7 Haiku for Parsha Mishpatim by Rick Lupert (Treat your donkeys well.)

The Torah says let
your slaves go after six years.
I say don’t own slaves.

Eye for eye, tooth for
tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
and so on and on.

Virgins. Animals.
So many rules on who you
can’t get jiggy with.

You don’t have to tell
me twice to help the donkey
of my enemy.

I wonder if the
gluten free worry about
the unleavened feast.

Anyone you meet
could be the one who was sent –
angel among us.

Up he goes to write
down all that has happened and
all that will happen.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Kosher Without Sacrifice? Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47

The most elaborate, comprehensive and effective system for the prevention of animal cruelty was not invented by the FDA or even PETA; it was devised by the Book of Leviticus. This may seem a strange idea. Without question, it swims rather roughly against that trusty river of intuition. Pigeon slaughter is rarely good for pigeons. Bull offerings are not something cows easily stomach. As far as “becoming a sacrificial lamb,” I have it on good authority that this is not what most sheep dream about when they are kids. 

To an untrained imagination, a “bustling Tabernacle” is a strange cross between an abattoir and a synagogue. A PETA activist might describe its practices as “murder in the name of God, differing from the Crusades only by the choice of its victims.” Well, my friends, I believe this is wrong on many counts. 

There is a peculiar phrase that accompanies nearly every mention of sheep, goat and cattle offerings throughout the Bible. In the Torah, where no word is out-of-place and no letter believed superfluous, repetition is a cause of interest, and should never be dismissed as careless writing. The word I refer to is “tamim,” and it means “whole, complete, unharmed, pure, without blemish.” At the start of Leviticus, we read: “A person who brings an elevation offering … shall bring an offering without blemish [tamim]” (Leviticus 1:2-3). Concerning peace offerings, they, too, are brought “without blemish” (Leviticus 3:1). Similarly, the paschal lamb had to be tamim, just as the red heifer (parah aduma temima) had to perfect in every way. To bring a blemished animal to the Lord was sinful, and Leviticus states this repeatedly. 

What this meant for any animal potentially destined for the altar is that it could not be harmed, injured or mistreated. Remarkably, if we compare the rules of blemishes to the sort of miseries and maladies routinely inflicted upon factory-farmed animals, something astonishing comes to light. Factory-farmed meat, served in our homes, would never be offered in the House of the Lord. 

Animals that are surgically mutilated or castrated, a regular practice among meat growers wanting more malleable livestock, would be grounds alone for disqualification (Kiddushin 25b). Animals pinioned in cages of their own muck could be disqualified on account of their disgusting odor (Temurah 28b). Most birds and cattle pumped with near lethal amounts of antibiotics to prevent their succumbing to illness would be disqualified for their being sickly (ibid). 

One often reads of meat growers stimulating rapid growth through steroids, genetic chicanery, artificial lighting, hormone-enhanced feed, all in an attempt to get meat faster to market. Such practices would be eliminated by the routine biblical requirement that offerings of sheep, goats or calves be minimally 1 or 2 years old (Leviticus 9:3; Rosh Hashana 10a). A 3-month-old calf the size of an elephant would be barred from the Temple gates.

This week’s Torah Portion, Shemini, shifts away — from sacrifices to general food prohibitions: kashrut. Numerous beasts are prohibited from the hog to the hare, to kites, crocodiles and chameleons. The many (often confounding) dietary laws are often believed to be beyond the pale of rationale explanation, yet that has not stopped commentators from trying to explain them. Historically, there are two well-known schools of thought. One is based on ethics. Laws such as, “Do not stew a kid in its mother’s milk,” and “shooing away the mother-bird,” teach us to be merciful. If we eschew animal cruelty, all the more so, we should eschew cruelty to our fellow human beings (R. Bachaya ben Asher; Ibn-Ezra). Another approach explains kosher laws as a means to teach people “temperance and self-control” (Philo, Maimonides).

In the sacrificial system, each view is valid. To raise an animal fit for sacrifice required both constant discipline and tenderness toward the animal in one’s keep. Farmers sacrificed time and resources to raise fowl, herd and flock. In approaching the altar, both animal and owner had to be tamim.

Today, we live without the Temple, and therefore without the mitigating requirement that meat not only be fit for eating but fit for sacrifice. It happens that in our day, thank God, modern Jewry has ready access to kosher products. Meat, rinsed and salted, is easily obtained. In Los Angeles, with little ado, we order cooked lamb, chicken, beef, bison in restaurants and supermarkets. Yet with so much available, lessons of temperance and ethics fall away. 

“Kosher” means “fit” or “proper,” but how “fit” is an animal when the finest moment of its life was the day its life of misery was ended in a slaughterhouse? Moreover, how tamim are we who celebrate our faith, and sanctify the Lord, by consuming endless plates of chicken and beef in our homes? With several meanings in mind, one might ask: “Can there be kosher without sacrifice?”

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches at Ziegler Rabbinic School, The Academy of Jewish Religion, and runs an independent Modern Orthodox minyan in Beverlywood. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Gina Nahai: Staying true to our own heritage

I once wrote a novel about an Iranian Jewish woman who grows wings and flies away from her husband’s home. She escapes because she’s in love with another man, and she believes it’s better to abandon her family than to stay and shame them by having an illicit affair. A few months after the book was released, I overheard someone — an Iranian Jew who happened to be very observant and very trusted by Iranians and Ashkenazim alike — remark that the novel had no merit because it was based on an impossible premise. I braced myself for a comment about the implausibility of a woman growing wings and flying off a window ledge like a migrating bird. Instead, the gentleman went on to assert that the really improbable proposition was that any Iranian Jewish woman would ever, under any circumstances and for any reason, contemplate an extramarital affair. 

Now, God knows I’m no expert in Iranian Jewish history, but I’ve seen a thing or two in my time, and I can say without equivocation that by far the majority of our women are, and have always been, impeccably chaste, unfailingly faithful and indefinitely devoted to their spouses. I’m not saying this just to keep up appearances before our friendly American neighbors or to avoid being banished from all Iranian parties forever. I’m saying it because it’s true. Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible that, over the course of our 2,500-year history, one of our women has committed an indiscretion of the kind depicted in the book. What fascinated me about the gentleman’s remark, therefore, was not so much his faith in our women’s piety, as his manifest conviction that there are areas of human nature and behavior that remain, to this day, entirely closed to Iranian Jews.

I realize that’s not a terribly uncommon assumption for a Jew to make about other Jews. Just as the world holds us to a different standard, so do we hold, if not ourselves, then each other, to a higher code of ethics. I grew up hearing about a multitude of acts that were the exclusive domain of Muslims and Christians and Zoroastrians and Buddhists and basically anyone at all except for Jews. Murder was one. Adultery (for women) was another. Theft on a grand, gluttonous and unabashed scale was yet another.

According to all the Jewish adults in my Iranian childhood, Jews did not kill, sleep with anyone but their husband, or steal from their friends, neighbors and random old ladies because:

A. They were bound by a higher calling — halachah — than your average penal code.
B. They lived in a country where, by law, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, and would be punished, for the indiscretions of each of its members. And
C. They belonged to a culture in which a person’s good name and reputation was his greatest asset, where his or her children would be duly rewarded or punished for his or her actions, where “shame” was a penance greater than any jail sentence and more exacting than poverty, illness or even death.

That, regrettably, was then.

I don’t know if things have remained the same in Iran, but I hope my fellow Iranian Jews in this country will forgive me for saying in print what we all know and lament in person — namely, that somewhere between Tehran and Los Angeles, some of us became more religiously observant and less personally righteous, more outspoken about the virtues of piety and less capable of feeling remorse, more able to circumvent the law and less fearful of public shame.

And I hope my fellow American Jews in this city will resist the urge to wag a holier-than-thou finger and indulge in the all-too-common tendency to blame the entire Iranian community for the sins of a few individuals. For one thing, that’s rather reminiscent of what the non-Jewish majority did to the Jewish minority in Iran, Russia and even in this country up until the 1950s. It wasn’t right then, and it’s not right now. More importantly, I dare say that Iranian Jews are as Jewish and as American as all the parents and grandparents of the current “native” population. Like us, your parents prized their American citizenship but continued to speak both English and their mother tongue. Like us, they ate both hot dogs and latkes, were made to feel unwelcome in fancy neighborhoods, and were suspected of committing all sorts of offenses, from building unattractive houses to taking over the world.

But I digress.

In the three decades since the revolution, Iranian Jews tried to embrace the best of Western culture while maintaining the positive aspects of their own. The jury’s still out on how well we’ve navigated those waters, but until recently, we were pretty confident that we had indeed gotten one thing right: We had re-created in America a community that, while far from perfect, had nurtured and strengthened us through many a difficult time. Outside our little bubble, the world was moving fast and memories were short, people reinvented themselves with impunity every few years, and nothing was wrong unless the law said so. But inside, we continued to harbor the notion that there were some things in this world a Jew just did not do.

We assumed, for example, that a Jew would not solicit “investments” from other Jews only to use the money to build himself a big, fancy house. Or that a Jew, especially a very observant one, would not empty the trust funds of orphan children into his own wife’s bank accounts. Or rob poor widows to enrich his already wealthy siblings. Or cheat his closest friends to finance his children’s education at expensive Jewish day schools.

We assumed all this with the kind of foolish certainty that had driven the gentleman critic to assert that a Jewish Iranian woman would sooner grow wings than indulge in pleasures of the flesh with a man she was not married to. We were, alas, proven wrong. On the heels of Bernie Madoff and all his lesser likenesses, Iranian Jews discovered their own batch of “toxic assets.” One of them, you may be amused to learn, was our resident literary critic.  In a single year, he and his fellow luminaries did to our community what a 1,000 years of being persecuted by the mullahs and 30 years of living outside Iran did not: They took from us the notion that Jews, especially very religious ones, observed a higher threshold of ethical behavior; that a good name had an inherent value that could not be measured in dollars.

If you can’t trust your own, whom can you trust? 

We are, today, a wounded and perplexed community. The old laws don’t apply, and the new ones don’t protect against Old World behavior. We cannot enter a deal with a handshake, then expect the courts to enforce what we didn’t deem necessary to put on paper. For us, the question is no longer what a Jew will and will not do; it’s what we, as a community, will and won’t tolerate. It’s whether our increasingly Orthodox rabbis will take a public stand against larceny in our own midst, or choose to look away. Whether our fellow Jews will buy and sell with other people’s money, or pass on profiting from ill-gotten gains. Whether we continue to protect the guilty with our silence and save our hate mail for the young Iranian Jewish reporter who relates the news as it happened in this publication. Instead of yelling at him to stop shaming our community by reporting other Jews’ misdeeds, we could, for example, yell at the wrongdoers and their accomplices and enablers.

It’s a funny thing about shame, you know: Those who are capable of feeling it are inevitably at a disadvantage against the rest. That’s always been in the case. There have always been people who chose wealth in disgrace over the simple honor of a life of hard work and sacrifices. In the old country, this was a real, almost permanent choice. “Everything dies,” the old Persian expression went, “except a name.”

But out here, where bootleggers’ children grow up to become president and a few million can get your name above a school or synagogue door, who’s to say that’s not a false choice? Commit the crime, weather the storm, then go out and purchase an even better name than you had before. The question, for our community, is whether we’ll go the American way and buy and sell a name as easily as a used car, or whether we’ll pause, and remember, and stay true to our own heritage.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in The Journal.

Blessing Management

This week’s Torah portion describes the bountiful blessings promised to our people by God, if (ekev) we obey the laws of Torah.

  • God will love you, multiply you, “bless the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil…” (Deuteronomy 7:13, 8:1).
  • God will bless you above all other peoples, protect your fertility and guard your health (7:14-15).
  • Divine power will secure your conquest of the land (7:18).
  • Adonai will lead the crossing (9:3).
  • The Promised Land is “a good land, flowing with streams and springs and fountains … a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing….” (8:7-9).
  • The land, like the people, is blessed with Divine protection (11:12).
  • God will cause rain in due season, resulting in abundant grass, cattle and produce (11:13-15).
  • Every spot on which your foot treads shall be yours (11:24).

Together with these blessings, of course, come the warnings. Failure to observe Torah laws doesn’t just mean a lack of reward. It means that the world becomes a more dangerous, chaotic place. We become more vulnerable to external forces — be they military enemies or nature itself — without the guidance and protection of Torah.

People often struggle with the Deuteronomic perspective on loyalty to mitzvot and its consequences. Obviously, subverters of Torah can and do prosper, at least temporarily. By the same token, the righteous suffer, and Ekev itself testifies that God tests, even afflicts, His beloveds (8:16). It’s a vast oversimplification to read the Torah text as a rigid statement of reward and punishment. Ekev is championing the rewards of Torah, but its theology is nuanced.

According to Ekev, even blessings present a certain danger. When “your silver and gold have increased and everything you own prospers” (8:13), you may forget God and disregard your Source. Don’t become haughty and say, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me” (8:17). Nor dare you say to yourself, “I am blessed because of my righteousness” (9:4). Instead, “remember that God is the One who gives you power to be prosperous and victorious, in fulfillment of the covenant made with your ancestors” (8:18).

People tend to believe that they have earned their own good fortune. Ekev insists that it is neither our prowess nor our goodness that prospers us. It is God’s power and grace. Prosperity is the major theme and blessing in this Torah portion. And that is precisely why this portion urges us to guard against both arrogance and self-righteousness in the face of abundance.

We who live in Los Angeles — the City of Angels and, too often, of excess — ought to know something about the dangers of prosperity. We can testify that radical blessings are more difficult to handle than one might expect. Abundance can — and does — inspire gratitude and tzedakah. The more people have, the more they can use their blessings for positive and spiritual ends. But it’s also true that abundance is used to justify self-importance, jadedness and materialism. The more people have, the more they can squander their blessings on negative and corrupting influences. This perspective is reflected in one reading of the priestly blessing: “May God bless you and protect you” (Numbers 6:24) has been interpreted to mean, “May God bless you — and also protect you from your blessings.”

When you talk to people who have achieved radical blessings, very often they speak warmly about the days when they struggled. There was a purity, a simplicity, a potential before the blessing that cannot be completely owned or recaptured once it arrives. This attitude may stem partly from misplaced nostalgia; the “good old days” weren’t always as good as we remember. But there is at least a germ of truth in the nostalgia.

The days when you are hungry (physically or spiritually) are often more rewarding, more full of life, somehow, than the days when you can “eat without stint.” The rabbis of the Talmud debate why “affliction of the soul” on Yom Kippur should necessarily mean fasting (Yoma 74b). Sometimes, eating is an affliction. Manna, a food, is called an affliction in Ekev (8:16).

The Torah portion and this section of Talmud hold similar views of human nature. Left to our own devices, we will take our blessings for granted. We may convince ourselves that we have earned them, and we will surely go looking for the proverbial “more” — which is never enough.

A key solution suggested in both Ekev and Yoma is what I would dub “blessing management.” We need to consciously notice and respond to our blessings. We may occasionally need to renounce or forgo them (as in fasting on Yom Kippur) to regain appreciation. We have to be vigilant against arrogance, self-righteousness, abuse of power and all the other potential pitfalls of prosperity. Above all, we must remember and connect with the Source from which all blessings come.

These strategies can sound like clichés, until you think of your own blessings and really wake up to how much you have. Then a deep gratitude comes … and then, with the realization of all the grace bestowed on you, humility. Then, perhaps, embarrassment arises over foolish pride of “ownership” in your blessings. And, sometimes, we are able to determine a best next step. What is each blessing calling us to do, to give, to share? Our blessings are talking to us. Ekev tishmeun, if only we would listen.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life,” is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom (www.makom.org) and a frequent scholar-in-residence. Her new Web site (www.rabbidebra.com) offers teachings and daily meditations on preparing for the High Holy Days.

Conservative Supreme Court rulings vex Jewish advocacy groups

Following a string of conservative rulings in the closing weeks of this year’s Supreme Court session, some Jewish officials are suggesting that they may be forced to abandon their decades-long strategy of relying on the courts to protect liberal gains on a host of issues.

For decades, many Jewish groups counted on the top court to correct what they saw as the excesses of legislatures and chief executives across the country. But with the close of the court’s first full term with two recent conservative arrivals, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, Jewish groups say the situation has reversed itself.

Not only has the Supreme Court thoroughly abandoned a decades-old tradition of upholding the liberal gains of the 1950s and 1960s, it has become the premier bulwark of conservatism now that Democrats have retaken Congress and the White House is weakened to the point of impotency.

“To put it in historical perspective, we were quite sanguine when cases would come up, with the sense we would get a decision in our favor,” said Jeff Sinensky, legal counsel to the American Jewish Committee. “Looking forward, it’s likely that the majority, now headed by Justice John Roberts and with Justice Samuel Alito coming on the court, have a fundamentally different perspective than the Jewish community.”

Sinensky and others cite four decisions that have especially roiled the community over the last year since Alito replaced Sandra Day O’Connor, who carefully hewed to the center, as the court’s swing vote on several hot-button issues:

  • The court ruled in April that a ban on late-term abortions did not violate a woman’s right to privacy, rolling back in part the gains of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision.
  • In May, the court imposed a tough 180-day limitation on an employee’s right to claim pay discrimination.
  • Last month, a 5-4 majority of the justices ordered school districts in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. to end voluntary busing programs that sought to integrate schools that had become segregated through demographic trends.
  • Also last month, the court ruled that taxpayers have no standing to stop the executive branch from spending federal funds on faith-based programs, a decision that would hamper efforts by Jewish groups to wage legal challenges on such matters.

Not every Jewish group was unhappy with those decisions. Two Orthodox groups, the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, praised the ruling on faith-based programs. In fact, Agudath argued that it didn’t go far enough, saying it should have eliminated challenges to congressionally mandated religious spending as well.

“There’s not a whole lot of logic for the distinction between executive branch decisions and congressional decisions,” said David Zweibel, Agudath’s general counsel.

Agudath also praised the abortion decision, but Zweibel stressed that the Orthodox community was not necessarily embracing a more conservative court. He noted that Orthodox lawyers in the past had been on the “liberal” side of arguments, for instance in expanding laws combating discrimination.

“To say we’re conservative or liberal is wrong,” Zweibel said.

For most of the Jewish communal stalwarts on jurisprudence, “disappointment” was the term that kept cropping up to describe the recently completed Supreme Court term.

“We were 0-for-3 this term,” said Michael Lieberman, the Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), referring to the ADL’s three friend-of-the-court briefs: the abortion case, the taxpayer case and the desegregation case.

According to Lieberman, the significance of the cases ran deeper than the losses. In each of the three cases he cited, the Supreme Court had gone out of its way to reverse lower court rulings.

“It’s really going to be important going forward to pick our forums,” Lieberman said. “The court system may not be the best way to vindicate rights going forward.”

That prospect, of an activist conservative court seeking to correct what it perceives to be a liberal taint on jurisprudence, led other Jewish groups to the same conclusion.

“There’s a concern about finding the right cases to bring to the court,” said Mark Pelavin, the associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. He cited the faith-based funding case, Hein v. Freedom From Religion Foundation.

“The Hein case is a great example of how a case is not necessarily one that the litigators would have chosen as the first case on the president’s faith-based initiative,” Pelavin said.

Jewish groups signed on as friends of the court in the case because of the potential that the justices would overturn precedent, Lieberman said, but generally believed the case was not worth the risk — a sense vindicated by the court’s finding. As a result of the decision, Lieberman said, only those people directly affected by funding for faith groups could challenge the law.

“What you’re asking for is someone who is among the least, the lost, someone with an alcohol addiction, a drug addition, someone who has no job, to come forward,” he said. “It’s so unlikely that someone falling through the safety net is going to say, ‘I need that methadone treatment program, but I resent saying a prayer for it.'”

Another strategy is to advocate for legislation on the local, state and federal levels tailored to circumvent the court’s reasoning. “It may be that a local ordinance is the next way to protect the workplace,” Lieberman said. “It may be state law, it may be Congress or the executive branch.”

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), a Jewish liberal who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, said he expects to take a legislative-based approach to dealing with the court’s ruling that employees seeking to file lawsuits charging discrimination in pay, must do so with the 180-day period.

“Congress must make its intent clear: Anti-discrimination laws must be strengthened — not weakened,” said Nadler, the chairman of the civil liberties subcommittee in the U.S. House of Representatives, in introducing legislation last week that would expand the 180-day limit.

Sammie Moshenberg, who directs the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women, said her organization’s strategy of directly opposing some judicial candidates has been vindicated.

Despite their concerns about the direction of the court, some other Jewish groups opted not to oppose President Bush’s judicial nominees, arguing that a president deserves leeway in placing his or her preferences on the court.

In 2001, according to Moshenberg, when NCJW first started opposing judicial nominees, “We said these people serve for a lifetime [and] make incredibly important decisions that affect us for the rest of our lives.'”

The federal bench and the Supreme Court, Moshenberg said, “have really been the backstop for our constitutional rights throughout history.”

Shul’s Stormy Saga

With its prominent location at one of Hancock Park’s busiest intersections, at Third Street and Highland Avenue, Congregation Etz Chaim’s boxy, domed building constantly reminds area residents of a decade of ongoing tensions.

The current focus of the dispute is a lawsuit that has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Neighbors sued in 2003, saying the congregation skirted due process and violated local zoning laws when it razed a 3,600-square-foot home and built an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary, a library and a mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement.

But the conflict has even deeper roots, to when the congregation still met at the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. Even then, neighbors contended that the daily and Shabbat services violated residential zoning laws. Then, in 1995, Congregation Etz Chaim moved from Rubin’s house, where it had been meeting for 30 years, since his father founded the congregation, to the house on Highland Avenue. In 1996, after the city, at the behest of the neighbors, tried to prevent the congregants from holding services on Highland Avenue, Etz Chaim sued the city in federal court for violating its religious freedom.

The zoning board, city council and federal court all ruled against Etz Chaim. But the shul got an 11th-hour reprieve by citing a federal law, enacted in 2000, that exempts religious institutions from local zoning. The city and Etz Chaim then entered into a settlement, permitting worshippers in the building. The pact also allowed for limited renovations that would retain the structure’s residential look.

In 2002, the congregation razed the 3,600-square-foot home. The city obtained a temporary stop-work order, saying the demolition and new construction violated the settlement, but courts later lifted that order. The congregation moved forward with the $1 million project, erecting its 8,200-square-foot structure, which its leaders say was designed to blend in with other homes – a claim some neighbors find laughable.

That brings matters to the current lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2003, the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations, composed of area residents, formed to sue Etz Chaim and the city. In the suit, residents assert that the settlement itself was illegal – that it went around city procedures designed to include neighbors in such decisions, since zoning laws should have forbidden the congregation from meeting in that location.

Meanwhile, the city also sued the congregation, saying the new construction violated the settlement agreement. That suit is also before the Ninth Circuit.

Etz Chaim, for its part, is arguing that the settlement is valid, that it did not violate the settlement and, that, in any case, federal law exempts it from zoning regulations.


Right the Wrongs

Last January, I breathed a sigh of relief. The new domestic partnership law went into effect in the state of California, giving senior citizen and same-gender couples a range of state rights nearly equal to the rights given married couples in California.

In so doing, California became second only to Massachusetts in seeking to extend the civil rights of its residents, and many members of the Los Angeles Jewish community, myself included, knew we finally had the legal protections in place that are so critically important to the security of our families.

Then, last week, the California attorney general approved petition language for a ballot measure that would amend the California Constitution to repeal and permanently ban those vital new protections. The brief and frightening summary of the proposed measure, which will easily garner the nearly 1 million signatures required to put it on the ballot in 2006, calls to amend:

“The California Constitution to provide that only marriage between one man and one woman is valid or recognized in California, whether contracted in this state or elsewhere. Voids and restricts registered domestic partner rights and obligations, for certain same-sex and heterosexual couples, in areas such as: ownership and transfer of property, inheritance, adoption, medical decisions, child custody and child support, health and death benefits, insurance benefits, hospital visitation, employment benefits, and recovery for wrongful death other tort remedies.”

In this week’s Torah portion, God and Moses modify the inheritance rights they had recently given to Zelophehad’s daughters — Mahla, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah and Noa — who, having no brothers, petitioned successfully to inherit their father’s property (“And God said to Moses, ‘Zelophehad’s daughters speak right.'” Numbers 27:7).

This week, at the end of the Book of Numbers, the uncles of these women complain that if their brother’s daughters were to marry outside their tribe, then the tribe would lose the legacy that belongs to it.

This time Moses speaks for God, saying, “The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaks right,” and he amends the earlier law by requiring Zelophehad’s daughters to marry into the family of their father’s tribe. They do so, marrying their uncles’ sons, and in so doing ironically pass along their inheritance to the families who would have inherited it originally if the sisters had not spoken up.

Whatever the biblical base for it, most Jews these days don’t expect to enter arranged marriages. With interfaith marriage rates continuing to grow, fewer and fewer Jews are observing any Jewish constraints on their freedom to marry, and would be rightly outraged if any state or federal government tried to interfere with their legal and civil right to marry.

Even American Jews who favor Jewish marriage over interfaith would not likely deny any interfaith couple the civil right to marry. And yet, the people proposing or supporting this new constitutional amendment would make certain that thousands of their peers never have such rights and, moreover, would strip them of important civil rights already duly conferred by California law. Like the brothers of Zelophehad, they stand for their privilege, and willingly put restrictions on the lives of other people.

What motivates a drive to amend a constitution now dedicated to fairness and equality into one that recreates a true second-class citizenry? How do these proponents benefit? Just as race laws did in America, such proposals galvanize emotionally motivated and fear-based voters into a firm voter base for leaders with other economic and power agendas. We need only look at the long history of anti-Semitism to remind ourselves that we’ve seen all this before.

This last Torah portion in the Book of Numbers concerns itself largely with the establishment and maintenance of boundaries as the Israelites prepare to move into the land of Canaan after their 40 years in the wilderness. God-given geographic boundaries, inheritance rights, appointment (not election) of leaders, provision for the establishment of sanctuary cities (six cities are needed in order to protect the lives of people who kill unintentionally, lest they be killed by avengers) — all contribute to a rather rigid atmosphere.

For a people who has lived in the wilderness and moved 42 times in 40 years (Rashi on Numbers 33), knowing as they do that Moses — their leader for all 40 years — is about to die, we can perhaps understand the desire (even God feels it) to get everything firmly in place as the Israelites prepare for entry into the Promised Land. But in our day, cui bono — to whose advantage is it to deny or remove (or even propose removing) rights from certain citizens? In our day, what’s our excuse?

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

Red Tape Ties Up Shoah Payments

Living in the Radom ghetto in central Poland, Saul Friedman applied for work in 1942, and for the next two years cleaned a building and labored in a peat bog for the German army.

He earned no money, but received something much more valuable extra food rations. When the ghetto was finally liquidated in 1944, he was sent to an Auschwitz satellite camp, then to Mauthausen, and after liberation came to the United States.

Friedman, 85, is one of thousands of other survivors in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, who are now entangled in a bureaucratic hassle over a recent German law meant to benefit a little known class of survivors.

The so-called ZRBG law, the German acronym for Payment of Pensions from Employment in a Ghetto, was established two years ago to give German Social Security benefits to those who worked voluntarily, or "at will," in the ghettos of Eastern Europe.

Although the law is well meant and the benefits are significant, in practice eligible applicants are facing long delays, a high rejection rate and a bureaucratic process defined as "highly erratic."

For instance, Mark Rothman, the Holocaust services advocate for the free Bet Tzedek Legal Services, reports that among 135 applicants in the Los Angeles area, 13 have waited for more than a year for an initial response, 47 have been waiting between six months to a year and all but five of the remainder have received rejections.

Similarly, an 80 percent rejection rate has been reported from New York and Florida.

Following protests by the Claims Conference (Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany), Bet Tzedek and a group of five U.S. Congressional representatives from Los Angeles, German authorities have launched an investigation to determine whether the ghetto pensions law is being interpreted too narrowly and restrictively.

"This law was meant to be generous, but if the investigation shows that there has been a hiccup in the implementation, we will take corrective measures," said Michael Wolff, the German consul for legal affairs in Los Angeles.

Wolff noted that there appeared to be some confusion by a number of applicants between compensation for forced or slave labor, which is handled under a different law and by a different ministry, and for voluntary "at will" ghetto labor, which is administered by the Social Security departments of the individual German states.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said he had encountered two basic difficulties with the ZRBG law: one in the way it is administered and the other in the way it was written.

An example of perplexing administrative decisions is the case of Westwood resident Saul Friedman. While his application was turned down, that of his wife Bella, who worked as a seamstress for the Germans in the same ghetto and at the same time as her husband, was approved.

She has received an $18,000 back payment and now gets a monthly $250 check from the German Social Security system.

An example of some of the law’s provisions criticized by Taylor, Rothman and U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) is that only workers who were over 14 years old at the time are eligible for ghetto pensions.

Under that restriction, the application of Helen Korb was turned down. As an 8-year-old in the ghetto of Mir (now in Belarus), Korb worked alongside her mother doing cleaning and laundry at a German garrison.

"When I was in the ghetto, they wouldn’t let me be a child, and now they say I can’t get a pension because I was a child," Korb, a North Hollywood resident, said bitterly.

The ghetto pension law is the latest chapter in the history of Nazi era reparations, but it’s not the end of the book.

"We are always looking for more liberal interpretations of existing laws," Taylor said, "and we are now receiving the first allocations from Germany for home care for elderly survivors."

In another Holocaust-related development, three Los Angeles-area survivors suffered a legal setback in their suit against an international commission dealing with wartime insurance claims.

In their suit, the survivors accused the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) of, in effect, serving as a front for Italian insurance company Assicurazoni Generali to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs.

The suit was first filed almost a year ago in Los Angeles Superior Court under California’s unfair business practices statue. At ICHEIC’s request, the case was transferred to a federal court, because of claimed foreign policy aspects.

A federal judge sent the suit back to Superior Court, where Judge William Highberger ruled last week that the state had no jurisdiction in the case.

Attorney William Shernoff, representing survivors Dr. Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Roman Rakover, complained that he was caught in a Catch-22 dilemma between federal and state courts and said he would take the case to the California Court of Appeals or state Supreme Court.

New York attorney Constantinos Panagopoulos, representing ICHEIC, applauded Highberger’s decision, saying that it validated his argument that because of international political implications, the case was a matter for the executive, rather than judicial, branch of the government.

Both Sides of Seal Debate to Fight On

It came from Redlands like a fever: one of the most divisive religious battles to hit Los Angeles in years.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), fresh from successfully challenging the Redlands city seal a month earlier, set its sights on removing a Christian cross from the Los Angeles County seal in late May, claiming that it represented government endorsement of a religion. County supervisors acquiesced. Nearly 7,000 angry calls and letters promptly poured in, and approximately 2,000 people assembled before the supervisors’ offices. Right-wing radio hosts and columnists marshaled crowds.

Though religious issues are always emotionally charged, in this case the conservative media whipped its supporters into a veritable frenzy. In his column, journalist Dennis Prager proclaimed: "What we have here is an American version of the Taliban," regarding the ACLU.

"It will have to go to the Supreme Court, which is perhaps where it belongs," Prager told The Journal.

The road to the uproar passed through four Board of Supervisors votes. First, a 3-2 vote, (Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Gloria Molina and Yvonne Burke against Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich), favored a settlement with the ACLU. That was followed by two identical 3-2 rejections of a proposal to entertain litigation offers from anti-ACLU law firms and a bid to estimate the costs of replacing the seal, a difficult exercise since the ACLU agreed to a gradual phaseout of the seal, not immediate removal. The fourth vote blocked Antonovich’s proposal to put the entire issue to a November referendum.

"Our own county [attorney] opined that we would lose this case if we defended it because our seal was unconstitutional based on a half a dozen [similar] cases," Yaroslavsky said.

Yaroslavsky’s office bore the brunt of the complaints, including accusations that he was anti-Christian.

"If the court cases allowed for religious symbols on government seals, even though I didn’t agree with them, I would live with it," Yaroslavsky said. "We are a nation of laws, not of men. That’s what we buy into as Americans. The rule of law on this issue is clear."

"Since when do county supervisors vote on what they think will happen in a courtroom?" Prager countered. "Those on the left are trying to destroy the fact that this is a country founded on one specific religion –Christianity — and one specific value system, called Judeo-Christian."

Prager has publicly vowed not to drop the issue.

Supporters of the cross on the seal employed a combination of historical and religious arguments to bolster their position, simultaneously claiming that the cross is no more a religious symbol than the Greek goddess Pomona (also on the seal), but also that the seal represents a Christian legacy of the United States that should not be erased.

Bruce Einhorn, Pacific-Southwest chair of the Anti-Defamation League, saw the debate differently.

"Those who argue for [no cross on the seal] are those who believe that religion should be left alone, that government involvement in religion is not only unconstitutional but unproductive," Einhorn said. "It’s almost like a Faustian bargain to let government endorse religious symbols, because in return our religions can become dependent on government and weakened."

Supporters of the cross on the seal tried to stress the unique relationship between Christianity and Judaism in forming American values.

"It is almost mind-numbing that Jews watching European anti-Semitism, seeing how America alone is supportive of Israel, would ever want America’s value system to change," Prager said.

That emotional argument, however, also faced opposition.

"When I hear the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian,’ my experience has been that it has always been used to defend uniquely Christian symbols," Einhorn said. "That doesn’t mean that I’m offended by the cross, I just don’t understand how it enhances my religious tradition."

For its part, the ACLU has tried to avoid appearing anti-Christian or offensive. "We become involved when people in the community contact us," said Tenoch Flores, an ACLU spokesman. "I think there’s been a misunderstanding there — people thinking we’re going around collecting notches on our belt."

It appears that this round of the county seal fight is drawing to a close. Opponents of the ACLU vow to collect enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot, but time to do that is short.

In the meantime, there are four other counties and 11 cities in California with some sort of religious symbol on their seals.

L.A. County Supervisors are set to gradually replace the cross with a picture of a Catholic Spanish mission, including an homage to the Native Americans who built those missions.

That compromise, however, is unlikely to satisfy everyone.

"How do I know it’s not a Taco Bell?" asked Prager when informed that there will be no cross on the building.

But Officer, It’s Yontif!

Worried about getting a parking ticket while you’re praying for your soul? Don’t fret. You can take as long as you want in synagogue this Rosh Hashanah, because Los Angeles’ normally overzealous traffic cops will be off your back.

City Councilman Jack Weiss has used his diplomatic muscle to have all parking restrictions in the 5th District relaxed over the high holidays to accommodate synagogue-goers. The relaxed parking laws will be in effect from 4 p.m, Friday, Sept. 26 to 11 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28; from 4 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 5 through to midnight, Tuesday, Oct. 7; from 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 10 through to 11 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 12; and from 4 p.m., Friday, Oct. 17 through to 2 a.m., Monday, Oct. 20.

For more information or to check whether your synagogue’s street is in the 5th District, you can call Field Deputy Adeena Bleich on (310) 289-0353.

Competing Voices

Last Rosh Hashana began with the most terrible noise. Terror, trauma, tragedy and evil triumphant filled the air. In addition, Israel and Jews worldwide were subjected to the vilest outburst of anti-Semitism since the 1940s.

After experiencing such violent explosions, where can we find a glimmer of hope for the year ahead?

Perhaps an answer can be found in the laws for sounding the shofar, the primary symbol of the New Year festival.

The Talmud in Rosh Hashana 27b states: "If one places a shofar within a shofar and blows, if the inner one is heard, he fulfills the mitzvah, but if the outer one [is heard], he does not."

How should we understand this law? Is it simply a legal concept, or does it hold a moral lesson as well?

In today’s climate, besieged by the voices of chaos, war and hatred, transmitted to us by a biased media, it is difficult to imagine that there can even be a soft inner voice of morality, honesty and justice.

The current chief rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a survivor from Buchenwald, was 8 when the camp was liberated. He maintains friendships with many survivors. One, a very wealthy man, is also the thinnest man the rabbi had ever seen.

On one occasion, his friend invited the rabbi to a delicious dinner, but the friend barely ate. He only nibbled at the food. Worrying that his friend might be ill, the rabbi finally asked why he wasn’t eating. The man replied, "Every time I sit down to a beautiful meal, I hear a voice in my head. It is my 12-year-old daughter who died of starvation in Auschwitz. She comes to me and says three words in Yiddish: "Father, please, bread." In Auschwitz I couldn’t give her that bread, and now when I want to eat, I hear the sound of her voice and I can’t eat."

We all hear voices. One comes from the harsh, cruel outside world. It is strong and powerful; it blasts our ears; it seems to conquer us. But then we hear a second voice, a quiet voice, an inner voice, urging us to have courage, to support our people, to stand by Israel, to obliterate terror.

The Talmud, in discussing the shofar, also makes another profound and telling observation. It states the principle, "That two voices cannot be heard simultaneously." But then the Talmud includes an exception: "If it is beloved and dear, one concentrates and hears."

We are constantly subjected to two voices that compete for our attention. Which sounds shall we hear — the loud clamor of the evil-doers, the terrorists and their supporters? Or the still, small voice of the heroes — the firefighters in the twin towers, the rescue workers at a suicide bombing, the pain-filled voices of those slaughtered at Auschwitz and those massacred at a Passover seder in Netanya?

At first you might think that the loud voice will win, and the soft voice will definitely lose. The loud voice seems so powerful; it seems to conquer all. But if the soft voice is the voice of God, if it is beloved, it will be heard and ultimately will be victorious.

Simon Wiesenthal relates that when he was imprisoned in concentration camp, he once saw a fellow inmate risk his life to smuggle a siddur into the camp. At first, Wiesenthal admired this man. But then, the next day, to his horror, he saw that man rent out the siddur in exchange for pieces of bread.

Wiesenthal recounts, "I was angry with this Jew. How could he take a holy siddur and use it to take a person’s last piece of bread?" From that moment on, he vowed never to pray again.

After the liberation, he explained his lack of faith to Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the famous U.S. Army chaplain, who had come to comfort survivors. In response, Silver asked, "Why do you look at the Jew who rented out his siddur? Why don’t you look at the dozens who gave up their bread in order to use a siddur? That’s faith! That’s the true power of the siddur."

Wiesenthal concluded, "When he said that, I walked together with him to pray."

Which voice are we going to hear? The laws of the shofar are there to guide us, to tell us if we listen to the inner voice of our conscience, we will find the right path for the coming year.