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Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei: The ark that wasn’t there


Vayakel Moshe — and Moses gathered the whole community of Israelites and said unto them, these are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.

— Exodus 35:1

For centuries, Jews have gathered to hear and embellish the stories of Torah in accordance with the perspectives of the time. I would like to add a “Malibu midrash” to our portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, a true story titled “The Ark That Wasn’t There.”

In this week’s parsha, Moses again recounts the directions for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. “Let them make Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them,” God instructs Moses (Exodus 25:8). The directions for the menorah, the ark, the furnishings and even the priestly garb are described to Moses in minute detail. All of the senses are combined to echo the beauty of God’s creation as heaven is to be grounded on earth in this mikdash, holy space. 

Before the sanctuary in space is to be completed, however, God reminds the Israelites to remember to observe Shabbat, our sanctuary in time that always is accessible, every seventh day. No assembly required. We have always had a “date night” with God, if only we will observe the Sabbath.

The instructions for intimacy with God in time and space are interrupted by the story of the golden calf. It appears that the Israelites are not yet ready to engrave God upon their hearts in faithfulness and love. The gold of the ark is traded for the gold of an idol.

In our subsequent portions of Vayakhel-Pekudei, it becomes evident that the repentant Israelites clearly need a building project. Again, they are reminded to first observe Shabbat: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest” (Exodus 35:2).

Bezalel, a man endowed by the Creator with “a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge in every kind of craft,” is chosen as master craftsman (Exodus 35:31). At the center of the Holy of Holies was an ark of acacia wood, with a cover of pure gold. Two cherubs were of one piece with the cover, their wings spread out above and their faces  turned toward each other, and it is there that God “will meet with you … from between the two cherubim on the top of the Ark of the Pact” (Exodus 25:22).

Here, in the space enclosed by the wings of the cherubs, heaven and earth are to intersect. In this void, this emptiness, the voice of God, the bat kol, will be heard.

It was no small matter, then, to finally dedicate the ark that was to crown our new sanctuary here in Malibu 11 years ago. Our Bezalel, chosen after an arduous committee process, was an artist who, in fact, was a graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. He was a superb craftsman, with an exacting eye for detail.

A year after the building was completed, we finally scheduled an inauguration of our precious ark with a gathering of the entire community on Shabbat. As the day grew near, I visited the artist’s studio and saw the ark doors, lying on the table. “Just a balancing problem,” I was told. “Don’t worry, it’s a few small details.” The next morning, an hour before the ceremony was to begin, I received an ominous phone call. There still were details to be worked out. The ark was not going to appear.

I ran into the sanctuary and set up a small screen, draped with cloth.

“Where’s the ark?” Cantor Marcelo Gindlin whispered as we took our places on the bimah.

“Don’t worry,” I said, pointing to the panels behind me. “Let’s get started.”

Vayakhel. A large crowd gathered, with all of our board of directors and major donors sitting in the front rows. We made our way through the service, and at last it was time to “install” our ark.

“Please rise if you were among the donors to this project,” I said. “You are the doors to our ark, providing both opening and protection.” About 50 people stood.

I then asked all those who had read Torah that year to rise. “You really hold the Torah within you. Please remain standing.”

I then asked our board to rise, our Eternal Light, as our choir sang words of Torah.

Soon everyone was on their feet, singing and clapping. I then asked people to give one another a blessing. The room grew quiet and a holy silence descended. Here and there, a heavenly voice could be heard.

“But what about the ark?” someone shouted.

“Oh, that ark,” I responded. “Ah, it’s not quite ready yet. But each one of you is really a holy ark, making a space for God to dwell. The real ark is in the human heart.”

No assembly required.


Rabbi Judith HaLevy is the rabbi of the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a past president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. For more of her Torah commentaries, visit mjcs.org.

7 Haiku for Parsha Ki Tisa (God’s got “back”) by Rick Lupert


I
An artist hired
for a major project. Here
is my half shekel.

II
Three thousand idol
worshippers executed.
Lesson of gold calf.

III
Moses is selfish.
He tries to sign God to an
exclusive contract.

IV
God’s got back…and that
is all any human will
be able to see.

V
The One with thirteen
merciful attributes has
got our stiff necked backs.

VI
You should not cook a
kid in its mother’s milk. Don’t
worry. They mean goats.

VII
Moses comes down the
mountain with the new tablets.
Hide the molten gods.


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

7 Haiku for Parsha Tetzaveh by Rick Lupert


I
If you’ve seen Raiders
of the Lost Ark. A lot of
this is familiar.

II
Four rows of three stones
one for each tribe. Beware the
Breastplate of Judgement

III
If you do not like
to wear a uniform, then
don’t become a priest.

IV
If you put on the
uniform you should expect
a consecration.

V
If you, impending
priest, like sprinkles of blood you’ll
love this ritual.

VI
Burn the lamb, burn the
lamb. That’s twice a day. Do it
for the Holy One.

VII
All the incense they
used to build this place. It was
like Venice Boardwalk.


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

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Parashat Terumah with Rabbi Dovid Asher


Our guest his week is Rabbi Dovid Asher, leader of the Keneseth Beth Israel congregation in Richmond , Virginia. Rabbi Asher studied at Yeshivat Shaarei Mevaseret Tzion in Israel and received his ordination from Yeshiva University. As part of his rabbinic training, he had several internships including Young Israel of East Bunswick, Riverdale Jewish Center, and Aish NY. Concurrently, he received a Master’s in Mental Health Counselling from Pace University.  After marrying Aliza, Rabbi Asher joined the Gruss Kollel, an affiliate of Yeshiva University in Israel, whereupon completing his studies they moved to Chicago to take part in a fellowship that focused on community education. In addition to his studies, Rabbi Asher has worked in various administrative positions for Aish, NCSY, and Yeshiva University.

This week’s Torah portion – Parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) – is largely dedicated to the detailed instructions for the building of the holy Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant. Our talk focuses on the idea of order and structure as a prerequisite for holiness.

7 Haiku for Parsha Terumah by Rick Lupert (Ladies and Gentleman the Showbread!)


I
Let them make for me
a sanctuary. The first
Jewish contractors.

II
This bread is so cool
it gets its own show. It’s still
in syndication.

III
Six golden fingers
will light the way. Don’t forget
the purple curtains.

IV
No wall on the east
side of the Tarbernacle.
Learn from that Orangy.

V
How many curtains
does it take to get to the
holy of holies?

VI
If you encounter
an altar with four horns. Odds
are God is close by.

VII
It is a good time
to invest in copper and
all materials.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

7 Haiku for Parsha Yitro (it’s the really big show)


I
At Mount Sinai, a
family reunion. The
whole story is retold.

II
You can’t do it all
Jethro tells Moses.
Learn to delegate.

III
Moses chose men of
substance so they could judge the
people at all times.

IV
We’re finally at
the mountain, this kingdom of
princes and holies.

V
Are we prepared for
the thunder and lightning
of revelation?

VI
The big show begins.
We get a top ten list to
end all top ten lists.

VII
The sound and light show
left us shaken and afraid.
We were not prepared.


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

Wisdom is the Antidote


In the last two weeks or so, I have read a great deal of statements made by Jewish organizations and rabbis dealing with our immigration policy and the merits of compassion, protest and defiance.  I’ve seen Facebook posts by liberals and conservatives that contain words in all caps.  In general, I’ve seen many statements but listened to little conversation.

I would like to add a different note to this conversation.  The quality we are missing from dialogue today is wisdom.  Wisdom is the key corrective measure to our brokenness today.  Movements and mob mentalities usually feed off of emotions rather than rational thought.  The Jewish community should not get sucked into partisan warfare and bullhorn politics just because it feels good.  We should worry less about feeling good and concern ourselves more with acting prudently and elevating discourse.

We, the Jewish People, are commanded by the Torah to follow the path of wisdom.  Deuteronomy 4:6 states, “Observe them (the laws) faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”  We should be elevating the national dialogue, not feeding into a bipolar system consisting of executive orders and mass defiance.  We can choose a third way – the path of wisdom.

Last week, I listened to an interview with legal expert Alan Dershowitz, who explained that Attorney General Sally Yates should have outlined the constitutional legalities and illegalities of President Trump’s executive order on January 27th limiting immigration before she resigned.  Yates was not a hero for resigning.  Our national dialogue, and the responsibilities of her job, required her to bring forward her legal arguments into the public domain.  Dershowitz observed that Yates made a mistake and made “a political decision rather than a legal one.”  I would argue she made an emotional decision, rather than a rational one.

Rational thought had its day in court last Friday. US District Judge James Robart in Seattle heard the case and ruled to suspend the executive order.  Then, the administration challenged Robart’s ruling.  Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Robart’s decision.  Whether or not one agrees with the outcome, the US legal system functioned exactly as they are expected.  The courts decided this issue according to legal reasoning and logic rather than hysteria.  I believe the rabbis of the Talmud would have preferred judicial arguments as well.

President Trump nominated Neil Gorusch for the Supreme Court.  Emotions aside, I believe he is qualified.  I heard Rep. Nancy Pelosi describe him as “a hostile appointment” by President Trump.  Even if that’s true, he is still qualified.  President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.  I believe he was also qualified for the position.  Garland never even received a confirmation hearing.  The Republican majority in the Senate acted as immaturely as Yates.  They made an emotional decision and covered their ears rather than argue the merits of Merrick Garland’s nomination.

How long can this amazing country last without dialogue or compromise of any kind?  Is no rational conversation about immigration and safety possible?  One that acknowledges the fears and merits of immigration.  Is no rational conversation possible about Supreme Court nominees?  Is it better to vilify every judge in the entire judicial system until nobody is left?

We as Jews are commanded to heed the words of God and the Torah, not to faithfully observe the positions of a single political party.  Too often today it seems like I am speaking with a Jewish Democrat or a Jewish Republican.  If we are more loyal to policy than to values, then why even attend synagogue?  Why not just worship the political party platform?

The Torah is bigger than politics.  It is bigger than policy.  And it has to remain so for the sake of the future of the Jewish People.  The Torah challenges us to navigate through ideas that make us feel good and make us feel uncomfortable.  That is the Divine wisdom of the Torah.  We continue to read it and study it and debate the Torah every week as a community.

We are required to bring wisdom into the conversation, not accept the indecency of today’s shouting.  We must reject our current broken political system and raise the level of intellectual conversation.  As Deuteronomy teaches, our conduct must inspire others to look at us and say, “…that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

The Jewish People have always offered the world a model of wisdom.  Our Talmud models heated debate that produces a synthesis of ideas – a well-reasoned compromise.  Now is not the time to descend into extreme partisanship.  That does not benefit the future of the Jewish People.  Now is the time to offer our neighbors the antidote to the stagnation and shouting that has enveloped us.

As we say every time we open the ark to reveal the Torah, “Blessed is God who gave the Torah to Israel in holiness.”  God gave us the Torah and now we, as American Jews, must share it with those around us so that we can reason, can reach compromise and can once again seek solutions to our communal problems – together.

7 Haiku for Parsha Beshalach – Just like at Universal Studios


I
If only they had
stopped and asked for directions.
Less than forty years.

II
Tough choice: Succumb to
approaching Egyptians or
walk into the sea.

III
Walls of water, and
a cloud pillar protects us
from the swords behind.

IV
Egyptians think the
space between water walls is
for them too. It’s not.

V
One of our oldest
traditions began in the
desert – complaining.

VI
Manna encased in
layers morning dew. A
sandwich from Heaven.

VII
If your parents said
not to talk to rocks, you should
refer them to God.


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

7 Haiku for Parsha Bo – Sure, let’s put blood on the door.


I
No, Mister Pharaoh
You can not keep the children
as security.

II
First the locusts, then
a darkness, so pitch dark, it
embarrassed the night.

III
Maybe the cattle
in exchange for freedom? No
conditions at all.

IV
It will happen at
midnight, Pharaoh is warned. God
invents Rosh Chodesh.

V
I’d paint anything
on my door if it meant I
could live through the night.

VI
Midnight came and the
firstborn went. There’ll be no time
to let the bread rise.

VII
Remember this day
with nothing leavened and put signs
on your hands and eyes.


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

7 Haiku for Parsha Vaera (in which frogs get a raw deal)


I
In case you have been
waiting for slavery to
end, your time has come.

II
A surprise flashback
makes us nostalgic for the
children of Jacob.

III
Moses gets a pep
talk, and a sidekick. Aaron
will do the talking.

IV
You’re not going to
impress anyone turning
your sticks into snakes.

V
The unsung heroes
of Exodus, are surely
all the poor dead frogs.

VI
Pharaoh is tired of
plague after plague but God’s
not done showing off.

VII
Be careful Pharaoh.
Your fickle mind and hardened
heart won’t always heal.

The life-death continuum


Parashat Vayechi is an opportunity to meditate on the proximity of life and death. In the traditional Torah scroll, Vayechi — which describes the death of Jacob — and the parsha preceding it, Vayigash, are written with no space between them. This unusual phenomenon is called a “closed portion” (“parsha setuma”). Juxtaposing the two so closely could be read as a statement about the contiguousness of mortality and its seeming opposite, immortality. Might this hint at a non-binary understanding of the life-death continuum? 

The paradoxical meaning of the Torah portion’s name strengthens this speculation. Like the parsha Chayei Sarah (The Life of Sarah), which is about the death of Sarah, this portion tells of the death of Jacob, yet bears the name Vayechi (And he lived). Its narrative concerns the death of the patriarch, described as “being gathered to his kin” (Genesis 49:29), and the prophetic blessings (often more like damnings) he gives his sons, seemingly in his effort to continue to influence them beyond his death.

Upon hearing of the death of a beloved, tradition would have us rend our garment and cry out to bless “God the True Judge” (“Baruch Dayan Emet”). However, belief in God’s Truth at that moment may be a tall order. It is more likely that those of us in that position have, in the words of T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “squeezed the universe into a ball / To roll it towards some overwhelming question.”

And that question is: Where is the deceased? Where does the soul go? And where is God? My answer: They have become one. 

People often think that Judaism is mute on the subject of the afterlife, but they are mistaken. Hints are everywhere. Not only in the names of parshiot, but in lines we study each morning, when we speak of our acts of lovingkindness nourishing us in this world (olam hazeh) and being stored up for us in a kind of piggy bank in heaven (keren kayemeth b’olam haba). 

Another clue is in the prayer we say for the deceased. Not the Kaddishwhich has too many resonances with immortality for this column to contain, but the El Male Rachamim, recited at the funeral, during shiva, and at Yizkor (memorial) services in the years to come. It addresses the “God of Compassion,” imploring that the deceased find deserved rest under the wings of the glory of the divine presence. Entering the word “rachamim/compassion,” we find its root: “rechem/womb.” This implies that the lifetime is a journey from womb to womb, and indicates our earthly task: to stay aligned with the attribute of compassion that infuses this world (olam hazeh) and the next (olam haba). 

We are told that when we say Kaddish, we effect the purgation of the souls of those we have lost. The Zohar tells us, “If not for the righteous in prayer on the other side, the world would not exist for one hour.” Does this not imply a continuing dynamic connection between the worlds?

People always ask me if Judaism believes in life after death. My glib response is that Judaism doesn’t believe in death. I’ve been saying that for years, but I think I have come to understand it only recently. I used to think in terms of the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.”  Grandma Tzeitel comes from the other world to warn her great-granddaughter from marrying the butcher, Lazar Wolf. I had a sense of deceased souls as always hovering. 

I see more now. In Hebrew, the word for “soul” (neshama) and the word for “breath” (nashima) are almost the same. I think this refers to that continuous wind that goes in and out of us. When we breathe in, filling those spaces between the matter that is our bodies, it gives us the illusion of being separate selves, but the continuity of the breath/soul, in both time and space, is much more the truth of the universe. 

Through prayer, meditation and yoga, I have viscerally experienced what I think the Shema has been trying to tell us: Oneness is all there is. I have felt the curtain between life and death — past, present and future — dissolve. In my flesh, I have come to believe that the boundaries are artificial. 

After all, we’re mostly empty space. If we get down to our atomic selves, we discover that we generally consist of holes with tiny, tiny bits of matter spinning through. 

However, since we value matter above all and identify with what we see in the mirror, what we can touch and smell and hold in our embrace, we face death with terror. The hardest human task is transforming the impermanent physical connection with those we love to the spiritual connection that is everlasting.

As Prufrock said: “Oh, do not ask, ‘What is it?’ / Let us go and make our visit.” 


Rabbi Anne Brener, a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist and spiritual director, is a professor at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

‘Stand up already,’ God is calling to you


“Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord,
let your servant appeal
to my lord, and do not be
impatient with your servant,
you who are the equal of Pharaoh.’ ”
(Genesis 44:18). 

Years before, when his brothers wanted to kill their egocentric younger brother Joseph, Judah stepped forward suggesting they instead throw Joseph in a pit. “An important action that saved Joseph’s life,” Judah would say to try to console himself in the years since. “I did my best.”  

Yet his half-action, which ultimately led to Joseph’s being sold into slavery and his father, Jacob, being sold a devastating lie, led to enduring suffering. Even Judah suffered, sure that the deaths of his own children somehow were tied to that moment of sin.

Now, Judah stood before Pharaoh’s prime minister — in truth, his brother Joseph, but he did not know that at the time. This powerful man sought to hold the youngest brother, Benjamin, as a hostage until Judah and his brothers returned with their father, Jacob. In that moment of truth, Judah stepped forward to protect his brother. Reconciling with the dishonesty of his past, Judah embraced a new truth. “I must do better. I must save Benjamin.” Judah offered himself up as a guarantor instead.  

Bi adoni,” Judah said. Usually translated as “please, my lord,” connoting humility before a powerful human ruler, “bi adoni” is understood by Sefat Emet, the late 19th-century Polish Chasidic rebbe, as “bi Adonai.” Sefat Emet notices that hidden within the letters of Judah’s name (Yud-Hey-Vav-Dalet-Hey) is the Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of the Holy One (Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey), an unpronounceable word usually vocalized as “Adonai.” “God is within me,” Judah said.

Sefat Emet imagines that as Judah stood before this all-powerful human ruler, he finally acknowledged that there was a truth greater than his own survival. As we read in the Talmud (Shabbat 55a), “Chotmo Hakadosh baruch Hu emet” (the signature of the Holy One, blessed by God, is Truth). Judah remembered a truth, buried deep within himself, that the Holy One was within him.
In that moment, Judah stood courageous. He rediscovered his backbone. No longer would he take half-actions to save face (literally, to save his face and his very life). Where once Judah cowered before the crowd, now he stood up to the very seat of human power. 

In that moment, Judah made teshuvah, repenting for harmful actions taken years before. Faced with an analogous situation, he found the strength to push his ego aside, to let go of his own worldly concerns, and to act on the truth implanted within him by the Holy One. 

We each face moments like that. When protecting ourselves, holding our own needs or safety as the priority, no longer can be sustained. When we who, like Judah, need to face our own self-deception and to stop persistently lying to ourselves. 

These are moments when we, like Judah, need to face the hidden truths in our lives — the uncomfortable ones — about our moral failings, the declining health of our beloveds, the disappointments in our children, the struggles within our family, the dangers facing our nation and our world. These are the moments when, like Judah, we remember “bi adoni,” that God is within us, calling to us to take a stand, to stand up, to stand for something. 

Back in Torah times, Judah allowed his brothers to tell his father a lie: that Joseph was killed. He lied to himself that he had done all he could at the time to rectify a complex, dangerous situation. Because of their collective weakness, their father aged quickly and suffered greatly. Because of his specific weakness, Judah always felt that his own children died before him. Wholeness and peace came only later, when he finally faced the truth and stood up to protect
others.  

When will you face your truth? When will you stand up and say, “bi adoni — our God, who is Emet – truth, is within me.”  

Don’t wait too long. The truth awaits you. Your loved ones, your country, your world need you. 

So go ahead. Say it: “bi adoni.” 

Now go live it. Live like God is counting on you. And may we all walk the paths of truth.


Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He and his wife, Michelle November, are authors of “Jewish Spiritual Parenting” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015). He blogs at paulkipnes.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

A brief history of Nittel Nacht


On the upcoming first night of Chanukah, Chasidic and some observant Ashkenazi Jews will forgo Torah study, choosing instead to play games or pursue other leisure activities. Why? Because this year, Chanukah begins on Christmas Eve, otherwise known as Nittel Nacht, when certain customs forbid partaking in learning from Torah.

“It’s something of obscure origins,” David N. Myers, the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA, said of the Christmas Eve tradition. “My best guess is that it emerges out of the tension-filled relationship between Judaism and Christianity in medieval Ashkenazic lands.” 

Myers said the custom started around the 16th century, but tensions between Jews and their Christian neighbors began much earlier, highlighted by a text that emerged as far back as the 11th century, called “Toledo Yeshu.”

“It was a work that showed the history of Jesus,” Myers said. “It was a collection of accounts of Jesus’ illegitimate birth and deviant behavior, and was one of the most widely spread works in medieval Ashkenazic culture. It reflected the disdain the Jews had for Christian origins.”

The Jewish people at that time observed Nittel Nacht as a way to avoid experiencing any pleasure or joy on the day when Christians began their celebration of the Christian messiah’s birth, as well as to ensure that no glory would be given to the day. While abstaining from Torah study, they also would eat garlic to ward off evil spirits and play cards, Myers said. 

Depending on a Jewish community’s tradition, Nittel Nacht takes place from noon or nightfall until midnight, either on Christmas Eve or on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany — when Eastern Orthodox Christians celebrate the story of the Magi, the Three Wise Men, visiting the baby Jesus — according to Rabbi Reuven Wolf, director of the Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center. Sephardim don’t keep Nittel Nacht, Wolf said, because they mostly lived among Muslims. 

Other interpretations of the tradition hold that Jews living in Europe were fearful on Christmas and would often cancel yeshivas, which is why Nittel Nacht was instituted.

“It used to be dangerous to go out on this night,” Wolf said. “[Observant Christians] would go to church, hear sermons about how Jews were Yoshke (Jesus) killers, and so it wasn’t safe for the Jews to go outside. If that’s the case, then there’s no room for [Nittel Nacht] to be kept today because that isn’t a worry or fear anymore.” 

Instead, Wolf pointed to the kabbalistic spiritual aspects of Nittel Nacht as a reason for honoring it. He said that the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn, stated, “Whenever we study Torah, we generate spiritual flow and positive energy. On this night, the powers of impurity are extremely strong. Being that they are extremely strong, if we generate extra holy energy, instead of it being a positive influence on the world, unholy forces can grab it. Then, it’ll be used to strengthen the unholy.”  

To explain this further, Wolf cited the story of Jacob and Esau: “Yitzak wants to bless Esau to help fix him. Rivka realized that if Esau was given this extra dose of energy, instead of using it for good, he would have taken it and further strengthened his corruption.” 

Rabbi Dovid Gurevich, co-director of the Chabad House at UCLA, brought up a diary entry attributed to the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe as to why Nittel Nacht is significant to Chabad Chasidim. “It says he would not be pleased with people who would not be able to refrain themselves from studying Torah on that night, for those few hours between nightfall and midnight,” Gurevich said. 

At Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights, N.Y., the custom is for students and followers to cancel study and do something lighter. “They hang out and play games like chess,” Gurevich said. “This is unconfirmed, but there is a picture of the Rebbe (Menachem Mendel Schneerson) playing chess with his father-in-law (the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn). People say it may have been on that night.”

While many people studying in yeshiva will take a break to have fun, Wolf said that he and other Jews who can’t dedicate all their time to learning will be doing chores and normal, everyday activities on Nittel Nacht. “I wish we would all sit and study every minute,” he said. “You can do anything, and hopefully it’s good to do things that need to get done anyway.”

With Nittel Nacht on the first night of Chanukah this year, Gurevich said he will be participating in both.

“The first night is always very exciting,” he said. “We’re not supposed to study Torah [on Nittel Nacht], so we can just tell stories. Those can be very inspirational. We’ll tell stories about Jewish pride and identity.”

Letters to the Editor: Torah Portion, Donald Trump


Please Put the Torah in Torah Portion

The well of Jewish wisdom is infinitely deep, and our people thirst for knowledge of our tradition. Would it be too much to ask that all of our learned rabbanim you invite to give us divrei Torah eschew personal experience and stick to the actual portion of the week with the commentaries of our sages?

Cantor Gary Shapiro, Congregation Beth Israel, Los Angeles

How Far Jews Have Come

I appreciated Danielle Berrin’s “Jewish Families in the White House” (Nov. 9) because it shows that by having a president who has a Jewish daughter, it shows how far the Jewish people have come. We were once in concentration camps, treated as less than everyone else; soon we’ll have a Jew in the first family. It shows how Jews are not less than the other nations. 

Elinor Massachi, Encino

What Trump’s Victory Means

Dear David Suissa: You and Rob Eshman don’t seem to get it. We elected Donald Trump to do precisely the things he said he’d do. We put him in specifically to deliver major change we so desperately need. So please, get over this idea of “WHEW! Thank goodness he didn’t really mean all that” and “What a relief, things will soon be back to normal.” I know you “progressives” love normalcy, and you’re the most stubbornly resistant to change. As such, you totally miss the purpose of this historic election. How very “conservative” of you.

Aric Zoe Leavitt via email

In his op-ed (“Trump’s Victory a Win for Traditional Jews,” Dec. 9), Rabbi Pini Dunner seems to celebrate the Trump election as a victory of “traditional values” over the “corrosive progressive agenda.” On the same page, there is a cartoon by Steve Greenberg in which our president-elect leads a team of early humanoids to destroy the forces trying to tone down hate, consumer rights, the environment, health coverage and public education.

Are these some of the “corrosive forces” that our “traditional values” must fight against?

I congratulate your editorial team for placing these two items on the same page.

Michael Telerant, Los Angeles

Dunner’s op-ed that Trump’s victory is a win for traditional Jews is bordering on delusion. Trump nominated a man to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) who was suing the EPA and connected to the oil industry. Tell this traditional Jew how breathing polluted air and drinking foul water is good for us.

Rick Edelsein, Los Angeles

Like Dennis Prager (“Please Keep Calling Us Racists and Misogynists,” Nov. 16), I choose to believe that most of those who voted for Donald Trump are neither racists nor misogynists. But clearly a sizable and vocal minority are.

Emboldened by things said, and never repudiated by the president-elect and his supporters, they are spewing hate and threats more openly and frequently; harassing Muslim Americans, Latinos, African-Americans, Jews and women — online, on the streets and in schools. Sadly, I’m hearing firsthand accounts.

Mr. Prager, I trust that “they” are not part of the “us” you refer to in the headline on your piece. And per your recent contention that America is “the least racist country in recorded history,” you will expect the president-elect and his team, and all proud conservatives, to denounce such behavior unequivocally, specifically and consistently. 

As we enter a new chapter offering an even greater opportunity to see how conservative policies serve us as a nation, maybe there’s room for teshuvah across the spectrum.

Michael Zucker, Culver City

Reactions to Castro’s Death

Doesn’t Dennis Prager know that history is the only objective judge for historical events and people making those events (“A Question for Progressive Readers,” Dec. 9)? I was born and spent most of my life in a totalitarian regime, so I know better than most Americans what life in such a regime is like. All statements you quoted in your column from those leaders are opinions. All except the last one from President-elect Donald Trump are diplomatic because they are coming from leaders who are, above all, diplomats.

Now, to answer your question: I agree mostly with President Barack Obama’s statement being the closest to history’s right to be the best judge. “History will record and judge the … enormous impact … ” is a world-class leader’s statement.

Svetlozar Garmidolov, Los Angeles

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.

We never give up hope


As this week’s portion begins, Abraham is visited by three men. Our rabbis tell us these were messengers of God sent to heal him from his circumcision, to prophesy that the barren Sarah would give birth to a son in a year, and to proceed to Sodom and Gomorrah to implement the final destruction of those epicenters of evil.

As the visitors tell Abraham that he and Sarah will have their long-awaited son when he reaches age 100 and she 90, the question is raised: Having reached this age when Sarah’s body no longer experiences the monthly way of women, and with her husband as old as he is, is she really going to have a baby now?

The baby, Isaac, is born a year later. He inherits the family destiny and grows up to be the second of our three patriarchs.

Life is about many hopes and many lost hopes. We are blessed that we can face challenges and disaster and still hope. People face disease. Some cannot make ends meet financially. Good jobs are hard to come by, and sometimes the best of jobs are lost. People in midlife sometimes unexpectedly find themselves single and want so much to marry, to find an honest and true life partner, but each lead turns up empty — and no one seems to care (because, typically, no one else does).

So we hope tomorrow will be better. A change of fortune or circumstances is just around the corner — my next job application and interview, the new doctor and the new medicine, the new social introduction and date. We burst with so much new hope. And then, again, we are brought back to terra firma, disappointed, another lead that failed to pan out.

At some point, every so often, nagging doubts tug at our hearts: “Are we kidding ourselves?  Maybe it never is going to get better. I never will find a decent job. I am going to die alone.”  These moments are experienced, in one fashion or another, by all of us. “Having reached this age … am I really going to have a baby now?”

If there is one overriding theme in Jewish history and peoplehood, perhaps our greatest secret to survival and success, it is that we never give up. We never lose hope. For Sarah and Abraham, the challenge was whether they ever would have a son. By the end of the parsha, with that boy now grown to age 37, the new concern became whether they would lose that son all too soon.

In different forms and shapes, that concern touches many parents, and I am approached all too often by parents from around the country: “Rabbi, our child has departed from the path of Torah.  We have tried everything, and we just don’t know what else to do.”

Here is what I share: As long as your child is alive, there is hope. People do sometimes depart from our path, and some come back. I have seen it often. Perhaps your child will connect with a spouse whose own commitment to Judaism will point the way back. As long as there is life, there is hope.  

Whether it is a Jewish nation standing at the Sea of Reeds with a massive Egyptian army approaching, or a terrified Jewish population in Judea’s capital facing the prospect of a massacre the next day by Sennacherib’s massed armies, we never give up. How are we going to get through the waters? We don’t know. What will we do tomorrow when the Assyrians attack Jerusalem? We don’t know. 

We just pray three times a day. We do our best. And we never give up.  

As our Torah portion ends this week, Isaac asks his father, as they walk toward Mount Moriah, ostensibly to offer an animal sacrifice to God: “I see the fire and wood, but where is the animal for the sacrifice?” (Genesis 22:7). Abraham, who thinks he is commanded to offer his son as the sacrifice, responds that he does not know: “God will make the animal seen.” In other words, “I have no answer. I don’t know. But I never stop hoping and believing that, when the time is propitious according to His plan, He will show us the solution.”  

When the time comes, there is the ram, stuck in the bulrushes, there is the parting of the Reed Sea. Sometimes it is a miracle of biblical proportions, sometimes a surprise callback for a job interview, an unexpected check in the mail, or finally, a person to marry and enjoy for the rest of one’s life as a best friend.

We never give up hope.


Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and at UC Irvine School of Law, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. His writings appear at rabbidov.com.

Hugging our words


There’s nothing like a hug to express your love. For many people, a hug is even more powerful than words. Hug your mother, your spouse, a dear friend, and words are hardly necessary. A simple hug says so much.

This past week, during the holiday of Simchat Torah, Jews around the world went into a hugging frenzy. But here’s the thing — rather than hugging each other, they hugged and danced with words. They hugged Torah scrolls.

Hugging a Torah scroll is like hugging a baby. You feel the delicate velvet covering the sturdy wood of the scroll. It’s fragile yet strong. You feel protective. You are holding in your arms the words that have protected and inspired Jews for thousands of years, wherever they lived.

It’s worth reflecting on this unusual Jewish tradition of hugging words.

Here we are at the culmination of the Jewish year, when we are called on to celebrate and rejoice, and the object of our joy and reverence is a parchment containing about 300,000 Hebrew letters that have sustained us for generations.

This reverence for words in the Jewish tradition can be interpreted in many ways. Because my preference is to look for interpretations that will improve our lives, I see this honoring of words as a note of caution for how we use words in our everyday lives.

In a talk I gave recently during a Yom Kippur service, I quoted Joseph Telushkin’s book “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal,” in which he wrote: “Think about your own life … chances are the worst pains you have suffered in life have come from words used cruelly — from ego-destroying criticism, excessive anger, sarcasm, public and private humiliation, hurtful nicknames, betrayal of secrets, rumors and malicious gossip.”

In an ugly election year when the public discourse has been so coarse, we’re especially vulnerable to allowing our own speech to become contaminated. Indeed, the mere discussion of vile and hurtful speech can lead us into vile territory.

But beyond the rancid words we have witnessed through the media, there are also the words that are much closer to us — the ones we can control. These are the words we use with friends, colleagues, neighbors and family members, the words that end up defining our relationships and our character.

Here’s a thought experiment. Imagine if you took all the words you used in the past year and printed them on a scroll. Would you hug this scroll? Would you dance with it? Would you cherish it?

I often feel that at the Jewish Journal, we are printing a scroll every week with tens of thousands of new words. It’s not a Torah scroll; it’s a community scroll. But just as an expert scribe will meticulously go through a Torah scroll to correct any blemishes, we have an obligation to do the same. We know that the wrong words can have a devastating impact. We also know that the right words can inspire and elevate.

It’s the same in our own lives. Whether we are communicating through a text, a tweet or at a Shabbat table, our words can go in many different directions. We can crush or we can praise. We can bore or we can delight. We can hurt or we can heal.

At an event I attended recently, a friend of mine noticed that the speaker forgot to thank the most important person in the room, who had planned and organized the event.

 “It would have been better if she had said nothing,” my friend told me.

That is the irony of freedom of speech. All too often, we do best when we use our freedom of speech to restrain ourselves and say nothing. Instead of thinking of a clever response when our parents are saying something that may annoy us, we can just listen and let them talk. Instead of rushing to preach to our kids when they’re complaining about something, we can listen and let them express themselves. Instead of showing a dinner guest how wrong they are, we can look at the bigger picture and move on. 

We write our own scroll every day. The words we omit are as important as those we choose. If we choose carefully and wisely, our words will always be worth a good hug.


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

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:

Fame.

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.

Torah scroll that sat in home closet 15 years donated to Polish museum


A Torah scroll that sat forgotten in a closet of a home in Poland for 15 years was donated to a museum in the country.

Waldemar Sawicki, the owner of a home in the western Polish city of Zielona Gora, gave the scroll to the Museum of Lubusz Region, also in western Poland. His brother originally had found it in a pile of garbage.

“I thought that this was an Old Church Slavonic record brought by our neighbors from the East,” Sawicki told Radio Em in an interview on Wednesday. “I took this document with the thought that someday I will meet someone who will be able to read these letters. I hid it in the closet, along with wallpaper rolls, and it just lay there for almost 15 years.”

 

During a recent renovation of his house, Sawicki remembered the scroll. He contacted the museum, which informed him that the object was a Torah scroll.

It is not known how the Torah scroll made its way to Zielona Gora or why it was in the trash.

The Hottest Summer in Baghdad: 75th anniversary of the Farhud


The festival of Shavuot, which this year took place June 12-13, commemorates a time when Jews received the Torah at Mount Sinai. It also marks the beginning of a new agricultural season, Chag Hakatsir (The Harvest Holiday). It comes seven weeks after Passover.

Shavuot in Baghdad marks the beginning of the brutal summer heat and dry weather. The temperature during the day reaches up to 110 degrees, and at times even 120 degrees. Air conditioning and refrigerators were unheard of when I was growing up in the 1930s. At night, it cooled off a bit. Everyone slept on the roofs of their houses. Poor people slept outdoors.

After a joyful celebration of Passover with family and friends, I remember we children anxiously waiting for the new and different celebration of Shavuot.

On the eve of Shavuot, my uncles and distant relatives would come to our house. They prayed and chanted throughout the night, reading the book of Ruth and studying Torah. Grownups and children would stay up late all night, enjoying delicious festive foods and sweets, and light candles for the departed.  One of my fondest memories is gathering around the kindled lights with my cousins collecting the wax and making different figurine and animals.

On the actual day of Shavuot, many families went on a Ziara (Pilgrimage) to visit the grave of the biblical Prophet Ezekiel, on the Euphrates River, some 50 miles away from Baghdad. This was a great time for us children to play with others in the community and picnic with many of my Mom’s treats such as chicken rice with almonds and raisins, along with other snacks, such as mango and cucumber pickles.

The Shavuot of 1941 fell on June 1 and 2. On April 13, 1941, a pro-Nazi Coup was headed by Rashid Ali Algailkani and plotted successfully by the German attaché Dr. Fritz Grova and the grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin Al Husani. This inextricably lead King Faisal, the Regent Abdyl Illah and the Prime Minister Taha Al Hashimi to flee Baghdad.

Radio Baghdad, the government’s mouthpiece, along with other media outlets, began a steady stream of anti-Jewish propaganda. On the Daily, public hatred increased as the summer heat and shook up every Iraqi Jew to the core. Many stayed home fearing for their lives. I distinctly remember my father and my older brothers not being able to hide their sadness and worries of what was to come. They tried to put on a happy face, thinking that would protect me, 11 years old, and my 8-year-old brother, Nory. We were restricted from leaving the house, which made things worse for us. I began to have nightmares and sleepless nights. I found myself crying for no reason at all.

The Iraqi coup leaders in Baghdad, decided to do the next best thing — exterminate the Jewish population in a single blow. Jews were ordered to stay in their homes. The “proto-Nazi youth movement,” Al Futuwwa, marked the doors of the Jewish home with a red Hamsa (shape of a palm, a symbol that allowed the rioters to identify Jewish homes.

On May 31, the British forces arrived with fresh troops from Nepal and India on the outskirts of Baghdad. The extermination plot fell apart. The coup leaders fled, which created a power vacuum.

Bands of soldiers in concert with police in civilian clothing, and common criminals along with nondescript mobs, rampaged through Baghdad hunting for Jews. They were easy to fine. Hundreds of Jews were cut down by sword and rifle, some even decapitated. Babies were sliced in half and thrown into the Tigris River. Girls were raped in front of their parents. Parents were mercilessly killed in front of their children.

Hundreds of Jewish homes and businesses were looted and then burnt. The official government count shows that 180 were killed and 240 wounded; private estimates indicate as many as 400 were killed and 2,100 injured. There were no arrests, convictions or sentencing. Jews were afraid to report or file a complaint against any Muslim, for fear of retaliation and threats to their lives.

For almost two days, June 1-2, the carnage continued unabated. If it weren’t for some righteous Muslim men standing in front of Jewish homes with knives, daggers, and swords preventing the rioters from breaking into Jewish homes, the carnage would have been much more devastating. Those were the decent and honorable Muslims, the Righteous among the Nations.

We began fortifying our house. We reinforced the front door by stacking heavy furniture against it. My brother Eliyahoo electrified the chicken wire fence atop the stone wall on our side of the garden. I helped carry buckets of boiling water to the roof, ready to toss on marauders if needed. From the second-floor window, I saw looters on the street carrying away clothes and boxes. We stayed awake all night. Two of my brothers maintained contact with the neighbors via the roof, bringing any news downstairs. By afternoon the next day, June 2, the British soldiers had entered Baghdad and quelled the riots. We were safe.

My family was fortunate; we had moved a year earlier from the old city to Bab el Shargy close to the Tigris River. My Uncle Moshi and Uncle Meir’s houses in the old city were totally emptied. They escaped by jumping from their roof to the neighbor’s and then to another. They were lucky; they sustained minor injuries —twisted ankle and scratches.

This Holocaust-era pogrom became known as the Farhud. In Arabic, it means “violent dispossession.” The Farhud left bitterness and hopelessness in the hearts of the Iraq Jewish community. Many wanted to leave after the Farhud, but there was no place to go to or a country that would take us in.

After the establishment of the State of Israel, in 1948, most of the Iraqi community, including my family and I, fled to Israel. We became refugees. We stood in line for free meals, slept on a steel bed anchored in the sand during scorching hot summers.  We had left behind our homes, our stores and other businesses, our land, buildings, schools and other property.

The memory of a few, decent and honorable Muslims’ and their deep friendship was overshadowed by the long history of fear, pain, suffering and humiliation. I doubt if there is one Jew from an Arab land or Islamic country who would ever entertain the idea of going back to live there again permanently. We are lucky to be out and lucky to be where we are.

In 1948, there were some 135,000 Jews in Iraq. Baghdad’s population was nearly 25 percent Jewish. By 1953, some 80 percent had left for Israel. The rest stayed, deluding themselves that they would be seen as loyal Iraqis. Over the years, they have faced systemic pauperization — their bank accounts were frozen, and they have faced trumped-up charges and forced confessions through torture.  In 1969, seven Jews were hanged in Baghdad’s public square, accused of spying.  At present, this 26-century-old Jewish community has now totally vanished. Only 8 Jews are reported to remain.

This Shavuot marks the 75th anniversary of the Farhud. It was commemorated in four cities — London, New York, Washington and Jerusalem — by lighting 27 candles, one for each century the Jews inhabited the land. It is also commemorated annually by the survivors, their descendants and every decent freedom loving person, I know.


Joe Samuels is a native of Baghdad who served in the Israeli navy from 1950 to 1953. He has been living in Santa Monica for the past 36 years with his wife, Ruby, and his family. He is a retired real estate developer and currently serves on the board of Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa, Los Angeles.

Is Judaism kids’ stuff?


I exited the library last week with a tall pile of books, many of them classics I had read as a child.

As my own children become seasoned readers I want to encourage them to read the writings that had touched me; that I read over and over again.

This led to me myself revisiting these beloved worlds.

And I marveled at all of the new dimensions that jumped out at me; perhaps because it's been so long…I think it might be more because we ourselves change over the years.

Chanting the repetitive words of Good Night Moon now with my three-year-old, I see the appeal of the repetition- pleasurable, predictable, comforting.

Looking at the familiar pictures in The King's Stilts now in my 30’s, I notice the skill in the nuanced drawings.

Reading about Fantine's plight in Les Miserables now as a mother makes me understand more the pain in the depths of her soul.

The nostalgia…and the newness of these old books got me thinking about all the different aspects of our childhoods- places, people, friends, foods, music, scents, anecdotes…spirituality…that we might experience years later in a whole different way.

For a lot of Jews, being Jewish growing up meant enjoying the rich cultural aspects of the holiday seasons- sizzling latkes and menorahs on Chanukah, family Seders with crispy matzah and horseradish on Passover, crunchy apples dipped in honey on Rosh Hashanah, creamy cheesecake and synagogue on Shavuot.

If reading a children’s book as an adult can give an increased appreciation, let’s surely make a commitment to re-examine Judaism, a deep, spiritual way of life that has worked in sustaining our people for 2,000 years.

There is paramount importance of studying the know-how's of the traditions, because for any mitzvah/value to be sustained, it must be bound to an action:

How do we testify and stay present in G-d's protection of the Jewish people? We build a sukkah on Sukkot.

How do we bring spiritual and physical light to the world? We light Shabbat candles.

How do we remember what our mission is for ourselves, our family, and the wider world? We read the Ten Commandments, which encompasses all of the mitzvot, on Shavuot.

The actions feed the soul, and then the deeper dimensions satisfy the mind; we want and need to explore the why's, too:

Why is a sukkah relevant today?

Why was the mitzvah of lighting candles given to the women?

Why eat the Kabbalistic, mystical hand-made matzah and not the machine-made?

Are we capable of the fiery faith the women projected in Egypt 2,000 years ago?

What does freedom mean to a Jewish woman in today's world?

Is the traditional Torah still relevant in contemporary times?

For many of us, our Jewish education ended at bar/bat mitzvah and we were not exposed to these deeper messages and ideas behind the practices, behind the very holidays themselves.

Messages and ideas that are directly relevant to the way we think and feel and act…to day-to-day life.

Without the inner meanings as an adult, we might perceive much of Judaism as “kids' stuff” or solely as a way to stay connected to our families and our past.

Especially today- we know a sophisticated amount about nutrition, psychology and exercise- why should Judaism be any different?

In the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s words, “Being that we live in a more sophisticated world,” we need a more “sophisticated Judaism.”

A Judaism that draws on Chassidic and Kabbalistic, mystical traditional texts that are deeply satisfying and comforting and a powerful, unchanging prism through which to see our ever-changing world.

I invite you to revisit the holidays and traditions- with the wisdom of our sages, and the wisdom of our personal experiences and years behind us- and take a deeper look at the Judaism that has held billions of Jews in times of happiness and sorrow.

Perhaps through the wealth of learning sites online, or better yet a Torah class with a live teacher.

So we revisit and learn more…then comes the often challenging part: Acting more.

This is why when G-d offered His Torah to the Jewish people, the mystical commentaries tell us that each Jew was gifted with two crowns, for their proclamations in unison: One crown for “We will do,” and another for “We will hear [learn].”

“We will do,” they said first, to establish their commitment to do Judaism; keep its mitzvot even when it’s hard, even when it hurts; and on that firm foundation of action, then, “We will learn,” we will spend a lifetime learning, going deeper and deeper into the teachings and mitzvot, which ripen in the mind with age and further understanding.

(I remember learning this as a child, comprehending it on a purely factual level. As I get older, I increasingly see the importance of this idea of committing to doing before completely understanding. We accept that planes get us safely to our destination without knowing exactly how their huge engines work, and we eat blueberries without verifying under a microscope that they are laden with antioxidants.

Because if we did, we’d spend more time trying to understand than traveling or eating blueberries. And Judaism is no different- if we wait until all of Judaism makes perfect sense and all of our questions are answered, we will delay the urgency of action. Of making Judaism- a proven system- a reality in our lives and in the lives of our children).

So Judaism is ultimately adult stuff.

But it’s kids’ stuff too!

In fact, when G-d asked the Jewish people to find guarantors that the Torah will be kept, they immediately offered Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but G-d rejected this idea.

The Jews’ second choice was the prophets…G-d nixed that.

Finally they offered the children, and G-d was satisfied.

As with so many stories of the Torah, this one reflects the story of today.

Our children are still our guarantors.

Untainted and unjaded from decades of challenges and struggles, the sparkle in their eyes as they kiss a mezuzah, and the unbridled enthusiasm as they sing the Shema reflect their wide-open hearts and promise a vibrant future as they embrace the Judaism of their parents and grandparents, enhanced by their individual personality and flavor.

So if you have children, bring them with you to shul on Shavuot for the time-honored tradition of reading the story of how we gathered at Mt. Sinai to hear the Ten Commandments– so that they- and we- can affirm how we can have a relationship with our Creator through His Torah; how we can feel close to one another.

And who knows what new revelation and understanding might jump out at you?

In a favorite song from my childhood, “The Place Where I Belong,” by Abie Rotenberg, a Torah that was discovered in a Poland basement after the Holocaust “sings” of its haunting and beautiful memories, bearing witness to centuries of love and dedication. The Torah talks of its feelings on now being displayed in a sterile case of glass in a museum, and beseeches us to bring it back to its true home, to a shul, where it is actually cherished and read and lived by.

To never let it go.

In its final lyrics:

“No matter if you're very young or even very old
Live by the words you'll find inside my scroll.”

An LGBT congregation connects to a Czech Holocaust Torah


The lesbians and gay men who founded Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, also known as BCC, in 1972—the first-ever LGBT synagogue—reflected the depth of its importance to themselves and their community by choosing a name meaning “House of New Life.”

[RELATED: Czech Torahs reunite at Holocaust Museum]

The very next year, 1973, BCC welcomed its Holocaust Survivor Torah Scroll, which comes from Chotěboř, located southeast of Prague in today’s Czech Republic—a town whose last Jewish residents were deported in 1942. BCC’s scroll, on loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust in England, is featured in a special exhibition of rescued scrolls at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust through May 9.

The story of how BCC met a survivor of Chotěboř began in 2005, when BCC engaged a Sofer, a Torah scribe, to help us repair a passage from our scroll.

New York-based Sofer Neil Yerman spent a weekend at BCC, guiding more than 100 BCC members as we each re-inscribed a letter in a portion of our Shoah Torah scroll that includes the passage from Deuteronomy 30:19—“Life and death have I set before you…that you may choose life.”

That is a verse that especially resonates for BCC, says Lisa Edwards, Senior Rabbi of BCC, “for we are part of a community that historically has faced rejection, discrimination, persecution and even death. For us, to ‘choose life’ means to live proudly and joyfully, knowing that we are all created in God’s image.”

As a community (I have been a member since 2000) we read these Torah verses each Yom Kippur, made all the more poignant and powerful for us by the history of the survivor scroll from which we read.

Later in 2005, in observance of the 67th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, BCC organized a reunion of the 28 Czech survivor scrolls now cared for by Jewish communities around Southern California.

Among the 400 people gathered to celebrate was 77-year-old Olga Grilli, born Gabanyiova, a native of Chotěboř.

We had learned that, at age 11 in 1939, Olga escaped to England on the last Kindertransport train organized by a young Englishman, Nicolas Winton, who rescued 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia.

Olga came to us because a member of BCC, Stephen Sass, found Olga’s story among the interviews at the Spielberg Shoah Visual History Foundation. We contacted her, and with her children and grandchildren, Olga traveled to Los Angeles to participate in our “Etz Chayim” Kristallnacht observance.

The procession into the sanctuary of 28 survivor Torah scrolls was led by Olga in her wheelchair, our Chotěboř Torah scroll held in her tender embrace.

Olga recalls, “When I saw the scroll in Los Angeles, when I held it in my arms, it was a continuity. I am happy it found such a wonderful home where there are people who will take care of it.”

“BCC is honored to keep alive this precious Torah scroll that has been entrusted to us,” says Edwards, “and in so doing to keep alive the memories of Olga and her community.”

Read more about the story of BCC’s scroll and its special friendship with survivor Olga Grill, from the same Czech town.


Sylvia Sukop is a writer/editor and 2016 Fellow of the NewGround Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. A longtime member of Beth Chayim Chadashim, she co-chaired the “Etz Chayim” Czech Torah scrolls reunion in 2005. You can read her essay on the early history of BCC in the anthology LAtitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Heyday, 2015).

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.

Deluge of letters to Prager shows inability to discuss serious issues


The deluge of letters vilifying Dennis Prager for his Jewish Journal column, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” is yet another manifestation of too many Jews’ inability to amicably, or merely intellectually discuss important, serious issues without dismissiveness and ridicule.

In nearly two full pages of letters printed in the Jewish Journal and myriad comments posted on its website, members of our Jewish community, including many members of our educated elite, accused Prager of being mean-spirited, bigoted, ignorant, and publicly humiliating a transgendered rabbi, among much more.

Some went so far as to say Dennis should no longer be published in this paper. That’s a new low. Wow, how far we’ve regressed and how divisive we’ve become. To think, traditional/conservative, Jewish/social views should be prohibited in a community-wide Jewish newspaper.

Not one of the respondents actually spoke to the substance of Dennis’s main point: To what extent do you use the Torah as your moral/religious guide? The closest comment to anything substantive came from those suggesting Prager doesn’t understand that Jews rejected Karaitic Judaism.

Really? That’s the best one could do? I suspect that Prager knows well that Karaitic Judaism died centuries ago.  He simply believes, as rabbinic Judaism always has, that the Torah is the Jews’ basic text—our Constitution, if you will.

Let’s be clear here.  Those who wrote the hate-filled letters want to quell any attempt at open, rational dialogue with anyone right of center, especially Dennis Prager, a deep-thinking, rational and effective exponent of traditional Jewish values and conservative political/social positions. Add another peg in the coffin of respectful dialogue and intellectual openness.

Sadly, we live in an age of muddled thought and political correctness; an age of “micro-aggressions” and Orwellian doublethink.  Include in the bulging list of free-speech suppressing universities—Missouri, Yale, Brandeis, Smith, Ithaca College, Kentucky, Princeton, Claremont McKenna, Amherst, UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins and too many more to list—large numbers of my rabbinical colleagues in Los Angeles and throughout America.

It used to be that arguments and debate defined our tradition.  To be sure, within the Talmud there was plenty of name-calling:  Am Ha’aretz (ignoramus), Sageh Na-Hor (dimwit) and re’kah (empty headed).  But, in spite of it all, there was an acknowledgement that the discussions were for the clarification of what God wanted from us.  Opposing sides could sit down and share a meal and talk; they could agree to disagree.

The academies of Hillel and Shamai exemplified all that. The Talmud recorded over 300 areas where these two schools of thought disagreed. Yet, through it all, they maintained respectful bonds.  The Talmud remarks they married among each other, and danced at each other’s weddings.

What do too many Jews do now?  They cast aspersions on a man who is strong enough and wise enough to raise questions that most of us won’t because we can no longer think beyond what’s popular and uncontested—or because we are simply too afraid.

Shame on those who wrote these hate-filled, personal attacks against Dennis Prager; shame on those who are unable to civilly discuss important issues of our day without the stifling cloak of political correctness guiding one’s every word; shame on those who have lost the ability to agree to disagree.  Where is their compassion?  Where is their sense of fairness?  Where is their Godliness?

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb, Kehillat Ma’arav, Santa Monica, CA

Dennis Prager has a point


What Dennis Prager says in his most recent column (“” target=”_blank”>his piece “Torah and the transgendered” with a lot of passion and rhetoric, even beauty, without addressing his central claim. That claim, to boil it down, is that we Jews who are accepting of transgender people care more about compassion than halakhah, than the law of the Torah. The counter-argument that compassion is halakhah, is Torah, doesn’t cut it, because that’s an argument about the meaning of halakhah, about how halakhah works, not a halakhic argument.

I am also ready to believe Prager when he says that he wasn’t speaking with hatred towards transgender people. Certainly, he gave a nod toward understanding when he wrote in his first column, “One has to have a callous heart not to feel compassion toward anyone who suffers from gender dysphoria. It is surely awful to go through life thinking one’s body is of the wrong sex.” Of course, he also speaks in both articles with the sure sense of someone who believes in his own superiority as a champion of the Torah. That’s annoying, and perhaps less than admirable, but it’s not hateful.

Since other have already addressed the ways in which Prager’s words could be harmful, what I’d like to do here is respond to his argument on his own terms. I see two avenues of response. The first is that we could rebut his claim that the Torah only affirms the binary of gender, of male and female. The tricky part about this is, you can’t answer that claim so easily from the Torah itself, which doesn’t have a figure like Tiresias, the Greek prophet who was explicitly male and female. Rather, you need rabbinic midrash and halakhah. Kabbalah doesn’t hurt either. I will return to those in a moment.

The second response is the more cutting one: transgender identity as we are constructing it today doesn’t undo the binary of gender at all.

Rather, it affirms the binary of gender. It’s only because we’re a society that is based on the existence of just two genders, and no more, that someone whose inner identity is male but is in a female body, or is female in a male body, needs to transition, instead of simply being what they are. Most “cis-gender” people (people who feel like the gender that they biologically conform to) aren’t comfortable with someone they meet, or work with, until they can affix to them the label of male or female, so most transgender people are forced to conform themselves, both before and after their transition, to one of their genders. If we had more than two genders, then it would be easy to affirm male-born-female and female-born-male, alongside male-born-male and female-born-female, as real genders in and of themselves.

Of course, if you know halakhah already, you know what I’m getting at. Rabbinic law does exactly this – it affirms seven – seven! – genders. Not just two. That’s because long before we developed our menu of sexual and gender identities, there have always been intersex people, people whose gender was biologically incomplete, ambiguous or multiple. The rabbis had to make space for them in Torah, even though the Torah never tells us about anyone who is intersex. So the rabbis have bequeathed us these genders: androginos, tumtum, saris adam, saris chamah, ailonit, zachar, n’keivah. (Those words mean: someone born with both male and female genital parts, someone born with indistinct parts, a male who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics because he was castrated, a male who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics for biological reasons, a female who doesn’t develop secondary sexual characteristics, a male who does develop those characteristics, and a female who does develop those characteristics.)

Everyone who has thought about gender and Jewish law – so many wonderful scholars, and so many wonderful people who are transgender – knows this and writes about it. (See for example, ” target=”_blank”>Balancing on the Mechitza.) Why doesn’t Dennis Prager, the champion of Torah, know it?

The question then isn’t whether we can challenge the gender binary that appears to be part of Torah, since that has already been done, conclusively. There is no room to debate that, unless of course one wishes to leave rabbinic Judaism (which, of course, is Prager’s right if he so wishes). The question is, how do transgender identities today fit into these categories. Or, if they don’t fit into these categories, do we need to add more categories (which, of course, those of us interested in halakhah can do using halakhah)?

I'm proud to be raising my boy in Northampton MA, an epicenter for transgender rights. For him, transgender is part of what's normal. But I had to work hard to get what it all meant when my best friend transitioned years ago. So I’m not surprised that our newfound openness about transgender identity is confusing to Prager.

Our whole society is going through a transition, and it wouldn’t be such a surprising change, even to Prager, if not for the fact that in the modern age, medicine decided it could “fix” people who were intersex by cutting and remodeling their genitals, usually to make them look male. (This was also how doctors developed sexual reassignment surgery for transgender people.) Of course, this medical suppression of intersex genitalia started before people knew much about x and y chromosomes, and many people who were genetically male or genetically female were assigned the opposite gender. This was almost always hidden from the children who were operated on, and often even hidden from their parents. It’s an outrage, something the law today would never allow. But it’s a big part of why we know that gender is not just in the body, but “in the head”. We know that because so many people who were assigned a gender opposite their chromosomes never felt right in their bodies, always feeling like they were the opposite gender.

None of this changes the fact that neurologists have not found a clear distinction between female and male brains. None of this changes the fact that most people go through life comfortably being the gender everyone else already thought they were. But what a gift we have, to live in a world where, finally, our society is catching up to rabbinic law!

Compassion does have something to add to halakhah, though, and it is this: we can give halakhic standing to people’s self-understanding of who they are, instead of just to how their sexual characteristics develop in the womb or at puberty. This has been agreed upon by many halakhic authorities, the most well-known being the ” rel=”noreferrer” target=”_blank”>neohasid.org and the author of Kabbalah and Ecology: God's Image in the More-Than-Human World (Cambridge 2015, 

The hate is all in one direction


In response to my latest column, “The Torah and the Transgendered,” the Jewish Journal was deluged with emails to the editor and comments on the Journal’s website. Virtually every one of them is shameful. If you care about the moral nature and intellectual viability of American Jewish life, they are actually frightening.

I am accused of cruelty, intolerance, bigotry, hate, publicly humiliating someone, ignorance and more. Yet, there is not a hint of any one of these things in my column. That’s why, the perceptive reader will notice, not a single letter has actually quoted me. They can only mock, denigrate, demonize and insult. But not provide a shred of evidence to support their attacks.

[RELATED: A response to Dennis Prager]

It is these letters and comments that are filled with hate; it is these writers who intend to humiliate; it is these people who are intolerant of any view but their own. With one or two exceptions, all these people live in an intellectual bubble that shields them from having to contend with opposing views. And when they encounter one, they get mean and throw childlike tantrums.

It is a complete lie that I attacked, let alone, humiliated, Rabbi Becky Silverstein. 

I wrote a total of two sentences about the rabbi:

“Likewise, a Southern California synagogue has hired as its director of education a biological female rabbi who identifies as male, wears masculine clothing, is referred to as male and insists on being called by her/his given female name. Obviously, the congregation and the rabbi believe that the Torah’s view on gender distinction is irrelevant.”

How is that an attack? How is it humiliating? Why did Joshua Levine Grater, Denise Eger, Sharon Brous, and Adam Greenwald — rabbis all — make such false public accusations? Does honorable behavior apply only to Jews one agrees with?

And for the record, the reason I did not mention the rabbi or the temple by name was so as not to make any individual or temple the issue. 

Rabbi Denise Eger, the president of the Reform rabbinate, writes that “Sadly, the Journal has a long history of publishing Prager’s vitriol and personal attacks on hard-working and devoted rabbis.” Rabbi Eger should back up that charge and that of “character assassination,” or retract them both. They are both lies. 

Other letters and comments accuse me of intolerance, bigotry, ignorance, transphobia, maligning, defamation, slander, xenophobia, foolishness, mean-spiritedness, inflicting “spiritual violence,” lacking compassion, anti-knowledge and more — all without providing a single example. Because there is no example to provide.

But these writers’ letters are more than merely libelous. They are insidious because at bottom they are all an attempt to shut me up, to shut the Jewish Journal up — in other words, to do to Jewish dissenters what the left is doing to all dissenters on campuses — fire them, disallow them from speaking, and bully opponents into silence. And they are largely successful both on campuses and in Jewish life. It will be interesting to see how many Reform, Conservative or Orthodox rabbis now write in support of my column. So far, apparently, none has. Even the Orthodox rabbinate is afraid of being attacked by the Jewish left.

The only reason I mentioned the rabbi was that I take issue with the rabbi retaining a female name while identifying as a man. I did not and do not take issue with the rabbi identifying as a male. I take issue with deliberate blurring of male-female identities. When Bruce Jenner came out as a woman, he/she took a female name, Caitlyn. Once he presented himself to the world as a woman, Jenner thought being called Bruce would be confusing and inappropriate. Rabbi Silverstein could have taken a male name — if only, for example, by shortening “Becky” to “Beck.” Had the rabbi done so, I would never have cited this example.

Retaining a distinctly female name while being called a man represents a desire to blur gender distinctions — which is all I care about in this matter, and which is precisely what Rabbi Silverstein intended. The rabbi said so in an article published in the Jewish Journal:

“I’m pretty attached to Becky and he, and creating that dissonance in the world … satisfies my need to push people, and to push society.”

If one wishes “to push society,” why is society not allowed to respectfully push back? 

But to all these progressive letter writers, any push back is characterized as “hate” and “attack.”

My column was not about transgender men and women. It was not about hiring trans-gendered people. It was about whether Jews view the Torah as a guide for living, and about the current unprecedented attempt to blur male-female distinction in biology and society.

Virtually all the letters and comments proved my original point.

In an attempt to show that the Torah does not seek to preserve male-female identities and the male-female distinction, some responders have distorted the verse in the Torah that I cited: “And God created man in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” They claim that the Torah, according to some rabbinic midrashim, didn’t really mean that God created male and female persons. 

That is not what the midrash teaches. The midrash, which consists of homilies, not literal statements, simply offers the notion that Adam (meaning humanity), like God himself, had female and male aspects. But no one contradicts the peshat, the Torah text itself, which is crystal clear. The text, to repeat, says, “male and female He created them;” “them” (human beings) — not “him” (Adam).

The notion that male and female has no objective reality, but is a subjective identity, is so contrary to scientific reality that these people have earned one of the epithets they throw at opponents: anti-science. It is not merely Torah and 3,000 years of Jewish affirmation of the male-female distinction that these people cavalierly reject; it is science itself. A human being who has two X chromosomes, mammary glands, a vagina, a uterus, produces eggs, and menstruates is a female. That is not opinion. That is science. No amount of midrash or left-wing dogma can rewrite science or the Torah.

My heart goes out to anyone who does not identify with his or her genetically assigned gender. But my heart also goes out to the vast number of young people who have to endure the left’s Brave New World experiments with them. To be told at the earliest age that the male-female distinction does not really exist because male and female are essentially the same, and therefore male-female distinction is not a blessing, but a patriarchal, sexist form of “binary,” “black-white” thinking is to deprive children of one of the blessings of human life — the infinitely complex and beautiful complementarity of man and woman, mother and father.

To believe that is compassionate, and true to both Judaism and reality, as challenging as both may sometimes be.

I welcome a public dialogue on this matter with any or all of the letter writers. The event can be run by the Jewish Journal and proceeds can be divided among the charities of our choice.  

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).

Response to Dennis Prager


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