The Conservative gay marriage debate

On Rosh Hashanah in 1992, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis stood before his Conservative congregation at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino and declared that despite the words of Leviticus, homosexuality is not an abomination. He argued that the same understanding and compassion Jews afford all human beings should be extended to those attracted to others of their own sex, and he told his congregation: 

“More than compassion is involved. Jewish wisdom and the morality of Jewish law are at stake. … Jews have the right, and the tradition, to interpret the text so that it sanctifies God’s name, our lives and that of our children. This is no heresy.” 

Schulweis spoke long before the arguments over gay marriage became prevalent in public discourse. He spoke well after gay pride had been established, but six years before the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager. It was also a year before the enactment of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which would bar harassment of closeted soldiers serving in the military, while preventing gays and lesbians from being open about their lives. The rabbi had heard many tragic stories from gays in his congregation, but he did not know how his congregants might react to his words. 

They gave him a standing ovation.

Not all congregations, even ones in the same denomination, work according to the same clock. More than two decades later, just one month ago, Rabbi David Wolpe wrote a letter to his Conservative congregation at Sinai Temple, a prominent Westside synagogue less than 10 miles south of VBS, and told them that the rabbis at Sinai had “unanimously decided that it is in accordance with the great halachic [Jewish legal] principle of kavod habriot, honor due all of God’s creation, to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies, once this possibility is afforded by California law.”

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Israel and Nov. 29

“The Vote,” the best show in town, opened at 7:45 p.m. on Nov. 29 and, after 23 acts, closed down 60 minutes later.

During that one hour, speakers, actors, musicians, singers and dancers commemorated the day, 65 years ago, when the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to partition Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state.

Less than six months later, the State of Israel was reborn.

In a seamless mix of historical remembrances, the day — and preceding years of persecution and struggle — came alive in words, film clips, re-enactments, and, most of all, in songs and dances of the era.

A large picture and the spirit of Theodor Herzl hovered over the audience as Rabbi David Wolpe and guitarist Ari Herstand invoked Herzl’s exhortation to the Zionist Congress and the Jewish people, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

Israeli Consul General David Siegel and Judea Pearl spoke vividly of that November day in 1947 when the Jewish world held its collective breath as 58 nations voted yes, no or abstain on the partition of Palestine resolution.

The Rev. Alexei Smith of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, as well as Mormon and Protestant representatives in the audience, served as reminders that many Christians actively supported the nationhood struggle of their Jewish brethren.

Actress Naomi Ackerman and singers Mike Burstyn and Noa Dori entertained in repeated appearances, and the talented youngsters of the Keshet Chaim Dance Ensemble and the MATI Kids Choir kept spirits high at the American Jewish University’s Gindi Auditorium.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein closed the evening with a poignant reminder that, only hours earlier, another United Nations vote had overwhelmingly backed a demand to upgrade the Palestinian status in the world body.

Amazingly, the entire show had been written and produced in three weeks by Craig Taubman and the staff at his Craig ‘N Co., and premiered without a single run-through or dress rehearsal.

In something close to a biblical miracle, rabbis, diplomats and performers voluntarily limited the lengths of their presentations to two to three minutes each.

The evening’s only negative notes were the many empty spaces left in the 474-seat Gindi Auditorium. Tickets were free, and 600 had been quickly distributed to the first-comers, leaving later applicants out of luck.

Yet a quarter of the ticket holders failed to show up, and the loss was theirs.

The seeds of the commemoration were planted in the pages of the Jewish Journal four years ago by Judea Pearl, UCLA professor, one of the world’s foremost authorities on artificial intelligence, and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, created to commemorate his journalist son, who was killed by Islamic terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

In an 2008 op-ed in the Journal, titled “The Forgotten Miracle,” and a follow-up article a year later, Pearl called the 1947 U.N. vote “perhaps the most significant event in Jewish history since the Exodus from Egypt,” and “a new chapter in world history.”

He expressed deep chagrin that no Jewish organization, institution or academic center had seen fit to commemorate the event and called for a Jewish Thanksgiving Day to express gratitude to the 33 nations that had voted for the 1947 U.N. resolution.

It took the next four years to realize at least part of Pearl’s vision, and during that time, he pressed the idea around town to just about every major Jewish institution and Israeli outpost.

“All the leaders I talked to thought it was just a great idea, but they didn’t have the budget or the staff or the time to pitch in,” Pearl said in an interview last week.

Finally, the local Israeli Leadership Council and its CEO, Sagi Balasha, picked up on the concept a couple of months ago, engaged Taubman and put the show on the road.

Pearl, who thinks big, is now aiming for annual celebrations on Nov. 29 in Jewish communities throughout the world.

“Wouldn’t it be great if the consul generals of the 33 nations were invited to a celebration each year to express the Jewish community’s thanks?” Pearl asked.

“Or if Jewish student groups on American campuses invited their counterparts from the 33 countries?” It would be a Thanksgiving Day, Pearl said, in which the Jewish community remembers, and reminds others, of the day world opinion took the decisive step to enable the birth of Israel.

Dear Ahmadinejad: Let me tell you about cancer

This column originally appeared at

When the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad compares Israel to a cancer, I take it personally.

On Monday, you see, I traveled to Israel to co-officiate at a wedding. And I have cancer.

I’ve been in remission from lymphoma for several years, and I visit Israel on average once or twice a year. So, as someone who claims a perverse expertise, permit me to point out three problems with his analogy:

First, cancer is, by definition, spreading. “Growth for growth’s sake is the ideology of the cancer cell,” Edward Abbey memorably wrote. Therefore a cancerous nation should, by definition, spread and grow large. Yet Israel (even if it annexed every bit of the West Bank) has given back far more territory than it ever conquered.

[Related: EU’s Ashton condemns ‘hateful’ Iran remarks on Israel]

The Sinai Peninsula dwarfs the other lands that were captured in a war that Israel did not start. Indeed, the lands Israel returned (more than 20,000 square miles) are larger than Israel itself. Israel is around 8,000 square miles, smaller than New Jersey, while Iran, which is 167,618 square miles, is slightly larger than California. Of course, this does not count the other Arab and Muslim nations of the world, of which there are more than 40, as opposed to one Jewish state. So on behalf of those who suffer with cancer and poor math skills everywhere, I wish Ahmadinajad would demonstrate a mathematical awareness consistent with his doctorate in engineering.

The second problem in the analogy is that healthy cells predate cancerous ones. Cancer is something that afflicts a body after it is formed. Since the State of Israel goes back 3,000 years, and Islam began in the 7th century (thus dating 1,500 years), it seems anachronistic, to say the least, to imply that Israel is an alien growth. Here, of course, a trained engineer may be forgiven for his ignorance of biology and history.

Finally, may I say as someone who has gone through two neurosurgeries and chemotherapy, at this stage of cancer treatment we know only how to either cut it out or blast it away? So how does one eliminate a cancerous people? The analogy leads inevitably, inexorably, to the prospect of genocide. When you define a nation as a cancer you imply the solution is mass murder. My cancer was put into remission by a line leading into my vein that dripped life-giving poison. What would the Iranian leadership use as a “cure” for Israel? Radiation, no doubt.
Ahmadinejad’s accusation is neither an idle threat nor overblown rhetoric. Iran eagerly pursues nuclear weapons. And as Abba Eban memorably said, there are things in Jewish history too terrible to be believed, but nothing too terrible not to have happened.

Do you suppose the world community will stir at this outrage? With “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the world’s most notorious anti-Semitic forgery, available in hotels in Jordan and on TV serials in Egypt, are there rounds of condemnations at the United Nations? Will Ahmadinajad no more be invited to international gatherings and symposia? Will the Muslim nations arise and say as one that we do not speak of people and nations in that manner? Will the world recognize that the Iranian leadership dreams of combining the two great warning signs of history, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?

No, this is what will happen: The furor will abate, the world will convince itself that he doesn’t really mean it, or he doesn’t really have power. He will be applauded on the streets of Arab capitals, and the nations will swallow some sleeping draught composed of complacency, indifference, foolishness and a pinch of anti-Semitism.

As I walk in Israel, I will see the eyes of a people who have never, not for a single day since the founding of the state, been accepted by their neighbors. I will know that if tomorrow the military situation were reversed, and Israel’s enemies had her firepower and she had theirs, there would not be roadblocks, housing and land disputes and voting discrimination as now exist against Palestinians, but wholesale slaughter. I will remember that whatever one thinks of the settlements, there were unremitting attacks against Israel before a single settlement existed.

In the background I will hear the voice of a malevolent man with power. It is not an unfamiliar voice in Jewish history. Thousands of years have taught us that when evil speaks, it is always in earnest. Asked what was the lesson of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel answered, “That you can get away with it.” Ignore this voice and we will learn that lesson once more.

Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, David Wolpe is the author of seven books including “Making Loss Matter: Creating Meaning in Difficult Times” and his latest, “Why Faith Matters.” Follow him on Facebook.

Christopher Hitchens: A rabbi remembers a friend and fellow debater

In his brilliant history of early modern England, “The Ends of Life,” historian Keith Thomas quotes a translator named George Petrie who wrote in 1581, “The only way to win immortality is either to do things worth the writing, or write things worth the reading.”  Christopher Hitchens is, by this reckoning, twice immortal.

On the page his words leapt to life.  Can you imagine a more subtle, devastating takedown than his famous comments on Jerry Falwell? “If someone gave him an enema you could bury him in a matchbox.”  The infuriating thing about debating Hitchens was that such ripostes were not the fruit of long, diligent thought. He thought in epigrams, and even in conversation there were quotable lines expressed in his deep British voice, his “instrument,” as he called it, given heft and tone by years of oratory, scotch and cigarettes.

The difficulty in debating Hitchens was not only the readiness of his wit and the range of his reference.  Alongside his learning was an unusually rich experience of life.  He was filled in equal measure with adventure and erudition.  He had traveled to most of the dangerous (as well as glamorous) spots in the world and could give you pointers not only on the government, but the best bars in every city from Paris to Port au Prince.  After a dinner of drinking others under the table, he could rise, knock off a 2,000 word essay on the fiction of James Joyce, and then retire for what remained of the evening.  His was a prodigious, unflagging energy sprung from deep gifts.

We had vigorous disagreements, to say the least.  Not only in our debates, where we wrestled over the reality of God, the worth of religion and the possibility of an afterlife.  I also recall pressing him on his long-standing opposition to Israel.  As he got older and became a staunch opponent of militant Islam, his stance toward Israel softened, but Hitchens was not a man for backtracking.  Even his late discovery of his own Jewishness (which “delighted” him) did not change his hostility to the one place on earth that otherwise – as I tried to point out to him without effect—embodied the values he held most dear.

But I have wonderful snapshots of his charm and kindness: urging me to drink beer before our debate (“it’s only water…”), warning me before we stepped on stage that he would never compliment me in public, instructing me in a long car ride on the fine points of different scotches, the skill of P.G. Wodehouse, and a steady stream of stories about the famous and infamous. The flow of Hitchens talk was unstinting, and he did not “save” his best stories, since the reservoir had no bottom.

Hitchens won my daughter’s heart with his first introduction to her when she attended the debate in Los Angeles moderated by The Jewish Journal’s editor-in-chief, Rob Eshman.  He bent down to greet her (she was then 11), stuck out his hand and said “Hitchens here.”  She felt instantly that he was unique.  Of course, I, as her father, listening to him proclaim during the debate that the only prayer he ever offered was for an erection, hoped that the introduction – and not the priapic theology—would be her lasting impression.

I have one keen regret.  Hitchens and I had planned to visit Concord together after our Boston debate, and it would have been a feast to see the graves of the Transcendentalists, of Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott and the others, with a lover of literature who was at the same time unalterably opposed to the reality of the unseen.  He had never visited and was eager to go.  But his daughter’s graduation coincided with the only day I could visit, and so I went alone and sent him pictures.

The world was more colorful and better critiqued when we had Hitchens scathing wit to scour our less-careful pronouncements.  (I recall watching him once on TV, when a defender of Hillary Clinton said, after a Hitchens assault, “Well that’s your opinion.”  Hitchens instantly replied, “Well of course it is. It would be fatuous to invite me on to spout YOUR opinion.” Ouch.)  He will be missed. 

Rabbi David Wolpe is rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings on

Bobby Fischer: The decline of a troubled genius

The world is rich in ability, awash in talent. But, though we use the word with abandon, genius is rare.

Many more people play the game of chess than basketball, football and baseball combined. To reach the rank of Grandmaster requires considerable talent. Breaking the ranks of top Grandmasters requires something approaching genius. To become one of the best players who ever played, genius is simply required.

So what can one say about a lonely, eccentric boy who grew up in Brooklyn and became arguably the greatest chess master who ever lived? How to weigh the achievement of a boy who took on the Soviet system — where Grandmasters were groomed from grade school, where teams of experts analyzed and improved the games of the premier players — and defeated it? In the Soviet system, outsiders were not only playing the person before them, but the squads of analysts who had combed over games and shared their conclusions with one another. To challenge the Soviet system and achieve a greater result in match play than has ever been seen before or since, one must be touched by the gods. Bobby Fischer, who accomplished all this, was a great genius. He was also, especially as he grew older, spiteful, hateful, ungrateful and borderline insane.

Fischer’s story has all the elements of tragedy: a supremely gifted young man, good looking, shy and preternaturally focused on a game that draws eccentrics as reliably as basketball draws pituitary cases. This is the tale of a child discovering he has a gift; such a gift that at age 13 he defeats an International Master in a game of such startling brilliance that it is still known as “the game of the century.”

In 1972, after many struggles, ups and downs and sordid difficulties, Fischer won the world title against Boris Spassky in the most publicized chess match in history. If his personality was strange up to this moment, from then on a precipitous decline set in. This man, who emerged from a brothel at 17 after his first sexual encounter with the comment “chess is better,” made it impossible for organizers to lure him back into competition. Piling conditions on conditions — “Bobby always wants more,” as a friend remarked — it gradually became clear that in some deep way this genius did not want to be tested again.

The descent began. Fischer began to make publicly anti-Semitic statements that grew increasingly vile, despite the fact that his mother was Jewish. He celebrated 9/11 when it happened, called for another holocaust (while publicly denying one had occurred) and became, with a second, long overdue match against Spassky in Yugoslavia, an official fugitive. As with many who develop persecution paranoia, there were some people actually out to get him. The American government was always suspicious of a child whose mother had some association with communism and who traveled to Russia, even though for Fischer it was all about chess. (Indeed, he grew to despise the Soviet Union, accusing the players of all manner of misbehavior.) Governments were suspicious of him and often inhospitable to the wandering celebrity. As the descent accelerated, the implosion of a genius became painful to watch.

For this was no ordinary gift. Although one could argue that there are two or three players who might give Fischer a run for the title of greatest player ever, none achieved so much against such odds, and none so early in life. In a way, it was his temporary triumph over himself that gave him the world championship. For as long as Fischer conquered himself, however briefly, there was no one else who could really challenge him. Prior to Fischer, never had a Grandmaster won a match from another without the second achieving so much as a draw. Never in the long history of chess. Fischer did it twice in a row. His 12-0 score against two of the leading Grandmasters in the world on his way to the championship is a rough equivalent of a pitcher pitching a string of perfect games in successive World Series. Still, he almost sabotaged the match against Spassky with his demands and petulance, and after winning the title, his complexes overtook him.

For Fischer to abandon competition is to chess players rather like Mozart giving up composition is to musicians, or Raphael tossing away his brushes is to artists. Since chess is not exactly a game, not precisely a sport and certainly not a science, it seems fair to say that Fischer is a man who gave the world some beautiful works of art — of a specialized kind, to be sure — and his mania deprived us of what we might have seen. His play had the directness and fierce simplicity of a search for the essence of each position. Life, on the other hand, called for a complexity and nuance alien to him. As he said about his playing style, no matter the opponent: “I don’t believe in psychology. I believe in good moves.”

In one respect, Fischer was very fortunate — in his biographer. Frank Brady’s early book on Fischer, “Bobby Fischer: Profile of a Prodigy,” is still riveting reading, and Brady’s new book, “Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall — from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness” (Crown: $25.99), is perhaps even more gripping. This is not a book about chess. It is about the rise and fall of a man who was given so much, but with a streak of craziness that compromised him again and again. Brady knew Fischer throughout his life, has pored over documents, writes about his relationship with his brilliant mother, speculates on who his father really was (to this day it is uncertain) and outlines the rise and fall of an extraordinary man, including the postmortem drama when Fischer was partially exhumed to test and see if a claimant to his estate was really his daughter.

Various interesting characters shade Fischer’s life — friends, opportunists, other players with their own views and agendas. But at the center of the storm is this profoundly lonely, brilliant and unbalanced man, leaving wreckage in his wake. Fischer died at age 64, the number of squares on the chessboard.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

Hitchens, Wolpe, Harris, Artson and the Afterlife [EXCERPTS & VIDEO]


The Brothers Wolpe talk bioethics at Sinai Temple

On Sunday morning, Dec. 12, near the end of his weekend-long stay as a scholar-in-residence at Sinai Temple, bioethicist Dr. Paul Root Wolpe was asked by Rabbi David Wolpe to give a few quick responses to some of the most challenging contemporary bioethical dilemmas.

“No,” Dr. Wolpe replied, provoking laughter from the nearly 300 people in attendance. “I can’t give quick responses; I’m a Wolpe.”

Dr. Wolpe is professor of bioethics and Jewish bioethics at Emory University as well as senior bioethicist for NASA and the first national bioethics adviser to Planned Parenthood of America. He had already delivered two talks to his brother’s congregation on Shabbat, so one highlight of Sunday’s breakfast was a picture-heavy PowerPoint presentation, which included quite a few photographs of genetically and otherwise engineered animals. He started with hybrids like the beefalo, the zorse (zebra-horse), the cama (camel-lama), the geep (sheep-goat) and, much to the delight of fans of “Napoleon Dynamite,” the liger (lion-tiger). Later, he showed pictures of mice, kittens, pigs, puppies and monkeys that, thanks to some genetic material from jellyfish and deep-sea coral, had been engineered to glow in the dark.

“The only reason to create a kitten that glows in the dark,” Dr. Wolpe said, “is to create a kitten that glows in the dark.” Rapid scientific advances like these raise ethical questions — which is, of course, is why the world needs bioethicists like Dr. Wolpe.

Despite his jocular demurral, the doctor eventually did offer a few concise observations on hot topics. Abortion: “No one has the right to tell me that my body has to be at the service of another body.” The degree to which health care is disproportionately allocated to the elderly: “We spend an enormous amount of money dying in this culture.” Embryonic stem cells: The way to infuriate scientists who advocate for the ethical use of embryonic stem cells is to ask them to name an experiment that would be too frivolous a use for such cells. “Should we use them to study male pattern baldness?” Dr. Wolpe asked, rhetorically.

Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community

For video footage of the dialogue, click here.

There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.

Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”

In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”

Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.

To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.

They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.

What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.

Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:

* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.

Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.

Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”

Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”

Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.

“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.

Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.

Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.

Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”

Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.

Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.

Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.

“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”

A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.

“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.

Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.

“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.

Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.

Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.

“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”

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Roger Cohen speaks with Iranian Jews at Sinai Temple
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Ratner and Diddy, Wolpe and Hitchens, the pocketbook and the soul

Brett Ratner

The Brett Ratner cover story was so telling on so many levels (“Just a Nice Jewish Director,” Oct. 24). It was telling of the young female writer in that the very superficiality that she suggests has plagued Ratner’s career (the decadence of his home and lifestyle, name-dropping who’s in his cell phone, his playboy image) is exactly what her article indulges in.

Nowhere in the article is there any extensive discussion or exploration of Ratner’s movies (aside from naming them in passing), which is very unfair to this young and accomplished filmmaker. Of course, that’s expected, as Ratner’s body of work, which — box office grosses aside — is not really worthy of extensive discussion.

And yet, that in itself is very telling of The Journal, which has devoted a cover story to this filmmaker, when so many worthier Jewish filmmakers who are true mensches (Sam Raimi? Sidney Lumet?) have yet to get a cover story.

The Journal, simply put, is more enamored with shallow Hollywood power, pretension and materialism than the writer of this piece is. It would be akin to a credible black publication sticking Diddy on its cover — hell, he’s young, black, filthy rich and successful. Who cares if he has absolutely nothing to say in his work?

Jacob Kurtzberg
Thousand Oaks

Conscience or Pocketbook?

As a Jewish Democrat, I have heard repeatedly the question asked by political pundits as to why Jews vote with their conscience for Democrats, instead of with their pocketbook for Republicans (“The Debates Won’t Matter,” Oct. 3).

This year, I am pleased to note that my vote for a Democrat will care for both my conscience and my pocketbook.

Martin A. Brower
Corona del Mar

Soul Searching

I would like to thank Gary Wexler for sharing with us his own “soul searching” in regards to what his responsibility is toward his mother (“Soul Searching,” Oct. 24). As one who sees many families struggling with end-of-life decisions, I certainly recognize his angst.

I suggest that he was given a gift by his mother when she gave him a directive by expressing her thoughts while on the 405 years ago. By hearing her, he can be guided if confronted with difficult choices.

At the same time, I personally feel uncomfortable with describing her now as “without her full soul.” I suggest that this reference, which can understandably be perceived, as changes in quality of life, are best attributed to losses in the mind/brain and not to the soul.

While the mind/brain in an “Alzheimer’s victim” can be understood to have decreased function, I believe the soul remains unchanged and eternal. If, as his friend beautifully describes, the essence of the soul can be passed on to others, then like love the soul itself need not be diminished.

Kenneth Leeds, M.D.
Beverly Hills


The so-called quarrel between Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe is no more than a sideshow, complete with sophistic books and $45 theater tickets (“Religion: The ‘First and Worst’ Explanation” and “We Were Intended by God — Not Afterthoughts,” Oct. 24).

In one corner, the alternately smug, smarmy and snarling Hitchens; in the other, the put-upon, poetic and pastoral Wolpe. Neither, apparently, has much understanding of science, Wolpe less than Hitchens; neither admits to the inconvenient truth that faith is just that, faith, an unarguable irrationality.

Rather than manufacture a conflict between faith and science, Hitchens and Wolpe would do well to engage the philosopher Sir Karl Popper (e.g. “Dialectica 32:342, 1978”) and the Nobel laureate biologist Sir Peter Medawar (“The Limits of Science,” 1984). Science and religion ask and answer very different, nonoverlapping questions.

Science does not make assertions about ultimate questions: How did it all begin (before Planck Scale)? What purpose do we serve? How will it all conclude?
Answers to such neither arise out of nor require validation by emperical evidence. Thus, it is meaningless to argue whether these answers are true or false, unless, of course, you want to sell books and collect speaking fees.

In the spirit of teshuvah, I invite Hitchens and Wolpe to audit my graduate class of 20 years on the epistemology and ethos of bioscience. There will, of course, be no charge.

Dr. Michael Melnick,
Professor, Developmental Genetics

Both Christopher Hitchens and Rabbi David Wolpe are wrong in their arguments about creation. Time is a human measurement of movement and not a dimension of reality. The universe is an all-inclusive system in motion.

Thus any motion of the universe determines its next motion, hence, it is not a universe in chaos as argued by Hitchens, but one of cause and effect, deterministic to infinity. The complexity of the universe as shown by science, from the human body to subatomic physics to astronomy, makes it self-evident that the big bang was caused by some intelligent force.

Wolpe is wrong when he argues we have free will and, by inference of religion, there is a personal god. Free will is an illusion. If a stick being carried down white water rapids in a river were to suddenly gain consciousness, it would think it was directing itself through the rapids, rather than realizing the rapids was directing it. The stick, as all things in the universe and the universe itself, is a movement of cause and effect. We humans like to see ourselves as observers of the universe, rather than what we are, a part of the universe.

The purpose of a human is simply being a human in a moving universe.

Leon M. Salter
Los Angeles

Exodus Revisited

Life was interesting for Rabbi David Wolpe in 2001.

It’s not every year that a man has an ad taken out against him in The Jewish Journal by six well-respected rabbis, accusing him of "threaten[ing] our spiritual continuity by attempting to diminish our faith and sever the roots that bind us to it," and also gets named by The Forward as one of the Top 50 most influential people in the Jewish community.

During the past year, Wolpe, the spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has been both vilified and lauded for his Passover sermon in which he questioned the truth of the Book of Exodus, as most of his congregants, indeed most of the Jewish world, had come to know it. His statements were recorded by Los Angeles Times reporter Teresa Watanabe, who quoted Wolpe as saying, "Virtually every modern archeologist who has investigated the story of the Exodus, with very few exceptions, agrees that the way the Bible describes the Exodus is not the way it happened, if it happened at all."

To say such declarations did not sit well with the rabbi’s Orthodox brethren is an understatement. The controversy evoked by the Los Angeles Times article about the sermon crossed not only interdenominational boundaries locally, but drew strong responses from across the United States and in Israel.

Many congregational rabbis were actually grateful. Instead of the usual, "We were taken out of Egypt and therefore must help the poor, homeless, suffering world Jewry…" sermons they try to make compelling year in and year out, suddenly there was a topic to dive into with gusto.

If indeed, the Exodus did not happen as stated in the Torah, what does that mean for the Passover seder, for the veracity of the Torah, for Israel and Judaism?

The debate raged among everyday congregants and world-renowned scholars. It spilled onto the pages of Moment magazine, in which Wolpe responded to an attack by Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeological Review, who in turn rebutted Wolpe as follows:

"…The only aspect of the Biblical account that Rabbi Wolpe legitimately questioned on archeological grounds was the claim that 600,000 Israelite men (plus women and children, for a total of 2 or 3 million) crossed the desert. This is a gross exaggeration, I agree. But if Rabbi Wolpe had simply said this straight out-and-out, his sermon would not have garnered the publicity it did."

Even as recently as a few weeks ago, New York Times reporter Michael Massing made a point in his article about the Conservative movement’s new chumash, Etz Hayim, to bring up Wolpe’s "litany of disillusion" about the Torah.

In truth, Wolpe said that he was only stating what Orthodox Jews had always claimed Conservative Jews believed.

"Part of the outrage was artificial, because the Orthodox have said for years that Conservative Jews treat the Torah as a human document," Wolpe said. "We do, and I said it, and they said, how dare you say such a thing? So that was part of it."

Wolpe said his primary motivation in writing the sermon, was that he wanted to avoid the tendency of many rabbis to hide their knowledge and opinions from their congregants, believing that they would not be able to handle the information.

"A nationally important rabbi with whom I spoke after the sermon said to me, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I said, ‘Because I don’t wish to treat my congregation as children.’ To which he said, ‘But they are children,’" Wolpe recalled, shaking his head.

"I think that is how a lot of rabbis think of their congregants," he continued. "I have had many rabbis say to me, I won’t bring you to my congregation to discuss this because it would undermine my religious position. That to me is a species of intellectual timidity that is unfortunate and even destructive."

Following the sermon and subsequent press, Wolpe said he got a call from a woman in Palm Beach, Fla., who told him that a couple of years ago she went to Israel on an archeological dig, and the archeologist said to her the same things that Wolpe said in his sermon.

"She said, ‘I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. But now it’s two years later, and my faith has deepened, so stick with it,’" the rabbi reported.

"I didn’t want my congregants to hear about this first at UCLA and to come back to me and say, ‘Rabbi, either you’re ignorant or you’re hiding. Why didn’t you tell us about this?’ I wanted them to know you can know this and still be a faithful Jew," Wolpe said.

Although the rabbi’s intentions were good, his characterization of belief in the divine origin of the Torah as blind faith angered some colleagues, particularly those in the Orthodox rabbinate. Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City, said after listening to the tape of Wolpe’s sermon that he felt compelled to confront the rabbi.

"I told him I took umbrage with the implication that Orthodox belief is blind belief; that it is an infantile stance, while those who believe in biblical criticism are the intellectuals, the enlightened ones," Muskin said. "To say that the Orthodox belief is that of the Dark Ages is just fallacious.

"We have been dealing with the same questions [as Bible scholars] for centuries, from the writing of the Talmud to the present day," said Muskin, who was part of a panel discussing biblical criticism March 20 at Valley Beth Shalom.

Over time, the controversy has died down somewhat. Muskin said he did not believe the incident created any lasting rift between Conservative and Orthodox Jews in Los Angeles.

Wolpe noted that "all the dire predictions about what this would do to my synagogue were wrong. We still get over 1,000 people every Shabbos morning, and to my knowledge, not a single family resigned over this issue. I think that’s because even though many were challenged, they know that we don’t keep our children Jewish by keeping them in the dark."

Even congregants who dispute Wolpe’s point of view said that for the most part, the congregation stood by the rabbi.

"There are those who disagreed and those who stopped coming, but I don’t know anyone who has left the synagogue," said Sean Nass, a Sinai Temple member.

Nass was present for the initial sermon and said it was "jolting, to say the least." He said he was brought up in Iran to see the Torah as the link between God and humans.

"Then here you are all of a sudden with a prominent rabbi saying the link is deeper than the Torah, that you have to have deeper faith," he said. "It was very unsettling."

Nass, who is enrolled in Wolpe’s class, "Beyond Exodus," that expands on the ideas raised by last year’s sermon, said he believed that the rabbi’s only mistake was in his approach to the material.

"Rabbi Wolpe fell into a trap," he said. "His problem is he is brilliant, and sometimes when brilliant people talk to the masses, what they say could go over the masses’ heads. I think if he had built up to [these ideas] over five or six sermons, he wouldn’t have met with such a strong reaction."

Wolpe concluded that on a personal level, standing up and stating his beliefs has been a powerful experience.

"Churchill said, after the Boer War, ‘There is nothing more exhilarating than to be shot at without result.’ I sort of feel the same way, that it was very bracing to see that all this could happen, and when it was over, I was still here," he said. "If it happens again, I’m not afraid of it."