Religion Deserves Respect


I wrote a couple of blogs last week that generated a lot of comments. I received messages on jewishjournal.com, Facebook, Twitter, and email. One of the blogs was about political affiliations, so I expected those, and the other one was about an F List celebrity, which I knew would generate a dialogue. I love it when readers reach out to me. We don’t always agree, but when they feel strong enough about my words to share their own, it matters to me. Comments are always encouraged.

There is a woman in Tennessee who comments quite often. She is quite religious and does not comment without mentioning Jesus and keeping me in her prayers. We disagree about everything, and frankly I think her views on certain things are nothing shy of crazy, but she is always respectful and kind. I am a person who thinks life is better when you have faith. It can be faith in God, yourself, or the Green Bay Packers. It doesn’t matter where faith lies, just that you have it.

I am Jewish and write for a Jewish publication, but this woman in Tennessee is certain Jesus is the key to happiness. It is actually quite charming and I admire her conviction. I know nothing about her or her life, other than the fact she lives in Tennessee and thinks Leann Rimes is the greatest human being to walk the earth since Jesus. Crazy to be sure, but God Bless her for having faith and never wavering, even though other readers on my blog go after her quite often.

Last week after Tennessee commented on my post, a long time reader replied to her comment. In it she questioned Tennessee’s faith, saying her opinion was not in line with her religion. I found it to be offensive and rude, so I let everyone know with a rather colorful choice of words. In a time where there is so much religious hate in the world, I simply could not let anyone come to my blog and attack anyone’s religion. My religion is attacked every single day and I wasn’t going to allow it.

I have no problem with people not sharing the same opinion, and people don’t have to agree with everything I write, but to attack someone’s beliefs is not cool. I am of the opinion Leann Rimes is a sociopath who needs to be medicated and perhaps hospitalized. Just my opinion, but this is America, and this is my blog, and I have the right to write whatever I want. If Tennessee thinks Leann is an angel who should be sainted, good for her. Her opinion can be questioned, but not her faith.

To tell Tennessee her opinion makes her a bad Christian is not only idiotic, but it is hurtful. I let the woman who commented know where she could put her opinion of Tennessee’s faith. I then got a series of tweets from the woman who attacked religion, and she was not pleased with me. She let me know she was a longtime reader and to lash out at her was not only uncalled for, but unkind, and mean spirited. I immediately felt bad about my response as it really wasn’t nice.

I didn’t know who the woman was on Facebook, but on Twitter realized she is a lovely lady who has been reading my work for a very long time. She has always supported me and made an effort to stay connected. That is irrelevant however because whether or not I knew her, my attack should never have happened. Two wrongs don’t make a right and rather than go after her, I should have explained myself in a kind and articulate way, which is what happened on Twitter.

I told the reader I was offended by her bringing the woman’s religion into her comment, and she understood why I reacted like I did, and explained it was never her intention to upset me or offend Tennessee. I escalated the situation by losing my temper, which was a real shame. These are two lovely women, with different views, and my approach should have been to diffuse not ignite. It ended up being an important moment and I have been changed for the good by it.

To Tennessee, thank you for keeping me in your prayers. I appreciate that very much and wish you health and happiness always. To Sally, thank you for calling me out and teaching me something. Please accept my apology and know that I will be more thoughtful moving forward. Opinions may differ, but religion deserves respect. Have a great weekend everyone. Be safe, be kind, say sorry, count your blessings, and keep the faith.

 

 

Rabbis must navigate politics and morality


Like many others, I read Rabbi David Wolpe’s op-ed on politics and the pulpit with a sense of profound ambivalence (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” June 9). I found myself caught between ovation and objection.

The ancient rabbis begin in a similar place. Religion has no place in the public square because the town center is full of sin, it is depraved and consumed with self-interested politicians. “Be wary of the government, for they befriend no one unless it is out of self interest.” (Pirkei Avot 2:3).

The English word for holy spaces, “sanctuary,” comes from the Latin “sanctus,” meaning separate. Religion is a refuge against all that’s dirty and repugnant in the world. We come to the sanctuary to find comfort in one another’s embrace, protection from the harshness of the political world.

There is a something comforting about hunkering down against the weekly tweetstorm. Something heartwarming and freeing to not be bothered by CNN for a few hours. It feels good to rest.

However, our tradition forbids us to pray in a room without windows. We must be able to look outside and see the hour, including the pressing hour, the sha’a dakhaq, upon which our world is squeezed ever more presently.

The rabbis tell us, “Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.” (Shabbat 55a). There is no sanctus in Judaism, nothing takes us out of the world. There is only kedushah a sense of holiness that pushes us back into it.

Hence my ambivalence toward the good rabbi. Every leader must make a decision for his or her community, and I believe ultimately that the false distinction between religion and politics makes both worse. It makes religion a reverential Polaroid of ancient times. It makes faith static, metaphysics frozen, and theology moribund. If religion has nothing to say about the world we live in, if it addresses no reality outside our door, especially when that reality causes anguish and pain, what then do we need religion for? We risk slipping into the great void where all our windows become mirrors.

A state without a transcendent moral ethic of religion can become imperiled. George Washington, in his farewell address, understood that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” One of Washington’s great fears was that a society that is based in freedom would eventually free itself from morality and succumb to the bare clash of naked self-interest. As my teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l writes, “Religion … acts as a check on the State’s politics affirming that that which is harmful to the general good is impious and must be altered immediately.”

Religion is a durable good for society; it can hold the conscience and aspiration that make democracy work. Religion gives a tailwind to those who want to see that the injustices of yesterday cannot dictate the freedoms of tomorrow. The rabbi’s role is not to pick winners and losers in both party and personality, but to be the navigator, making sure that both congregant and congressman do not run aground on shoals of selfishness.

I fear, however, that Washington is proving to be right. In an article in the Atlantic Magazine, Peter Beinart shows convincingly that as Americans participate less in religious activities, the more polarized our politics become. “For whatever reason, secularization isn’t easing political conflict,” Beinart concludes. “It’s making American politics even more convulsive and zero-sum.”

It is because religious spaces like synagogues are some of the only platforms of mediation today between those who look and act enough like us so that we can listen to differing points of view. When we hear a rabbi teach an ethic of selflessness, transcending the ego in service to ideals higher than our own narrow desires, we can build havens of communication and solidarity in the chaos of the political world.

With the loss of these religious spaces we easily lose our affection for one another. Without sacred humility we lose the capacity to hear one another. If we leave all politics at the door when we enter the synagogue, then we lose a crucial nurturing structure that knits together our society.

Church and state can and should remain separate. But religion and politics are joint authors of our book of life.


Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino; founder of Netiya, a Los Angeles Jewish nonprofit that promotes urban agriculture through a network of interfaith partners; and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

80% of Reform rabbis are Democrats. That’s higher than any other clergy.


The vast majority of Reform and Conservative rabbis affiliate as Democrats, according to a new study.

The study, published Sunday by Yale University, found that more than 80 percent of Reform rabbis, and about 70 percent of Conservative rabbis, affiliate as Democrats. Both were among the top five most Democratic clergy of the Jewish and Christian denominations in the United States, with Reform rabbis topping the list.

Among Orthodox rabbis, nearly 40 percent identify as Democrats and a quarter as Republicans.

By contrast, Evangelical pastors are almost all Republicans, as are most Baptists. The Black Protestant African Methodist Episcopal clergy, as well as Unitarians, are heavily Democratic. Catholic priests are evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The study’s findings reflect existing data on the politics of American Jews. Solid majorities of American Jews consistently vote for Democrats — 70 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in the November presidential race — with polls showing that Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republican. Reform Jews have been on the front lines of protests against President Donald Trump.

Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of the American Jewish population, various studies show. One-third, or 35 percent, of all U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 18 percent identify with Conservative Judaism, 6 percent with other movements and 30 percent with no denomination, according to the Pew Research Center.

The Yale study also shows that rabbis’ political views track with congregants’ views on policy. For example, 40 percent of Orthodox rabbis are Democrats, and some 40 percent of Orthodox congregants are pro-choice, while about 30 percent of congregants believe gays and lesbians should be legally allowed to marry. Likewise, large majorities of Conservative and Reform rabbis are Democrats, and large majorities of their congregants are pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told JTA earlier this year that Reform rabbis’ generally liberal politics are a reflection of their Jewish values.

“The idea of Jewish spiritual community being about feeding the hungry, clothing the homeless, caring for the stranger — these are fundamental core pieces,” Jacobs said in January. “If we don’t talk about those things in our religious communities, we’re irrelevant.”

Orthodox Jews also cite Jewish values in explaining their support for Republicans, noting a preference for the GOP on Israel and conservative support for school choice programs and religious exemptions for various government mandates.

In total, the data cover 186,000 clergy, including approximately 2,700 rabbis. The data were collected via denominational websites cross-referenced with voter registration records. Some denominations and religions — including Mormons and Muslims — are not included due to lack of reliable clergy lists.

The data also show that the Reform rabbinate is the second-most female of any denominational clergy. Forty-five percent of Reform rabbis are women, as opposed to an average of 16 percent across the denominations surveyed. About a quarter of Conservative rabbis are women; nearly all the Orthodox clergy are men.

An analysis of the data by The New York Times found that rabbis on average lived in the most affluent neighborhoods of any clergy. The median household income of Conservative rabbis’ neighborhoods is nearly $100,000 on average, compared to a national median household income of $53,000. The Times article noted that average neighborhood income does not necessarily reflect pastors’ salaries.

Dating 101: Politics and Religion


I have been dating “George” for several months and for the first time in my life I am not in a rush to define it. He calls me his girlfriend, which is lovely. We are in an exclusive and committed relationship that matters to me, but I am not searching for labels or declarations. That is new for me because as a hopeless romantic I am so hopeful that my view of relationships has been distorted.

I have loved men who were unworthy of me. By unworthy of course I mean they should never date. Ever. I have not been interested in men who were probably good for me. I have cried more tears than anyone should, yet I am certain I will find love. I will meet someone wonderful who gets, deserves, and appreciates me. We will build memories that are happy rather than sad. It is just a matter of time.

When it comes to George, I have never been treated so kindly by a man. He is sweet, attentive, supportive, and lovely. He does not look like anyone I’ve ever dated, and he is not Jewish, which is how I have always rolled. He is a republican, which is how I never roll. We have nothing in common and were raised very differently, yet we are in a relationship and it is all really quite nice.

I am at a point in my life when I understand how hard it is to simply have nice. Nice is a wonderful word to describe a relationship and I don’t think people understand how important it is to have things be nice. To be clear it is not boring, just nice. We are respectful of each other’s opinions and communicate without fear. I enjoy his company and how he treats me. Most importantly, he makes me laugh.

There is however, one unsettling thing. When we talk politics, I find myself wanting to punch him in the face. We are on different pages and it makes my lower back spasm. The truth is no matter how much George thinks he is a Republican, I think he may actually be Independent. Perhaps I am one too! He believes his views are patriotic, but they are actually not at all in the best interest of the country.

I like him, but politics are a road block. I used to think I could never date a man who wasn’t Jewish, but it turns out dating a republican is much harder. It could just be me getting nervous that everything is good and therefore I’m finding things to sabotage. It could also be that I’m simply not able to date someone so different on two very important subjects of politics and religion.

It is hard to know if I am making the right choices. On Friday night George came with me to Shabbat services. He held my hand while I prayed, participated in the traditions, and met my Rabbi. It is great that he is open to my faith and will celebrate with me. I appreciate it, but we will undoubtedly speak about the political drama of the week, and I will struggle to not punch him. Oy vey.

At this point in our relationship I need to either jump in or get out. I want very much to set aside politics and focus on the nice, but I am not sure I can do it. I am open to all perspectives, but am struggling with politics, which is strange because I was certain it would be religion that got in my way. George is not a religious person. He believes on God, but does not practice any faith.

That makes things surprisingly easy. I am a practicing Jew, but I do not need him to practice with me to be satisfied in my faith. It is enough that he supports and respects how I practice Judaism. Having him at services with me was lovely. He was comfortable and open to all of it. This is a wonderful man who checks a lot of my boxes. I want to make it work, but will I be able to?

Can you fall in love with someone who is fundamentally different from you? Can you build a life with someone who’s political perspective changes how you view them? Should you invest in someone who you want to change? I adore this man but politically we are beyond not being on the same page, we are actually reading different books. It seems silly, but is a real struggle.

The internal battle I thought I would face over religion never happened. Instead my struggle is political, but love should never be political. Should it? I believe people should think, feel, and believe whatever they want. I also believe in love, and love is grand. The most important thing in love is respect, so can I love someone who’s views I don’t respect? It is all rather complicated.

The problem is that I have written here many times that love should not be complicated. My past relationships have always had something that was complicated, and the complication ultimately ends things. I am in a relationship now where the complication has been front and center from the beginning. There are no surprises. I knew what the differences were right from the start.

Time will tell if this complication brings us closer together or tears us apart. George is of the belief it makes us interesting as a couple. He is also a republican, so what does he know? Oy! It has been a wonderful weekend with George. We went to temple, hung out with my son, and enjoyed our time together. As for the future, he might be my bashert so I am putting politics aside, and keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo from Pexels

For our faith to grow, we must celebrate its roots in nature


When our ancestors received the Torah, they stood at a mountain. When we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we will stand in the pews. They looked at the sky; we will look at the ceiling. They were warmed by the sun; we will be cooled by the air conditioning.

I am a rabbi in a synagogue. But before I am a rabbi in a synagogue, I am a rabbi in the world.

Increasingly, our Judaism is walled in, confined to the fixed seats in the standard rooms designed with vaulted ceilings and an elaborate ark. There are variations — some sanctuaries have windows of clear or stained glass, seats that move or are fixed and bolted, men and women sitting separately or together. Nonetheless, they are resolutely indoor spaces. We invoke the stars as we look up to the lighting fixtures. As Churchill said, we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.

But outside is the world. Essayist E.B. White once wrote that everything changed the day man walked on the moon because instead of going outside to see the moon, people watched it inside on their television sets. That peculiar reversal afflicts Jewish worship, as well. We bless the natural world without being in it. We praise God’s creation as we sit in concrete boxes fashioned by human beings.

For generations, this was accepted and understood. Today, I believe we will lose young Jews if we do not take Torah to the streets — and to the beaches, to the mountains and to the forests.

Nearly three centuries ago, Chasidism revitalized the spiritual life of Jewry. There is a reason Chasidism grew up in the forest, as there is a reason why Jewish camping is the most successful modern movement in Jewish life. If you live in a city, at night you see the magnificence of the lights — a testament to the grandeur of humanity. If you go to the country, you see the canopy of constellations — a testament to the grandeur of God.

Which is more likely to inspire the devotion that is the wellspring of Torah?

This is hardly a new idea. Judaism was born in the desert; we are a people of tents and star-sewn nights. Wandering by fire and smoke, we scraped manna from the ground. As we entered the Promised Land, crops and harvests shaped the cadences of life.

Today, numerous groups are recalling our origins, such as Wilderness Torah, synagogues that create trips and experiences, and groups like Chabad that consciously practice outdoor worship. In Los Angeles alone there is Nashuva in Temescal Canyon, Open Temple, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue with beachside services, and others. And when at Sinai Temple we inaugurated our millennial initiative earlier this year, it was understood that it had to focus outside our walls. Inspiration lives more in clouds than in concrete.

As the rabbi of a mainstream congregation who understands all the challenges of parking and building maintenance, I want those of us comfortable in our seats to start pushing the walls outward. We have to send our clergy and train our laypeople to initiate prayer anywhere and everywhere. There should be minyanim at the mall, blessings in the bar and Torah under the trees. Even large synagogues must increasingly create small, organic experiences particularly focused on the outdoors: shabbatonim at camps and retreats, morning minyan hikes, Shabbat services in the park as we now do for families on Friday evenings. Grander possibilities, too, may take hold: worship cruises or Shabbat at the Hollywood Bowl.

Younger people are not drawn to the spaces their elders have created. They are drawn to the world — to the bustle of people in the market and the stillness of solitude on the mountaintop. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist wrote. Our love of nature looks beyond the beauty to its Source. It is a therapeutic value and a spiritual imperative.

The Torah begins with human beings in a garden, and cultivating nature is part of our tradition, as well. Planting and reaping and sowing are the rhythms of the Jewish year. This holiday of Shavuot is the culmination of the harvest. This was the first day when Israelites would bring fruit from the “seven species” of the Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). Having grown the food, offering it was a product of their labor and their love.

We are accustomed to study on the holiday, but surely we also should touch the soil and understand anew that the Torah began not in urban structures but on hills and pastures. On this holiday of Shavuot, we stood at Sinai, amid thunder and lightning. The power of the natural world enfolded Israel and prepared them for the spiritual peak of history. The Torah may be studied, cherished and taught indoors, but it was given in the immensity of open space.

The return to Eretz Yisrael, to the land of Israel, was a renewal of the Jewish connection to the earth. We in the Diaspora more fully embrace our tradition and our past when we cleanse our souls by dirtying our hands.

There are great advantages to buildings — the gathering together, the fixed place for community, the facilities and, of course, dryness and comfort. Many are artistically and sensitively rendered. No one would advocate abandoning our structured communities. The place of spaces for worship, as for all sorts of gatherings, is certain and secure. Buildings give us classrooms, opportunities to memorialize, a sense of fixed and settled places.

But we have to grow past the walls, to create flash mobs of Torah, where spontaneous and genuine learning happens.

When I first went to Camp Ramah as a child, I came home and asked my father, the rabbi of a large congregation in Philadelphia, why we needed a building. I had just prayed all summer long next to a tree, and it had a power beyond what I found in my home synagogue. My father told me that when he was growing up, neither he nor his friends felt as accepted as the Irish Catholics of Boston. The non-Jewish community worshipped in magnificent churches and the Jewish community believed, all across America, that if one day our synagogues could be as grand, we would be equal. So when his generation grew to adulthood, they wanted buildings as beautiful as the Christian churches, to show they had arrived. The fact that you don’t need them, my father said, means we succeeded.

Jews have long since arrived. The structures of modern Jewish life are stolid, imposing and sometimes genuinely magnificent. But we inhabit a rich, blooming garden of a world. To live in Los Angeles and never pray on the sand, or while hiking a trail, is to turn one’s back on so much that God has given.

When my niece, a rabbinical student, was married, we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat in the forest. We sang “Lecha Dodi,” and it was possible to envision the mystics of Safed, where the prayer was written, watching the sun setting over the mountains. I saw the shadow tracery of the branches dance on the ground as the sky darkened. Shabbat did not come through the window; it came through the world.

I cannot move our Saturday morning service to the middle of Wilshire Boulevard or to Will Rogers State Historic Park. There is no place for a thousand congregants or the various accommodations that must be made in a modern city. But it is time to begin to think about when we can step out of our building. As we do taschlich by the ocean, we should create regular opportunities to touch the earth, to pray on a mountaintop or by a beach, to walk and learn, to remember that God’s first and greatest act is creation.

The story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century Jewish thinker and leader, that late in life he told his students he was off to hike in the Alps. When they asked him why, at his advanced age, he would undertake such a difficult trip, he answered: “Because I am soon to come before God. And when I do, I know God will say to me, ‘So, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?’ ”

When God asks if we offered praise in the beautiful corners of his world, let us be able to answer “yes.” Take your prayer to the park, your minyan to the mountain and your blessings to the beach.

Will returning to nature “save Judaism”? Who knows. But it will certainly save some Jews.

There is a blessing in our tradition for seeing natural wonders — oseh ma’aseh bereshit  the One who accomplished the work of creation. Let us step out from behind the walls, throw our arms and voices up to the sky, and bless God, whose miracles fill the earth. 


David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

The Halacha* of Mayim Bialik


*Halacha (noun): set of Jewish religious laws

“It’s my job to be a public person and I get that,” actress Mayim Bialik told a packed crowd at the Barnes & Noble book-signing of her third book, Girling Up: How to Be Strong, Smart and Spectacular (Penguin), a manifesto, of sorts, for girls going through puberty. Somebody in the audience had just asked her how she dealt with the pressures of fame.

“But,” she continued, “it’s not my job to be super-anything.” (Still, it might be noted that she is donning a superhero cape on the cover of “Girling Up.”)

The actress-comedian-author-neuroscientist-feminist-Zionist is somewhat of an anomaly. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a celebrity who wants to be as authentic as I do. Like I literally posted a photo of me holding a toilet bowl brush,” she said, referring to a Facebook post where she’s holding aforementioned toilet bowl accoutrement.

“I posted that because I don’t want to be that celebrity who’s like, ‘I’m supermom!’ I’m not.”

Bialik, a real-life scientist, plays a neurobiologist in what’s being hailed as the most watched show on television today: “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. But, in a culture downright obsessed with celebrity, she’s the polar opposite of a Kardashian. She wants (and makes a solid effort) to display her humanness, her Jewishness, her flaws.

In some ways, the 41-year-old actress wrote her newest book for herself, although perhaps a younger version of herself. “I think I basically wrote the book that I wish I had when I was in this age range and going through all those changes,” she told the Journal.

Bialik is still going through changes – not to mention a divorce in 2012 to her now ex-husband – but, when undergoing major life events, she turns to Judaism for answers. On Kveller, an online community for moms, grandparents and women, Bialik wrote a post about Rabbinit Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B’nai David-Judea, the first woman to be hired as Orthodox clergy in Los Angeles.

Well, when I was getting divorced, I spoke to male rabbis. I spoke to their wives. I spoke to therapists, and mentors, and other women who had been divorced. But there were questions I longed to ask a woman who was trained in halacha. I needed her then.

“The Big Bang Theory” star said if she weren’t acting, she probably would’ve pursued a rabbinical career. She first became aware of this yearning at the age of 15, she wrote on her website GrokNation. Bialik admits that had her life path been different, she could’ve easily pursued a rabbinical education at Yeshivat Maharat, the first yeshiva to ordain women as Orthodox clergy.  

I am now a PhD-holding divorced woman and a mother of two sons. I support myself and my children by being a full-time actor. My chance to be a rabbi is gone; my life is meant for something different. But I still remember, understand and feel the desire to lead.

“How do you balance your religion with your science?” It’s a question raised time and time again with Bialik. To her, science and religion go hand-in-hand. During the author’s Q&A, it was, inevitably, one of the questions asked. “The snarky answer is: I just do,” she quipped, before delving into the physics of faith. There’s a hint of sermonizing in the way Bialik speaks. As one might expect, there’s science, fact and logic embedded in her diction. And also, there’s something deeply Talmudic. Listen to her full response here (with a gratuitous animation):

Israeli Light #3 – Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem of Holon, Israel


I received two urgent emails on Friday morning, May 5, asking me to contact Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem, the Rabbi of Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol in Holon, Israel with whom my congregation was in a sister synagogue relationship. Both asked me to extend Galit my emotional support.

One came from Rabbi Nir Barkin, the Director of Domim, a program funded jointly by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) that links Israeli synagogues with Diaspora congregations. The other was from my ARZA President, Rabbi Joshua Weinberg.

Earlier that day in Jerusalem, Rabbi Noa Sattat, the Executive Director of Israel’s Religious Action Center, asked me to give Galit a hug for her that night when my leadership tour would be spending Shabbat with her congregation.

None of the three explained what had occurred that provoked them to reach out to me. I am well aware of how challenging Galit’s work is and I assumed they were just encouraging me to be as supportive as I could be.

Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem began this Holon Reform community located southeast of Tel Aviv five years ago. A thriving city of 250,000 mostly secular middle-class Jews, it is fertile ground for the growth of non-Orthodox liberal Judaism. Given Galit’s keen intellect, open heart, liberalism, and her infectious enthusiasm, if anyone can build a community there, she can.

Kehilat Kodesh v’Chol does not yet have its own building. It rents space for services and classes and has enormous potential to be a center of Reform Jewish life in Holon. Its congregants include people of every walk of life and many highly educated and professionally productive members. For example, the community’s chair is Heidi Pries, a researcher, and lecturer at Tel Aviv University School of Social Work. Her husband Ori is a lead web developer in a Tel Aviv-based web company. Another member, Anat Dotan-Azene, is the Executive Director of the Fresco Dance Company and her husband Uri is the tech director of a leading post production sound studio for Israeli television and film. Another member, Michal Tzuk-Shafir, is a leading litigator in the Israeli Supreme Court and was President Shimon Peres’ (z’’l) legal advisor. Her husband Nir is an industrial engineer working as an information systems manager. Galit’s husband Adar is the former chief inspector of civic studies and political education of the Israeli Ministry of Education and is the soon-to-be manager of teachers’ training at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In association with her congregation, Galit created a Reform Jewish elementary school that is a part of Israel’s national secular school system. More than 100 children are enrolled in kindergarten, first and second grades and a grade is being added every year.

Despite all the activity, Kodesh v’Chol faces substantial financial and space challenges because unlike Israel’s orthodox synagogues and yeshivot, the Reform and Conservative movements receive no government funds due to the political hegemony of the Orthodox political parties.

In the secular city of Holon, Galit did not anticipate what was to take place the night before my leadership group joined her for Shabbat services, which turned out to be the reason for the two emails and Noa Sattat’s concern.

Galit’s elementary school had been offered classroom space in a Holon public school for this coming year by the Holon municipality, and a meeting was planned on the night before our arrival with all the parents. However, four uninvited parents from the public school that was hosting Galit’s congregation’s school crashed the meeting and began screaming obscenities against Reform Judaism, Rabbi Cohen-Kedem and the planned-for presence of the students in the local public school building.

They viciously threatened Galit and warned that the children themselves would be in danger should the congregation’s school be on the premises. They said that they would spit on the children.

Galit confessed to me that she lost her cool, but when I asked what that meant, it was clear (recalling Michelle Obama) that though Galit was deeply offended and upset by the behavior of these parents, ‘when they went low she went high.’

Galit called the principal of the school and though apologetic and embarrassed, she would not take action against the offending parents.

Galit called the municipal authorities who had given the Kodesh V’Chol School its space and demanded that they find new classroom space. At this time, we are waiting to learn where the school will be housed.

I and our group were stunned, but in hindsight, we should not have been surprised. The Reform movement in Israel still has a long way to go in establishing itself as broadly as possible.

At the moment the Israeli Reform movement attracts 8% of all Israelis. According to surveys, however, when Israelis are asked about their attitudes towards Reform and Conservative Judaism, between 30% and 40% say that if there were a Reform or Conservative synagogue in their neighborhood, they would attend.

I told Galit how proud I am of her for the dignity and resolve with which she stood her ground and responded with moral indignation to those offending parents. I was moved as well that she placed the welfare of the children first. She refuses now to use this public school out of concern for the well-being of the children.

I also expressed my own conviction that this ugly incident could be a watershed moment for her community.

When word spread of the Thursday night encounter, many more families showed up for services. There were more than a hundred men, women and children singing and praying together. The children came under a tallit for a special blessing. Modern Hebrew poetry and music was sung along with music from the American Reform movement. The service was warm-hearted, upbeat and joyful.

Galit delivered a passionate and moving sermon based on two verses from the weekly Torah portion Kedoshim (Leviticus 19) – “You shall not hate your kinsman in your heart” and “You shall love your fellow as yourself.”

She did not mention the incident from the night before, but everyone understood the context of her remarks.

Galit represented the very best of Judaism generally and the Israeli Reform movement specifically.

That was a Shabbat service I will never forget and Rabbi Galit Cohen-Kedem has shown herself to be one of the bright lights in the firmament of Israeli leaders.

Photo from Pexels

Shabbat mitzvah, party of two


“Whadadya say we celebrate God tonight … if you know what I mean?”

This, from my husband on a recent Shabbat. He’s not a Borscht Belt comedian, but he always sounds like one when he uses the “if you know what I mean” line.

After 17 years together, he doesn’t always get what he’s after with this, but unless I’ve already fallen asleep while he’s talking, it still makes me laugh a little. This time, the setup intrigued me.

“We’re going to celebrate God by having sex?” I asked in a surely-you-jest tone.

“Yes. You’re supposed to have sex on Shabbat. It’s a mitzvah.  Maybe even a double mitzvah!” he said, wiggling his eyebrows like an Irish Groucho Marx.

“OK, relax,” I said, laughing a bit more than usual at the thought of rabbis deliberating this and how they might have had a vested interest in making sex worthy of extra credit.

I don’t remember if we went for it that night, but it definitely made me curious if the whole sex-on-Friday-night-as-mitzvah angle was real.

Point of order: Before I met my husband, like more than a few Jews transplanted from New York City whom I’ve met, the only part of Judaism I was intimately familiar with was the food.

Yom Kippur featured cloyingly sweet and cheesy noodle pudding, softball-size bagels slathered with cream cheese like buttercream on a cupcake, topped with slippery, salty lox. Passover had matzo balls, tongue-stinging horseradish and pyramids of macaroons, not the très chic “macarons,” but thick, chewy, sweet almond-flavored macaroons. Rosh Hashanah meant sodium-enriched brisket with mushy carrots and gribenes, one of the few Hebrew words I knew, the other being rugelach, which I now know is Yiddish.

I couldn’t tell you what people ate or did on Shabbat, however, because I didn’t even know what it was until I was cast in “Fiddler on the Roof” in high school and then watched the movie. At dinner, Golda lights two candles and mysteriously waves her hands around and sings. Tevye joins and they earnestly serenade a table of dark-haired children about God protecting them. The camera pulls back and the whole village sings, too. In my defense, nothing like this ever happened in Westport, Conn., in 1982.

Although I wouldn’t have been identified as “self-hating,” I definitely wasn’t thrilled with being Jewish back then. It was a fact about me I had no control over that consistently made me “other.” When I moved to Los Angeles 20 years ago, I was so struck by how many Jews I met and how unapologetic they were. It was pretty fabulous.

Then I met my husband, a big fan of Judaism, and we had two children who we sent to a very happy Jewish preschool. Contrary to my childhood, our boys don’t have any negative associations with being Jewish. Through familial osmosis, if you will, I’ve learned about the religion. But apparently, according to my husband, not everything.

Always looking for a fun-loving way to prove him wrong, I did some sexual sleuthing. Turns out, since the Second Temple and apparently under the influence of the pleasure-seeking Greeks, the Talmud encourages men to “engage in physical intimacy with their wives.” As far as the “double mitzvah,” although there is a XXX-rated novel with the title, this is largely anecdotal, discussed at length by Jewish day school boys the world over.

The Talmud reference to my husband’s claim made it legit enough for me to accept that he wasn’t just “producing me,” as he calls it whenever I try to talk him into doing something he doesn’t want to do.

Not that I don’t want to have sex, by the way. I know I’m a woman and I’m not supposed to like it, but I do. It’s just, Friday night? Really, dudes? Because after a week — including, but not limited to, a two-hour daily commute, packing 10 lunches, making five dinners (OK, three), loads of laundry and visiting my mother in her Alzheimer’s home, where, despite dementia, she always remembers to ask, “Why does your hair look like that?” there’s nothing I want to do more than strip and dance around our perpetually unmade bed to Avinu Malkeinu.

I kid. True, Friday night is not my first choice to couple up with my husband. I’m spent and often pass out reading to my youngest. Nevertheless, and as much as it pains me to give credit to an all-male body of decision-makers, these guys were on to something with their getting it on “on the regular” encouragement.

I researched happy marriages for several years for a book I was writing, and guess what lands in the top three key elements of any marriage lasting more than 10, 20, 40 years, right up there with showing up for each other and listening?

If you guessed any activity you do together that ends with a solid “… if you know what I mean,” you get a gold Star of David. We should all be fruitful and multiply! Even when we’re done multiplying. Baruch HaShem!


Dani Klein Modisett is a comic and writer, most recently of the book “Take My Spouse, Please.”

President Donald Trump displays an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty on May 4. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump acts on politics in the pulpit with executive order


President Donald Trump’s executive order to weaken a prohibition against religious and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates has driven a wedge between Jewish religious leaders. Some cite it as a victory for First Amendment rights while others view it as a threat to the separation of church and state.

The prohibition is a 1954 provision to the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations from certain political activities.

On one side of Trump’s action are clergy, such as Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who argue that religious leaders should speak out on issues they support. Hier once was censured by the Federal Elections Commission for violating the prohibition.

“We should fully honor the separation of church and state, but that has nothing to do with giving a sermon,” said Hier, who led the prayer at the White House ceremony on May 4 when Trump signed the order and who spoke at the president’s inauguration. “When you’re a rabbi or a priest, and you feel strongly about an issue, you can name names! And you can say don’t vote for him! It wouldn’t be such an aveira,” he said, using the biblical Hebrew word for sin.

Other Jewish leaders and institutions, however, expressed dismay at the order, saying it sanctioned oppressive behavior and undermined the role of clergy as unifying figures. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a social justice advocacy group representing 900 Reform congregations across the United States, called the order “dangerously broad.”

Rabbi Joel Simonds, the RAC’s West Coast director of policy and associate rabbi at University Synagogue, said that while the pulpit should be used to rally against injustice, “justice isn’t partisan.”

“There are plenty of organizations and communities that can be partisan and that can speak out,” Simonds said. “But we have a unique place in our society and in our community to not dehumanize the other … and to preserve that safeguard [between church and state].”

The Johnson Amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who later became vice president and president. It forbids nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates, contributing to election campaigns or otherwise influencing legislation with public statements. Violating organizations may see their tax-exempt status revoked — although the Internal Revenue Service has seldom enforced the rule.

It does not prevent religious organizations from expressing views intended to support one side of an issue.

The president’s executive order, titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” instructed the Treasury Department not to single out religious organizations for speaking “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” when similar activity would not be considered a violation by a secular nonprofit.

The language used in the order was a relief for those concerned that Trump favored granting religious institutions even wider latitude. In February, he had vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast. (Only Congress can fully repeal it.)

For those who had anticipated a more drastic measure, there still was plenty to dislike about the president’s action.

“I’m concerned about what drove this executive order,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and senior rabbi of the synagogue IKAR. “I believe that if this administration were really concerned about religious freedom, that this would not be the step that one would see.”

Brous pointed to the rising tides of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as issues of religious freedom that demanded action from the White House.

“There are actual vulnerable religious minorities in the country right now that need protection, and this executive order is a bit of a dance with the players who created the ‘War on Christmas’ in order to play to the [conservative] base, and to create the sense that we are getting the back of those religious figures,” she said.

The order also directs federal agencies to consider amending the mandatory inclusion of birth control in health insurance policies offered by private employers, a change widely sought by the religious right.

The Orthodox Union (OU), a national organization that supports the Orthodox Jewish community, applauded the order for giving people the right to incorporate personal religious views into workplace policy.

Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for policy, said supporting religious freedom had been a White House priority until Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“[President Trump] is reasserting religious liberty as a primary consideration for how the executive branch implements law and policy,” Diament said. “We don’t have as Jews the same view [as Christian groups regarding contraceptive coverage]. But we do believe religious freedom needs to be protected — and the Obama administration could have but chose not to.”

Diament added that the OU supported the Johnson Amendment and likely would not have supported the executive order had its language been more aggressive. “We’re concerned about rabbis in synagogues being pressured into taking political stances that they may not want to take and may divide their community,” he said.

Hier pointed out that clergy making political statements is already a fact of life, an assertion that Brous agreed with. Moreover, Hier said, if someone came along who really was threatening — a candidate who was anti-Israel or a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, leadero of the Nation of Islam, were his examples — there would be an obligation to speak out.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, Hier found himself in such a scenario. Jackson had referred to New York City as a “Hymietown,” using a derogatory term toward Jews.

“We condemned it and basically said that nobody should vote for him because it indicated to me the commitment to anti-Semitism,” Hier said.

Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a nonprofit organization, received a warning letter stating that it had breached the Johnson Amendment. That encounter informs Hier’s opinion of the law today.

Brous agreed with Hier that clergy should not shy away from bad political actors. But she disputed the need to oppose them at the pulpit. “There’s a candidate that’s been trafficking in racism and bigotry and misogyny of all forms, and I did not need to stand up ever and say vote for this person or vote for the other person.

“It’s enough to say, this is about democracy versus authoritarianism, this is about decency versus indecency, this is about moral right versus moral wrong, without having to hold people’s hands and pull the lever in the voting booth.”

Still, Hier conceded, if Congress repealed the amendment, he doubted that a rabbi would have much influence over his congregants: “People don’t adopt policies based on what the rabbi says. That we have to leave for the time of the Messiah.”

He said that he would not weigh in on future elections from his station. But for those who don’t want to hear about politics when they go to pray, Hier joked “they shouldn’t join a shul.”

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

It’s time to reclaim religion


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is waning in the United States.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


SHARON BROUS is founder and senior rabbi at IKAR Los Angeles

The Case Against a Kosher Casket By David Zinner


[Ed. Note: Again this week, I am presenting a previously published blog entry. We are working on improving the presentation of the blog articles for readability, style, and appearance. I would appreciate hearing from you about this blog, particularly if you are having any difficulties, problems, or issues accessing or reading it. If you have any comments – or a blog submission, please contact me at j.blair@jewish-funerals.org. — JB] 

Kosher Casket

A Kosher Casket?

A Kosher Casket?

Kosher means fit or proper for ritual use, but unlike the biblical delineation of which foods are kosher, there are no biblical rules to give guidance regarding manufacture of kosher caskets. The Talmud contains dozens of occurrences of Hebrew words that are translated to English as “casket”, “coffin”, “bier”, “chest” and more. But nowhere in Jewish writings is there a discussion of what makes a casket kosher.

Tachrichim (shroud or burial garment) manufacturers have suggested that there are “kosher” tachrichim dependent on the observance level of the workers and certifying that the product was not made on Shabbat. The rationale for this seems slim for tachrichim, and even slimmer for caskets. Basing Kashrut on worker’s level of observance is a novel approach not practiced in kosher food manufacturing. More interesting and fruitful pursuits to define a kosher casket might include looking at working conditions, wages and health benefits of the employees, as well as the environmental impact of the manufacturing ingredients and process.

Simple & Inexpensive

The Talmud directs that all aspects of funeral and burial should be kept simple and inexpensive, and by extension fit and proper. BT (Babylonian Talmud) Moed Katan 27a- 27b contains an extended discussion of funeral practices and a story about Rabban Gamliel. This discussion can open a window to the meaning of ‘Kosher’ in relation to a casket.

Formerly, they were wont to bring out the rich [for burial] on a dargesh [a tall state bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets] and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed: they instituted therefore that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor.

 Without knowing the difference between a dargesh and a bier in Rabban Gamliel’s time, the implication is clear – the dargesh is fancy and affordable to the rich; the bier is simple and used by those who are poor. The dargesh made it easy to carry the body and to show off wealth. The bier (Hebrew – mitah) is a simple stand or platform that holds and/or carries the body.

Jewish Law (Halachah)

The Shulchan Aruch allows for burial with or without a casket, but gives no indication of how to determine if a casket is Kosher. Rabbi Mosha Epstein in his Taharah Manual of Practices quotes Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Feinstein could find no source for an all wood casket. He cites Rambam, yet Rambam in his Book of Judges – Laws of Mourning – 4:4 says: “It is permissible to bury the dead in a wooden casket.”

In the 1960’s, the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America negotiated funeral standards with the Jewish Funeral Directors of America. The Orthodox Rabbis were successful in incorporating taharah, tachrichim, Shmirah, and ground burial into the standards. They failed in their attempt to include simple plain caskets.

Plain Pine Box

It was only 60 years ago that an expensive all wood casket became acceptable in the Jewish community. Our Moed Katan example goes back over 1,700 years. We should pick up Rabban Gamliel’s cause and champion a simple casket (or none at all) as a return to less expensive funerals and burials.

David Zinner is the Executive Director of Kavod V’Nichum (honor and comfort), and of the Gamliel Institute, and serves as instructor for the non-denominational Gamliel Institute, a nonprofit center for Chevrah Kadisha organizing, education, and training. In his role as executive director Zinner co-teaches courses on Chevrah Kadisha history, organizing, taharah and shmira (sitting with the deceased until burial),  and building capacities in Jewish communities that enable all participants to meaningfully navigate these final life cycle events.

David Zinner

David Zinner, Executive Director of Kavod veNichum

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          GAMLIEL INSTITUTE COURSES

LOOKING FORWARD: UPCOMING COURSE

Gamliel Institute will be offering course 4, Nechama [Comfort], online, evenings, in the Spring semester starting March 28, 2017.

CLASSES

The course will meet on Tuesdays (and three Thursdays in those weeks with Jewish holidays during this course). The date of classes will be from March 28 to June 13 2017. Please note: due to holidays, classes will meet on Thursdays on April 13th, April 20th, and June 1st. There will be an orientation session on Monday, March 27th, 2017.

REGISTRATION

You can register for any Gamliel Institute courses online at jewish-funerals.org/gamreg. A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or look at information on the Gamliel Institute at the Kavod v’Nichum website or on the Gamliel.Institute website. Please contact us for information or assistance. info@jewish-funerals.org or j.blair@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or 925-272-8563.

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TASTE OF GAMLIEL

In 2017, Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute are again sponsoring a six part “Taste of Gamliel” webinar. This year’s topic is From Here to Eternity: Jewish Views on Sickness and Dying.

Each 90 minute session is presented by a different scholar. Taste of Gamliel gives participants a “Taste” of the Gamliel Institute’s web-based series of courses.

Taste of Gamliel Webinars for this year are scheduled on January 22, February 19, March 19, April 23, May 21, and June 25. The instructors this year are: Dr. Dan Fendel, Rabbi Dayle Friedman, Rabbi Sara Paasche-Orlow, Rabbi Richard Address, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, and Dr. Laurie Zoloth.

Learn from the comfort of your own home or office.

The Taste sessions are done in a webinar format, where the teacher and students can see each other’s live video feeds. The sessions are moderated, participants raise their virtual hands to ask questions, and the moderator calls on and unmutes participants when appropriate. We’ve been teaching using this model for seven years (more than 250 session). We use Zoom, a particularly friendly and easy to use platform.

This series of Webinar sessions is free, with a suggested minimum donation of $36 for all six sessions. Online sessions begin at 5 PM PST; 8 PM EST.

Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions, and will also receive information on how to access the recordings of all six sessions.

The link to register is: http://jewish-funerals.givezooks.com/events/taste-of-gamliel-2017.

On registration, you will receive an automated acknowledgement. Information and technology assistance is available after you register. Those who are registered are sent an email ahead of each webinar with log on instructions and information for the upcoming session.

You can view a recording of the sessions, uploaded after each session, so even if you need to miss one (or more), you can still hear the presentation.

More info – Call us at 410-733-3700   

Attend as many of these presentations as are of interest to you. Each session is about 90 minutes in duration. As always, we plan to hold time for questions and discussions at the end of each program. 

Again, the entire series is free, but we ask that you make a donation to help us defray the costs of providing this series. The suggested $36 amount works out to $6 for each session – truly a bargain for the valuable information and extraordinary teachers that present it.

Click the link to register and for more information. We’ll send you the directions to join the webinar no less than 12 hours before the session.

Suggestions for future topics are welcome. 

The Gamliel Institute is the leadership training arm of Kavod v’Nichum. The Gamliel Institute offers five on-line core courses, each 12 weeks in length, that deal with the various aspects of Jewish ritual and actions around sickness, death, funerals, burial and mourning. Participants come from all over the United States, Canada, Central and South America, with Israelis and British students joining us on occasion.

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KAVOD v’NICHUM CONFERENCE

Looking ahead, hold June 18-20, 2017 for the 15th annual Kavod v’Nchum Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference. Register, and make your hotel reservations and travel plans now!

15th Annual North American Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish Cemetery Conference

At Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, California June 18-20, 2017

Registration is now open. Group discounts are available.
The conference program will include plenaries and workshops focused on Taharah, Shmirah, Chevrah Kadisha organizing, community education, gender issues, cemeteries, text study and more.

The conference is on Sunday from noon until 10pm, on Monday from 7am to 10pm, and on Tuesday from 7am to 1pm. In addition to Sunday brunch, we provide six Kosher meals as part of your full conference registration. There are many direct flights to San Francisco and Oakland, with numerous options for ground transportation to the conference site.

We have negotiated a great hotel rate with Embassy Suites by Hilton. Please don’t wait to make your reservations. We also have home hospitality options. Contact us for information or to request home hospitality. 410-733-3700, info@jewish-funerals.org
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DONATIONS:

Donations are always needed and most welcome. Donations support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organizations, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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MORE INFORMATION

If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at info@jewish-funerals.org.

You can also be sent an email link to the Expired And Inspired blog each week by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to j.blair@jewish-funerals.org.

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at www.jewish-funerals.org, and for information on the Gamliel Institute and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.

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Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.

To find a list of other blogs and resources we think you, our reader, may find of interest, click on “About” on the right side of the page.There is a link at the end of that section to read more about us.

Past blog entries can be searched online at the L.A. Jewish Journal. Point your browser to http://www.jewishjournal.com/expiredandinspired/, and scroll down. Along the left of the page you will see a list of ‘Recent Posts” with a “More Posts” link. You can also see the list by month of Expired and Inspired Archives below that, going back to 2014 when the blog started.

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SUBMISSIONS ALWAYS WELCOME

If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, Shomrim, funeral providers, funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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Pro-Israel supporter in New York City. (photo credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Young Jews in America and Israel: Rising levels of religiosity, widening political gap


Conferences are a good way of meeting people and listening to what they have to say, often based on information that they have and you don’t. So last week, at the JPPI conference on the future of the Jewish People, I listened attentively to Prof. Sergio DellaPergola of the Hebrew University as he presented a few numbers from a paper he authored with Ariela Keisar of Trinity College. He then kindly agreed to send me the slides that the two of them presented at the conference of the Association of Jewish Studies back in December of last year.

Like many papers, it has a fancy name: Contrasts and Comparisons of American and Israeli Jews: Millennials Under Scrutiny. Like some papers, behind the name there is information. In this case, it’s information about a group that the professional Jewish world is highly concerned about: millennial Jews in Israel and America. The two studies by PEW, in America and Israel, have comparable numbers to work with. So the authors decided to compare these two groups.

They are different, of course. Beginning with the fact that some Israeli millennials are still serving in the military while their cousins in the US go to college. Continuing with the fact that most US millennials are still single (90%) while their Israeli cousins have already begun getting married (31%) and having children.

DellaPergola and Keisar have discovered a few interesting things about Jewish millennials in the two largest and most significant Jewish communities today. For example: that religiosity among Jewish millennials is on the rise – a result, no doubt, of the demographic composition of this group compared to other groups of Jews (that is, it is more heavily Orthodox). The authors looked at the percentage of Jews agreeing with three statements: Weekly attendance at religious services; Religion is important in my life; I believe in God or universal spirit.

Take a look at the graph: younger Jews in Israel are becoming more religious, and so are younger Jews in America (in which you can also see a clear difference between Jews that were and were not “raised Jewish”).

Gap1

In a similar way – looking at the number of Jews who agree with three statements – DellaPergolla and Keisar examined the sense of peoplehood among younger Jews. The statements are: Being Jewish is important in my life; I have a special responsibility to take care of Jews around the world; and I have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. In this case, the response is split: those raised as Jews – in Israel or America – feel more Jewish than the older generation. But the sense of peoplehood among those who weren’t raised Jewish is in decline (this should not come as huge surprise).

Take a look:

Gap2

The Israel support index is based on positive responses to two statements – and in this case it is possible to make the case that maybe the questions do not reflect exactly what the authors claim (support for Israel). The statements are “Caring about Israel / Living in Israel is essential to my Jewish identity”; “the Israeli government is making sincere efforts to bring peace with Palestinians.” Clearly, the first statement is direct and reflects support or identification with Israel. But the second question is trickier: does disagreeing with the contention that a certain Israeli government is making a sincere effort to achieve peace make a person less supportive of Israel? In recent JPPI studies we asked groups of Jews the same question and found what DellaPergola and Keisar also found: that Israel’s efforts are not considered sincere by many Jews in other countries. But they show us that the lower the age, the higher the skepticism of Israel’s sincerity.

The same doubt can be raised about the index they call Jewish Nationalism and which is based on the following three questions: Settlements help Israel’s security; God gave the Land of Israel to Jews; I do not think a way can be found for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully. Why do I find this index somewhat problematic? Because the first and third statements are political in nature, but the second is a cultural-theological question. In other words: the authors inadvertently assume that believing in a God-given land is connected with believing in the benefit of the settlement project. And while this assumption is probably valid in the real world – I do not think it is valid in the world of ideas.

DellaPergola and Keisar examined other questions, but sticking to politics, their last graph is the most interesting – as it paints vividly what we recognize as the growing political gap between young Israelis and young Jews in the US.

This graph uses again the “Israeli efforts for peace sincere” statement, but adds to it the mirror image statement “Palestinian efforts for peace sincere.” The index based on these two statements shows the percentage of difference between sincere Israeli and sincere Palestinian efforts, among young Israelis, young “raised Jewish” American Jews, and young American Jews (including those who weren’t raised Jewish). The result is a graph that tells the story of a growing gap. Young Israelis have much more confidence in Israel’s sincerity compared to the sincerity of the Palestinians, while US Jews don’t see as much difference between the sincerity (or lack thereof) of Israelis and Palestinians.

Here it is:

Gap3

What do we learn from this? That Israel might be successful in convincing its youngsters of its narrative, but it fails to convince young American Jews that it still wants peace. If young Jews in America, as they grow older, will view Israel as a country that doesn’t pursue peace, it will surely make it more difficult for them to support it – no matter if they are correct in their conclusion or widely off the mark.

The abuse of Halacha: Keeping Halacha under control


Judaism is in trouble. More and more of the unacceptable is being done and said in its name. Besides causing infinite damage to Judaism’s great message, it is a terrible desecration of God’s name. And all of this is seen and heard by millions of gentiles watching television, browsing websites, or listening to the radio. Many are repelled when they witness horrible scenes in which Jews attack each other in the name of Judaism. Media outlets around the world portray religious Jews in most distressing ways. While it cannot be denied that anti-Semitism plays a role and tends to blow the picture out of proportion, the unfortunate fact is that much of it is based on truth. Non-Jews are dumbfounded when they read that leading rabbis make the most shocking comments about them, thereby demonstrating gross arrogance and discrimination. Even worse, many of them read about rabbinical decisions that seem to lack all moral integrity. 

Twenty one years ago, Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin in the name of Halacha (Jewish law), claiming that the prime minister was a rodef (someone who is attempting or planning to murder) because he brought all of Israel’s citizens into mortal danger by having participated in the 1993 Oslo accords. Amir therefore believed that the prime minister deserved the death penalty according to Jewish law. In 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Arabs in a mosque because he believed that Judaism obligated him to create havoc in order to stop Arab terror attacks, which had already killed thousands of Jews. Several years ago, the book Torat HaMelech was published. The authors, learned rabbis, argued that it was permissible to kill non-Jews, even without proper trial, if they became a serious potential threat to Jewish lives. Minorities such as the LGBT community are being insulted by powerful rabbis who seem to be ignorant of the multifarious circumstances of fellow human beings. Less than two weeks ago, a most important and brilliant ruling issued by the Tzfat Rabbinical Court in 2014, concerning a get in which a woman was freed of her agunah status, was suddenly challenged by the Supreme Rabbinical Court of Israel. The latter completely ignores the fact that such a move is not only halachically intolerable (See Rabeinu Tam….) but undermines the very institution of Jewish divorce itself. And so on. 

How can it be that such things are carried out, or even expressed, in the name of Judaism and Jewish law? Anyone who has the slightest knowledge of Judaism is fully aware that nothing within genuine Jewish law would condone, or even suggest, such outlandish ideas and immoral acts. 

Why does this happen? 

Throughout the years, several rabbinical authorities have made the major and dangerous mistake of reducing Judaism to a matter of law alone, a kind of Pan-Halacha. They sincerely believe that Judaism consists only of rigid rules. In this way, they are paradoxically similar to Spinoza, who was also of this opinion and therefore rejected his faith. He referred to it as obsessive, a type of behaviorism, and an extreme form of legalism. (See, for example, Tractatus Theologico-Politicus III, IV, and XIII.) That Spinoza made this claim is one thing, but the fact that these learned rabbis agreed with him is an unforgivable blunder. Nothing is further from the truth than labeling Judaism a legal religious system without spirit, poetry, and musical vibrations. This is proven by the almost infinite amount of religious Jewish literature that deals with non-halachic matters. 

The main reason for this terrible mistake is that these rabbis have failed to study the basic moral values of Judaism as they appear in the book of Bereishit (Genesis). It is well known that, with a few exceptions, this book does not contain laws; it is mainly narrative. To appreciate this, one needs to consider the following. 

In this first biblical book, we encounter Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov as the foremost players. They are considered the first Jews in history. But this makes little sense. How could they have been Jews if the Torah was given only hundreds of years later to Moshe at Mount Sinai? Although a Jew is a Jew even if they do not observe the laws of the Torah, it is still the Torah that defines them as such. How, then, could the Patriarchs be full-fledged Jews when the Torah was denied to them? Would it not have been logical to have given the Torah to Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives long before Moshe? Only upon receiving the Torah could they have been real Jews! So why was it withheld from them? (Even though some midrashim claim that they did observe several commandments, it is clear that this was done voluntarily.) 

The answer is crucial. No law, including divine, can function if it is not preceded by a narrative of the human moral condition and an introduction of basic ethical and religious values. These values cannot be given; they must develop within, through life experiences. No academic instruction, not even when given by God, would be of any benefit. Such ethics need to develop gradually, on an existential level, and predicated on innate values that God grants to each person at the moment he or she is born; a kind of categorical imperative in the human soul. 

More than that, laws become impersonal and therefore dangerous because they cannot deal with emotions and the enormous moral paradoxes encountered by human beings. As a result, they run the risk of becoming inhuman and even cruel. 

It is for that reason that God did not give the laws of the Torah to the Patriarchs. First there was a need to learn through personal trials and tribulations. The Patriarchs and Matriarchs had to see with their own eyes what happens when people are not governed by law. But most important, they had to become aware of basic moral values, such as the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God, that all are equal, that human life is holy, and that there is only one God Who is at the root of all morality. Only after people have been deeply affected by these ideas and values can law be introduced as a way to put it all into action. 

It was only after the existential, moral turmoil in which Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov frequently found themselves, as well as their often problematic encounters with God, that a virtuous and religious awareness was born. This consciousness continued to work its way, with all its ups and downs, through the bondage in Egypt, the Exodus, and the splitting of the Reed Sea. Not until that point was there a chance that the law could be received and be beneficial when given at Sinai. And even then it was not very successful, as recorded in the many disturbing biblical stories about the Israelites failing to live up to the law in Moshe’s days and long afterwards. 

But it is not just the fact that narrative, ethical values, and encounter with the Divine are necessary to have before the law can be given. There is another important message: no law, including divine, can function without constantly and continually taking guidance from these former values. There is almost nothing worse than divine law operating on its own, without primary, innate moral values. It runs the risk of turning wild and causing great harm. It needs to be constrained. 

This is the purpose of Sefer Bereishit. (See Netziv’s introduction to Bereishit in his Ha’amek Davar.) It is a biting critique of the halachic system when the latter is applied without acknowledging that these prior moral values are needed in order to function. The book of Bereishit, then, keeps Halacha under control. It restricts and regulates it, and ensures that it will not wreak havoc. 

Truly great poskim (halachic arbiters) cannot lay down their decisions on the basis of Jewish law alone. The Shulchan Aruch (Codex of Jewish Law) by Rabbi Yoseph Karo, and the Mishneh Torah of Rambam can become dangerous if applied in a vacuum. What these poskim must realize is that they need to incorporate the great, religious moral values for which Sefer Bereishit stands. 

To be continued. 


Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo is the Founder and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, as well as the author of 13 books and numerous articles in both English and Hebrew. Hailing from the Netherlands, Rabbi Cardozo is known for his original and often fearlessly controversial insights into Judaism.

Being Leonard Cohen’s rabbi


I last saw Leonard Cohen a few months ago. He had asked me to come to his place. After brief pleasantries, he said to me, “Reb, I am getting ready to shuffle off this mortal coil. I have some questions for you.”

He and I had spoken about “Hamlet” more than a few times. I knew the play and especially the soliloquy were close to his heart, and, at that moment, closer than ever. He knew he was soon not to be, at least in this frail frame. I remember thinking to myself, “I have to remember every word we say.”

We spoke longer than we ever had before, maybe four or five hours straight. Children and grandchildren genially punctuated our talk. Adam and Jessica popped in, with young Cassius Cohen in tow, commanding the room with a series of pointed questions and comments. Lorca came in. Viva lit up the room. Leonard shed his age and frailty for a moment and took on a mantle of joy. 

Rebecca De Mornay, his former fiancée, stopped in. He tried to convince her to come to synagogue. We had some dinner and cookies. He asked me if I wanted to listen to the album he was working on. He played me tracks from “You Want It Darker” from his computer. I particularly remembered the title song, and also “Steer Your Way”: 

Steer your path through the pain
That is far more real than you
That smashed the cosmic model
That blinded every view
And please don’t make me go there
Tho’ there be a god or not

Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought

If you are familiar with Lurianic Kabbalah, and its main heretical interpretation, Sabbateanism, you will understand this album, these two songs, and I think much of his body of poetry and lyrics. I think that whatever drew Leonard to me, for me to be his rabbi these last 10 years, was that for each of us, Lurianic Kabbalah gave voice to the impossible brokenness of the human condition. The pain of the Divine breakage permeates reality. We inherit it; it inhabits us. We can deny it. Or we can study and teach it, write it and sing its mournful songs. 

Leonard and Anjani

I met Leonard and his then-partner Anjani Thomas when I officiated at the wedding of Larry Klein and Luciana Souza in August 2006. Larry had produced the album “Blue Alert,” with music by Anjani and lyrics by Leonard. 

After the wedding, I was seated next to Leonard and Anjani. They interrogated me thoroughly. Leonard listened carefully. He had this slight grin when he listened. He could see the opportunity for wit, either from himself or from a game discussion partner, a mile a way. Leonard was interested in my brand of Judaism, which I called at the time Post Orthodox Neo Chasidic. He chuckled at the acronym. 

I called my wife, Meirav, after the reception (she was in Israel) and asked her if she had heard of Leonard Cohen. She almost fainted long distance. “I used to cry myself to sleep when I was in high school, writing poems and listening to his albums.” “Oops” I thought. 

I did some research on Leonard that week and was astounded. I bought and listened to several of his albums, got his songbooks. I ordered his books of poetry and sank into them. I listened to “Blue Alert” in enraptured silence, and again when my wife returned from Israel. 

I was very, very moved by that album, and everything else. I was deeply touched by him. I realized, ruefully, that I had been in the presence of a Great Man. Oh, well. 

I was more than astounded — flabbergasted? — when Leonard and Anjani walked into shul the next Shabbat. Turns out that Anjani wanted to come for more of the spiritual psychology and she encouraged him to come, knowing this was something with which he would connect. Leonard was hesitant about joining a synagogue. They became regulars, attending weekly. 

Anjani and Leonard also started attending my Monday night classes, Jewish spiritual psychology dharma talks. I taught Mussar, gave talks on Chasidut and led meditations. I did not know yet that Leonard was a Buddhist monk. I probably would have been self-conscious leading meditations in front of him had I known. He would sit in the front row, shoes off, in his signature suit, tie and fedora, eyes closed, listening, radiant. I asked him what he liked about my teachings. What in particular?

“It’s not just the words,” he said. “You are a healer.” I was taken aback. 

Leonard and Anjani stayed for lunch after services. Anjani and my wife became close friends (and remain so). Leonard and I became close but never chummy. He actually was much more comfortable around my wife, whom I think he truly loved. He and I only talked about deep stuff until it hurt and we had to stop. We weren’t able to chitchat. 

Deep discussions

The congregants loved Leonard. He was genteel, even chivalrous. He enjoyed the community — the music, the food and the vibe. I asked him once why he liked Ohr HaTorah and he said, “Because you are not uptight.”  

A congregant once said to him she was happy that he had found a place to practice his Judaism. Leonard then pointed over to me and said, “It’s not because it’s Jewish. It’s that man that I come for. I would follow him if he were flipping burgers.”

I don’t understand that, but I can tell you what I think. Leonard (he called himself Eliezer and me “Reb”) pushed me hard to explain my take on the kabbalah. 

Lurianic Kabbalah sees the breaking of the vessels as the poetic truth that defined the breakage of the human being. When I took over the mysticism class at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, around 2003, I worked my way through Scholem’s classic “Sabbatai Sevi” and saw the inner truth in kabbalah’s greatest heresy. Leonard also had read this heavy tome, and nearly everything on kabbalah that I had read. (He and I both studied from Daniel Matt’s masterful translation of the Zohar.) 

We both had seen the terrifying obsidian luminosity. We shared a world of Divine absence, except for a shattered residue. We shared a common language, a common nightmare. I think Leonard finally found a rabbi who spoke the truth from which he wrote. I spoke about it unafraid because I think I was more afraid not to speak this truth. Like Leonard a bit, I guess. I was a good teacher. He, on the other hand, was a great poet. What took me a half-hour to say, he could say in three words. 

We often came back to one issue of dispute. By temperament, but maybe more as a professional obligation, I offered a path of repairing the broken vessels. I think Leonard could not accept that suture. Spiritually, I am somewhat equipoised between Neoplatonism and Gnosticism — topics about which we spoke often. Leonard often took the Gnostic turn. He said to me that the human condition is mangled into a box into which the broken soul does not fit. We all chafe, terribly. 

After many of those discussions, I told him that I thought some of his poems were liturgy (especially his “Book of Mercy”), liturgy of the breakage. He told me that he thought everything he wrote was liturgy. I was a professor of liturgy, and I considered him the greatest liturgist of our time, and one of the greatest of all time. 

Where from? Leonard’s grandfather was a Talmid Chacham, a Talmud scholar. Leonard let me borrow a copy of a sefer his grandfather wrote. A true rabbinic classic — and beautifully written. As far as I know, it remains untranslated and unavailable. 

I told him about my tentative connection with Rav Yakov Leib HaKohain, a spiritual descendant of the Donmeh, a self proclaimed Neo-Sabbatean. I broke off but Leonard kept up. I honesty felt a bit nervous learning from a Sabbatean, neo or not. Leonard had no such qualms. 

Soul of a poet

Once in an old radio interview in Canada, the interviewer asked Leonard if he had ever considered changing his name. He said, “Yes, to September.” She said, in some surprise, “Leonard September?” and he said, “No, September Cohen.” I think I knew him well enough to know that he wanted to say “Elul” (the month before the Days of Awe).  For those afflicted with the bittersweet sadness of the broken soul, Elul is a time of intense inner scrutiny preparing for the Days of Awe. 

Often after services, he asked me if I wanted to hear a poem. “Gladly,” I would say. Once, we sat down and he recited a poem, classic darkly luminous Cohen. Short lines. Couplets. Maybe 20 stanzas, perhaps more. Serrated edge of a murder weapon used on a guy who had it coming to him. 

After soaking in that one, I asked him how long it took him to write it. I had known him for about a year, so I thought, “A month?”  I truly think he said, “Fifteen years.”  He also recited for me one time many unpublished verses of “Bird on the Wire.” Like thousands, I guess, I still sing that song to myself. Just another drunk in the midnight choir. 

He sent me poetry he was working on (I think I was on a list) until the week before he passed. He wrote me on Friday that he wished he could come to shul to hear my new series of talks on a deep dive into Genesis. He died on Monday. 

Once at lunch, he asked a group of people if they would like him to recite a poem based on a sermon I gave. People expected a brief “Book of Longing” kind of gem.  This poem also had maybe 20 stanzas. He wrote that one in about a week. 

Leonard and the Muse

Even though Leonard and Anjani split up a couple of years ago, most of the time we knew Leonard, he was with Anjani. She brought him to the house. We would prepare meals and celebrate holidays together. 

It was sweet and funny to think how ordinary it was. One Thanksgiving, we had Leonard and Anjani and David and Rebecca Mamet over. The women were in the kitchen preparing food and the men were on the back porch drinking whiskey. 

Not so ordinary was that we on the porch eventually talked about where our ideas come from, because people always ask us. Fewer people ask me, but people ask me nonetheless. 

Leonard said, as he often did, that if he knew where his poems came from, he would go there more often. We all spoke about feeling that we were in the service of the Muse (the Bat Kol). We tried to channel her. We had to be careful around her. I remember we all stopped talking at once, agreeing silently that she did not want people talking about her as if she weren’t listening in. We said enough and stopped and went back to drinking and swapping jokes. Man, I loved his laugh. He would have a visceral experience of pure joy at a punchline. The torment would cease for a moment. 

One night when we had them over, Leonard asked Anjani to sing from “Blue Alert.” Anjani sat at our baby grand, Leonard across from her softly singing along with a beatific look on his face. Meirav and I barely dared to breathe. The words, the piano, the voices — I was transported to another world. I had the strangest thought: “Now I understand music.” When Anjani sang “The Mist,” Meirav and I broke into tears. Then they started tearing up. Then Anjani said, “He wrote that when he was 17.”

A giving man

Let me tell you how generous Leonard was. First, after I knew him about a year, he gave me one of his fedoras, right off of his head. 

Second, when our synagogue was scraping bottom during a brutal remodeling of the dilapidated building we bought, Leonard (with several other families) came to the rescue. He was very generous (always handed his checks in person) and appreciative of the work my wife (the designer and general contractor) was doing. On one of this visits to the building, he spent a full afternoon with Meirav. He delighted in everything we had done, especially the café and the preschool. He visited with the kids in the pre-kindergarten. (The teachers almost fainted.) Got some of the lentil soup that he loved — he liked to call it “Jacob’s stew.”

He often signed his emails “Old Priest” and so I called myself “Old Sarge.” He got a kick out of knowing that I was a sergeant in the Marines a million years ago and hearing some of the stories from my military days. When we talked politics, he would quote a line of his: “Oh, and one more thing. You won’t like what comes next after America.”  

A few more things. He aimed to be a vegetarian but made exceptions every time my wife made her Yemenite lamb soup. One Passover seder, he testified to the benefits of yoga and showed us poses, including standing on his head. He loved the music at Ohr HaTorah (handcrafted by our music director, the rebbetzin). One year, he brought all of the singers and not a few of the musicians on his tour to our High Holy Days services. We saw him at one point standing up and dancing. I read from his “Book of Mercy,” and do so every year. 

Leonard and Judaism

People asked how could he be Jewish if he was a Buddhist monk. He told me Zen Buddhism, at least the kind that he practiced, was not a religion. It was a tuning fork for consciousness. He was a devoted Jew, a learned, deep and troubled one — a genius. He had candles lit every Shabbat. I received photos of candles lit on the tours. 

Once when he was at the monastery with Zen master Roshi up at Mount Baldy, a group of Chabad guys trekked up there during Chanukah to return him to Judaism. They found him in his robes, I think he told me. He told them to shush, took them to his quarters. His Chanukah candles were sputtering. They had brought some whiskey with them. He had plastic cups. And then he told them about his Judaism and his meditative path. The way that Eliezer told me the story, they got mellow, sang and danced. The Chabad guys left a bit drunk, more than satisfied that the monk was still Jewish, and maybe a little chastened. 

Farewell

One day, with his children’s permission, maybe I will be able to write about that conversation that began with “Hamlet.” As I write these words, my heart is too heavy, too broken. I knew Leonard’s soul and feel it in my own. He knew mine. I think he sought me out to tell me his version, and invited me to tell him mine. I saw us as a couple of quasi-Sabbatean Neo-Chasidic kabbalists sharing a thick, dark night in that “Bunch of Lonesome Heroes”: 

“I’d like to tell my story,”
Said one of them so bold
“Oh, yes, I’d like to tell my story
’cause you know I feel I’m turning into gold.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

At Maccabi, forging Jewish identity between the baselines


When I was 10, my family got frum, and I started playing baseball. Oddly, the overlap wasn’t a coincidence: Our new rabbi added me to his Little League team and taught me how to throw; I broke in my first mitt — and a new peer group — playing catch with his son. For me, a connection between the national pastime and Judaism is not just easy to make on a personal level. It’s seminal to my interest in both.

I’m not sure that’s what qualified me to coach a cadre of bright-eyed, bar mitzvah-aged ballplayers in this summer’s JCC Maccabi Games, an annual Olympics-style tournament for Jewish teens held in Stamford, Conn., this month. But there I was, shooing a gaggle of over-sugared charges through security and, along with more than 100 other boys and girls from our Westside JCC delegation, onto a plane headed for John F. Kennedy International Airport. That everyone in the group was Jewish — a unique, fledgling Jewish identity for every plane ticket — struck me as remarkable and exciting. There were kids who went to Jewish day school and kids who’d never had bar mitzvahs, and the vast majority fell somewhere in between. In other words, it looked like a cross-section of American Jewry.

At the same time, it seemed clear from the outset that Jewish identities would not be getting the workout on this trip. The chaperones were coaches, not rabbis, and other than the occasional allusion to “Jewish values,” the programming stuck to sports. Religion was more a selection criteria than unifying theme, and it stayed in the background most of the time. Which was fine! The kids were being Jewish without their parents; for more than a handful of them, the games could end up being the only Jewish thing they do all year.

Maccabi’s ideologically aloof playing field instead lent itself to a more organic contemplation of Jewish faith, at least on the team I coached. In fact, it turned out to be the ideal space for dialogue — low-stakes, diverse and totally voluntary. When Judaism did come up, I observed these sunflower seed aficionados shell, chew and spit religious ideas with bracing open-mindedness and originality. The discussions were more brief than shallow; these athletes were also budding intellectuals, which is to say, growing friends.

It started during the Friday night meal at our hotel — you couldn’t really call it Shabbat dinner since there was neither Kiddush nor challah — when the boys started considering who at the table was “actually” Jewish. “Both my parents are Jewish,” our center fielder began, with a modest whiff of self-assurance. “I’m half,” volunteered the left fielder, rather fearlessly. Which half? the others needed to know, for obvious reasons. “My dad is Jewish,” he responded, evidently knowing where this was headed because he then added, “I have Jewish blood.”

The crowd was tougher than the sell. “But you’re not Jewish!” the center fielder exclaimed. Here, I finally jumped in with what is at least tacitly Maccabi’s eligibility guideline: “You’re Jewish if you say you’re Jewish,” I said. “Who’s to say you’re not?” “The Conservative movement,” quipped the center fielder, who goes to Jewish day school. The left fielder (a Hebrew-schooler) called him off, unimpressed: “Who gives a” — and here he said a word that I, his baseball coach, did not teach him and do not condone using — “about the Conservative movement?” They laughed, and went back to testing each other’s memorization of baseball statistics.

Later that week, at an amusement park for their evening activity, two teammates broached the topic of God. While working on a mouthful of hamburger, our second baseman volunteered his theory that the ocean — the origin of life and forever unknowable — is God. Our shortstop countered that God might be the invisible, all-powerful force of gravity. The middle infield got pretty abstract.

All the while, their rookie baseball coach felt stuck, torn between helping them navigate Jewish ideas and just letting them make a fine mess. Was I to join these conversations and risk curtailing their reach? (Is God not on land or in space? I asked, unhelpfully.) What did these restless, creative minds — whose spiritual bandwidth was just beginning to stretch — have to gain from anything I had to say? Sure: God can be anywhere you look. Does saying that really help someone who is already experiencing God at the beach? And of course: Your parents don’t determine whether you’re Jewish, you do. Does that help a young Jew, who’s already comfortable defying the Conservative movement, understand that faith is inexorable, and inexorably personal?

Our oldest player was barely 14 years old — he and his teammates are a long way from answering Judaism’s big-picture questions, and that’s as it should be. What’s important is that they have already started to talk about those questions — and that their new friends will listen to and challenge their ideas as they evolve. They went to Connecticut to play baseball, and yet here they were, negotiating Jewish identity. And, perhaps, forging a meaningful connection between their Jewish experience and their favorite sport. I can’t say where any one of them will wind up. It was just a treat to see all of them on their way.


Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles who can now say he has coached baseball. You can find more of his writing on his website at VICE Sports, and at www.keene.la.

Fasting in the lands of the midnight sun


Though the summer season in Northern Europe may be brief, summer days here can seem endless because of how late the sun sets.

In the Norwegian capital of Oslo, for example — which has a latitude that’s just 4 degrees south of Anchorage, Alaska — the summer solstice in late June brings almost 19 hours of daylight. By mid-August it drops to 15 hours, 36 minutes — nearly two full hours longer than in New York.

This is good news for hikers and sun-starved Scandinavians — after all, a feature of Oslo’s bitterly cold winters are the punishingly long hours of darkness.

But the long days come with their own challenges for Northern Europe’s observant Jews and Muslims, who on some days fast according to when the sun rises or sets. That will be the case for Jews on Tisha b’Av — an annual day for mourning the destruction of the Jewish Temple that this year begins at sunset Saturday and continues until nightfall the following day.

“It’s by far the hardest fast of the year because of the long daytime and the heat,” said Yanki Jacobs, a Chabad rabbi in Amsterdam, where sunset will end after 10 p.m. next week.

“If it definitely makes a difference if you can eat at 8 p.m. or at 11,” said Jacobs, who also confided that he is hoping for a cool, rainy weekend because “it’s harder to fast when it’s warm.”

Rabbi Joav Melchior, the chief rabbi of Norway, concurs with Jacobs’ view of Tisha b’Av as the toughest fast of the year.

“In principle it shouldn’t be more difficult to fast in summer because ‘yom tov’ [Hebrew for ‘holiday’] also enters late,” said Melchior, who grew up in Israel.

But in practice, “it feels much longer in the north because sunsets, which in Israel take about 20 minutes, stretch on for hours in Norway,” he said.

In the Netherlands, where dinners are typically eaten at the relatively early hour of 6 p.m., many Jews are used to turning in long before Tisha b’Av begins — leaving them the option of either staying up late to fill up on food or fast for well over 24 hours.

In this regard, Scandinavia’s observant Jews are in the same boat as its observant Muslims, who languish until later at night whenever the month of Ramadan, when Muslims may only eat and drink after dark, falls during the summer.

But a long day is only part of the reason that the Tisha b’Av fast seems more difficult than the one on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jews, which occurs in autumn, according to Melchior.

“On Yom Kippur, you spend the whole day in shul, praying, thinking, reflecting with others,” he said. “You don’t even realize you’re fasting because you have so many other things on your mind.”

But Tisha b’Av is “far less central” a holiday for Norwegian Jewry, which “means you spend a lot of time alone, fasting in your own house and ending up noticing that, hey, you’re actually fasting and can’t eat or drink.”

In Norway, government rules about holidays don’t exactly encourage fasting on Tisha b’Av, according to Melchior.

“Non-Christians are entitled to two free days annually by law, when Judaism has six to eight days when work is not permitted,” he said.

While many employers allow observant Jews and Muslims to take off extra days out of consideration for their faith, most reserve those days for holidays seen as more religiously significant.

According to Jacobs, in the Netherlands, public awareness about Ramadan, when employers often take their Muslim employees’ needs into consideration even when it’s not legally required, has also increased awareness of Jewish fasting days.

But this is not a development felt by Melchior in Oslo.

“More often,” he said, “the reaction in Norwegian society to the Jewish fast days is: ‘What, you guys fast, too?'”

 
 

Memphis Jewish congressman: DNC staffers behind Sanders emails should be fired


A Jewish congressman from Tennessee said the Democratic National Committee staffers whose leaked emails questioned Bernie Sanders’ religiosity should be fired.

“For a party to question his religion, or lack thereof, as a way to defeat that person, those people should resign and if they don’t resign they should be fired,” Rep. Steve Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, told his state’s delegation at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Tuesday, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel.

“Some people will think, ‘Oh well, politically we shouldn’t do it and those people have done X, Y and Z for the party,’” he added. “But they crossed the Rubicon. They crossed the line.”

At issue is a May 5 email leaked Friday by WikiLeaks in which Brad Marshall, the DNC’s chief financial officer, suggested that the party should “get someone to ask” about “his” religious beliefs, meaning Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was waging a surprisingly strong challenge in the Democratic presidential primaries against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“It might [make] no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief,” the message says, presumably referring to Kentucky and West Virginia. “Does he believe in a God? He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”

The email was sent to several top DNC officials — CEO Amy Dacey, communications director Luis Miranda and deputy communications director Mark Paustenbach.

DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who like Cohen and Sanders is a Jewish member of Congress, resigned Monday from the party post as a result of the leaks.

Interviewed by The Tennessean, Cohen said the email about Sanders’ alleged atheism “really turned my stomach and I don’t want that type of mentality.”

“I find that politics despicable, and I say it as an American but also as a politician who has had race and religion used against me,” he added.

Cohen, who is white, has represented Tennessee’s predominantly African-American 9th District since 2007. He served in the Tennessee Senate for 24 years, where he was the first Jewish member since 1958, according to the New Republic.

Despite his concerns about the DNC’s treatment of Sanders, Cohen, a superdelegate, called on Sanders supporters to back Clinton as the party’s nominee.

The beautiful meaning behind my daughter’s nontraditional bat mitzvah


At my daughter’s bat mitzvah in May, hundreds of people spread out to form a large circle and, together, carefully held a completely unrolled Torah scroll.

With the scroll spread out so its entire contents were visible, my daughter found the spot on the parchment where the Torah portion corresponding to her Hebrew birthday was located. So did eight other 12- and 13-year-olds.

Standing with parents at their Torah portion (helpfully indicated in advance with Post-It notes) and going in order from Genesis to Deuteronomy, each child then recited one line from his or her portion.

It’s no surprise that my daughter’s bat mitzvah would be more meaningful to me than any other, and, of course, the novelty of this new ritual added to the specialness. But it also was just a powerful moment — one that although nontraditional, felt respectful and authentic.

Having each child stand near his or her Torah portion reinforced the idea that each child has a place in the Jewish story. It empowered all the assembled family and friends to touch the sturdy yet fragile Torah and feel a sense of ownership over it. And it quite literally offered a new and different way of looking at the Torah.

Perhaps most important, however, was that this was a group ceremony, not an individual show. And, in contrast to the lavish, wedding-like parties that follow many contemporary American bat mitzvah ceremonies, this was followed by a shared party: a simple but tasteful (and tasty) brunch reception.

Called a “Brit Atid” — Hebrew for “covenant of/with the future” — the ceremony was a culmination of my daughter’s participation in the Jewish Journey Project (JJP), an alternative Jewish education program that describes itself as “experiential Jewish education for the modern New York City kid.”

Launched in 2012 out of the JCC in Manhattan, JJP enables kids to choose their own classes according to their interests and scheduling needs. Students can, like my kids, enroll through the JCC, or through one of five partnering synagogues. The synagogue kids have a traditional bar or bat mitzvah at their congregation, while the JCC ones can either plan a private ceremony or participate in the “Brit Atid” program.

The “Brit Atid” ceremony was preceded by a year of monthly parents-and-kids Torah study sessions together, along with monthly one-on-one sessions with our teacher, Jeremy Tabick (a doctoral student at the Jewish Theological Seminary). Each child then came up with a creative project to interpret/present his or her portion. My daughter, who loves filming intricate stop-motion animation sequences starring Playmobil figures and Barbie dolls, created a short and somewhat irreverent film about her Torah portion, followed by a speech addressing the portion’s many problematic aspects. (Not hard, given that the text starts out with God exhorting the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites and show them no mercy!)

Although my daughter and I worried the “Brit Atid” would feel like a dumbed-down bat mitzvah — after all, learning to chant trope is a demanding process — this approach felt more relevant for us than a long performance in a language most of our friends and family do not understand. Because we are not regular Shabbat service-goers, learning to chant trope is not a skill my daughter is going to use, at least not in the near future, and it’s not really what being Jewish is about to us. So like most kids, she’d probably have forgotten the trope within months of the bat mitzvah. And learning to chant trope just for the sake of proving that she could master it (and then forget it), seemed like cramming for a big test only to forget all the material immediately afterward.

Having a group ceremony had its disadvantages: We were allowed to invite only 30 guests; the ceremony was not anywhere near my daughter’s birthday; and we didn’t get to customize the ceremony or party. However, these were offset by the many advantages, both practical and symbolic.

On the practical end, I’m not much of a party planner, and my husband and I did not want to spend tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours planning a big event. Early on, even before we knew about the “Brit Atid” option, we’d decided, with my daughter, that we’d rather put money toward a family trip to Israel than toward a bat mitzvah party. (We’re going this August! That’s a separate column.)

More importantly, I am not a big fan of the individualism of many bat mitzvah celebrations — the professionally produced invitation videos, the myriad speeches praising the child, the “theme” and the photomontage. What’s nice about Judaism, and organized religion in general, is that it provides a counterweight to the individualism and narcissism of modern life, and a b’nai mitzvah with multiple participants conveys a message to the newly minted Jewish adult and the guests that Judaism is a collective, participatory endeavor and not just another performance.

Shortly before the “Brit Atid,” we attended the more traditional bar mitzvah of a close friend — the first one we’ve been to in years — and my daughter and I had a few pangs of wondering if she, too, should have done the chanting-Torah-in-a-synagogue-on-Saturday-morning route. 

On the plus side, the second-guessing got her competitive juices flowing and motivated her to improve her speech. And in the end, she said she was very happy with how it went — and is excited about our upcoming trip to Israel.

Now we just have to persuade her almost-10-year-old sister to go the “Brit Atid” route, as well. Which, given her social-butterfly personality and current obsession with planning the perfect “Warriors” book-themed birthday party, just might be a challenge.

Kveller (kveller.com) is a thriving community of women and parents who convene online to share, celebrate and commiserate their experiences of raising kids through a Jewish lens

Alternative rituals for girls’ naming ceremonies


It’s a girl!

Now what?

While Jewish tradition is clear about the ceremony for welcoming a baby boy, there is no set ritual for welcoming a baby girl. In more traditional communities, the father of the baby takes an aliyah to the Torah on the first Torah-reading day after the birth. A prayer for well-being is recited for the mother and the child, and the baby girl receives her name. Often the rabbi or parents speak about the name.

In more progressive communities, this naming might occur on a Shabbat during the first few months of the baby’s life, and the mother, and other family members, might receive an aliyah, as well.

Beyond these basics of naming a daughter, many families also are developing new rituals that, much like a baby boy’s circumcision, symbolize a daughter’s entry into the Jewish covenant.

Rituals Involving Water

The most common of these new rituals involve water — either dipping the baby’s feet or other body parts into water, often a mikveh, or pouring water over her feet. Other families choose to fully immerse the baby girl (one should check with a pediatrician before doing so). These rituals are sometimes called Brit Mikveh (covenant of the ritual bath) or Brit Rehitzah (covenant of washing).

At a Women’s Rabbinical Alliance Conference in the early 1980s, nine progressive women rabbis developed the idea of a washing ritual for daughters, and they hoped families would adapt it to meet their own needs. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, said he likes to recommend a feet-washing ritual for reasons both spiritual and practical: The ritual evokes biblical imagery, it is performed on the baby girl’s body, and it can take place even if the baby is crying.

Water rituals are meaningful and symbolic in a number of ways.

Covenant: Rain water — and especially rainbows — recall God’s covenant with all of humanity, which followed the biblical story of Noah and the flood. In Exodus, the splitting of the Red Sea is a powerful water scene that leads the Israelites to freedom and the start of a new, covenantal life. The Meiri, a 13th-century French commentator, spells out the water-as-covenant connection when he writes that the forefathers entered into the covenant with God through circumcision, and the foremothers entered this covenant through immersion in the mikveh.

Creation/New Beginnings: Water holds powerful symbolism as the source of life. It figures prominently in the creation story in Genesis, when it is separated first from the heavens and then from the land to initiate the creation of all living things, and is an appropriate medium for celebrating new life.

Feminine Connection: Biblical women have a special connection to water. Sarah brings water to the three guests who visit her and Abraham in the desert, Rebecca is found at a well while giving water to both people and animals, and Miriam is associated with wells. Rabbinic Judaism legislates monthly visits to the mikveh for married women, strengthening the women and water connection.

Immersion: Besides sitting in a sukkah, mikveh is the only mitzvah whose observance fully surrounds those observing it. For babies, immersion mimics the safe and protective environment of the womb from which they emerged.

Welcoming: In the Bible, Abraham washes the feet of the three guests who visit him in the desert as a welcoming gesture (Genesis 18:1-4). Parents can wash the feet of their newborn daughter to welcome her to the world and to the Jewish community.

Rituals That Parallel the Wedding Ceremony

Some parents circle their baby daughter seven times to symbolically bring her into the covenant. This mimics the traditional practice at a wedding ceremony, when the bride circles the groom seven times as they join together in covenant with God.

Anita Diamant, author of “The New Jewish Baby Book” and a pioneer in innovative Jewish ritual, explains that elements of the Jewish wedding ceremony can be resonant at a welcoming ritual for a daughter, since both life events are about creating a covenant, and both mark a new beginning for a family. She outlines a number of ways to incorporate wedding liturgy and imagery into welcoming ceremonies for daughters. (More ideas can be found at ritualwell.org and itim.org.)

For example, families may recite seven blessings to welcome their daughter, parallel to the seven blessings (Sheva Brachot) which sanctify a Jewish wedding. These birth ritual blessings often include the blessing over wine and the Shehecheyanu blessing (which marks any new occasion), and sometimes more innovative blessings created by the family for the moment.

Some parents modify the wedding blessing over “the One who causes bride and groom to rejoice together,” changing the language to bless “the One who causes parents and children to rejoice together.” Since six of the seven blessings in the Jewish wedding ceremony focus on creation, they are relevant when welcoming a child — a time that the power and importance of creation are particularly apparent.

Also, in keeping with the wedding theme, some parents hold their daughter’s welcoming ceremony under the chuppah (marriage canopy) that they used at their own wedding.

Other Rituals

Parents have developed many other rituals that speak to their own personal connection with Judaism. This includes wrapping the baby in a family tallit or touching a klaf (sacred scroll, often a mezuzah scroll) to the baby’s lips. Some families use the various senses to welcome their daughters — touching wine to the baby’s lips and having her smell spices or herbs.

Other families anoint their daughter with gentle oil, which evokes the biblical practice of anointing kings and priests. Anointing a baby can represent a blessing for plenty, in keeping with the verse from Ecclesiastes, “Let your clothes always be freshly washed and your head never lacking ointment,” and the famous Psalm 23, “You anoint my head with oil, my drink is abundant.” Anointing is also associated with love in Song of Songs, “Your ointments yield a sweet fragrance, your name is like finest oil, therefore do maidens love you.”

All of these rituals can include the baby’s older siblings, extended family members and friends, who can help wrap the baby in a tallit, help wash the baby, circle the baby or recite a blessing, poem or reading.

This article was reprinted with permission from Kveller.com, a fast-growing website for smart, savvy moms looking for a Jewish twist on parenting. Follow Kveller on Facebook and sign up for daily digests here.

Obama slams Donald Trump for singling out Muslims


President Barack Obama lacerated Donald Trump for his calls to single out Muslims and Islam for special scrutiny.

Obama, speaking after a briefing with top administration officials on U.S. actions against the Islamic State terrorist group, scoffed at accusations this week from the presumptive Republican nominee that using the term “radical Islam” was a sign of strength.

“There has not been a moment in my 7 1/2 years as president where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label ‘radical Islam,'” Obama said.

“Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we really use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around,” Obama said in a 25-minute, sarcasm-laced jeremiad against Trump in which he never mentioned the nominee by name. “Not once. So if someone seriously thinks that we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Trump spoke in multiple forums on Monday after a gunman who pledged allegiance to Islamic State carried out the worst shooting massacre in U.S. history at a gay nightclub in Orlando early Sunday morning.

Obama’s attack on Trump was his most direct engagement thus far with the 2016 campaign. The president will soon start campaigning for the presumptive Democratic nominee, his former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

This level of involvement by second-term presidents in a campaign is unprecedented, and Obama’s attack reflected the stakes he sees in keeping Trump out of the White House.

Obama said Trump’s prescriptions would make enemies of moderate Muslims and put American freedoms at risk.

“If we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we’re doing the terrorists’ work for them,” the president said, explaining why he does not use the term “radical Islam.”

He singled out Trump’s claims that Muslims as a group resisted reporting terrorists in their midst and his call to stop the entry of Muslims in the United States for a period.

“We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States to bar all Muslims from immigrating to America,” Obama said. “We hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests that entire religious communities are complicit in violence.”

“Are we going to start treating all Muslim Americans differently? Are we going to start subjecting them to special surveillance? Are we going to start discriminating against them because of their faith? We’ve heard these suggestions during the course of this campaign. Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want.”

Two questions for Atheists


I have had the privilege of debating five of the top seven “25 Most Influential Living Atheists” as listed at SuperScholar.org:

No. 2: Sam Harris (“The End of Faith”)

No. 3: The late Christopher Hitchens (“God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything”)

No. 4: Daniel Dennett (“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”)

No. 6: Steven Pinker (“How the Mind Works”) 

No. 7: Michael Shermer, founding publisher of the Skeptic Magazine

Recently, however, I realized that I never asked any of them two questions that I would now ask before any other:

1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?

2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

The answers to those questions would tell me what I would most like to know about the person: how intellectually honest he is, and what motivates him.

To be sure, the answers to those two questions neither validate nor invalidate any atheist arguments. Atheist and theist arguments rise and fall on their merits, not on the motivations or personal characteristics of the atheist or the believer. But on a purely human level, their answers would enable me to understand the atheist as a person and as a thinker.

Take the first question: Do you hope you are right or wrong?

I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

Now to the second question: Do you ever doubt your atheism?

A few years ago, the largest atheist organization in the United States, American Atheists, to its credit, invited me to Minneapolis to debate the head of the organization at its annual meeting. 

At one point, I looked at the audience and asked people to raise their hands if they ever doubted their atheism. Not one hand went up. 

I found this interesting, if not disturbing, and said so. Nonreligious individuals often accuse religious believers of not challenging themselves. And, depending on the religion and on the individual, that is often the case. Yet it would seem that believers challenge themselves more than atheists do. 

As I explained at the debate, I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

I remember sensing that I had a struck a nerve.

So, then, while I still debate God’s existence with atheists, I do so in order that the audience will hear sound arguments for God’s existence.

But what really interests me — and I think should interest any believer or atheist — are the answers to these two questions. 

Because only if the atheist responds, “I hope I am wrong” and “Yes, there have been occasions when I have wondered whether there really might be a God” — do I believe that I have encountered an individual who has really thought through his or her atheism. I also believe that I have probably met a truly decent person. 

But a sad one. For to know how awful the consequences of atheism are and still be convinced that there is no God is an unhappy fate indeed. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

The Pew Israel survey: A view from the margins


Just a month ago, two new reports cast light on the complex and contradictory nature of Israeli society.  The first was the Pew Research Center’s survey of Israel, which exposed “deep gulfs among Jews, as well as between Jews and Arabs, over political values and religion’s role in public life.”  The second was the World Happiness Report, which ranked Israel #11 in the world in terms of the level of contentment of its citizens.

To anyone who has spent time in Israel, the two reports capture the confounding nature of the country.  How can a place be so happy when its residents fiercely disagree on so many matters large and small?  Within the Jewish majority alone, the differences on core issues among the four groups surveyed– Charedi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (Orthodox), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular)—are striking.  For example, the Pew survey revealed a wide chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups about whether Israel should be more Jewish or more democratic. 

It is this question of Jewish vs. democratic that will shape the contours of Israeli society over the next half-century.  And it is this question that pushes to the fore the status of Israel’s large Arab minority. 

Here the Pew results reveal rather disturbing trends among all sectors of the Jewish population.  The survey showed that a plurality of Israeli Jews support the proposition (48-46 percent) that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from the country.”  A majority of Charedi, Dati, and Masorti Jews were in favor of this statement, while 36 percent of Hiloni Jews were, as well.  There has been much discussion around this conclusion, with one of Israel’s leading experts, sociologist Sammy Smooha, casting doubt on the validity of the figures.  Smooha, who has spent his entire career surveying Jewish and Arab attitudes toward the other, suggests that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Israeli Jews oppose co-existence with Arabs or would like to see them leave the country. 

But even these lower rates raise alarm bells about growing intolerance. In light of this, I was interested to know how Palestinian Arab friends in Israel interpreted the Pew results.  What is it like when a high percentage of your fellow citizens regard you as unwelcome in your own country?  

I spoke first to a young friend, Nabeel Aboud Ashkar, who does extraordinary work as co-founder and artistic director of the Polyphony Foundation, which brings Jewish and Arab kids together through classical music.  When I asked Nabeel about the Pew survey, he admitted that his first response was to say to himself that he should just take leave of the country and go to a place where his talents are appreciated — such as Germany, where he has pursued his own musical training as a violinist.  Upon reflection, though, he reversed course and said to himself: “No, this is my country.  The country does not belong to the intolerant.  It belongs to those who believe in living together side by side respectfully.  If everyone who is intimidated by extremism decides to leave, then the extremists achieve what they want.  And that is not my vision of the future.”

I also spoke to Fathi Marshood, another friend and colleague, who runs the Haifa office of Shatil, one of Israel’s leading and most effective social justice organizations.  Fathi labors indefatigably to insure that all residents in Northern Israel — Jews and Arabs alike — receive equal access to state medical and welfare resources. When I asked Fathi about the Pew survey, he said that it made him feel deeply uncomfortable about his place in society.  The survey results reflected, he said, an unmistakable trend toward intolerance on the part of the “hostile majority.” The Pew survey made clear to him that his ideal polity was not a Jewish state or a state of the Jews, but a fully democratic state that grants equal rights to all of its citizens, without discrimination.

Notwithstanding the alarming currents in the Pew survey, Fathi vowed to continue his work.  He was not optimistic about significant structural change in the near or intermediate term, certainly not under a Netanyahu government.  But he did express appreciation for one political figure in Israel today, President Reuven Rivlin, who has been outspoken at every turn in condemning anti-Arab racism.

I look on with great admiration and empathy at my friends.  How would Jews feel if nearly half, or even a quarter, of America’s population favored our removal?  The response by Nabeel and Fathi to the Pew results is neither self-pity nor flight, but rather redoubled commitment to work for the betterment of all in peaceful and constructive ways.  Understandably, they are not going to be singing “Ha-Tikvah” any time soon.  They are, after all, both children of the land, whose ancestors lived on it just as Jews began to act on the desire to return after a 2,000-year hiatus.  And yet, remarkably, their “hope is not yet lost.”  Therein lies a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark tunnel. 

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

Podcast: David Wolpe, author, senior rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles


“Some of the Arab leaders are keeping a horrific and deafening silence,” she said, according to a translation of the interview by The Israel Project. “They are not trying to calm the situation, not trying to act towards mutual understanding and accepting the other.”

Aharish didn’t shy away from the controversy surrounding the Temple Mount, known as the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. Some say attempts by Jews to pray at the holy site provoked the Palestinian attacks, and Israeli crackdown, of recent weeks. Aharish said Israeli policy on the Temple Mount has not changed, but that even if it had there is no excuse to resort to violence.

“Even if the status quo on the Temple Mount has been broken, does that allow someone to go and murder someone else because of a sacred place?” she said. “Why, because of God? What God are they speaking of? One that allows for children to go out and murder innocent people?

“What woman puts a hijab on and prays to God, takes a knife out and tries to stab innocent people?” she asked.

Aharish also called Arab leaders in Israel “weak” and suggested their purported outrage about the Temple Mount is insincere.

“They know how to march and go to the Temple Mount and shout, although they don’t believe in God, you don’t have a religion, but yet shouting that it’s ours. What ours are you talking about?” Aharish said. “It’s the house of God. Your God? You have ownership on it? What are you talking about?”

She ended her rant by criticizing leaders for inciting young Arabs to violence.

“You are inciting thousands of young people to go to the streets. You are destroying their future with your own hands,” she said.

Aharish hosts news shows for Israel’s Channel 2 and i24 News stations. She was the first Arab Muslim news anchor on Arab Muslim television and remains one of the few, according to Haaretz.

Earlier this year, she was chosen to light a torch at Israel’s official Independence Day ceremony. Some Israelis, on the political right, said she was not sufficiently local to the state; while others, on the left, accused her of “playing the obedient Arab, salving Jewish consciences,” Haaretz said.

When Aharish was 6 years old, she was injured when Palestinian attackers lobbed a Molotov cocktail at the car she was riding in with her parents in the Gaza Strip.

 

In defense of Jewish circumcision


This past week, I was in Miami for the bris (or brit), the Jewish ritual circumcision, of my grandson. It’s a good time to offer a defense of the Jews’ most ancient ritual.

According to various reports, there are Jews — and not only Jews who have forsaken their Jewish identity — who oppose circumcising their sons. They are still a minority, but they are vocal and, I suspect, growing.

Their primary arguments are that circumcisions, whether for religious or medical reasons, are unnecessary; that they are a form of mutilation; and that the act inflicts serious pain on the 8-day-old for no good reason.

Let’s begin with the first objection. In fact, circumcision is both medically and religiously necessary. People are free to object to circumcision, whether performed by a mohel (Jewish ritual circumciser) or a physician. But they need to be honest with the facts.

“The scientific evidence is clear that the benefits outweigh the risks,” Dr. Jonathan Mermin of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in 2014. 

“The benefits of male circumcision have become more and more clear over the last 10 years,” added Dr. Aaron Tobian, a Johns Hopkins University researcher.

Circumcision is so medically beneficial that many African countries demand that their male citizens get circumcised. The reason is that, other than sexual abstention, circumcision is the best way to reduce the risk of contracting AIDS. And there are multiple other health benefits.

Personally, I would endorse the bris even if there were no medical benefits. I only cite these benefits to refute those who argue that circumcision is not beneficial, or is even harmful.

What matters to me are the religious benefits of giving one’s son a bris — or brit milah, “covenant of circumcision,” to give it its full name. They are, of course, not as objectively measurable as medical benefits, but they are even greater.

I found the circumcisions of my two sons and two grandsons more emotionally and spiritually moving than any other religious activity in my life. Here I was, in as dramatic a way as one could imagine, bringing my sons and grandsons into the Jewish people and into the Jewish covenant with God. I thought about how my father had done this to me, and his father to him, going back to Abraham, more than 3,000 years ago. I thought about all the Jews who, at the risk of their lives, brought their sons into the covenant during the many anti-Semitic periods in Jewish history.

As for “mutilation,” that is a complete misuse of the term. The term properly describes what is done in many Muslim societies to the genitalia of young girls. That is why it is called “female genital mutilation.” Its vile purpose is to deprive women of the ability to enjoy sexual intercourse. And its effects are prolonged excruciating pain and permanent physical disfigurement. To compare that to the removal of the foreskin is not only absurd, it trivializes the horror of female genital mutilation.

With regard to pain, of course the baby experiences pain. The question is how much and whether there is any lasting trauma.
The amount of pain is essentially impossible to judge for a number of reasons, however. One reason is that we can’t ask the baby: “What is your level of pain from 1 to 10?” Another is that many babies barely whimper during the brit. Virtually all cry far more loudly and for far more time when they have gas or are hungry — and neither condition is regarded as abnormally painful, let alone traumatic.

Nevertheless, the request of any parent who wants to have lidocaine injected into their baby’s foreskin to numb the pain should be honored. There is no halachic issue here; after all, adult men who undergo a brit can be fully anesthetized.

To assess whether one wants one’s son to undergo a brit milah, one has to recognize one of the most important laws of life: Everything has a price. There is a price paid for having a brit, and there is a price paid for not having one.

The price for having one is momentary pain in an infant. That’s it. The idea that a man pays some lasting price for not having his foreskin is refuted by the experience of virtually every circumcised male who has ever lived. I have only met one man in my life who was troubled about not having his foreskin. On my radio show, I once interviewed a spokesman for an anti-circumcision group based in — you’ll be shocked to learn — San Francisco. And I told him I thought he must be very bored to devote so much of his time to lamenting his lost foreskin.

As opposed to the minuscule price paid for having a brit, there is an enormous price paid for a Jew not having a brit. The advantages wildly outweigh the momentary pain. The brit uniquely strengthens a Jew’s religious identification, and the ceremony instills in the family and in the community present at the ceremony a profound identification with the nearly four millennia of the Jews’ world-changing history. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).