Why I’m Not a Rabbi

I never thought I’d find myself in the position of deciding whether or not to be a rabbi. After all, I came from a secular family and from a young age I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up: a writer.

But after four years of studying creative writing in college and one summer working at a literary nonprofit in Manhattan, I found myself in a crisis that would eventually lead to the rabbi question.

I was 21 years old and writing was the center of my life, to the exclusion of almost anything else. A good writing day made me feel like a good person. A bad writing day made me feel like a worthless excuse for a human being. This, I began to sense, was a form of idolatry; writing could not be the most important thing in the world. Life had value apart from words on a page!

Meanwhile, I had begun to grow interested in my Jewish heritage. And I’d also begun to fall in love, inconveniently, with God.

So, at 21, I decided to stop writing entirely. Instead, I would build my life around something eternal.

I quit my job, left everything I knew and traveled to Jerusalem for the first time, with nothing but a backpack and my violin. There, I enrolled in a progressive, coed yeshiva called Pardes.

I ended up staying at Pardes for two years, studying Torah during the day and playing music in clubs or on the street at night. By the time I left, there was no question about what was at the center of my life as I prayed, studied Talmud and led Friday-night services.

When I returned to the States, I continued to play fiddle; I began to teach Torah; and slowly, very slowly, I also began to write. Like an athlete learning to hold her body correctly after a bad injury, I had to craft my sentences carefully, watching for signs of too much ego or ambition. But I was able to build a serious writing practice back into my life.

I continued to write, play music and teach Torah through my 20s, without feeling a need to choose between these sometimes disparate ways of life. But as my 30th birthday approached, I realized I was going to have to make some decisions.

What was I? An artist who loved Jewish texts and traditions or a rabbi who loved music and writing? I knew titles like “rabbi,” “musician” and “writer” were never fully accurate, that every human transcended a simple title. But I also understood that they mattered. I sensed that the path I chose would define the way I spent my days, how I paid my rent, and what was appropriate to say in public.

I found that when I leaned toward one possibility, the other self would materialize strongly. When I placed art out front, the Hebrew letters shone through, seeming to be the inner essence of that practice. But when I foregrounded the sacred books, I would feel the gentle curves of my violin’s body, notes inside my fingertips, poems burning on my tongue.

I agonized over this decision for months.

In the end, as silly as it sounds, it was cursing that finally led me to decide not to be a rabbi. I am not particularly foul-mouthed, but I wanted to be able to drop F-bombs with impunity, in my writing and in my life.

Really, looking back, I see that this was symbolic. I wanted to be able to say anything, from the esoteric to the vulgar, without the pressure of representing my people and my tradition.

So I finally recycled the rabbinical school application.

Thankfully, Judaism is not terribly hierarchical, at least in the communities in which I live and work. As a layperson, I can lead services, teach the traditions, counsel seekers, and officiate my students’ bar and bat mitzvahs.

Thank goodness for all the rabbis who bear the honor and the burden of communal representation. As for me, I’m just a wandering melamed, grateful for the tools I have to find as much holiness as I can in the world: Torah, music and writing down the meditations of my heart — from the sacred to the profane. n

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on a verse from the weekly parsha

Parsha Noach, Genesis 8:20-22:

“And Noah built an altar to the Lord, and he took of all the clean animals and of all the clean fowl and brought up burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled the pleasant aroma, and the Lord said to Himself, “I will no longer curse the earth because of man, for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth, and I will no longer smite all living things as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.”

Rabbi Nicole Guzick, Sinai Temple

I can only begin to imagine the destruction Noah witnesses while living in the ark. The world weeps. Outside, humanity drowns in chaos, and inside the ark, Noah and his family have one choice to make: succumb to the fear of a now unknown world or re-enter the world and rebuild anew. And with the building of an altar, Noah’s choice is clear. Time and time again, in the face of desolation and despair, it is within the human spirit to rebuild and repair. As difficult as it sounds, even as death knocks on the door of the ark, Noah chooses to thank God for the gift of today. 

It is God’s reaction that is most astounding. It seems in response to Noah’s courage and resilience, God whispers, “If you’re not running away, I guess I won’t, either.”

Life continuously presents challenges and frustrations. Noah’s choice is the one we make daily: drown or rebuild. Look out at the world and determine that we are no match for the uncertainty and unpredictability of our life’s course, or wholeheartedly remember that our souls have the capacity for constant growth and resurgence. We are meant to get out of the ark and live.

Perhaps the most comforting message is that in life’s tumultuous journey, we are not alone. God is reassured by our willingness to survive. It is a partnership of faith — humanity’s faith that God will guide us through the murky waters and God’s faith that humanity will continue to swim.

Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman, Jewish Mindfulness Network

We are taught that God is all-knowing and constant. Yet, in our verse, we experience a God that changes. The reason God gives for sending the devastating flood in the first place, wiping out humans, is because humans “act in corrupt ways and incline toward evil.” Yet, after the flood, God’s response is different. God recognizes that humans still have evil tendencies but proclaims acceptance and vows to never wipe out humans again! The people are the same. God changes. God’s severe judgment gives way to compassion and commitment. Perhaps God accepts the reality of human nature and decides to love the people, anyway. To cement this new relationship, God confirms the stability of the seasons, and the sure cycle of day and night. Humans participate in this order by planting and harvesting. In these three verses, we can learn two profound lessons. First, if God’s heart can change from harsh damnation and give way to compassion, perhaps so can ours. Second, we can be conscious and grateful each day for the constancy of the natural order that we so often take for granted. In the midst of darkness, it is of great comfort that the sun comes up in the morning. In times of evil, the seasons continue to turn. Where (or against whom) in your life do you harbor judgment that your heart might turn toward compassion? Today, how might you appreciate being held by the rhythm of life itself?

David Brandes, film producer and screenwriter

On the sixth day of creation, God creates man and is pleased. But in the next few chapters of Genesis, it’s all downhill for man. Adam and Eve disobey God and are expelled from the “Garden.” Cain slays Abel.  The rebellious generation of the Tower of Babel descends into perversity and evil. God’s cataclysmic response: the flood, in which man, animals and nature are decimated. As the story progresses, Noah leaves the ark and offers sacrifices to God. God accepts the sacrifices but reveals a damning observation: “Man is possessed of an evil nature from youth.”

This bleak story raises troubling questions. If God knew that man was flawed, why save him? Why not destroy everyone and start again? And for us mortals: If we are evil by nature, doesn’t that leave us in a state of hopelessness and despair?

If we look at the Bible as drama, and man as the ultimate flawed hero, a resolve emerges. The first part of the story, man’s ugly history, is the setup presented to explain and justify the Torah given by God to Moses later in the narrative. At its core, the law is about dealing with our fellow man, to make life pleasant for all, to overcome the evil inclination within.  For it is in the laws of the Torah that the redemption of man rests. Elegantly put by Hillel, “What is hateful unto you, do not do to your friend. …  This is the whole Torah.”

Redemption is hope.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila, Director of the Sephardic Educational Center

Dear God,

In the beginning, you created heaven, earth and everything else, and you “saw that it was good.” You created me, and you “saw that it was very good.” But just a few chapters later, I went from being “very good” to becoming the source of your deepest regret. I was continuously thinking evil thoughts, so you decided to blot out my existence. Save for one “righteous” person, I wouldn’t be here.

After your destructive deluge, the sole survivor expressed his gratitude by offering a sacrifice. Your reaction was perplexing: You’ll never bring on another destructive flood, because “man’s imagination is evil from his youth.” But is it not you, dear God, who created me this way? Why the sudden epiphany? It took creating and nearly wiping me out to realize that I’m doomed to live with this built-in factory defect?

No wonder the “human condition” is so harsh. It’s not surprising that in the great 2 1/2- year talmudic debate on human existence, Shamai’s pessimistic conclusion — “It would have been better for man not to have been created” — ultimately won the day.

Be that as it may, I’m alive and here, leaving me no choice but to follow Hillel’s optimistic position: “Examine my deeds carefully.” In other words, I’ll try to make morals, ethics and love, as per your commandments, my sole mission on this earth. Despite the defect, dear God, I’ll try to be the best I could be.    


Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, senior editor at Chabad.org

This is amazing. Everyone expects a miracle to be unexpected. It’s gotta break the patterns of nature. The stuff cinematic eye candy is made of.

But here is a divine promise for the greatest of miracles: The innumerable atoms, cells, organisms and celestial bodies that make up this world will harmonize into cyclical seasons so that we can plant and harvest, plan and build, raise our children and tell them to take care of this place.

That is wondrous. The more we understand, the more wondrous it becomes. Why should anything be constant in a world defined by change?

When the sun rises just a little south of where it rose yesterday, when the trees shed their suntime wear and squirrels obsess over hoarding seeds, nobody sees a miracle. Winter comes and goes, life erupts again in green, yellow, purple and red — still, nobody is surprised.

But a Jew makes a blessing in the morning to “He who spreads the earth over the waters.”

Get that? You went to sleep, there was a floor beneath your feet. You wake up, it’s still there. So you say, “Gevalt! What a miracle! God, I love how You do this!”

A Jew grabs a sandwich and makes a blessing for the miracle of “bringing bread out of the earth.” Amazing. Earth to bread! You’re eating a miracle!

So why aren’t we living in constant wonder?

That is the days of Moshiach — when we will be amazed each morning by the rising of the sun.

How Judaism Helps Us Regain Our Balance

Each period of history has a title bestowed by historians, one meant to reveal some key characteristic of that age. Thus, the medieval period is the Age of Faith; the Enlightenment is the Age of Reason; and the 19th century is the Age of Progress. The name for our age, I would venture to guess, is the Age of Busyness.

Everybody is busy. Americans routinely complain that they work too many hours — and they do. They complain that they have too little time to spend with their children — and they’re right. They complain that they have little time left for quiet reflection, for learning and for celebrating.

Well, actually, they don’t complain about that — because they don’t have enough time to notice its absence, or because they’re so busy that they no longer miss it.

But part of being human, part of living our lives fully, is the inner need to grow and to explore and to play. Contemporary psychology tells us that people continue to grow throughout every phase of their lives, and that the playfulness of children continues into adulthood, as well. To be human is to play, to change and to grow.

Where, in our serious culture of business, work and productivity — or in its flip side of infantile recreation and foolish escapism — do we make room for adult play, adult study and adult growth? America’s Achilles’ heel is its excessive busyness, which spawns equally excessive foolishness to blow off steam.

We’ve lost our balance.

The place to recapture what we have lost is to be found in Judaism’s unparalleled ability to sanctify time. Through the observance of Shabbat, of holy days and festivals, our tradition provides a timeout for adults — not to lose ourselves in fantasies or escape, but to rediscover ourselves and the depths of our own creativity and love. We immerse ourselves in sacred time in order to live better and more fully during the rest of our days.

Now that the holy days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are behind us and we emerge out of our sukkah booths back into our busy, contemporary lives, our immersion in rest, renewal and community is our passport back into a better way of living our lives. Instead of “spending time,” Judaism gives us the gift of learning to savor it.

The Talmud teaches that “rejoicing on a festival is a religious duty.” What a remarkable idea! A day devoted to a special kind of joy. The rejoicing of the festival has little in common with sitting in a dark room staring passively at an on-screen fantasy, or risking life and limb to thrill ourselves into forgetting what drones we’ve become. The rejoicing of the festival is not one of escaping, but one of returning to our own centers — our own families, friends, community and God.

As it says in the Talmud: “Rabbi Eliezer said, ‘One has nothing else to do on a festival except to eat, drink, sit and study.’ Rabbi Joshua said, ‘Divide it — devote half the day to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of prayer and study.’”

Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships.

What a fascinating way to rejoice. Recall that the word “recreation” involves creating something anew — in this case, our own souls. By spending part of the day together in prayer, song and Torah study, we rebuild our identities as messengers of God and as bearers of God’s covenant. We restore our sense of belonging in a specific synagogue community and in the Jewish people worldwide. Having restored that essential base, the rabbis of the Talmud then tell us to take the rest of the day for feasting and spending time with those we love.

What a marvelous blend of devotion and relaxation, of heightened identity and then simply being.

What this regimen of holy days and festivals makes clear is that mastery of our work — rather than allowing our work to master us — requires setting clear boundaries and limits to our chores and our work. Our sense of self emerges in cultivating our character, our curiosity and our relationships. By rejoicing with one another on these holy days, festivals and on Shabbat, we declare ourselves to be free in the service of holiness and goodness, of Torah and togetherness.

After the end of the fall holy days, take the lessons of the shofar, the fast and the sukkah with you into our busy world. Remember that we each are children of royalty, and we thrive best when we thrive together. 

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

This savory life: Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech (Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30)

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick

My name is Avivah and I am addicted to sugar.

When I am free to eat sweets, I do so with abandon. I may eat entire packages of cookies, one slice of every cake being served, whole pints of ice cream.

I don’t actually like these things. The sugar craving says sweets will make me happy, but eating them never does. Once I start, there’s no stopping me until I feel glutted and sick.

I didn’t realize this was an addiction until I attended a training program for rabbis at Beit T’Shuvah, the Jewish residential treatment center. My sugar craving seemed silly compared with alcoholism, drugs, gambling and such. But it was no less real. I was following a voice that was not acting in my best interest. I was not being my best self.

I am able to speak of my sugar problem now because I made a break and stopped eating sweetened foods this summer. The only sweetness I eat now is fresh fruit. It’s incredibly difficult. I had to go through everything in my house, throw away sweetened foods, and buy new ones without sugar. “Unsweetened” isn’t a category that restaurants are set up to offer, unlike gluten-free or vegetarian, so I have to call ahead and walk through the ingredient list with the staff, or see if it’s posted online.

Otherwise, I have to eat at home, pack my own meals or just go hungry. Being without the convenience of America’s sticky-sweet food industry, I’m on my own.

I share this with you because in this week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech, we are reminded by Moses of the covenant that God struck with the Jewish people for all time, and how covenants give us fortitude.

Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Eloheichem — All of you stand today before God … to enter into the covenant … that He may establish you this day as His people, and be your God (Deuteronomy 29:9-12).

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad Chassidism and author of “The Tanya,” taught that the covenant struck by the Jewish people with God was made in a time of great joy, when the miracles that brought freedom from slavery were still fresh in their minds. Like lovers who commit to marriage, we made this covenant with God when the passion for it was strong, and the reasons self-evident.

But that’s not when a covenant is needed. Lovers need their wedding contract later, when the love they felt becomes strained by the vicissitudes of daily life. Then, the mutual commitment they had made could give them strength in a way the memory of new love might not. It’s the same for us and God.

This is the mighty power that religion can have in life: to turn self-improvement efforts into something bigger than ourselves, a commitment not just to betterment, but to Hashem.

Deciding to make a major life change for the good is the easy part, but it’s only Step One. After that comes Step Two. For me, that meant rethinking everything I ate and everything I thought about eating, and sustaining it for 10 weeks, the length of time needed to establish a new pattern.

Now, my initial commitment has passed, I’ve lost some weight, I’m thinking more clearly, my palate has adjusted to find the subtle richness in savory foods, and I don’t want sweets. That leaves me with one thing to be done, and it’s the hardest part of all — Step Three: vigilance. I need to be proactive so I’m never in a position where I feel desperate — out on the road, extremely hungry, and without a plan for what or where to eat. I need to think ahead about my meals, or just plan to end up back home.

I’m reminded of the thinking behind tzit-zit, the fringes on our prayer shawls. As part of the Shema prayers, we take the tzitzit in hand, kiss them, and say that they are a helpful reminder not to allow our hearts to stray off the path that God sets for us.

This is the mighty power that religion can have in life: to turn self-improvement efforts into something bigger than ourselves, a commitment not just to betterment, but to Hashem.

So I may feel “on my own” on the American food landscape, but I’m not without support. I have my friends and family with me, encouraging me to be strong. My bulwark against that insidious, lying voice of sugar consumption is love. I love my life and my health, and I love the Holy One, blessed be God, who has brought me to this season.

L’Shanah tovah!

RABBI AVIVAH W. ERLICK is a board-certified health-care chaplain in private practice. She owns a referral agency for Jewish clergy (CommunityRabbis.com) and a private chevrah kaddishah (Sacred-Waters.com), is a spiritual counselor for hospice and serves as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County jails.

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

There are now Christian mezuzahs

It’s affixed upon the doorpost. It’s wooden, thin and rectangular, but with rounded corners. It’s meant to fulfill a biblical commandment.

And it bears a verse from the Gospel of John about the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

That’s right: It’s a Christian mezuzah.

Karen Goode calls her creation the Doorpost Blessing, and it looks nearly identical to the small, oblong case that has adorned the doorways of Jewish homes for millennia. Both Goode’s creations and traditional Jewish mezuzahs are based on the same scriptural passage in Deuteronomy that commands Jews to inscribe the words of the Torah “on the doorposts of your house.” Observant Jews recite the passage twice a day with the Shema.

Except, instead of placing parchment bearing two paragraphs of Torah verses inside the mezuzah, as Jews do, Goode engraves a verse on the outside of the Doorpost Blessing, either from the Old or New Testament. She also offers Doorpost Blessings bearing lines from Christian hymns. Altogether, Goode sells 25 varieties, in English and Spanish.

“I’m following what the Bible says,” Goode told JTA. “I’m taking it to modern-day standards. I’m reminding us of our blessings. We all need something to hold onto. God is much bigger than any of us.”

Goode, who lives in the New York City borough of Staten Island and works at a hospital, launched Doorpost Blessings as part of her interest in carpentry. She came upon the concept in 2014, and began making and selling Doorpost Blessings in their current form this year. She would not disclose sales figures, but said the most popular ones bear Old Testament verses both from the books of Jeremiah and Joshua.

“The inspiration was from God, but I was looking for something that would speak of my faith and also carpentry,” she said. Goode is Christian but did not elaborate on which denomination.

Goode isn’t the first person to market mezuzahs to Christians. In 2014, a financial adviser in New York, Henry Zabarsky, created the Christoozah, a hollow red cross containing scripture on a parchment meant to be affixed to a doorpost. But Zabarsky, who is Jewish, told JTA that he is no longer involved with the Christoozah company, and though there remains a working website, it appears not to have been updated in nearly three years. A contact number with a Colorado area code was unresponsive.

Nor is Goode the only Christian to take on a Jewish practice in the name of fulfilling Old Testament dictates. Some evangelical Christians wear ritual fringes or kippahs, and some hold Passover seders — something Goode says she has done in the past. Several fringe evangelical denominations, including the Living Church of God, eschew mainstream Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter in favor of observing Old Testament festivals on the Jewish calendar.

But unlike Christoozah and the Living Church of God, Goode does not credit Jews — and specifically the practice of hanging mezuzahs — with inspiring the product she sells. There is no mention of Judaism or mezuzahs on the Doorpost Blessing website, though Goode told JTA she finds the Jewish mezuzah “a beautiful item.”

“I’m not referring to a mezuzah,” she said of her creations. “I’m doing what the commandment says. I’m doing it from a Christian perspective, not a Jewish perspective. I would see similarity in that there’s a blessing hung around the door frame, but other than that I credit the Bible.”

Mendel Kugel, a Manhattan rabbi who runs MezuzahMe, a service for selling and examining mezuzahs, says Goode’s project is a testament to the mezuzah’s resonance as a ritual item. But he worries that the presence of Christian mezuzahs will make it easier to mistakenly purchase a non-kosher mezuzah.

“It just shows that it’s such an important thing that Christians also want it,” Kugel said.

“Jews don’t try to convince non-Jews by copying their religious customs, to try to bring them into our religion. We have so much belief in our own religion, we have no reason to copy others.”

Goode, however, doesn’t see her Doorpost Blessings as copies. She prefers to see the commonalities between Christians and Jews — after all, both faiths revere the same holy book.

“We Christians celebrate quite a few holidays that the Jewish people celebrate,” she said. “We do have similar history in that we both acknowledge the Old Testament.”

Dr. Joshua Berman

The Inconsistency in the Torah exchange, part 1: How do we make sense of the Torah’s many contradictions?

Joshua A. Berman is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Hebrew Bible at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He is the author of Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought.

The following exchange will focus on Professor Berman’s new book Inconsistency in the Torah: Ancient Literary Convention and the Limits of Source Criticism (Oxford University Press).


Dear Dr. Berman,

Your new book challenges a basic assumption that Bible scholars have accepted since the beginning of the field as an academic discipline. Rather than treat inconsistencies in the Torah’s narrative and laws as a sign that we are dealing with compiled texts written by multiple authors and editors, you try to show that they are in line with ancient writing practices of their times and place.

My introductory question: what was the motivation behind this project, and how does it change our attitude to the book of books?




Dear Shmuel,

For all of its centrality in our tradition, the Torah is a very puzzling book: it retells stories in ways that contradict earlier tellings, and it issues the same laws often several times over, here, too, sometimes with conflicting details. How can we make sense of this?

For more than two centuries, modern scholars have held to a single explanation: the inconsistencies reflect the conflicting views of multiple authors. But when you scratch beneath the surface, you see that that approach has problems of its own. Consider the laws in the Torah that seem to contradict each other. Scholars generally claim that this is because the Torah contains several mutually exclusive law codes, written at different times by different communities, and that these communities were actually in competition with one another about the correct way to observe God’s law.

But then how did all of these conflicting laws arrive in a single text? The standard explanation is that the editor did so out of duress. With the pressures of the destruction and exile, there was a need for Israel’s disparate sub-communities and traditions to unite together around a compromise document, and that document is the Torah.

But this thesis is unsatisfying for several reasons. First, and foremost, it is difficult to see how the Torah in its present form could satisfactorily be termed a “compromise document.” A document reflecting compromise between competing agendas is one where each side gives ground on its original positions and a middle ground is found. Alternatively, one side will get its way on a given issue and the other side its way on another. Where draftsmen truly find no common ground, they may employ creative ambiguity, or skirt the issue altogether. The sine qua non of a compromise document, however, is that it will iron out conflict and contradiction so that the community can proceed following one, authoritative voice. If there really are conflicting traditions here, the Torah is not a document of compromise, but of anarchy.

Moreover, were these so-called legal schools truly inimical to each other, we would expect the warfare over the law to spread to many other books of the Bible. Indeed, scholarship routinely maintains that the various schools which composed these supposedly competing legal texts were largely responsible for the editing of many of the books of the Hebrew Bible. The other books of Scripture touch upon literally dozens of areas of law. Yet, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible do we find a prophet, priest, king, or narrator who argues in explicit fashion for the legitimacy of one version of a law over another. Nowhere in the Tanakh do we find a book or a prophet that can be classified as purely following the laws of Deuteronomy, or the laws found in Exodus. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Nearly all the books of the Hebrew Bible resonate with passages from all so-called sources of law. Often, biblical writers will weave together purportedly “competing” law sources. Put succinctly, while scholars have classically seen the different law collections as mutually exclusive, all sections of the Hebrew Bible, from the Torah and on into the other books, seems to put them together. In the Torah we find these laws all united under one cover as the Torah, and in the other books we see references to these law codes woven and cited with no sense that affinity to one comes at the expense of the standing of the other.

This puzzle is what drove me to write my new book. All of this leads me to conclude that we’re missing some big piece of the puzzle; that scholars—and we as well—are stuck in the fishbowl of our own cultural assumptions about how law works, about how legal texts should be written and read.  But, it turns out, the ancients thought about law very differently, and they composed their legal texts very differently than we compose ours today. And so, my book is an attempt to jump out of the fishbowl of our own assumptions and recapture how the ancients thought and wrote in a way that makes better sense of the material than is found in modern scholarship today. And I try to do the same thing with regard to conflicting versions of the same story that we find in the Torah.  I seek—and find—examples of this kind of writing in the ancient Near East, and determine why an author would write in this fashion.


Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

A solar eclipse deserves a blessing

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.

An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.

Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.

Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.

Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE.  In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.

So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?

The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming  still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.

In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)

The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)

By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages:  “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)

For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.

  • Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
  • Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
  • And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
  • But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.

As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”

This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.

This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?

Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.

With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

     As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

     When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

      As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

     Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

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

Seeking Torah in the City of Angels

In a city that seeks to capture the perfect image, I recently found myself wondering how to picture Shavuot, which begins on the evening of May 30. For the holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, I wanted to find a location that would bring this revelatory event into my daily focus.

Though Shavuot often is associated with an image of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, I was looking for something that was more expansive. I wanted something that showed how the Torah was everywhere — especially in the City of Angels. I wanted to see if the angels, who according to the Talmud initially objected to God giving the law to the Jewish people, would now lend me a hand or a wing — or whatever it is they have.

My idea was inspired by a custom many celebrate on Shavuot: staying in to study all night, called Tikkun Leil Shavuot (repairing the eve of Shavuot). The practice relates to a midrash that teaches that on the morning the Children of Israel were to receive the Torah they overslept and needed to be awakened by Moses. To make repairs for our somnolence, we now show we are awake by studying, especially the beginnings and endings of the 24 books that comprise the Tanach — an acronym for Torah (the Five Books of Moses), Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings).

But instead of sitting down to pages of textual study, I wanted to turn to the streets to demonstrate my awakening, my readiness to receive, by finding visual counterparts or representations of the scriptural passages — a photographic tikkun. The world of Torah was all around me, waiting to be studied. All I needed to do was open my eyes and focus my lens.

Setting out to find my “text,” I began driving around my familiar Sinai — the urban landscape west of downtown Los Angeles and east of the 405. At first, amid the visual clutter, I was overwhelmed. The “words of the prophets” might be “written on the subway walls” in the music of Simon & Garfunkel, but on the streets of Mid-City L.A. you are more likely to find looming billboards for TV shows.

Then I had my moment of revelation: If I could find Moses the Lawgiver — and not just Charlton Heston’s handprints and footprints in the courtyard of the TCL Chinese Theatre — it would be a good start. After all, it worked for the Israelites. Remembering a recent visit to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, I found him in the form of a stone statue seated incongruously in the hospital parking lot, at the corner of George Burns Road and Gracie Allen Drive.

Seeing Moses with the law under his arm, I could not help but think of Torah and Sinai and, yes, the giant sculpture of the Torah affixed to Sinai Temple on Wilshire Bouelvard in Westwood. Having made that connection, more Bible imagery began to pop up from the streets around me: the words of the prophet Jeremiah; a reference to the Book of Kings; a reminder to pursue justice, from Deuteronomy.

As for the angels, they were everywhere, too, turning my head, lifting my search, leading me on my way.

A bit of Torah on the streets of L.A.

1. Moses climbing Sinai
“Angel Wall” (detail) by Barbara Mendes
2709 Robertson Blvd.
“The Lord said to Moses, ‘Come up to Me on the mountain.’ ” Exodus 24:12

2. ‘American Gods’ billboard and angel wings
7769 Melrose Ave.
“You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Leviticus 19:2

3. Mezuzah with inscription
Fleishik’s, 7563 Beverly Blvd.
Inscription: “A cry is heard in Ramah.” Jeremiah 31:15

4. Angel
640 S. San Vicente parking structure
“For He will order His angels to guard you wherever you go.” Psalms 91:11

5. Torah — L’dor vador
Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd.
“Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day. Impress them upon your children.”
Deuteronomy 6:6-7

6.  “Fear of God is the Start of Wisdom”
Baba Sale Congregation
404 N. Fairfax Ave.
Proverbs 1:7

7.  Moses
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center parking lot, Gracie Allen Drive and George Burns Road
“Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses.”
Deuteronomy 34:10

8. “Justice, Justice, shall You pursue”
Workmen’s Circle Cultural Center
1525 Robertson Blvd.
Deuteronomy 16:20

9. Ethiopian Jew
“Not Somewhere Else, But Here” (detail) by Daryl Wells National Council of Jewish Women, 360 N. Fairfax Ave.
“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Exodus 20:8

10. King Solomon
Marciano Art Foundation (former Scottish Rite Masonic Temple)
4357 Wilshire Blvd.
“… Solomon began to build the House of the Lord.” I Kings 6:1

Jacob and Esau: It’s complicated

Sometimes Torah simply refuses to give us the straight dope. Were man and woman created simultaneously from God’s command (Genesis 1:26-27)? Or did God sculpt Adam out of clay (Genesis 2:7) and then generate Eve from his rib (Genesis 2:21-22)? Does God require us to “remember” the Sabbath (Exodus 20:8) or to “observe” it (Deuteronomy 5:12)? 

Most of Torah’s apparent inconsistencies have inspired ingenious and spiritually enriching solutions: Every Friday evening, for example, we sing “Lecha Dodi,” which specifically marvels at God’s mystical power to express both “observe” and “remember” in a single utterance. 

Sometimes, however, when facing multiple possibilities in Torah, our post-biblical tradition chooses one option over the other — and not always the more uplifting one. This is the case with Jacob’s twin brother, Esau.

As with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Torah depicts Esau confusingly and with marked ambivalence. On the favorable side: Isaac prefers Esau over Jacob (Genesis 25:28); the Torah seems to acknowledge that Jacob swindled him (Genesis 27:36); and God grants him possession of the region called Seir as a rightful inheritance (Deuteronomy 2:22, Joshua 24:4). 

On the unfavorable side: Rebecca prefers Jacob over Esau (Genesis 25:28); Esau’s disposition seems slightly brutish (Genesis 25:27); Esau becomes a foreigner by virtue of marrying Canaanite women (Genesis 36:2); and the Edomites, the people named after Esau, refuse passage to the Israelites in the desert (Numbers 20:21).

By the Book of Judges, the biblical depiction of Esau settles on permanent antagonism, and in the main, the rabbinic and medieval traditions dig in against him. Esau and Jacob (and their descendants) become and remain enemies.

As Parashat Vayishlach begins, however, Esau still represents a complicated mix of conflict and brotherly love. Our weekly portion opens as Jacob returns to the Land of Israel from his uncle’s household in Mesopotamia. When he arrives in Esau’s territory, “Jacob was greatly frightened” (Genesis 32:8). According to the medieval commentary of Samuel ben Meir (Rashbam, 1085-1158), Jacob feared his brother because he expected Esau to harbor resentment against him. Presumably, Jacob acknowledged Esau’s gripe. So, Jacob propitiates Esau with gifts, and he also prepares for battle, if necessary.

The following morning, the dramatic tension rises with Esau’s approach. Jacob emerges from his own camp and “bowed low to the ground seven times until he was near his brother” (Genesis 33:3). But the tension breaks in grand style, as Esau and Jacob fall into each other’s arms, in one of Torah’s most beautiful passages, replete with brotherly love, forgiveness and reconciliation. “Esau ran to greet him. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept” (Genesis 33:4).

Sadly, however, our tradition seems unable to get out of its own way and simply take this reunion at face value. In his comment on this climactic moment, Rashi (1040-1105) quotes two midrashim, each negative in its way. In the first case, the rabbis and Rashi doubt the sincerity of Esau’s kiss altogether. In the second, they accept the authenticity of Esau’s embrace, but only because, in the glow of the moment, his anger succumbed to temporary warmth.

Other interpreters are even less charitable. David Kimhi (1160-1235) resignedly determines that “ … originally Esau had intended to bite Jacob’s neck, feigning an embrace, but God made his teeth as soft as wax and Jacob’s neck as hard as ivory.”

And the story does not improve. Over the subsequent centuries, Jewish authors adapted the Bible’s tradition of pegging biblical characters to contemporary nations. In this way, Torah establishes that our people, Israel, came from Jacob, and later traditions claim that Ishmael became the forebear of the Arabs. Meanwhile, over the course of our long history, Esau was associated with a few different peoples (Idumeans, Romans, etc.), all of whom shared one common trait: enmity with the Jewish people.

So it was that Esau, who fell into his twin brother’s embrace — our embrace — came to represent the ultimate enemy, a bit like another infamous oppressor of the Jews, Amalek. But unlike Amalek, Esau breaks our heart, not only because he is our twin brother but also because Vayishlach seems to promise reconciliation with a kiss.

Reading it year in, year out, perhaps we can make Vayishlach’s optimism our beacon, even if history sometimes threatens to get in the way. 

Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

So, you want to be famous?

A thought for the new year.

The Talmud has a profound, almost amazing, statement: “Whoever denies all false gods is considered as if he observes the entire Torah.”

That’s how important denying false gods is.

So every Jew who cares about Judaism needs to ask: What are the false gods of our time?

We can all name a few. But here’s one to consider — especially if you are raising a child:


For decades, I have asked young people what they want to be when they get older, and more and more of them now respond, “Famous.”

I then follow up with a second question: “Famous for what?’

Most have no answer. They don’t care about “for what.” 

Presumably, it doesn’t matter if it’s for becoming a reality TV star or conquering cancer.

And not only young people. It seems that most Americans ache for fame. To be on TV — or radio, or to have even a tiny part in a movie, or see one’s name in print or on screen — is to validate one’s worth.

Before explaining why the pursuit of fame is a bad idea, it is important to acknowledge that the desire to make a name for oneself is not in and of itself a bad thing. Wanting to be known for achieving a worthwhile goal is often a spur to pursuing one. And as long as a person is focused on that goal, becoming well known is not likely to distort the person’s values.

But when the primary goal is to be famous, fame is a god. And like all false gods, it can be dangerous — because a false god, by definition, is something higher than morality. Therefore, a person might do anything to become famous.

Now aside from theological and moral considerations, here’s why the pursuit of fame is pointless and often self-destructive:

First, in almost every case, whatever fame a person achieves will die with him — if his fame even lasts that long. Take, for example, the presidents of the United States. To the vast majority of Americans, most of their names mean nothing. Yet to Americans living during those presidents’ lifetimes, those presidents were the most famous people alive. 

You don’t need to go back in history to see this. We can see it in our own lifetimes. As we get older, we all come to the often unexpected, and always sobering, realization that almost every person who was a “household name” when we were younger is completely unknown to the next generation. 

Second, fame is fleeting for the vast majority of those who attain it. It is almost guaranteed that those who are famous at 30 will not be famous at 60.

Third, when people who have pursued fame lose it, they often end up emotionally and psychologically depressed. The more you value fame, the more you lose your purpose for living when you lose that fame.

Fourth, even if you do achieve fame, the more you value it, the more you will devote your life to keeping it. And few things are more pathetic than watching a person trying to stay famous.

Fifth, unlike other things people desire, fame is available only to an extremely small number of people. Theoretically, almost everyone can be rich, healthy and happy. But by definition, only an infinitesimally small number of people can be famous.

Sixth, other than mind-altering drugs, nothing seems to distort a person’s thinking, values and even personality as much as fame. Most young people who become famous become almost entirely different people.

Seventh, the greater the fame, the greater the inclination to think that one is better than others. That’s one reason the more you value being famous, the fewer friends you will have (though you will have many sycophants).

Given the powerful appeal of fame, is there an antidote?

One obvious antidote is to realize how pointless, fleeting and self-destructive the pursuit of fame is.

Another is to take religious faith seriously. Then God becomes more and more important — and the more important God becomes, the less important fame becomes. A real faith in God puts things into perspective like nothing else.

Finally, and most important, the key is to remember this rule of life: The famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous.

The caretaker of an invalid is very significant — but hardly famous. On the other hand, many of the very famous are hardly significant.

The vast majority of us, therefore, have to choose which we would rather be — significant or famous.

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).

Israeli religious court goes off the deep end

Why would a rabbinic court in the world’s only Jewish state do something that would blatantly turn off most of the world’s Jews?

That’s what I asked myself today when I read that Israel’s top religious court rejected the validity of a woman’s conversion from one of the leading lights of American Orthodoxy, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in New York City.

This is taking chutzpah and arrogance to another level.

It’s one thing when Charedi rabbinic courts routinely offend and reject non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, which is bad enough. But to go against a hard-core, bona fide and beloved Orthodox rabbinic leader?

How could they be so tone deaf?

But wait, it gets worse. This latest decision was on appeal, which means it’s the second time the court has rejected this woman’s conversion. Apparently, they weren’t too moved by the outrage that followed the initial decision.

After that first decision, the Jewish Federations of North America released a statement saying that the “denial of the legitimacy of this convert, who has embraced the Jewish People and undertaken to live a full Jewish life, undermines that fundamental principle (of accepting the convert). Moreover, the Bet Din’s rejection of one of America’s leading Orthodox rabbis is an affront to the country’s entire Jewish community.”

Meanwhile, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest U.S. group of Orthodox rabbis, expressed “regret [at] the angst caused to this righteous convert, as well as the vulnerability felt by many righteous converts who feel that their legitimate status as Jews remains always subject to scrutiny.”

After the latest decision, Rabbi Seth Farber, who runs the activist group ITIM, released a statement saying that “the rabbinical court has humiliated Nicole, cast a shadow over tens of thousands of conversions around the world, and has created a crisis of confidence between diaspora Jewry and Israel’s government.”

Natan Sharansky, head of the Jewish Agency, said that “today’s decision by the Supreme Rabbinical Court, which effectively delegitimized a prominent rabbi in the American Jewish community, demonstrates why Israel is in danger of being delegitimized as a center of religious authority in the eyes of world Jewry.” 

Evidently, none of that indignation has had any impact on the Torah dictators of the Jewish state. They have become extremely good at thumbing their noses at Diaspora Jewry.

The question is: Will this latest outrage become a tipping point?

Now that Israel’s rabbinic courts have shown their propensity to reject even Orthodoxy, will this be the final straw that turns world Jewry against the Chief Rabbinate?

The way I see it, if this sorry episode begins the long journey towards the separation of synagogue and state in Israel, it will be for the good. Religion is best when it has no power to coerce. The minute you force your Judaism on me is the minute you turn me off from Judaism.

Compare two Charedi movements—the Chief Rabbinate and Chabad. One coerces, the other loves. One turns you off from religion, the other turns you on. One divides, the other unites.

The Chief Rabbinate has been forcing its stringent interpretation of Judaism on Jews for too long. Because it never felt the need to persuade or love or empathize, it lost its humanity. Power nourished its arrogance.

Now, it’s time for the Jews of the world to say, Enough. All denominations—from Reform to Orthodox—must unite and tell the Chief Rabbinate that they don’t own Judaism. We do.

The logic of sacrifice: Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

Have you ever noticed that at the center of the Torah is a cookbook? 

Until we get to the Book of Leviticus, we read the epic story of the Jewish people. From creation to liberation to covenant, we follow the rise of a family that became a nation. Really great stuff. 

And suddenly, when we scroll down (yes, I know the pun), we find recipes for the various types of sacrifices offered in the ancient Tabernacle. Leviticus teaches us which parts of the animal to cook on the altar for which type of offering and how to share some of the cooked meat with the priests. 

We are told how much flour and oil to use. We are told what clothes to wear in the holy kitchen of the Tabernacle. In the center of our most epic story right at the foot of Mount Sinai, the Book of Leviticus is a manual for sacred cooking, bringing a whole new dimension to the old adage, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” 

These sacrifices, the sacred recipes, which are found mainly in our Torah portion Tzav, are not just an ingredient list for a Sunday barbecue, however. They are the Torah’s way of teaching us about how to encounter God through prayer. 

Many of us modern Jews have a really hard time connecting to prayer as it is. Services tend to be long and lack a certain sense of spiritual drama. Many of us don’t know Hebrew, and even for those who do, it remains arcane and mystifying. So we try to find meaning in one another through social gatherings and events that mark the passage of time. 

But there is more to prayer than friendship, more inside of us than the celebration of ourselves. Here is where the logic of sacrifice truly matters, and why Leviticus is so important to the Torah and to us. 

In our common culture, the idea of sacrifice means giving up something important. The soldier who jumps on a grenade and gives up his life to save others is rightly lauded for his courage and conviction. We call his valor a sacrifice for his country. 

The Torah has a different but related understanding of sacrifice. Hebrew University professor Moshe Halbertal teaches that the Torah’s notion of sacrifice is not a giving up, but a giving to. Leviticus, our holy cookbook, is not about giving up something of ourselves in order to be Jewish or to get right with the universe. It’s about bringing a gift to God because there is something in our souls that feels the need to participate in something self-transcendent and to draw close to the primordial rhythm of the world. 

There are times when each of us makes a mistake in our relationships or business dealings, when we stray from being the person we always thought we were. We all experience that time when the world feels a little different, when it vibrates on a different level. That feeling of not being at home in our own skin calls for a response. In Parashat Tzav, those feelings are harmonized through the intimacy of giving the gift of sacrifice. 

The Book of Leviticus teaches that when you come to pray, to give the gift of sacrifice, you are not alone in your agony. You are not alone in your feelings of guilt. You are not alone when you are sinful. There is a partner to receive your gift. There is a place where you can go to get back into the spiritual rhythm. There is a path to drawing close to the Transcendent through the act of offering. The logic of sacrifice tells us that prayer actually matters, not because we can magically change our situation, but because we can connect to the world by becoming holier, better people. 

What if we were to construe our lives as an offering? Instead of organizing our lives around what we can get out of it, we can ask ourselves what we can give back. Instead of focusing only on what we need, we can focus on the needs of others. Instead of thinking of ourselves as receivers, thinking of ourselves as givers. Instead of celebrating our own achievements, we can lift up the lives of others. 

That’s the logic of sacrifice. We give up nothing in order to become holy, but when we give to something greater, we can connect with God, to be holier, and transcend the self and find a way back to goodness again. 

There is great spiritual energy and strength found in Leviticus. It is not merely a collection of arcane rituals. It is a manual of human connection at the moments we need it most. This section of the Torah ends by summarizing the lists of sacrifices. “This is the Teaching [literally “Torah”] of the transcendent offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the ordination offering, and the well-being offering” (Leviticus 7:37). 

I like to think of it this way: “This is the Torah that helps us transcend, sustains us, expiates our misgivings, draws us out of depression, charges us with purpose and focuses our lives on giving rather than taking.” It is not just a cookbook for the priestly cult; it’s a recipe for a flourishing life.

Rabbi Noah Farkas is a clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, founder of Netiya and the author of “The Social Action Manual: Six Steps to Repairing the World” (Behrman House).

Our history of projection: Parashat Va’era (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

Reading Torah at face value is fraught with danger and difficulty. Recently, readers of this publication have jumped into the fray around Torah and transgender. When columnist Dennis Prager cast his opinion on that most contemporary of social phenomena in the light of our most ancient and authoritative text, the stakes felt high and the passions ran hot. Prager — as well as some of the most compelling responses to him — sought to limit the debate to the Torah’s perspective. Tellingly, however, this textual focus did nothing to narrow the gap about what we should learn from it.

A culture defines itself not merely by what it reads, but also by how it reads it. The question that animates us is not “What does Torah say?” but rather “What does Torah mean?” To answer the first question, all you have to do is look it up. Tackling the second question, by contrast, has driven Jewish civilization for millennia. This week’s Torah portion, Va’era, illustrates how our tradition struggles to read around the inevitable anachronisms and moral problems posed by plain-sense Torah. The plot of Va’era begins with God’s deputizing of Moses and Aaron and continues through the first seven of the Ten Plagues. Twice Torah describes Pharaoh’s state of mind as the engine behind the plagues: Pharaoh’s stubbornness precipitates his just deserts.

In fact, however, it is God who plays upon Pharaoh’s heart and instills his recalcitrance. God unabashedly plans to manipulate Pharaoh’s motives directly and “stiffen Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3). Later, Pharaoh apparently exerts freewill over his own heart when, after shameless waffling, “he continued to sin and he made his heart harden” (Exodus 9:34). But by then, Pharaoh’s apparent agency is a chimera; it merely brings God’s predetermination to bear. 

A straightforward reading of the text leads us to conclude that God makes a pawn of Pharaoh. Though Pharaoh does not exercise choice, he must pay its price. To modern readers, this predestination puts us at odds with Torah because our understanding of choice connotes responsibility, and responsibility justifies consequences. We are hardly the first to reason this way — our greatest post-biblical commentators also associate choice with responsibility. For them, God’s intervention in Pharaoh’s state of mind seems to remove choice from the realm of Pharaoh’s agency and, with it, Pharaoh’s responsibility. And absent Pharaoh’s responsibility, the commentators lack a moral justification for the Ten Plagues.

In short, if we take Torah at its word, it contradicts a kind of moral logic that we and our leading scholars take for granted. But the commentators are deeply pious, and they also take for granted that Torah reflects God’s perfection and could not possibly relate, or even intimate, anything less than God’s perfect justice. So they supply the missing justification for wreaking havoc on Egypt. They apply non-biblical sensibilities, such as midrash or philosophy, as lenses through which they can read their own morality into the Torah and solve a problem that they feel keenly, but which Torah blithely ignores. 

Rashi, for example, is at pains to chalk up God’s manipulation of Pharaoh to the innate godlessness of the Egyptians. In Rashi’s midrashic imagination, God points out Pharaoh’s previous bad behavior. But more than that, God also pre-empts the possibility of redemption, reasoning that “idolaters lack the moral refinement required to bend one’s heart toward true atonement.” Egyptians, as idolaters, therefore lend themselves a priori to punishment. 

Subject to the same qualms, Abraham Ibn Ezra asks point-blank: “If God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart, then wherein lies [Pharaoh’s] crime and sin?” He acknowledges a certain degree of predestination, but Ibn Ezra also hedges. He says the simple fact that humans can reason means that we are responsible to reach for goodness — or, at the very least, to try to mitigate the evil impulse that God may implant in us. So, yes, God set Pharaoh up to be evil, but Pharaoh could have chosen righteousness. Choosing otherwise, he and Egypt bear responsibility and deserve punishment.

Long before these medieval commentators, scripture itself flip-flops its moral posture on choice, responsibility and punishment. The Ninevites in the Book of Jonah fully atone for their sinfulness, while Ezekiel focuses on Pharaoh’s irredeemable arrogance to justify Egypt’s “fall into desolation and ruin” (Ezekiel 29:9). Not coincidentally, the rabbis designated this passage from Ezekiel as the haftarah for Va’era, perhaps to assuage the same concerns later exhibited by Rashi and Ibn Ezra. 

Ezekiel, Rashi, Ibn Ezra, their peers and their heirs all steward our tradition with an activist approach to textual meaning-making. For its part, Va’era does not recognize any moral quandary about punishing Pharaoh for actions that God choreographed on his behalf. But later readers do, so they patently write their own moral code into Torah’s narrative. Subsequently, we, in learning Torah through the lens of these commentators, acquiesce to a reading that materially changes Torah’s original tone and meaning, even if the words remain the same.

This approach promotes an uncomfortable indeterminacy about divine truth. It demands tremendous scholarly investment — generation after generation — and it can be very contentious, as the recent exchange of letters in this Journal proves. But it also forestalls fundamentalism and guarantees Torah’s vitality, sometimes quite paradoxically, by reversing its positions.

Joshua Holo is dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.

Letters to the Editor: Responses to Dennis Prager’s column on ‘the Torah and the transgendered’

The following letters are reponses to Dennis Prager's Dec. 4 column, “The Torah and the transgendered.”

Read Dennis Prager's Response

We are 235 members of the synagogue that Dennis Prager referred to but did not identify: Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (PJTC).

When PJTC needed an education director, it was clear from our first meeting with him that Rabbi Becky Silverstein was the best person for the job. Some of us anticipated that members of our community may have questions or concerns about the fact that Rabbi Silverstein is transgender, and our leadership prepared to address any inquiries we received. Those anticipatory meetings, however, lasted far longer than any concerned conversations.

Rabbi Silverstein is an exemplary rabbi and teacher who communicates a message of love and community, and challenges us to empathize and to question in the talmudic tradition of our people. His passion for Torah is evident in his everyday conduct, as well as in his Shabbat sermons and when he teaches our children.

PJTC deeply values Judaism and Torah. We did not, as Prager suggests, hire Rabbi Silverstein out of “compassion,” nor do we embrace him now because we think he feels “awful.” Rather, we proudly call Rabbi Silverstein our teacher and friend because he epitomizes the best aspects of Torah and reminds us daily that we are all created in the image of the divine.

Geoff DeBoskey, Faith Segal, Franci Levine Grater, Joshua Levine Grater, Ruth Several, Amy Richardson, Hayley Karish, Roberta Tragarz, Sandy Hartford, Cantor Ruth Berman Harris and 225 other members, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center


“Do not judge your fellow person until you arrive in his place,” our sages say.  

We Jews have a long and painful history of being persecuted for the crime of not fitting in, of being different. For anyone who sees himself as a Jewish teacher or guide to do this, especially by using the considerable power of his pen against a vulnerable young person, [he] risks the danger of acting in a way that can only be defined by our collective memory as rish’us, plain old-fashioned wickedness.

Having said those things without reservation, let me make it equally clear that I do not speak from a position of moral relativism. If this or any rabbi were speaking up for promiscuous sexuality, for abuse of others, or even for irresponsibility in relationships, I would be on the other side. The very opposite happens to be true in this case. This is a young rabbi who truly loves our tradition, cares deeply about Judaism and has a great talent for teaching Torah.  He (I follow the rabbi’s choice of pronoun) also happens to be committed to faithful monogamy.  

We have plenty of places to direct our righteous anger right now. Let’s keep it away from one another. We all have better things to do and more important battles to fight.

Rabbi Arthur GreenIrving R. Brudnick Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Religion, Hebrew College  


Once again, in a tired and predictable manner, Prager has chosen to take the entire Torah and say, “Only my interpretation is correct, only my reading is accurate.” In personally attacking both my synagogue, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, of which I served as the rabbi for nearly 13 years, and my colleague and friend, Rabbi Becky Silverstein, the stellar education director that our community hired over a year ago, Prager has trespassed on one of the very values of the precious Torah he claims to love and respect as his “guide in life.” 

Prager is entitled to his personal views on the binary nature of gender, and his interpretation of the Torah, but that doesn’t make him the final arbiter of anything. I find it sad that he doesn’t have the decency or respect for the dignity of another human being, Jewish leader and an entire community.  Maybe a little of his much-maligned “compassion” would serve him. However, he would do well to limit his public display of ignorance and willful misreading of Jewish texts, primarily the Torah, which much wiser and profoundly more knowledgeable sages than either of us, understood was anything but black and white.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center 


In response to your recent article, “Torah and the transgendered,” (Jewish Journal, 12/2/15).

I noticed that that you tried to shame an individual rabbi and the transgender community as a whole, in service of posing the question of the authority of the Torah in modern times.

Two weeks ago, we, at Beth Chayim Chadashim, the world's first LGBT founded Jewish community, memorialized the recorded hundreds of trans people murdered or taken by other forms of violence this year alone, during international Trans Day of Remembrance. Many fell to the hands of murderers incited by the very arguments you are expressing. Many took their own lives due to the type of spiritual violence that your view perpetuates by questioning a person's theological commitments, relationship to Torah and ultimately, God.

If you'd like to have a principled discussion on the role of the Torah in the modern world, great. Let's work it out.  It is an important conversation to have and it has been discussed since Jews were given the right to become citizens of modern nations. Let's continue the conversation l'shem shamayim- for the sake of heaven. But the type of shaming and verbal violence you inflict through the power of your pen and spoken word kills.

Thank God the Torah reminds us that God, in God's own image, created male and female. It is right there in the verse you quoted, just two words earlier: “In the image of God was he created, male and female.” Perhaps those who would otherwise be harmed by your words will find comfort to know that according to Torah, God is not confined to binary genders. May they draw the conclusion that it should not be applicable to God's human creations either.

Rabbi Heather Miller, Beth Chayim Chadashim


Dennis Prager is entitled to his anxieties about the breakdown of gender roles and identities throughout our society; we are all challenged to think differently today about the social order in light of the emergence of gender fluidity as a way of life, and it is reasonable to expect that confronting this new reality will be more challenging for some than others — especially for those predisposed to conservatism in other walks of life. 

But Prager overreaches in his casting as the liberal ethos the value of compassion over and against the normative/conservative ethos of Torah in two dangerous and problematic ways:

First, Prager adduces but one source from the Torah for his argument, from the creation of humankind in Genesis 1. This choice of prooftext is ironic, to say the least: The Torah’s vexing terminology suggests the first creation is multigendered and not binary. Moreover, Prager speaks of Torah as a Karaite, ignoring the history of interpretation in rabbinic text that played with, stretched and made spectral the idea of gender in ways that dramatically transcend the clean black-white divide that Prager imagines in “Torah,” as in other arenas in his moral universe. 

Second, the casting of Torah against compassion also misunderstands the deep interrelationship between the two. Compassion is one of Torah’s most central defining values, the widow and the orphan the central social objects of Jewish moral and religious obligation. Jews who struggle at the margins of the social order, or those who live at the threshold of ordered identities, do not demand of us that we jettison compassion for the brutality of “Torah”; they remind us of the obligations of chesed, of compassionate embrace and loving kindness, that were meant to be the inheritance of Torah all along. 

Yehuda Kurtzer, President, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America 


I am absolutely ashamed of the Jewish Journal for allowing the publication of Dennis Prager’s attack on a rabbinic colleague and his synagogue. Sadly, the Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis. His hurtful words belie his bigotry, which used to be reserved for gay and lesbian rabbis and now continues to expand to transgender rabbis. Haven’t we enough bullying? It is precisely this kind of immoral attack that Prager is known for. Words like his have been responsible for pain and suffering. 

The Torah has many interpretations. In my reading of Talmud and Torah, our sages recognized that we don’t live in a binary world. How sad that Prager picks up the radicalized right-wing old bathroom arguments used in the city of Houston by Christian extremists to defeat an equal-rights amendment. Are we to fear transgender people because they are predators? Is that what he is implying? Trans men and women have the most to fear. Statistics show they are the ones who are victims of violence and murder, often at the hands of white men like Prager. 

Liberal Jews use Torah as it was intended as our covenant and document of our relationship with the Divine One. And as our sages recognized, Torah is a living document interpreted in every generation in different ways. That’s why we have so many volumes of commentary.  

Perhaps Prager ought to reread our tradition’s take on character assassination because he isn’t living by the words of our Torah. In Pirke Avot 4:11, Rabbi Eliezer says that when a person embarrasses another in public, he loses his share in the world to come. He emphasizes that even though the perpetrator might be a fully observant Jew and a kind and generous person, if he is abusive, offends or embarrasses someone else publicly, he loses his part in the next world.

Perhaps it is time for a public apology from the Jewish Journal for engaging in such abusive behavior, and most especially from Prager for this and so many times he has bullied others through twisting of Torah. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, Congregation Kol Ami


My thoughts are not with Prager at this time. My thoughts are with you — the trans teen or adult who may have read Prager’s piece or heard hurtful things in the Jewish community, including my friend and colleague attacked in Prager’s article, Rabbi Becky Silverstein. 

To you: Ner adonai nishmant adam — the candle of God is the soul of a person. Bless you for the meaningful work you have done to connect with your soul; your precious and holy neshama. Your courage and willingness to take risks is more than inspiring. It models for us all the deepest values of our tradition. And it deepens our communities in ways they are longing to grow. It creates new possibilities for everyone to discover our own souls. This community is filled with teachers and colleagues and leaders who welcome you and your voice and your Torah. Bring your light.

Rabbi Susan GoldbergWilshire Boulevard Temple 


I commend Dennis Prager on the accuracy of his title, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” and suggest that his readers be mindful of the title and its limitations.

Judaism is a biblical religion but not only a biblical religion and not just a biblical religion. Oral law interpreted biblical law and not infrequently transformed and muted biblical law by the very process of interpretation.

The Talmud has extensive discussions of the transgendered male. It seems that the rabbis knew far more about transgendered persons than they did, for example, about lesbians, and their approach is far more nuanced than the biblical statement. Naturally, they vigorously debate its implications and its religious policy implications.

Because the Torah was given by God, I presume Prager would also concede that according to the Torah, a fetus is not a person, and abortion — whether permitted or not, deliberate or not — is not murder. Exodus 21:22-23, states: “When men fight and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other misfortune ensues, the one responsible shall be fined as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on judges’ reckoning. But if other misfortune ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Rabbinic interpretations explained that the other misfortune was the life of the mother, not of the fetus.

Michael BerenbaumDirector, Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust, American Jewish University


I wonder if Dennis Prager knew before writing his screed that 40 percent of transgender people attempt suicide in the course of their lifetimes. Too many transgender teens and adults, after being ostracized, rejected, shamed, fired, raped and misunderstood, determine they simply do not belong in the world. Prager is a self-appointed community provocateur — a role he seems to enjoy — but I desperately want to believe that if he knew this (widely available) fact, he would have paused for a moment before posting. Otherwise, to publicly mock a threatened minority and to single out for public shame and rebuke one transgender person in particular — a dedicated educator and rabbi in our community — is not only reckless but also cruel. Prager’s column has gotten a lot of traction, but it does nothing to advance the greatly needed conversation around the legitimacy and centrality of Torah in the lives of contemporary Jews, the topic he purports to address. Instead, it only belies its author the legitimacy to engage that conversation at all, as anyone who has learned Torah knows that public humiliation, considered the equivalent of death (BM 58b), is an offense far more egregious than a man trotting out in high heels.

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR


Dennis Prager claims to use Torah as his guide, yet he probably wouldn’t condone death for a woman who commits adultery, nor would he propose that as the standard for determining social policy. 

We also claim Torah as our guide. For us, the fundamental principle of Torah comes right at the beginning: God created the human being in the image of God, male and female God created them.  That means Judaism requires that we work to create a world where all human beings can live as if they really were created in God’s image. In our view, that is a world where transgendered people are fully accepted. We have worked hard at our temple to create a safe space for all of the members of our community. That includes bathrooms for people of all gender expressions and programs in our religious school to teach our children about diversity and respect. We are proud of the Reform movement’s recent decision affirming this commitment to full equality, inclusion, and acceptance of people of all gender identities and expressions. To us, this is good social policy as well as authentic Judaism.

Rabbis Laura Geller, Jonathan Aaron and Sarah Bassin, Cantor Lizzie Weiss, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills


I like to pick up a free copy of the Jewish Journal every week to keep informed of diverse activities and thinking in Jewish Los Angeles, so I felt appropriately challenged and motivated by David Suissa’s column in the Nov. 27 issue, inviting people like me to contribute toward the Journal’s support. Then I read Dennis Prager’s ugly and mean-spirited column in the Dec. 4 issue and decided to make a contribution to an LGBT organization instead.

Claire Gorfinkel, Altadena


When earlier last month Mr. Prager assailed against non-orthodox Judaism as not going deep enough with Torah, I championed his cause.  However, it seems that this month, it is Mr. Prager who has lost his way.  Torah has always been a dynamic; indeed, the rabbis prompt us to “Turn it, turn it, for everything is inside.”  And indeed, it is this directive that connected Maimonides to Aristotle; Saadia HaGaon to Islamic Kalam; and where would S.J. Hirsch be without Descartes, Wissenshaft without Marburg, Kaplan without the social sciences; and most importantly, where would Torah be? Torah is a dynamic; an involvement of the highest integration of human faculties.  Indeed, this is why it is still authoritative.  And in an age where our world is turning with insights from emerging Jewish thinkers outside of the yeshiva like Judith Butler and gender performativity, queer theory, gender studies, women’s studies — all sitting on our bookshelves next to our Sefat Emet, Rambam and Bavli, is there no other logical next turning of Torah than to refract it through our world of contemporary thought until we find new visions?  In the words of Susan Sontag:  “in place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art.”  Torah is an art of the highest aesthetic.  It reflects the greatest of our potential as thinkers, rhetoricians and lovers.  Mr. Prager, why not use all of our faculties when turning Her?

Rabbi Lori Shapiro, The Open Temple


Though I disagree with the content of Dennis Prager's latest column, it is not actually the content or his conclusion that angers me enough to contact you.

Prager says that compassion is a beautiful personal trait, though insufficient for public policy.  In dragging Rabbi Silverstein personally into the article, he undermines his own argument by making it personal.  To my knowledge, the two have never interacted.  Bringing the story of another human being into his argument makes the musings emotional rather than his purported goal of a detached, intellectual approach.  Which torah allows for public shaming of an individual who poses no danger and has done no harm? 

I suggest that– like anyone who looks up from our multifaceted tradition with a clear answer and no qualms– Prager must have begun his article by assuming the worst of transgender folks in general, and Rabbi Silverstein in particular.  I would invite him to meet some trans people, do some reading about what claims are and are not being made about the torah, and then to come back to the table with a more balanced view.  After all, the torah has seventy faces and Prager's is only one.

Emily Fishman, Brookline, Mass.


Dennis Prager's recent article “The Torah and the Transgendered” should be read as an example of the dangers of being ignorant of 'Torah' and of Jewish tradition.  Prager begins by asking: “Is the Torah really the best guide?”  Based on the ensuing paragraphs, it seams that by “the Torah” Prager is referring to the most simplistic possible reading of various biblical verses.  If so, than the Jewish answer to his question is “No, the best guide is Torah.”  Torah is a more general term that includes all of Biblical and Rabbinic literature – laws, stories, ethics, philosophy, theology, and culture.

Prager stakes his claim “for the Torah, the distinction between men and women is fundamental” on Deut 22:5.  In the Talmud, this verse prohibits cross-dressing only when used as a disguise to invade someone else's space (bt Nazir 59a).  For Rashi, when used for the purpose of adultery (Rashi on Deut 22:5).  For Rambam, when used for the purpose of arousing desire and/or idol worship (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Ta'aseh 39)  Etc.  Moreover, the Talmud is well aware that not all people fit into male and female and therefore discusses in several places: androgynos, tumtum, ay’lonit, and saris.  While none of those sources are socially liberal by modern standards, I would argue that for Torah, the distinction between men and women is not so fundamental.

On the other hand, “compassion”, which Prager so easily dismisses, is most certainty a fundamental Torah value.

Prager is correct that compassion is not itself sufficient to create policy.  Often social policy generates unintended consequences.

Therefore, compassion must be tempered by wisdom and reconciled with pragmatism.  Wisdom is built by experience and the rabbinic tradition has thousands of years of experience.  We should not ignore that advantage and trust a simplistic reading of The Torah. Instead, we can embrace our tradition by trusting a more nuanced, mature, wise, and compassionate Torah.

The Talmud (bt Shabbat 31a) relates that a potential convert asked Hillel and Shammai: “How many Torahs do you have?”  Each answered “Two, one written one oral.”  When asked if he could be converted with only the written Torah, Shammai refused but Hillel was able to teach the man to accept oral Torah.  Immediately afterwards, the Talmud (same page) relates that another potential convert asked Hillel (and Shammai) to summarize all of Torah on one foot.  Hillel famously says: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbor – that is the whole Torah.  The rest is the commentary, go and learn.”  In that spirit, I would like to invite Mr. Prager to study Oral Torah and not stop until he discovers its compassion.

Stevie Green, Los Angeles


Mr. Prager’s piece this week, “Torah and Transgender” crossed the line and didn't belong in the Jewish Journal. Beside the absurd claim that any community that hires a trans-person views Torah as “essentially useless” (I wonder what that makes Yeshiva University, following its appointment of Dr. Joy Ladin) the fact that he specifically and personally attacks a rabbi in the Los Angeles community for “insisting” on his gender identity was completely inappropriate. 

The Jewish Journal should be a place of robust debate about issues and values, and I appreciate the diversity of viewpoints you publish, but it is the editor's responsibility to ensure that debate doesn't devolve into personal attack. This article did not match the values of the Jewish Journal and serious consideration should be taken as to whether you continue to publish Mr. Prager’s writings. 

Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Louis & Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program


I recently read Mr. Prager's above referenced article and felt strongly that you should know this: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from the religion with which I was raised, the religion of my parents and Bubbe and Zaide. The rabbi he criticized, whom I know personally, is what brings me back. I was appalled at the personal attack and misrepresentations made in that article.

The views espoused by Mr. Prager are antiquated and discriminatory, but to the Jewish community, they are deadly. If our religion was dominated by people like Mr. Prager, I could no longer partake of it – though I am not transgendered, I would still not be welcome, and I can't say that I would want to join in. However, when I speak about Judaism with the aforementioned rabbi or attend services where everyone is welcomed without judgment simply because we are all united by the bond of being Jewish, I am brought back – I want to be here, present, connected.

I'll say it again: Mr. Prager is what drives me away from my faith. The rabbi he mentioned is who brings me back.

Emily Farquharson, Esq.


I have often speculated that the reason Jesus and his teachings of Love took root is because the Israelites had forgotten that God's Love is what enlivens Creation.  After reading Mr. Prager's opinion piece, I'm sure of it.

Evelyn Baran


Your article by Dennis Prager, “Torah and the Transgendered,” is shockingly filled with hate, bias, and misunderstanding. I don't live in SoCal, so I know nothing about your newspaper and its editorial policy. It is astonishing that such an article would be published anywhere. Really horrible. I know that you can do better. The GLBTQ community needs support, not disdain and condemnation.

Rabbi Dr. Elyse Seidner-Joseph, Makom Kadosh


As a current rabbinical student and someone who hopes to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah and Jewish values of human dignity, justice and compassion, I was saddened to see Dennis Prager's piece, “The Torah and the Transgendered”  printed in the Jewish Journal.

I was not only disturbed by the way in which Prager misrepresents Torah, but also by the way in which he appropriates religious texts in order to shame individuals.  Prager's argument rests on the assumption that Torah is a religious text which outlines one clear and inherently “right” way of living in the world.  This position is inconsistent with Jewish tradition and undermines the true diversity and multivalent expression of Torah.  For example, the Torah teaches in Leviticus 20:10 that adulterers shall be stoned to death, and in Exodus 34:14 that anyone who violates Shabbat shall be put to death.  I can't imagine that Prager, or anyone else for that matter, would advocate implementing such a practice today, and yet it is stated quite clearly in our Torah.  And I don't think  that anyone who chooses to live a life guided by the wisdom of Torah would argue that our choice not to follow these practices is leading us towards a doomed future in which we will be forced to admit that straying from these principles has harmed us fundamentally.  

Prager also fails to mention the instances in Torah which not only affirm gender diversity and the possibility of an individual experiencing themselves and expressing themselves outside of a gender binary, but also discuss how such individuals may participate in Jewish communal practice.  For instance, Bikkurim 4:1 discusses the androgynus–someone who expresses themselves like a man and like a woman. Clearly this text takes no issue with the fact that some people do not fit within a gender binary and instead focuses on possible avenues of self-expression and religious practice for such community members.

The erroneous claim that Torah stands against non-binary expression implies that those individuals who do not express themselves within a gender binary are violating Torah.  This is not only a misappropriation of Jewish text, but a violation of the very Torah which Prager claims to represent.  It is taught in Bava Metzia (58b), one who publically shames his neighbor, it is as if he has shed blood.  And in Sotah (10b) we learn that a person should rather throw themselves into the fire then shame someone else.

This week there was a massive shooting in California.  Worldwide there are millions of displaced people, refugees who are fleeing for their lives.  In this country, people are struggling to be seen, fighting to have their lives recognized and protected appropriately.  There is rampant injustice and suffering in the world. With so many important conversations on the table, so many problems that need to be solved in order to protect life and human dignity, Prager's misappropriation of religious texts in order to problematize gender expression in this moment represents skewed priorities.

I agree with Prager that Torah is valuable and that we should lead lives guided by righteousness and morality.  But, it makes me sad to see him misrepresenting the Torah I love and using it to shame individuals who express themselves outside of a gender binary.  It makes me sadder still to see a mainstream Jewish publication printing such words.   Prager's article, in its attempts to use religion to undermine and invalidate self-expression and to claim that non-binary gender expression is outside of Torah, contributes to the rhetoric of hatred which enables and motivates violence.  This, in the name of Judaism, is unconscionable.

Each day, we bless our God who long ago peered into the Torah and spoke the words which created the world.  We, as beings created in God's image, have an obligation to continue this holy work.  It is our duty to look deeply into Torah and to see its potential to create worlds of goodness.  Mr. Prager, I hope you will join me in this work.  I hope you will join me in seeking to understand all those whom we encounter in the world as beings created and expressing themselves in the Divine image.  May we all be blessed to use our words and our Torah learning to promote human dignity.

Aliza Berger


In his most recent column in your paper, Dennis Prager asks, “Is the Torah really the best guide?” He posits that non-Orthodox Jews see the Torah as “essentially useless as a guide to living,” using as proof the acceptance of transgender Jews by many congregations and institutions. In doing so, Prager ignores the import of Oral Torah, Rabbinic literature and Jewish thought and the value Judaism places on interpretation of Torah and a discourse of ideas.

Prager’s assertion that Rabbi Becky Silverstein, anonymously referenced in the column, believes that, “the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant,” is akin to slander. In fact, Rabbi Silverstein has written and taught extensively on gender in the Torah, Jewish thought and Jewish law. Moreover, having had the honor and pleasure of learning Torah from Rabbi Silverstein, a truly talented teacher, I can assure you that few are more guided by Torah than he.  If Prager had actually asked Rabbi Silverstein, his synagogue, or indeed any of the individuals or institutions maligned in the column about the role of Torah in their lives, he may have avoided breaking the Torah’s command, “you shall not wrong one another (Lev. 25:17),” which Rashi interprets as a warning against provoking fellow Jews with words. It seems this column ignores this mitzvah and several others in the Torah. I guess he must be consulting some other guide.

Stephanie Berkowitz


I am offended the Jewish Journal published the transphobic commentary titled, ‘The Torah and the Transgendered’ [sic] by Dennis Prager. Why would you would include such bigotry and ignorance in your publication?

The article is ignorant (“transgendered” implies something has been done to someone, rather than acknowledging how someone self-identifies), white supremacist (the whole bit about affirmative action), and displays a lack of compassion (it’s well documented transgender people are high risk for attempted suicide because of society’s treatment of them, including in articles just like this).
As a cisgender, straight, white woman, I stand with transgender individuals and affirm their right to dignity and respect.
I hope you will too, in the future.

Wendy Volkmann

On Shavuot, reopening the book

On Shavuot, which this year falls on May 23, we celebrate the day that we received the Torah on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago. Think about that. Every year, we celebrate receiving the exact same book, or, more precisely, re-receiving the exact same Torah. But if I possess the Torah once, why must I receive it again every year? Don’t I already have it? 

One of the most acclaimed novels of this past year was Haruki Murakami’s “The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.” It’s an emotionally devastating work that follows the character Tsukuru Tazaki as he attempts to piece together why and how his life fell apart 16 years earlier. As he journeys into his past, visiting old friends and acquaintances, he discovers how much he himself has changed. This makes him see his trauma in a completely different way. It changes the perception of his own narrative. The message is a poignant one. We, as humans, keep changing. Our experiences, development and natural progression create inevitable changes with the passing of each year. We need to re-receive the Torah not because the Torah has changed, but because we have changed. As a people, we are certainly so much different from how we were 3,300 years ago. 

We’re not robots. We’re humans. What we see as critical to our lives may change with the times. So Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely. Passover is about the Exodus and freedom. Yom Kippur is about atonement and repair. Shavuot is about our life’s journey and the techniques through which we constantly reopen our book and rediscover our inner essence. 

There is a magnificent and challenging ritual on the first night of Shavuot. The custom is to return to synagogue after dinner and stay up all night studying Torah. There are numerous mystical explanations for this practice, but I’d like to suggest another one based on the earlier point: We stay up all night and study Torah because as the hours pass and fatigue sets in, we have less energy for distractions. We are more vulnerable, more open. We can focus on the essence, which is hearing the word of God all over again. And every year, the message has a different resonance, because we ourselves are different. To emphasize this theme of renewal, this year, on Shavuot night in my community, I will be giving a series of lectures from 11 p.m. to 5:20 a.m. that are really simulated conversations between famous historical rabbis who disagreed on salient matters of Jewish law, ethics and philosophy. The point of the exercise is to re-examine their disagreements in light of the passage of time. In other words, if we reopen their dialogue, would we find that the chasm between their positions has grown or shrunk? I want to encourage the community to be in listening mode, to look at disagreements in context rather than in judgment. We can even do that in our personal lives: How would we react to a friend with whom we disagreed if we heard their position 10 years later in our present context? 

Shavuot comes along to help us reorient ourselves — to help us refocus on the timeless rather than just the trendy or the timely.

On the second day of Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth converted to Judaism, which may be reason enough for reading this text on this day. Shavuot is the day we formally became a nation of Torah-observant Jews. In a sense, it is our collective conversion as a people. But there is something much deeper at play. According to the Midrash Ruth — which is a collection of homiletic teachings on the Book of Ruth, composed in approximately 700 C.E. — the real reason we read Ruth on Shavuot is for its manifold examples of pure kindness. Whether it was Ruth’s commitment to stay with her mother-in-law, or Boaz’s inclusiveness, Ruth is a charitable composite of beautiful human traits. What does this have to do with Shavuot? Chesed — kindness — is also most realized when we acknowledge that people change. What they need today is not what they need tomorrow or what they needed yesterday. And our sensitivity demands that we pay attention to each other anew as often as we can. We have changed, our loved ones have changed, and, therefore, how we give to each other must keep changing and evolving. That is true kindness, true love. 

The Talmud in Ta’anit refers to the giving of the Torah as Yom Chatunato — the day of our marriage with God. Because Shavuot is the day we received the Torah, it is our national wedding. What is the intent of this image? Well, consider the wedding day, a holiest of holy days when we are open to our future spouse in the deepest way possible, promising to be there for one another through thick and thin. So it is with God on Shavuot. We are there every year, whether we are more thick or more thin, or more rich or more skeptical. The regiving of the Torah expresses our ability to pay attention all over again. 

Reopening the Torah on Shavuot gives us access to our most precious treasure, which is the wisdom of our tradition. But for today’s new generation, tradition is not enough. They want to know: How will this tradition make me a better person and give me a better life? Shavuot begins to answer that question. Re-receiving the same holy book every year, while we keep changing, implies that the Torah is powerfully equipped to provide us insight no matter what state or stage we are in. 

The Jews living in the cultural “golden age” of Spain (900-1130 C.E.) found genuine cultural expression through the Torah. A compelling example is the poetry of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol, who paved a new style with words inspired by the Torah that simultaneously expressed the true artistic milieu of his generation. The Jewish community in Western Europe in the 19th century, facing the immense challenge of enlightenment, basked in the innovative approach of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who reopened the Torah and understood the concept of Torah im Derech Eretz (Torah and the way of the Land). Jews crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto awaiting an unspeakable fate found an unfulfilling but quiet dialogue with God from the words, “My soul will weep in hiding(Jeremiah 13:7). Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira reopened the book and meditated upon this verse and understood it as God admitting to crying with the people. The Jewish immigrants who arrived on American soil found a world so removed from anything they had ever known. They found a world that was so distant from the journey of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. Yet, some of them decided to reopen the Torah once again and they heard the immutable word of God speaking within their mutable selves. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, heard the word of redemption and sent emissaries to spread his vision of hope. Rabbi Aharon Kotler heard the word of dedication and spent his entire life building a community committed to studying the Law. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik heard the word of intellectualism and guided his energies toward teaching thousands of students. The women of the modern era, under the inspiration of Sara Schenirer in Poland, reopened the Torah and saw a place for their own growth and aspirations. 

All of these Jewish giants kept reopening the book and finding new inspiration.

Shavuot teaches us to re-receive the Torah because everything changes. It always does. The world changes. We change. The idealism of our youth sometimes becomes shattered by the coldness of life’s reality. The Torah speaks of Mishnah Torah — a second Torah. The king of the Jewish nation is charged to keep two Torahs. Rashi, in his commentary on Deuteronomy, says that one Torah would be reserved for study at home and the second Torah was taken into battle. Why doesn’t the king have just one Torah that he takes to war and reads at home? Because there is a great need for two. The risk we take when bringing the Torah for protection out on the road is that it can become worn by travel and tattered in war. Our Torah becomes corrupted by the compromises of life, and therefore it becomes necessary from time to time for us to return to that pure Torah back at home, and reflect upon our sacred ideals. 

This Shavuot, I challenge my brothers and sisters to reopen the book. Discover again for the first time those lessons that you may or may not remember from your earlier journeys. Share a story or two with your children and notice how the same passage can mean one thing for you, one thing for your husband and another for your children. Let the splendid drama of the Bible carry you through the night, and reach deep into your vacillating soul and awaken it. 

Chag sameach.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is rav and dean of Yeshivat Yavneh. 

At a breaking point in Turkey: Should Jews stay or should we go?

The gold and gray city of Istanbul spent Valentine’s Day bracing for snow. Under angry clouds, Turkish couples huddled around tabletops in the cafe quarter of Ortakoy, a historically posh neighborhood along the Bosphorus Strait. Jewelry-makers had set up stands along the alleyways to sell gleaming valentine trinkets. Crowning the scene — visible from nearly every spot in the neighborhood — were the ornate minarets of the Ortakoy Mosque, one of the city’s proudest monuments. When the mosque’s loudspeakers blasted a Saturday morning call to prayer throughout Ortakoy, all cafe chatter paused for a moment; one got the feeling its holy vibrations could split ice.

If any of Ortakoy’s lovers noticed the line of well-dressed men and women who, meanwhile, were ducking through a miniature green door in a stone wall on the quarter’s edge — just across from the Shakespeare Cafe and Bar — they didn’t let it show. 

A guard at the green door checked IDs before ushering those men and women into a dark, airtight hallway. A keypad on the wall inside unlocked a second armored gate.

A small, armored door at the edge of Istanbul's Ortakoy neighborhood leads to a hidden synagogue.

Beyond the high-security passageway, the group entered a separate world invisible to neighbors — a grand courtyard and synagogue painted a fresh, Mediterannean white and dotted with stained-glass Stars of David. Inside the shul, Ortakoy’s resident rabbi, Nafi Haleva, belted the week’s Shabbat sermon in Turkish, tailoring it to the Western holiday that had captured Istanbul’s consciousness. 

“We’re not against Valentine’s Day,” the rabbi told the 100 or so Turkish Jews in attendance, seated separately by gender, as required by Turkey’s Orthodox rabbinate. “But it can’t just be one day of gifts.”

Haleva spoke on lasting love and marriage and the roles of a Jewish man and wife. “Women are superior to men,” he said. “Women and men have to be the same, so men have to study the Torah.”

Seated in the front row of the women’s balcony was a special guest: Amira Oron, 48, the newly appointed chargé d’affaires at the Israeli embassy in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city. Oron is the latest diplomat to stand in for a true Israeli ambassador since the position was recalled in 2010 following the infamous Mavi Marmara flotilla raid in which Israeli soldiers attacked a Turkish aid and activist ship heading toward Gaza, killing 10.

Oron had traveled hundreds of miles Feb. 14 to spend Shabbat in Istanbul — no doubt to mingle as much as to pray — and, looking poised in a pretty scarf and pixie cut, she listened patiently to the sermon, though she couldn’t understand the parts in Turkish.

The rest of the crowd was less attentive. Friends whispered noisily; children monkeyed across empty chairs. Men in robes at the front of the shul had to constantly shush the congregation back to attention.

“The new generation in Turkey doesn’t know anything about Judaism,” Abraham Haim, an Israeli-Turkish rabbi who makes biweekly trips to Istanbul, would later tell the Journal. “In Tel Aviv, you can take someone from Dizengoff Street, and he’s ultra-Orthodox by comparison.”

When the Torah had been tucked back into its cupboard, Ortakoy’s Jews spilled gratefully into their synagogue’s leafy courtyard. They picked from heaps of Turkish pastries, fruits and cheeses laid out on banquet tables. A few also indulged in a late-morning glass of raki — Turkey’s national anise spirit, served with a splash of cold water. Warmed by all those bodies and the breath from their conversation, Ortakoy’s sealed-off synagogue complex felt at least a few degrees more welcoming than the outside world. 

Denis Ojalvo, 64, a stout Turkish-Jewish businessman who lives in the hills above the synagogue, chose to skip Shabbat services Feb. 14. (“I’m more of a cultural Jew,” he explained.) Ojalvo instead waited along Ortakoy’s shoreline, in the glacial breeze that was whipping off the Bosphorous, for services to end — and for a close friend and a reporter to emerge through the green door and join him for an afternoon chat.

Ojalvo chose a restaurant so far down on the docks, it behaved like a houseboat. He ordered hot salep, a Turkish drink made from rosewater and ground orchid tubers. As he sipped, a Chinese freighter chugged by; the view felt huge, historic.

“You see how nice?” Ojalvo asked. “Can you leave such a country?”

A few nights earlier, though, speaking in his friend’s living room, Ojalvo described the dark isolation he often felt living as a Jew in Turkey. “Here, you are like somebody who watches,” he said. “You are not in the stream. Because even if we don’t want to admit it, here, we live in a Muslim country, and we are somehow second-class citizens.

“I mean, we have rights,” he continued. “But we are unable to take real advantage of those rights because we feel like we are under a … glass ceiling.” 

‘Hope is fading’

Turkish Jews often speak of the warm welcome the Ottoman Empire gave their ancestors when they were expelled from Spain some 500 years ago. But in the century since the strict secularist Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded modern-day Turkey, Jews and other ethnic and religious minorities have been subject to waves of severe discrimination — in terms of property rights, freedom of language and education, upward mobility and more. “Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire [in the 1920s], the transformation to a nation-state created a dynamic where non-Muslims were not welcome and couldn’t fit into this model of Turkish nationalism,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College and Middle East analyst who splits his time among the U.S., Israel and Turkey.

When the Republican People’s Party (CHP) passed a discriminatory “wealth tax” in 1942, about 30,000 Jews reportedly fled the country. The creation of the State of Israel a few years later encouraged tens of thousands more to leave, and anti-Semitic riots and attacks in the following decades drew out the trend.

Today, only about 17,000 Jews live in Turkey, most of them in Istanbul — a sad sliver of the 500,000 welcomed from Spain by
Ottoman rulers and the 200,000 that remained at the turn of the 20th century.

Their numbers continue to shrink. Although no one is keeping an official tally of annual departures, community members estimated that their net loss is now up to 300 people per year, in large part because more Jews are dying than are being born.

Nearly 40 percent of the community’s college-aged demographic chose to study abroad last year — a figure twice as high as the year prior. 

“Since this summer, there has been more and more talking in the community about living in another country, mostly between the young Jews,” said 31-year-old Mois Gabay, who writes for Salom, Turkey’s Jewish newspaper. M. Namer, a 33-year-old Istanbul entrepreneur active in the Turkish Union of Jewish Students, said in meetings, “Everybody’s talking about, ‘Should we stay or should we go?’ ”

Both young men said economic opportunities abroad — coupled with the difficulty of starting a Jewish family in Turkey — are helping drive migration. “One issue is finding a partner, the other is feeling comfortable about your future,” Namer said.

Pervasive anti-Semitism in the public sphere also has played an undeniable role.

A poll commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) last year showed that around 70 percent of Turks harbor anti-Semitic attitudes. A grand majority of the respondents believed Turkish Jews are more loyal to Israel than to Turkey, that Jews have “too much power in the business world” and that Jews “don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind.”

“Most Turkish people will never ever meet a Jew in their life,” Fishman said. “That’s where their conspiracy theories can really take hold.”

In September, a cellphone store in downtown Istanbul hung a sign in its window that read, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” In November, unknown activists posted a mock demolition notice on Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue.

In December, 31-year-old Sabay wrote in an op-ed for Salom: “We face threats, attacks and harassment every day. Hope is fading. Is it necessary for a ‘Hrant among us’,” he asked, referring to Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist assassinated in 2007, “to be shot in order for the government, the opposition, civil society, our neighbors and jurists to see this?”

Various other members of the Jewish-Turkish community told the Journal that within the past decade, and especially the past few years, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric from Turkish politicians and media personalities has become so constant and overblown — and vague in its distinction between Israelis and Jews — that they no longer feel comfortable in their home country.

“It’s so flagrant, it’s so visible, and we are not idiots,” Ojalvo said. “We can see it. We can feel it.”

Ojalvo is the rare member of the community who keeps close tabs on these remarks and criticizes them publicly: He writes an occasional column for ŞSalom, and leaves lengthy comments on anti-Semitic articles in pro-government papers he reads on the Internet. Sometimes he contacts the authors directly. 

“I don’t care; I say my name,” he told the Journal. “I don’t believe in anonymous people shooting from behind a wall.”

But among his peers, Ojalvo is the exception.

For 10 days in February, this reporter traveled between Istanbul and Ankara in search of rage and panic among the country’s remaining Jews. What was there instead was a profound and private sadness — one that Turkey’s last Jews dutifully carry among themselves but were hesitant to share with an outsider.

Most members of the Jewish-Turkish community contacted by the Journal did not wish to talk to the press. “We have enough people trying to exploit us,” one man wrote in an email, suggesting the Journal visit France instead. Another expressed frustration that foreign Jewish organizations such as the ADL have gotten involved in their affairs and subjected them to added danger.

Most community members who did agree to be interviewed didn’t want their names in print. They gave various reasons for this: A few said they didn’t want to stir internal drama within Istanbul’s tight-knit Jewish circle; others said they’d rather stay off the government’s radar.

“I don’t want to think I should be afraid,” a 55-year-old Jewish-Turkish textile manufacturer said, “but maybe I should.”

The man’s son and daughter, both in their 20s, are currently living abroad. “Young people at that age, they study in U.S. or in Israel, and many of them don’t come back,” he said. “As [the population] goes down, people are moving faster. The youth have less chance of meeting each other. Nowadays, it’s much easier to go to the States for studies, and they find good jobs, and they stay for two years, three years, 10 years — and then they just stay.”

In Bursa, an old green building across from Turkey's oldest synagogue was once the site of a thriving Jewish school.

‘Good luck’

A report published last year by the Hrant Dink Foundation, a Turkish nonprofit tracking anti-democratic sentiment in the media, showed that during Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza last year, a full half of media reports were flagged for “hate speech” specifically targeted Jews — up from around 25 percent in 2012. 

The foundation found that when discussing the war, pro-government newspapers such as Yeni Akit and Milli Gazete often used the words “Jews” or “Israelis” in place of “State of Israel” or “Israel Defense Forces.”

Just last year, in the span of a few months, Yeni Akit, the conservative and Islamist newspaper closely aligned with Turkey’s ruling political party, ran: 1) a column demanding Turkish Jews to publicly condemn Israel for its assault on Gaza or risk facing a pogrom like those against Greeks in the 1950s; 2) a crossword-style puzzle linking a portrait of Hitler with the slogan, “We are longing for you”; 3) an op-ed calling on Turkey’s Jews to be taxed for Gaza reconstruction; and 4) a headline blaming a deadly mine collapse in Turkey’s Soma province on the mine owner’s Jewish ties.

Burak Bekdil, a non-Jewish journalist and restaurant owner in Turkey who often reports on injustices against minorities for the left-wing Hurriyet Daily News, told the Journal: “For the government or for the average Turk, when I write the same things about [minorities such as] Alevis or Christians, they say, ‘You’re a stupid liberal.’ But if it’s about Jews, I’m a Zionist.”

Bekdil said that in the 12 years since the Justice and Development Party (known locally as AK Parti or AKP) came into power, he has watched anti-Semitic rhetoric edge into the mainstream.

Bekdil spoke to the Journal over a bottle of red wine in his Ankara restaurant, which he modeled after taverns on the Greek island where he now spends six months of every year laying low. Just before the AKP took parliament, Bekdil was handed an 18-month suspended prison term by Turkey’s then-powerful court system for “insulting the judiciary.” Although he has yet to be arrested by the AKP, the fear is always with him.

Bekdil said that compared to past decades, “This is a more dangerous thing that we go through today,” because all state power is in one set of hands: the AKP’s.

None of the myriad AKP politicians and pro-AKP newspaper columnists responded to emails and voicemails from the Journal requesting comment — with one exception.

Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, invited the Journal to his stately office, located on a top floor of the new AKP skyscraper in Ankara, for a face-to-face interview. From the window in his hallway, visitors have a grand view of the president’s new, 3-million-square-foot palace.

“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey,” Aktay told the Journal over Turkish tea and chocolates. “And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”

Aktay stressed his party has in many ways improved life for Turkey’s minorities since taking power of parliament in 2002 with a sweeping two-thirds majority.

“There is no realistic threat against the Jewish people in Turkey. And if, in spite of all this, they have some phobia — good luck.”
— Yasin Aktay, vice chairman in charge of foreign affairs for the AKP, Turkey's ruling party

For example, Aktay said, the AKP recently returned $2 billon in previously confiscated property to minority groups. “We are proud of this — and nobody can criticize us compared with the past,” Aktay said. “[Some say] we took steps backward. Just on the contrary: In all aspects, in all domains, in all feats, we advanced.”

The Turkish public’s sense of security at street level, too, is at a significant high. The AKP has managed to stave off another of the country’s infamous military coups, and has overseen an ebbing in the mass-casualty terror attacks that roiled Turkey in the early 2000s (including two horrific bombings outside Istanbul’s Neve Shalom and Bet Israel synagogues in 2003, in which 27 were killed and hundreds injured).

Many Turkish Jews who spoke to the Journal agreed with Aktay on this point. “We might not like [AKP] views, but stability is good, and there is no terror on the streets,” said the 55-year-old Turkish-Jewish textile maker and father who wished to remain anonymous.

However, to maintain this stability and to ensure the AKP’s own lasting power, party leaders, in the eyes of many, also have begun transforming Turkey from a true democracy into a shadowy police state. Party insiders told the Journal they’ve watched the AKP’s founding promise of nationwide reform slowly melt under the ambitions of one man: Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

New Turkey

Since rising from a small-town football star to mayor of Istanbul to Turkish prime minister and now president, Erdoganğhas earned a reputation among his adversaries as an aspiring “sultan” of his own Ottoman Empire.

Or, as he calls it, New Turkey.

More journalists were jailed in Turkey in 2012 and 2013 than in any other country, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Erdoganğhas repeatedly blocked civilian access to sites such as Twitter and YouTube whenever he’s felt threatened by anti-AKP content. Dozens of anti-government rioters have been killed and thousands more injured by police under Erdogan’s watch. And now, a new “internal security” bill — currently making its way through parliament piece by piece — will give police the right to detain citizens “incommunicado” for 48 hours without a court-issued warrant, among a slew of other powers.

Erdogan also has achieved global fame for his increasingly wild rhetoric — which he more often than not aims at the nearby Jewish State of Israel, once a strong military ally.

“They curse Hitler day and night, but they have surpassed Hitler in barbarism,” Erdogan said of Israel at a July campaign rally. On a Latin American tour in February, the Turkish media reported him as saying: “As long as Israeli oppression and Israeli terror continue, the bleeding in the Middle East and the entire human conscience will never stop.”

Aktay insisted that his party’s anger is directed at Israel and Zionism, not Jews. 

“I am criticizing Israel because I am suffering from Zionism,” Aktay said. “I will safely and comfortably criticize jihadism. What is jihadism, and what is Zionism? In some terms, Zionism is the equivalent of jihadism. If jihadism is not good, why is Zionism good? And Zionism … really, it is murder.”

Can Özgön, head of the 30-person Jewish community in Ankara, Turkey, holds the only key to his childhood synagogue, now almost completely out of use.

Anti-Semitic social-media activity by AKP members drew global ire during the war in Gaza. Notably, Ankara mayor and AKP member Melih Gökçek, who has amassed almost 2.5 million followers on Twitter, responded, “I applaud you!” to a Turkish singer who declared, “May God bless Hitler.”

The local Jewish community also was shocked when, at a Holocaust Memorial Day event Jan. 27 in Ankara, parliament speaker Cemil Çiçek went off script to scold Israel for, among other crimes, committing a modern Holocaust in Gaza. 

Karel Valansi, a political columnist and former world news editor at Şalom newspaper, witnessed the speech. She wrote: “Don’t we have 364 other days and other platforms to discuss and try to find a solution to the problems of the Middle East, Gaza, Israel, Palestine and the Mavi Marmara incident that torpedoed Turkish-Israeli relations?” Meanwhile, on the same day in Prague, following a roundtable discussion with 30 parliamentary speakers from European countries, Turkey was the sole country that refused to sign a joint declaration demanding “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”

Presented with these examples, Aktay called them justified emotional responses to seeing “2,300 civilian people” killed by Israel. 

“All these reactions come after Israel killed the children in the beach,” he said, raising his voice. “They kill children. They are committing crimes against humanity.”

Asked whether Turkey has a responsibility to make its own Jewish population feel safe despite Israel’s actions, he said: “Actually, we are the guarantee of their life. And there is no problem about that. … The problem of anti-Islamism is more real. The problem of anti-Semitism is not real. Even in Turkey, there is none. It comes out as some reactions to [Israeli crimes].”

Aktay blamed Israel for the sense of insecurity among Turkish Jews.

“The policy of Israel is putting the Jewish people in danger everywhere,” he said. “That is a sort of provocation, and it puts the uninvolved Jewish people in danger because Jewish people become targets. Hopefully not in Turkey, of course. But nobody can protect them afterward.”

Aktay told the Journal that as long as Israel is oppressing Palestinians, the AKP will stay in attack mode. 

“When a city is being kept under a siege like a concentration camp, it is not different than the Holocaust,” Aktay said. “Someone should criticize very loudly, and we don’t see anybody [do this] out of Turkey. We are proud in the Turkish role in this — somebody should of course articulate the voice of justice.”

‘Words can be dangerous’

According to left-wing Turkish journalist Bekdil, anti-Israel rhetoric is an easy “vote catcher” in Turkey. “At AKP rallies, there are two flags — one Turkish, one Palestinian,” he said. “It’s not just Turkish Islamism. Even the Turkish left wing feels connected.”

But as Erdogan has swept the popular vote, he has simultaneously alienated many of the country’s secularists, intellectuals and free thinkers — including the last of Turkey’s Jews.

In 2013, when hundreds of thousands of young Turks flocked to Istanbul’s central Gezi Park to save it from Erdogan’s development plans, the riots soon grew into a larger, symbolic fight against the AKP’s authoritarian and Islamist grip on Turkish life. Responding to the protesters on Turkish TV, Erdogan shook with fury — and in the heat of the moment, he and other party members’ red-faced tirades devolved into Jew-bashing.

Erdogan’s deputy prime minister at the time was quoted by local media as blaming Gezi Park protests on the “Jewish diaspora.” And in a videotaped outburst, Erdogan apparently shouted at a protester, although his exact words were hard to make out: “Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?”

Both officials later denied making these statements. 

Brooklyn College’s Fishman stressed the importance, as an analyst, of “separating the anti-Israelness from the anti-Jewishness” in AKP rhetoric. However, he added, “Having said that, it’s becoming more and more difficult to separate the two.”

Israel’s embassy in Ankara, the target of a mob attack and flag-burning during last summer’s war in Gaza, closely monitors Turkish political speech and media reports, including for anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic bias. But in public statements and on-the-record interviews, embassy officials, as well as officials at the Turkish Jewish Community foundation, tend to walk on eggshells — careful not to damage the already fragile ties between Turkish Jews and their government.

“We don’t believe in microphone diplomacy,” said chargé d’affaires Oron from her office within the tightly guarded embassy compound.

However, warned the embassy’s spokesman and deputy chief of mission, Nizar Amer: “Words can be dangerous, especially words that come from high officials.” And, he added, “Turkish Jews should feel secure and comfortable in their country, regardless of relations between Israel and Turkey.”

Down the hill from the embassy in Turkey’s parliament building, a single politician from the opposing Republican People’s Party (CHP) has made it his core platform to fight for minority rights in Turkey.

In an interview in his cramped corner office, Aykan Erdemir, 40, an upbeat and outgoing parliamentarian who barely made the cut last election, told the Journal that the dangers of the AKP’s anti-Semitic rhetoric cannot be understated. “Reducing anti-Semitism to simple anti-Israeli sentiment is trivializing the extent of the problem we have,” he said. Erdemir called Erdogan an “anti-Semite, full stop” with “intentional, systematic, anti-Semitic core values that he built his whole career on.”

In recent months, Jews in Paris and Copenhagen faced the worst-case end result of growing anti-Semitism in Europe: deadly terror attacks by Islamist radicals against Jewish shops and synagogues.

In Turkey, on the other hand, Erdemir believes “state complicity” is the real danger. “The more an average citizen reproduces this anti-Semitic rhetoric in everyday encounters, the higher the likelihood of, let’s say, an attack against a synagogue or a Jewish citizen of Turkey,” he said.

“I’m concerned about the mainstream individual who is very reasonable in most of her outlook in life, but then has this strange set of core values that are full of hate, prejudice, discrimination, conspiracies,” Erdemir said. “Because, ultimately, I think it’s never the lunatic but always that average Joe who opens the floodgates for pogroms, mass killings and attacks. … They will support the climate that fuels hate.”

During his time in office, Erdemir has relentlessly denounced AKP actions that alienate minorities and has attempted to pass legislation to protect them, including a law against hate crimes.

“We have a half-baked hate-crimes law, which was AKP’s way of responding to pressure by the public — but it’s not comprehensive,” Erdemir said. “So we don’t have comprehensive institutional and legal protection [for minorities].”

Other sources in the Turkish parliament cited a recent surge of violence against women, including the widely protested murder of 20-year-old Ozgecan Aslan, as proof that sexist rhetoric from Erdogan is now taking itself out in the streets.

“Erdogan has sown so many seeds of hate in Turkish society,” Erdemir said. “It will be difficult to unmake it.”

‘If I were Jewish, I would hide’

There’s a word in Turkish used to describe the deep, stabbing — and quintessentially Turkish — type of nostalgia that overcomes an Istanbuli when he reflects on his life and his city: hüzün.

Hüzün is a descendent of huzn, the ancient Arabic word used in the Quran to mean “melancholy” or “sorrow over a loss.” In the present day, Turkey’s most well-known author, Orhan Pamuk, has attempted to redefine hüzün as it applies to his people. In Pamuk’s historical memoir “Istanbul: Memories and the City,” the author devotes an entire chapter to hüzün, which he calls, in part, a “cultural concept conveying worldly failure, listlessness, and spiritual suffering.”

Pamuk notes, however, that the country bears this special melancholy “with honor” — and that, for a Turk, experiencing a wave of hüzün can be as “life affirming” and insulating as it is painful.

“Now we begin to understand hüzün not as the melancholy of a solitary person,” writes Pamuk, “but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hüzün of an entire city: of Istanbul.”

A Westerner unfamiliar with Turkish hüzün, and that of its Jews, might mistake the mood for blank despair. But spend enough time within Turkey’s Jewish community and it slowly reveals itself as a communal, almost peaceful kind of resignation — the collective nostalgia of a community that has already begun to mourn its own demise. 

Leon Elnekave, 70, is the shul keeper and head of the remaining Jewish community in Bursa, the small port city on the Sea of Marmara where Sephardic Jews first arrived in Ottoman times. Only about 60 of them, all elderly, remain. In his office across the alley from Bursa’s 521-year-old synagogue, Elnekave used an index finger to trace the final remaining clusters of Turkish Jews on his wall map of the country. “Thirty in Antalya, 20 in Antakya, two in Çanakkale,” he said, matter-of-factly. Elnekave said the entire Jewish community has died off in many other towns, leaving their synagogues and cemeteries behind to rot. “Nobody is left,” he said.

Amid this soft fade, AKP’s insults are just salt in the wound.

“For the last maybe six months, whenever there’s news, I close the television, because I know what they are talking about, I know what they will say,” said Can Özgön, president of the Jewish community in Ankara, at his office in the center of town. Özgön had dressed his tall build in denim and corduroy, lumberjack style, and gelled his brown curls as best he could into an unruly pyramid. “Also, I will not take a newspaper,” he said. “Because I am nervous — that’s the reason. And I cannot do anything about it.” 

Last November, the AKP-appointed governor of Turkey’s far-north Edirne Province, near Bulgaria, announced that the historic Edirne synagogue, currently undergoing renovations, would be turned into a museum as revenge for Israel blocking Palestinian worshipers from Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque. (In response to widespread condemnation, the governor later retracted his statement and clarified the did not have the power to make this decision.)

When asked about the incident in Edirne, Özgön showed no signs of anger.

“What difference does it make? This synagogue is also a museum,” he said as he ducked beneath the hedge of brambles that obscures the entrance to Ankara’s abandoned shul. Once inside, Özgön, who holds the synagogue’s only key, proudly lit an electric Star of David, made of retro neon tubing, that hangs above the Torah’s ark. “Every chair used to be full,” he said, remembering the Shabbat services of his boyhood. Today, Özgön said, he has neither the resources nor the manpower to care for the building, whose roof leaks in winter and whose bathrooms are often trashed by the local homeless population. Surrounding homes, stately mansions once owned by Ankara’s well-to-do Jews, are now empty, their windows cracked.

When Özgön was small, his parents told him stories about growing up in a mixed community in Ankara. They said their Muslim and Christian neighbors would hand out matzah and sweets to Jewish children on Shabbat.

“But now,” Özgön said, “you cannot see anything like this. It’s finished.”

Turkish Jews are not alone in their hüzün for this small-town “mosaic” Turkey of old. On the tray tables of a new high-speed train from Istanbul to Ankara, inside a complimentary copy of the line’s official magazine, Rail Life, was an extended interview with Turkish movie star Cem Davran, in which he mourned the Istanbul of his childhood.

“Maybe we were the last happy children who had lived within the neighborhood culture,” he told the magazine.

And “the most important thing in the neighborhoods of ancient Istanbul,” Davran said, “was that many people from different faiths and culture were all together. Everyone respected each other’s faith. Moreover, they used to put extra effort in it so everyone could live their religion freely.”

Cihan Karayagiz, 25, a young Kurdish man on the train, read the passage. He gazed out the window for a spell — watching small, snow-covered villages dart past — before admitting to this reporter that he’d never met a Turkish Jew before in his life. His grandfather, though, had told him stories about this same “neighborhood culture” discussed by the movie star.

“If we have many colors, Turkey will be more interesting, it will be better,” he said. “If we only have one color, it will be dangerous. Now you can’t see any other religions. Or if they’re there, they hide themselves.”

Karayagiz thought some more, then added: “If I were Jewish, I would hide.”

Torah too R-rated for some Chasidim, so they edited it

For some Chasidim, the Torah is too hot to handle.

A recently published Bible study guide in use in a Chasidic village in suburban New York omits certain risque passages and entire passages of the Book of Genesis, according to Israeli scholar and blogger David Assaf of Tel Aviv University.

The censored chumash, or Bible, was printed for Beit Tziporah, a girls school in New Square, a village of Skverer Chasidim in New York State’s Rockland County.

For example, the chumash edits out a section at the end of Genesis 19 in which Lot’s two daughters get their father drunk and sleep with him so they can get pregnant. The chumash also omits the entire first two parshas, or Torah portions, of Genesis, cutting out the story of the world’s creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the Tower of Babel, beginning instead at the story of Abraham.

Is this because the first two portions are about non-Jews?

Among other omissions in the chumash: The story of Onan, who spilled his seed rather than impregnate Tamar; Judah’s sexual encounter with his daughter-in-law Tamar disguised as a prostitute; and Potiphar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Joseph.

Meanwhile, other seemingly risque stories are left in, such as the tale of Dina’s rape, Assaf notes.

To be fair, this edition clearly is intended as a study guide, rather than a full account. Each of the verses intentionally leaves one word blank, for the girls to fill in from memory.

I suppose the girls aren’t expected to commit to memory the wholesale passages that have been omitted.

[UPDATE: A former Charedi Orthodox colleague tells me it's considered forbidden in many Chasidic circles for women to study verses from the Torah in whole, which may be why a word is left blank in every verse.]

Judaism in the time of climate change

When human life is in danger, Jews stop and pay attention. In fact, we set aside Shabbat and virtually every other law not only when human life is clearly and certainly in danger, but also whenever there is a reasonable possibility that life is threatened. According to Mishnah Ta’anit, the Sages declared a day of communal fasting and prayer when only a tiny amount of wheat in Ashkelon had been ruined by shidafon, a dry, destructive wind, and another when two wolves — capable of killing children — were merely spotted in an inhabited area. When a real possibility of danger to life lurks, we don’t avert our eyes. As a matter of spiritual course, we take notice and consider how to respond. This is the way we live.  

We’re at an interesting and challenging juncture right now in humanity’s journey on Earth. There’s at least a reasonable possibility, and many respected voices insist that it is more than just that, that in the coming years and decades, we will be dealing with a natural world that is less accommodating and more hostile to human life than the one we’ve come to know. We will experience bigger and more destructive storms, longer and deeper droughts, and more frequent wildfires. Insects and fungi will spread to places where they didn’t previously appear, threatening crops. These are reasonable enough possibilities that normative Jewish law and thought indicate that we are obliged to pay attention to them — and to their possible consequences. 

Accordingly, simply as a regular Jew doing what regular Jews do, I recently began the process of trying to place these possibilities into a religious framework, into a framework of appropriate spiritual response. Here are three ideas, drawn from our classical sources, that I believe serve to create this framework, both for today and, more important, for tomorrow and beyond. 

1. Solidarity: In Genesis 41, Yosef accurately interprets Pharaoh’s dream about the upcoming years of plenty and years of famine, and then finds himself charged with the awesome responsibility of storing food during the good years so that it can be eaten in the bad ones. In the middle of that story, the Torah reports that “two sons were born to Yosef, before the years of famine came.” The Talmud asks: Why did the Torah specifically point out that the sons were born during the years of plenty? From Yosef’s behavior, the Talmud concludes, we learn that it is prohibited to engage in marital intimacy during years of famine. There is a limitation on pleasure-taking during times of suffering.  

This conclusion is codified into Jewish law with only with slight modifications. Nonetheless, the medieval Tosafists challenged the Talmud’s analysis, pointing out that Yocheved, the daughter of Levi, was born just as Jacob and family were entering Egypt. Clearly, she must have been conceived during the years of famine! Many have offered answers to this question, but among the most compelling comes from a 19th-century thinker, Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein. For Levi, a refugee fleeing famine in Canaan, there would have been no reason to refrain from marital relations, Epstein explains. The Talmud’s teaching is specifically about people like Yosef, who due to their own personal social or economic circumstances, are not personally affected by the famine. The Talmud is teaching us to vicariously experience other’s people’s suffering, and to consciously cultivate a sense of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by nature’s unfortunate surprises. Out of this solidarity, the Talmud hopes, we will develop the will and the strength to make political and economic decisions that respond to the challenges experienced by others.

2. Priority: To illustrate just how highly Jews prioritize human life over all other considerations, consider this halachic decision made by Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Spektor in the spring of 1868. In the midst of drought that had dramatically affected numerous crops, peas and beans were among the few foods readily available, especially to the poor.Rabbi Spektor decided that the custom forbidding kitniyot (legumes) would be lifted for Pesach of that year. While this may sound like a no-brainer, we know rabbis face pressures around decisions such as these. Would he be accused of overstepping his authority? Was he setting a dangerous precedent for the waiving of other time-honored customs? Was such a move especially perilous at a time when Jews in other parts of Europe were abandoning Jewish practices? Rabbi Spektor might have decided differently based upon any of these considerations. But he did not, because human life and welfare had to be given higher priority than any of the political or historical considerations that in other circumstances might militate against taking action. In times of trouble, human life must the highest priority. 

3. Prayer: On the morning after he petitioned God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah records that Avraham returned to the spot overlooking the cities and saw nothing but smoke. The feared destruction had occurred. The Talmud asserts that Avraham prayed at that moment. We can’t help but wonder, though, what kind of prayer he would have said at that point. I think it was a prayer similar to the one that we ourselves say each morning. “Place in our hearts the ability to understand and discern.” Teach me, God, what I should be doing differently. What changes do I need to make in the way I conduct my own life, in the way that my household and my society conduct their lives, so that next time the outcome will be different, so that destruction can be averted? “You, who shine light upon the earth and its inhabitants with compassion.” You, God, are a benevolent God, who created out of love, and who does not desire the death of Your creatures. Standing in Your presence, we do not despair. We continue to look forward, for we know we stand before God who desires life.   

No one knows for certain what lies ahead. But, as religious people, we prepare ourselves for the possibility of danger to human life, through readying our eyes and hearts to see and feel, our arms to reach and respond, and our souls to seek Divine wisdom through prayer. We know before whom we stand. And we know what He expects of us when we live in challenging times.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation and president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). A regular contributor to the Journal, he blogs at

Become the sanctuary: Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

Where is God, and what does the Holy One want from us? These timeless questions animate so many of us spiritual seekers. 

Of course, there are better places to look for an answer than in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, unless you consider barbecuing as divine service. If you read Tzav literally, you come away with a clear sense that the Holy One has a soft spot for a good steak and some grain (perhaps baked into a delicious loaf of bread) to dip in some warm olive oil.

I’m all for a good steak now and then, but few believe that God was ever a red- meat eater … or a vegetarian or vegan. Torah, perhaps updating the sacrificial practices of the Israelites’ biblical contemporaries, organized a hierarchy of sacrificial offerings to quench what was once understood as the religio-gastronomical desires of the Highest Power. 

Yet, when later rabbinic commentators studied the sacrifices, they quickly rejected the notion that God actually wanted meat, fowl or grains. They argued that God instead sought out the intention with which the Israelites brought their offerings. For our rabbinic teachers, the sacrifices were merely the means through which the Israelites transformed themselves into servants of God.

It seems, though, that the Holy One might not really want the kavanah (intentions) with which we bring the offerings, either. No, the Holy One, Source of all holiness, just wants us to discover the holiness within. 
We hear it in the words of that folk spiritual that inspires thousands in synagogues and summer camps. Combining “Sanctuary” (written by John Thompson and Randy Scruggs) with “Pitchu Li” (Psalm 118:19, arranged by Rabbi Shefa Gold), “Sanctuary/Pitchu Li” lays it all out for us:  

Lord, prepare me, to be a sanctuary, / pure and holy, tried and true. / 

With thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you. / Pitchu li sha’arei tzedek avo vam odeh Ya. 

At Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas and at Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, we are learning to redirect our hearts. We are slowly learning to unlearn certain lessons from our past — that God wants a side of beef or is focused primarily on how we prepare our own side of beef — to discover that God wants us to open ourselves to the holiness within. 

Too often, we look for holiness, and the Holy One, in places outside ourselves. A few Torah portions ago, when Moses climbed the mountain and seemingly disappeared for 39 or 40 days, the Israelites felt bereft and alone. Without someone to remind them that God is HaMakom (literally, “The Place,” meaning God is everywhere and everyplace), they felt abandoned.  So they built for themselves an egel hazahav (a golden calf) to worship and embrace. Unable to recognize that the spiritual reservoir was found within, they created a false sense of security outside themselves. 

When the smoke cleared, when the frenzy finally subsided, those who remained true to the spiritual journey heard a new call. It was couched in the form of a command to build a sanctuary where the Israelites could turn to be assured that God was always with them. The mishkan (the Tabernacle, a movable sanctuary in space), then, was really a compromise, the result of a failure of the wilderness generation to find what they needed within.  
Today’s soul searchers — especially the Jewish ones — find spiritual strength in the one place that the wilderness-wandering Israelites failed to search. Today’s spiritual seekers learn anew that holiness and wholeness are no farther away than the depth of our own beings. Using theological language, the Holy One resides within us already. 

Thus the prayer song “Sanctuary/Pitchi Li” redirects us from God outside and beyond, but rather to the Immanent Essence within. It reminds us that with regard to the Ein Sof (the mystical Presence that has no end), even our very bodies contain, and channel, the spiritual energy. We, who are created b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God), encompass within ourselves the holiness that exists everywhere. So wherever we go, we take our mishkan with us. 

We need not focus on an external sanctuary because we are — or at least we can become — the sanctuary itself. It is our rediscovering of the holiness within, not bringing animal sacrifices to altars outside, that piques the interest of the Holy One. 

Then we will discover some answers: That immanence, not altars and animal sacrifices, may just be the essence of the Holy One.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. His recollections about his Grandmother Esther’s bout with Alzheimer’s is published in “Broken Fragments” (URJPress, 2012). He blogs at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spends a weekend in L.A. envisioning the Jewish future

Swiping his finger to the left, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s now-former chief rabbi, and arguably the world’s most prominent religious Jewish leader, was looking for a text he felt might show how Orthodox Jews can spread a Jewish message to the Western world.

He wasn’t leafing through the Talmud, and he didn’t have in mind a specific passage from the Torah. He wasn’t even looking for a Jewish text. 

He was browsing his iPad, and after a few seconds lost in his app collection, he finally found what he was looking for.

“The Waste Land” — a poem by T.S. Eliot, an American-born Englishman widely regarded as among the 20th century’s most influential literary figures.

“Hang on,” Sacks said, as he prepared me for the pinnacle of the app, a specially filmed performance by actress Fiona Shaw. “This is magic. This is the masterpiece.” 

Shaw’s voice — that of the Petunia Dursley character from the “Harry Potter” series — emerged majestically from the speaker: “The Waste Land. The burial of the dead.” 

This is how Orthodox Jews might learn from and teach religious texts? 

Sacks put his beloved iPad down and looked at me, ready to clarify.

“Can you imagine having a siddur [prayer book] where you’ve got the text,” he said, “You’ve got the translation, you press one button [and] you get the commentaries?” Then added, “You press another button, and you get half a dozen shiurim [lessons] on that paragraph.”

It was Sacks at his most dynamic, blending Western poetry with ancient tradition, rabbinic commentaries with one of Silicon Valley’s proudest inventions. 

I was sitting with the former chief rabbi, his wife, Elaine, and his assistant at a table in the lobby of the Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was the morning of Feb. 23, and I was still absorbing the past four days, during which I had followed Sacks, the unofficial spokesman for Modern Orthodox Jewry, around Los Angeles. 

From Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, he gave 11 lectures to Los Angeles’ Orthodox community, all but one in the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood, as part of a weekend sponsored by Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a local Modern Orthodox school.

[Related: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, met with students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, including Eli Isaacs and Sarina Finn, both eighth-graders and student council presidents at the school. Photo by David Miller

Speaking everyone’s language

Sacks knows how to keep the tone light. 

His first public appearance in Los Angeles was on Feb. 20 at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, joining talk-show host Michael Medved and the head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil, for a panel discussion in front of 300 people. 

As at every event he spoke at during the weekend, he did not shy away from people who sought his attention. Dozens from the audience introduced themselves and wanted to speak with him. 

Like any good rabbi, he started with a joke. He recounted how, upon his appointment as Britain’s chief rabbi at just 43, someone asked him, “Aren’t you a little young for the job?”

His response: “Don’t worry, in this job I’ll age rapidly.” 

His audience that evening was predominantly parents and grandparents, so his leadership message to them was about communal religious leadership. “Make friends with Jews who are less religious than you are — and by lifting them, you yourself will be lifted.”

His speech followed a performance by the Shabbaton Choir, a British choral group that has traveled around the world with the rabbi. As he took the microphone, he expressed his gratitude to the choir and then asked the crowd to give them another round of applause. In fact, during a musical event on Feb. 22 at Congregation Mogen David, he joined the choir in song.

On Feb. 21, Sacks was at the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for three consecutive addresses. He spoke first to grade-school students, then to local political, educational and religious leaders, and, finally, to teens from local Orthodox high schools.

With the children, most of whom may not appreciate for years to come who they were meeting, the rabbi did not change his message; he simply tweaked his delivery and tone. 

“Your young [class] presidents are going to be presidents of the United States one day,” Sacks said as he walked through the aisle that separated the boys from the girls, making eye contact with the young children. “Get to know them now, because one day they are going to be very big stars — and so are all of you.”

A few minutes later, upstairs, Sacks led a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Los Angeles’ political, educational and religious leaders, that notably included a woman rabbi — Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El Synagogue — as well as a Christian clergymember — Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church, illustrating that although Sacks predominantly speaks to Orthodox groups when speaking to Jewish audiences, he does not wish to restrict himself to that relatively small enclave. 

It was, for him, an opportunity to impart a few ideas to the people — Jewish, Christian, secular — who will help shape the next generation of leaders. 

More than 20 people were in the room, and when each said his or her name and position, he looked at them warmly and acknowledged their presence.

“Each one of you is engaged in God’s work,” he said. “The purpose of education is to allow people to achieve their full dignity in the image and likeness of God.” 

Sacks stressed teaching kids how to teach, relating a conversation that he’d had with his late father when he was only 5 years old. 

Walking home from Shabbat services with his father one day, the young boy asked his father to explain certain prayers and Jewish practices. Sacks’ father, who’d dropped out of school at 14 to help support his family, answered:

“Jonathan, I didn’t have an education, so I can’t answer your question. But one day you will have the education I didn’t have. And when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”

By the time he took the podium Saturday morning for his Shabbat address at Beth Jacob Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, nearly 800 people filled the main sanctuary. It was so packed that, so as to not violate fire code, the synagogue had to turn away throngs of people who had hoped to hear the former chief rabbi.  

As he prepared to speak, the anticipation inside was palpable. 

Standing sideways, with his right arm propped on the podium, Sacks glanced toward Beth Jacob’s Senior Rabbi Kalman Topp, then toward the congregation, and said with a smile, “I am going to try very hard to deliver a good speech. Do you know why? Your rabbi promised me that if I do, he will give me a lollipop.” 

The room immediately relaxed as Sacks began to explore his main passion, and something he hadn’t yet spoken of at much length during this visit — the deeper messages hidden in the stories of the Torah.

The week’s portion was Vayakhel. On the surface, the text speaks in detail about the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a portable holy place the Jews built as they wandered in the desert where they could properly worship God. 

It’s a very technical, detailed Torah portion, and Sacks related that in one of his learning sessions with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he had pointed out that while God needed only a few verses in Genesis to create the entire universe, the Torah dedicated five entire portions to the construction of the Tabernacle. Why?

Because, he said, until the Jewish people were given a task to build, a project that called for unity and purpose, they could not possibly lead.

Now 65, Sacks is a London native, but has known America well since the summer of 1968, when, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he came to the United States to meet as many prominent rabbis as he could. With a $100 unlimited Greyhound pass, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles to stay with his now-late aunt in Beverly Hills.  

Based on the recommendations of many rabbis he met, the young Sacks was most eager to meet Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the now-late leader of the Chasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement — who was viewed as religious Judaism’s ambassador until his death in 1994.

That encounter, he’s often said, set him on the path to becoming the leader of two synagogues, the director of the rabbinic faculty at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) and, perhaps just as formative, a philosophy scholar and a lecturer at several secular British universities, including Manchester and Essex. 

Beyond the texts, Sacks demonstrated during his speeches here and in our interview his deep knowledge of non-Jewish philosophy and history — Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, Tocqueville, Locke, Churchill — as well as popular culture. 

Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting in “The West Wing” was “genius,” he told me, and “Gravity” is an “extraordinary film” that demonstrates the existential need for faith.

Bridging Judaism with society

In his 22-year term as chief rabbi, Sacks was far more than a leader for British Orthodox Jewry and the 62-member synagogues, all Orthodox, of the United Hebrew Congregations. He became the bridge between Orthodoxy and British society, publishing 25 books in 24 years, several of which could just as well have been written for non-Jews.

Like many leaders, though, Sacks could never please everyone, on either side of him. Agudath Israel of America, a leadership organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, criticized Sacks following his July 2013 retirement dinner, in which he critiqued what he sees as a trend toward increased insularity within the Orthodox world.

It was a message he repeated in Los Angeles. “There are Jews moving very far away from social engagement, turning inwards,” Sacks told me, choosing his words very carefully. The implication, though, was clear — much of the ultra-Orthodox world is not spreading the Jewish message to the outside world, and that has led to the growth of what he called “aggressively secularized tendencies.”

For the British Jews more liberal than he, Sacks was perceived as beholden to his country’s Charedi community during his tenure. He did not, for example, attend the funeral of prominent British Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and he never attended Limmud, the largest annual interdenominational Jewish education event, now held worldwide and which got its start in London.

In 2012, Sacks signed his name to a joint response from Britain’s rabbinical court to the government, opposing same-sex marriage. In response, 26 prominent British Jews wrote an open letter criticizing Sacks for trying to “influence how the generality of the population leads its life”— somewhat ironic because influencing society, and not just the Jewish community, is one of his main goals.

And yet, even as he openly admires some of Nietzsche’s work, he also has written groundbreaking commentaries on four Orthodox prayer books, for Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to his office, he’s currently working on ones for Sukkot and Shavuot.

And although as chief rabbi, Sacks did not speak on behalf of Britain’s Reform, Conservative or Charedi movements, from a marketing perspective he might as well have been, for British society viewed him as the Jewish spokesman.

As he became Great Britain’s de facto Jewish ambassador, a Sacks brand developed — a polished look for television appearances, a royal-sounding voice for radio broadcasts, a scholarly tone for books and op-eds, and an ability to condense his message into sound bites while rarely making news for saying the wrong thing.

Although he shies away from attracting controversy, Sacks will be outspoken when he feels he must. At a BBC-sponsored debate, Sacks told Dawkins that the beginning of Chapter 2 in the atheist’s book, “The God Delusion,” is a “profoundly anti-Semitic passage.”

In Britain, Sacks was viewed as the face of British Jewry by two groups of people — his natural followers, the Modern Orthodox, and also the politicians and media. His acceptance into the House of Lords as Baron Sacks of Aldgate, and his regular broadcasts and documentaries on BBC, helped inject Torah ideas into the British conversation.

In America, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sacks about Jewish assimilation, the Israeli-Arab conflict, anti-Semitism, the Vatican, Iran and Ariel Sharon — topics with which every Jewish community in the United States has grappled in recent months.

He is quickly climbing to the top of the American media’s speed dial list for interviews on all things Jewish — if he isn’t already there.

During his talk at YINBH, he told a story about one of his core goals — to reach Jews who don’t attend synagogue regularly (which includes 76 percent of American Jewry), teach Jewish things to non-Jews.

So Sacks decided that, as chief rabbi, he would broadcast regularly on BBC Radio. Yes, its audience is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, but, all the better.

“A Jewish guy comes to his office one morning, and the non-Jewish guy who has the office next to him says to him, ‘You know, I heard your chief rabbi on the radio this morning. He’s quite good,’ ” Sacks said at YINBH. “I turned a whole of non-Jewish Britain into an outreach organization for the sake of Judaism!”

The Orthodox ascent?

Sacks’ prediction of an Orthodox ascent in America stems from the October report by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which says that the Orthodox community’s relatively high birth rate and low, or nonexistent, rate of intermarriage could give it a comparative demographic advantage, over time, to both the Conservative and Reform movements.

“It has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing,” Sacks said. Based on Modern Orthodoxy’s current position in American Jewry, Sacks’ prediction sounds a bit, well, optimistic. 

According to the Pew survey, only 11 percent of Jews in America identify as Orthodox, and only 3 percent as Modern Orthodox. In other words, Sacks is predicting that a minority within a sliver of American Judaism may hold, within 25 years, the mantle of influence.

A second Pew analysis, however, shows that Orthodoxy is gaining ground on Conservative and Reform Jewry — very quickly. Twenty-seven percent of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox homes, and as sociologist Steven M. Cohen told the Forward in November, “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” while the non-Orthodox has been losing 10,000.

Therefore, Sacks calls upon the Orthodox movement to prepare as if it will soon inherit American Judaism’s mantle, so that its members will know how to lead on a mass scale and not just in yeshivas or at Shabbat morning sermons.

“The non-Orthodox Jewish world always had a strong sense of tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Sacks told me. “What I’ve tried to show is we in the Orthodox world can have that sense as well.”

“We’ve got a technical glitch”

Mesopotamian cuneiform, Chinese ideograms, Linear B — Sacks was more philosopher than rabbi as he delivered a short keynote address at Harkham Hillel’s gala at the Universal City Hilton, offering a call to Orthodoxy’s leadership to use technology to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to make learning more interesting for Jewish children.

Today, he said, we are living through an information revolution, inaugurated by “Steve Jobs [coming] down the mountain with the two tablets, the iPad and the iPad Mini.”

In fact, he related, on the morning the iPad was released, Jan. 27, 2010, Sacks walked into his London office and told one of his assistants, “This is the game changer.”

When sitting with me, Sacks asked if I could wait a moment as he showed off some of his favorite Jewish iPad apps. “I hear God knocking at our door saying, ‘Use Me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread My message,’ ” Sacks said

“Let’s have a look at this week’s parsha [Torah portion],” he said as he played with an app that serves as a type of Wikipedia for Jewish texts. “Touch that, here are the mefarshim [Torah commentaries].”

And then, Orthodoxy’s challenge stared us in the face.

The app froze. 

“We’ve got a technical glitch,” Sacks said humorously, referring to his app — or was he speaking about the Orthodox movement? 

“It took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills,” Sacks said. “We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.”

And beyond creating operational iPad apps, Sacks wants Orthodox Jews to act more like, well, him — using mass media to communicate.

Of course, in America, the decentralized nature of Judaism — there is no chief rabbi — makes it difficult for any one person to spread his religious ideology. That’s why Sacks believes observant Jews should work with Hollywood.

“I would so love to see a film not just about how Jews died, but how Jews live, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough of those,” Sacks said, a message that recurred in several of his Los Angeles appearances. 

Speaking at YINBH, he even let the audience in on one of his script ideas — a film on the life of Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman — and said, only half-jokingly, that he would love to see someone in the room help turn his idea into a film.

Less power, more influence

As he adjusts to a career in which he no longer has the power of chief rabbi, he seems to believe his new role may allow him more influence. 

Perhaps that is why issues of leadership seem to make its way into most of his work these days.

Every week, Jews across the world receive an e-mail from his office titled “Covenant & Conversation” containing his weekly essay on the Torah, written in English but also translated into Hebrew and Portuguese.

In it, he weaves together biblical narrative with a historical, philosophical and scientific framework — Oxford meets Yeshiva University. This year, he decided, each essay will center around one theme — leadership. 

In Britain, Sacks showed that to influence a society, leaders must work with the followers they are given, and not compromise on core principles for the sake of adding fans. 

In America, he suggested that a window of opportunity is opening up — a window that will allow America’s Modern Orthodox movement to inject Torah values into mainstream American culture, as he has tried to do in Britain. 

And whether the predicted Orthodox ascent comes to pass, and whether Sacks’ insistence on preparation for leadership pays off, he is giving something to American Orthodox Jewry, something that perhaps no one else can deliver quite as well — a clear, passionate and hopeful 25-year advance warning. 

Down-to-Earth Sinai: Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

I just returned from a four-day alumni retreat for rabbis and cantors who had taken part in an Institute for Jewish Spirituality program designed to deepen our own spiritual commitments. During this two-year program we studied Chasidic texts in a weekly telephone chavruta and participated in four amazing weeklong retreats that included powerful davening, intense study, yoga, meditation and a lot of silence.

Attending the alumni retreat was a gift, a blessing, a spiritual high. And because it was the week of Yitro, we focused on being at Mount Sinai. We remembered what we all learned on Mount Sinai — that Torah was given out of silence. As a midrash teaches: “When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed. … The sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. The universe was silent and mute. And the voice came forth: ‘I am YHVH your God.’ ”

It took me three days to clear the clutter from my mind so I could really listen to the Torah that I needed to hear at this moment in my life. Silent meals helped me pay attention to gratitude; the silence of meditation opened my heart to the intensity of innovative prayer led by colleagues. I had time to write in my journal; things that were confusing became clearer. I even had a few epiphanies.

And then I came home. 

I listened to my voicemail. I stopped at the market to buy food for supper. I checked my e-mail. I went back to the office to meet with a bat mitzvah student. I was stunned at how quickly the high faded and life went back to normal. 

That’s what this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is about. Last week we were at Mount Sinai, a spiritual trip so powerful that, according to Torah, every one of us had an out-of-body experience where we saw the thunder and heard the lightning. Last week, we each had an experience of God, hearing God speak to us out of the silence. And what did we hear? All of Torah? The Ten Commandments? Just the first two? Just the first word? Just the first letter of the first word — the silent alef? Whatever we heard, it was powerful enough to change our lives. 

And yet look where we are now: Mishpatim, one of the longest portions in Torah, with more than 50 different mitzvot, including laws related to murder, kidnapping, personal injury, property damage, returning lost objects, helping the poor, alleviating the suffering of animals. After the spiritual high of Mount Sinai, all the details of daily life intervene. It seems as though Mount Sinai and Mishpatim belong to different universes.

But Jewish tradition teaches us that it is all one universe. We need the spiritual high of Sinai, and we need to remember that it exists to enable us to live in the real world. Jewish spirituality is not only about silent retreats and meditation but also — and even more important — it is about grappling in the real world of offices, kitchens, e-mail and even bedrooms, the real world of how people treat each other. 

That’s why our Torah portion begins: “V’aleh h’Mishpatim” “and these are the laws which you shall set before them.”

Rashi asks: “Why does it start with ‘V’aleh, and these’?” His answer is that all these laws are linked to the Ten Commandments. They all come from God at Mount Sinai.

A Chasidic commentary goes one step further and asks: What does “before them” mean? The answer? These mundane laws of how people should treat each other, of how to organize a civil society, are so important that you set them before the laws about behavior between people and God. 

That is Jewish spirituality. That is what Mount Sinai is about: creating a world where people are responsible for each other, are careful about what we say about each other, and work to create a society based on a vision of justice and empathy.

Toward the end of Mishpatim, after all the details and all the laws, God calls Moses: “Aleh Elai He-hara V’heyeh Sham,” “Come up to me to the mountain and be there … and I will give you the tablets of stone, the Torah and the commandments which I have written that you might teach them” (Exodus 24:12). 

Menachem Mendel of Kotzk raised a question: If Moses went up to the mountain, of course he would be there, so why does Torah add, “And be there”?

It is there to remind us what we already learned at Mount Sinai. Whatever we do, in the sublime and in the mundane dimensions of our life, we need to be there. We need to bring our whole self into the experience. We need to be present, to pay attention, to hold on to those moments of insight and clarity and translate them into concrete daily life.

That is how we bring the heights of Sinai down to earth. That is Jewish spirituality.

Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org). For more information about the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, visit jewishspirituality.org.

Blind Spot: Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)

“Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the entire earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:30). 

If Isaiah is correct, with every step we take, with every breath we draw, we cannot help but encounter God’s glory. And yet who among us is constantly aware of this fact, this daily miracle? 

Lack of awareness of the divine is a unique human flaw. It is both a curse and a blessing — a curse, because we are constantly missing holiness, blind to its astounding beauty; and a blessing, because perpetual awareness would render us speechless and paralyzed.  

Parshat Vayeshev challenges us to examine our own flawed awareness of holiness through Joseph’s journey and through the words and deeds of Jacob and his sons, who find themselves at the turning point of their lives. Through them all, we find ourselves at the axis of our history as a people. 

At the very onset of Vayeshev, Joseph takes over the narrative from his father, Jacob. The second verse of the parasha states: “Eleh toldot Yaakov Yossef ben Sh’va essre Shanna” (This is the story of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old”) (Genesis 37:2). There is no break between Jacob and Joseph, as though Jacob flows into and becomes Joseph; as though Joseph is the essence of Jacob; his raison d’etre. We are to understand that the resolution of our story depends on Joseph.

Vayeshev challenges the blindness of the unaware: the blindness of those who will not see the hope and beauty of the future shining through the mundane veil that is their present reality. The blindness of Jacob, who did not see his own father, was not blind when he stole the blessing intended for his brother, Esau; Jacob, who does not see the beauty and the depth in the soft eyes of his first wife, Leah; Jacob, who, in spite of repeated divine visions and promises, does not see that God will always protect him.

This is the parasha of the older brothers who are blind to the gift of their younger brother, choosing instead to see only the annoying, spoiled brat before them, recognizing not a hint of his future greatness.

Vayeshev stands in total opposition to its title. “Vayeshev Yaakov” (“And Jacob sat”), so begins our parasha; Jacob settled. But there is no settling, no sitting, no rest in this parasha; it is a parasha of constant movement. This is the parasha of yerida l’tzorech aliya (descending for the sake of ascending). Joseph descends three times — once, when his brothers throw him into the pit; once when the Ishmaelites take him down to Egypt; and, finally, in Egypt, when he is thrown into the jail pit through no fault of his own. Each time, however, he is raised up again a better Joseph, destined for a better life. 

Judah, Joseph’s older brother, descends three times, both spiritually and physically, when he travels to the Dead Sea, taking for himself a Canaanite wife; then, again, when he wrongs his daughter-in-law, Tamar, banishing her to her father’s house and denying her offspring because he believes her to have caused his sons’ deaths; and, finally, when he sleeps with Tamar, assuming her to be a prostitute. Judah is finally redeemed through Tamar, who reveals her true identity, awakening Judah to his own blindness.

Vayeshev is the parasha of the birth of hope amid despair: the despair of Jacob, who believes his beloved Joseph to have been devoured by a beast; and the despair of Judah, who loses two sons. 

We have all been in dark places, whether physical, financial, spiritual, mental or even existential; places in which it is exceedingly hard to be aware of anything divine, holy or beautiful. We can all relate to Jacob’s darkest moment; we can relate to Judah’s misplaced fear for his last surviving son; we can certainly relate to the jealousy and irritation the brothers feel toward Joseph. But Vayeshev offers us redemption, showing us the birth of light and hope at the very darkest hour.

Vayeshev offers us hope by correcting our vision. Vayeshev helps us to become aware of God’s glory through Joseph’s tormented journey toward greatness — Joseph, who will eventually save the children of Israel by bringing them down to the safety and bounty of Egypt. Vayeshev takes us along Jacob’s journey from depression toward elation when he will finally meet his Joseph again. Finally, Vayeshev shows us that even our lowest moment can eventually lead to redemption, for King David — our greatest king, from whose house Mashiach will come — is the offspring of that dark liaison between Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah.

Indeed, God’s glory does fill the entire earth, but sometimes we need a dreamer like Joseph to help us become aware of it.

Danny Maseng is chazzan and music director at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.

No faith, no Jewish future

In my last column, I suggested a number of reasons for the rise of Orthodox Judaism and the decline in membership among non-Orthodox denominations. 

In this column, I would like to discuss one important reason that often goes unnoted.

That reason is faith — not only faith in God, but specifically faith that the Torah represents the word of God. 

“Represents the word of God” does not necessarily mean that God dictated every word to Moses. Nor does it necessarily imply any specific form of divine communication. How the Torah came to be is an entirely different question from whether it ultimately comes from God. 

Having taught the Torah much of my life, I am well aware that there are challenging, even difficult, parts of the Torah. However, in almost every case, with intellectual honesty coupled with a belief in the divinity of the Torah, those difficulties can be surmounted. 

Take the often-cited example of the law demanding that a son who will not listen to either his father or mother and who is “a stubborn and rebellious glutton and drunk” be stoned.

As it turns out, this law was one of the most morally elevating laws in mankind’s history. By stipulating that the son must be taken to a court and that only the court can execute him, and that the son had to revile both his mother and father, the law permanently took away the right of a father to kill his child. 

This was likely a first in human history. Throughout the world, as in the Code of Hammurabi, children were the property of their father — who was, therefore, allowed to kill his child. The Torah law ended that. Moreover, it is unlikely that one son in Jewish history was ever stoned by a Jewish court. On the contrary, thanks to the Torah, Jewish family life was the most peaceful in every society in which Jews lived. Would that those who in believe in “honor killings” today had inherited such a law in their holy works.

Whatever the difficulties moderns may have with believing that the Torah is divine, the difficulties with believing that the Torah is just a creation of men are far greater.

Of course, many Jews who don’t believe in the divinity of the Torah — or even in the God of the Torah — feel Jewish and some are deeply devoted to the Jewish people. Indeed, it was secular Jews, not Orthodox Jews, who founded Israel. But over the course of a few generations, without belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah coming from God, most Jews will gradually leave Judaism and eventually the Jewish people.

Take Shabbat observance as an example. There are excellent rational, non-God-based  reasons to observe the Shabbat. But the reason the vast majority of Jews who do not work on Shabbat (or on the Torah’s other holy days) refrain from work is that we believe God commanded us to. Over a few generations, those who believe that men wrote the commandment to observe the Shabbat will eventually abandon it. But those who believe that God gave the commandment will not.

Similarly, if one does not believe that the Jews were slaves in Egypt, let alone that God took the Jews out of Egypt, one can be a committed Jew and even celebrate Passover. But over time it strains credulity to believe that generation after generation of Jews will celebrate an event they don’t believe ever happened. They may celebrate family time together at a seder, but not Judaism.

The centrality of belief in a God-given Torah obviously challenges most non-Orthodox Jews. But it should also challenge many Orthodox Jews. 

Many Orthodox Jews think that observance of halachah, more than faith, is what ensures Jewish survival. Every yeshiva student is taught the famous line from the Midrash: “It would be better that the Jews abandoned Me [God] but kept my commandments.”

But Conservative Judaism provides a nearly perfect refutation of this idea. Many Conservative rabbis in the past, and many today, have led thoroughly halachic lives, virtually indistinguishable from many modern Orthodox rabbis. If halachah is what keeps Jews alive, the Conservative movement should not be in decline — and it should certainly attract more Jews than Reform, the least halachic of the major denominations. 

Furthermore, if halachah is the single most important thing to the Orthodox, why has Orthodoxy been so opposed to Conservative Judaism and to Conservative rabbis who have been scrupulously halachic? The answer is that the Conservative movement dropped belief in a God-given Torah. (Jewish Theological Seminary Web site: “The Torah is the foundation text of Judaism … not because it is divine, but because it is sacred, that is, adopted by the Jewish people as its spiritual font.”) And it is that, not lesser observance of halachah, that is the primary reason for Conservative Judaism’s decline. 

Judaism cannot just be a commitment to the Jewish people, love of Israel or even just ritual observance. As important as each is, none will ensure Jewish survival as much as belief — belief in the God of the Torah and in the Torah of God.

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).

The wells of peace: Parashat Toldot (Genesis 25:19-28:9)

Wells, water, history and peace. Seems like as much as the world changes, advances and develops, some things remain intact, remain essential to our future. In the midst of this week’s parasha, Toldot, within the stories of familial strife among Isaac, Rebecca and their twin sons, Jacob and Esau, in between the pain, we have a scene that brings hope, if not for the immediate pain of the Torah’s story, then for the future, perhaps for us today.

Like his father before him, Isaac has to deal with a famine; like his father before him, Isaac is blessed with material wealth and success; like his father before him, Isaac lies about his wife being his sister; like his father before him, he has interactions with Abimelech of Gerar, the Philistine king. And like his father before him, Isaac digs wells, seeking water, which despite what anyone tells us to the contrary, is still the most valued commodity in the Middle East. I have become fascinated by these interactions of Abraham and Isaac with Abimelech, as they both end in peaceful ways, with enemies able to reconcile differences and strike an accord. In our parasha, Isaac “digs anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Genesis 26:18). One of the lessons that our tradition gleans from this verse is that connecting to our history, our past, is crucial to our present and future. Isaac digs the same wells as Abraham — not only that, he gives them the same names as Abraham did, restoring a connection that had been lost after Abraham’s death. 

How do we identify, relate to and engage with those people, places and sacred objects that came before us? This verse, and this whole story, in a way, reminds us that as we pass from one generation to the next, we are called to retain through memory and intention a connection to that which came before us. It is a holy balance to live in the tension between creating anew and retaining tradition, between innovation that disassociates from the past and innovation that builds upon the past. By naming the wells with the same name, Isaac is validating what his father created, honoring that creation even as he tries to make his generation connected anew. That is the history.

And now for the peace. The Torah says that Isaac’s workers found a “b’air mayyim chayyim, a well of living water.” The added word of “chayyim” gives the Talmud an opening for a midrashic understanding of this verse: “Rabbi Hanina says, ‘One who sees a well in a dream sees peace,’ as it says, ‘and Isaac’s workers found a well of living water’ ” (Berachot 56b). Water has long been associated with peace, one of the natural elements of creation. Torah itself is also known as a ‘well of living water,’ as the same talmudic passage goes on to say. What can we learn from this? In a commentary on this verse, Torah Temimah explains what it means that if one sees a well in a dream, one sees peace. He writes, “The new well, which Isaac dug, could not be re-established and give water until Isaac had made peace with Abimelech.” After a negative experience with Abimelech, Isaac leaves the main area and retreats to the wadi of Gerar, as Abraham had also done. The men of Gerar continue to struggle with Isaac’s workers over the wells. It is not until there is reconciliation between Abimelech and Isaac that the word “shalom” appears, twice, in describing the pact between them (Genesis 26:29, 31). There is an honest dialogue, an acknowledgement of each other’s humanity, a festive meal and words of peace. It is then that the news of water from a new well comes forth. Isaac names that well “Sheva,” and the area is again named Be’er Sheva, as it was in the time of Abraham. Old wells and new wells of water revolve around oaths of peace. 

Wells, water, history, peace. As I said at the beginning, in the midst of familial strife, when bad decisions lead to ominous and continued quarrels, Isaac is seen in this passage as an ish shalom, a man of peace. He finds a way, over water, to make peace. As the Talmud teaches us, when we dream of a well of water, we are dreaming of peace. Let the dreams of water flow! Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (

Why Orthodoxy is growing

As almost every Jew knows by now, according to major reports on American Jewry — such as the most recent and most highly regarded Pew report — Orthodoxy is growing, while Conservative and Reform Judaism are shrinking. 

Before presenting my explanations, I think it important to note that I have no denominational ax to grind. I was raised Orthodox, and went to yeshivas through the end of high school. But I left Orthodoxy early in life and have always been involved in Jewish life — Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, Chabad, Jewish federations and writing for Jewish publications.

In a nutshell, I wish all Jewish endeavors well.

I believe that Orthodoxy is prevailing and that the non-Orthodox denominations are diminishing for the following reasons:

First, Orthodoxy makes more religious demands on its followers (and they are demands, not suggestions). Orthodoxy demands strict religious ritual observance — at the very least, Shabbat, kashrut, daily prayers with tefillin (for men), and regular attendance at synagogue on Shabbat and all the holidays (how many non-Orthodox Jews can even identify Shemini Atzeret, as much a Torah holy day as Passover?). 

I can cite a personal example to prove this point. Non-Orthodox Jews nearly always assume that I am an Orthodox Jew when they learn that I do not broadcast on Shabbat or on any of the Torah holidays. If many Reform and Conservative Jews took all those days off from work — as the Torah demands — few Jews would make that assumption. (I do broadcast on yom tov sheni, the rabbinically added day for Jews outside of Israel.)

Like all other religions (with the prominent exception of Protestant Christianity), Judaism has not been able to survive without ritual observance. 

Second, the more Orthodox one is, the more he or she is likely to live among Orthodox Jews. One’s entire social life (outside of work) revolves around fellow Orthodox Jews. That makes it, to put it gently, very difficult to leave Orthodoxy. If you do, you are likely to lose your whole support system and probably most of your friends, as well. You may even risk alienating your family.

Third, the great majority of Orthodox Jews send their children to Orthodox Jewish day schools — usually through high school. The Orthodox child rarely has close non-Orthodox, let alone non-Jewish, friends, thereby reinforcing Orthodoxy both experientially and socially from the earliest age.

Fourth, more Orthodox Jews marry; they marry younger, and they have more children than non-Orthodox Jews. Among other reasons, many non-Orthodox Jews bought the nihilistic nonsense — and the Jewish dead end — of the zero population growth movement. And fewer and fewer of them believe that marriage and children are mandatory. On the contrary, many consider a successful career at least as fulfilling as marriage and family. It would be instructive to conduct a poll among non-Orthodox young Jewish women, asking them this question: “Would you rather have a great marriage and family or a great career?” 

I have asked this of many young Jewish women, and at least half have responded that they would choose the great career. Just this week the Huffington Post published a column titled, “6 Reasons Never to Get Married.” The author? A woman named Leah Cohen.

It is hard to get further from Judaism and imperil Jewish survival than having Jewish women value career more than, or even as much as, marriage and children.

Fifth, as if all of the above were not enough, Orthodox Jews believe God chose the Jews and is the ultimate author of the Torah. Very few non-Orthodox Jews believe God is the author of the Torah; but it is inconceivable that Judaism can long survive among Jews who do not believe that God created the world, took the Jews out of Egypt and gave the Torah.

Sixth, Israel is central to almost all Orthodox Jews. Incredibly, and tragically, it is increasingly peripheral to many other Jews. 

Seventh, the further from Orthodox Judaism one gets, the more one is likely to adopt leftism/progressivism as one’s moral code and worldview. Just as the Orthodox Jew is steeped in Judaism from the earliest years, most non-Orthodox Jews are steeped in leftism at home and in school from elementary through graduate school. How else to explain the phenomenon of young women thinking career will give their lives as much or more meaning than marriage and family? How else to explain the alienation from Israel among so many non-Orthodox Jews?

I write none of this to make the case for Orthodoxy. I find most of the reasons admirable and a few disturbing. But truth is truth. Any one of the seven reasons would suffice to explain why Orthodoxy is increasing and non-Orthodoxy isn’t. All seven make the case incontrovertible.

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).

In the face of strangers: Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)

This week’s Torah portion begins: “YHVH appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent … looking up, he saw: behold, three men standing opposite him. As soon as he saw them he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them, and bowing down to the ground he said: ‘Adonai, if I have found favor in your sight, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under that tree.’ ” 

This verse is the proof text for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Abraham — still recovering from his circumcision surgery! — gets up, welcomes these guests, makes them comfortable and feeds them. We learn in the Talmud that hachnasat orchim is one of the activities that benefit us not only in this world but also in the World to Come. However one might understand the idea of the World to Come, there seems to be the suggestion that a big tent is a kind of heaven.

Later, we discover that these guests are angels who have come to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child. But Abraham doesn’t seem to know they are angels. To him, they are just three strangers. He calls them Adonai (My Lords, Sirs). Rashi offers a different interpretation of why Abraham calls them Adonai. Rashi imagines that Abraham was in the middle of praying when he noticed the strangers. So Abraham says: “Adonai, God, excuse me for a moment while I tend to these strangers.” In other words, the moment the strangers appeared, he interrupts his prayer to welcome these strangers and to take care of their needs. 

Paying attention to strangers, welcoming guests and caring for their needs appears to be even more important than talking to God!

Abraham is the living embodiment of his tent. The Midrash tells us Abraham designed his tent intentionally to be open on all four sides — open to every stranger passing by from any direction in the desert. Abraham has an open heart and an open hand. He is not content to wait for guests, but rather seeks them out, runs to greet them, brings them inside and takes care of them. 

The first blessing of the Amidah ends with the words: “Baruch Ata Adonai, Magen Avraham — Holy One of Blessing, the Shield of Abraham.” Traditional commentary interprets this first blessing as our presenting our credentials before God. “Hello, God,” we are saying, “you might not know me very well but you remember my parents, don’t you? I am the child of Abraham and Sarah. Remember them? Remember all that they did? Remember all you did for them? You are the One who helped Sarah and protected Abraham. You were the shield of Abraham, remember? For their sake, could you do the same for me?” 

But Chasidic commentary reads the prayer differently. It suggests that when we call God Magen Avraham, we are asking God to shield the “Abraham” inside of us — to protect the dimension of us willing to see God’s face in the faces of strangers. We are asking God’s help to protect the part of us that wants to have an open heart and to be an open tent. That part of us needs protection because it is so very fragile and perhaps not instinctive.

It is hard to see God’s face in the face of strangers. It is even hard for us in our synagogues to look up from our own prayer books and notice newcomers; to stop what we’re doing and make them feel welcome. How much harder is it to invite them to sit with us at the Kiddush, or to invite them home for Shabbat dinner? Ron Wolfson argues that the first step in creating sacred communities is establishing a “welcoming ambience” for newcomers and spiritual seekers. Imagine what a synagogue would be like if it were really a place of “radical hospitality,” a genuine Abraham’s tent!

And as hard as this might be, it is easy compared to seeing God’s face in the faces of those who do not come to our synagogues — all those people who really are strangers, people we don’t usually interact with, or people who serve us, but remain largely invisible: undocumented immigrants, people from different backgrounds or of a different economic status.

Those biblical strangers turned out to be angels. But Abraham only discovered this truth by welcoming them in and taking care of them. Imagine the angels we could meet if we could shield the Abraham in each of us. 

Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills (tebh.org).

Each day is a choice: Parashat Bereshit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)

Only a couple of weeks ago, we were all feeling the holiness of Yom Kippur. By the end of the day of fasting, beautiful music, insightful teachings and prayers that deepened our self-awareness, we were remembering the real priorities in life. We had committed — to ourselves and God — how we would act this coming year. This year, we would be more spiritual, religious, conscious, awake, righteous or whatever term we each personally used.

So what happened?

Let’s be honest: In only a few days, most of us have already started to go back to our old patterns. The self-reflective process of the High Holy Days has been overshadowed by the daily grind and the same habits that were present before the Days of Awe. But the Torah cycle gives us a key so we don’t remain locked in the patterns we committed to changing.

Bereshit (“in/from the beginning”), the first word of not only this week’s portion but of the entire Torah, has probably generated more commentaries throughout the ages than any other single word. But there is also a deep and simple reminder that the parasha gives us at this time of year through the relationship between the Torah reading and the calendar cycle.

Our calendar has brilliance in it. Just as we are starting to let go of the holy possibilities we each recognize during the Days of Awe and fall back into our old ways, we are reminded that everything can be made new. The Torah ends with the last verses of Deuteronomy, and now, just as we are starting to drift away from the focus on the spiritual and ethical commitments we made to ourselves on Yom Kippur, we are reminded that everything can begin again. Even though the Torah ends, she starts right back up with the teachings about Creation. Similarly, even though we may feel stuck in the patterns of our past, we are reminded that we, too, can change and create ourselves anew, filling the world with our own light. We can and need to go back to the beginning.

That’s really the key: to go back to our beginnings. Why did we originally choose to become the doctor, lawyer, rabbi, businessman? Why did our soul make the choices it did so long ago, and how far have we strayed from our path in this journey of life? I know so many rabbis who went into the clergy to help people, but out of necessity have become professional fundraisers; so many doctors who originally just wanted to heal people, but who have become shackled by their own financial success and rarely interact with patients anymore. It doesn’t matter the profession; we find it everywhere: the civil servant who no longer has time to help people because he must deal with political pressures, the teacher who has forgotten the joy of teaching and is waiting for her pension, the lawyer who no longer cares about pursuing justice; the list goes on and on. This parasha comes at this time to remind us that we can always go back to our beginnings and recommit ourselves to living in a way that is deep and reflective of the highest desires of our souls: the potential life that we became aware of during Yom Kippur.

We read in this portion, “It was evening, it was morning, one day” (Genesis 1:5). Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 3:8 tells us that “it was evening” are the deeds of the wicked, and “it was morning” are the deeds of the righteous. Rabbi Yechezkel Taub, the Kuzmir Rebbe (1755-1856) taught that the distance between a good person and an evil person is just one day. It’s only one day, he teaches, because deep down the bad person also wants to be good. Each day is a choice to embrace the good person we saw as our potential on Yom Kippur; or a day to choose that we don’t have the strength to be better, the will to be righteous.

This parasha reminds us of our choices. Do we choose to fall back into old ways or strive on this day to create the person we saw we can be? Can we remember our soul’s true path and tikkun? Can we create inside ourselves the behavior that we need to become the ethical, spiritual, righteous person that we seek to be?

May we all find ourselves re-created into the best versions of ourselves that we perceived during the Days of Awe, and all make today be the day that we choose to create holiness in our own lives.

Rabbi Michael Barclay is the spiritual leader of The New Shul of Conejo (newshul.net) and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press, 2013). He can be reached at RabbiBarclay@aol.com.

High Holy Days: Chanting Torah for mom

“But what are you chanting for?” the woman cutting my hair wanted to know. She didn’t mean the glory of God or even my own spiritual well-being. It turned out she had once belonged to a 1970s church that chanted for things like shoes and better jobs. But when I am standing on the bimah on Rosh Hashanah, before the 1,500 or so people who fill the sanctuary at Temple Israel of Hollywood, I confess I ask myself the same question. I look down at the open Torah scroll, feeling certain that I have never seen these black letters before; the only thing I can think of is the old saying that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully. I hear the congregation settle. Someone coughs. And then, because everyone is waiting and the little silver yad sits pointing to a letter, there is nothing but for it to begin. Amen, four steps. Open the throat and let the mind slip in to the other place, where the shapes have meanings and the meanings are sounds. Then the whole world becomes the scroll, its faintly golden color a source of light, and the whole crowded sanctuary seems focused on the words I am giving my voice to. The moment of being just voice, of giving myself to the words, the experience of it is frightening but exhilarating. It is a unique kind of surrender. 

It is the start of Elul as I write this. Time to take stock, to look back and prepare for the Days of Awe and to take out the verses I am going to chant this year. Because I read Hebrew more or less letter by letter, I have to do a lot of preparation. When I was first asked to chant for the big Rosh Hashanah service, my mother offered to help me. This was in some way absurd since she was raised as a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, and knew no Hebrew, much less any trope. But she could hear me. She knew my voice. She could hear when I was true to the text and when my attention wandered. “One more time,” she would insist. And then, “Oh, that was beautiful,” when it was. It was something we did together, by phone, until she developed dementia and moved to Los Angeles. The first September she was here, I had to bring my pages of the tikkun to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where she was recovering from a fall. Chanting in front of her and the nurses really tested my courage.

I came to chanting Torah by accident. Before I began to study trope, I hadn’t sung alone in front of people since tryouts for a high school production of “South Pacific.” At my adult bat mitzvah, there were so many of us that no one got more than a verse or two to chant. It wasn’t until my friend and cantor Aviva Rosenbloom was about to leave Temple Israel that I signed up for whatever she was teaching, and it turned out to be this — this ancient practice.

Two months ago, after a decade of slow decline, my mom passed away. It might have occurred to me to say no when my rabbi, John Rosove, wrote to ask if I would chant again this Rosh Hashanah. But I did not. I’ve been a member of his congregation for all my Jewish life. We’ve known each other since our youngest children were babies. When my mother died, Rabbi Rosove led shivah services at my house. About my chanting this year without my mother, he wrote to me, “I’ll be beside you.” 

Last year, my mother was with me at the smaller second-day service to hear me chant. The verses were about Sara’s pregnancy and her joy, about the son she calls laughter because — and here the trope trills in lovely rising notes — everyone will laugh with her. 

Getting my mom settled in the chapel, finding a place for her wheelchair and trying to explain what was going on was complicated. Sometimes she was heartbreakingly present, oftentimes bitterly confused. It was hard to tell what she could hear or see or understand. When I got up to chant, I wasn’t thinking about the possibility that this might be the last time she would be there, listening to me. 

We said the blessing. I looked down at the unfamiliar, unpunctuated Hebrew letters, waiting for them to become words, trying to focus, to be present in this moment instead of worrying about what my mother was going to do or say or what was going to happen to her or me. I began. Amen. And then the words I had practiced and practiced with her took over. When I looked up again, it was done and she was there, her eyes closed, smiling, pleased in her very particular way, careful not to make too much of my success. As if it was what she had always expected from me. 

If there is an answer to my hairdresser’s question, it is probably this: I always long for the moment when I can step outside of the tangle of everyday worry and fear to feel the one-ness, the truth that we are all small parts of a large mystery — me, the scroll, my mom, the words and the letters that begin it all. 

High Holy Days: Eating Holy

Here in Pico-Robertson, we’re bracing ourselves for the annual onslaught of kosher calories known as the Holy Month.

Some people think that this time of year calls for only a few big meals. Not quite. If you’re a stickler for tradition, the actual number of Thanksgiving-level meals over the next month is closer to — I’m not kidding — about 18. And that’s not even counting the Yom Kippur pre-fast and break-the-fast meals.

Trust me, I did the math.

Right off the bat, we start with six big ones in a row, as this year the first two days of Rosh Hashanah (four meals) lead right into the two big meals of Shabbat. And, just when you think you’ve recovered, a little over a week later comes the holiday of Sukkot, which also runs into Shabbat, with another six Thanksgiving-style specials.

But here’s the real killer. If you follow tradition, there’s what are called “the second holidays.” Food-wise, this basically means that during the last two days of Sukkot (again followed by Shabbat), you’re right back to the brisket-and-sweet-potato marathon, with another six supersize meals in a row.

That’s a grand total of 18 opportunities to malign your intestines as you celebrate godliness and spiritual renewal.

So, to help relieve all this caloric heaviness, I thought I’d muse this week on the lighter side of holiday rituals in my haimish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

First, I’ve noticed over the years a certain obsession with soup, especially among Ashkenazim. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten in an Ashkenazi home for Shabbat, or any holiday meal, without being served something hot and liquidy. Ashkenazim also love, by the way, those tiny yellow cracker things they throw in the soup — I’m assuming to add a little crunch to the slurp.

It’s not that I don’t like soup. It’s just that soup often reminds me of those depressing black-and-white British movies with kids in boarding schools who slurp without saying a word. 

That’s the other thing — slurping. Not my favorite melody. If and when I hear it, I usually bring up the name Barack Obama, so that the heated discussion that follows will drown out any slurping sound. 

Another quirk of holiday eating is how long it can take to complete the silent ritual of blessing, slicing, salting and distributing the challah. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, there is a tradition not to speak after you do the ritual washing of the hands and before HaMotzi (blessing over bread.)

That silence can last a century.

Just imagine a whole bunch of grown-ups sitting around a long table studying every move of the host as he carefully and methodically works his magic on the challah. No one is saying a word. All eyes are fixated on a loaf of bread, everyone in some kind of holy trance.

One way to get around that uncomfortable silence is to quickly throw a piece of challah to the table’s best shmoozer. That way, he or she can entertain the table while the rest of us are still in our challah trance.

Speaking of entertaining, you never know when the host will ask if you have any words of Torah you want to share. This can get nerve-wracking. I always try to have something ready in case I’m asked, but if the wine flows too freely, those perfectly crafted words of Torah that took me hours to prepare can easily flow out of my brain.

A question I’ve never been able to answer when I invite someone is, “Can I bring anything?” What should I say? Lamb and couscous for 20? A turnip soufflé? Seriously, the whole point of my family hosting is that we want to take care of everything — food included!

Of course, it’s perfectly polite to bring a little something — such as wine, flowers or even a dessert — but then, why ask? 

I’m sure there’s something I’m missing about this local custom, so if I’m offending anyone, please let me know, and I can suggest exactly what to bring to my house next time you come over for Shabbat. (A bottle of Covenant Cabernet Sauvignon 2010?)

A hot issue at the end of every holiday meal is whether to do the melodious or quiet version of the bentsching (the long blessing after the meal). The melodious version takes a little longer, since you sing it all the way through, but because that melody can get somewhat annoying, most people now just sing the fun short intro (the one we all learned in summer camp) and give the rest the silent mumbling treatment.

Attention, all Jewish musicians — please work on a better bentsching melody.

Frankly, though, I’m not sure that would help. By the time the end of the meal rolls around — especially if we’re nearing the end of the Holy Month of 18 Epic Meals — most of us are thinking less about melodies than about antacids.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Shabbat with a side of Pastrami

As twilight approached on yet another gorgeous Southern California day, a cantor led a service bursting with guitar and dance. The room was packed with daveners, and kids circled a table, the youngest ones carrying Torah scrolls. 

While this might be de rigueur at many synagogues on a Friday night, it’s not usually on the menu at local delicatessens — except at Lenny’s. Since May, the new Lenny’s Deli, which earlier this year replaced Junior’s on Westwood Boulevard, has been hosting Shabbat gatherings.

Billed as “Lenny’s Friday Night Shabbat Room,” the restaurant has devoted a rear chamber (something resembling a glass-windowed conference room) to weekly Shabbat services. Rabbi Jerry Cutler leads them once a month, with the rest being conducted by Cantor Estherleon Schwartz.

“Everyone is inquisitive,” owner Lenny Rosenberg told the Journal, chuckling. “’What’s going on in that room?’ They think it’s a mystical event.”

Not only non-Jews show up but, to Rosenberg’s constant surprise, lapsed Jews who have no idea what the Sabbath tradition is all about. (Reservations are required.)

At one such evening on Aug. 2, Schwartz, 72, led a lively service of 30 attendees who prayed while other diners nonchalantly nibbled on their French dip sandwiches and sipped their matzah ball soup. The rest of the restaurant didn’t bat a collective eye as, at one point, younger participants during the service activated flashing rings and blew giant soap bubbles.

“They’re my Shabbat Power Rangers,” Schwartz said. 

Professionally, the goal for Schwartz, a child survivor of the Holocaust, has always been passing along the miracle of her continued existence as a metaphor for Jewish survival.

For Lenny’s, this is part of a larger story of resiliency as well. The last few years have not been kind to the Jewish institution known as the delicatessen in the Los Angeles area. 

Broadway Deli in Santa Monica closed in 2010 after a 20-year run when it could not meet a rent escalation. The aforementioned Junior’s, a West Los Angeles tradition since 1959, closed due to what the owners called a landlord dispute at the end of 2012. And two Jerry’s Deli locations — in Westwood and West Hollywood — were shuttered in recent months.

Rosenberg, a second-generation baker in his mid-40s who comes from Long Island, N.Y., has himself been involved in a number of businesses.

Back East, his father, Robert, made bagels for a living. Lenny Rosenberg had six such businesses in that part of the country before coming to Los Angeles years ago, where he ran Bagel Nosh Deli in Beverly Hills (since sold to new owners and revamped as The Nosh of Beverly Hills), Santa Monica’s 17th Street Cafe and Mayer’s Bakery in Rolling Hills Estates before that. He also opened the short-lived Lenny’s in Pacific Palisades in 2011 at the former Mort’s Deli location; it changed names and closed after he sold it in early 2012. 

When he reopened Lenny’s in the old Junior’s space in February, Rosenberg did more than reboot his restaurant; he made it bigger, better and more religious than before. (The restaurant’s Rosh Hashanah menu the nights of Sept. 4 and 5 incudes gefilte fish, brisket, kugel, macaroons and more.) While the entrepreneur said he himself is not particularly Jewish, his late father came from an Orthodox background.

The concept for the Shabbat Room is a collaboration between Rosenberg, Morry Waksberg and a group that the latter frequents for informal brunches at Canter’s Deli that includes L.A. machers and real estate moguls Stanley Black, Max Webb and Larry Field. While Lenny’s charges $18 for the Shabbat Room to cover costs, making money was not Rosenberg’s prime motivation, he said.

“I felt an obligation to do this,” he said. “My father came from a very Chasidic family in Europe.” 

He was also a survivor of Auschwitz, although he never discussed it, Rosenberg said.

At the recent Shabbat gathering, Field kibitzed and noshed with Rosenberg, Waksberg and publicist Michael Levine, whose teen daughter Morgan had just completed her first day working at Lenny’s. 

“I’m astonished!” Levine said. “It’s bigger than I thought it would be.”

Participant Julie Knapp, a handbag designer, said that Schwartz was a perfect leader for the occasion.

“She was great and she really appeals to everybody,” Knapp said.

Waksberg, whose parents survived the Holocaust, also praised Schwartz.

“Esther is very loving, very pure,” he said. “She doesn’t think about her own welfare, she always thinks about others in the community.”

Like his late father, Rosenberg takes pride in his product — and not just what ends up on the table. He personalizes the deli experience by circulating among the tables and offering customers free samples of baked goods. Rosenberg also has brought aboard a holdover from the Palisades Lenny’s, family-friendly musician Michael Cladis, to engage children on Tuesday nights, while Memphis “Piano” Joe performs rhythm and blues on Saturdays. 

Through such gestures, Rosenberg said he intends to go the extra mile and embed “a really good community feeling” into this Lenny’s, making it the kind of local hub that will ensure its longevity and cement its place as rightful heir to the Junior’s throne.

For people like Waksberg — whose father told him about the Auschwitz prisoners’ efforts to conduct a secret Shabbat ceremony, at great personal risk, every Friday — the prospect of the Shabbat Room could end up being so much more. 

“It’s really about hope!” Waksberg said. “What’s more hopeful than counting the days until Shabbat?”