November 21, 2018

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

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Film for Thought: Israel’s Moral Might

What is true strength? Is a person’s strength measured by his moral fiber or by the impression he gives off? Does strength emanate from within oneself – from one’s moral character – and spread to the outside, or does it begin externally – with a painted-on façade – and percolate inward? If one believes actions can create emotions, can a superficial veneer of personal strength eventually make a person actually believe in it?

The Debt, a movie which I recently crossed off my must-see list, says, emphatically, no: strength must originate from within oneself. The movie, a 2010 remake of a 2007 Israeli film, tells the story of 3 Mossad agents sent, in the 1960s, to capture a former Nazi in order to make him stand trial for his war crimes. Although they fail in their mission and the German eludes their grasp, they claim to have killed him and are venerated as national heroes. They found themselves confronted with an ethical dilemma: admit that they were unsuccessful and face certain nationwide disapproval and humiliation, or twist the truth in order to create the impression that they are resilient, that their country is resilient. They choose the latter and subsequently struggle to make peace with their lie and move on with their lives.

It was a time when Israel was trying to whitewash its former image, the image of the weak Jew. It was a generation spent breaking down one image and replacing it with a nearly-opposite one. Indeed, the entire movement of hunting down Nazi war criminals was primarily to execute justice, but may have also been partly to construct a new mentality: no when messes with the Jews and gets away with it. European Jews may have gone to the gas chambers like sheep to the slaughter– but no more.

The 3 Mossad agents attempt to put on that expression of stoicism and toughness in the face of their dangerous mission. They act tough on the outside, but eventually cracks begin to appear. Their German prey recognizes this inferiority complex of theirs and doesn’t resist in pushing their buttons. Sure enough, his psychological prodding and their emotional instability are what ultimately doom their mission. But no one needs to know about their failure except for themselves, and Israel can continue becoming the world superpower that it is today. 

Yet when the Nazi officer comes out of hiding decades later, jeopardizing their version of the events from years ago, they are faced with the same choice from their past. Do they finish their mission now without anyone knowing differently, or do they embrace the truth, expose their lie, and bear the consequences? And this time, embracing the truth comes with much more collateral damage than it did decades ago. The moral code of conduct encourages one to tell the truth, requiring enormous courage and integrity. This is the strength of character, the strength that originates from within one’s heart, pumped to and nourishing all the organs of one’s body. Doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, regardless of the external pressures. 

This signals a new chapter in the narrative of the nation of Israel, of the Jewish people. We don’t need to create the façade of robustness and muscle anymore. That’s already been done, and the Eastern European shtetl Jew is a distant memory. It is now time to embrace the other brand of strength, that of moral character. It is now time to return to our biblical roots, to our Judeo-Christian values.  

Fast-forward to 2014. Israel continues to flex its muscle, but – simultaneously – it goes out of its way to exercise morality by attempting to minimize civilian casualties, even in the most labyrinthine of circumstances. For example, on multiple occasions, the Israeli army has rained down warning pamphlets to the citizens of Gaza, urging them to leave the area before the full brunt of the army’s onslaught would begin. Israel must continue to practice moral self-control and judicious use of its military might, even in the face of the relentless provocation by its enemies. To do otherwise would be equivalent to Israel forsaking its Jewish tradition, which would signify an early victory to its adversaries and naysayers. 

Is murder wrong?: Progressive dialogue

In my last column, I made the case that if there is no God who declares murder wrong, murder is not, in fact, wrong. While human beings can believe that murder is wrong, without God, right and wrong are our moral opinions, not moral facts.

This is so basic and so logically obvious that no prominent secular or atheist philosopher I have dialogued with over the past 35 years has disagreed with it. Professor Jonathan Glover, one of Europe’s preeminent moralists, acknowledged this at the beginning of our debate at Oxford University. So did professor Steve Stewart-Williams, lecturer in evolutionary psychology at Swansea University in Wales, an atheist who is the author of “Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life” (Cambridge University, 2010). The very premise of his book is that because there is no God, there is no ultimate morality or meaning to life, so we have to fashion a godless morality and meaning. And one of the most revered liberal philosophers of the modern era, Princeton philosopher Richard Rorty, wrote that for secular liberals (like himself), “there is no answer to the question, ‘Why not be cruel?’ ” (“Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity” [Cambridge University Press, 1989]).

The other point I made is that I believe that this fundamental moral issue of life — if there is no God, murder isn’t evil — is rarely preached from non-Orthodox pulpits or taught in non-Orthodox seminaries. I would like to add two points. One is that I have no denominational agenda here: I am not Orthodox, and I have attended a Reform synagogue for about 25 years. The other is that the divine basis of morality and the need to spread that idea was one of the core beliefs of Reform Judaism when it was founded.

What I want to discuss in this column are Jewish Journal reader reactions to this column.

First, reactions as printed in the Comments section of

Comment by Dern: “Were I to submit such an article to any credible institution, I would expect them to throw it in the trash, not put it on the front page. This article is so bad I just had to comment on it. Why does JewishJournal print this stuff?”

Comment by Reader: “I see three possibilities here: 1) Dennis Prager is intellectually dishonest; 2) Dennis Prager is just not very bright; 3) both of the above. This kind of straw-man argument is just pathetic and I hoped I could expect better from the Jewish Journal (guess not as long as you keep publishing this tripe).”

Comment by Craig S. Maxwell: “So much then (I guess) for Jefferson’s self-evident truths. Or does Dennis think our nation was founded on a mere poetic fiction? … See Peter Kreeft for more details at:”

Comment by Rheda Gomberg: “What a waste of my time. What the hell did he say? How can anyone be so full of himself and say so little. Shame on JJ.”

Comment by LA Reader: “Mr. Prager’s tripe is a continuing embarrassment to this newspaper. Let him leave it in talk-radioland, where it finds an eager audience.”

There was also one letter in the printed edition of the Jewish Journal. It came from Joshua Holo, dean of the Los Angeles Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 

Dr. Holo wrote, among other things: “I object to his heedless and gratuitous hostility. It is difficult not to read Prager as a provocateur, claiming incisive and close analysis, while in fact painting in broad strokes of facile caricature.

“HUC-JIR and every other synagogue and seminary with which I have interacted teach God as the source of morality, even if they do not always cast aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.”

I cite these reactions because they typify the way too many on the left react to ideas with which they disagree: belittle the person who made the argument and demand he not be published (or be invited to speak at a university or to a progressive church or synagogue).

No one, including Dr. Holo, refuted my thesis that if there is no God, murder isn’t wrong. 

For example, Craig S. Maxwell cites Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” as a refutation of what I wrote. But one of Jefferson’s self-evident truths is that humans “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” No Creator, no unalienable rights. Sounds like what I wrote. And Mr. Maxwell’s citing Peter Kreeft is even odder. Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, just made a video course for Prager University titled “If Good and Evil Exist, God Exists.”

Nor does Dr. Holo deny that murder is wrong only if God says so. On the contrary, Dr. Holo writes that Reform rabbis and the Reform seminary clearly affirm this principle. That was good to hear, although I suspect that it will come as somewhat of a surprise to the many Reform rabbis and congregants who believe that good and evil exist quite independently of God’s existence. It is even better news — although, I admit, hard to believe — that Reform rabbis “teach” this to their congregants.

Dr. Holo accuses me of “facile caricature.” But the only facile caricature here is Dr. Holo’s of me. He describes me as a “provocateur” engaged in “heedless and gratuitous hostility,” who “always cast[s] aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently.” I grant Dr. Holo the moral sincerity of his progressivism. Why can he not respect the moral sincerity of my opposition to his progressivism? Or does he believe that to oppose the left is, by definition, the act of a provocateur engaged in heedless and gratuitous hostility? And as for casting “aspersions on those who arrive at morality differently,” in a lifetime of writing and speaking, I have never done that. I deeply admire atheists who lead moral lives. 

Hopefully one day, Jewish progressives will hear a critique and respond not with ad hominem put-downs, but with, “Could there be some truth in this critique — especially when it comes from a committed, and non-Orthodox, Jew?”

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

Survey: Fewer Americans think Jews control Hollywood

Forget Spielberg. Forget the Weinsteins. Forget “Seinfeld.”

The majority of Americans no longer believe that Jews control Hollywood. This is the news from a new poll released by the Anti-Defamation League that also suggests there remains a widespread conviction that there is an organized campaign by Hollywood and the national media to undermine religious values.

In the October 2008 survey of 1,000 American adults, “American Attitudes on Religion, Moral Values and Hollywood,” conducted by the Marttila Communications Group, 63 percent of Americans said they do not believe that the movie and television industries are “pretty much run by Jews.” This finding contradicts not only the prevailing myth, but also a 1964 survey in which half of the respondents agreed that Jews controlled Hollywood. It seems the era depicted in Neil Gabler’s book, “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” is over.

“It’s interesting that it’s fallen that much; it’s a mark of the decline of anti-Semitism in this country,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. However, Sarna was quick to point out that the statistics may not be entirely reliable. Telephone polls, he said, tend to skew older because they are the ones who are at home to answer calls, and because the prohibition against cold-calling cellphones precludes most younger perspectives.

Sixty-one percent of those polled said they believe religious values are under attack, and 63 percent said religion as a whole is losing its influence on American life.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents do not believe Hollywood shares the religious and moral values of most Americans. Of those, 70 percent identify themselves as religious Americans who attend religious institutions one or more times each week. Conservative Protestants agreed with this statement most strongly (68 percent), followed by traditional Catholics (60 percent) and moderate Catholics (55 percent).

Forty-three percent of respondents said they believe there is an organized campaign by the national media to “weaken the influence of religious values”; 62 percent of that group said they attend religious institutions one or more times per week. Among them, those who identified themselves as traditional Catholics agree most strongly (65 percent), followed by Protestants (56 percent) and liberal Catholics (41 percent). However, 59 percent of non-affiliated people surveyed disagree with this statement.

The idea that certain forms of entertainment are antithetical to religious values predates Hollywood. In early American history, Protestant groups were deeply opposed to theater. When motion picture “talkies” were introduced to America in the 1930s, the Production Code (also known as the Hays Code) was quickly created, establishing explicit censorship guidelines for the film industry.

“Ambivalence towards entertainment is a bit like ambivalence towards sex,” Sarna said. “And they’re related; things that give one joy are often deemed to be suspect, and I think we’re seeing that.”

The poll also revealed some support for censorship. While a clear majority does not think books containing dangerous ideas should be banned from public school libraries, 38 percent support censoring books.

The study’s data indicates that people who attend religious institutions regularly are decidedly more conservative in their cultural views. They are also more likely to vote Republican. While the majority-vs.- minority groupings do not surprise Sarna, he is skeptical of the poll’s numerical conclusions.

“If 43 percent of Americans decided not to go to the movies, the movie industry wouldn’t be the size it is in this country,” he said.

In a statement accompanying the poll’s release, ADL director Abe Foxman said, “The belief that religion is under attack underlies the drive to incorporate more religion into American public life.”

Yet, Sarna countered that if the majority of Americans really believed religion was under attack, Sen. John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin would have won the election.

“The very fact that Obama’s ticket won — and won big — reminds us that there are all sorts of other issues that are important. Nobody voted for Obama because they thought he would inject more religion into public life,” Sarna said.

VIDEO: Israel tries to sex up its image

Britains’ Sky News reports from Tel Aviv on an Israeli advertising campaign to sex up its image.

Shoah lessons drive curriculum

The Holocaust will play a major role in educating teens at a new Green Dot charter school in Exposition Park. The entire staff of the Animo Jackie Robinson High School — seven teachers and two principals — has been trained to teach a curriculum by Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization that uses the Holocaust to help kids understand the impact of moral choices they make daily.

“In making our school a Facing History high school, we are saying ‘what if we could really shape all the curricular components with this vision? What would happen with kids from the inner city who are really struggling with moral choices, and who often have no idea what it means to have remorse for your actions?'” said assistant principal Kristen Botello.

The school has written a four-year curriculum that integrates the Facing History approach through several disciplines, including English, history, science, art and community service. Animo Jackie Robinson is the first school in Los Angeles to adopt Facing History as an underlying educational philosophy.

The school opened this year with 147 kids in ninth grade; 18 of them are African American and the rest are Latino. Grades will be added over the next three years until there are 600 ninth- to 12th-graders, and all teachers hired will be trained by Facing History.

“I believe the thought processes that result from Facing History affect the kids not only in terms of learning the content of the Holocaust, but in looking at human behavior and the specific, personal events where individuals had to make choices, and how individual choices impact history,” Botello said.

Botello taught English at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights for 14 years, 11 of them using the Facing History curriculum. She says she can always spot kids who had Facing History teachers.

“You can just see it in the way they behave, the way they treat each other and the tolerance levels they have for people who are different, not just in terms of race or ethnicity, but in terms of disabilities or challenges,” she said.
The Jackie Robinson educators were among 30 LAUSD teachers who participated in Facing History’s five-day September institute called “Holocaust and Human Behavior,” held at Mount St. Mary’s College Doheny Campus.

Around 1,500 teachers in Los Angeles have been trained by Facing History.
For information, visit or

A helping foot
As they have been for the past 14 years, about 250 kids and families will lend their feet to AIDS Walk Los Angeles Oct. 15 as part of Kids Who Care, a team made up of kids from more than a dozen schools, including Stephen S. Wise Day School and Milken Community High School.
Last year, Kids Who Care raised $65,000, placing it fifth among the top AIDS Walk fundraisers, most of them corporations.

The team was founded with 25 walkers in 1992 by then-8-year-old Leo Beckerman, a Stephen S. Wise member. Since then, Stephen S. Wise families have raised more than $500,000 for AIDS Walk Los Angeles, now in its 22nd year.
The money funds direct services, prevention education and advocacy on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles County.
There are approximately 55,000 people living with HIV in Los Angeles County, and there are 1,500-2,000 new infections each year.

For information visit or

Family dinners = better grades + better behavior
First ladies Maria Shriver and Corina Villaraigosa helped kick off Family Day at Thomas Starr King Middle School near Griffith Park Sept. 25. The Safeway Foundation launched a $2 million public service campaign to encourage families to eat dinner together.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University founded Family Day in 2001 — and this year 600 cities participated. A CASA study found that compared to kids who have fewer than three family dinners per week, children and teens who have frequent family dinners are at 70 percent lower risk for substance abuse; half as likely to try cigarettes or marijuana; one-third less likely to try alcohol; and almost 40 percent likelier to say future drug use will never happen. The report also found that teens who have frequent family dinners are likelier to get better grades in school.

For information visit or

The next step for girls: Israel
The Orthodox Union’s (OU) Machon Maayan one-year program in Israel opened with its first class of 39 women, many of whom have scant Judaic studies background.
The post high-school seminary in Beit Shemesh — a half hour from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — attracts girls who graduate from the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the OU’s outreach youth movement, and want to continue in their Jewish studies.
“Where we stop, programs like Machon Maayan continue,” said Rabbi Steven Burg, National Director of NCSY, who was formerly the movement’s West Coast director.
For more information go to


‘Munich’ Portrays Real World Issues

In recent days, several pundits have criticized “Munich,” the new film by director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, for drawing a “moral equivalency between the Israeli assassins and their targets — both explicitly … and implicitly.” Furthermore, they argue that it has inaccurately portrayed the Israeli avengers as morally conflicted about their mission to eliminate the perpetrators of the Munich massacre.

As long-time community advocates who have dealt with Hollywood’s often-ambivalent images of Jews and Israel, we are sensitive to the overt and sometimes covert themes that can send a message that delegitimizes the world’s only Jewish state. We are also aware of the risks of taking creative license with recent history that is still playing itself out in current events.

“Munich” does not present these problems.

“Munich” probes the motivations of the Black September terrorists who commit the heinous crime of the Munich Olympic slaughter (portrayed in haunting and unambiguous scenes) and even affords one of the terrorists an opportunity to state his attachment to the land. The terrorists, however, stand in stark contrast to the Israeli avengers who were forced into action by a shocked, but ultimately indifferent world, yet sought to avoid harm to innocents at every turn.

Despite the fact that the Israeli mission was a violent one, it was clearly not animated by the callous evil that permeated the Palestinian onslaught. The debates, ambivalence and anguish that the Israeli avengers reflected on the screen as their mission wore on are no different than today’s vigorous dialogues in Israel that grapple with similar life-and-death issues.

Even before the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948, Palestinian Jews practiced a doctrine of tohar haneshek, the purity of arms. They recognized, as the movie’s protagonist, Avner, does, that while arms may be necessary, violence not only inflicts damage on the enemy but also wounds the actor.

The film quotes Jewish tradition, which itself wrestles with the question of the death of one’s enemy. At the Passover seder, Jews diminish the cup of wine they drink to remember that even those who enslaved them in Egypt were human and God’s creation.

In fact, Jewish commentaries on the Bible have God rebuking the angels who were celebrating the destruction of the Egyptians: “The fruits of my hands are drowning in the sea, how dare you sing songs.” This is not a mandate for nonviolence, it is an acknowledgment of a reality that must be weighed and measured whenever violent action is contemplated.

What “Munich” presents is not moral equivalency or mechanical symmetries, it is the real world. Had this been a two-dimensional thriller with clear cut and uncomplicated good guys and bad guys, controversy could have been avoided. It still would have been a compelling and exciting film.

“Munich” deals with the ambiguities, ambivalences and compromise that inevitably crop up in real life, even when responding to undistilled evil visited upon innocents.

As the film ends, Avner walks along New York’s East River, absorbing all he has been through. Some critics claim that it is unclear if he returns to Israel or remains in America. That uncertainty is not a commentary on Zionism or its vitality; Avner needs a time out, a long time out. (Israelis routinely go to Nepal or India, far away from the Middle East and far away from the news of the Middle East after their military service. They, too, need a time out.)

In the background of this climactic scene are the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, a reminder that by 2005, with the towers gone, we all inhabit a world in which terror is a reality and the response to it poses uncomfortable and vexing challenges, especially for democracies. No one is insulated, no more time outs.

Critics can quibble with this colloquy or that juxtaposition in “Munich,” but the impact of this moving film is profound. It forces the viewer to ponder how best to deal with terror and evil in a world in which every action, no matter how justified, has consequences.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. He served as the Anti-Defamation League’s director in Los Angeles for 16 years, dealing with Hollywood-related issues. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.


Dialogue of Truth

For many, perhaps most, American Jews today, the words that open this week’s Torah portion stand at the center of the their understanding of Judaism. "You shall judge the people with righteous judgment" we are taught; "Justice, justice, you shall pursue." If one pursues how these lofty words are applied in our social lives, one finds great disagreement.

Over the past 20 years or so, it seems that the consensus in the Jewish community as to the contents and means of social justice has fractured. On such domestic issues as affirmative action, world Jewish issues such as Israel and the Palestinians and foreign policy issues such the war against Islamic aggression toward the United States, there is no "Jewish view" — not among the populace, and not among intellectuals and leaders. What is "righteous" and "just" is a matter of contention.

This contention about the contents of justice has led some to believe that there are no moral absolutes (whatever that means), and to affirm what is supposed to be the opposite of moral absolutism. Sometimes the opposite of moral absolutism is supposed to be moral relativism (what is moral is relative to the culture or society in which the matter is discussed) or moral subjectivism (what is moral is highly subjective or personal; each individual decides for him/herself).

I find that all three stances, moral absolutism, moral relativism and moral subjectivism, are, generally speaking, not in accord with the Jewish notion of justice. All three teach important lessons about justice, but none can serve as the foundation.

The foundation of a Jewish notion of justice is expressed, in my opinion, by the moral theory called "moral realism." The strong version of moral realism holds that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions; the weaker version (the one I personally uphold) is that there are, at least, better and worse answers to moral questions.

Neither the strong version nor the weak version holds that we always, or even usually, can find the answer to moral questions with certainty, or that we even know with clarity what our moral questions are. What moral realism does uphold is that moral questions are real and some resolutions really are better than others, and that our difficulty in finding answers does not mean that there are no answers, or at least better and worse ones for now.

The greatest teacher of moral realism in the Jewish tradition is the dialectics of the Talmud. Talmudic debate is characterized by different sides holding and staking out firmly held positions, and the final editor of the Talmud advancing each position carefully in opposition to the other. The opposing sides use analysis of biblical verses, the statements of earlier sages, understandings of human nature, popular opinion, appeals to reason, etc., all as ways of advancing their arguments. The first time one reads a sustained Talmudic debate (called a sugiya), especially if one is not an experienced Talmud student, one has no idea how the debate will end, which position will achieve pre-eminence. And even then, some debates end with the word "teyku" "let it stand" — meaning that neither side has adequately shown its view, in the eyes of the final editors, to be sufficiently provable as correct at the expense of another.

What is prized in the debate of the Talmud more than anything else is cogent and respectful conduct of the argument. Finding the answer might not be easy, but the path toward righteous judgment is best paved with civility, truth, respect and especially conscientious dialogue with those with whom one disagrees. If we actually take the time to sit with another to clarify the premises, the facts and the policies that are at stake, we might find our way to righteousness. Perhaps the worst thing we can do, from a Jewish perspective, is to say that all truth is subjective, and there is no right answer, or for a person to be so convinced of their rightness, that they don’t want to be confused with facts or another way of thinking.

I am at least partially speaking here about a climate of defamation that has clouded the upcoming presidential elections. Politically, I consider myself a passionate centrist. That being the case, I don’t have a default position on hardly any political issue. I have to find out the facts, understand the premises and examine the ramifications of recommended policies. I read the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and the New Republic (among others). I also have to read the Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, the National Review (among others). It’s like reading the Talmud; I have to examine all sides of the debate to find my way to righteous and truth.

In Ronald Brownstein’s column in the Los Angeles Times on Aug. 9, his appeal for civility and dialogue as we craft our social polices through the choice of a president is rooted in Jewish and other traditions that prize process as much as answers.

Justice is not ready made. It must be pursued, and its pursuit is characterized by respectful dialogue and debate. If you really care about justice and truth, find someone with whom you disagree and enter into dialogue. From a Jewish perspective, only together, in each other’s presence, can we find justice and truth. We might even find a third Presence that appears in those deep dialogues from time to time.

Mordecai Finley is rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and is provost at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Prisoners’ Release Faces Hurdle

Seldom can Israeli Cabinet ministers have faced a more acute moral and political dilemma than the current prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah.

That proposal, which the 23-member Cabinet approved Sunday by a one-vote margin, forced ministers to weigh the conflicting interests of several Israeli families, put a price on the life of a kidnapped Israeli citizen and consider the long-term price that all Israelis may yet have to pay.

Now the government may have another decision to make: Hezbollah is demanding that those released include Samir Kuntar, the terrorist from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who murdered an Israeli family in a 1979 attack that shocked Israel.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, claimed Israel promised to release Kuntar and that without him, the deal is off. Israeli officials said they never promised to free Kuntar — and that despite their eagerness for a deal, Israel, too, has red lines that it won’t cross.

"Regarding Kuntar, who killed an Israeli family, from our standpoint this is a principle: We have not freed Palestinians or nationals of other countries with blood on their hands," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Regardless of whether Kuntar ends up scuttling the deal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expended a tremendous amount of political capital for a deal that involved complex moral considerations and provides insight into the Israeli leader’s core values.

Citing the principle that you don’t leave dead or wounded soldiers in the field, some ministers backed the deal, which includes kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Others, making the same argument, opposed the deal, because it doesn’t include captured air force navigator Ron Arad or even information on Arad’s fate.

Under the terms of the deal, Israel will release 400 Palestinians and 20 Lebanese prisoners and hand over the remains of dozens of Lebanese militiamen in return for Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in October 2000.

Arad went missing in action when his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. The deal calls on German mediators and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to set up a joint committee to find out what happened to Arad after his Lebanese captors allegedly handed him over to Iran — but few in Israel expect Hezbollah to take that commitment seriously.

The Cabinet debate pitted two cardinal principles against each other: Part of the raison d’etre of a Jewish state is that it serve as a guardian of the Jewish people and, as such, does all it can to bring back captured Israelis alive. On the other hand, with the state engaged in a relentless struggle against terrorism, most Israelis strongly believe that they shouldn’t give in to terrorists because it will only encourage more attacks.

Ministers arguing against the deal emphasized its disproportionality, with Israel releasing more than 400 prisoners for just one living Israeli. They said that would encourage hostile organizations to kidnap more Israelis and make further demands. It also would give Hezbollah, a terrorist group, a great deal of regional prestige as the one Arab organization that repeatedly has proven its ability to make Israel bend.

Then there was the question of Arad, who has become a national icon. Tannenbaum, the one live Israeli in the deal, is said to be an inveterate gambler who was lured into captivity under dubious circumstances regarding a possibly shady business deal.

Moreover, ministers complained about the fact that Mustafa Dirani, the man who allegedly tortured Arad before handing him over to the Iranians, is one of the men to be freed. Israel captured Dirani from southern Lebanon in 1994 specifically to be used as a bargaining chip to win Arad’s release.

So why is Sharon intent on going through with a deal so obviously flawed?

For one, he is not holding out for Arad because he apparently believes the airman is dead. There has been no reliable information on Arad since 1988, and Sharon is convinced that, were he alive, his captors would long since have made demands of Israel in return for his release.

A government-appointed committee, under retired Justice Eliyahu Winograd, declared recently that there was no concrete evidence that Arad had died in captivity, but it stopped short of saying he was alive. Sharon decided not to harm the chances of saving Tannenbaum by holding out for the presumably dead Arad.

"You must vote for this deal to save a living Israeli," Sharon told the Cabinet. "To leave him there is to let him die."

Tannenbaum’s character, in Sharon’s view, is immaterial. If it turns out that Tannenbaum broke the law, Sharon believes that he should be punished upon his return to Israel, not by Hezbollah.

In Sharon’s determination to save a Jew in distress, one gets a glimpse of core values that go back to his formative years. One of Sharon’s lesser-known exploits was the extrication of his platoon, pinned down by heavy enemy fire, in the War of Independence.

Bleeding badly from a severe stomach wound, the 19-year-old Sharon doggedly led his men out of an almost impossible situation. His courage then and his determination now stem from the same guiding principle: That he must do all he can to save and protect Jews.

Sharon remains determined to press ahead, even though his readiness to free hundreds of prisoners has cost him dearly in terms of credibility with the Palestinians and the Americans. If he is so ready to give prisoners to Nasrallah, they ask, why was he reluctant to release jailed Palestinians when former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas demanded a gesture to build support on the Palestinian street?

Sharon confidants rejected the comparison. The Nasrallah case, they said, is a question of saving an Israeli life. By contrast, the Abbas case was a question of political tactics, choosing not to make wholesale prisoner releases until Abbas began fulfilling his commitment to act against terrorists. In any case, Israel ended up releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to appease Abbas — though the Palestinians dismissed the move as insufficient.

Still, in weighing the two guiding principles — saving Jews and not capitulating to terrorists — Sharon is prepared to go only so far. He draws the line at releasing terrorists with civilian blood on their hands. Those who take Jewish lives must be made to pay.

That’s why he is so insistent on not releasing Kuntar, even if it means leaving Tannenbaum in Hezbollah hands.

The question now is who will blink first on the Kuntar issue: Sharon or Nasrallah? Those who know Sharon say it won’t be the prime minister.

The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler

Early in the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a rising young Protestant minister and theologian, was asked by his twin sister to speak at the funeral of her Jewish husband.

Bonhoeffer consulted his church superiors and refused. Later, tormented by his decision, he asked himself, “How could I have been so afraid? I should have behaved differently.”

It was perhaps the only time that Bonhoeffer’s natural human fear trumped his moral courage in fighting the Nazi ideology, a stand for which he finally paid with his life.

The acts and religious beliefs of perhaps the most principled German Protestant voice during the Hitler era are woven together in the 90-minute documentary, “Bonhoeffer,” opening Oct. 10 at two Laemmle theaters.

His complex theological thoughts, which emphasized the interconnectedness between traditional Christianity and secular action, might give some viewers pause, but the path leading to his martyrdom is marked by astounding feats of conviction and daring.

Bonhoeffer took the ultimate step by joining the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. But unlike his fellow conspirators in the army officers corps, whose chief aim was to save German honor and lives, the theologian made the persecution of the Jews the main spur for his resistance.

As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer, 26 at the time and a lecturer at the University of Berlin, became one of the first churchmen to criticize Hitler as a “misleader” who “mocked God.”

Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by a year spent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during which time he befriended the Rev. Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and absorbed some of the black congregation’s emotional faith and social and political activism.

Despite his Nazi opposition, Bonhoeffer largely escaped Gestapo detection until the spring of 1943, when he helped 14 Jews flee to Switzerland and was subsequently linked to a resistance cell embedded in the Abwehr, the German army’s intelligence bureau.

One month before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was led naked to the gallows at the Flossberg prison and hanged. Devout to his last breath, his last words were, “This is the end of me, but the beginning of life.”

“Bonhoeffer” opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle’s Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.

Who Are the Journalists?

We love to hate them, those journalists who wield so much power and never quite get the facts right.

For two years now, we have opened up our morning papers, our Web sites and our hourly news broadcasts with a pit in our collective stomachs. It isn’t bad enough that the news from Israel is so frightening, terrifying and brutal, but the events are served up to us by journalists who can’t seem to distinguish between the ruthless murder of innocent babies at a pizza shop and the deliberate and cautious method in which our brave soldiers execute these murderers.

We are repelled by the moral blindness that screams from every page. Was there something we were missing?

Both of us had developed a much more positive view of journalists here in Los Angeles as we got to know them as human beings and friends. We went to Israel with a unique mission: not to confront but to engage, not to challenge but to question. Through the good offices of friends in Israel, we were able to meet with nearly a dozen journalists in a dizzying half-week; we got to know them and they us.

We spoke with the bureau chiefs of almost all the key American dailies, and then some. We learned much. We enjoyed the company of some very likable people, for the most part, struggling to do a good job on the toughest beat in the world. We detected no animus oward Israel, Israelis or Jews.

No two were the same in temperament or in previous experience. Some had covered wars elsewhere; others had last covered PTA meetings.

Some arrived in Jerusalem with very little knowledge of the historical background to the conflict (what was needed, they said, was accurate reportage of the events of the day). One was a Fullbright lecturer with shelves of background material neatly separated according to topic.

They also had quite a bit in common. They all took considerable risks to cover hot spots. Everyone had a flak jacket; everyone had thrust himself or herself in the midst of combat.

Despite each having important stories to tell and personal insights to relate, they exhibited far less ego then we anticipated. None of them had plans to write a book; they were almost uniformly sheepish about the suggestion. They saw themselves as specialists in their single interest of daily reportage, and that suited them just fine.

They had all been to Jenin, and each one insisted that he/she quickly knew there was no massacre and had gotten the word out quickly. Each one also insisted that it was shortsighted of Israel to change the press accommodations without warning, leaving them stranded outside the arena of action.

The authorities had never clamped down too hard on them when they exposed themselves to the dangers of bullets whizzing around their heads. Why did they choose Jenin to become solicitous of their safety in the face of hidden bombs, refusing to allow them official entry (some found ways around that) until after women and children had reentered the town? While they personally believed that Israel had nothing to hide, the country had handed the Palestinians significant credibility for their claims.

The veteran writers all appreciated that in other wars they had covered, they were simply kept away from the combat zones — and that was the end of it. No country matched the freedom of access that Israel provided, but that did not lead to enthusiastic embrace of the Israeli position, when in their view political hacks frustrated their getting their work done.

One writer pithily offered this summary: “When most of us get here, we have leanings toward the Israeli side. After we see the plight of the Palestinians, our sympathies tilt in the other direction. When we really get to know the principals, we are equally turned off to both.”

Why do they get in trouble with American Jewish critics? One factor became prominent: the use of Palestinian “facilitators” to gather news and sometimes to do much more.

Everyone has them. Israelis just cannot operate in the territories, while the opposite is not true. The journalists say they take their bias into account, but the process is imperfect. And the Palestinians speak with one voice: they want to put their people in the best light.

While the journalists use Israeli facilitators as well, they do not all hew to the same line. Israel is a democracy, and the Israeli counterparts to the Palestinians (none of the latter, by the way, agreed to meet with us) are not all great boosters of the state.

Here we were able to level the playing field a bit. We came equipped with ideas for stories, and fresh contacts who would give voice to points of view they had not yet heard. Surprisingly, we found out that we were the first who had tried this personal approach to helping them do their job.

We proposed human interest ideas, and every one of our new friends sighed, expressing the wish that the violence would subside long enough to allow them the luxury of pursuing those avenues.

There were some difficult moments. We found it hard to listen to stories of the counterproductive behavior of our own people. We hoped — and continue to hope — that people outside our community should be able to differentiate between a small number of hotheads in one society and an entire culture peddling hatred and suicide bombing in the other.

But what could you really tell two female reporters who, covering a funeral in a settlement, returned to their car late on a Friday afternoon to find all four tires slashed? It was hard to disagree when they said that this was more than harassment; that they felt threatened and endangered.

Most difficult to listen to, however, was their almost uniform reaction to our questions about their pursuit of the human side to terrorism, when it seemed to make unvarnished evil more understandable, and therefore not as evil. They all rejected the notion that they were somehow creating a sense of parity between victim and victimizer.

Suicide bombing is so horrific, they claimed, that telling the story of its perpetrators could not possibly diminish normal people’s revulsion for it. It should, they expected, do just the opposite.

But what if it didn’t really work that way? What if they learned, for example, that a story they wrote about a teenage bomber so fascinated a kid in Des Moines that he blew up himself and a school bus of his peers? Would they have any regrets?

None, they insisted. Their job was to report the news, regardless of how the readership processed it. They could not be responsible for that.

With all the differences in background and personality, they all offered the same reasoning. The response was so uniform that it had to be part of their training. They had arrogated to themselves a privilege few of us have: hermetically sealing themselves off from the consequences of their words.

It is a position that we simply could not accept. As rabbis, as educators — as traditional Jews — our interest is almost exclusively what the listener will do with the material, how he or she will internalize it, use it, expand upon it. The advice of our sages in Avot rang in our ears: “Be careful about your words!”

We had arrived at the crux of the matter and left somewhat relieved, but doubly frustrated. We were thankful that it was good, decent people, and not a pack of rabid anti-Semites invoking this moral insulation. But we left without a solution in sight to correcting the daily moral imbalance that these new friends of ours create in the name of balanced reportage. And it was all the more difficult to hear it defended as a privilege of the fourth estate.

We now understood why we could never become journalists ourselves.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola Law School. Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the chairman of Bible studies at Yeshiva of Los Angeles High School. Together, they run Project Next Step of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and host “Rabbis With Attitude” on KCSN-FM.

AMBER: The U.S. Moral Alert

At least once a week, we hear reports of missing children. Some are found alive and others, tragically, dead.

Some become names on the missing list and remain a mystery.

The heartbreak is great, and families never truly recover from the trauma. For years, we have been aware of this problem, and no real answers have been found.

Recently, we find a great number of children committing crimes of great magnitude — cruelty, impressive and unsurpassed. Imagine reading trial reports of youngsters beating their father to death with a bat.

It has also been suggested that a lot of missing children are really runaways, running from abusive parents and schools. The recent investigations and convictions have intensified the concern of all of us. To whom do we turn, and what are we to do?

It was in the fall of 2001 that the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children launched the AMBER (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) plan nationwide. It is designed to assist cities and towns across the United States in creating their own emergency alert plan. It is now being adopted by more and more cities.

In February 2002, the Emergency Broadcast System adopted rules for missing children. It became a standard for alerting the public about missing children. This system follows support for the AMBER Alert initiated in October 2001.

The AMBER Alert is the missing child response program that notifies the public when children are kidnapped. There are 53 modified versions of the program, and 16 states have adopted statewide plans. Recent kidnappings in California and the recovery of missing children is attributed to the success of the AMBER Alert program.

I believe that this is a wonderful concept, and should be encouraged throughout the United States. It would accomplish a great deal. Most of all, it would save lives.

However, on the other hand, I strongly suggest a different kind of moral supplement to the AMBER Alert — a plan that alerts us to respond to the growing moral decay of our country.

Instead of the AMBER plan being a system to just find missing children, there should be a system that doesn’t let the child get lost in the first place. Perhaps the AMBER plan could also incorporate an "America’s Moral Broadcast Emergency Response."

When a responsible citizen sees a family member, an elected official or even a clergyman engaging in abusive behavior, he should have an emergency number to alert authorities who will intervene before an abduction or abusive behavior takes place.

There are times I wonder why we always glorify safe recovery, when we should be instituting preventive laws. The old saying of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" can work in conjunction with the AMBER Alert. Instead of putting out fires, it is wiser to find the arsonist. With all our worries about terrorist attacks, we seem to be forgetting our own home-grown terrorists.

Maybe it is high time for all of us to make a personal AMBER Alert. We need to check the morality of our leaders in government, schools and religious institutions, and call an emergency response and rectify the wrongs and help those in need. If we did that, what a great world we would have.

Rabbi Eli Hecht is vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America and past president of the Rabbinical Council of California. He is the director of Chabad of South Bay in Lomita, which houses a synagogue, day school, nursery school and chaplaincy programs.

Burden of Leadership

After 22 years of separation, believing his beloved son dead, Jacob was startled to hear that Joseph was not only alive but that he ruled the land of Egypt. Yet, the Torah tells us that this news was not enough: When he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. (Genesis 46:5)

What was it about the wagons that brought Jacob back to life?

The Midrash examines a curious wordplay. The wagons sent by Joseph are called agalot, the singular of which is a homonym with eglah (calf). The rabbis explain that Jacob was revived because the last Torah study he engaged in with his beloved Joseph before they were separated was the law of the Eglah Arufah (broken calf), found at the end of our parsha. (Deuteronomy 21:1-21:9)

The Torah mandates that if a murdered corpse is found in a rural area, the elders of the closest city perform a ceremony that includes the proclamation: “Our hands did not spill this blood nor did we see.” Our rabbis were bothered by this formula and explained that it cuts much deeper than a declaration of innocence of murder: “The man found dead did not come to us for help and we dismissed him, we did not see him and let him go (i.e., he did not come to us for help, that we dismissed him without supplying him with food, we did not see him and let him go without escort).” (Sota 38a)

In other words, the community leaders must testify that they did everything within their power to make this wayfarer feel welcome in their town. Imagine any contemporary political leader making such a declaration. Can we picture the members of the L.A. City Council accepting responsibility for every traveler who comes through our fair town?

Yet, that is the standard the Torah demands of our leaders. This declaration admits of a great responsibility not only toward visitors, but, ultimately, toward their townsfolk. The level of hospitality and kindness that is the norm in their town rests on their shoulders — if they can make this declaration, then they are indeed fulfilling their job. This means that the power invested in them by Torah law has not separated them from their “constituents” (as so often happens in any power position); rather, they have maintained a close relationship with the people and continue to keep their finger on the pulse of their community, which they are leading toward a full commitment to the ideals embodied in Torah.

Jacob’s spirit was revived when he saw the wagons and was reminded of his last lesson with his son. But why?

When the brothers told Jacob that Joseph was now the governor of Egypt, he didn’t believe them. What didn’t he believe? That Joseph was alive, or that Joseph was indeed the leader of Egypt? Consider this: What motivation would the brothers have to lie about such a matter? If Joseph really was dead, what did they stand to gain by generating a rumor about his being alive?

Perhaps what Jacob didn’t believe was that Joseph ruled in Egypt. In other words, Jacob may have been willing to grant that his son had somehow survived whatever terrors the past 22 years held for him, and had, through his brilliance, insight and charm, risen to a position of power in Egypt. As hard as this may have been to accept, it paled in significance next to the incredulous report that this governor of Egypt was still Joseph.

Whoever heard of the vizier of a major world power maintaining his youthful idealism and tender righteousness? When the brothers reported: “Joseph is yet alive, and he is governor over all the land of Egypt,” Jacob did not believe them. When he saw the wagons, a reminder of their last discussion of Torah standards, he realized that Joseph had never relinquished the values taught by his father.

Leadership carries with it the burden of responsibility for all members of the community — their physical welfare as well as the nurturing of moral growth and ethical conscience. This is the lesson of the Eglah Arufah — a lesson Joseph never forgot.

The Ongoing Dream

Producers Andrew Kosove and Broderick Johnson are sitting behind twin prefab desks in their spare Los Angeles office, looking like the Odd Couple. Kosove, an intense, detail-oriented Jew from Philadelphia, stands about 5-foot-6-inches. Affable ex-basketball star Johnson, an African American from Athens, Ga., appears to be a head taller.

But the story of how these Princeton economics majors came to found Alcon Entertainment — and to produce the new thriller, “Insomnia,” starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams — is more Horatio Alger than Neil Simon. “Neither of us ever had any intention of going into the movie business,” says Kosove, 32. “We really stumbled into it in an unconventional way.”

The producers — who made Entertainment Weekly’s 2000 “power issue” — met at Princeton around 1989. At lunch one day, Kosove approached Johnson, then captain of the intramural basketball team: “He said, ‘I know you guys won the championship last year, but unless you have a short Jewish kid on your team, you won’t repeat,” Johnson recalls with a laugh. “I fell in love with him from that point on.”

Three years later, Kosove demonstrated the same kind of chutzpah when he read a newspaper story about an unusual gangster and thought it would make a good film. “On a lark, I started buying books on the movie business,” he says. “I started sending them to Broderick, who by then had graduated and was working on Wall Street. We sort of mutually became fascinated with the business.”

By 1995, the friends had moved to Hollywood, hooked up with a producer and were struggling to finance their gangster film. It was Frugal Living 101: “We were staying in the guest house behind our producer’s home,” says Johnson, 35. “We didn’t even have a car.”

After three years of work, the relationship with the producer soured, and the movie deal fell through. But the cloud had a silver lining: Through the producer, they’d met Fred Smith, the near-billionaire founder of Federal Express, who recognized kindred spirits in the young entrepreneurs. “We helped him find distribution for a stalled film he’d financed, and in return, he agreed to read our business plan for launching a film company that would maximize profit and minimize risk,” Kosove says.

The 220-page plan outlined strategies such as developing creative deals with talent, pursuing studio distribution, sticking to commercial genres such as thrillers and slashing budgets (hence the prefab office furniture). According to Kosove, it “tried to combine the best of the independent and studio worlds.”

Smith could relate, because while at Yale in 1965, he’d also written a paper outlining a new kind of business — one that in 1971 became FedEx. Though Smith had received a C on his paper, he gave Kosove and Johnson a solid A: “It was one of the most well-though-out plans I had ever seen,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

In 1997, the tycoon agreed to bankroll Alcon, named for a mythological archer who never missed his mark. Smith stuck with the producers even when their first film “Lost & Found,” tanked at the box office. Smith was rewarded when Alcon’s second movie, the $7.5 million family drama, “My Dog Skip,” grossed $35 million and convinced Warner Bros. to sign a five-year, 10-picture distribution agreement.

The $300 million deal is indicative of what could become a new trend in show business: While many independents pre-sell movies to raise financing (which often means forfeiting profits), Alcon funds 100 percent of production costs, pays Warner Bros. a reduced distribution fee and gets to use the studio’s worldwide distribution system, while keeping profits and copyrights.

“The economics of production have become more and more difficult for the studios, because of the huge overheads they’re carrying and the position they’ve put themselves in where they’re paying exorbitant fees to talent,” says Kosove, who is married and attends University Synagogue. “They’ve had to figure out ways to keep their distribution pipelines full, while reducing their risk in financing films, which has provided opportunities for a company like Alcon.”

Along the way, the producers have proved their mettle with a series of prescient creative decisions. For their 18th century drama, “The Affair of the Necklace,” they cast the then-obscure actress, Hilary Swank, months before she earned an Oscar nomination for “Boys Don’t Cry.” Swank, who went on to win a 2000 Oscar, told The Journal she signed on to “Insomnia” partly because the producers “make the set such a creative and productive environment for the actors.”

Kosove and Johnson also managed to hire Christopher Nolan to direct “Insomnia” before the release of his 2000 feature, “Memento,” which received a 2001 Oscar nomination and numerous awards. “As an up-and-coming company, we try to invest in other up-and-comers,” Kosove says.

In “Insomnia,” Williams, cast against type as a psychopathic killer, plays cat and mouse with shady LAPD cop Will Dormer (Pacino) in an Alaskan hamlet. The gripping thriller — a remake of a 1997 Norwegian film — is set during the perpetual sunlight of an Arctic summer.

Kosove, who grew up attending one of Philadelphia’s oldest Reform synagogues, Rodeph Shalom, implies the flick has a Jewish value or two. In the glare of the constant sunlight, Dormer can’t sleep because his conscience is grappling with his yetzer harah (evil inclination). “His insomnia is the physical manifestation of his psychic struggle,” Kosove says. “He’s a character in moral conflict.”

“Insomnia” opens today in Los Angeles.

A Beautiful Mind

Acuity, passion, the ability to hold several conflicting ideas at the same time, a wide-ranging and detailed understanding of the world we live in, and an ability to articulate a broad intellectual and moral vision — watching Bill Clinton last Monday night at the Universal Ampitheatre made me realize how much I miss these attributes in a president.

This is not a criticism of George W. Bush. I imagine he would be the first to acknowledge, with some pride, that he’s no Bill Clinton. Among the crowd that pressed to touch flesh with Clinton in a post-speech reception, several people admitted that Clinton would probably have done no better, and maybe worse, than Bush in executing the war against Al Qaeda. Different men, different strengths and weaknesses.

But last Monday night, it was Clinton’s gifts that were on display.

There he was, leading 6,000 listeners through the nest of paradoxes that comprise our new century. "What happens after the war on terror?" he asked. The remarkable success the developed world enjoys in the areas of prosperity, health and technology brings with it a set of darker doppelgangers — rampant poverty, the spread of AIDS and breakdown of public health services, and the abuse of technology by what he called "the organized forces of destruction."

This audience, gathered as part of the University of Judaism’s (UJ) lecture series, was as close to a hometown crowd as Clinton could find outside of Hope, Ark. He could have pandered, but he didn’t. He avoided applause lines, was subdued, thoughtful, reflective.

But his talents were not the only ones on display last Monday night.

Rabbi Robert Wexler, UJ president; Gady Levy, dean of the Department of Continuing Education; and Peter Lowy, president of the UJ Board of Trustees, their staff and lay leaders deserve praise not just for envisioning and executing such a program, but for doing so despite certain partisan criticism. Current events do not reflect well on the architects of the Oslo accords. But to give them a forum to explain, justify, analyze and reflect on what went wrong is a worthy communal service.

In one of the evening’s more revealing moments, Clinton acknowledged the failure of Oslo, but maintained that all roads lead back to a negotiated settlement. "There is not a military or terrorist solution to the problem," he said.

It is de riguer these days not to mention Clinton without pining over his wasted potential. Yes, the time and energy he spent fighting a battle he brought upon himself could have been used shoring up a legacy he now must work to ensure. The man who now dissects progress’s dark side was almost undone by his own.

But for the audience who welcomed his insights with several ovations, Clinton’s intelligence trumped his recklessness. Was it any wonder as he took the stage that night, a voice in the crowd rang out, "Run again!"

A Portion of Parshat Re’eh

In this portion, God tells us something so important that it is mentioned twice: Do not sacrifice anywhere but in the Temple. Why is this so important? Why can’t the Israelites build an altar to God anywhere? It’s similar to the idea of “appropriate restaurant behavior,” a phrase your parents might have mentioned to you a few times.

It is not proper to run barefoot around the restaurant, waving a baseball bat and screaming: “Dodgers rule!” But you can do that, say, at camp or on the beach, if you are properly supervised. Same thing with the sacrifices. God and the Levites felt that sacrifices needed to be controlled and properly supervised, just in case the Israelites got out of hand and started acting in ways that might not be appropriate for Jews who follow God’s commandments. And, they added, it is not the actual sacrifice of an animal that is important. It is the intention and the prayer that accompanies it. The moral of this story is: everything has its time and place.

Mitzvah Garden Nature Project

In this week’s portion, God says to Israel: Choose the right way to live your life. If you follow the commandments, I will bring lots of rain and food to your land. So here is an idea for a mitzvah:

Plant a garden — large or small. You will not get any rain in the summer, so help God by watering and weeding every day. When the flowers bloom, cut them, wrap them or put them in a vase and bring them to someone as a present. Maybe to your friend who needs cheering up or to your grandparents who want a special visit.

Cloning Controversy Multiplies

In the Brave New World of cloning, most Jewish ethicists and organizations are staking out the middle ground.

A general consensus appears to be emerging in the Jewish community that therapeutic cloning — using cloning technology for medical research — is acceptable, but reproductive cloning — using the technology to copy someone — is not.

Reproductive cloning is unproven, risky and represents a "tragic misunderstanding" of human identity, according to Laurie Zoloth, director of the Jewish Studies Program at San Francisco State University and an associate professor of social ethics and Jewish philosophy.

Advances in therapeutic cloning, which could lead to transfers of compatible tissue in transplants, would not necessarily lead to the dangerous practice of reproductive cloning, Zoloth said.

"Not all slopes are slippery," she said.

Zoloth is serving as the principal investigator of a new grant to facilitate meetings over the next three years among Jewish scholars, ethicists and scientists to discuss the implications of advances in genetics.

Reproductive cloning raises ethical, theological and moral concerns, in addition to fundamental questions such as "Who is considered the clone’s father and mother?" and “What happens to cloning experiments that fail?”

Some take the view that cloning can be a commandment, for example, if it is used to help infertile couples. Others consider it immoral to make a genetic copy of someone.

Clones would be born from eggs stimulated to divide after their DNA was removed and replaced with DNA from other cells. Cells from an infertile father, for example, could be injected into an egg, which then would be implanted in the mother’s uterus to create a pregnancy.

The resulting child would have the same physical characteristics as the father, and infertile parents would not have to rely on sperm donors.

Yet many people have visceral, negative reactions to cloning, fearing that the practice lacks a basic humanity.

Some believe that cloning would fly in the face of lessons derived from the Holocaust, when Nazi doctors experimented on humans in an effort to create a "master race."

Some rabbis are particularly troubled by the notion of a human made in one’s own image, rather than the image of God.

Britain’s chief rabbi recently called planned experiments to clone humans "a new low in playing roulette with human life."

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said human cloning is dangerous and irresponsible because of the threat it poses "to the integrity of children so born."

Britain adopted guidelines years ago that allow for therapeutic cloning.

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last month to ban all human cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic. Some Jewish groups, however, worry that a complete ban could end up being more harmful than a carefully structured one.

Important advances in medical research might be lost because of a legislative ban, said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

"We don’t want to paint with too broad a brush," he said.

In a journal published last year by Yeshiva University, a number of ethicists and thinkers weighed in on cloning.

Reactions in the journal, part of the university’s "Torah U’Madda Project," which explores the interaction of Torah and secular studies and the challenges posed to the community, ran the gamut.

"Cloning does not involve the union of two individuals; it is therefore not an act of creation but rather one of duplication, and as such is completely at odds with any Jewish understanding of conception," wrote Dr. Eitan Fiorino, a pharmaceutical industry analyst.

But Rabbi Michael Broyde, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, believes that cloning can be proper — if done with appropriate supervision.

Broyde bolsters his argument with the scenario of a sick person who could be cloned to insure a match in a bone marrow transplant.

"Jewish tradition might regard this procedure as involving two good deeds: having a child and saving a life," he wrote.

Many recommended more discussion and a cautious approach.

President George W. Bush’s administration is continuing its conservative approach to genetic research, and the president reiterated his strong opposition to cloning.

"We recoil at the idea of growing human beings for spare body parts or creating life for our convenience," Bush said last week.

The president named Dr. Leon Kass, a biomedical ethicist from the University of Chicago, to chair a presidential council on bioethics and biomedical innovation.

An outspoken critic of human cloning, Kass believes that cloning constitutes unethical experimentation and threatens identity and individuality. Babies will be manufactured, and allowing such technology to go forward would bring about a perversion of parenthood, Kass believes.

"We sense that cloning represents a profound defilement of our given nature as procreative beings, and of the social relations built on this natural ground," he wrote recently in The New Republic.

Kass also said a ban only on reproductive cloning would be unenforceable.

Zoloth says the talmudic tract of "Sanhedrin" may offer potential guidance for cloning technology. The rabbis determine that forbidden knowledge might be permissible — if it is used only for teaching, Zoloth said.

Perhaps, she said, that means medical research of cloning is acceptable, but actual cloning of humans is not.

"We’re at the beginning of understanding," she said.

Universal Truths

The words we find in this week’s parasha have undoubtedly influenced more individuals in the Western world than any other in the entire Torah. They are called in Hebrew aseret hadibrot (the ten utterances), but most people know them simply as the Ten Commandments.

They have provided a beacon of moral certainty in eras of social confusion and doubt and have illuminated the dark corners of the human soul when the divine sparks of prophetic vision have been dimmed by violence, injustice and oppression.

At times I read these words with an almost embarrassing sense of communal pride at being heir to the civilization that gave these "commandments" to the world.

At other times I am reminded that all people share the same hopes and dreams and divine spark. This was brought powerfully home to me recently when I was privileged to be part of "Talk to America," a live worldwide conversation on Voice of America.

The subject was parenting, ethics and character, and I was invited as the featured guest because of my book "Children of Character — Leading Your Children to Ethical Choices in Everyday Life" (Canter & Associates). What made it so unforgettable was that the other participants in this conversation were calling from South Africa, Liberia, India, Ghana, Iran, Guyana, China, Sri Lanka and Ethiopia. The most incredible aspect of this international conversation was how powerfully our human oneness was underscored.

Shelly in South Africa said, "I agree completely that teaching values has to be by example, not precept. The most important thing parents can do for their children is to transmit a sense of who they are."

Maxwell in Liberia asked, "With all that’s going on the world today, how can a parent raise a kid with good character?" And Katon in India lamented, "Times are changing, and most of the time children are now outside the home or in front of television sets, and the influence of parents has declined to a considerable extent. Gone are the days when we had dinner-table discussions and parents took pride in developing the character of their children. How relevant today really is the influence of parents compared to what it was a hundred years ago?"

Ahnd in Madras added, "I think that kids used to hear stories at the knees of parents and grandparents. They always ended with good triumphing over evil. They were designed to encourage kindness, good, charity, love, understanding, tolerance, honesty, simplicity, sharing and truth, and discourage the opposite values. I think we are a lot poorer today. This isn’t taking place, and kids are valueless comparatively. They are more selfish, and TV, soap operas and movies are no longer teaching morals."

Quami in Ghana said, "As a parent I try so hard to bring up my child "the right way," but we have TV influencing the values which may not be the right values; we also have peers attempting strongly to undo what parents have done. How do children walk that fine line?"

Jenny in China commented, "It is very important for parents to influence their kids, but I wonder about your reaction to parents who have given their kids too much influence, while the kids want their own character, so it’s kind of tough for the kids."

Hassein in Iran asked, "Can you predict that one day the world will have the same set of values accepted by all people around the globe, so that there will be no conflict around the world. Is it possible? Do you think that such a day will come, and if yes, how can this happen?"

While I listened to these voices from around the world, I realized that I have had this same conversation with parents in Chicago, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Portland, Sacramento, San Diego and here in Los Angeles.

After all, that is the real meaning of why this week’s "Ten Commandments" were given in the desert and not Jerusalem — to teach us that the most important spiritual truths of human life are the same for everyone, regardless of race or religion, culture or language. Perhaps when we finally accept that truth of that lesson, the messianic vision articulated by Hassein of Iran will finally come true.

What I Have Learned From the Clinton Affair

I have learned from the Clinton affair how unprepared our technologically sophisticated society is to deal with moral issues, and specifically how to transmit moral wisdom to our children.

Parents ask, “What are we to say to our children about the conduct of the most powerful leader of our country and the world?”

I suggest they sit down with their child before an open Bible and ask, “What are we to say about David, the king and psalmist, who was revealed to be a murderer and an adulterer?” Moreover, what are we to say to children about the patriarchs and matriarchs who are revealed as men and women flawed, yet capable of moral heroism and acts of unsurpassed fidelity.

Let them recover the wisdom of Ecclesiastes who observed, “There is no righteous person upon earth who does good and has not sinned.”

The principle reality of the Bible will help them understand that it is foolhardy to expect from any single person or leader, whatever his celebrity and power, to be a model to be emulated. They will then understand the Bible's fear of idolatry, the deification of any man or woman.

The Bible does not compartmentalize its figures into saints or sinners, heroes or villains. It knows that the sinner can have dimensions of moral character. And this is as true of King David as it is of Oskar Schindler.

Further, if we cannot deal with the Clinton affair, it is because we have reduced the complexity of moral character into a matter of sex alone. Character is a multifaceted quality that includes not only sexual attitudes but also projects and programs rooted in compassion for the weaker vessels of society, protection of the persecuted pariahs, and defense of the voiceless.

In the face of bitter partisan acrimony, I note the wisdom of the sages who warned that when the kettle boils over, the boiling water spills over all its sides. No one, “managers” or defenders, emerges from this trial by ordeal unscathed. “If a man spits in the air, it will fall on his face.” Genuine patriotism calls for a transcendent vision of harmony and purpose beyond the parochialism of partisan politics.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

A Stitch in Time May Save Jobs

For generations of my own family, and many Jewish families, thegarment industry long has been a source of employment andentrepreneurial opportunity. Yet, in recent weeks, some local Jewishactivists, led by the American Jewish Congress, have been making theshmatte business and its workers once again the object oftheir heartfelt intentions.

Although concern for garment workers’ rights and wages is alegitimate one, the AJCongress seems more motivated by what ExecutiveDirector Carole Levy calls “our hearts and morals” and nostalgicmemories of “our grandparents” than by a well-thought-outunderstanding of either the current economic realities or the ethnicclimate that is Los Angeles.

For one thing, the AJCongress campaign has already resulted inseveral pieces in the mainstream media — including one by UC SantaBarbara Professor Richard Applebaum — painting Jewish manufacturersas largely responsible for the exploitation of predominately Latinoworkers. Given the recent racially tinged flap over Councilman MikeFeuer and Councilwoman Laura Chick’s demand for coke-sniffingCouncilman Mike Hernandez’s resignation, posing the garment issue insuch ethnic terms makes about as much sense as lofting a Molotovcockatil in a crowded theater.

The AJCongress campaign also is almost certain to drive yetanother chasm within the Jewish community itself. Despite Levy’sgenuine claims of impartiality, the Los Angeles Jewish Commission ofSweatshops is likely to reflect the views of industry critics such asacademic Applebaum. He sits on the commission alongside arepresentative of the Jewish Labor Committee, a tiny but vocal groupwhose first vice president is Jay Mazur, the president of UNITE, theleading garment workers union. Industry representatives, althoughinvited to observe and testify, have been excluded from the panel,leading one disgusted former AJCongress board member, David Abel, toliken the whole investigation to a “kangaroo court.”

Linking union agitation to the sweatshop fight has been a commontactic since the revelation in 1995 of a “slave shop” in El Monte. Inthe media wars, the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and TextileEmployees (UNITE) — the result of the mid-1990s merger of two fadingold-line garment unions — has used revelations of sometimesdisgraceful working conditions as a way to win sympathy for its causeand condemnation for the industry.

Yet a close examination of recent U.S. Labor Department findingsmight lead some of the less Pavlovian Jewish activists to rethinktheir retro-1930s views of unionism. Just last month, the LaborDepartment published findings identifying sweatshop violations of theFair Labor Standards Act by 63 percent of the shops in heavilyunionized New York; among shops represented by UNITE, the level ofviolations reached 75 percent.

Ironically, the New York survey puts the relative performance ofthe much-abused, largely unorganized Los Angeles garment industry –the prime concern of the AJCongress campaigners — in a somewhat morefavorable light. After having been rightfully shamed by disgracefulconditions at some of their contractors, California manufacturershave proven themselves more proficient at reducing abuses than theirunionized colleagues across the county. The development of anindustry-funded monitoring system is a primary reason.

A survey last year, for example, found roughly 39 percent of LosAngeles-based contractors in compliance, with two-thirds of monitoredfirms in full compliance. As the manufacturer-led compliance programhas expanded, one top Labor Department official estimates thatoverall compliance may now be roughly 50 percent, and far higheramong monitored firms.

These changes, along with boosts in the minimum wage, have helpeddrive wages for Los Angeles’ garment workers up 20 percent since1995, according to Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman.

Ultimately, the good-hearted activists of the AJCongress should gobeyond their nostalgic union proclivities to also explore other ways– such as improved industry monitoring, better marketing and workertraining — that might be more effective in boosting wages andworking conditions in a highly competitive, globalized industry. Thisis no longer your — or my — grandmother’s garment industry oreconomy; unions may not be the solution that they once were in an erawhen America faced limited foreign competition and had effectivelycurtailed most immigration.

Instead of patronizingly suggesting that Latino and Asian workersfollow the model of our own forebears, perhaps it would be better tounderstand why so few workers today — UNITE can claim no more than500 members in an industry that employs upward of 100,000 workers –see their salvation in unionization.

At Sorrento Mills in San Bernardino, 42 out of 50 workers thisfall voted to “decertify” the union, claiming that UNITE did littleto improve their working conditions or wages. A lawsuit against UNITEfiled by Sorrento workers claims that the union punished them fortheir actions by forcing M. Shapiro, a unionized Los Angelescoat-maker, to withdraw a contract from the firm.

The experience of Sorrento’s co-owner, Simeon Prophet, alsoprovides some insight into something that the AJCongress inquisitorsmight do well to consider — why so many employers dislike UNITE.Like others who have tried to work with the union, Prophet chargesthe union with using intimidation tactics, such as slashing tires,breaking windows and verbally intimidating workers who wanted tobreak ranks — claims with which a UNITE spokeswoman in New York saidshe was completely unfamiliar.

At the same time, the commission should also consider how itsefforts to what role the one-sided portrayal of the industry may havein helping push more and more sewing operations, including those fromUNITE bête noire Guess?, out of the region and to such bastionsof labor rights as Mexico, Sri Lanka and the People’s Republic ofChina. Of course, the jobs gone from Los Angeles won’t be those heldby righteous liberals in Brentwood, Santa Monica or Malibu. But thepain will be real for the thousands of workers, mostly Latino, andentrepreneurs, many recent Jewish immigrants from the Middle East andNorth Africa, who could lose their jobs, hopes and dreams. Maybe thenthey will be able call up the good-hearted activists of theAJCongress to pay the rent and feed their families. After all, itwould be the “moral” thing to do.

Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the PepperdineInstitute for Public Policy and a Senior Fellow at the PacificResearch Institute.

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