January 24, 2019

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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Same-sex marriage and the fabric of society: What does it all mean?

If you look at the fine print, last month’s landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage doesn’t change much in practical terms. Domestic partnership, available to Californians since 2005, gave couples nearly all the same legal rights and responsibilities as marriage, outside of a few arcane legal details. And calling it marriage in California still does not trump the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which since 1996 has defined marriage as between a man and woman.

At the same time, no one denies that the ruling changes everything.

For some, it is a spiritual moment of human dignity finally resting upon everyone. For others, it is a sign that society is being sucked into an eddy of moral dissolution.

Many who are not directly affected are still processing and digesting the new reality, with the long-term implications up for grabs. As people begin to take the word “marriage” out of quotes when referring to same-gender couples, many questions come up. What do the ceremonies look like? What about divorce? Intermarriage? How will this affect the November ballot initiative to amend the constitution to ban gay marriage? And there are the larger philosophical questions of what marriage means and who makes the rules for a whole society.

What’s the Difference?

Although the actual legal differences are scant, attorney Jenny Pizer says the implications are more than symbolic.

“In practical terms, domestic partnership has resulted in confusion, and the status has not been respected the way it was intended,” said Pizer, senior counsel at Lambda Legal and one of the members of a team representing couples in the Supreme Court case. “People are familiar with marriage, and having same-sex couples be in a different system has often caused people to err on the side of not respecting rights, which is not what we had hoped would happen.”

Using the same nomenclature can help others understand that gay and lesbian couples want the same thing as straight couples — the ability to express their love in a way society understands, under the protection of the law, providing a strong family structure.

The May 16 Supreme Court decision was sweeping in its language, saying that like all other rights, marriage couldn’t be limited to only a portion of the population. The broad decision put discrimination against gays and lesbians into the same legal category as race or gender discrimination.

That inclusiveness also made many gays and lesbians see this as a spiritual moment, whether or not they plan to marry.

“It been such a fight for civil rights over such a long period of time, that this is an affirmation of our humanity and our dignity,” said Rabbi Denise Eger, rabbi of Kol Ami Synagogue in West Hollywood, a Reform congregation with a large gay and lesbian population. “Something that we have always talked about is the notion of b’tzelem Elohim, being created in the image of the Divine, and for the same notion to be echoed in a secular court, I think for many people has been uplifting and has been affirming of their humanity.”

Black Sheep

For better and for worse, my parents raised me to be a mensch. In the business world, sticking to the strong moral values they instilled in me hasn’t always been easy, but I can safely say I’ll never be the type who could stab a co-worker in the back. Little did I know that at least one of my ancestors wasn’t troubled by such compunction.

During my genealogy research I was surprised to learn that my great-grandfather was a real scoundrel. While it’s impossible to know what was happening inside of his head, I’ve found clues that give me a better understanding of who he was.

I first stumbled onto his sordid past when I found several documents that detailed four separate birthplaces. On a census record, Isaac Spear listed his birthplace as New York. On his wedding certificate, it’s written as London. On his son’s birth certificate, he claimed Hanley Staffordshire, England. And, in 1900, an Isaac Spier in Sing Sing prison claimed to have been born in Pennsylvania.

While visiting my grandparents’ apartment in Brooklyn as a child, I remember that my grandmother once told me to not say the word Sing Sing in front of my grandfather because it upset him.

I flew to New York to examine Sing Sing’s admissions records. In one hour I confirmed that my great-grandfather, registered as Isaac Spier, alias Herbert Edward Spier, was a criminal.

Isaac’s trouble started when two women took their separate grievances to the Kings County Courthouse. My great-grandmother Ida complained to the judge that Isaac had abandoned her. The other woman, Minnie Ott, accused Isaac of bigamy.

Several newspapers provided different perspectives of the story. According to one account, my great-grandmother went with my then-infant grandfather and a policeman to Minnie’s house. After realizing who was at the door, Isaac darted into the street and hopped onto an eastbound trolley car. A mile down the road he realized the policeman was following him, so Isaac jumped off the trolley and hopped on another one headed in the opposite direction. Eventually Isaac was apprehended.

Another newspaper captured the dialog between my ancestors. Isaac first denied ever knowing my great-grandmother. In response, she held up my grandfather in front of Isaac and said, “Do you deny that this is your son?” Isaac’s only response was a gulp.

He was later convicted of bigamy and sentenced to four years at Sing Sing. Police suspected that Isaac might have had as many as four wives.

As I continued to research Isaac’s nefarious past, I found a 1916 New York City Police Department report that detailed how Isaac laundered money from Gretsch, a guitar manufacturer. In 1925, he made The New York Times when he was accused of extortion. As an auditor for the New York State Income Tax Bureau, Isaac was the target of a failed police sting operation.

Although the process took years, I finally determined that Isaac was born in London, the son of a rabbi. By comparing my great-grandparents’ marriage certificate to my grandfather’s birth certificate, it is clear that he was conceived out of wedlock.

His headstone at Mount Hebron Cemetery in Queens, located right next to the grave of his third wife, Rose, shows his name as Joseph in English and Isaac in Hebrew. If nothing else, his tombstone is an amusing final tribute to his use of aliases.

Criminal behavior among Jews has been far more rampant than what our parents or the Jewish community are willing to admit. I was amazed to find thousands of Jewish criminals as I delved deep into Sing Sing’s records. The goniffs ranged from big-name gangsters to small-time crooks and included physicians who performed illegal abortions.

As a genealogist, I have come across numerous fellow descendants of Jewish inmates who have been kind enough to share the stories of their ancestors with me. I find solace in the fact that I’m not alone. And the odds are likely that you might have a black sheep like Isaac in your family, too.

Ron Arons is a member of both the Los Angeles and San Francisco Jewish Genealogical Societies. He will be teaching a three-part introductory genealogy course at The University of Judaism beginning Oct. 18. Walk-ins welcome. For more information, visit dce.uj.edu/Content/CourseUnits.asp?CID=282 or call (310) 440-1246.

Law and Order

In a Sept. 11 New York Times Op-Ed piece by Thomas L. Friedman on the feelings of angst that linger a year after Sept. 11, 2001, the distinguished columnist reports that he turned to Rabbi Tzvi Marx, a teacher in the Netherlands. Here’s what Marx told Friedman:

"To some extent, we feel after Sept. 11 like we have experienced the flood of Noah — as if a flood has inundated our civilization and we are the survivors. What do we do the morning after?

"What was the first thing Noah did when the flood water receded and he got off the ark? He planted a vine, made wine and got drunk.

"But what was God’s reaction to the flood? Just the opposite. God’s reaction was to offer Noah a more detailed set of rules for mankind to live by — rules which we now call the Noahite Laws. God’s first rule was that life is precious, so man should not murder man. [Additionally, put in place were prohibitions against idolatry, adultery, blasphemy and theft.]

"It is as though God said, ‘Now I understand what I’m up against with these humans. I need to set for them some very clear boundaries of behavior, with some every clear values and norms, that they can internalize.’

"God, after the flood, refused to let Noah and his offspring indulge themselves in escapism, but God also refused to give them license to live without moral boundaries, just because humankind up to that point had failed."

It’s so very typical of Friedman to focus on a tragic event and to help lead us out of the darkness of despair not only by means of his own sagacious observations, but with the guidance of a contemporary seer.

While we continue to work ourselves through the grief and shock that Sept. 11 heaved upon our hearts and minds, as that flood of feelings recedes, are we willing to be like Noah or do we have the capacity to emulate God?

Even though Noah is described as a righteous man, the Torah provides us with a caveat; namely, it is written that he was "the most righteous man in his generation." This is hardly a flattering statement!

After all, his peers were constantly disappointing God — to the point that they had to be totally blotted out from existence. So, it’s obvious that Noah was barely better than they were.

Therefore, if a new world and a more reliable set of human beings were to arise out of the ruins of the flood, God had no choice but to reluctantly use Noah as the progenitor, and to add to the mix a plethora of rules and regulations.

Today, we are witnessing a considerable number of men and women who have come away from the tragedy that was wrought upon victims and their survivors in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania — and upon each one of us — acting like Noah. They are so blinded by anger and drunk with power that they want to lash out at the world about them.

Falling prey to stereotyping and scapegoating, they choose to believe that most Muslims, Arabs and non-Jewish residents in or immigrants from the Middle East are either terrorists or advocates of terrorism. They want to settle their differences by trampling upon constitutional guarantees of freedom and due process. They want to unleash the military might of our nation upon its enemies — real and imagined.

Noah-like, we can join their ranks or we can emulate God as depicted in this week’s Torah portion by giving evidence that we are wise and prudent, strong and patient and ever-reliant on laws instead of raw passions.

Certainly, America has its enemies and we need to deal with them in ways in which their threat to our way of life is totally wiped away. But this does not give us license to cast blame on an entire people simply because of their religious affiliation or national origin.

Rather, we must concentrate on those specific individuals who are our antagonists, marginalize them and strip away their power and influence on others.

"Military operations, while necessary, are not sufficient. Building higher walls may feel comfortable, but in today’s interconnected world they’re an illusion," Friedman said. "Our only hope is that people will be restrained by internal walls — norms and values. Visibly imposing them on ourselves, and loudly demanding them from others, is the only survival strategy for our shrinking planet.

"Otherwise, start building an ark."

This is sound advice that we and everyone else better listen to and accept before it’s much too late.

Ethics and Warfare

This week’s Torah portion opens with a fascinating topic: the psyche of a soldier at war, and the ethical boundaries that even a soldier must observe.

KiTetze la’milchama: "When you go out to war … and you take captives and see among the captives a beautiful woman…."

The Torah is so keenly aware of the soldier’s necessary aggression. It recognizes that the soldier is fighting for his life, that any moment could be his last and that he is naturally experiencing many powerful emotions and desires. The results of what soldiers do to captive women is evident in all kinds of military conflicts — from the pervasive and horrific reports of rape during the conflict in Yugoslavia, to all of the fatherless children left behind by American soldiers in war zones like Korea and Vietnam.

The Torah not only acknowledges, but confronts this difficult reality of war. It allows the soldier to take this eishet yefat toar (captive, desired woman) as a wife, but only after a month’s time. She is to spend that month in his home, removing the trappings of beauty that initially enticed him, mourning her separation from her own family. If, at the end of that time, he still desires her and she is willing to convert, he is allowed to marry her. If his passion abated during that time, he is strictly forbidden to sell her or keep her as a servant and must set her free.

In other words, the Torah allows the warrior his aggressions, but denies him the right to act without keeping his morals, his very humanity, in check.

"Ethics of warfare" sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact it has been a relevant and significant issue since the creation of the State of Israel. It is not only a recurring subject discussed in military forums, but tohar haneshek (purity of arms) is studied by young men and women as part of their high school curriculum. Israel’s bravest and finest are prepared at the outset for the moral challenges they will inevitably face as soldiers actively engaged in mortal combat.

Countless stories are told, and documented, that show how this "antiquated" rule of war is very much alive and well in our generation. During the summer months of the war in Lebanon, when Israeli troops were putting their lives on the line protecting Northern Israel from Katyusha rocket attacks, they came across fertile fields blooming with cherries. One battalion unit in particular refrained from eating any of the enticing fruit. Never mind that they were hungry, exhausted and fearful. Never mind that the produce belonged to a nameless, faceless enemy. They simply felt that they had no legal or moral right to take what wasn’t theirs. They acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural emotions of a soldier at war.

When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) entered the Palestinian Authority-controlled towns in the West Bank after suicide attacks in April, their mission was to root out terrorists and destroy terror factories. This could have been accomplished with air strikes, and the soldiers involved would have been safe from snipers and booby traps. But the army chose instead to send in ground troops, despite the greater risks and inevitable loss of soldiers. Never mind that the terrorists hid among the civilians. Never mind that even the children on the other side could carry out deadly attacks. They made the moral calculation that it was better to put themselves in greater danger if it meant that they could minimize the danger to the civilian population on the other side. The IDF acted according to their moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts of soldiers at war.

An unbelievable report surfaced a short time ago telling of the Palestinians’ refusal to accept donations of blood — Jewish blood — that the army had provided for their wounded. Instead of leaving the "enemy" to suffer the consequences of their refusal, the army used their own money and manpower to acquire blood from Jordan. Never mind that an army is going above and beyond its obligations to provide any blood at all, let alone an alternate source. Never mind that the enemy was stubbornly and stupidly risking the lives of its own people. IDF soldiers value life, no matter whose life it is. The army acted according to its moral compass, overcoming the natural instincts and emotions of soldiers at war.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect our integrity, even in the midst of a brutal war. These and countless other examples of the high moral standards that are standard for the IDF give me one more important reason to take pride in the work of our young men and women who bravely defend our homeland and act as "a light unto the nations." If soldiers can maintain their values and ethics in the heat of the battle, then I am hopeful that peace has a chance, and that the battle can be won.

Physician, Heal The Soul

Physicians played a significant role in the Holocaust, and today’s doctors can learn from the ethical failures of that period, according to an article recently published by Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the emergency department (ED) of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

"I’ve always taken an interest in the Holocaust and its lasting effects, because my mother was a survivor," Geiderman said. With 23 years of emergency medicine at Cedars-Sinai under his belt, he has always taken an interest in the philosophies of bioethics but became "passionately" involved five or six years ago. Now, he serves on the ethics committees of Cedars-Sinai and the Academy of Emergency Medicine. "Most of us know about the medical experiments, the doctors in the camps," he said, "but as I started reading about this, about the history, I was blown away."

In "Physician Complicity in the Holocaust: Historical Review and Reflections on Emergency Medicine in the 21st Century," Geiderman sets out a series of moral failures he attributes to German physicians before, during and after WWII. Published in the March issue of Academic Emergency Medicine journal, the two-part article enumerates ethical challenges requiring greater vigilance from today’s physicians.

"So much of the Holocaust is unexplainable. But when you start to break it down, step by step, it starts to make sense in a perverse way," Geiderman said. "So much of what doctors contributed to the horror came out of economic opportunism, greed and convenience."

The first part of the article traces the German medical establishment’s slippery slope, from being healers toward full participants in genocide. Starting long before Hitler came to power, Geiderman shows how German doctors embraced the false science of eugenics, or "racial hygiene." This made it easier to accept, with the rise of National Socialism, the exclusion of Jewish physicians from the practice of medicine (which also advanced many non-Jewish doctors’ careers).

When the Nazis passed the Sterilization Act, doctors not only participated in designing the program to forcibly sterilize the "genetically diseased," they exceeded the government’s goals for implementation. Throughout the regime, ordinary physicians acted as instruments of racist Nazi policies; doctors became murderers, and later made efforts to hide the truth about their activities.

In Part Two of his "Physician Complicity" article, Geiderman examines the ethical challenges faced by his colleagues in emergency medicine today. He worries about doctors being asked to serve as agents of the state, as with mandatory reporting laws for patients whose injuries might be caused by foul play or infectious disease. He considers the denial of modesty to patients when "reality television" films in an emergency room. He considers the various ways in which patients are dehumanized by their doctors, who may refer to them by room number, by their ailment or even by nasty nicknames. Economic pressures affecting the practice of medicine and technology that allows for genetic screening, testing and even genetic engineering also pass through Geiderman’s bioethical radar.

"These are not Holocaust analogies," he says of Part Two, adding that in the article, "I took a neutral stance on physician-assisted suicide. Personally, I’m against it. But I don’t think it’s useful to play the so-called Holocaust card in these debates."

The doctor compares his research and writings to reflection on the Holocaust in other fields. "In ‘Au Revoir les Enfants,’ the French director Louis Malle described the Holocaust through his childhood eyes in a French monastery … while others responded by building new lives or even a new nation. For me, as an emergency physician who has spent 25 years in an ED, dedicated my most recent years to the study of bioethics, and who is the son of a survivor, Part Two is the natural expression of my feelings or philosophy."

It is a decidedly practical sort of philosophy for a doctor of emergency medicine to study. "What’s become really clear to a lot of us who advocate bioethics is that you have to have considered these issues in advance," Geiderman says. "In emergency medicine, there’s not always a lot of time to call in an ethical consult." He views the product of his historical and ethical research as timeless. "Unlike hard science, where the science will change, this will never change."

Though his research relies on previously published materials, and his description of physician complicity in the Holocaust is carefully documented, Geiderman says some peer reviews of his work came back with incredulous comments — doctors who could not believe such events could have happened. He writes: "The keys to preventing such a recurrence lie in understanding and teaching the lessons of the past; in speaking, teaching and writing about ethics; in incorporating ethical principles and professionalism into our medical practices, and in being willing to stand up and make personal sacrifices for the ethical principles in which we believe."

And, as he says, "Certain things need to be learned over and over again."


Scottish philosopher David Hume hit the nail on the head when he observed that "the heart of man always attempts to reconcile the most glaring contradictions." Hume, of course, wasn’t thinking of Palestinian apologists back in 1749. But he certainly wouldn’t have been ashamed of applying his pithy aphorism to their persistent bouts of moral incoherence.

These groups and individuals inhabit a universe not always readily accessible to those among us with less sensitive moral antennae. It is a plane of existence that in fact thrives on contradiction –where falsehood doubles as truth, iniquity moonlights as righteousness and aggression masquerades as peacemaking. This is the blurry world of the human rights organizations and their uneasy relationship with the state of Israel.

Among the more aggressive crusades from these groups in recent weeks has been the attack on Israel’s decision to bulldoze Palestinian houses suspected as fronts for a smuggling operation. While the outcry has lingered for weeks, not one of these same organizations has either successfully challenged Israel’s claim that the houses were being used for smuggling weapons. Nor have they allayed the suspicion that one day those same weapons would be employed in the killing of Israelis.

And therein lies the glaring contradiction. One only needs to examine the antics of many of these same organizations in Durban, South Africa, last September to understand how the words "human rights" lose all moral weight when hurled at Israel. How else to explain the time and energy expended by the organizations, including the venerable Rabbis for Human Rights, to have Israel singled out and isolated from among 200 other countries as a racist state, even while slavery still thrives in Africa, while genocide is perpetrated in Europe and while women throughout the Muslim world are treated as little more than chattels?

Viewed in the context of its neighborhood and current dire circumstances, Israel is, in fact, a model in the protection of human rights. Its basic laws, religious and press freedoms and vibrant democracy give minorities rights they couldn’t dream of possessing in surrounding countries. More conspicuous are the failures of the same human rights organizations to address violations when they are suffered by Israel. In its 10-page 2001 report on Israel, Human Rights Watch devotes precisely 20 words to Palestinian killings of Israelis, apparently finding it inconsequential that Jewish holy places had been sacked and desecrated, that scores of Israelis had been shot dead or that a baby’s head had been blown off by a sniper in Hebron. In its own report for that year Amnesty International does not mention the words "terrorist" or "suicide bombing" once to describe Palestinian violence. According to a leader of that organization, those terms are viewed as value judgments that could compromise its reporting.

Did anyone mention bias? Back in the late 1980s, Thomas Friedman explained the world’s obsession with Israel as being tied to the expectation that it should always conduct itself in accordance with Judeo-Christian values. That view finds its phantom echo in the equally supercilious demand of the Rabbis for Human Rights that Israel should not be 5 percent more moral than the rest of the world but 100 percent more so. It is all based on the asinine assumption that Jews are so inherently humanistic that they should feel impelled to sacrifice their lives or security in the name of a standard of conduct no other people subscribe to. Scratch a Jew and you find a martyr. Never has such a vile anachronism deserved more discredit.

The fact remains that Israel is at war — not with its moral conscience, as some would like us to believe, but with an enemy as implacably committed to its destruction and to the murder of Jews as any other in the past. As George Orwell once said, there is one quick way to end a war — lose it. No nation has ever claimed victory against an annihilationist foe by wearing its heart on its sleeve or boasting of its moral scruples. The United States today makes little secret of its decision to use extra-judicial means to eliminate the terrorist menace to its population. Why should Israel be any different?

Avi Davis is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies and the senior editorial columnist for Jewsweek.com.

Fair Weight

Honesty, morality and ethical behavior — these are the calling cards of Leviticus, and they are the centerpieces of Jewish behavior and identity. Amongst the mitzvot enumerated in Leviticus 19 (known by some scholars as the "Holiness Code") are respect for parents, charity for the poor, prohibitions against stealing and lying, a reminder to pay an employee’s wages on time, the moral obligation not to take advantage of the deaf or blind, honesty and fairness in justice, prohibitions against holding grudges or exacting revenge, and the famous mitzvah to "love your neighbor as yourself."

This impressive list of ethical mitzvot concludes with an injunction to treat the stranger in our midst with fairness, and that when we conduct our business, our "weights and measures shall be accurate."

Throughout this "Holiness Code" — so-called because the section begins with "Kedoshim Tiheyu" ("You shall be holy") — the Torah reminds us that it is every Jewish person’s obligation and responsibility to behave according to these ethical norms and standards because God has asked this of us.

Every few verses, one finds the conclusion "I am the Lord Your God" (seven times) or the abbreviated "I am the Lord" (seven times). A total of 14 different reminders that these mitzvot are not simply ethical norms of human behavior, but they are the basis of a religious code of conduct originating from God.

For the last mitzvah in this section, the obligation to maintain fair weights and measures in business (a technical term for "honesty in business"), the Torah also reminds us that the reason why we must observe this mitzvah is because it is God’s will. But instead of using the same formulations it did the previous 14 times, the Torah chooses a specific reasoning: "I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from the land of Egypt."

The commentaries notice this peculiarity, wondering what specific connection exists between honesty in business and the Exodus from Egypt. Rashi, the most famous of Biblical commentators, comments that God took us out of Egypt on the condition that we would behave fairly and honestly in our business dealings.

The modern Israeli "Da’at Mikra" commentary expands on Rashi’s teaching by saying that the commandment to be fair in business comes to protect the most vulnerable members of society — the elderly, the proselyte and the foreigner. Because of their weak status in society, all of these individuals are vulnerable to being cheated in business. The Jewish people, who were slaves in Egypt and whose status in society as slaves was similar to that of elderly, proselytes and foreigners, should have the highest sensitivity towards these individuals, because we know what it was like to be mistreated by society. It is the specific experience of slavery in Egypt that strengthens our understanding of the importance of justice, righteous and ethical behavior and having mercy on others. Therefore, the Torah commands us to behave honestly in business and reminds us that the reason we as Jews must especially behave honestly in our business dealings is because we experienced the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and God then took us out from slavery to freedom so that we might live ethically.

I wonder what modern archaeologists have to say about that?

Remembering Our Moral Roots

These days, many people seem to be threatened by immigration as though it were a mysterious virus. But immigration is a phenomenon interwoven with the history of humankind. No human being anywhere in the world lacks an immigrant inheritance. The “virus” infects every one of us.

The United States’ history would be unintelligible without the immigrant waves breaking on our shores from the 17th century on. The first English-speaking immigrants landed here in the early 1600s. The first Jewish immigrants arrived in the 1650s. These earliest American Jews, ancestrally Mediterranean, struggled to absorb a new culture and braved the antagonism of the earlier settlers. Persevering, these Southern European Jews — as well as the immigrant Jews from Central and Eastern Europe who followed — contributed notably to the shaping of our America.

A similar story can be told about every generation in America — about immigrants, mostly non-Jews, from every corner of the globe. Whoever they were, they encountered prejudice and resentment — even from earlier settlers of the same faith and background. They were regarded as threats to what passed for American cultural standards — always their folkways and accents were deemed offensive.

The headlines of today are akin to headlines dating back to the beginnings of American society. Always there have been some Americans forgetful of their own immigrant origins and determined to assail recent immigrants as certain to turn the American Dream into the American Nightmare. This is the real virus, this anti-immigrant fever that today sometimes seems to reach epidemic proportions in certain quarters. This virus has a name: It is called xenophobia — the fear and hatred of the stranger.