim.” Nobody knew about Karo’s special chavruta until Shavuot night 5733.

Karo and Alkabetz made a pact to study Torah for the entire night with their students, reverently chanting the holy words. At midnight, a disembodied voice began to speak through Karo:

“You are blessed in this world and the next word because of the crown you have returned to my head. Years ago, I was thrown into the garbage heap and my crown was taken from me. I was inconsolable but tonight you have restored my crown to its glory. Be strong! Be courageous, my loves! Rejoice and celebrate!”

Alkabetz understood this heavenly voice was Karo’s study partner.

Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

After the monologue, the group studied mystical secrets of the Torah together with the voice. However, they were informed that they lacked a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so they could not hear all the secrets of the Torah.

The group diligently completed their vigil of Torah study until morning. Three students missed the learn-a-thon because they went to sleep. When they heard the story, they were heartbroken. So they decided to do study for a second consecutive night.

On the second night, the voice did not wait until midnight. When the group began to study, the voice returned with more praise, love and insights. The angel said that on both nights, their Torah was able to touch God and hasten the redemption.

And so, a tradition was born.

Judaism ceded mysticism and mystery to the Charedim. Everyone else is a skeptic. But we all need the legends of the mystics in our Judaism. Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

We need great stories like Karo and the voice of God on Shavuot night to inspire another 500 years of Judaism.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Conversion Doesn’t Stop at the Mikveh

This past New Year’s Eve, I was with my husband, Daniel Lobell, in the living room of our good friend, talking with him about our struggles with Judaism. We were lonely and lost. It felt like I was hitting rock bottom with my spirituality.

I had become increasingly disenchanted with my Orthodox Judaism. I was sick of hearing criticism of the #MeToo movement at the Shabbat table. I was tired of seeing unabashed support of President Donald Trump.

I also felt very out of place in my community, because I had just turned 29 and couldn’t afford to have children yet, while many of my peers had at least two kids and a mortgage. I couldn’t see any future where we’d be able to afford a house or send our future kids to a Jewish school in Los Angeles.

It had been 2 1/2 years since my conversion through an Orthodox beit din. But before dipping into the mikveh and signing my conversion papers, I’d been living an Orthodox life for years. I’d gradually given up treif food, observed Shabbat, prayed frequently, learned at least once a week and moved into the religious community in Pico-Robertson. I was becoming more observant and it was easy; I had an end goal to look forward to.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

After I dipped in the mikveh, and got married, I finally took a breather. For years, I had imposter syndrome, and for once, I could just “be Jewish.”

I kept the laws but ceased learning regularly. I began going to synagogue on Shabbat later and later and skipping it some weeks. Our best friends, with whom we had spent every Shabbat, moved to New Jersey. People’s lives were progressing all around us, and Daniel and I seemed stuck in the same place.

This all led to me breaking down at the end of last year. Not knowing where else to turn, we called our friend for advice. He listened patiently and said Orthodox Judaism is something that he has struggled with, too. We were so surprised. Daniel and I looked up to him and thought that he had it all together. But even he had challenges.

Our friend encouraged us to build our own community by going to different synagogues, seeing what we liked and appreciating each one for what it had to offer. He talked about how he learns regularly with a few inspiring rabbis around town. He invited us for a Shabbat lunch, introduced us to new people and took Daniel to a local minyan, where they had a spiritually uplifting experience.

Thanks to our friend, I realized that just because I was feeling low it didn’t mean I had to throw it all away. There were always solutions.

We started to visit different synagogues. We met more people, received invitations to meals and felt less alone. I started learning with a chavruta (study partner) and going to shul earlier.

I took on additional mitzvot and began to daven consistently. As for the political and cultural issues within Orthodoxy, I discovered a movement called Open Orthodoxy that has similar views to mine. Strengthening my spirituality has helped me have faith that Daniel and I will be able to make it in L.A.

Today, I am stronger in my Judaism than ever before. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. The earlier I go to shul, the more I want to attend. If I do more I feel connected, and want to only increase that connection.

Just like any Jewish person, I need constantly to take on more mitzvot, study and try to be better. And the politics and customs in my community shouldn’t discourage me, because it’s not about that. It’s about putting faith in HaShem and doing what is right and true to myself.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

The Wrong Kind of Jew

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I was kicked out of a Jewish museum in Granada, Spain.

I wish I were being funny or ironic, but this unfortunate event actually happened. It was my first Jewish stop on a trip tracing the roots of Sephardic Jewry throughout southern Spain, when a friend and I visited a small family-run museum that fills the bottom floor of the family’s home.

In accordance with the diminished Jewish presence that is a fact of modern Spain, Granada’s Jewish museum is small and modest. There are a handful of rooms cluttered with Jewish symbols and memorabilia, clearly curated out of love but not, evidently, with much scholarship.

My friend, a rabbi and published author, quickly noticed a significant error in the museum literature: It claimed that Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, one of Granada’s most famous former residents (a monument of him appears in a public square) had translated Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” when in fact it was his son, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who translated the work from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew. My friend asked to speak to the museum owners and offered to help correct the error.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another.

Soon, a middle-aged woman and an older man descended the stairs and introduced themselves. Things went south quickly.

“You no respect museum. You get out of my house!” the woman yelled.

We tried to explain that we were deeply appreciative of the museum, but we simply wanted to help correct the error. But they wouldn’t hear it. None of us could really understand one another — I speak broken Spanish; the museum owners spoke broken English — and I’m sure the language barrier was responsible for the miscommunication that ensued.

But a language barrier does not explain what came out of the woman’s mouth next, which was very clear:

“You’re liberal,” she sneered at my friend, a Conservative rabbi who was wearing a kippah and tried to speak to her in Hebrew. “You’re Reform.”

I was raised in a Reform community, so I had never heard the word Reform uttered with such disdain.

“I’m Orthodox,” the woman said, stomping her foot.

Then she turned toward me, standing stunned and silent in gray jeans and a wool coat.

“Look how she’s dressed,” she sniped. “You’re liberal! You’re Reform!”

That’s when we headed for the exit.

Afterward, I wondered how the museum lady could possess such hostility toward liberal Jews when she devotes an entire wall to Jews like Sigmund Freud and Karl “Max” who I’m pretty sure were not as observant as she is.

A week later, I still can’t get this episode out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been made to feel inferior for my status as a non-halachic liberal Jew, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another. The rabbis tell us that sinat hinam — “baseless hatred” among the Israelites — was the reason the Second Temple was destroyed. And although Maimonides commands tremendous reverence today, there were rabbis so disapproving of his “Guide for the Perplexed” when it was first published that the book was burned in Montpellier and Paris.

What I encountered last week wasn’t unprecedented, but it does reflect the dangerous and growing divide among Jews that is driven by political and ideological difference, and which has intensified during the Donald Trump era. Today, Jews of different persuasions are more likely to meet at the combustible intersection of religion and politics than around the Shabbat table. The idea of “am Yisra’el” seems almost quaint. And I fear we’re reaching an inflection point in the disruptive and demeaning way we relate to one another.

In Israel, the ongoing battle over who has the right to pray at the Kotel has driven a wedge between liberal American Jews and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Also, enduring tensions exist between secular Israelis and the Orthodox power structure.

More than any time in recent memory, our community seems perilously close to the atmosphere of sinat hinam that once wrought destruction and tragedy. On April 25 in Los Angeles, I’m moderating a panel for the Shalom Hartman Institute at a conference titled “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?”

I have a terrible feeling I know the answer.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

‘One Strange Rock’ Astronaut Shares Views of Space, Judaism

Scene from “One Strange Rock.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Among America’s 536 astronauts who have gone to space, only a dozen have been Jewish. Jeffrey A. Hoffman is in that elite group. An astronomer and astrophysicist, he flew five space shuttle missions, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope on his third flight in 1993.

Now a professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hoffman is featured in the new 10-part National Geographic Channel series “One Strange Rock,” in which eight NASA astronauts share their perspectives on Earth and its place in the universe. Its environmental message is clear.

“When people appreciate the uniqueness of the planet, they will make the connection that we better not screw things up,” Hoffman told the Journal. “If we don’t understand how the universe was formed and how Earth works as a planet, we can’t take care of it.”

Hoffman described the sight of Earth from space as overwhelming.

“There’s a sense of grandeur, of awe in the deepest sense,” he said. “I never got tired of looking at sunrises and sunsets, lightning storms, and the aurora borealis and aurora australis from above.”

Hoffman, who joined the space program in 1979, made his first shuttle flight six years later. His only fear at that time was “screwing up,” he said. As for fearing death, he pointed out, “During launch, you’re sitting on 4.5 million pounds of high explosives. If that causes undue stress, you might be in the wrong profession.”

While the astronauts were dedicated to carrying out the mission of every flight, Hoffman said the success of the Hubble mission, which came with high pressure and high stakes, was “a great thrill” and his proudest achievement. “The future of NASA was on the line,” he said. “It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

That Hubble-repair flight coincided with Hanukkah, so Hoffman took a dreidel with him to celebrate. He brought other Jewish artifacts along on other missions, too, including the atarot from his sons’ tallisim, a sefer Torah that is now in use at a synagogue in Houston, and a mezuzah that decorates the door of the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition between Judaism, one of humanity’s oldest traditions, and space flight, which is one of the newest.” — Jeffrey Hoffman

“I donated it back in 1993, and in 2013 I was back and we had a dedication for the 20th anniversary,” Hoffman said. Some items that he took with him are on view in the “Jews in Space” exhibition through June at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition between Judaism, one of humanity’s oldest traditions, and space flight, which is one of the newest,” Hoffman said. He often gives talks about his experiences to Jewish community and youth organizations, which he wrote about in his book, “An Astronaut’s Diary,” in 1986. He’d like to write another, he said, but has yet to find the time.

Jeffrey Hoffman. Photo by Stewart Volland/National Geographic.

Hoffman, 73, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., in a Reform Jewish family of Eastern European descent. In 1965, he and his brother traveled with their paternal grandfather to their grandfather’s childhood hometown near Minsk, Belarus. “There was a pit where they had all the Jews dig a hole,” and for his grandfather, seeing it “was quite painful,” Hoffman recalled.

He noted that once he joined NASA and began going to services at a Conservative synagogue in Clear Lake, Texas, he “was exposed to some Jewish traditions that I hadn’t grown up with, and I learned quite a bit,” he said.

Now living in Boston, Hoffman attends Hillel services on the MIT campus with his British wife, Barbara, a retired librarian. They met in 1972 when Hoffman was working in England at the University of Leicester and married two years later. They have two sons — Sam, 42, is a ceramist; and Orin, 38, is a robotics engineer — and two grandchildren.

Although he’s been to Antarctica and the Himalayas, sailed the Northwest Passage and logged 21.5 million miles in orbit, “There are still places on Earth I haven’t been to,” Hoffman said. He is planning to take his older grandson, now 12, on a trip to Costa Rica next year, and he’s going on a trek to Bhutan in May.

He is also working with NASA on the Mars 2020 rover project, in preparation for humans going to Mars and “living off the land.” “For the first time we’re going to manufacture oxygen using Mars resources — taking carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere and putting it through an electrolysis unit,” he said.

Hoffman believes it’s important to continue to explore the universe, not only for curiosity’s sake or because “some day an asteroid is going to come toward Earth with our number on it,” he said. “Global warming was first discovered on Venus. Venus is a hot hellhole. Mars is a frigid desert. How did Earth make it just right? The real question is whether it’s going to be able to continue to support humanity. If we’re going to solve our problems on Earth, it has to be done on a planetary level.”

With everything he knows about astronomy, astrophysics and space travel, Hoffman can’t help but watch movies about space with a critical eye.

“ ‘Gravity’ did a great job in the views from space, but the [Extra Vehicular Activities] were terrible,” he said. “They had no connection with reality. But I enjoyed it for the visual splendor.”

As for films that were more accurate, “ ‘The Martian’ did a pretty good job. ‘Apollo 13’ was probably the best in that respect,” he said. “When they do get it right, it’s always gratifying. But, I understand that a movie is a movie. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is still my favorite.”

“One Strange Rock” premiered March 26 and airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on the National Geographic Channel.

Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman

 

David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

Check out this episode!

An Arab Comes Home to His Judaism

Mark Halawa

This is the story of a man born in Kuwait to a Palestinian-Muslim family and who today lives as an observant Jew in Jerusalem.

It is a story of slavery, of exodus and of personal redemption.

Some of the man’s tale has appeared in newspapers and video clips, and he has recounted it to audiences all over the world. But some of the story has been shrouded in secrecy and shame.

Until now.

Mark Halawa has been aware his entire life that he came from Jewish blood. When he was in the Palestinian Boy Scouts burning Israeli flags, or listening to his father rail against the “evil Zionists,” or learning math from a teacher who asked, “If one rocket could kill five Jews, how many rockets will it take to kill 35 Jews?”, he knew his maternal grandmother had been a Jew in Jerusalem. He did not know what that meant until years later when, while studying at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, he met a Jewish professor who told him that it meant he was also a Jew.

The revelation brought with it consternation, intrigue and delight in equal measure.

“I was shocked and interested and happy to belong to a multifaith family. It made me feel cool and special,” he said. “When you grow up with so much anti-Semitism, you have the utmost hate and the utmost curiosity.”

Halawa was full of questions. He began to explore. But he took care not to offend his parents, with whom he was still close. His father, a staunchly secular Palestinian nationalist who in the 1960s helped fund the establishment of the PLO, did not want to hear about it.

“I was so angry, I wanted to tell the whole world my story.” — Mark Halawa

When it came to his mother, Halawa remembered thinking that he would be able to talk with her more openly: “My mother is youthful. She’s funny. I tell her everything.”

He did not tell her, however, that he had moved from Canada to Jerusalem to study Torah at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. At the time, his mother was becoming a more religious Muslim — a move that eventually led his father to divorce her — so in a way she was glad her son had shed his partying “frat boy” lifestyle and was becoming more devout.

“We would speak in broad terms about God and godliness,” Halawa said.

But later, when Halawa was married and had made Jerusalem his permanent home, the gulf widened between his mother’s beliefs and his own.

Things came to a head with the birth of Halawa’s daughter. The happy event came in the wake of the Duma arson attack, which resulted in the deaths of three people, including a toddler. Jewish extremists were suspected of committing the crime.

Halawa sent a photo of his baby girl to his mother. Her response: “I hope she burns along with her mother. Just like those Jews burned that boy.”

That moment broke Halawa. He became deeply depressed, he said. “It burns a hole in my heart, but I don’t want to connect to my mother anymore. She sees my helpless child as an infidel Jew.”

Yet at the same time, the future was suddenly clear. All the ambivalence he had felt about speaking in public was gone. “I was no longer scared,” he said. “I was so angry, I wanted to tell the whole world my story.”

And tell it he did. Halawa made videos in Arabic for the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs that went viral, and he has established a nonprofit for pro-Israel outreach to the Arab world.

“I was enslaved by hate,” Halawa said. “I was under my mother’s thumb, even as a Jew. But that moment when I broke from my mother, I crossed the Red Sea.

“I was finally free.”

Israel Should Open Judaism to Refugees

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Talleyrand’s famous aphorism applies to Israel’s immigration policy: It is worse than a crime — it is a blunder. Pursuing a more creative and enlightened asylum policy could generate a significant benefit for the Jewish people.

Israel and the worldwide Jewish community should see potential refugees as a resource rather than a threat. Suppose that out of 100 million potential migrants, only 2 percent might be willing to convert to Judaism in order to become Israeli citizens. This development would significantly boost Israel’s Jewish majority while simultaneously making it a haven for those fleeing oppression and poverty.

I can hear the obvious objection: These wouldn’t be real converts. They would become part of the Jewish people only to move to Israel. Here is the unobvious answer: It doesn’t matter.

Ask yourself: When did you first decide to be Jewish? For most of us, it is an absurd question. We didn’t decide to be Jewish. We just are. Our parents raised us that way: Identities come from cultural surroundings.

Now imagine a family newly settling in Israel — from Congo, say, or Guatemala — who have at least committed to become “Jewish” for the sake of immigration, and spent several months in conversion classes. They study Hebrew. They observe the Jewish calendar. Their children learn Jewish history and culture in school. When those children grow up, they are “Jewish” in the Israeli sense: not particularly religious, but conscious of being part of the Jewish people. By the time the grandchildren grow up, they are as “Jewish” as any other member of “Middle Israel.”

Israel and the worldwide Jewish community should see potential refugees as a resource rather than a threat.

Do Jews do this? We do far worse. The Maccabees forcibly converted the kingdom of Edom at the beginning of the first century B.C.E.; by the time of the siege of Jerusalem 170 years later, according to Josephus, Edomites helped lead the Jewish resistance to Rome. A century later, no one distinguished the two peoples: All were Jewish. Most Jews, then, have a substantial amount of Edomite blood (generating an ironic meaning for prophetic condemnations of Edom). If forced conversions yielded such a result, voluntary ones certainly could.

Would it work? I don’t know; it has never been tried. The State of Israel or Jewish organizations should set up shop in areas where refugees are fleeing and announce that conversion to Judaism makes one eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Outside of Israel, conversions do not have to be Orthodox.

Perhaps no one will accept the offer. Perhaps those who do will come to Israel and quickly revert to their original religions. Perhaps they will train their children secretly in the old ways. And perhaps this will comprise the majority of such admittees. Because it is a pilot program, we will know soon enough. We certainly cannot assume the opposite, unless we also assume that Israeli Jewish culture is so weak, and so unattractive, that no one else could possibly want to adopt it. (Of course, a warm rather than begrudging welcome would strengthen Judaism’s appeal.)

The 2013 film “Transit” concerns a Filipino family in Israel, where a single father must hide his children from immigration police after the government decides to deport children of immigrant workers. The young son develops a warm relationship with the octogenarian Shoah survivor for whom the father serves as a caregiver. The survivor lovingly teaches the boy how to leyn Torah. As the children are being carted away, the boy stands in the immigration office, chanting his parsha. Earlier, he asks his father, “Dad, how do you become Jewish?”

“I don’t know,” the father responds. “I think you have to be born that way.”

But you don’t have to be born that way. You can be a little Filipino boy, learning Torah from a Shoah survivor, living in Israel, being a Jew.

Romantic? Perhaps. It’s a movie. But if you will it, it is no dream.


Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Watching the Watchers

Every year, Hollywood creates a handful of culturally significant movies that captivate a wide audience and sweep us away on what can be described as a cultural wave. Recently, I’ve taken to rewatching those films that had a lasting impact on me. Rewatching, but not re-experiencing. Rather, I’m sharing them with my sons.

For me, rewatching is not simply the act of “watching again.” By default, rewatching bypasses the hype and hoopla of a new release. All that remains is the actual film. There is no cultural wave to sweep us away but something more meaningful is left in its place.

I want to share those feelings with my sons and I hope they will feel something, too. I watch the screen with one eye, the other eye on my boys, to see their reactions to powerful moments in the story. You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

“Game of Thrones” is one of the most popular shows in television history. It is also one of the most intense, and you can watch videos of people’s reactions to scenes from the show on YouTube. Those who had read the “Game of Thrones” books were ready for these moments and used their phones to record their friends’ and family’s reactions to them on the screen. Uploading these videos to YouTube helped propel the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon. The show pushes our most sensitive, emotional buttons and arouses our most primal feelings.

You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

James Cameron’s “Titanic” was a cultural tsunami. It was big and beautiful, sad and spectacular, and infinitely rewatchable. Some teens saw the film dozens of times. They went not only to rewatch the movie but to watch others watching it for the first time.

Sharing feelings with words is clumsy. Sharing experiences that create those feelings is Divine, and it’s this idea that explains Jewish holiday rituals.

We weren’t there for the original cultural mile markers. We weren’t liberated from bondage by Moses; we weren’t present when God split the sea; we weren’t imperiled by Haman’s xenophobia; and we weren’t saved by Esther’s heroism. But those who were there shared their stories with their children so they could feel the same thing as their parents.

That is why we retell our stories and why our holiday rituals are so important.

Judaism does not live in the past. It is the past that lives in us.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Jewish Background Helps Comedian Rise to Roastmaster General

Jeff Ross is a comedian, writer and producer also known as the Roastmaster General. His comedy roast “victims” have included Rob Lowe, Justin Bieber, James Franco, Charlie Sheen, James Carville and Donald Trump. Jeff’s most recent comedy special is “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville, Texas,” which is available on Comedy Central and iTunes.

His latest TV series is “Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle,” a comedy competition show about to start its third season on Comedy Central. He will be appearing live at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, February 8-11.

Jewish Journal: What motivated you to become a comedian?

Jeff Ross: I was struggling, living in New Jersey with my grandfather, trying to start a video production business. A buddy said, “Why don’t you try taking this stand-up comedy class? I think you’d be good at it.” He said it would be a good way to meet a girlfriend, have a social life and a creative outlet. The class was near the bus station where I was going home every night, anyway. So, I tried it on a whim, really enjoyed it right away and was the best one in the class, so I stuck with it.

JJ: How has your Jewish upbringing and heritage influenced your work and your life?

JR: Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA. Although my Judaism isn’t the main focus of my act, it’s a big part of my personality. I love families, food, fun, parties and busting chops. Love of life. L’chaim.

“Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA.”

JJ: What qualities make a perfect roast joke?

JR: The best roast jokes are backhanded compliments, where the recipient not only laughs along with the audience but goes home and tells their family about it; jokes that they’re proud of. That’s the heart of the artichoke for me, that’s what makes me feel good, when the joke lives longer than the show.

JJ: Your process for creating roast material?

JR: I do research. I’m all in. I go to battle to prepare. I get in shape. I go to the gym. I hang up pictures all over the house of the target I’m roasting. I buy their books, watch their movies, listen to their music. It’s war — take no prisoners.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

JR: The USO and what they do for our troops stationed overseas. You can’t play that up enough because it’s so important. And Meals on Wheels. When I was a beginning comedian and my grandfather was dying of cancer, Meals on Wheels delivered kosher meals to him, checked on him to make sure he was OK and helped him and me get through the day.

JJ: Tell us about your new special, “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville Texas.”

JR: I went down to the Mexican border and did a show in front of the border fence for the immigrant community down there. I worked a year on it. It’s a very complicated subject and the jokes as well as my emotions are deep and sometimes confusing. I learned a lot, including how lucky I am that I was born in America. One point I make in the show is that Jewish people tried to come to America at the beginning of World War II and we sent them away. Now, we’re saying the same thing to these other refugees from other countries. Maybe we should take a look at all that.

JJ: Have you retained your dancing skills from your appearances on “Dancing With the Stars”?

JR: Oh, I had those skills way before “Dancing With the Stars.” I won a dance class in summer camp when I was about 8 and never looked back since. Don’t even tell me I’m not great. [Laughs] My family was in the kosher catering business; I know every dance you can think of from the “Hustle” to the horah.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

JR: Dancing, eating and looking for a wife.


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and has written on numerous sitcom staffs.

How Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin Transformed Jewish Education in Los Angeles

Photo from Facebook

Congregants at Stephen S. Wise Temple will remember Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, who died last week at 97, as the rabbi who celebrated with them, mourned with them, officiated at their weddings, presided at b’nai mitzvah, and was present at countless moments in their religious lives. Indeed, he was a rabbi who was larger than life and whose generosity of spirit, time and love permeated his entire being. Family members will remember him as Grandpa Shy, the grandfather who lovingly listened, cared, gave sage advice, adored and was filled with pride. And many remember his legacy of Judaism and Jewish education.

I was neither a congregant nor a student. I may have been one of the few people at Zeldin’s funeral who was neither a relative, friend, nor someone with a personal connection to the glorious institutions he built.  I’m a historian and, for the past three years, have devoted my research to the history of Jewish education in Los Angeles. My doctoral dissertation focused on the development of day schools in Los Angeles. And in that story, Zeldin stands out as one of the greatest figures.

Many people are familiar with the almost mythical story of how Zeldin took 35 families from Temple Emanuel to form a new congregation. While people describe that journey in matter-of-fact terms — from first using space in a church, then eventually making their way to the hilltop where Stephen S. Wise Temple sits today.

But it wasn’t only a remarkable feat, but the manifestation of a vision. This new institution would bridge the city’s Jews by being a midway point between the city and the San Fernando Valley. It would offer much more than just prayer services. The “shul with a pool” would provide programming for the youngest children, the elderly, and every age group in between.

Perhaps most importantly to Zeldin, it educated thousands of students in its day schools (not to mention its religious schools and other educational programs) at a time when Reform day schools were just starting to emerge and few non-Orthodox day schools existed in Los Angeles. That the Reform movement did not officially support day schools until 1985 did not hinder Zeldin’s determination.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it. He had a conviction and he made it a reality. And yet Zeldin was no wizard. He did not hide behind curtains. He was present at the board meetings, the staff meetings, the dinner meetings and everything else. He delivered reports, shared his dreams and offered words of Torah. He lived and breathed not only his institution but everything he believed it stood for.

The grandeur that Zeldin built cannot be measured in acreage or in dollars raised. It cannot be understood even through the staff he hired or the educators he trained. Using the word visionary to describe him isn’t an exaggeration, nor is it cliché. And while there is plenty of evidence to describe Zeldin’s success, there is little evidence to aid in understanding it. As Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said in his eulogy, Zeldin simply willed institutions into being, whether it was his synagogue, the West Coast branch of Hebrew Union College or his many schools.

Zeldin was the last of a generation of giants — rabbis who transformed the face and the fate of the Los Angeles Jewish community and whose commitment to, and passion for, Jewish education drove their every move. These leaders — among them Rabbi Jacob Pressman and Rabbi Harold Schulweis — dismissed denominational differences in the interest of Jewish continuity. They collaborated on projects, sought advice from one another and built the institutions that anchor Los Angeles’ Jewish community today.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it.

In the late 1980s, one of the city’s two non-Orthodox Jewish high schools, Golda Meir Academy, was struggling. In contrast, Zeldin’s elementary and nursery schools had been flourishing for over ten years. When the Golda Meir board and the Bureau of Jewish Education brought Zeldin into the discussions about the future of the school, he became a partner in the communal effort, eventually bringing the school under the umbrella of Stephen S. Wise’s Temple, which even assumed its financial burden. Within a few years, he had turned around the fate of the school, today known as Milken Community Schools. The politics (denominational and otherwise) were almost irrelevant. He had secured his own dream of educating Jewish children in a day school from nursery through twelfth grade.

So while congregants and family will hold memories of Zeldin near, this historian will also remember Zeldin as larger than life. Truly, Zeldin was an institution builder, a risk taker and change maker, a giant with a prescient ability to understand a community.

Yehi Zichrono Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.


Sara Smith is Assistant Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University.

The Creativity of Doubt

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it has been said.

My entire life is by all counts a visible rejection of this dictum, given that I have spent all of my adult years learning or, until recently, teaching in universities.

I suspect I have even at times become a little intoxicated with knowledge, taking it in until I feel larger than myself and those around me. There’s a certain comfort in believing one knows more about a particular subject than most people.

And, believe me, I will never be one to argue against education or the various processes by which we acquire knowledge. For even if a little knowledge is  dangerous, it is also a source of power. Think, for example, of Black slaves in the American past who were prevented from learning to read, or women in certain countries who are prohibited from getting an education. For those in power, keeping knowledge out of the hands of those who are being controlled is critical to maintaining power.

But like everything worth having, knowledge is not without its complexities. I thought about this last week after reading Nicole Krauss’ spectacular new novel, “Forest Dark.”

What Judaism implicitly makes clear
is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver.

Much like her other works, “Forest Dark” tells concurrently a few different stories that may or may not intersect. One thread, told from a first-person point of view, is the story of a woman who travels to Tel Aviv to find inspiration for her next novel. While there, she contemplates the familial obstacles that make it difficult for her to sink fully into her identity as a writer. Among those is her husband, a man who “prized facts above the impalpable, which he’d begun to collect and assemble around himself like a bulwark.”

Yes, I thought to myself, so many of us do this, don’t we? Perhaps especially in the age of easily accessible information, we use facts to erect fortresses around us, protecting us from what lies outside of the walls we build. We assume that the more we know, the less we will be tricked by lies and falsities. While this is obviously true to a degree, the price we pay for this “certainty” is rarely obvious.

A sense of certainty seals us off from the world outside our personal borders. The frenzied acquisition of what we believe to be knowledge causes us to hold more tightly to our own views and listen less to what others have to say.

These days, we read the news — typically from sources that confirm our views — all day, every day. We have, as Krauss puts it, “become drunk on our powers of knowing — having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.” We have converted to “the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect.” And we are left with an illusion of the mastery of all things, rather than the mastery of anything at all.

We fear the possibility of diminishing certainty. But what Judaism implicitly makes clear is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver, even to privilege doubt over certainty. Krauss reminds us that when God created light, he also created the absence of light. The world is, for Jews, “always both hidden and revealed.” And it is doubt, along with the questions that inevitably arise, that urges us to look for the hidden and sustain this beautiful tension.

Great novelists have always known this. E.L. Doctorow once suggested that doubt is the greatest civilizer of humanity. It’s what maintains a balance necessary for a life worth living — one composed of meaningful dialogue and real community.

I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to make one this year, it would be a pledge to doubt a little more. I want to be a little less certain of what I hold to be true in some cases. I want to make way for more questions, even if they threaten to chip away at what I’ve built.

This uncertainty could be the beginning of a less dangerous world.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”

Pixar and the Zohar

If you’ve seen the trailer or any advertisements for “Coco,” you already know that it’s Pixar’s most Mexican film yet. What you don’t see in the trailer is that Coco is also Pixar’s most Jewish film. You probably would not see that by watching the movie, either, but it’s all I saw.

“Coco” tells the story of Miguel Rivera, a Mexican boy who travels on Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) to the Land of the Dead, where he must reconnect with his deceased ancestors to return to the Land of the Living. “Coco” fits neatly in the pantheon of familiar Pixar stories and the film is bursting with wholesome values.

The Jewish idea that aveira goreret aveira — once we step onto a dark path of sin, it can lead to an endless cycle of darkness — is prominent in “Coco.” The filmmakers sprinkle simple truths and lessons throughout: Fame is not correlated with talent or ability; our role models should be the people in our lives who are good, not those who appear to be most successful; we should follow our dreams but not hurt others in the process. Seeing Hollywood teaching good values is worth the price of admission.

On a deeper level, “Coco” is much more. It’s the stuff of primordial storytelling. Many stories dazzle us with mind-bending plot twists and vibrant original characters. “Coco” has neither. The story is not particularly remarkable and the characters are not unique.

“Coco” is a different kind of story — it is a fable. Specifically, it is the kind of fable that has been the bedrock of religious storytelling for thousands of years. “Coco” is a biblical story with new people and modern dilemmas.

Bible stories are not known for their plot twists, but they are brilliant vehicles for life lessons. The purpose of a Bible story is not to entertain — it is to enlighten. “Coco” is certainly entertaining and its agile lesson-teaching impresses. But its true brilliance is the way it enlightens the audience.

Religious stories, loaded with religious meaning and morality, serve a social function, as well. They connect people through ritual and common beliefs. They form a moral fiber that binds religious people to their communities while also answering the “big questions” of life. They connect and enlighten people. This is how religion builds society through storytelling. Without answers to “big questions” and meaning to pull everything together, people don’t build societies.

“Coco” is Hollywood’s most financially successful attempt to tell a universal story with lessons addressing one life’s “biggest” questions: What happens after we die?

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife. Consider this: Pixar spent $200 million to respectfully and faithfully teach the world about Día de los Muertos — authentically. There’s a lot of explaining in the movie as the theology and traditions of Día de los Muertos are doled out in bite-sized pieces.

“Coco” is a spectacular sermon on the afterlife.

The religious moviegoer expects Hollywood to get religion wrong and to subvert whatever it manages to get right. Incredibly, “Coco” does the opposite. It gets Día de los Muertos right. In a nutshell, on Día de los Muertos, the dead visit with the living. Only when we celebrate the dead will their memories live on, enabling them to visit and celebrate along with the living.

This is a powerful teaching. Another movie of biblical proportions, “Interstellar” (2014), also conveyed this idea. Coop, its protagonist, tells his daughter, “We [parents] are the memories of our children.” We find a similar idea in Jewish mysticism. The Zohar says that on days of great celebration, when the living inevitably remember the dead, the souls of the dead leave their heavenly domain and join in the celebration with the living.

This is the kind of “big idea” that traditionally was exclusively religion’s domain. “Coco” is a film doing what religion used to do. It is building culture and meaning. It is building society. Most of all, it is not replacing traditional religious stories with something new, but faithfully retelling the old in a modern way.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Jedi-ism and Judaism

The loudest noise coming out of Hollywood this holiday season is “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Even if the last thing you want to do is see another “Star Wars” movie, you might be interested to know about the secret message embedded in this film that the Jewish people have known for 2,000 years.

Everyone knows from the title that it’s a story about “the last Jedi,” but even if you’ve seen the film you may not know that saving Jedi-ism is a lot like saving Judaism. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi was the first thing I thought when the Jedi master made his surprise appearance in an iconic scene.

Luke Skywalker, the Jedi hero who saved the galaxy, is broken by the destruction wrought by rogue Jedi warriors. Menacing torch in hand, Luke approaches the Jedi Temple and its small library of ancient texts. Suddenly, Master Yoda’s ghost appears.

Everyone in the theater expects Yoda to stop Luke. But director Rian Johnson does exactly the opposite of what we would expect in a “Star Wars” film. Yoda incinerates the Jedi Temple with a bolt of lightning. Cackling, Yoda reminds Luke that Jedi wisdom is more than a temple and books. Luke will not be the last Jedi.

For 1,500 years, Judaism was organized around the Temple. Around 2,000 years ago, that Judaism broke. Hanukkah celebrates a brief return to the glory of Temple-centric Jewish life. But within a few generations, the Hasmonean dynasty was more Roman than it was Jewish. The Temple was inaccessible to most Jews, its authority a corruption magnet. Tragically, we were exiled as our Temple burned to the ground. Judaism should have ended in the Temple’s smoldering wreckage.

The rabbis saved Judaism by moving Jewish life from the Temple to the Talmud, reimagining Judaism as a decentralized, wisdom-based, accessible religion — the secret of Diaspora Judaism.

Johnson (and Yoda) did the same to the Jedi religion by burning the Jedi Temple to the ground.

The soul of every conflict in “The Last Jedi” dances around this question: How to reconcile the past, the ancient, calculated and wise with the future, the fresh, impulsive and creative?

To Luke, The Force is broken. Jedi-ism is a failure — it must end forever. Yoda disagrees because The Force and Jedi wisdom are eternal, with or without a building or books. The Jedi will live on through a new Jedi hero — Rey.

Very rabbinic.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was supposed to tell us Rey’s story. The postmodern Jedi warrior who reawakened The Force with her courage and kindness in the previous film was an orphan. But surely her parents were special in some way? Luke Skywalker was an orphan until he discovered his father was Darth Vader, in the original “Star Wars” trilogy. Rey is a Luke Skywalker–type hero. Surely, Rey would discover the identity of her parents in “The Last Jedi,” the second of a trilogy.

Master Yoda would have been an awesome rabbi.

Instead, Rey’s nemesis, Kylo Ren, divulges that her degenerate parents sold her for beer money. Rey is literally no one from nowhere. Yet, Rey is a gifted Jedi. “The Last Jedi” tells us that there is no birthright to The Force and Jedi wisdom. They are accessible to all.

Before the final credits, we glimpse the ancient Jedi texts stowed aboard the Millennium Falcon. Apparently, Rey took the books before Luke and Yoda burned down the temple. When I saw those books, a new thought popped into my head.

Yoda was rabbinic, but he was wrong. The Jedi religion would disappear if it relied entirely on an oral transmission from Master to Padawan. Yoda was stuck in the same stagnant vision of the Jedi religion as Luke.

Rey is the Jedi hero we have been looking for. Ancient wisdom must not be discarded nor can it be entrusted to our fickle collective memory. Wisdom must be portable and flexible enough to take on our journey. The great rabbis of post-Temple Judaism knew this and turned us into the People of the Book.

Yoda would have been a great rabbi. But Rey is the visionary rabbi who preserves the past by reimagining a place for ancient wisdom in the future.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

On Politics and Conversation

As we end 2017 and head into 2018, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on our modern political conversation, and how I see the Jewish Journal playing a role.

First, I may love politics and current events, but they do not own me. I like to follow the news, see what’s happening locally and around the world, study the threats to humanity’s future. Politics gets me pumped up. It builds up my outrage, makes me feel alive, as if I’m dealing with stuff that really matters.

So, why does the political conversation so often get on my nerves? Because I see what it does to people. It makes them hysterical. It breaks up relationships. It ignites anger and bitterness. At best, it keeps us in our silos and echo chambers, protected from views we cannot fathom.

My wish for 2018? To manage politics so that it doesn’t fray our communal bonds and bring out the worse in us.

Second, I know that politicians will never make me happy. My friends will make me happy. My family will make me happy. A great film will make me happy. Politicians will make themselves happy — with the perks and privileges that come with power — but they can never make me happy. Usually, they just disappoint me.

It’s true that politics plays a role in Judaism. Our tradition calls on us to make the world a better place. Since politics revolves around power, it follows that if we’re serious about repairing the world, we must engage with power. That’s why you see many rabbis address political issues from the pulpit. They see it as an expression of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.

But that is not the whole story. We can do plenty of repair work on our own, without asking anything of politicians. This is called community engagement. The Jewish Federation system is an example of Jews taking control and responsibility for their communities. There are thousands of smaller examples of individual initiatives that aim to make the world a better place, politics or no politics.

Much of our community coverage at the Journal honors those efforts.

Third, the news doesn’t help us make sense of the news. Following the news, which comes at us fast and furious through our Twitter feeds, has become an addiction. At a gala dinner the other night, I couldn’t help looking at my phone when I received a piece of breaking news. The item was so juicy I had to share it with the person sitting next to me. This is not healthy.

I’m sure if we injected more news and current events in the Journal, we’d be more “juicy” and look more topical.

I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

But when you have a publication that comes out once a week, it’s silly to try to compete with the daily news you get every minute. This is not a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means we can focus on deeper stuff, on commentaries and analyses that help you make sense of the news, not to mention the world we live in.

Fourth, there’s so much more to life than current events. It’s a common technique among columnists to quote current events in the opening paragraph to grab your attention. I do it often. It’s a way of showing immediate relevance by dealing with “what’s happening in the world.”

Of course, the Journal will never stop running columns that deal with topical events. But here’s a confession: Very often, my favorite columns are precisely those that do not deal with the latest news. These are the columns that convey timeless ideas that are relevant on any day or week… or century.

Politics today colors so much of our culture we can easily lose sight of how beautiful and pure culture can be. I love art, poetry, literature, music, film and human stories that have nothing to do with the state of the world. Their innate beauty is what makes them relevant.

Fifth, yes, crisis sells, which is one reason Judaism is always in a state of crisis. Everyone knows it’s a lot easier to raise money when you convey a state of crisis. At a time when it’s more and more difficult to get people’s attention, there’s nothing like a good crisis to shake people up.

In media, crises help attract more readers. It’s a known fact that you can boost your online views just by putting up words like “anti-Semitism” in your headlines. This is human nature. We are attracted to conflict. All good entertainment revolves around drama and conflict.

I can’t help being aware of this when I make editorial decisions. If there’s a story, for instance, about a swastika sprayed on a synagogue, it’s deadly serious and there is no hesitation to publish it. But there’s also that little voice inside me that whispers: “The readers will eat this one up.”

One of our biggest challenges at the Journal is to earn your attention without the easy tricks of crises, conflicts and disasters. How do we get you hooked on an idea that elevates the spirit, on a poem that makes you dream, on a biblical story that takes you back 3,000 years?

How does an abstract poem compete with the drama of a terror attack? Or a neighborhood story with the prospect of a presidential impeachment? Or an inspiring view of Hanukkah with the latest sex scandal?

They don’t. They can’t. The drama of conflict will always win out. Yes, it’s human nature.

But at its best and deepest, Judaism helps us transcend human nature. We go beyond our immediate appetites. We read the Hanukkah fable, or the dreamy poem, or the neighborhood story, even though they’re not as sexy as the latest political scandal. This content nourishes our minds, but also our souls: We enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake, story for story’s sake, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, wisdom for wisdom’s sake.

In a sense, I am conveying a militant message. I want us to fight back against the insidious and sensationalistic “breaking news” cycle that corrodes our conversations. I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

Those are my wishes for our community, but they are also my wishes for the paper you are reading.

See you in 2018.

The Torah and tachlis of violence with firearms: ethics and evidence

WARNING: This is serious stuff. Human life is at stake. If you are looking for confirmation of preconceived narratives, stop. You probably will not find that here. If you are looking for solutions in slogan form or less than 750 words, stop. You surely will not find that here. We will go ten times farther than that. And this is not a discussion about some utopian ideal. It concerns the world in which we actually live, with the government and law we have and human nature as it is. If you will not deal with reality or ambiguity, stop. You will be annoyed here. If you are not interested in facts that define a problem or evidence that may offer a solution, again, please stop. Otherwise you will be disappointed and unhappy. If anyone is left, thanks in advance for considering this essay.     

These days in the United States we see and hear much violence associated with firearms. Sometime it erupts in a mass shooting at a college or an elementary school, a church or a Jewish Community Center, a nightclub or, as it did most recently, an outdoor concert.  Sometimes it comes with the steady staccato of an attack by one gang banger attempting to snuff out another. Sometimes it comes by way of a single bullet, the shooter and the shot being the same person. However it manifests itself, the sadness that follows is palpable.  Our hearts are broken at the loss of life, of what might have been, of possibilities foreclosed permanently. And we are angry, too – angry at the perpetrator and angry about the conditions that permitted if not caused a person to become so hateful or so self-righteous or so desirous of notoriety or so callous or so full of despair that s/he acted to take a human life.

When such violence strikes, to the extent its senses and sensibilities have not been numbed, the Jewish community here has not been shy.  With sermons and articles and resolutions and more, it has spoken — loudly, passionately and repeatedly. But it has not spoken uniformly, much less always wisely.  There is in the Jewish community, as there is in the nation as a whole, a variety of viewpoints. The question before us is whether our tradition can offer both Torah and tachlis, that is both instruction grounded in Jewish values and ideas that are also practical and productive.

To answer that question, we first need to understand the nature and extent of violence involving firearms in America today. That is, before moving forward, we need to take a step back. We need some perspective. We need context. We need to look at the grim statistics and break them down. And in the course of the inquiry, we need to be mindful that there are statistics and then there are statistics. We will try to keep cherry-picking to a minimum. After that, we can consider the spectrum of Jewish ethical values and see how, if at all, they could inform a productive approach to the challenges presented by violence with firearms.

The Nature and Extent of Violence Involving Firearms in the United States

We begin with some basic numbers. In recent years in the United States, the annual number of deaths associated with firearms, whether guns, rifles or other such devices, has approximated 33,000. That averages to more than 90 a day. The human toll more than doubles if one includes the physically wounded. And related adverse psychological effects further exacerbate the problem.

But there is always a danger when one looks at large amounts of data like these numbers. They both reveal and conceal important information. How can we understand these numbers?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2015 just over 2,700,000 resident individuals died in the United States. By far, the leading causes of death were heart disease and malignant neoplasms (cancerous tumors), followed by chronic lower respiratory diseases. Those three natural causes accounted for just over half of the reported deaths. Of the top ten causes of death, two were not diseases. Unintentional injuries (accidents) and self-inflicted harm (suicide) ranked respectively as the fourth and tenth leading cause of death that year. Almost half of all suicides involved firearms.

Even including suicides, though, death involving firearms would not be ranked in the top ten or even top fifteen causes of death in America.  For instance, in 2015 there were fewer deaths involving firearms than deaths attributed to kidney disease, septicemia and pneumonitis, but deaths by those causes rarely get the headlines that firearm deaths do. Deaths involving motor vehicles, averaging 103 per day in 2015, are about three times more common than firearm related homicides, yet do not generate similar national or even local pressure for additional regulation.

There is a plausible explanation, of course. In the normal course, one expects to die of something, which, if not an accident, most likely will be one of the dozen or so diseases which are the leading causes of death. These diseases, in turn, can and often are diagnosed and managed, so preparations can be made. In the normal course, one does not expect to shot. And we cannot really prepare for such an event. It tends to come suddenly, literally explosively. We are saddened by Alzheimer’s disease, now the sixth leading cause of death. We are shocked by violence coming out of a barrel of a gun or rifle.

When we focus solely on deaths associated with firearms, now looking at final numbers for 2014, we see that more than three out of five such deaths (21,386) were due to suicide, that is, they were intentional and self-inflicted. About one-third of firearm related deaths that year (11,008) were the result of homicides, either murder or manslaughter. As bad as that was, it was also much lower than in 1993 when firearm related homicides peaked at 17,075.

Some types of activities are more likely than others to involve firearm related deaths: gang activity, commission of a felony and domestic disputes, including arguments and romantic triangles.  Aside from these categories, some homicides involving firearms in 2014 were the result of legal intervention (464), others were unintentional (461) and a smaller number were undetermined (275).  (See Deaths: Final Data for 2014 (at 12/122).) For the period 2001-2013, the number of individuals killed or wounded in mass shooting incidents has typically been less than 20 per year, with several notable exceptions, but, of course, that could change. Whether recent events indicate a new trend remains to be seen.

Further, while mass shootings and high-powered rifles garner the attention of the press, the public and the politicians, in those homicides for which the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) has received weapons data, the weapon involved two-thirds of all homicides was a handgun.  (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Data Table 15.) Moreover, in the half of cases where the relationship offender and victim was known, about 60% of the time the offender was killed by a friend or acquaintance and 26% of the time the killer was a family member. (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Table 10.)

The nature of the incidents involving firearm deaths and those involved may help us focus on possible approaches to reducing them, but, again, we still we need to be careful about the numbers we have. For instance, restricting the analysis to homicides involving firearms, the numbers translated to about 33 per day, every day, in the United States in 2014. This average daily number of deaths is horrific. It is also quite misleading. The frequency and distribution of such incidents varies widely depending on a few key factors like location, gender, age, and race. Even the time of year or the day of the week can be important.

Where does violence with firearms occur?

No geographic area is immune from the scourge of homicides, but the death rate in 2014 attributable to firearms was highest in the states of Alaska and Louisiana and the lowest in the nation in Hawaii and Rhode Island. It was slightly better than average in Illinois and Maryland, but tell that to the citizens of Chicago and Baltimore.

We can narrow our focus to large urban areas, like Chicago, but the complexity of the problem does not diminish. In the last few years, Chicago has sustained more firearm related deaths than any other community in the country: 415 in 2014, 473 in 2015 and 762 in 2016. The last number was greater than the number of homicides in New York City and Los Angeles combined. On average this means that the evening news in Chicago reported no less than a homicide a day, every day, and sometimes more, but summers are typically worse than winters, and weekends and holidays are generally worse than mid-week. During the July 4, 2017 extended holiday weekend, 102 individuals were shot and 15 died.

These numbers, though, mask the potentially crucial fact that the homicide rate in some neighborhoods in Chicago is drastically different than that in other neighborhoods. Many areas are free of firearm related violent crime, but others approach and may even exceed the homicide rate in third-world countries. (See here.) And Chicago is not unique. Mass shootings aside, homicides with guns tend to be spatially clustered to a limited number of “hot spots.”  (See here.)

Similarly, while the body count is high, Chicago does not have the worst homicide rate in the United States when deaths per 100,000 citizens are calculated. In fact, in 2016, it ranked no higher than eighth on one dishonorable list of community dysfunction.  Taking a slightly longer term view over a five year period, Chicago ranks twelfth, behind Detroit, St. Louis, New Orleans and Baltimore and others. The homicide rates in those four named cities are twice that of Chicago over the five year period. (See here.)

By contrast, Newtown, Connecticut is a small, picturesque, financially comfortable New England town. But for one incident, neither its firearm homicide numbers nor its rate or ranking would be noticeable. Yet, on December 14, 2012 in less than five minutes, one individual armed with a Bushmaster .223 caliber model  XM15 semi-automatic rifle loaded with exploding hollow point rounds shot 154 bullets into Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing six adults and twenty children and physically wounding and psychologically scarring untold others.

When considering who resorts to homicide with firearms, geography matters, but so does gender, race and age. According to FBI statistics for 2015, where the gender of the offender was known, nine out of ten times the killer was a male. Where race was known, about 53% of the offenders were Black or African American and 44% White.  (See FBI 2015 Expanded Homicide Data Table 3.) Where age was known, the greatest number of offenders was found in the 20-24 year old cohort, followed by the 25-29 year old bracket.  (Ibid.)

Who are the victims of the use of firearms?

Not surprisingly, the composition of the victims of homicidal violence tends to parallel that of the perpetrators. That is, according to the FBI, the victims are overwhelmingly male, they are young, and there are more likely to be Black than White. (See here.) Where the relationship between offender and victim is known, as noted above, the data is clear: offenders are more likely to kill friends, acquaintances and family members than strangers. (See here.) In other words, they tend to kill victims who resemble themselves.

A report in the July, 2017 issue of Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (the “Pediatrics Report”) confirms that the pattern observed by the FBI reaches deep down to affect our nation’s children. There is an enormous gap between boys and girls as victims. Whether the issue is death or injury, boys are involved in just over four of five incidents and girls in just under one in five. Similarly, there are significant differences in the rates of mortality between racial or ethnic groups. With respect to homicides involving firearms, the annual mortality rate for African American children was twice that of American Indian children, four times the rate for Hispanic children and about ten times the rate for White and Asian American children. Interestingly enough, the situation is different with respect to suicides. White and American Indian children have the highest rates of suicide involving firearms, rates four times higher than that of African American children and Hispanic children, and five times the rate for Asian American children.  (See generally, Pediatrics Report, at 4/14.)

The economic cost of violence with firearms

Researchers at John Hopkins University have estimated the cost of emergency department care for such violence at $2.8 billion dollars annually. If you think that number sounds high, consider another estimate from an investigator at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation: $8 billion dollars in direct costs and another $221 billion in indirect costs. Putting issues of definitions and methodology aside, needless to say, the economic cost of firearm violence is substantial.

How many guns are there in the United States?

While violence involving firearms has a disparate impact in different neighborhoods and among different groups of people, the fact remains that a common denominator in all of this carnage is a firearm. Given the clear and devastating consequences of violence associated with firearms, some would like to ban or restrict their use, either by regulating the weapons themselves or the ammunition used. The National Rifle Association (NRA”), the largest promoter of firearms in the nation, opposes virtually all such regulation, with the succinct slogan “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

Though gun control advocates don’t like to acknowledge it, the NRA’s argument is largely true, but it is also incomplete and somewhat irrelevant (except in a not-to-be-underestimated political context). That is, the argument is accurate to the extent that firearms, by themselves and unloaded, are inert objects which cannot cause any more harm than any other solid object like a hammer. If you want to be serious about addressing violence with firearms, you have to recognize the reality that relatively few firearms are ever used to commit violence.

The point is underscored by looking at the number of firearms and firearm owners in the United States. We don’t have precise figures, but we have what appear to be good estimates of both. The population of the United States is now around 325 million people. According to a 2015 report by NORC, a nonpartisan research organization at the University of Chicago, while household gun ownership has declined in recent decades, almost one-third of all households report owning one or more weapons. This is consistent with numbers provided by the also nonpartisan Pew Research Center (“Pew”) in its 2017 study, America’s Complex Relationship with Guns. If there are individuals who would not self-report possession of a firearm, the fraction of homes with weapons may approach or even exceed two-fifths.

Whatever the actual number of households with firearms, and wherever they are located, on average each such household appears to possess more than one firearm. After all, there are firearms and then there are firearms. Someone may use a small pistol for target practice, a rifle for small game, another weapon for home defense. Unfortunately, there is no precise record of the number of firearms held by civilians in the United States, but data from the number of firearms manufactured, imported and exported suggest that the number of civilian guns in the United States passed the population of the country back in 2008. And the number of firearms manufactured in the United States, including guns, rifles, shotguns and other weapons, has exceeded 8,000,000 in recent years. (See ATF Annual Firearms Manufacturers and Export Report.) Even eliminating the highest estimates, there are probably in excess of 350,000,000 firearms in civilian hands in the United States today.

Who owns and possesses all of these firearms?

As one might expect, there are demographic differences in household firearms ownership. NORC found household firearms ownership was greatest in the East South Central region and smallest in the Pacific region and Northeast regions. Ownership was concentrated in rural areas and highest in counties with no town over 10,000. It was also more than twice as likely among households with income over $90,000 than with income below $25,000. More than twice as many white respondents acknowledged owning firearms than did African-American respondents or Hispanics.

To a degree then, the data we have on firearms possessed by resident of the United States can be read to support a key contention of the NRA. If we compare the number of deaths associated with firearms with the number of available firearms, the result is an exceedingly small percentage, less than two-tenths of one percent. This will be of absolutely no comfort to anyone who has lost a family member or friend due to violence, but it demonstrates the difficulty of dealing with the violence problem as a gun problem because it suggests strongly that 99.98% of all firearms in the United States are not being used irresponsibly.

The NRA’s argument is incomplete and somewhat irrelevant, though, because, when loaded, and when used intentionally for one of the purposes for which they were manufactured and sold, or used recklessly or simply used negligently, firearms can pack not just a powerful punch, but a lethal one. And that punch literally can extend well beyond the natural reach of the individual trying to harm another person. So, a firearm is different qualitatively than a knife or some other kind of weapon. And the difference in the nature of the device is why we don’t see drive-by knife attacks or mass murders committed with a bow and arrows. Even with respect to suicides, where suffocation or poison is often used, the method of choice seems to be a firearm.

Why have a firearm?

The reason people want to have guns and rifles is, according to Pew, multifaceted. Many, especially those who live in comfortable urban and suburban surroundings, do not understand a perceived need for, much less the attraction of, guns and rifles. But others do. The primary reason offered is usually for protection. For example, from 2014 to 2017, the greatest increase in applications for concealed-carry gun permits in Chicago came from Black women, often living in the more dangerous parts of the city. Whether their decision is wise may well be disputed, but none of the studies that contend that guns offer no protection or do not deter crime are, for obvious reasons, classic double blind or repeatable experiments, and the evidence that is presented is more suggestive than definitive. Academicians can correlate all they want, but does anyone not understand what motivates these women? Similarly, rural residents, living in isolated areas, may also look to firearms for protection.

Then there are those who just like to hunt and eat game animals or shoot at targets or just collect firearms or have a keepsake inherited from an ancestor. Still others want to have firearms because they can. That is, they have a legal right and want to exercise it. For them, firearms are a matter of freedom and independence. One man explained his collection of guns by analogizing them to shoes. Apparently he could not have enough of either.  Who knew?

Jewish Ethical Considerations

In response to the carnage associated with firearms, the Jewish community has done what it always has done when faced with a social issue – it has reached back for instruction, primarily to its foundational texts. The concern is clear, but can lessons forged in ancient hills of Judah and refined in living rooms in Babylon and, later, small communities in Europe have any applicability to the vastly different American society of the present? Let’s look at some of approaches that have been advanced.

The sanctity of life argument

Respect for life has many and deep roots in the Jewish tradition. The argument begins with two propositions asserted in the Torah and a third from the Talmud. The first, part of the Eden story found in Genesis, is that each person is made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. (Gen. 1:27.)The second, from the Ten Commandments, is the injunction “You shall not murder.” (Ex. 20:13.) The sages recorded in the Talmud add the third, saying, with a bit of poetic hyperbole: “Anyone who takes a life it is as though he has destroyed the universe and anyone who saves a life it is as though he has saved the universe.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.)

Based largely on these propositions, as far back as 1975, the Reform movement called for the elimination of “the manufacture, importation, advertising, sale, transfer and possession of handguns, except in limited instances.” And, over the intervening years, the movement, through one or more of its arms, including the Religious Action Center (“RAC”), has been a consistent supporter of a wide variety of gun control measures.

As its name suggests, though, RAC is biased in favor of action and somewhat less focused on considered analysis or persuasion. For example, in a gun control statement which (as of  this writing)appears on its website, RAC notes the Jewish tradition favoring life and adds references to the prophet Isaiah’s dream that we should beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks (Is. 2:4) and reflections in the Talmud about a flaming sword held by Cherubim at the east of the Garden of Eden where Gehenna was created.

Unfortunately, these sentiments do not seriously address the problem. In fact, RAC simultaneously fails to present an honest and comprehensive view of the Jewish approach to violence and weapons, thereby leaving its credibility open to challenge, and resorts to language that is tone deaf and quite unlikely to have any effect on people who actually own, possess and utilize firearms.

For instance, RAC fails to address the numerous places in the Torah, and later in the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, where life was disrespected and the murder of individuals, groups and nations was either required or rewarded. Cain, having committed the first murder (that of his brother!), was physically marked, but founded a city and begat many descendants. (See Gen. 4:8, 15, 17-22.) Pinchas slew an Israelite man and his Midianite woman, but later was elevated to the position of High Priest. (See Num. 25:8, Judges 2:28.) Though hitting a rock twice was enough to keep Moses himself out of the Promised Land, striking an Egyptian overlord until he died resulted in no punishment at all. (See Ex. 2:11, Num. 20:8-12.)

Moreover, RAC apparently fails to recognize that we are neither in a mythical Garden of Eden nor at the end of days about of which Isaiah was speaking.  Does RAC seriously think that a member of the notorious MS-13, Bloods or Mongols gangs or even a peaceful rural citizen in the Bible Belt, many of whom possess and use firearms, cares one whit about what some rabbi said two thousand years ago about winged beings near a valley where children were sacrificed or even a prophet’s messianic musings?

Another Jewish anti-firearm group takes a similar tack. It calls itself Rabbis Against Gun Violence, as if there are any rabbis for gun violence. This organization begins and essentially ends the Jewish underpinnings of its position with the famous phrase found at the end of Deuteronomy and read on the holiest of holy days, Yom Kippur: “Choose life.” (Deut. 30:19.) The problem here is that the phrase is taken out of context and is an incomplete, simplistic and, therefore, misleading invocation.

The authors of Deuteronomy were not talking about life in its physical sense, that is, the beating of a heart, the inhaling and exhaling of breath or the firing of synapses. They were talking about a large collection of rules and regulations which would if followed, they said, bring the blessing of a worthwhile life to each and all on land deemed promised by their god. (See Deut.  26:16-28:69.) They were making a political plea, not a medical or even an ethical one.

The shame of weapons argument

Orthodox Rabbi Ari Hart has offered a more creative approach. He notes that there is a view in the Talmud that sees weapons carried on Shabbat as shameful. (Shabbat 6:4.) He uses this concept as a basis for building a case for gun control. Rabbi Hart is correct in his reference, but looking at the discussion as a whole, the rabbis involved seem more concerned with the sanctity of the Sabbath than any particular device used in violating that sanctity.

In any event, the noted 13th century Spanish commentator Nachmanides had a sharply different view. He wrote about Lamech, who is mentioned in early in the Torah as a great-great-great grandson of the murderer Cain.  (Gen. 4:18; see here at 6/7.) In Nachmanides’ telling, Lamech taught his son Tubal-Cain the art of metal working. Nachmanides then imagines Lamech’s wives being worried that he, Lamech, would be punished by God for helping produce swords and, thus, facilitating murder. Anticipating a now familiar argument, Nachmanides tells us that Lamech comforted his wives by observing that the sword would not be the agent of death, rather the person who chose to wield the weapon would be. Apparently Nachmanides was a card carrying member of the Local Sword Association, the motto of which was “Swords don’t kill people, people kill people.”

The right of self-defense argument

There is yet one more argument that RAC and others who seek to ban or heavily regulate firearms tend to ignore. The Torah expressly exonerates a person who kills a pursuer who had an intent to kill him. (Ex. 22.1.) In twelfth century Spain, Maimonides, perhaps the greatest pre-modern Jewish philosopher, went further and argued that if a pursuer is warned not to proceed and continues his pursuit there is an obligation to kill the pursuer.  (See Hilkhot Rotze’ah U’shmirat Nefesh, 1:6-7.) That is, he acknowledged a right of self-defense and self-preservation. And, to his credit, so does Rabbi Hart.

There is even a passage in the Talmud that goes further still. Threatened by a whistleblower who was about to disclose that a rabbi had slandered a local official, the rabbi characterized the man as a pursuer and killed him first. (See B’rakhot 58a; see also Sanhedrin 72a-b.)

The danger of disarmament argument

Where might the thinking of Maimonides and Nachmanides lead? You can find out on a website called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (“JPFO”). JPFO was founded almost 30 years ago with the stated purpose of educating Jewish Americans about what it says are the “historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.”

JPFO is not the most coherent website online. But if you can manage to wade through it, you can find at least two rationales for its mission. First, highlighting biblical episodes RAC and others fail to address, JPFO notes incidents, including one set at the time of the Judge and Prophet Deborah and one at the time of King Saul. In both cases, the people of Israel were facing disaster at least in part because they were unarmed.  (See Judges 5:7-8, Sam. 13:19.) In both cases, and with identical language, the Hebrew Bible stresses that there was neither a sword nor a spear among the entire population. And JPFO argues that today, in contrast to biblical times, the Jewish people cannot rely on a miracle to defend themselves.

Second, JPFO offers a list of situations, mostly in the twentieth century, in which a variety of nations have enacted strict gun control laws of various kinds and then targeted for elimination disfavored groups such as political opponents and ethnic minorities. Think Ottoman Turkey and Armenians, Nazi Germany and Jews and gypsies, Uganda and Christians, Rwanda and Tutsis.

Now, you may believe that such consequences could not happen here and that JPFO is paranoid, and you may be right. The narrative that Jews with firearms could have stopped the Third Reich, when better armed people from France to Russia could not, has been debunked by those with at least as strong a sense of history (and armaments) as JPFO, including Jewish defense organizations. The Anti-Defamation League (“ADL”), for instance, even argues that the Holocaust has no place in the domestic gun debate. Still, based on the ADL’s own analysis, anyone who in the last year has not observed an increase in hateful incidents in the United States, including Anti-Semitic ones, and a darker, more brazen tone to them as well, has either not been paying attention or is in denial.

None of this is intended to suggest an equivalency between RAC and JPFO as organizations, much less between a maximalist and minimalist orientation toward the control of firearms. Rather, it is to recognize that with respect to weapons of violence, and over more than 2,500 years, Jewish communities have generated a considerable variety of views and precedents regarding the sanctity of life and the propriety or obligation of self-defense. To deny that truth is neither intellectually honest, nor likely to be productive in resolving the similar tensions in the broader American discussion.

The concern for the safety of persons, places and things argument

And the Jewish ethical tradition has even more to say, especially about safety. Here are just two examples.

First, the Torah contains three closely related commandments. One, found in the Holiness Code, prohibits placing a “stumbling block” in front of the blind. (Lev. 19:14.) Another affirmatively requires building a parapet around the roof of a house lest someone fall and spill blood. (Deut. 22:8.) A third says summarily, “You shall guard and protect your lives.” (Deut. 4:9.) Each maxim seeks to keep a person from harm either because he or she cannot see or anticipate a dangerous condition or because the circumstances are inherently dangerous.

Note, though, how these principles can support both opponents as well as proponents of gun control laws. For instance, some would argue that readily accessible guns constitute a stumbling block, while others would suggest that restricting access to weapons impedes their ability to protect themselves. Some would argue that guarding yourself requires possession of a weapon, while others would contend that it means eliminating or securing them.

Similarly, the Talmud reports an argument about a dangerous dog. The majority view sought to prohibit the ownership of a mean or dangerous dog or at least require that anyone who had such a dog remove the risk of danger. (See Bava Kamma 15b, 46a.) Jewish gun control advocates naturally view this as a precedent for banning possession of a firearm or, minimally, requiring that weapons be securely locked and stored. As you may have guessed by now, the rabbis involved in this discussion also recognized exceptions to the general rule.  For example, they allowed those living in dangerous towns to unchain their dogs at night for protection. In sum, and continuing with a weapons metaphor, general safety principles can be used both as a sword and a shield.

Applying Jewish Ethical Guidelines to Today’s Reality

Applying the Jewish ethical principles honestly and productively to the dilemma of violence associated with firearms in the United States is both difficult and frustrating. First, as we have seen, an authentic Jewish ethical approach to the ownership, possession and use of weapons is neither simple nor uniform. Instead, it is complex and nuanced. As Chabad Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe has noted, correctly and wisely, the Torah merely required the placement of parapets around the roof of a house. It did not prohibit flat roofs. Second, the violence that is sought to be quelled manifests itself in so many ways that a plausible solution for one aspect would do nothing to alleviate the harm that arises in another setting. There will have to be many solutions for the varieties of violence we face. For both these reasons, those who insist on applying Biblical bumper stickers instead of urging reason and responsibility are not being as helpful as they could be.  We need fewer references to myths and messianism, and more emphasis on reality based ethics and evidence based solutions.

The discussion is also complicated by two other factors, one legal and the other practical. First, any effort to address violence associated with firearms in America must do so within the context of the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), the United States Supreme Court ruled that individuals have a right under the Second Amendment to possess guns in their home for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense. Consequently, it held D.C.’s ban on handguns and certain restrictions on the possession of rifles to be unconstitutional. Subsequently, the ruling in Heller was made applicable to state and local governments in McDonald v. City of Chicago, 561 U.S. 742 (2010).

At the same time, writing for the majority in Heller, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, said that the Second Amendment right, like other constitutional rights, was “not unlimited.” More precisely, he acknowledged that the right historically was limited to those weapons “’in common use at the time,’” and consistent with “prohibiting the carrying of ‘dangerous and unusual weapons.’”  It was not, therefore, “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” (554 U.S. at 626.)  Justice Scalia then identified, without limitation, individuals such as felons and the mentally ill and “sensitive places” such as schools and government building as being proper subjects of restrictions. Similarly, he recognized that there might be appropriate laws “imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms” and on “the storage of firearms to prevent accidents.”  (See generally, 554 U.S. at 626-32.)

Invoking some of the language discussed above, RAC, among other organizations predictably condemned Heller as misguided,” but taken as a whole, Heller was not (and is not) inconsistent with the traditional Jewish view, also seen in its entirety. The principle of self-defense was affirmed, and reasonable restrictions on one or more points of the trajectory of violence associated with firearms were declared to be presumptively valid. Moreover, recent history suggests that concerns over Heller were misplaced. According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, over a thousand cases involving restrictions on firearms have been decided since Heller and the restrictions have been upheld in over 90% of them. The permissibility of placing reasonable parapets is, therefore, established.

The second complicating factor is more daunting. It requires determining what kind of regulation might be effective in reducing the likelihood or incidence of violence involving firearms. From the design and manufacture of the weapon itself, to its sale and distribution, to its ownership, possession and use, what works? And does what works in one setting work in others?

A recent case illustrates the problem, and gives reason for concern. Not long before the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas which generated deserved outrage and, also, predictable cries for gun control, in the case Duncan v. Becerra, U. S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez (S.D. Cal.) considered the constitutionality of a new California law which barred the possession by gun owners of high-capacity ammunition magazines, i.e., those holding more than ten rounds. According to the law’s proponents these magazines were not needed by civilians for defense or hunters for sport, but were used in mass shootings. Nevertheless, Judge Benitez issued an injunction against enforcement of the new law. The standards applied by Judge Benitez, and his legal reasoning, may or may not make sense to higher courts or legal scholars. (Compare, e.g., Kolbe v. Hogan, –F.3d – (4th Cir. 2017) (En banc, 10-4; petition for certiorari pending.) But his findings of fact offer instruction for everyone.

In the course of his 66 page opinion, Judge Benitez reviewed the facts of 92 mass shootings in the United States and the testimony of numerous proffered experts to try to determine if the new law would have made any real difference in the outcomes of those situations. He found that it would not have made any or any substantial difference because magazines with over ten rounds were used in only 6 of the 92 cases considered, and half of those six involved already illegal acquisitions. Moreover, none of the state’s four experts provided persuasive, science based studies that showed the effectiveness of any ban on such magazines. One conceded that “robust supporting data is missing” and that “’available data and statistical models are unable to discern (any) effect.’” (Opinion, at 43/66.)

For those concerned with evidence as well as ethics, the absence of reliable research is a real problem and it extends beyond Judge Benitez’s courtroom. Last month, Leah Libresco, a former statistician and writer for FiveThirtyEight, created a social media stir when she wrote a short opinion piece for the Washington Post to the effect that research persuaded her that gun control was not the answer to the problem of violence with firearms.  More precisely, she said that certain popular proposals, including banning assault weapons, restricting silencers and reducing the size of magazines, are not likely to reduce violence where it frequently appears, with young gang members, abused partners and suicide victims.

The reaction to Libresco’s essay was swift. One headline on Vox blared: “The research is clear: gun control saves lives.” Yet, proving once again that text does not always follow where a headline leads, the author, German Lopez, concludes limply saying that “gun control does, at least to some extent, reduce gun deaths.” (At 8/12.) And that underwhelming conclusion was based on the results following a gun buyback program in Australia, not the United States. He then concedes that gun control cannot stop all violence, that other factors like poverty, urbanization and alcohol consumption play a role and that “we could always use more research into gun policy . . . .” (At 8-9/10.) Indeed.

Consider the individuals who are the source of much of the violence with firearms. Given the enormous gender disparity among homicide offenders who use firearms, “(a)ny account of gun violence in the United States, must,” as the American Psychological Association recognizes, “be able to explain both why males are the perpetrators of the vast majority of gun violence and why the vast majority of males never perpetrate gun violence.” The APA calls for the development of programs and settings “that aim to change gendered expectations for males that emphasize self-sufficiency, toughness, and violence, including gun violence.” That is, it wants more research. And if we are to be serious about addressing violence with firearms used by street gangs or directed toward female partners and friends, such research seems vital.

Similarly, more research concerning the intersection of mental illness and weapons with respect to both homicides and suicides seems necessary. Today, many assume that mental illness, however defined, is causally connected to or at least correlated with violence involving firearms, especially mass shootings. But, according to the APA, “most people suffering from a mental illness are not dangerous.” (Id.) Studies suggest that even people with diagnosable serious psychiatric disorders do not, absent a substance abuse disorder, present a likely risk of violent disorder. (See generally, “Mental illness and reduction of gun violence and suicide: bringing epidemiologic research to policy.” (At 10/20.) But perhaps more importantly, predicting who might engage in a violent act is “a very inexact science.” (Id. at 9/20.)

At the same time, federal and state laws respecting individuals who have been reported or adjudicated to have a mental illness are not consistent, comprehensive, coordinated or even well enforced. Consequently, more research is necessary to fill the gaps in our knowledge about the effectiveness of regulations which can reduce risks of harm to self and others, but neither reinforce stigmas about mental illness nor deter those who need it from seeking help. (See Id. at 13-14/20.)

Because Jewish tradition is pragmatic, it does not require us to research the best parapet when people are at risk of falling off a roof. Nor does it require us to save every life that is at risk. The oft quoted teaching of Rabbi Tarfon may well be applicable here: While you are not required to complete the task, neither may you desist from it. (Pirke Avot, 2:16.)

So, let’s recognize both the legal, but not absolute, right of citizens to keep and bear certain arms as established in Heller and its progeny and also the inherent and inalienable right of individuals and the public to life and the pursuit of happiness, marked at least by safety in their homes and in their normal movement in an open society, if not a risk free environment. Let’s also accept (1) that guns don’t kill, people do, (2) that when a person has access to a firearm the damage s/he can do with it can be lethal, and (3) when people kill with firearms, they do so sometimes maliciously, sometimes recklessly, sometimes negligently, sometimes under the influence of chemicals and sometimes due to internal disorders we may not fully understand. Let’s focus on human behavior and some potential means for increasing safety and reducing risk in those more common situations where acts of violence cluster. And, finally, let’s draw on the wisdom of a variety of social scientists, including among others, criminologists, behavioral economists, psychologists, psychiatrists, sociologists and epidemiologists, that is published in evidenced based studies at respectable institutions like the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Research and Policy, the Joyce Foundation Gun Violence Prevention Program and elsewhere as noted above.

When we do this, we might be able to develop a non-exhaustive list, like the one that follows, of reasonable parapets worth further discussion:

  • Each state should establish a firearms safety program designed to teach individuals how to use and store firearms in a safe and secure manner. The states should license those who successfully pass their safety exam for a limited period of time, subject to renewal.
  • No person should be able to purchase a firearm, or possess or use one, without having passed the established safety standard in his or her state.
  • No person under the age of sixteen should possess or use a firearm, except in the presence of an adult who would be responsible for the conduct of the minor.
  • Police and community intervention initiatives that provide positive and immediate alternatives to violence, and that “strengthen . . . impulse control, personal responsibility, and capacity for conflict resolution” should be instituted and expanded.  (See, e.g.,Combating Gun Violence in Illinois: Evidence-Based Solutions” and Boston TenPoint Coalition.)
  • No person who commits a felony, while in possession of a firearm, should be entitled to own, possess or use any firearm for a limited period of time subsequent to the completion of his/her sentence for such felony, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • No person convicted of more than one offense within a five year period of using a controlled substance or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs should, for a limited period of time, be entitled to own, possess or use a firearm, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • No person convicted of abuse or stalking, whether with respect to a spouse, dating partner, friend or otherwise, nor any person subject to a restraining order prohibiting harassment, threats or abuse, should, for a limited period of time, be entitled to own, possess or use a firearm, and should be required to turn over temporarily to local authorities any firearm in his/her possession.
  • Family members and intimate partners should be entitled to seek civil relief authorizing the temporary removal of firearms from a household based on a credible risk of harm to any person in that household.
  • Firearm owners should be required to report lost or stolen firearms. If any such person fails to do so and those firearms are used in crime, s/he should be held responsible.
  • Courts, agencies and other governmental bodies that may have information relevant to whether a person may be prohibited under federal law from purchasing a firearm should be provided such funds and personnel as are necessary and appropriate to transmit relevant records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (“NICS”).
  • Background checks should be required of every potential purchaser of a firearm prior to the sale of any firearm to that person, whether the sale is by a licensed dealer or private seller, and that information should be reported to a database in the state where the sale is contemplated and then transmitted to NICS or such other database as may be established.

A few final words

Language drives a discussion in complex ways. When there is a multi-vehicle incident which results in deaths and injuries, we do not characterize the event as “car violence” and we do not talk about “car control.” So why do we call violence with firearms “gun violence” and instinctively seek “gun control”? And more importantly, do those characterizations cause us to focus attention on an object instead of the behavior that activates the object or, further, the root causes of that behavior? Do they also and unnecessarily antagonize many individuals who might otherwise be willing to work to reduce violence associated with firearms?

The Jewish tradition, developed over an extended period of time in many settings, is fundamentally rooted in the reality of human nature and experience.  It is, consequently, sensitive to core desires for both safety and security. And, so, its insights, including its recognition of the tensions inherent in communal life, can be helpful in our deliberations. Significantly, when addressing relationships between individuals or between one individual and the larger society, Judaism does not call on us to act self-righteously or make a show of utopian virtue. Rather, it seeks practical solutions to often complex problems. Why don’t we all try that? Less preaching, less posturing. More listening, more learning. Less demonizing, more dialog. Who knows, maybe together we can act constructively and productively to make the world a little better tomorrow than we have it today.


A version of this essay was previously published at www.judaismandscience.com.

Rabbi Neil Gillman, Theologian and Teacher

Screenshot from Twitter.

Two generations of students at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) are mourning the passing on Nov. 24 of a challenging and beloved teacher, Rabbi Neil Gillman.

Beginning with his arrival from Montreal in the mid-1950s, Gillman was a commanding presence in the seminary community for over half a century. He was ordained by JTS in 1960 and earned his doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University in 1975.

He served as dean of the JTS Rabbinical School in the 1970s, during a period of transition when JTS debated women’s ordination, which it initiated in 1985. He was an early advocate for egalitarianism, and continued to teach and model an inclusive vision of Jewish thought and practice throughout his life.

Gillman also was a historian of JTS and Conservative Judaism, publishing a volume on the topic in 1993 and working with a committee to articulate the philosophy of Conservative Judaism in the 1988 volume “Emet V’Emunah.” He also wrote several volumes on how to define and justify belief in God through radical questions and sound philosophical considerations. His 1997 book, “The Death of Death,” examined Jewish beliefs about life after death.

You did not have to be an academic to understand his books. Gillman was forever the teacher in his writing, explaining difficult concepts in clear, down-to-earth language.

Gillman’s students will remember him most for the way he challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs and practices and to create a Jewish theology of their own. They didn’t mind when he pointed out weaknesses in the way they were thinking because they knew that he cared deeply for them.

They also will remember lovingly the shock that Gillman evinced when a student said something that he found questionable or downright wrong — and how he would then prod the student into defending his or her particular belief rather than abandoning it. Gillman single-handedly transformed the education of future rabbis, educators and lay leaders from a passive study of other people’s thought into an exciting and significant struggle with one’s own. He did so with warmth, humor, wide erudition, analytic precision and genuine concern for his students.

I first met Neil Gillman at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he taught me how to chant Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, when I was 13. A year later, his wife, Sarah, taught me the first midrashic texts that I had ever seen.

Gillman later played a critical role in my life, persuading me to accept a fellowship and study for a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia while I was in rabbinical school at JTS.

He challenged them to think deeply about Jewish beliefs.

Subsequently, because we shared a deep love of both Judaism and of the philosophical questions that could either undermine it entirely or strengthen it significantly, we became frequent intellectual sparring partners, and I shall miss that immensely. One example: When I was working on the second edition of my book “Conservative Judaism: Our Ancestors to Our Descendants,” he and I spent many long-distance phone calls debating Abraham Joshua Heschel’s theology of revelation. As a result, I changed the way I categorized Heschel’s approach in the book — although, to this day, I’m not sure that Gillman was right about that!

We both wrote books on religious epistemology — the question of how we can know that our religious beliefs are true. Mine emerged directly from the world of analytic philosophy, while his included the insights of scholars of religious anthropology. It is through him that all of his readers, including me, learned to appreciate the role of religious stories (“myths”) and ritual practices in shaping what one believes and trusts.

We loved critiquing each other’s work, often with playful expressions of surprise that the other person could say or write such a thing.

We all will make Rabbi Gillman’s memory a blessing if we follow his lead in so deeply caring for one another and for our Jewish heritage that we are not afraid to question both, thus making our relationships and our Judaism truly matters of all our heart, all our soul and all our might.


Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff is rector and Sol & Anne Dorff Distinguished Service Professor in Philosophy at American Jewish University.

Q&A with Richard Lewis On His Favorite Subject: Richard Lewis

Photo by Sonya Sones

Nowadays, comedian Richard Lewis isn’t the self-loathing comedian he always was. He’s married, sober, owns a rescue dog and he’s in his ninth season starring alongside his friend Larry David on the hit HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

But when the 70-year-old performs his first local stand-up show in five years on Dec. 9, audiences can expect nothing less than the self-centered comedy he is known for. Lewis recently discussed his upcoming performance at the Roxy Theatre, being Jewish and David’s controversial “Saturday Night Live” monologue.

Jewish Journal: What can people expect from your upcoming show?

Richard Lewis: This is not about the news, the 24-7 news cycle. This is all about Richard Lewis and my issues and my dysfunctions. Forget about your problems, the world. This is all about Richard. It will be all about me so they can get out of their heads. I know it sounds grandiose, but that’s what I do, and that’s what they should expect. They should check their problems at the door. No televisions, no news. It’s all about my life, and they can just take a break and say, “Whoa, this poor bastard.”

JJ: How has comedy changed over the years?

RL: The only thing I can say emphatically is that back in the early ’70s, when I started, there were so few of us. Most of us were hell-bent on working on our craft, just for stand-up. We were just so focused. We lived and breathed it 24-7. I know many comedians have done that since then, but back then we weren’t thinking of any careers other than doing this. We wanted to be killer onstage. I think with all the platforms and venues today, people have gone onstage not totally immersed in stand-up, but hoping to be seen for other things — in particular, acting jobs.

JJ: What advice would you give to younger comedians?

RL: I always tell young artists, no matter what they are doing, there is no looking back if you want to make a living in the arts. Just keeping working on your craft and hope for a lucky break. I have a feeling that, now, younger comedians are too anxious to get a big break when they haven’t focused entirely on their craft.

“I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head.”

JJ: What did you make of the criticism of Larry David’s “Saturday Night Live” monologue when he joked about finding dates in a concentration camp?

RL: I was in a funny mood until you brought up the Holocaust. I’m observing both sides. I know both sides of the issue. He’s a courageous comedian. He can’t be judged over a 20-second riff about dating, using a Holocaust reference. I can’t imagine he didn’t think for a second it might offend people. He’s a provocative, edgy comic — he has been that way since Day One onstage. He will not change his stripes for his freedom to express himself. [But] I’m not giving him the pass. He’s an ethical guy and wonderful man and he’s done so much for so many people, and he’s a Jew and I love him. But I understand what people are saying. People get offended by much less provocative statements.

JJ: What was your reaction to the allegations against Louis CK and other people in show business accused of sexual assault?

RL: I’m heartbroken for the victims, not just because it is a thing to say. I was really disturbed. I had no idea about this. And the people who have recently come out, I was never friends with them, I never hung out with them. I’m tremendously disappointed. That said, it’s the teeny weeniest tip of the iceberg … on TV it’s about high-profile people, but it’s going on in factories, offices. I’m more focused on how those people can be heard.

JJ: What role does Judaism play in your life?

RL: I’m so Jewish. I’m Jewish from my toes to the remaining hairs on the back of my head. I’m not a deeply religious person, but I am spiritual. I feel Jewish when I wake up. I feel Jewish when I go to bed. I’m not an atheist. I love the story. I’m proud to be a Jew. I don’t feel I do enough as a practicing Jew, but as Mel  Brooks once said, and this is his line, “I don’t practice, I’m very good at it.” I reek of Judaism. And I feel blessed about it.

For more about Lewis’ performance at the Roxy visit theroxy.com.  

Spiritual, Not Religious

Photo from Good Free Photos.

On a family trip to Mexico City last week, we decided to spend Shabbat doing one of the most unrestful activities I can think of — we hiked up a pyramid.

There is absolutely nothing Jewish about the Teotihuacan pyramids, although they once functioned as a kind of religious site, built in honor of sun and moon, and were used over the millennia for various unseemly rituals, including human sacrifice. The Aztecs stumbled upon the pyramids built by an unknown ancient civilization and named them Teotihuacan, meaning “birthplace of the gods.”

Between the polytheism and the barbarism, it was an unconventional choice for the Sabbath. Go figure, then, that we bumped into a group of yogis from Los Angeles who turned our secular exercise into a spiritual imperative.

“It’s meant to be that we’re meeting you here today,” a woman with curly hair and an Australian accent exclaimed.

Spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal
satisfaction.

The yogis were in Mexico City for a public meditation “superclass” to be held the following morning, led by their African-born, L.A.-based guru, Joseph Michael Levry, founder of Naam Yoga in Santa Monica. Levry is an internationally known author, speaker and teacher who draws on various wisdom traditions — including kabbalah — to teach a mind-body healing practice. On Sunday, he was scheduled to lead his fifth superclass in Mexico City, in downtown’s Zócalo central square. Thousands were expected to attend.

“You have to come!” a blonde from Belarus said.

As they offered my father chewable hydration pills for the uphill climb, they extolled the virtues of Levry’s practice and how it heals ailments, decreases crime and manifests your dreams. Sensing my innate skepticism, one of them asked, “Are you a journalist?”

“I’m a Jew,” I said.

“So am I!” the Australian said. “I mean, I wasn’t born Jewish, but I am Jewish. I’m in love with Israel. Jerusalem is the most amazing, holy place I’ve ever been.”

Turns out, Levry took his disciples to Israel for a “Divine Spiritual Alchemy Retreat,” where they meditated at sunrise by the Dead Sea and chanted for peace at the Kotel.

Maybe this is bashert, I thought.

So I set my alarm for Sunday morning and rallied the troops for meditation con Los Mexicanos. If Levry’s superclass was really capable of supernal healing power, I had a lifetime of Jewish neuroses to drain from my system.

Here’s what I didn’t expect: 10,000 people gathered in one of the world’s largest and oldest public squares, waving their hands in the air chanting, “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh Adonai Tz’vaot M’lo Khol Ha’aretz K’vodo.”

Imagine if the Aztecs had met Joseph Michael Levry.

For the next hour, my family and I stood, sat, sang and laughed; we stretched, we danced, we chanted familiar words in dialects I’d never heard. Levry told a story about Moses, followed by a chant of “I am / I am / I am that I am.”

A few rows in front of me, a young woman wore a headscarf imprinted with shimmering Hebrew letters that glinted in the sunlight. It felt as if the universe had conspired to bring a group of American Jews to spiritual enlightenment via Mexican ruins and an African-born yoga master.

As beautiful as the moment was, though, I couldn’t shed my skepticism. The Jewish aspects only reinforced my worry that this experience might belong in the category of “spiritual, but not religious,” drawing wisdom from religious tradition while draining it of religious obligation.

Because while prayer and meditation can pry open our hearts and bring us into contact with the Divine, we make a mockery of spirituality if we spend our lives soothing our own souls and meditating on mountaintops. Jewish tradition tells us that the test of an enlightened spirit is not found in meditative bliss, but in contact with the world and other human beings.

Devotion to God can be beautiful, meaningful — even fun — but the religious life teaches us that the best way to love God is to demonstrate that love through moral action.

In a busy, crazy, tragic, broken world, it was inspiring and reassuring to see so many people engaged in the spiritual quest — the precursor to a better world. But spirituality ultimately fails in its aims if limited to personal satisfaction. Self-healing is not enough.

The religious life intentionally pairs spirituality and service, because without obligation, spiritual ecstasy is just an exercise in narcissism.


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

Why Judaism Matters

The following is excerpted from a speech delivered last month at the General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), held in Los Angeles.

When I had the privilege of addressing the GA last year, I asked three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does Israel matter? And why does treating one another with civility matter?

I was sharing my perspective on what I considered the most important issues affecting our community and affecting the work of our Federations.

I still believe these questions about Judaism, Israel and civility are the right questions that we should all be asking ourselves each and every day. And I believe the answer to these questions is: Yes, it all matters, and it matters more than ever.

And at the heart of that answer — as at the heart of everything we do — are the values of our tradition, reflected in our Torah: what is hateful to you, do not do to another; and use your time and your talents to repair a broken world as we help to finish the work that HaShem began.

Each of our communities has its own characteristics — but our mission really is the same.

And no part of our work is more important than connecting with young people — helping them discover why their tradition should matter to them. We have all seen the statistics on assimilation. But statistics do not tell us what we have learned from Birthright, PJ Library, Moishe House, Masa, Entwine and programs developed by Federations that successfully connect young adults to their Judaism.

These programs prove that assimilation is not the result of young people not caring. It is the result of their not knowing what Judaism is and how it can make their lives more meaningful.

It is our responsibility to reach out to them. If we inform them about their tradition, we actually find that they do care. We first need to meet them where they are, listen to their concerns, understand their interests and embrace them as part of our community. And once they understand that Judaism matters, they will better appreciate why Israel matters.

I, like many of you, am a baby boomer. We grew up knowing that there were neighborhoods where Jews were not welcome, clubs that would not accept Jews as members.

That is rarely the case today. We are far more accepted in the United States than ever before, but we also can never forget that we are a very small and very vulnerable people.

My generation grew up with a very vulnerable Israel whose very existence was constantly threatened. We will never forget the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

And I will never forget my first trip to Israel, in 1964 with my parents. My father, an immigrant from Latvia, got off the plane, touched the ground and, with tears in his eyes, loudly, proudly recited the Shehecheyanu. You see, Israel was the eternal dream of my father and my ancestors. It was the eternal dream of your fathers and your ancestors for over 1,800 years. And now, that dream had come true.

Our children and grandchildren have experienced none of this. We need to teach them about the traditions that they come from.

The State of Israel is only 70 years old, but it is at the center of who we are. It is a remarkable country.

For its entire 70 years, it has been under siege. As strong as it is today, this tiny country has over 100,000 rockets aimed at its cities by Hamas and Hezbollah, courtesy of Iran, all of which have sworn to destroy Israel.

Notwithstanding all of this, Israel remains a vibrant democracy where women, members of the LGBTQ community and minorities have protected rights. Its technological and scientific advances are improving and saving lives throughout the world. And every day its young soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] are putting their lives on the line to protect you and me.

Because of Israel, the Jewish people, in so many ways, are stronger and more secure than ever before.

Recently, the American Jewish community has found itself in a disagreement with Israel with respect to the Kotel, the Western Wall. In January 2016, after years of negotiations with the government of Israel — led by our dear friend and hero, Natan Sharansky — the government of Israel passed a resolution to create an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel — to be constructed and governed with oversight by a committee that was to include representatives of the Reform and Conservative streams and the Women of the Wall.

Then, last June, as a result of pressure from the religious parties that form part of the government coalition, the government of Israel froze this resolution.

There will still be an improved egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel. But the resolution is not being implemented as agreed to.

Of course, we have different views. That has been a source of our strength.

This is an important issue to many in our community, and I commit to you that JFNA, as your representative, will continue to fight for the vision of an Israel where all Jews can feel at home, no matter what synagogue they choose to pray at.

At the same time, our support and love for the State of Israel requires us to never walk away or turn our back on her — or give up on our desire to see Israel truly become the country we want and need it to be. But that will only happen with understanding and respect for the miracle that Israel is.

Let’s not forget that we are all descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah; Moses, Maimonides and Hillel; and Herzl, ben Gurion and Golda Meir.

Of course, we have different views. We always have. That has been a source of our strength. But we must respect that diversity and listen carefully to those different views as we unite around our values. Then we can continue to build the Jewish community our tradition demands, and stop delegitimizing and disrespecting those we disagree with, which only divides and destroys.

Kol yisrael arevim zeh-bazeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another.

Let each of us rethink why Judaism matters and why Israel matters as we together make today a new beginning and move our communities from where they are to where they ought to be.


Richard Sandler is chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.