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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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).

Forgiveness


I was standing with my brother on the top floor of a hotel in Atlanta having checked in for a conference he had organized.  The elevators were jammed and they didn’t have enough to accommodate all the guests.  More, some of them went to the lower floors and others to the upper.  We stood waiting for a long time.  I looked at the six doors, and said, “You know, not all of the elevators even come to this floor.” My brother looked at the doors, and then backs at me. “Um, David” he said, “These do.” 

We laughed uncontrollably.  When I told my sister-in-law, she recounted how her brother, a navy seal, was in his final exams for the position and his commanding officer walked him around the pentagon.  “Now you understand the structure of the building?” he was asked.  “Yes” he answered, “its an octagon.”  “Noooo” said his C.O. “it’s a pentagon.” 

We all make stupid mistakes. They are often the basis of humor.  For example: Once Sherlock Holmes decided to take Watson on a camping trip.  In the middle of the night, Holmes looked up at the stars and woke Watson.  “Watson” he said, “what do you observe?”

“Well” said Watson, clearly knowing he was being tested, “I observe a slight trail which suggests a shooting star.  And I see the constellation Orion.  And the moon is slightly less than half, but growing.”  Proudly, he said to Holmes, “And what do you observe?”

“I observe,” said Holmes, “that while we were sleeping someone stole our tent.”

Yes, we make foolish mistakes.  And we make serious mistakes, as well.  Often there is one way to get something right and endless ways to get it wrong. That is true in the moral sphere as well as the physical one.  That’s why the idea that you can just follow your heart, or listen to your dream and all will be well is a fiction.  We feed it to our children, but it is not true.

In fact, in the shema we are told, “do not follow after your heart and your eyes that lead you astray.”   Of course, following your heart can often bring satisfaction and depth.  But it is hardly foolproof.  Is there a parent in the world who with the best intentions and love hasn't hurt his or her child?  Or a child who has not done the same in reverse?  We wound from good intentions as well as bad, and often when we think we are following our heart, in retrospect we wish we had listened to our own reservations. 

It is a paradox that we learn as we get older, but to feel something is right doesn't always make it right.  For the world is more complex than simple guidelines, and there will always be much we do not, and even cannot, know. On Yom Kippur we confess to sins we did knowingly and those we did unknowingly. At times we do not understand the impact of our own actions until much later; the unknowings of life are cumulative, and I know how much more I don’t know now, than I used to know when I knew less! 

We go about jangling the heartstrings of others, carelessly and painfully, often without meaning to.  That recognition should sting; it is not against Jewish law to feel bad, or have a sense of sin or sleepless nights. 

Yet we neglect this lesson with our children.  Too often when I ask the bar or bat mitzvah child, “What would you like to change about yourself,” I get the proud answer – “nothing!” I see that the child thinks it is the “right” answer.  Actually, it is exactly wrong.  Is there nothing to do teshuva for, to improve, to do less or more or better?  The idea that we are perfect on instinct is pernicious and untrue.  We can hone our instincts and be better, but the world does not allow for seamless perfection.  Moral struggle is essential, and we need to teach its reality to our kids.

Heschel was once approached by a man who said he did not feel he needed the synagogue or God because he was a pretty good person.  Heschel answered, “I envy you.  I don’t feel so good – I am always saying or doing the wrong thing, hurting someone by words or silence.  I need God, and I need prayer.”

Just as it is dangerous to be without a sense of sin, it is dangerous to luxuriate in it.  We cannot be stuck in sin, mired in our own mistakes. The Jewish answer to a serious sense of our own moral struggle, mistakes and sin is forgiveness.  Sin is our action, not our identity. 

To forgive is hard.  To forgive someone else, you must give up your power over them, release your grudge.  No longer do you get to feel morally superior, since they hurt you.  We are all in need of forgiveness, human and divine, because no one gets it right all the time.

And if we do some emotional excavation. we discover that the same sense of over-expectation that we direct to others, we focus on ourselves.  As we need to forgive those who have hurt us, we need to forgive ourselves.  If we understand that mistakes and even sins are inevitable, are human – then we can forgive ourselves. 

After all, to judge yourself is to be weirdly split.  Who is the “I” that is judging “me”?  To forgive is to reach wholeness, shelemut.  We recognize that another person is like us, so we reunite as common, flawed humans.  And we realize we are one person, so the sin and the judgment come from the same individual who can let both go.

We all of us, of the broken lives and the picked up pieces, of the faltering promises and mislaid resolutions, we who walk in darkness with flickering lights, who know we might be better.  And we know that the release of forgiveness helps us to be better.

Yes, we have serious requirements for forgiveness.  You have to try to make it right, to apologize, resolve not to commit the same transgression.  Forgiveness is not an escape hatch, it is a struggle and a gift. 

And yet.  If you have ever forgiven, truly forgiven, or been forgiven, you know that it is a transcendent moment.  The moment of forgiveness is one of those in which the human and the Divine touch.  It is the reaching toward one another, as in the famous depiction by Michelangelo of God and Adam.

Michelangelo, we are told, used to keep a candle in his cap, to eliminate the shadows on the picture he was painting.  Forgiveness is that candle, the one we carry with us, that brings light into the world.

You can carry that candle for others, and for yourself. 

Many years ago my father told me a story of Calvin Coolidge, who was famously laconic.  To get more than a few words form him was a chore.  Once, he returned from church, and his wife asked, “What did the preacher talk about?”

“Sin.” He answered. 

“What did he say?”

“He was against it.”

I hope this does not resolve to “What did the Rabbi talk about?” 

“Forgiveness.”

“What did he say?”

“He was for it.”

It isn't that I'm for it.  It is that I believe that without it, we are doomed, and with it we are saved. Not saved to another world, but saved in this one. 

If God can forgive us, surely we can forgive ourselves and one another?  We cannot do it all at once, but begin forgiving others, forgiving yourself.  You will discover when you do the reality of God's light and warmth, and feel some peace.

Happy new year, Pope Francis


Dear Pope Francis,

I’m sure your much-anticipated visit to the United States was not timed to coincide with our season of holy days, a time of personal renewal and return to God, all in celebration of the world’s creation. But we are delighted to share this special season with you, since you are a religious teacher who so deeply appreciates its meaning. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the most urgent task of religion in the 21st century will be that of helping humanity to understand that we must change our attitude toward the natural world of which we are a part. Unless we come to see ourselves as responsible stewards of this planet and its resources, rather than their consumers, we will simply not survive. The changes in behavior that will be required of us, both as individuals and societies, are great. They will not be effective if they are simply imposed upon us from above, either by governmental fiat or international declaration. They must rather be changes of heart and mind, welling up from below and leading to a different and more modest way of living, a sense that we all share this beloved planet with one another and with all of God’s creatures, and that each must be given its due. Religion, including the spiritual traditions of all humanity, is the greatest key to that transformation of human hearts and minds.

Your recent encyclical Laudato Si’, “On Care for Our Common Home,” demonstrates your awareness of this and your readiness to turn the vast resources of the Catholic Church toward this purpose. I greet this document with great and humble gratitude. Your firm leadership on this issue will make a great difference to our world, hopefully opening the doorway to responsible action by political leaders who will follow your example. We, the Jewish people, “the fewest among all the nations” (Deuteronomy 7:7), cannot sway so vast a population. Nor is our voice as united as that of your single church. Nevertheless, we share with you — and with all others whose faith is rooted in the Abrahamic tradition — a most important resource, one I would like to call to our collective attention, working together to make it useful in the great struggle that stands before us. I refer to our shared faith in the world’s creation, that which we celebrate in this season.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam all stand on our faith in God as Creator. The seven-day creation story of Genesis 1, culminating in God’s sanctification of the Sabbath, is the tale of origins that helped to create and sustain Western civilization over more than 2,500 years. While most of us no longer relate to that narrative literally, accepting that our world is many billions rather than 5,776 years old, it remains a guide to our spiritual sense that the natural world is shaped by a divine hand or infused with divine presence. The Psalmist taught us all to hear the chorus of praise that emerges from every creature and to view ourselves as part of that great symphony.

The transition from literal faith in the Genesis story to acceptance of the current tale of origins as told by astrophysicists, geologists and evolutionary biologists has been a wrenching one. Too many of the forces of our religious traditions were devoted to a hapless fight against the emerging scientific consensus. Instead, they should have been concentrated on preserving what is most important: our ability to view the world with a sense of awe and wonder, an understanding that the miraculous is present within the everyday, that the natural world is the supernatural, if we learn how to truly open our eyes to it.

That is the faith we must work together to preserve, the language we must learn to speak again. The evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all, if we learn how to open our hearts to it. We must learn how to use our faith in creation not to fight the scientific paradigm, but to infuse it with the sense of the sacred that is our true shared mission. That will offer us a vision of sufficient depth with which to turn to humanity and cry out: “Help us to preserve God’s world!”

Since we Jews believe in embodying great truth in concrete deeds of religious praxis, I have recently issued a call to faithful Jews around the world to renew our ancient practice of calling out the day of creation, from the Genesis narrative, on each day of the week. This daily practice is there to remind us that we live in a created world, that such resources as air, soil and water are all gifts of God, that forests and grasslands, birds and fishes, are all divine handiwork. “God saw all that He had made, and behold it was — and still is — very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Welcome, Your Holiness. We are deeply in debt to your wisdom and leadership on this matter. Let us set aside theological divides and painful histories to work together on this most vital of all issues.


Rabbi Arthur Green is rector of Hebrew College Rabbinical School and author of “Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Guide for Seekers.” This column originally appeared in Wexner Fellows newsletter. Reprinted with permission.

Power plays


I want to share a story about a couple who’ve been married for 19 years.

Their relationship is a series of power plays in which they subtly and sometimes not so subtly try to control one another.

They're’ from the Boston area. 
They have 2 kids
. Both have special needs – one learning, one emotional. She used to work outside of the home, has a PhD in science, but stopped working when her children’s needs became a full time job.

He makes a good living in law.

Here’s where their control issues come to play: She wants to move from the big city, to be in a house surrounded by trees, have a less-stressful life, downsize their financial pressures and be able to reconnect with her professional passion.

He says she’s not realistic, he needs to work long hours in his big-city practice to support their family’s needs. How could she insist that they move away from his parents just because she’s unhappy with the big city? How could she uproot their family right at the time their kids are finally enrolled in suitable schools that address their learning and emotional challenges?

She says he doesn’t consider her feelings, wants and needs. Though she loves him, she’s lonely and disconnected from her husband.

He says he doesn’t want to leave his city of birth and won’t move just because she’s unhappy.

They’re literally stuck, frozen in their apartment and their marriage – because neither one is willing to compromise. Like two people in a boxing ring they stand in position waiting to see who will fall first.

Their power play deeply upsets me – as hear about how they manipulate each other in order to control their family’s future. Rather than work together as a unit, their marriage is game of who will win and who will lose.

Listen, marriage can be difficult –anyone who tells you otherwise – is lying. But frankly, ALL relationships have the capacity to lure us into power plays – in which we try to gain control over another person or a situation.

These dynamics play out at work and school, between genders, in social media, over the environment, among nations, and between religions.
Exerting one’s control over another is pervasive. And as a result it can rip apart our homes, our character and our world.

Now it’s true that sometimes it’s necessary to control and dominate another person if we’re bullied or if a nation feels its safety is endangered. But today I’d like to look at the many power plays we partake in that destroy our souls, and offer 3 some ways we can avoid the allure of trying to dominate and control others.

Let’s start with Torah.
Unfortunately Torah’s very familiar with power and control. In Deuteronomy, Moses blesses the Israelites:
“Be the head and not the tail.” (Deut. 28:13)

It’s as if to be blessed we need to be both in control of our subordinates, and be controlling of them.
The head looks forward, not back.
The head advances onward, without negotiating with its tail. Yet effective leaders are often those who use their positions of power to empower others.

What about taking the back seat sometimes or listening to the opinion of those we lead?
How about the value of being a follower or collaborator?

It’s a tough tension, because even God teaches us to relish power. Torah describes how God encourages Adam to name all the animals of the earth – an ancient tactic of acquiring control over living beings.

And frankly the power to name, can be a very positive tool of control even today.
As of this February, Facebook gives everyone the option of choosing to name oneself from 51 gender categories.

A person can be: Agender, bigender, cis, gender fluid, gender nonconforming, gender variant, intersex, pan gender or transgender (to list a few) – & if you don’t know what some of these gender categories are – you’re not alone.
 The point is – I imagine that those of us who are one of these genders feel validated when we can actively name ourselves. (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/02/15/the-complete-glossary-of-facebook-s-51-gender-options.html).

Yet naming others in a demeaning or controlling way can be used as a way of exerting power over someone else. Perhaps you’ve heard of how ISIS “educates” their soldiers to name their captured women ibadah – meaning “worship,” and then instructs their soldiers to pray before they rape them, and then pray after they rape them –
justifying their violation as a “prayer to God,”
telling the women that they are their ibadah – their tools of worship. I find this obscene … (NYT, Enslaving Young Girls, Aug 14, 2015)

The Torah also gives many examples of power plays between brothers and sisters.
Remember when the siblings Miriam and Aaron criticize Moses for having a close relationship with God? (Numbers 11)

It’s as if they’re vying for “Big-daddy-in-the-sky’s” attention. Sounds like the dinner fight my brothers and I would have around our table –
who got to sit at the head, how much extra food were we served, who was mom and dad’s favorite & who had to wash the dishes.

And the competition and one-upmanship sadly continues when we become “grown up” siblings:
•Like the tension when a father dies and leaves his children unequal inheritance without an explanation. • or a sister- in-law who’s controlling and pushes her spouse into a family feud…..

These power plays are usually about attention and love ….. and often they leak into our bedrooms.

Think of the power and manipulation our patriarch Jacob held over his two wives -who were sisters – Rachel and Leah.
I imagine they wondered who he’d go home to each night and if he favored one over the other.

Today there are many spouses who wonder whether their partner is out late at a business meeting -
or finding intimacy with someone he met on-line
or through work.

How about the manipulative power in the business world? Think of Korach, in the Torah, who wanted even more control than he already had as a Levite (Numbers 16:1+).
He criticized Moses for being power hungry
even though it’s clear that Korach was really interested in promoting his own ego needs.

This type of power-play in the office is all too common today. Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook and author of Lean In, cited a recent study that found that when women executives speak more than their peers,

They’re punished with 14% lower ratings,
but when male executives speak more than their peers, they’re rewarded with 10% higher ratings of competence. Sexual hypocrisy has not disappeared from our conference rooms.
(NYT “Speaking While Female”, Jan 12, 2015).

And how about domination over women in many parts of the world today?
 Should we take literally, the Torah’s teaching that when a man goes to war he can take any woman he wants by power after 30 days of bringing her into his house… or should we follow other biblical injunctions that teach that all human beings are created in the image of God? (Genesis 1 and Deut. 21:10-14)

The 14.2 million women and girls who are sold into slavery each year are told they are a man’s booty, while I assume most of us understand this as an outdated justification of holy texts to manipulate and control the vulnerable.

(UNFPA, 2012, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage. New York: United Nations Population Fund).

Then there’s the power we humans have wielded over our environment.

Remember what the Torah teaches: after humanity was created God told us “to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and watch over it.” (Gen 1:28)
But what’s going on today?!
We’re not protecting our environment.
Instead of watching over our earth
we’re watching as we level our forests,
strip the earth of its resources
and create a global warming disaster.

Let’s not ignore our children –
how about the power-plays in our schools?
It’s no wonder many public & private schools have instituted uniforms to try to level the playing field –
and even then it becomes about what shoes you wear,
your haircut or jewelry –
anything to show your status.

Or consider how social media has become a tool to manipulate and influence one’s “friends.”
Now with a swipe of a finger 25% of teenagers report that they’ve experienced repeated bullying via their cell phone or on the internet, and of the teens who reported cyber bullying incidents, 33% of them said that their bullies issued online threats. (http://nobullying.com/cyber-bullying-statistics-2014/

Power in marriages, among friends, between family members, in the work place, between men and women, over the environment and on social media – are constant tightropes we all traverse. How much we dominate, pull, push back, speak out, submit, or resign ourselves to the allure of participating in these power dynamics- constantly changes.
At work we may be submissive, while at home very dominant – Or vice versa….

This year in America, we can’t ignore the light that’s exposed the power-plays between white and black people.
The Midrash teaches that the reason one “Adam”, one person, was created first, and not two people – not Adam and Eve – was so no person could say “My ancestors are greater than yours.”(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

In other words, no matter our color, race, culture or gender – we all come from the same place and we’re all equal.
Yet – that’s not the world we live in.
Just look at the streets of Ferguson, Mo where Michael Brown was killed, or Staten Island where Eric Garner was choked to death.

As a white women reading Ta-Nehisi Coats’ book Between The World and Me I felt embarrassed.
He shares that “To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology.
The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.”

His words upset me.

I wondered as a white, relatively privileged American – what I do, subconsciously, to promote and accept racism around me?

Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, taught: “racism is so universal in this country,
so widespread and deep seated, that it’s invisible because it is so normal.”

And I wonder: how have I actively or passively participated in the invisible nature of racism?
Am I engaged in my own power-plays and not even aware of them?

Talking about race in America – and how it’s connected to power is very uncomfortable.
I confess with shame that when I worked in Central Park for 3 summers during high school, I resented and felt deep dislike toward the Puerto Rican community.
You see every year, in early June, there was a Puerto Rican parade down 5th Avenue – right next to the park – and the whole surrounding area would get trashed.
After the parade, the community would go into the park and BBQ (which was illegal),
leave their garbage everywhere (also illegal)
and drink alcohol in public (illegal).
I deeply resented the Puerto Ricans.
And then…. And then a close relative, who I love dearly, married a Puerto Rican. And she’s wonderful.
And her sister and parents are good, kind, caring people.

I had to confront my racism and rework how I viewed the Puerto Rican community.
I was forced to see them as individuals, rather than as one group of people.

And of course I have to make note of some radical Jewish extremists whose warped power-play deeply embarrassed me this year.
Though as Jews we don’t promote racism as part of our ideology, as say ISIS does, I was horrified when a Jewish extremist at this summer’s LGBT parade in Jerusalem stabbed Shira Banki to death, a 16 year old girl.
And then on that same weekend in July, a group of Jewish radicals threw two firebombs into 2 Palestinian homes, in the West Bank, in the middle of the night, killing an 18-month-old boy and his parents.
That’s a sick corruption of Jewish power!

In all these examples of control, dominance and power – whether it’s in a relationship, in the office, between genders, of the environment, among races, religions and nations – what’s gained?

Why is the allure of control so seductive?
And why do we continually fall into the trap of participating in power plays?

Well, first – Clarity.
Being right is so satisfying.

But sometimes our ability to distinguish right from wrong becomes blurry:
whether it’s a spouse gone astray,
a boss who favors men,

a white cop who strangles a black guy,
an ISIS solider before he rapes his “wife”…
we believe we are right because we justify our actions with human desire, history, culture, society or religion on our side.

What else is gained? –
the self-indulgent notion that the most important person is me, my wants, my desires, my point of view.
When we put “me” at the center –
we misled ourselves into thinking that everything that goes my way, is the best way.
And when we only look at one side,
our side,
we strip away any hope for sympathy, empathy and respect – ingredients for a balanced relationship.

And with these false gains of power plays, what’s lost? So much more.

As Yehudah Amichai, Israel’s poet laureate once wrote: From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right is hard and trampled Like a yard.

God made the world with different people, holding several points of views and various dispositions to teach us that one way isn’t the only way.
And ironically – when we focus on dominating or manipulating others, our relationships feel disconnected, stuck and stagnant.

The author Shannon L. Adler describes the effects of yielding our power in relationships:

“When you think yours is the only true path you forever chain yourself to judging others and narrow the vision of God. (You see) The road to righteousness and arrogance is a parallel road…. but what makes them different is the road to righteousness is paved with the love of humanity — while the road to arrogance is paved with the love of self.”

I’d like to offer some ways we can walk the road of righteousness and escape the allure of the road of power- plays- to improve our relationships and the world we live.

First — I’ve found that the less I take the bait of a power-play, step back, take a pause, and recalibrate my goal of connecting rather than dominating, the more I deepen my relationships to those I love.

It’s really about walking the road of Teshuvah. And I don’t mean Teshuvah as a noun – it’s not “say you’re sorry.”
Instead it’s Teshuvah as a verb:
●It’s the act of taking a deep, honest, hard look at oneself.
●It’s the proactive review of one’s strengths and weaknesses. ●It’s the courageous act of sharing those insights with someone you trust or with God.

●And it’s the counter cultural choice to change what’s not working in your life, rather than blaming others.

If we really do this, it’s no longer about whose on top,
who’s right, or who’s winning the competition-
instead it’s about uniting, joining & coming together with those we love, those with whom we work, or those who have a different skin color, gender, culture or religion than we do.

It’s no wonder the NYT Modern Love column “Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” generated more than 5.2 million visits since its publication in January.
In case you missed it, Mandy Len Catron described a Cupid— like technique she developed of 36 questions,

which get increasingly intimate in nature,
that 2 people can answer while facing each other.
Apparently, if you follow her list of questions, any two people, even strangers, can fall in love! (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/fashion/modern-love- to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html)

The reason this technique is so powerful is because it’s really an act of Teshuvah. Teshuvah as an honest self-assessment
and Teshuvah as a turning toward the person you want to become – which has temporarily been covered with layers of arrogance or inflexibility…..

Take out your mirrors for a moment. (Note: mirrors with questions on the back were put on everyone’s seat)
The ones on your seats.
This is my gift to each of us: Our Teshuvah mirrors.

On it you’ll find 5 questions – like the 5 books of Moses. Each one focuses on a different aspect of our lives that may have succumbed to the allure of power.

The first is about an interpersonal relationship:

1. Think of one person you have hurt this year. How can you address this wound?

The second asks us to focus on our character:

2. What is one realistic change you can do to make yourself a better person this year?

The third challenges us to look at our professional life:

3. What can you do this year to become a better student, professional, parent or retiree?

The fourth expands our hearts to the greater world:

4. What is your prayer for the world this year?

And the last one invites us to open our souls toward a force or power beyond ourselves:

5. What is one thing you can do to strengthen your relationship with God this year?
(based on Return: Daily Inspiration for the Days of Awe by Erica Brown, page 126)

Let’s spend the next 10 days between RH & YK contemplating our answers to these questions with humility—
as we walk the road of righteousness.

Our challenge is to remember to not take the bait when it comes to power-plays, control and dominance.
It’s so alluring,
So easy to succumb to its self-satisfying pull, but it leaves us lonely, disconnected, and keeps us from looking at ourselves.

Instead, look into your Teshuvah Mirror, Carry it with you the next 10 days.

I wish each of us the strength to be honest on our journey. Shannah Tova.

Survey shows broad dissatisfaction with Israeli religious policy


Secular and haredi Orthodox Israelis differ on many things, but there’s one thing both sides agree on: When it comes to religious affairs, the government is failing.

That’s one of the findings of an annual survey of Israeli religious identification and attitudes toward religious policy released Friday by Hiddush, a 6-year-old organization that promotes religious freedom in Israel.

The survey found that 95 percent of secular respondents are dissatisfied with the government’s handling of religious issues, with large majorities favoring civil marriage or civil unions and official recognition of non-Orthodox conversions.

But the survey also reported dissatisfaction with religious policy among 81 percent of haredi Orthodox Israelis, despite the fact that haredi parties regained control over the Religious Affairs Ministry and the powerful Knesset Finance Committee following the March elections. Since then, the parties have set about rolling back several reforms adopted by the previous government by removing the teeth from a law drafting haredi men into the military and repealing a conversion reform passed last year.

“When the haredim are unhappy, they’re unhappy about something different than why the secular [Israelis] are unhappy,” Rabbi Uri Regev, the Hiddush CEO, told JTA. “To many of them, Israel is not giving them enough, not enforcing their prerogatives enough, not enforcing Shabbat observance.”

Covering a broad spectrum of questions on religious policy and identification, the Hiddush survey reported large majorities of Israelis supporting religious policy change, as it has every year since the poll began in 2009. Sixty-four percent of Jewish Israelis support recognizing Conservative and Reform conversions — not just Orthodox, as is currently the case. Nearly three-quarters of Israelis want public transit on Shabbat. And 86 percent of respondents support haredi men performing military or civilian national service.

“There is clearly a growing, solid, overwhelming majority of Israelis who are unhappy about the way religion and state are linked and impacting the lives of individuals and the state,” Regev said. “The public clearly does not like what the Israeli government has provided it with.”

The survey also found a rise in support for same-sex marriage — with 64 percent in support, compared to 56 percent last year. The jump follows national legalization of gay marriage in the United States and a stabbing attack at the Jerusalem gay pride parade in July that killed a 16-year-old girl. But a substantial portion of Israel’s governing coalition opposes same-sex marriage, making its passage unlikely.

Israelis’ long-held desire for religious reform hasn’t led to corresponding government action. According to Regev, that’s because Israelis, when voting, place less of a priority on religion than security or economics. That was especially true ahead of this year’s election following a war in Gaza and much public discussion about skyrocketing housing prices. Religious issues didn’t even register in a March pre-election poll that asked about the country’s most pressing concerns. Nor have issues like marriage and conversion been subjects of major public protest.

In 2013, religious policy briefly rose in prominence as Yesh Atid became the Knesset’s second-largest party, promising to draft haredim and push for civil unions. But those issues faded as Israel entered last summer’s war in Gaza. In this year’s elections, the new kingmaker was Kulanu, a party largely focused on economics. Yesh Atid, meanwhile, lost eight seats and joined the parliamentary opposition.

“Yes, the majority of Israelis don’t like the way things are. Yes, they want religious freedom and equality,” Regev said. “But should that be the condition for sitting in the government? No. The challenge is how do you translate passive support and understanding of the issues into mobilization.”

Religion rarely part of ICU conversation


In less than 20 percent of family meetings in the intensive care unit do doctors and other health care providers discuss religion or spirituality a new study finds.

For many patients and families, religion and spirituality are important near the end of life, and understanding these beliefs may be “important to delivering care that is respectful of the patient as an individual,” said senior author Dr. Douglas B. White of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, in email to Reuters Health.

Researchers used audio recordings to analyze 249 meetings between health care professionals and an ICU patient’s surrogate decision maker at six medical centers between 2009 and 2012.

Three-quarters of the decision makers rated religion or spirituality as fairly or very important in their lives.

Religion or spirituality came up in 40 of the 249 conversations. More than half of the time, the surrogate decision maker, rather than the doctor, brought up the subject, the authors reported in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Surrogates most often mentioned their religious beliefs, practices or community, or that the doctor is a healing instrument of god, or that the end of life will be a new beginning for the patient.

Doctors frequently redirected these conversations to medical considerations, referred surrogates to other hospital providers or expressed empathy, but very rarely asked further questions about the patient’s religion or opened up about their own religious beliefs.

“Regardless of whether the patient has decision making capacity, clinicians should try to determine whether patients’ religious and spiritual beliefs may affect the kind of medical care that is respectful of what is important to the patient as a person,” White said. “Separately, many family members of critically ill patients find solace in their religious or spiritual beliefs and it may be helpful for clinicians to understand this to better support them.”

Doctors seem not to address these concerns even when surrogate decision makers raise them, he said.

“In my view, it is less important that doctors ask in a standardized way, and more important that they have a basic comfort talking with patients and families about these issues and are able to adapt to the needs of the individual patient and family,” he said.

When a patient brings up a spiritual concern, their doctors should start by simply asking questions and listening carefully, White said.

Whether or not the doctor’s religious views are discussed will depend on the situation, and there is no right or wrong answer, he said.

“If doctors start to attend more carefully to religious and spiritual concerns of patients and surrogates, I suspect they may get into very human conversations in which at times it will be appropriate to frankly discuss their own views,” White said. “As a starting point, clinicians should focus on developing skills to understand the families’ religious or spiritual concerns.”

It is unclear if health care providers will develop these skills, as Dr. Tracy A. Balboni of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, and coauthors write in an accompanying editorial.

“Our patients and families who face serious illness typically find themselves in spiritual isolation in the medical setting; their medical caregivers do not hear the spiritual reverberations of illness on their well-being and medical decisions,” they write. “The question remains whether we who care for dying persons and their families will learn how to be present and listen.”

Why join a synagogue?


Why join a temple? When a b’nai mitzvah or a funeral comes along, why not just “rent a rabbi”? After all, you save the dues and you “pay only for what you need.” The problem, of course, is that in this complex world, troubling news and a search to find meaning, “what we need” is a whole lot more than a once- or twice-a-year relationship can provide. 

In 2000, Robert Putnam lamented in “Bowling Alone” that Americans were becoming increasingly isolated in a society that no longer valued community. The data clearly show that we are moving away from community and increasingly into our own self-created bubbles. And in these bubbles we read and digest opinions that mostly agree with our own, without meaningful interchange and debate. Putnam’s metaphor for the devolution of communal participation was the plethora of bowling leagues in America in the 1950s and how they had disappeared over time, replaced by people bowling alone.

In 2013, the Pew Research Center reported that only 31 percent of people who identify as Jews are affiliated with a synagogue. And for those of us in positions of synagogue leadership, I can tell you that these numbers are not static. They are moving — the wrong way! Fewer and fewer people are maintaining memberships in synagogues nationwide.

One reason for abandoning the communal experience is that familiar institutions, be they bowling leagues or synagogues, were unable to keep up with the times and no longer offered meaningful experiences. We became trapped in institutions that were in an endless loop of repetition. Lost were creativity, flexibility and collective joy. 

In the 1990s, I delivered a High Holy Days sermon each year to a makeshift congregation composed of unaffiliated young Jews looking for a meaningful experience outside of the formal congregational structure. This group had concluded early on something that many of us would later discover — that the traditional model of a synagogue did not offer sufficient meaning and purpose to maintain its relevance and attractiveness to people striving for more.

Eventually, however, it became clear that to raise a family with Jewish values and a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves required commitment to a congregation. My wife and I found such a place in Stephen Wise Temple, with a rich menu of social justice activities, learning and celebration. Now I am president of that congregation, and I find myself explaining that it’s not about how much you use a temple, but how well you use what it offers and, importantly, how critical it is that we support the institution for the benefit of all those we serve.

I love Stephen Wise Temple, our spiritual home, but there is no shortage of other temple options in Los Angeles. To that congregation of the unaffiliated and others who have eschewed temple membership in the past, I urge you to “come home” to an ongoing, continuous relationship with your people. It is time to return to the greater Jewish community and acknowledge that to live a Jewish communal life is not an episodic experience. To learn and live Jewish values every day is to enhance one’s life.

Another disturbing extension of this “bowling alone” challenge to a vibrant and meaningful Jewish community is the “rent a rabbi” movement. Why not be tutored at home, learn a passable minimum and consummate the event with a big party? Parents are choosing b’nai mitzvah experiences devoid of interaction with other families engaged on the same journey; it’s all about me and not about us.

Don’t get me wrong — better to do something, anything, than not provide your child the singular experience of becoming a bar or bat mitzvah. But the “do-it-yourself” model takes a sacred rite of passage and turns it into “Jewish performance art.” It is devoid of context and community. My message to these young families is the same. Come home.

I can attest to the quality of the old, makeshift High Holy Days congregation, its warmth and sense of belonging. But like the carnival pulling into town each year, it picks up stakes, not to reveal itself again until the following autumn. I also have little doubt that the rabbis for hire produce an excellent “product.” But here’s the secret:  Synagogue life is changing. People are reading our ancient texts in ways that are life affirming and relevant to a world drowned in a cacophony of voices that increasingly are turning up the volume. People are working on meaningful social action projects that engage us with changing the city of L.A. and the world around us. One can find meaning and change the world in exciting ways through the strength of numbers.

It is not by accident that our people organized their communities into congregations. Through a congregation, one’s Jewish life experience is enhanced and expanded from an episodic relationship to a partnership with a community that is lasting and offers a rich menu of experiences throughout the year — experiences in personal development, education and in changing the world. But it is also enhanced by having clergy and a congregation to help when one is challenged by the vicissitudes of life. I had one of these moments when my father died, when my community was there to celebrate his life, just as it was there to celebrate happier events.

Within the context of a congregation, one can follow up on High Holy Days celebrations with adult education, Torah study, book clubs, visiting scholars and a variety of other activities. But one also benefits from celebrations throughout the year — dining together in a sukkah, dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah, studying into the evening on Shavuot, experiencing Havdalah by candlelight. 

Temples have evolved to be so much more than simply being there to mark the passage of the seasons and holidays. Valley Beth Shalom gave birth to Jewish World Watch, fighting genocide in Africa. Stephen Wise Temple gave birth to a network of three summer “Freedom Schools,” teaching literacy and providing enrichment for inner-city children, while providing meaningful volunteer experiences for more than 100 Jewish teens each summer. (Full disclosure: My wife is the executive director of this independent nonprofit.) And as our community struggles with the appropriate response to the Iran agreement, it is in synagogues — and not on Facebook or in endless email blasts — where a multitude of voices are heard and where contrary views are shared and debated, all with the sensitivity and shared compassion only face-to-face interactions can provide.

Perhaps it is time for the “nonjoiners” to rethink whether there might be greater meaning and greater support through a congregational experience. I understand there is a cost to membership, but most temples accommodate people at whatever level they can afford.

Perhaps now is a time when the idea of a more permanent relationship with our people might be a powerful addition to your life. Our temple stands for two principles that describe the mission of most temples, namely, making meaning and changing the world. We must resist the temptation to disconnect from others. The loss to the individual is profound. The emptiness of a rent-a-clergy experience, of a “go-it-alone” Jewish existence creates a disconnection from what has been for thousands of years the core Jewish experience, namely, community.

The holidays approach. The time to join with your people in new and exciting ways awaits. Don’t go through life alone, in a bubble, disconnected. Sure it can be fun to bowl alone, but how much more stimulating and exciting to bowl with friends, in community. So come home to a temple near you. Find meaning. Change the world. We have been here waiting for you. 

Glenn Sonnenberg, an attorney, is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners. He is passionate about creating an inviting Jewish communal life for our children and grandchildren.

God will be our visitor


The Jewish family is in a constant state of mourning. Most of the time, we push our mourning to the back of our collective consciousness and carry on our daily lives as if we’ve suffered no loss. Once a year, though, we allow the misery and pain of our tortuous 2,000-year Diaspora to creep into view and dominate our emotions.

That would be Tisha b’Av, our day of mourning. We cry for all that we have lost, for all that could have been, and for a compromised national identity that was detached from our homeland for so long and without its glorious monument to our God. Once a year, we sit on the floor in agony and feel the dormant pain in our souls.

Mourning is a metaphor that helps us cope with Tisha b’Av, which this year begins on the evening of July 25. Metaphors can help us relate to challenging concepts and they can also shine new light to our traditions and rituals.

Jewish mourning is unique, and the concept of sitting shivah has even been popularized in media and popular culture. If we are mourning on Tisha b’Av, we are sitting shivah on Tisha b’Av.

I see the entire Jewish family sitting on the floor together, sitting shivah together, crying together and mourning together. On Tisha b’Av, our synagogues and prayer gatherings become our shivah homes. 

But something is incomplete. One player is missing from the metaphor. 

Who will do the mitzvah of nichum aveilim — comforting the bereaved? If we are all mourners, we cannot comfort each other. A shivah with no visitors to comfort the mourners compounds the pain of loss. Have we been so abandoned that no one will come to pay a shivah call to us? Who will comfort us this Tisha b’Av?

It has to be God. Our comfort will come from God.

God is our Menachem (“comforter”). God “visits” us on Tisha b’Av. That’s why we go to synagogue to mourn. Generally, it’s easier to feel God’s presence in synagogue, so we mourn in God’s House. But the Jewish laws of comforting mourners require that the visitor wait for the mourner to speak first. When the mourner is ready to talk, the visitor listens and responds as appropriate. Listening is the most powerful tool in our comfort toolbox. 

The character Sadness from the new Pixar movie “Inside Out” taught the world this important lesson when she just listened to Bing Bong and gave him a shoulder to lean on. Somehow, that helped him feel a lot better. A mourner just needs someone to listen.

God is our Visitor. God is sitting in the shivah house. God is just waiting to comfort us. But we need to speak first. We have to give God the opportunity to listen. God is ready to listen; we just need to speak.

Eikhah (Lamentations) and kinnot (expressive religious poems) are our chance to speak. We cry, we lament, we wail, we contemplate, and through the experience, we acknowledge our pain. God listens while we speak. But first we talk. We talk to God about our pain; the new pain and the old. Eikhah and kinnot give us a chance to speak first and it is our way of granting God permission to comfort us.

This Tisha b’Av, let us be conscious of our mourning. Let us imagine ourselves experiencing shivah together in God’s House. Let us remember that we have not been abandoned. God is coming to comfort us. Let us allow God to comfort us by speaking to him first and acknowledging our suffering with our words. Let us experience God’s “shivah call” and may we merit to feel God’s comfort. Let us hope and pray that this year we will get up from shivah after Tisha b’Av and never feel the spiritual agony of Tisha b’Av ever again. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink is a rabbi in Beverly Hills. He blogs at finkorswim.com.

Orthodox groups brace for consequences of same-sex marriage ruling


The name that keeps coming up when Orthodox Jewish groups consider the consequences of the U.S. Supreme Court decision extending same-sex marriage rights to all states has little to do with Jews or gays.

Bob Jones University, the private Protestant college in South Carolina, lost its tax-exempt status in 1983 when the Supreme Court ruled that its policies banning interracial dating on campus were “wholly incompatible with the concepts underlying tax exemption.”

Orthodox Jewish organizations, several of which publicly dissented from the Jewish community’s broad endorsement of the High Court’s decision, now worry similar consequences could befall them.

“It remains to be seen whether gay rights advocates and/or the government will seek to apply the Bob Jones rule to all institutions that dissent from recognizing same-sex marriage,” Nathan Diament, the Washington director for the Orthodox Union (OU), said in an email.

The groups point to an exchange in April between Donald Verrilli, the Obama administration solicitor general, and Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, who asked if a school could lose its tax-exempt status if it opposed gay marriage.

“I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue,” Verrilli replied. “It is going to be an issue.”

How much of an issue now exercises Jewish groups. Will Jewish schools lose tax-exempt status if they don’t recognize gay couples? Could they become ineligible for government grants or face discrimination lawsuits for teaching traditional Jewish perspective on homosexuality?

Abba Cohen, who directs the Washington office for Agudath Israel of America, called the court’s ruling an “ominous” sign.

“When an impression is given that religious views are bigoted and are vilified, and that [their adherents] really should be given the status of second-class citizens, once you’re dealing in that kind of atmosphere, you don’t know what kind of disadvantages and disabilities people will suffer,” Cohen said.

After the court’s decision was released on June 26, an array of Jewish groups were rejoicing, but the Orthodox groups — including Agudah, the OU and the Rabbinical Council of America  —  expressed worry.

“We are deeply concerned that, as a result of today’s ruling, and as the dissenting justices have pointed out, members and institutions of traditional communities like the Orthodox Jewish community we represent may incur moral opprobrium and risk tangible negative consequence if they refuse to transgress their beliefs, and even if they simply teach and express their religious views publicly,” said a statement from Agudah, which had filed an amicus brief opposing same-sex marriage.

The justices themselves acknowledged the possible fallout for religious groups. Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the First Amendment protected religious groups that wished to advocate their view that same-sex marriage is illegitimate. But in their dissents, Chief Justice John Roberts and Clarence Thomas said such protections were insufficient.

“Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage,” Roberts wrote. “There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

Marc Stern, counsel for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which also filed an amicus brief in favor of same-sex marriage, said immediate consequences were unlikely at the federal level. But on the local and state levels, there would be challenges.

“Will a state or city official take the decision to remove a tax exemption? In San Francisco, it’s a possibility. In New York City, it might happen,” said Stern, who pointed out he was speaking as a legal analyst.

Another potential challenge cited by Diament is whether groups that reject gay marriage might become ineligible for government grants, citing a debate during the George W. Bush administration about whether drug rehabilitation programs run by proselytizing religious groups should be eligible for funding through the White House’s faith-based initiative.

“We also can anticipate a fight akin to what we had in the context of the Bush faith-based initiative — whether institutions must recognize same-sex marriage to participate in government grant programs,” Diament said.

Cohen also wondered whether Jewish adoption agencies might be prohibited from limiting placement to heterosexual couples or if schools run by religious groups that reject homosexuality could be subject to discrimination lawsuits. 

Male-female marriage remains the ideal


Shortly before she was elected attorney general of California, Kamala Harris and I debated same-sex marriage on CNN. At one point, she asked me if I would prefer a child be raised by same-sex parents who have their act together (a paraphrase, but that was the gist) to being raised by a dysfunctional mother and father. I said I would prefer the functional same-sex parents. 

Having answered her question, I posed one of my own.

I asked her to imagine two couples, one a same-sex couple and the other a married man and woman, and the two are equally loving, psychologically and emotionally healthy, and responsible. If you had a newborn baby that had been placed for adoption, I asked her, which couple would you give the baby to? 

At first, Harris avoided responding to the question. Finally, when pressed, she said that she would need more information about the couples.

The reason I asked the question was that I assume that most proponents of same-sex marriage don’t really believe that starting out life without a mother or without a father — and never having the opportunity to have a mother or father later in life — is just as good for a child as having a mother and a father. 

That’s why Harris didn’t want to answer the question. As a proponent of same-sex marriage, she could not possibly say on national television that, all things being equal, it is better for a child to have both a mother and father. On the other hand, she would sound foolish to most Americans — even many liberals — to say that not having a mother or not having a father makes no difference.

Yet, that is what defenders of same-sex marriage are forced to say. Because if they acknowledge the importance of having a mother and a father, they are implicitly acknowledging that man-woman marriage is the ideal — at least with regard to children.

The reason for the intensity of the passion on behalf of same-sex marriage has little to do with legality and rights. Rights available to married couples could have been made available to same-sex couples without having to redefine marriage. 

Rather, the reason for the intensity on behalf of same-sex marriage is that any same-sex union other than marriage would imply that the male-female union is the ideal. And in the Age of Equality in which we live — all cultures are equal, all religions are equal, all nations are equal — this assertion is not expressible. 

Yet, as much as people seek to deny it, male-female marriage has been the ideal in every civilization that has a recorded history. It has certainly been the Jewish ideal. Adam is alone and God makes for him a woman. A man shall leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his woman and they shall be as one flesh. And men should restrict their sexual activity to their wives (this was unique to the Torah — every other ancient culture celebrated male-male sex; sex with wives was for making babies).

Does the male-female ideal mean that the homosexual man or woman is inferior? Of course not. One example should make this clear: No one, not even most liberal Jews, would argue that having a single (loving and competent) parent is no different from having two (loving and competent) parents. Every intellectually honest person knows that a two-parent home is the ideal. Yet, no one would argue that a single parent is an inferior human being. The idea is preposterous.

Likewise, to acknowledge that the man-woman union is the ideal is in no way a negative judgment about the gay individual. It is only a judgment in favor of the male-female union. Just as the two-parent ideal is in no way a reflection of the worth of the unmarried parent as a human being.

But the left has equated such commonsensical assertions with “hatred,” with “bigotry” and with “racism.” 

The majority of gays will never marry. But the cultural left knows that anything other than marriage — no matter how many rights are allowed — implies that the male-female union is the ideal. And that is not allowed. To even hint at it is to be a “hater.”

That is what the battle over same-sex marriage is largely about.

And that is why it is particularly sad to see how many non-Orthodox rabbis have decided that Judaism has been wrong for 3,000 years in insisting that male-female marriage is the human ideal. It gives one little faith in the non-Orthodox movements’ ability to withstand societal pressure and stand up for Judaism. And this is written by a non-Orthodox Jew.

We have entered a Brave New World unimaginable even to Aldous Huxley, the author of the book of that famous title. He could never have imagined, for example, the latest poll showing that most American young people, 16 to 34, believe that gender identity is “fluid.” 

But how could it not be? If the gender of the person you marry doesn’t matter, if the gender of your parents doesn’t matter — then gender doesn’t matter.

Pity this next generation. They are guinea pigs in the most radical social transformation in history.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

A night at First AME Church


The first surprise came when I typed 2270 S. Harvard Blvd into my phone, and discovered that it's only 4.8 miles from my synagogue, Congregation B’nai David Judea, in the Pico Robertson neighborhood. I had always assumed that it was much farther away than that. Actually, that it was infinitely far away. But – surprise! – it's right here. And this turned out to only be the first of several surprises on that the evening held in store. 

A handful of our shul-mates and I felt compelled to go to First AME of Los Angeles on Thursday night. The need emerged from a sense that the work of creation itself was teetering. That a brazen, calculated fully intentional attack upon decency, upon goodness, upon humanity, upon hope itself had been perpetrated. That a violation of everything that is sacred, indeed of the very notion of sacredness, had occurred. Indeed, as one of the pastors who spoke at the service noted, the very last thing that the nine victims had done in their lives, was to welcome a stranger into their church, into their prayer gathering, to demonstrate love for another person – a sacred act. We now know that the shooter almost changed his mind in light of the kindness that he had been shown. But in the end, he proceeded to gun them down. He gunned down the pastor. He gunned down an 87 year old woman, and seven others. And the earth seemed to stop dead in its orbit, waiting to see whether or not the decent, the good, the hopeful among human beings, would push back. And so I went, we went, to help push back.

And what unfolded there that evening, was remarkable in so many different ways. On the broadest level, it was the remarkable experience of being inside the kind of drama that we are accustomed to seeing only in the movies. We were, in real life, rising together in the name of Right and Justice and Truth in their most essential, irreducible forms, as pristine and as pure as they were on the day that God created them. It's not often that you can actually feel abstract ideas with your physical senses. And for that alone, Dayenu. That alone would have made it the best two hours I had ever spent in Church. 

But there was so much more. Two of the evening's recurring themes were hope and faith. Not bitterness – even as the history of the Black struggle in America was recounted. Not a lamenting of Black victimhood – even as the story of Mother AME Church in Charleston, a story that began 50 years before the Civil war, and included numerous episodes of racist violence and destruction – was recounted. For as Sari remarked,” the entire history of the AME church is one of hope for the future, belief in a better time to come, the spirit of never giving in or giving up, even when unspeakable horrors unfold.

And in addition to hope and faith, the evening was also about gratitude to God for his love, and trust in God, that He would with us as we continued the struggle. As the Pastor whose ministry is Skid Row remarked, “God may not always come when we call Him, but He'll arrive at the right time.”

And towering above all of these, was the importance of love. Love not as a feeling that one hopes arises spontaneously in one's breast, rather love as a conscious moral decision. A conscious moral decision – a conscious religious decision – that is made in the effort to alter the course of events, to change the course of history, to push violence back through the demonstration of love toward others. Though no one specifically quoted them, the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King were hovering in the air. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” And in a real-time expression of love and its importance, one speaker after another, expressed his love for the LAPD officers who had been assigned to protect the event, and asked that this love be conveyed to Chief Beck. As Joey reflected,” at a time when the relations between the black community and the police are somewhat fraught, only graciousness and appreciation were being expressed for the work the police are doing“. I noticed, that as the evening began the officers were standing, lining each side of the room. But at some point, they sat down, in the pews, and became part of the congregation itself. 

And the AME choirs, man alive, do they know how to sing! Not just to sing but to pray, and not just to pray but to soar. There is no way I can do justice in describing what was happening in the room when the choir reached the refrain of a song called “You are Important to Me”, a refrain that just kept getting louder and bigger and more insistent with each of its many, many repetitions, 

I pray for you; you pray for me.
I love you, I need you to survive.
The choir began pointing at the audience, who soon began pointing back, 
I pray for YOU; YOU pray for me.
I love YOU, I need YOU to survive. 
It was spellbinding. And God was present in the room. 

And all this faith amidst struggle, and love amidst grief brought home to us again that living in our bubble we are missing out on a big piece of life's beauty and richness and calling. We live in a wonderfully diverse city, which abounds in opportunities to revel in the diversity of God's creation, to learn from one another, and to love in new and unexpected ways.

And though it can honestly be said that we received much more than we gave last night, what we gave was noticed. Residents whose homes we passed as we walked the few blocks from where we had parked, thanked us for coming out. As did the ushers at the doors who welcomed us in. And as we were leaving, a woman who seemed to be an AME regular threw her arms around my wife Sari and then around me. I was thinking about how much we appreciated it when people of other faith communities came to the Bring Back Our Boys rally in Pan Pacific Park, exactly a year ago. Showing solidarity is always worth more than the time or effort it costs. And it really requires nothing more than showing up.

These were without doubt, the best (and only) two hours I've ever spent in church. And the truth is that we do all need each other to survive. And that “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles.  He contributes to the blog Morethodoxy at jewishjournal.com.