Photo from Hulu

Rape in the Bible: A handmaid’s tale

When biblical passages emerge in Hollywood products, they don’t usually provide a star turn for religion. More often than not, believers are portrayed as weird, kooky cultish types or dangerous fanatics. This trend cuts across religions: In Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the man who weathered God’s flood was a lunatic who nearly killed members of his own family. In the Showtime series “Homeland,” Islam and the Quran are promotional vehicles for terrorism. And let’s not forget Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ,” one of the most brutally literal and political depictions of a biblical event in Hollywood history, portraying Jews as a bloodthirsty mob.

When Hollywood takes on religion, religion doesn’t usually look good. 

“The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Margaret Atwood best-seller turned television series on Hulu, is no exception. The dystopian tale posits a future when United States democracy has capitulated to an authoritarian regime rooted in religious fanaticism. When the effects of environmental degradation cause a scourge of infertility, reproductively healthy women are enslaved as childbearing surrogates. In a form of state-sanctioned rape, women are nothing more than ovaries with legs whose sole purpose is to serve the “commanders” and their barren wives.

Where on earth did Atwood find precedent, let alone justification, for this mass oppression and rape? I hate to be the bearer of bad news: The Hebrew bible.

The passage cited in the book and the show is from Genesis, in which Jewish matriarch Rachel is suffering from barrenness and tells her husband, Jacob: “Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her.”

Torah readers know that this instance of offering up a maidservant as fertility surrogate is not the only one: Rachel’s sister Leah gives Jacob her handmaid, Zilpah, who births Gad and Asher, whom Leah claims as her own. Earlier, when an aging Sarah cannot conceive, she offers Hagar to Abraham, and she births Ishmael.

Atwood’s appropriation of this ancient, uh, practice of state-sanctioned rape is disturbing for many reasons, not least for forcing a confrontation with what Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg calls “the unconscious” parts of our text. Neither in the case of Rachel nor Sarah does the Torah refer to this practice as “rape,” even as it openly acknowledges rape elsewhere, as in the rape of Dinah, the prevailing story of rape in the Bible but not the only one.

In “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary,” edited by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) scholar Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Rabbi Andrea Weiss, Rachel’s act is given spiritual embellishment through metaphor and symbolism. To move from barrenness to fertility, she must bridge an equivalent gap between herself and God; by “employing” Bilhah as her surrogate, she engages in “imitative magic,” acting like the deity herself, claiming the body of another in the hope God will fertilize her, too.   

It’s a lovely flourish of literature, but of course the reality is cruel.

“It’s a moral gray area, which many, many biblical texts are,” Rabbi Rachel Adler told me.

Adler is the David Ellenson Professor of Jewish Religious Thought at the HUC-JIR campus in Los Angeles and a renowned feminist theologian. She warned against biblical literalism.

“When I read the beginning of Genesis, I don’t protest a snake speaking Hebrew, a world created in six days or two archetypal humans in a garden,” she said. “The Torah is not a science book.”

As a Reform Jew, she favors a more historical, interpretive view.

“These are texts that come out of a society very different from our own,” she said, noting that slavery was common practice in the ancient world. “In our [society], slavery is an abomination. And using a woman to beget heirs outside of the marital relationship, and without the consent of the woman whose body is being used, is morally repulsive to us. The fact that people do certain things in biblical texts does not mean that we should do them, too.”

No wonder Hollywood is having so much fun with this. Bad religion makes for great storytelling. But is Atwood’s mirroring this practice an indictment of the Bible — or us?

“Atwood is pointing out ways that people who take a rigid, fundamentalist view of the Bible in our society can combine that with a kind of authoritarianism and fascism that reduces people, especially women, to a slave-like status, and justifies it in crude religious terms,” Adler said.

“If you want a symbol of subjugation,” she added wryly, “a woman is about the oldest, most ancient one you can find.”

But what about our vaunted Jewish matriarchs — Sarah, Rachel and Leah — who participated in this caste system of culturally sanctioned oppression?

“They’re part of a system,” Adler said. “And unless a woman understands that there’s a system, she’s an unconscious part of a system. In a system, everybody takes their place; unless they are conscious that it is a system and they seize the opportunity to resist.”

The same could be said of how we read the Bible, the Quran, even the U.S. Constitution: It’s on us to become more conscious of the texts we read and believe — and whether it’s bad policy or bad ritual, to resist.

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

Noah: Ark of taste

This post originally appeared on Neesh Noosh.

Was Noah the first seed saver? The first protector of biodiversity? This week we read that humans’ lawlessness and corruption incensed God enough to cause him to flood and destroy all creatures on the planet. “I am about to bring the Flood — waters upon the earth — to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish.”  Noah was tasked by God with saving pairs of every species on his ark and repopulating the planet once the flood waters receded.

After the flood ended, a rainbow in the sky became a covenant between God and man. It “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”  We are challenged every day to live by this covenant, especially when we look at the impacts of climate change–including rising sea levels–on our planet. Modern agriculture today is contributing to climate change, from water usage for livestock to fertilizers to land management. And, climate change is, and will continue to be, a major factor in future food production due to flooding and droughts, desertification and habitat loss.

The Slow Food movement’s biannual gathering begins this evening in Turin, Italy with tens of thousands of people from more than 120 countries in attendance. One part of the conference is Salone del Gusto-the largest food and wine conference in the world. The other part, Terra Madre, is a gathering to give a voice, resources and organizing to small-scale agricultural producers worldwide. Indeed, there are 500 million family farmers worldwide who are each growing food on less than two hectares of land. Terra Madre advocates that “eating is an agricultural act and producing is a gastronomic act.” This is the antithesis of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, ConAgra and Monsanto.

Slow Food is about protecting heirloom foods, culinary traditions, small-scale farmers and fishing and farming practices that tread more lightly on the planet thanindustrial agriculture and fishing. Rabbi Shai Held of Mechon Hadar, in writing week about the Tower of Babel  asserts that, “neither can we ever accept enforced uniformity, the coupling of unanimity and anonymity that is the hallmark of totalitarian movements.”  Industrial agriculture is uniformity: it is not healthy for ourselves or the planet.

The extinctions that so many species–including foods–are experiencing on our planet are because of humans.  Many of the farmers, vintners (Noah was the first one), cheesemongers, bakers, chefs, ranchers, picklers, fisherman and butchers, are practicing agricultural and food production techniques that arethreatened by industrial agricultural (GMO seeds, mono-cropping, elimination of local food traditions, pesticides, etc). 

But, through our food choices, we can each try to contribute and sustain a Noah’s Ark for the 21st century.  Slow Food’s “Ark of Taste” program has over 2000 products from more than 125 countries that are “small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet.” Slow Food plans to have 10,000 products in the Ark of Taste within four years. And, many of these 2000 items will be at Terra Madre.

Millions of small-scale farmers and producers–including the thousands who will be at Terra Madre–are on the front lines in the movement against industrial agriculture. They are growing, harvesting and making foods that enable each of us to support local, culturally relevant food systems in the most delicious way possible-through eating!

Shmita is another way we can each play a role in protecting local food systems. As I’ve written previously, this is the final year in the seven year Shmita cycle, where the land is to lie fallow in Israel. For those of us living outside of Israel, it is a time to think about and act upon values and ideas of Shmita that we can incorporate into our lives in the diaspora. What can and should we be doing to let the land rest, grow more perennials and implement more long-term sustainable agriculture practices?

We each play a role in the delicate ecological balance of our planet. Biodiversity“is life itself and it is the diversity of life, on many levels, from the smallest (genes, the building blocks of life) to plant and animal species, up to the most complex levels (ecosystems). All these levels intersect, influence each other and evolve.

Like the rainbow covenant between God and man, we can have a sustainable food covenant. This might include eating more locally grown foods, supporting local food purveyors, choosing sustainable fish, growing foods or herbs at home, connecting with a farmer in your area, and thinking more about the impacts of your food choices.

I spent the past week in Rome, Italy–the country where the Slow Food movement started. During this time, I ate many Roman culinary treats and visited  farmers markets. I also enjoyed some Jewish-Roman food specialties at a Shabbat meal, restaurants and bakery and picked up a cookbook on the topic (I look forward to sharing recipes from it once I figure out how to easily translate it from Italian!). The Great Synagogue in Rome has a gorgeous rainbow ceiling, symbolizing the covenant between God and humans.

Alas due to my travels, I do not have a recipe to offer this week but I will add one when I’m home next week that will involve a rainbow of colors, perhaps a boat shaped vegetable and/or liquid. In the meantime, think about incorporating a rainbow of locally grown colors and flavors at your next meal.


What’s bothering Rashi about Noah?

While Paramount’s “Noah” movie has sold plenty of tickets, audience reaction has been mixed. Yet whether people love the film or loathe it, one reaction seemed universal. Viewers have had lots of questions, particularly about how far the movie strays from the biblical text and where the screenwriters, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel (both Jewish, though professed atheists), got their ideas.

Rabbi Shlomo Yizhaki, the French medieval scholar and commentator better known as Rashi, also had questions about the Noah story, for his writings provide a great many answers. To this day, Rashi is still accepted as the Bible’s most authoritative commentator, and he drew upon the breadth of rabbinic literature (including some no longer extant), to clarify the plain meaning of a text so even a bright child could understand it. At the same time, his work is the basis for many profound legal analyses and mystical discourses. 

For almost a thousand years, Jews have begun their Torah studies by asking, “What’s bothering Rashi?” 

So what is bothering Rashi about the Noah story? Starting with the simple and concluding with the sublime, let’s look at how he explains some of the difficulties with Noah.

Q: People have children when they’re young; why didn’t Noah father any until he was 500 years old? 

A: Because the Holy One restrained him, saying, “If Noah’s descendants are wicked, they will perish in the flood, and it will grieve him. But if they are righteous, he will have to trouble himself by building several arks.”

Q: There are many ways the Holy One could have saved Noah; why did He burden him with constructing an ark? 

A: So the wicked might see him building the ark and ask about it, and thus confronted with their impending destruction, they might repent.

Q: Noah saved seven pairs of clean animals and two unclean ones. How did he know which animals were clean before Moses received the Law?

A: Obviously, Noah was acquainted with Torah even before Moses. After all, Torah existed before the Earth was created.

Q: It rained for 40 days and 40 nights, but how long did Noah and all the animals stay in the ark altogether?

A: The rain began to fall on the 17th day of the second month, and one year later, on the 27th day of the second month, the earth had dried sufficiently that the ark’s inhabitants could leave.

Q: How could they stay on the ark so long? 

A: Before the flood, the Holy One made a covenant with Noah and the animals such that the fruit and grain to feed them would not spoil, the carnivorous animals would not eat their vegetarian fellows, and the wombs of the females were closed so no babies would be born on the ark. 

Q: The Torah says that Ham was cursed because he saw his father’s nakedness after Noah became drunk and uncovered himself. Is this a euphemism for an illicit act, as some scholars insinuate? 

A: Ham looked at Noah’s exposed naked body, while his brothers walked backward so they could cover him without gazing at his nakedness.

Now we come to more challenging problems, along with Rashi’s explanations.

Q: What does it mean that Noah is called a righteous man in his generation?

A: Some say to his credit that Noah was righteous even in a generation of wicked men, that he would have been considered still more righteous in a generation of good men. Others say, to his discredit, that in comparison to his own generation he was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Abraham he would have been of no importance.

Q: Were all the people so wicked that they deserved to be destroyed, even little children?

A: Whenever you find a society of lewdness, idolatry, robbery and corruption, then punishment of an indiscriminate nature comes, hurting both the guilty and the innocent. 

(That last answer still resonates today)

Like modern Bible scholars, Rashi noticed that God’s name changes during the narrative. While they postulate the different schools of authorship, Rashi gives us the following explanation: Sometimes, like when the Holy One tells Noah to make an ark because He is going to destroy the Earth along with its corrupt and violent inhabitants, He is Elohim, God of Strict Justice. At other times, like when His heart is grieved and He regrets creating mankind, He is Adonai, God of Divine Mercy. 

This brings us to one of the most troubling questions, one that has vexed generations of believers in an omniscient God. How could the Holy One regret that He had made humanity and have it grieve His heart? Surely He knew when He created Adam and Eve what would happen to their descendents?

Here Rashi confirms his reputation as appealing to both learned scholars and beginning students, and we see why his commentaries remain a centerpiece of Jewish study. “When a man fathers a son, he rejoices and makes others rejoice with him, even though he knows that his son will sin and grieve him, and that someday his son will die. So too is the way of the Holy One. Although it was clear to Him that in the future men would commit evil deeds and be destroyed, for the sake of the righteous who were to issue from them, He still created humanity.”

Maggie Anton is the author of the historical fiction trilogy “Rashi’s Daughters” and the National Jewish Book Award finalist “Rav Hisda’s Daughter: Book 1 — Apprentice.” Her upcoming book, “Enchantress: A Novel of Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” will be published in September.

Watch: Russell Crowe in ‘Noah’ trailer

And now, after a tidal wave of buzz, something that will really float your boat (and provide us with the opportunity to make lots of terrible puns): the trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.”

The biblical film looks exactly as epic as you’d expect, sort of like “Braveheart” but wetter. There’s a ginormous ark, rainy battle scenes and Russell Crowe as a brooding, long-locked Noah.

Crowe’s not the only Oscar-winner on board. Jennifer Connelly plays his wife Naameh, and Anthony Hopkins is Methuselah. Emma Watson’s in there too.

Paramount will release the film in March.

Israel to plant more than 3,000 trees to memorialize Newtown victims

More than 2,000 people have donated funds to plant a grove of more than 3,000 trees in Israel in memory of the victims of the Newtown shooting.

Hadassah has raised more than $61,000 toward the planting of trees honoring the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The trees will be part of the Beersheva River Park, a 1,700-acre water, environmental and commercial area being constructed by the Jewish National Fund in Israel’s desert city.

The idea for the Newtown grove grew from a request made by Veronique Pozner, whose son, Noah, was the only Jewish victim of the shooting at the Connecticut school. Pozner said memorial contributions could be directed toward the planting of trees in Israel.

The president of Hadassah, Marcie Natan, said her organization decided quickly that it wanted to honor all the victims of the massacre, not just Noah.

“Everybody was so affected by the massacre and wanted to do something to express their solidarity with the families,” Natan told JTA. “Each of us have had the experience of non-Jews who have found it very meaningful when a tree is planted in the Holy Land. We felt no one would be offended by this and we thought it would be a very appropriate way to honor the memory of the victims.”

The trees will be planted in a section of the park that Hadassah already had committed to populating with trees. At $18 per tree, the gifts in memory of the Newtown victims thus far are enough to cover more than 3,300 trees.

Raising the bar brings zest, creativity to rite of passage

At his recent bar mitzvah, Noah Genco-Kamin managed to tell one of the most well-known stories in the Jewish canon — that of the Israelites wandering in the desert after the Exodus — in a way that no one present had heard it told before: from the perspective of a cow.

Wearing a white blazer dappled with brown felt, Noah strode up to the podium at the historic Breed Street Shul and offered a fresh analysis of the weary tribe’s mindset as they berated Moses for having no water to drink. The best way to examine the Israelites’ behavior in this tense situation, Noah had decided a few months prior, was to employ the impartial voice of their livestock.

“I had a lot of fun that day,” said Noah, 13. “A lot of people thought it was really cool. Some said they thought it was really different and strange, but mostly, people loved it.”

Noah’s theatrical account of his Torah portion is a hallmark of Raising the Bar, a program founded by New York-based Storahtelling to inject zest into the b’nai mitzvah experience. Los Angeles co-coordinators Deanna Neil and Todd Shotz guide local students to research, write and ultimately stage a dramatic interpretation of their parasha as part of their bar or bat mitzvah ceremony.

“The Storahtelling methodology revives the ancient art of targum — of translation,” Neil said,  describing the archaic practice in which a designated interpreter would explain passages read from the Torah in relatable terms. “For so many people, b’nai mitzvah are just a chore. This is all about joy and having moments that are fun and memorable.”

To bring this innovative program to the West Coast, Neil, a longtime Storahtelling associate, teamed up with Shotz, who in 2005 founded Hebrew Helpers, a full-service b’nai mitzvah prep company with a penchant for facilitating outside-the-box services. Together they work with families across the Jewish spectrum — from Reform to Modern Orthodox, synagogue members and the unaffiliated — providing private, highly personalized tutoring that lets kids find their own meaning in their Torah portion.

“Our goal is to reinvigorate this rite of passage and make it more meaningful for families and congregations,” said Isaac Shalev, Storahtelling’s executive director. “If we let students find their own voice in the text, it becomes more engaging and relevant to the contemporary world.”

Here’s how it works: A student and his or her Raising the Bar mentor read through the parasha together, and the mentor prods the student to identify a core question embedded in the text. Noah, for instance, asked, “When in survival situations, do people inevitably lose their humanity?” Then they list the characters that appear in the parasha and those that would have been present but aren’t mentioned, like Moses’ wife. They also talk about modern figures who might speak to the question at hand — a psychologist, perhaps, or a Holocaust survivor. From this eclectic cast, the student weaves a narrative that sheds intimate light on oft-repeated biblical stories.

Shotz and Neil act as advisers to their students as they script the live performance, which might bring half a dozen characters to life on the bimah. And throughout this process, kids also learn basic skills, like how to read Hebrew and sing Torah trope.

This method, the coordinators believe, lets kids connect emotionally with ancient texts that might otherwise seem as arcane as trigonometry. “Students really own the text by the end of the process, more so than if they just memorize the reading and give a speech,” Shotz said. “Afterward, the kids end up saying, ‘I really know what I said up there — I really got it!’ ”

On the day of the ceremony, the service begins with the traditional morning prayers. Then the pace changes: The bar or bat mitzvah comes out, often in costume, and presents an opening scene introducing the characters that populate the Torah portion he or she will read. Members of the student’s family usually play supporting roles — but that’s where similarities between Raising the Bar ceremonies end. “The portion dictates the experience, as well as the family and the student,” Shotz said. “Sometimes it’s comedic; sometimes it’s very heavy.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd at the Breed Street Shul on Feb. 4 as Noah and his brother, Owen, 10, appeared in bovine attire. Their parents, Mitch Kamin and Susan Genco, played thirsty Israelites debating whether to rebel against Moses. When Moses — Noah’s sister Ava, 7, wearing a fake beard — called out to God for guidance, she stood up on a chair with a cell phone.

For this interfaith family, “It was a great blend of tradition and non-tradition,” Genco said. Genco, who is Catholic, said she craved a service that would be inclusive and accessible to non-Jews. Kamin, meanwhile, reveled in the significance of having his son’s bar mitzvah at the same synagogue where one of Noah’s great-grandfathers came of age. And Noah was thrilled he got to wow his peers on the electric guitar with a rock rendition of “Hinei Ma Tov.”

“The service really suited our family, it suited Noah’s personality, and it suited our experience with Judaism in Los Angeles,” Kamin said.

Eytan Rosenman’s bar mitzvah last fall was unconventional in a different way: At B’nai David-Judea, Eytan’s Modern Orthodox family staged a dramatic interpretation performed entirely by women.

Translating Ha’azinu, Moses’ last prophesy to the Jewish people before his death, Eytan worked with Neil on a script that cast his mother as a medieval Torah scholar, his grandmother as Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and his sister as a fictional Israelite girl. To navigate halachic concerns, the actresses ascended the bimah on the women’s side and made sure the performance space was slightly off-center.

Shep and Shari Rosenman, supporters of the feminist Shira Hadasha movement, saw Raising the Bar as an opportunity to give women visible and meaningful roles in the service while still honoring their Orthodox setting.

“Storahtelling could offer a sustainable model for involving women on an ongoing basis,” said Shep Rosenman, a co-founder of LimmudLA, who worked with his son for months to identify the values Eytan wanted to express as a bar mitzvah. “It certainly was unusual for us and for our community, but we had a ton of great feedback from friends. There was a lot of excitement and buzz in the room — everyone laughed and was moved by the experience. One friend said, ‘Why don’t we do that every week?’ ”

The program requires a bigger time commitment than traditional b’nai mitzvah — Neil and Shotz like to start working with students about 18 months out. But families say it’s worth it.

“There were moments of panic the night before when we weren’t sure it would play out the way it did, but it was really an extraordinary day,” Kamin said. “The glow has not worn off a couple months later, and I don’t expect it will.”

Unique Capabilities: Parashat Noach (Genesis 6:9-11:32)

There are places in the Torah where many of us moderns have a hard time relating to our ancestors and the societies in which they lived. Oppression of women, slavery, animal sacrifice, a God that intervenes and directs our lives in a forceful and immediate way, to name a few. This parasha, however, is not really one of these moments. In fact, as I read through Noach again and again this year, I couldn’t help but think how much hasn’t changed since those fateful days, in primordial time, when the first humans brought about the destruction of the Earth.

“The Earth became corrupt before God; the Earth was filled with lawlessness (hamas). When God saw how corrupt the Earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways, God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to put an end to all flesh, for the Earth is filled with lawlessness because of them: I am about to destroy them with the Earth’ ”  (Genesis 6:11-13).

Our ancestors quickly devolved into corruption, violence, greed and anger. Sadly, destruction was the only way to stop them. Rashi, followed by Ramban and others, understands the word “hamas” as “robbery/violence,” and the Talmud teaches us that while humans committed every conceivable transgression, their “fate was only sealed when they put forth their hands to robbery and violence toward one another” (Sanhedrin 108a). I see violence here not only as the physical

manifestation of hate toward one another, but also as the mental and spiritual manifestation of greed and selfishness, both toward other humans and toward animals and the natural world. The human being believed that they were the end-all and be-all of creation, endowed with rights and privileges that permitted any actions, including murder, to advance their evil ways. We see this lesson is not truly learned, even after the flood, for the end of Parashat Noach teaches us about the Tower of Babel, read by commentators old and new, as another physical manifestation of greed and desire for power. We have short memories, even as God has a long, full memory.

And so, as I look at the world in which we live today, a world that is being quickly passed to my children and all of the children soon to be adults, I am both afraid and emboldened. I am afraid because the pace of our world, filled with violence, war, planetary destruction, greed, indifference, poverty, genocide, hatred and intolerance, is moving so fast with the technological advances we celebrate in the life of someone like Steve Jobs, that I fear we will not, we cannot, stop, turn around and repair the massive damage we have done and continue to do on a daily basis, both here in America and the world over. Yet, I am emboldened by the same Parashat Noach that gives us the rainbow, a sign that continues to inspire awe and wonder in the hopefulness of our world and our capacity to do the right thing. The same technology that is speeding us up, blinding us, is also being used to open our eyes, be it with the global satellite pictures of Darfur that we can see firsthand, the capacity to provide enough food to end poverty, the incredible advances in medicine and healing, most of which are emerging from Israel, the social media that helped spawn revolutions in the Arab world and right here in America — all signs that we have the capacity to make good decisions for the betterment of all life. Let’s not forget Deuteronomy, which teaches,

“I place before you a blessing and a

curse … .” While things change, they often stay the same.

Human beings were not given dominion in Genesis in order to dominate, but rather we were given “unique capabilities,” a better translation of the Hebrew word that is usually translated as “dominion.” The midrash teaches that it actually took Noah 120 years to build the ark so that people might ask him what he was doing, hear the answer and repent of their evil ways and change course. It was a long drive to the destruction, with many signs and warnings along the way. Our ancestors didn’t listen. Will we? Shabbat shalom!

Briefs: Questions women can’t ask the rabbi, cartoon Torah, parking tickets, Latino Sukkot

You Can’t Ask a Rabbi THAT…

Asking your rabbi a question about your period or your sex life might seem odd, but couples who observe the laws of family purity — where they refrain from sexual contact during and after a woman’s menstrual cycle — occasionally need to provide intimate details to male rabbis.

Questions often involve irregular periods or midcycle staining, which may or may not render a woman a niddah, off limits to her husband. Sometimes, the questions are more emotional, dealing with miscarriage, menopause and infertility.

For the past eight years tens of thousands of women from Israel and the United States have opted to bring these questions to yoatzot (advisers), women trained to either answer the questions or act as a liaison between the women and rabbis.

About 50 women have undertaken two years of study at Nishmat’s Jerusalem Center for Advanced Jewish Study for Women (, and have answered 70,000 phone calls on a hotline and thousands more questions on a Web site (

This weekend, Bracha Rutner, a Talmud teacher and yoetzet in Riverdale, N.Y., will be in Los Angeles to talk with girls at YULA and Shalhevet Orthodox high schools, and, on Shabbat, will address the topic of the Jewish view of love and romance at Young Israel of Century City (YICC). She will also join with doctors and other professionals at YICC on Sunday morning to talk about the intersections of Jewish law and women’s health issues, including the use of birth control and hormones.

As demonstrated by Rutner’s topics, the yoatzot have broadened their role beyond dealing with halachic minutiae. Nishmat in Jerusalem and Nishmat’s Miriam Glaubach Center in New York have dispatched the yoatzot to communities across the country to provide proactive education on women’s health issues and open up conversations on women and sexuality. Online courses prepare new brides and refresh long-married couples on the laws and meaning of family purity.

Nishmat also has a Web site ( for medical and halachic professionals.

“These are brilliant women, who are so well trained, and can speak to other women in a way men cannot,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin of YICC, where yoatzot have spoken twice before. “The important thing is they encourage women to observe this mitzvah and make them more comfortable with it, because they can explain things and talk to them, woman to woman.”

Bracha Rutner will keynote “Health and Halakha,” Sunday, Nov. 2, at Young Israel of Century City, 9317 W. Pico Blvd, 9 a.m.-noon. Topics include “Hormones, Halakha and Beyond” and “Medicine, Mikvah and Me.” For more information, call (310) 273-6954 or visit

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Outreach Builds Latino and Jewish Bonds

Hundreds of Latino evangelical Christians gathered for Sukkot services at Sinai Temple in Westwood on Oct. 19. The program, sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Esencia de Judaismo, drew a similar-sized crowd to the Westwood congregation in 2007.

“Our goal is to bridge cultural and linguistic barriers to develop mutual understanding and respect between the Latino and Jewish communities,” said Randall Brown, AJC’s director of interreligious and Israel affairs.

Esencia de Judaismo, which received a $150,000 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles in August, is a three-year AJC program that seeks to train 500 Los Angeles-area Latino pastors about Judaism. AJC scholars and Latino rabbis from North and Central America head the effort.

Brown said mutual respect is the key to the program. “We’re not trying to convert anyone; we’re simply educating,” he said.

Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe welcomed participants to this year’s Sukkot serice, which was held on the last night of the holiday. “All of us can join hands and in our own way worship God together,” he said.

Gil Artzyeli, a Israeli deputy consul general in Los Angeles who also served in Bogotá, Mexico City and Madrid, addressed the crowd in fluent Spanish.

“We are all immigrants,” he said. “You’re here for your love of Israel, for your love of God.”

Israel is important to evangelical Christians, said Dr. Manuel Tigerino, president and founder of Latin University of Theology. “Israel is the place especially chosen by God,” he said.

Many of those involved in Esencia de Judaismo are leading Latino pastors within Pentecostalism, a diverse evangelical movement that places special emphasis on speaking in tongues and spiritual healing.

“Latino Pentecostals are the fastest-growing ethnic demographic and have emerged as a major force in the religious and political landscape,” AJC Los Angeles Executive Director Seth Brysk said.

— Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

Yom Tov Parking Tickets to Be Reviewed

District 5 City Councilman Jack Weiss has issued an apology to constituents who received parking tickets during the last days of Yom Tov. In September, Weiss’ office had announced efforts to relax enforcement of street cleaning, time limit and preferential parking restrictions for certain neighborhoods during the High Holy Days.

Weiss is instructing people who received citations to e-mail field deputy Maya Zutler at with the citation number, the date of the citation and contact information included.

“The office will then work with the Department of Transportation and the Parking Enforcement Bureau to investigate the citations and cancel the ones that were issued incorrectly,” Zutler said.

Zutler warned that the process could take some time and asked for patience in the matter. “We assure you that these citations will all be investigated,” she said.

— LF

Third and Fairfax Celebrates Diamond Anniversary

The Original Farmers Market in Los Angeles is turning to the public for help in celebrating its 75th anniversary next year.

“We know that tourists and locals alike have great memories of their times at the Market,” said Ilysha Buss, Farmers Market marketing manager. “We have our own extensive archive to draw upon as we prepare to celebrate 75 years in Los Angeles, but we know that many of those who cherish the Market have their own memories, stories, photographs and other memorabilia, too. We are asking one and all to share their memories of the Market with us.”

Couples courting, graduations, novels and screenplays written, it’s all happened at the Famers Market, Buss said.

The market is asking for photographs, stories (no more than 250 words) and other memories to be sent to 6333 W. Third St., Los Angeles, 90036 or e-mailed to Throughout 2009, the Farmers Market will display the public’s contributions on memory boards created specifically for its 75th anniversary year-long celebration and on a special section of their Web site at

— LF

Cartoon Parshat Now on Web

Teens who know little about the Torah can now turn to, a new weekly Web cartoon about each week’s Torah portion has just launched.

“Each episode features a different celebrated or emerging Jewish voice in the arts or education, and each one has a free curriculum guide for teachers and parents,” said site founder Sarah Lefton, the San Francisco-based entrepreneur behind the clothing company Jewish Fashion Conspiracy.

National Jewish Book Award-winner Dara Horn and Chasidic hip hop artist Y-Love are just a couple of the names that will be featured in the new series. The episodes vary widely and include anything from country songs to hip-hop tracks to “mystical musings on the nature of the universe.”

Each Webcast runs no more than four minutes and is available as a podcast.

Lefton, who grew up in South Carolina, said she started the site because she knows children in certain parts of the United States have little or no access to Jewish education.

“We started G-dcast to try to bring literacy to these populations, ” Lefton said.

— LF

Local Schools Help Sderot Kids Play it Safe

Schools across the country are participating in the Jewish National Fund’s “Let Us Play” campaign to support the construction of Israel’s largest indoor playground in Sderot.

“Our hope is that the children in this country, who live in a much safer world than the children of Sderot, will join together to raise funds through sponsorship and donations to make a safe place for the children in Sderot,” said Bob Levine, JNF Vice President of Education.

JNF’s Education Program Manager Michelle Beller said 127 schools nationwide have opted to participate in the campaign, which will take place on Thursday, Nov. 13. Four L.A.-area Jewish educational organizations — Temple Aliyah Department of Early Childhood Education, Wilshire Boulevard Temple Religious School, Temple Ahavat Shalom Religious School and the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles — are among those participating.

Students at the schools are asking family and friends to sponsor their participation in games, sports and other activities that will be played on the playground.

The money raised will go toward helping build the $5 million, 20,000-square-foot facility in Sderot, complete with an indoor soccer field, basketball and volleyball courts, a rock-climbing wall, and a media center with a movie room and video games. The state-of-the-art facility will also feature three therapy rooms to help children who have experienced trauma.

JNF plans to recognize schools that raise more than $1,800 with a plaque that will be permanently displayed on Sderot’s new playground.

— LF

Noah’s deadly lack of curiosity

It is a question that has dogged Noah for millennia. When the Torah characterizes him as a tzadik (righteous person) in his generation, is this an objective measure of his character?

Was Noah someone who would have been recognized as a tzadik in any generation? Or was Noah only a tzadik in a relative sense, only in comparison to those around him?

One midrashic teaching, taking the latter route, compares God’s selection of Noah to the story of a lone traveler finding another lone soul on the road, and engaging him in discussion simply because there was no on else to talk to. As Dr. Aviva Zornberg summarized this midrash: “God chooses Noah not because he has achieved significant wisdom or virtue, but because he seeks to convey to someone the knowledge of Himself.”

Walking all by himself on a path that everyone else in the world had abandoned, Noah became the object of God’s attention. The midrash isn’t, I don’t think, being harsh or unfair to Noah. It is just sharing, in candid terms, its read of a Biblical character who is an essentially decent person, but who also possesses some very deep personality flaws.

How might we describe Noah’s most basic personality flaw? Zornberg calls it the flaw of being incurious.

To understand what being “incurious” means, we need only recall that within his biblical story, we never find Noah — not even once — expressing curiosity about why his corrupt neighbors live the terrible way that they do. The Torah doesn’t record one interaction between him and any other human being prior to their all being wiped out in the flood. The rabbis of the midrash presume that some sort of conversation between Noah and his neighbors must invariably have ensued once the ark started going up in his front yard, but in projecting what those conversations may have sounded like, they suggest dialogues consistently characterized by Noah’s lack of curiosity about his fellows.

In one rabbinic passage (Tanchuma 5), the neighbors give Noah the perfect opening for a substantive discussion. “What are all these cedar trees for?” the neighbors ask. This was Noah’s moment to talk about his understanding of Divine expectations of human behavior, and to ask them why they were behaving in ways so displeasing to God. But instead, he simply responds, “God is bringing a flood to the world and told me to build an ark so that my family and I can escape.” Their question to him opens a door, but in his lack of curiosity about them, all Noah comes forward with is a superficial response that dead-ends the conversation.

In a similar text (Sanhedrin 108b), Noah is actually portrayed as rebuking his contemporaries, but his words are described as being “as tough as lightning bolts,” and they wind up eliciting only derision and scorn, and not any self-reflection. This was a generation that lacked any insight into itself, a generation that desperately needed someone to sketch out for them the contours of a moral framework within which to evaluate themselves. But Noah had no interest in really talking with them. He was not curious about what made them tick.

The Zohar provides the most dramatic criticism of all of Noah’s incuriosity: When Noah exited the ark and saw that the world had been destroyed, he began to cry before God and he said,” Master of the universe! You are called ‘the Compassionate One.’ You ought to have had compassion upon Your creations!”

God responded to him, “Stupid shepherd. Now you say this?! Why did you not say this at the time [that I told you to build the ark]?… Now you open your mouth to speak before Me?!”

Had only Noah been curious about the people around him when they were yet alive, the sequence of events might have played out quite differently.

What’s most fascinating about this critique of Noah is that there is something rather counter-cultural about it. One of the values that our environment ingrains in us is that curiosity about others is bad. We are taught that we should rein in our curiosity about others, lest we become nosy and start asking people personal questions that are none of our business — questions that might even prove embarrassing to them. Just say hello to people, smile, and be sure to only ask “how are you?” when it’s clear that no substantial response is expected. Curiosity is just plain impolite.

And yet, curiosity is the fountainhead of human mutual assistance. If I suspend my curiosity, I will never ask what’s going on with you. And if I never ask, you will never tell me. And if you never tell me, I will never understand. And if I do not understand, I can never be of any help to you. There are also times when we must ask, when through our failure to ask we effectively consign people around us to a fate comparable to the fate of Noah’s generation. To be sure, we need to develop enough honesty with ourselves to be able to distinguish between being “desiring-to-be-helpful” curious and “just-plain-nosy” curious. That’s another piece of our internal work. But if we don’t do the work and hone our skills, people will get washed away right from under our noses.

Noah was righteous in his generation. But not sufficiently curious to actually save any of them.

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai-David Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood

Picking up the pieces

“The Sabbath Day: One should not forget it;
Its memory is like a savory fragrance.
The dove found respite on it [the Sabbath],
And on it the weary of spirit shall rest.”
— Translated from “Yom Shabbaton,” Shabbat Zemirot liturgy, composed by R’ Judah HaLevi (d. 1140)

The dove sent by Noah to see if the floodwaters had abated found its resting spot on dry land on the Sabbath day, according to the great Spanish poet Judah HaLevi.

What did Noah do once he disembarked from the Ark? He offered a sacrifice on an altar, which provided a “savory fragrance” to God (Genesis 8:21). The poet is engaging in clever wordplay, because the Hebrew words for respite (mano’ach) and fragrance (nicho’ach) are etymologically related.

As a matter of fact, Noah’s very name foreshadows both the respite that the dove — and all mankind — finally found, as well as the fragrance of his sacrifice. Noah in Hebrew is derivative of both words. Indeed, the rabbis in the Midrash disagree as to why Noah was so named: Was it because the Ark would come to “rest” (mano’ach) under his tutelage, or was it because he would provide a “savory fragrance” (nicho’ach) with his sacrifice?

What difference does it make why he was named Noah? Why couldn’t it have been for both reasons?

The sages are debating what provides greater consolation to the community of man after that community has been destroyed. One consolation is that God’s anger doesn’t last forever; eventually the flood’s rains abate and dry land once again emerges. As long as one is patient, there will always be a time for peace.

However, the other view sees a much greater consolation than a simple abatement of Divine retribution. After all, of what benefit is it to know that God’s anger is not permanent if mankind is incapable of rebuilding after all the carnage and destruction? The greater consolation is rather that once all the violent destruction is over, man is capable of picking up the shattered pieces of his life and rebuilding.

This is what was represented by Noah’s sacrifice. Not only did Noah find dry land that enabled him to physically disembark from the Ark, that icon of mankind’s destruction. He was also able to emotionally distance himself from that trapped existence in the Ark. He found within himself the ability to leave behind the pain and to rebuild — to rebuild his altar, his community, his entire way of life.

He managed to find a place again in his life where God was welcome. He could have spent the rest of his life in anger, bitter at God for having wrought all the devastation and loss. But he knew that approach was pointless, and that he needed to instead rebuild and restore humanity.

Noah’s behavior after the flood represents the ultimate consolation to mankind.

Esther Jungreis is fond of saying that the term “Holocaust survivor” is a misnomer. Jews didn’t “survive” the Shoah, they triumphed over it. Whereas so many would have given up after all the death and devastation, Jewish individuals and whole communities picked up the pieces of their lives and rebuilt.

Out of the death camps emerged Jewish schools. Out of the ashes of the crematoria blossomed a Jewish state.

The greatest consolation is the indomitable human drive to build and rebuild, to live at all costs. This is why no nation, no matter how formidable or foreboding to the Jewish people, will ever be able to keep us down. No matter what, we will always rebuild our altars, and offer that savory fragrance, just like Noah.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.

A grown-up children’s story

Inner child therapy is a psychological method aimed at giving voice to part of the adult psyche that remains eternally childlike. It purports that a vulnerable innocence
exists within our subconscious; when acknowledged, a more complete and mature life experience is attained.

For example, were my inner child invited to describe Parshat Noach, she might say:

Noah is full of animal crackers

Animal Crackers

This week’s Torah Portion is Noach. We learn that Noah had to build a massive ark (aka a really BIG boat) because the floods were coming. Two of every animal (one male, one female) had to make it onto the boat, otherwise there would be no more of that animal in the world — the story goes that that’s why we don’t have unicorns today. Pretend you are Noah or his wife and you are making a list of animals. Put what the animal is called in the right blank. To check your answers, visit scroll to the bottom of this page.

1) Male Cat ______
2) Female Cat ______

3) Male Deer ______
4) Female Deer _______

5) Male Fox______
6) Female Fox _______

7) Male Goat _______
8) Female Goat ______

9) Male Horse ______
10) Female Horse ________

11) Male Sheep _____
12) Female Sheep _______

13) Male Swan _____
14) Female Swan _____

Words to choose from:

a) Billy, b) Buck, c) Cob, d) Doe, e) Dog, f) Ewe, g) Mare, h) Nanny, I) Pen, j) Queen, k) Ram, l) Stallion, m) Tom, n) Vixen

Kein v’ Lo:


This section of the page is a way for you as kids to sound off about an issue. While some Jews do not participate in Halloween because of its Christian and pagan origins, at this time of year it’s hard to ignore that there are a lot of monsters, witches and pumpkins all over town. This month’s Kein v’ Lo looks at ghosts and spirits and examines whether we believe in such things.

The Kein Side:

  • It is believed that the souls of our loved ones continue to watch over us after they have died. This is why sometimes if you go to the home of someone who has died, you can still feel his or her presence.
  • If ghosts and evil spirits weren’t real, then why would some people be so superstitious about protecting themselves from the “evil eye” by wearing a hamsah (amulet), saying “kein ayin hora” or breaking a glass at a wedding to scare off evil spirits?

The Lo Side:

  • When people say they “see” a ghost, that cannot be. It is the soul that is supposed to remain, so there is nothing to see. Basically, ghost sightings have never been proven.
  • Science disputes the existence of ghosts. They are not the spirits of the dead, but traces that have been left behind because of really strong emotional connections.

Discuss your opinions in your classroom or around your dining table with your family. We aren’t saying which is right and which is wrong. We want to know what you think. Send your thoughts to with Kein v’Lo in the subject line.


1m, 2j, 3b, 4d, 5e, 6n, 7a, 8h, 9l, 10g, 11k, 12f, 13c, 14i

You Rule

“While all other sciences have advanced, government is at a standstill — little better practiced now than three or four thousand years ago.” — John Adams

If the art of government had improved, then war, disease and poverty inflicted by the tyranny and selfishness of man, as well as the corruption of leaders, would not claim so many lives each minute, each second, around the globe. Man’s quest for a perfect form of government started at the dawn of civilization and is still far from conclusion.

The Bible describes the failure of monarchy, and history has proven that theocracy usually leads to fanaticism or hypocrisy. Even democracy boils down eventually to decisions made by individuals, and as long as it depends on the wisdom and discretion of one or several humans at the helm it can take disastrous turns.

A system of checks and balances can put democracy back on track, but we must admit that stumbling, falling, hitting the ground and getting up again to repeat the process is not the ideal form of walking.

In the words of historian Barbara Tuchman: “Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity…. Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

In the early chapters of Genesis, the Torah denounces different forms of government. The anarchy of the generation of Noah started with a corrupt oligarchy, the elite group of Bene Ha’Elohim, or the Sons of the Judges. The attempt of the builders of the Tower of Babel to create a totalitarian society, with communism as its flag and “one language, one ideology” as its motto, resulted in the dispersion and diversification of mankind.

In this week’s portion, we read about the destruction of Sodom, which came about not because of sodomy but rather because of its total abandonment of the weaker layers of society, as the prophet Ezekiel declares: “Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy” (16:49).

The model of Sodom was that of capitalism to the max. If you cannot make a living, don’t turn to me for help; it’s a free country, try harder.

In the midst of that political mayhem there appears our first patriarch, Abraham. He is plucked by God out of nowhere. He is not a king or a chieftain when he is addressed by God. Why was he chosen to be the forefather of Israel? What was special about him?

The answer is disclosed by God: I have chosen Abraham — or better yet: I have made Myself known to him — because I know that he will instruct his household members and his descendants in future generations to observe the path of God and to do justice and charity (18:19).

Abraham is chosen because he can prepare the ground for a utopian society, one in which every individual is raised with the understanding that the boundaries of law must be respected and justice must be pursued. At the same time, that charity, lovingkindness and understanding of other human beings are crucial to maintaining these very boundaries.

The path of God is remembering that all humans were created in God’s image and therefore all have equal rights. The perfect government, therefore, starts with the individual governing himself.

A short while ago, two friends with the help of many bloggers, created a powerful Web tool for locating missing Katrina victims. As Discover magazine reports, it was “the kind of data management effort that could have taken a year to execute if a corporation or a government agency had been in charge of it.” The PeopleFinder group managed to pull it off in four days for zero dollars.

The activism of Bono and the philanthropy of Bill Gates are but two examples of what inspired and dedicated individuals can achieve despite the shortsightedness of governments. Theirs is a world where the responsibility of justice and lovingkindness lies first and foremost on the shoulders of the individual.

The goal still seems tantalizingly distant, but inspired by the eternal message of the Torah, we are allowed and obligated to dream of a perfect world. Translate the dream to action. Assume leadership of yourself first and then exercise it, combining justice and lovingkindness in order to help your family, your community, your neighborhood and eventually, the whole world. Imagine….

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at


Lenin, Meet Noah

Fall was just beginning to turn the Moscow air crispy when the lot of us — 10 high school seniors and three faculty members of Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls’ School — trudged down the stairs of our Intourist Hotel in the late ’80s, and began our walk of several miles, not to the better-known Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue or to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, but to another shul in the city’s north.

Marina Roscha was discreetly tucked away, just out of view from the street it shared with a major hospital. Its old frame building was as unobtrusive as its beginnings. It had been built in those first few years of post-Revolution confusion, when it was still possible to act without Big Brother noticing. (Although it had withstood decades of Communist rule, it was firebombed — twice — since our visit, and only recently rebuilt as a Jewish community center.)

The minimum mandatory age for the local attendees appeared to be 85. Besides us, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli thinker, davened there that Shabbat morning. After services, many of the men gathered around a table to study Mishnah. The class had invited Steinsaltz to speak, so I listened in as he addressed them in Yiddish.

“Yidden, this morning we read the portion about Noah. Do you know what the lesson of this portion is in a nutshell?” Not waiting for a response, he continued: “There are two lessons. One is that it is possible that a person can wake up and find that the entire world has gone mad, that he is the last sane person to survive. Two is what you should do when this happens.

“Let me tell you a story. After World War II, I returned to Paris to look for family. The last thing I expected to find was a shul to pray in on Shabbat. In fact, there was such a shul, and I joined a handful of old, broken survivors for davening. Ten years later, I returned, and sought out the same shul. Certainly, I thought, all the old ones would have passed on, and the shul would have closed. Instead, I found more people than a decade before. There were some middle-aged people, and even a few children.

“Another decade or so passed. How delighted I was to find that the shul was now bustling with people of all ages, with children running everywhere.

“A week ago, I visited again, and found fewer congregants than before. They told me that the shul had become so big that it had spawned two breakaway shuls, and siphoned off many people! Those few beaten-down survivors had succeeded in creating a vital community!”

He looked hard at the faces of the men who had known nothing but communist oppression for the last 70 years.

“What do you do when you are the only sane person left, when there is nothing but madness around?” he asked. “You keep to your principles. You keep doing what you know God wants you to do. You may discover one day that you have triumphed, and single-handedly rebuilt a better new world.”

Although these old men were hardened by adversity, there was hardly a dry eye among them. They recognized the message as the summation of their lives. To Lenin goes much of the “credit” for inventing state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will. Individuals simply did not matter. And religion had to be crushed to make way for more progressive ideas.

Many of us find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world burdened with a new variety of madness. At the same time, the principles and practices that offered Jews dignity and purpose in other stormy times are often attacked as outdated and insufficiently progressive.

Noah showed that tenaciously clinging to the truth can be profoundly lonely, but crucially effective. Ultimately, he got the best of Lenin. It just took a while to find out.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 19, 2001.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

Captains of Destiny

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot, finds us studying the Book of Exodus for the first time this year. Probing the text, I began to think about the Hebrew word tevah (ark) that is found only twice in the Torah — in parshat Noah and in this one.

As Rabbi James Mirel once wrote: "There is an important link between these two mythic tales. In the story of Noah, God uses the ark to rescue all the animals, including the human species. In this instance, Moses, who is to become the vehicle for the redemption of the Jewish people, is kept alive by means of an ark."

"Both narratives depict the ark as being surrounded by potentially destructive waters. In the case of Noah, the waters of the flood, which covers the entire earth, and in this case, the river into which Pharaoh commands that all Hebrew male infants be thrown," Mirel said.

"From this parallel, we can learn that we, too, should consider the ways in which each of us can find a tevah by which to navigate the threatening waters that surround us in order to reach safety and redemption," he added.

I submit that there is another way to cite this rare Hebrew word in order to make a somewhat different point. Namely, are we to merely drift through life — mirroring Noah, who was able to survive during the flood, and Moses, who, we find on his way to being given an opportunity to live in the lap of luxury as Pharaoh’s adopted nephew — or is something else required of us?

It is my belief that God and Judaism’s prophets and sages demand that we not just rock along, dependent on the currents of life to move us from birth to death, but that we place a tiller into the waters of life, grab the helm and steer a course, which will provide us with personal fulfillment and satisfaction while responding to the needs of others who seek — and deserve — our assistance.

Here’s how we can avoid being dashed upon the rocks of despair, becoming stuck in the narrows of bias and prejudice or finding ourselves trapped in the shallows of limited thought and action.

Within this context, here’s the ultimate question which Shemot forces upon us: "Are we willing to risk everything to be the captains of our own destiny, or are we merely content letting circumstances and other people determine the course of our lives?"

If we are activists, we constantly take charge and even — on occasion — attempt to go upstream and thereby willingly confront one mighty challenge after another.

If we are pacifists, we are delighted to easily and simply follow the currents of the headwaters — even if this means that we must always allow others to decide the direction we’ll go … solely dependent on the winds of their opinion which then propel us from place to place. Under these circumstances, it is they and never we who will determine what our eventual goals might be.

Sam Rayburn, the late speaker of the House of Representatives, often instructed his younger colleagues "to get along just go along." If all a person desires is ease and comfort, that may be good advice. However, if someone decides that the demands and benefits of life require that we must occasionally take a chance, such an individual elects not to be under the thumb of others, but to set off on a self-selected course.

I am convinced that our lives are far more exciting and rewarding when we take charge of our own situations, set our sights on distant shores and then battle our way to reach them.

You see, just as so very little is written in this and in subsequent parshot about the first 80 of the 120 years allotted to Moses, we ought not to think too much about our origins, or where we find ourselves at any given moment. Instead, we need to concentrate on what we wish to achieve, to think about what demanding choices are ours, and to concentrate on the benefits that will be ours and others when we exert ourselves as proactive decision-makers and doers.

After all, as Vancouver’s Rabbi Philip Bregman has taught us: "By speeding through the description of Moses’ early and middle years, the Torah is making the statement that beginnings are less important than endings in life.

"In other words, a human being’s worth is not determined by where that individual came from but what that person ultimately accomplished," Bregman said. "This message has tremendous relevance for us today. Too often we spend our time dwelling on the past instead of focusing on our ultimate goal in life. What really counts is where our experiences lead us and what we have learned along the way."

"This week’s parsha encourages us to ask ourselves tough questions about where our own personal journey is leading," Bregman added. "Are we still growing and learning? What is that we seek? Are we moving in the right direction toward a worthwhile destination? Are we basking in the sun of a previous generation’s accomplishments, or are we endeavoring to make our own mark in the world"?

I wish you Godspeed and a bon voyage as you answer those profound questions and then act upon them in the most creative, dynamic and productive ways possible.

Law and Order

In a Sept. 11 New York Times Op-Ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman on the feelings of angst that linger a year after Sept. 11, 2001, the distinguished columnist reports that he turned to Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a teacher in the Netherlands. Here’s what Marx told Friedman:

"To some extent, we feel after Sept. 11 like we have experienced the flood of Noah — as if a flood has inundated our civilization and we are the survivors. What do we do the morning after?

"What was the first thing Noah did when the flood water receded and he got off the ark? He planted a vine, made wine and got drunk.

"But what was God’s reaction to the flood? Just the opposite. God’s reaction was to offer Noah a more detailed set of rules for mankind to live by — rules which we now call the Noahite Laws. God’s first rule was that life is precious, so man should not murder man. [Additionally, put in place were prohibitions against idolatry, adultery, blasphemy and theft.]

"It is as though God said, ‘Now I understand what I’m up against with these humans. I need to set for them some very clear boundaries of behavior, with some every clear values and norms, that they can internalize.’

"God, after the flood, refused to let Noah and his offspring indulge themselves in escapism, but God also refused to give them license to live without moral boundaries, just because humankind up to that point had failed."

It’s so very typical of Friedman to focus on a tragic event and to help lead us out of the darkness of despair not only by means of his own sagacious observations, but with the guidance of a contemporary seer.

While we continue to work ourselves through the grief and shock that Sept. 11 heaved upon our hearts and minds, as that flood of feelings recedes, are we willing to be like Noah or do we have the capacity to emulate God?

Even though Noah is described as a righteous man, the Torah provides us with a caveat; namely, it is written that he was "the most righteous man in his generation." This is hardly a flattering statement!

After all, his peers were constantly disappointing God — to the point that they had to be totally blotted out from existence. So, it’s obvious that Noah was barely better than they were.

Therefore, if a new world and a more reliable set of human beings were to arise out of the ruins of the flood, God had no choice but to reluctantly use Noah as the progenitor, and to add to the mix a plethora of rules and regulations.

Today, we are witnessing a considerable number of men and women who have come away from the tragedy that was wrought upon victims and their survivors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania — and upon each one of us — acting like Noah. They are so blinded by anger and drunk with power that they want to lash out at the world about them.

Falling prey to stereotyping and scapegoating, they choose to believe that most Muslims, Arabs and non-Jewish residents in or immigrants from the Middle East are either terrorists or advocates of terrorism. They want to settle their differences by trampling upon constitutional guarantees of freedom and due process. They want to unleash the military might of our nation upon its enemies — real and imagined.

Noah-like, we can join their ranks or we can emulate God as depicted in this week’s Torah portion by giving evidence that we are wise and prudent, strong and patient and ever-reliant on laws instead of raw passions.

Certainly, America has its enemies and we need to deal with them in ways in which their threat to our way of life is totally wiped away. But this does not give us license to cast blame on an entire people simply because of their religious affiliation or national origin.

Rather, we must concentrate on those specific individuals who are our antagonists, marginalize them and strip away their power and influence on others.

"Military operations, while necessary, are not sufficient. Building higher walls may feel comfortable, but in today’s interconnected world they’re an illusion," Friedman said. "Our only hope is that people will be restrained by internal walls — norms and values. Visibly imposing them on ourselves, and loudly demanding them from others, is the only survival strategy for our shrinking planet.

"Otherwise, start building an ark."

This is sound advice that we and everyone else better listen to and accept before it’s much too late.

Your Letters

Lenin Revisited

Contrary to Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein’s claims (“Lenin Meet Noah,” Oct. 19), “state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will” was not invented by Lenin. In fact, the revolution he led outlawed anti-Semitism and the pogroms that permeated Russia prior to 1917.

For 1,800 years throughout Europe, Jews had either been barred from settling altogether or confined by law to ghettos — from which they could not emerge at night or Sundays — shtetls or the Pale of Settlement, denied citizenship, land ownership, and admission to most professions, trades and occupations. Jews could not leave the ghetto without wearing yellow badges. State-authorized violence against Jews was perpetrated by military forces.

In 1791, the French emancipated Jews who joined with them as their armies advanced across Europe, tearing down ghetto walls. But in 1815, the Congress of Vienna rescinded the obligation of any nation to grant rights to Jews. In Russia, oppression of Jews remained as an instrument of imposing the government’s will until Lenin.

While the Soviets suppressed all religion, they fought Nazi genocide, which grew easily from the European soil in which persecution of Jews had been cultivated for centuries.

Ralph Fertig, Los Angeles

Teresa Strasser

To Teresa Strasser, regarding your latest column (“In Praise of Geeks,” Oct. 19). Keep your hands off my husband!

Janet Fuchs, Beverly Hills

Kosher Bunny

By the time I was done reading Lauren Linett’s letter poking fun at The Jewish Journal’s attention to “Kosher Bunny” Lindsey Vuolo (Letters, Oct. 19), I thought, this proud Jewish woman’s got spunk. Then, after I kept reading and noticed that The Jewish Journal made the smart decision to actually publish her photo, I thought, Playboy needs a talent scout to keep an eye on the pages of The Jewish Journal.

Name withheld by request

A Living Wage

It is easier to focus on the living wage issue of big hotels in Santa Monica (“Santa Monica Gets a CLUE,” Sept. 28) than to look into the remuneration of the people who clean our homes. Jewish employers of domestic help would be well-advised to read a book titled “Doméstica: Immigrant Workers Cleaning and Caring in the Shadows of Affluence.” Written by Pierreta Hondagneu-Sotelo, a USC professor who is also the daughter of a Latina maid, the book discusses issues in the informal, unregulated world of Hispanic household help. Hondagneu-Sotelo observes that among themselves, domestic workers share information about types of employers to avoid. The list includes “Armenians, Iranians, Asians, Latinos, blacks and Jews, especially Israeli Jews.”

Those of us who try to right wrongs and consider ourselves fighters for the underdog should look at our own treatment of household employees and other low-wage workers. It is much easier to make a case for what someone else should be paying. When low-wage workers can get better pay and benefits cleaning our own homes and offices, the hotels may be forced to pay the living wage to attract employees.

Karen Heller Mason, Los Angeles

For The Kids

As an 11-year-old Torah-observant day school student, I would like to point out some mistakes in the “For The Kids” section (Oct. 19). In the Tower of Babel article, the people decided to build the tower because they wanted to rebel against God, not because they wanted to come closer to Him.

In the article about Noah, it said that it took Noah 120 days to build the ark. It really took 120 years. The article said, “The rabbis ask: ‘Why did it take him so long?'” The article answered that God was giving Noah a chance to talk to his neighbors. The real answer is that God was giving the people one last chance to repent.

Noah Gruen, Los Angeles

Editor’s Note: The Torah has 70 faces and the author’s version is one of the many interpretations. But the midrash indeed suggests that it took Noah 120 years to build the ark.