June 26, 2019

Prayer, Politics Not Enough to Unite World

Pope Francis waves as he attends the Festival of Families at Croke Park during his visit to Dublin. Vatican Media/via REUTERS

Travel brings with it the wonder of new adventures and the potential for new relationships. My recent trip to Rome provided that and much more as I shared conversation and prayer with Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. I left that moving encounter more hopeful than ever that if we forge a new spirit of generous engagement, a new way of listening and a new commitment to working together, we can conquer the discrimination, religious bigotry and ideological blinders that lead to much of the hatred and violence that stains our world today.

My journey began with a trip to Azerbaijan as a member of a small U.S. delegation to meet with international political, social and spiritual leaders committed to building a world of inclusion and forging a counter-narrative to violent extremism. Our first stop was the fifth World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, of which the motto for this year was “Building dialogue into action against discrimination, inequality and violent conflict.” Is there a more worthy goal at this time in human history?

Azerbaijan is more than 96 percent Muslim and in the great Heydar Mosque in Baku, Shias and Sunnis pray side by side under one roof. The country’s culture and political system are devotedly secular, and the sincere desire to be inclusive of all faiths and ethnicities is palpable at every level of society. Sitting at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, Turkey, Iran, Georgia and Russia border Azerbaijan. The country’s wish to cultivate peaceful coexistence is a necessity for this small republic’s survival in such a volatile part of the world. It also is a powerful model for the region.

At the heart of this country’s quest to unify is a practical willingness to engage in meaningful dialogue with those from other religious and cultural backgrounds. The political, spiritual and social justice leaders whom I met understood that honest dialogue is not merely a step toward formal conflict resolution but is a fundamental necessity in a world in which “the other” most often is defined through third-party sources and reflexive biases.

“Honest dialogue is not merely a step 

toward formal conflict resolution but is a fundamental necessity.”

From Baku, my colleague Bishop Juan Carlos Mendez and I were off to Rome for a meeting in the Vatican and the possibility of an audience with the pope. Bishop Mendez and I were escorted past thousands to seats of honor beside the papal platform. Pope Frances addressed and blessed the throngs of people gathered and then, to my surprise, Bishop Mendez and I were invited to meet the pope.

Pope Francis and I held each other’s hands, then we drew closer, holding each other’s forearms as we spoke about a world in desperate need of unity. I thanked Pope Francis for his leadership and solidarity, especially in combating the rising tides of global anti-Semitism. Toward the conclusion of our conversation, I asked the pope if I could offer him a Hebrew blessing from the Torah. He lowered his head and closed his eyes. At that moment, my heart opened wide, I closed my eyes and spoke words said in synagogue and church for millennia: “May God bless you and protect you. May God illuminate God’s face to you and be gracious unto you. May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.”

There we were, two men of faith, holding one another, heads bowed, united in body, conversation, prayer and blessing. In that moment, we stood, Pope Francis and I, as one.

That electrifying experience left me more determined and hopeful than ever that our answers lie not in praying to the heavens nor to our politicians, but in reaching our arms out to one another — just as Pope Francis and I did — and embracing each other as individuals and communities without bias. Only then can we rekindle our relationships and build a better world based on sacred and vital respect. If not now, when?

Rabbi Ron Li-Paz is the spiritual leader of Valley Outreach Synagogue & Center for Jewish Life, and is a member of the Los Angeles Interfaith Council.

Can Conservative Judaism Redefine Itself?

People play instruments during a ceremony on Venice Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

A major identity shift is taking place in the U.S. Conservative movement. According to the North American Jewish Databank, the percentage of Jews that identify as Conservative has fallen from 26% in 2012 to 18% in 2018, while the percentages of Jews that identify as Reform and Orthodox have remained steady at 35% and 10%, respectively. Some Conservative Jewish leaders see rising intermarriage rates as the primary cause of this decline, noting that increasingly intermarried Jewish couples favor Reform congregations over Conservative ones because the Reform movement admits non-Jewish spouses as full-fledged, voting members. 

In response to the declining membership, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Conservative movement’s national body, embarked on a new strategy in 2017 allowing affiliated congregations to embrace interfaith families while still preserving halachic restrictions. The recommended framework is a two-tiered membership structure whereby non-Jews are admitted as members in the synagogue “community” but are excluded from religious rituals and sensitive leadership positions (“covenant”). The USCJ’s new approach constructs a distinction — a barrier, even —  between covenant and the community (C&C) for the first time in its history. 

But behind the scenes, the USCJ hasn’t been an entirely neutral arbiter, and has urged congregations to move quickly toward a decision on non-Jewish membership. Consequently, an issue central to Conservative Jewish identity is now being rushed to a resolution in many Conservative synagogues nationwide, often bitterly dividing congregants.

I have come across a few familiar arguments by those in favor of, or against, the initiative. Many agree with this move because they view Judaism as being welcoming to strangers and do not want to be perceived by the community as narrow minded. This perspective is closest to the justifications being provided at the USCJ level. Others in favor of non-Jewish membership wish to abolish all barriers to non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual. From their perspective, non-Jews who have become part of the community should be “adopted” as Jews even if they have not formally converted. Still others are willing to support this initiative because they trust their rabbi and the USCJ.

Others in favor of non-Jewish membership wish to abolish all barriers to non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual.

Those opposed to non-Jewish membership believe the emphasis on fairness and inclusion rather than Jewish law will erode the movement’s Jewish identity. Others opposing the initiative believe two-tiered membership is discriminatory toward all concerned. Why, for example, would non-Jews accept “second-class” status if what they or their spouses seek is full inclusion?

Meanwhile, the USCJ and congregants aren’t exploring other possible factors contributing to dwindling membership. These factors may include the deterrent effect of high membership costs going toward maintaining the large 1960s-style buildings, the relatively longer services. There is also the possibility that the label “Conservative” presents a barrier to attracting younger Jews because it is easily conflated with the loaded term “conservative.” 

Perhaps as a path that is “traditional but flexible” Conservative Judaism is doomed to the same fate as other “moderate” movements in today’s American society. If so, carving a path through the middle may prove difficult. Clearly, in a country such as ours, where Jews have the
luxury and freedom to voluntarily detach from their Jewish identity without
adverse consequences while those of other or no faiths wish to join the
Jewish community, the resolution of this issue will require the wisdom of Solomon.

Jessica Emami is a sociologist living in the Washington, D.C., area.

It’s Never Too Late to Be a Ruth

Everyone at upstate New York’s small Temple Beth El knows Linda North as an active member of the Jewish community. The 70-year-old regularly attends services and celebrations with her husband, Bruce, supports her grandsons with their religious education and milestones, and pitches in at temple whenever she is needed.

What not everyone knew was that until May 24, North was not Jewish. She grew up as a non-practicing Christian. “My early experiences with organized religion consisted of my mother sending me and my two sisters to Sunday school when she needed a morning of peace and quiet,” North wrote in her congregation’s newsletter before her conversion. 

North wanted to belong to a religion, but just couldn’t seem to find the one that made ethical and intellectual sense to her and also touched her heart.

 “During my teens, I went to many different church youth groups with my friends. I was always seeking a religious home that felt right to me, but never found what I was looking for,” she also wrote in the newsletter. 

Like a modern-day Ruth, North found her tribe at Temple Beth El. Her first serious exposure to Judaism came in the form of her husband, Bruce, and whom she married in 1970. “I first started coming to temple after my son-in-law Matt and daughter Allison married and had children,” she wrote. “Bruce was already playing the cello for services on a regular basis. Since our grandsons … were being raised Jewish, we wanted to understand the importance of being Jewish in their lives. What we found was a welcoming spiritual community with teachings and values that matched our own. I found the peacefulness of Shabbat brought me a sense of joy that I had never experienced in another religious setting.”

“I want my grandchildren to know that I stand for them and that I stand with them as a member of the Jewish community.”

North’s official steps toward Judaism began after the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in October, which had a profound impact on her. “It hurt me that I was not Jewish,” she said. “It made me know that I no longer wanted to be an outsider. For a long time, I have felt a spiritual connection to the practice of Judaism. I have attended services for several years and relate to the value and ethics and practice of social justice that are inherent in the teachings of Judaism. I want to be part of the community that stands for those things. I want my grandchildren to know that I stand for them and that I stand with them as a member of the Jewish community.”

At Shabbat services on May 24, North got her wish. Before Rabbi Norman Mendel began the words of welcome and official blessings, North’s husband surprised her with her own tallit, saying that if she was going to be a Jew she needed to dress like one. 

“We’re simply doing what’s already been a part of your life. You’re already a part of this congregation,” Mendel said as he faced North in front of the open ark. “You’re already a part of our spiritual family.”

Presenting her with a certificate acknowledging her study, Mendel then revealed North’s chosen Hebrew name to the congregation: Ruth. An apt choice for a woman who embraces her chosen religion as if she had been born to it.

“This is a beautiful moment,” Mendel said. “You are part of the very foundation of what makes Judaism, Judaism: thinking, questioning, involving, being socially just and impacting everyone you meet with that philosophy.” 

Said North: “I feel complete and joyous.”

Religious Parties Hurt Their Religion

On the surface, the fact that Israel is headed back to elections only weeks after the last one looks like a system failure. It’s never happened before in Israel. The Israeli government will now have spent the bulk of a year in election mode rather than governing mode. There’s something wrong with this picture.

And yet, if we look at the reason for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s failure to cobble together a coalition — one party’s refusal to kowtow to religious parties — this “do-over” election presents a unique opportunity for a political upgrade.

Religious parties crave political power because it enables them to fulfill their religious agenda, from refusing to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to forcing Torah laws on the public. Over the years, because Netanyahu has desperately needed their seats to form a majority coalition, he has tolerated their demands.

He probably figured the same thing would happen this time around, but one man stopped him. Avigdor Lieberman, the chairman of the right-wing secularist Yisrael Beiteinu party, decided he had had enough and refused to compromise on a bill to draft Charedim into the IDF.

Normally, Bibi is able to pull things together at the last minute, because Knesset members are loath to jeopardize their positions by going to new elections. In this case, it didn’t work. The Charedi parties threw a few bones of compromise, but Lieberman held firm on sticking to the original draft bill.

This dispute is rooted in the founding of the Jewish state, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made the fateful decision to exempt Charedi men (only a few hundred at the time) from enlisting in the IDF. A well-known Modern Orthodox rabbi in Israel once told me that decision did more to turn off secular Jews to religion than anything else.

“With this unexpected new election, Israeli voters have a chance to put the religious parties where they belong — on the sidelines of political power.”

This makes sense. If you’re an Israeli parent whose children are risking their lives to defend the state, why should Charedi citizens be exempt? And if you see Charedi leaders fighting to keep their community out of the army, how would that make you feel about religion in general?

There are countless other ways that political power in the hands of Charedi parties has become corrosive.

“For too long, this country has been ruled by a Haredi minority,” writes Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief Yaakov Katz. “This one group has controlled all matters of religion and state while holding the government hostage, either by preventing public transportation for millions of people who depend on it, or preventing the creation of a civil marriage option for the nearly 450,000 Israelis who might have served in the IDF and risked their lives for Israel, but cannot get married since their father is Jewish but not their mother.”

Charedi intolerance is also a key contributor to the growing schism between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The equitable compromise to allow egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, painstakingly negotiated by Natan Sharansky a few years ago, was sabotaged by Charedi parties. The list goes on, from overly stringent conversion rules to the rejection and humiliation of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

How could this be good for the Jews or for Israel?

The crazy thing is, I feel at home in the Charedi world. I love praying with them. I love their shtibls, their chanting, their learning, their passion and intensity.

What turns me off is when they become power-hungry politicians.

“Religion ought to be a beautiful thing, not a political thing.

I’m not naive. I get that Charedi politicians must love their political power and will do whatever it takes to keep it. I’m sure they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing God’s work when they impose their religious ideals on the public.

But the majority of Israeli voters don’t like it. They’re as turned off as anyone by religious coercion. Now, with this unexpected new election, they have a chance to put the religious parties where they belong — on the sidelines of political power.

There are some problems in Israel that are intractable, like making peace with the Palestinians. Reducing the enormous influence of Charedi parties should not be an intractable problem. It should be a top priority for voters and for any future leader trying to put together a governing coalition — if not Netanyahu, then for whomever succeeds him.

Religion ought to be a beautiful thing, not a political thing. Religious leaders have every right to inspire people to become more religious and God-fearing. But when they impose rather than inspire, they end up hurting what matters most to them —their own religion.

Election Handbook: Searching for a Theme

We call this format a Timesaver Guide to Israel’s Coming Elections. This will be a usual feature on Rosner’s Domain until next Election Day, September 17. We hope to make it short, factual, devoid of election hype, and of he-said-she-said no news, unimportant inside baseball gossip.


Bottom Line

Warning signs for Netanyahu is early maneuvers. He doesn’t gain enough to have 61 seats, and his prospective coalition partners keep making trouble.


Main News

  • The Labor party is searching for a new leader. New candidates gradually getting into the ring. Ehud Barak is mentioned – again – as a potential runner. Expect a debate about possible merger of Labor and leftist Meretz.
  • Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, a highly popular politician, ponders three options: rejoin Bennett at the New Right, accept a lower position at the United Right, join Likud as a party member without any privileges and wait for the next election.
  • Bennett says he intends to run with the New Right. Hold talks about possible mergers with other rightwing parties.
  • United Right MK makes headlines by declaring his support of “Hebrew Law” as the law of the land – that is, adherence of the legal system to halacha.


Developments to Watch

Themes: We don’t yet have a great theme for the coming election. What would be the overarching question? In the last round it was: Do we still want Netanyahu as PM? This time it might change to something else.

Themes: Lack of debate about Iran/Palestinians/security could elevate other issues, such as secular-religious relations. Such issues do not serve Likud well, as the perception that the party caves too much to Haredi power is widespread.

Political: Will Blue and White rule out a coalition with Netanyahu? If they do not commit to such position this time, the door for unity government opens.


The Blocs and Their Meaning

Here is everything you need to know on the state of the race in one graph. PM Netanyahu wants to have 61 seats at his disposal without needing to rely on the rightwing-yet-trouble-maker Israel Beiteinu party. Based on the averages of the last 6 polls, he is not yet there.  For Likud and Blue and white it is still easy to form a strong coalition – if they only decide that this is what they want.



A Party to Watch

Naftali Bennett is at it again. Having failed to get the needed 4 seats in the last round, he wants to try again, or so he says. On one hand, that’s understandable. Only bad lack and a few hundred votes prevented him from entering the Knesset. On the other hand, the rightwing is supposed to have learned a lesson. Too many small parties – and they might lose votes again. Another factor: last time, Bennett run with popular minister Ayelet Shaked. This time – it’s not clear if she’s on board. So we should treat the following data suspiciously. Maybe Bennett is only looking to make a deal and merge with another party. Maybe he is waiting for Shaked to join in. Maybe he is just exploring an option, and is not yet determined to run. In the meantime, in most polls he gets the necessary votes to win 4-6 seats.


Gifts From Jerusalem

I arrived in Jerusalem on Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembrance for fallen soldiers. Despite the day’s somberness, little Israeli flags waved cheerfully from the side mirrors of thousands of cars and fluttered from thousands of apartment building windows in celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, which immediately follows Yom HaZikaron. 

I had jumped at the opportunity to return to Israel and teach at a writers’ seminar. Since my last visit with my husband two years earlier, Israel had claimed ever-growing space in my heart and mind. Rising anti-Semitism in the United States and abroad makes Israel feel, more than ever, the place that we should call home. 

The shuttle van driver from the airport fit a classic Israeli stereotype: reckless and rude. His sudden, screeching brake action kept me praying hard, my stomach lurching. Welcome back to Israel! I thought.

My relief upon arriving in one piece at the home of my friend Maya and her husband, Eliezer, was immense. Maya and I had been the best of friends at UC Berkeley, both active in Jewish campus leadership. After graduation, I cried as she left for a year’s stay in Israel. How would I get along without her? 

Her letters revealed her love of the land and the people. The friend I knew as Marcia became Maya, declared herself an olah chadasha (new Israeli citizen) and became a special education teacher. She and Eliezer, another oleh, have raised a beautiful family in Jerusalem. I always admired Maya’s decision, sometimes wishing I had shared her boldness and vision. Long gaps between our visits or other communication don’t matter. Whenever we reconnect, it’s as natural and dynamic as when we were young.

That first night, Maya and Eliezer took me to an outdoor prayer and song celebration for Yom Ha’atzmaut. I was swept up in the joyous spirit of more than 1,000 other Jews celebrating Israel’s birthday. Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. Despite the huge crowd, I even bumped into several friends from Los Angeles. Only in Israel!   

I also spent several days at the home of a woman I had met through an online Jewish writers’ network. With five of her nine children still at home, Libby’s daughters graciously slept on futons in the dining room while I commandeered their room. 

“Jet lag had no chance against such a soul-stirring experience, and Maya and I joined hands and danced and sang with other women. “

Libby made aliyah 17 years ago and became an accomplished writer. We carved out time to talk about our work and professional goals, identifying how our complementary skills could help each other. But our conversations transcended work and merged into the personal. We shared confidences. When I expressed some surprise at how much I found we had in common given that she is Charedi and speaks Yiddish much of the time with her children, she observed, “Beneath all the labels, categories and dress codes, we are all human beings, with hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows, struggles and triumphs. It was neither Orthodoxy or Chasidus that brought us together, but our shared humanity.”

Every day in Israel felt like a gift, an opportunity to breathe in the holiness of Jerusalem, to feel the imprint of Jewish history, the comfort of being among so many Jews. Israel, a land of miracles, offered up some for me. Plagued with chronic headaches, I never seem to get them there. And despite all the walking, even on hard stone surfaces, my finicky right knee always behaves. 

The evening I left, I was still packing in scattershot fashion when Libby called to me, “Come look at the sunset!” We gazed together from her fourth-floor apartment windows at the extraordinary beauty of Jerusalem’s twilight, bathing the Judean hills in pinkish-orange and then dusky purple as the sun eased itself below the horizon. 

“Jerusalem of gold,” I said, and Libby smiled and echoed the sentiment.  

On the street below, my heart was full and tears spilled from my eyes. Libby and I hugged each other tightly before I slid into the back seat of a taxi. I had come to Israel mainly for professional opportunities, but I left with so much more. I was nourished with the reassuring bond of a cherished and longstanding friendship, and discovered an unexpected channel for a brand-new and special friendship
to blossom.

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith.”

On Being Versus Becoming

It’s hard to thrive, or even function, if you don’t feel safe. Emotionally, if there is no love in your life, an inner emptiness gnaws at you wherever you go. If you don’t feel physically safe, a constant anxiety sticks to you. Insecurity, in whatever form, can be debilitating.

If this is true for grown-ups, imagine how true it is for children. A fragile baby is at the mercy of others for both physical and emotional sustenance. Not surprisingly, studies show that secure relationships in the early years are essential to helping children grow into healthy adults.

This was the main subject at a recent luncheon hosted by the Jewish Federation for The First 36 Project, a pilot program geared to “the first 36 months” of life developed by the Simms/Mann Institute, in partnership with Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. 

The project’s mission, according to its brochure, is “to provide a select group of parent-and-me instructors with an exclusive professional development experience designed to amplify their ability to support parents as they build strong, meaningful bonds with their children.”

In short, the program uses the professional expertise of the Simms/Mann Institute to help babies thrive.

From testimonials and other sources, it’s apparent that the initiative has made a significant impact since it launched in 2013, spreading throughout our community and elsewhere. This is a classic case of the right groups partnering to fill an important community need.

But as much as I enjoyed hearing about the project, what I found unusually refreshing about the luncheon was that the keynote speaker, Rabbi Donniel Hartman, did not restrict himself to the theme of the day. This was a welcome break from events that focus too obsessively on only one agenda.

Hartman, who runs the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, engaged a group of local leaders with a verbal jazz session on the philosophy of being Jewish. He kicked off by wondering why Jews are so small in numbers.

Why, indeed, are we outnumbered by more than 100 to 1 by the two monotheistic faiths that came after us? 

One reason, according to Hartman, is that Judaism doesn’t provide easy answers.

“The way our tradition thinks,” he said, “is that when someone asks you is it A or is it B, more often than not, the Jewish tradition’s answer is ‘Yes.’ ”

To illustrate, he riffed on the “complicated dance” between the state of “being” and the state of “becoming.”

“Because of Abraham’s tests,” Hartman told us, “we are accepted and loved by God, before Torah, before we believed, before we did, before we kept kosher or Shabbat or anything.”

What gets most of the attention in a world that glorifies achievement is the state of becoming — the restlessness to always want to do more.

“I haven’t slept in over 15 years, truly, because I’m constantly worried about what I haven’t done,” he said. “I always felt that to be a Jew is to be the enemy of mediocrity. …To live a Jewish life is to recognize that who you are is not who you ought to be.”

And yet, in the Torah, the “covenant of becoming” comes long after the “covenant of being,” which is represented by the story of Abraham and occurs many centuries before the divine revelation at Sinai.

“Because of Abraham’s tests,” Hartman told us, “we are accepted and loved by God, before Torah, before we believed, before we did, before we kept kosher or Shabbat or anything.”

God chose to bless the Jews merely because they are the children of Abraham, merely because they’re part of the family. That is the covenant of being, a covenant of unconditional acceptance and eternal love.

“I imagined a dance where God’s unconditional love is the music that moves us to do more, to repair the world and ourselves, to reach higher levels of holiness.” 

“To be a Jew is to be challenged to become but to know that you’re loved unconditionally,” he said. The sequence is crucial: “You only come to the covenant of becoming if you have a strong foundation in the covenant of being.”

Among the many ideas Hartman shared, that dance between being and becoming stood out for me. I imagined a dance where God’s unconditional love is the music that moves us to do more, to repair the world and ourselves, to reach higher levels of holiness.  

This was Hartman’s way, perhaps, of connecting to the theme of the day. After all, a baby, as much as anyone, needs that strong foundation of unconditional love as it starts to “become.”

A good beginning, though, is no guarantee of success. Life has become too complicated. When we look at the growing ills in our community, it’s no wonder we have so many programs for the first 36 years of life and beyond — for grown-ups who have difficulty coping and finding meaning in a stressful and lonely world.

Hartman spoke to that group. God loves you no matter what, he told us. Now go and become.

Shaming Religious Fanatics

Every time terror strikes, a similar and logical drama unfolds. We express shock, outrage and revulsion at the level of human depravity, we grieve for the victims, we commit to fighting the evil of terrorism, and then we resolve to overcome the darkness of that evil with the light of human solidarity.

This is not just the right thing to do — it’s what we need to do.  

When the terrorist act is motivated by religious belief, as was the case with the horrific massacres in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, we are careful not to offend the religion as we condemn the evil of the act. That is also the right thing to do.

By now, we know that the bombings of churches and hotels across Sri Lanka, which resulted in 321 dead (as of press time) and more than 500 wounded, were carried out, according to local authorities, by a radical Islamist group (and perhaps a second) with help from international militants.

It’s worth noting that reactions from across the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds generally avoided mentioning the religion of the alleged perpetrators.

“There is no silver bullet when you deal with religious radicals who are willing to kill and die in the name of their God. But at the very least, we owe it to all past and future victims to look for ways to disturb their souls.”

“We denounce this heinous outrage and appeal for zero tolerance of those who use terror to advance their objectives,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said in a typical reaction.

“We are outraged by the horrific attacks on churches and hotels in Sri Lanka. … Such outrages cannot be tolerated in any civil society, and nobody should be forced to worship in fear. We hope that those who are responsible and those who aided and abetted them will be brought to justice,” Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Chairman Arthur Stark and Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein said in a statement.

Those statements could have applied to any terrorist act, regardless of motive.

It’s true that when the motive is fascism or racism or any motive not rooted in religion, we are less reluctant to condemn the ideology, as we saw with the recent attacks in Pittsburgh and New Zealand. But maybe because a disproportionate number of violent acts are committed in the name of Islam (including many against other Muslims), we are especially and justifiably sensitive not to paint all Muslims with that dark brush.

The question remains, however: Can we add something to our condemnation of religious terrorism that would deter such acts without offending a whole religion?

I realize there is no silver bullet when you deal with religious radicals who are willing to kill and die in the name of their God. But at the very least, we owe it to all past and future victims to look for ways to disturb their souls.

“Can we add something to our condemnation of religious terrorism that would deter such acts without offending a whole religion?”

One approach we have tried is to claim the terrorist has “hijacked” or “perverted” his religion. But because this is usually directed at the general public, it serves more to defend the image of the religion than to shame potential killers.

And let’s face it: Any fanatic who thinks he is doing God’s work by murdering innocent people — whether he is Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim or Hindu — deserves to be humiliated.

You can’t shame a religious killer with secular talk; the only language he’ll listen to is the language of faith. Religious leaders of all faiths must speak directly to their own fanatics and show them why they are sinners. The point is not to defend a religion with the public, but to shame and potentially even rehabilitate fanatics who harbor murderous beliefs.

As part of that process, we ought to consider different labels for religious killers. It’s not enough to use obvious labels like terrorist or extremist or hijacker of religion. That just feeds into their pathologies.

One label I heard recently that may have some merit in diminishing the fanatic is “half-believer.” A religious killer may be a believer, but he is incomplete. He has a long way to go before he can be a true believer. Because of his violent ways, not only is he not superior to others, he is inferior. That is pretty sobering. 

I have no clue, of course, if any language can ever get the attention of a religious extremist who is drunk on certitude. Maybe the only real language is the blunt threat of physical violence or “bringing them to justice,” which must always be our primary options.

But what I do know is that every time a fanatic murders in the name of religion, all religions suffer. It’s up to each faith to take responsibility for their own fanatics. That wouldn’t necessarily eradicate terrorism, but it would help rehabilitate religion.

Debating Religion’s Role in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discuss religion and politics at American Jewish University.

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

With those remarks, Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a recent panel discussion held at American Jewish University (AJU).

The event was part of the series “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations highlighting the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator for this panel discussion, titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.”  The panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church; and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat, and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

Although religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. “I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical; and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” he said.

Hasan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing number of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. She added that after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, she was heartened to see people of diverse political beliefs coming together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood. “We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said the same groups that turned out to support one another after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss noted that established religions have not always aligned with good causes such as the civil rights movement and figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

During the event’s Q&A session, an audience member asked for the panelists’ opinions of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before, and it’s been a journey,” Hasan said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” he said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”

Jewish, Christian and Muslim Panelists Discuss the Role of Religion in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discussed religion and politics at American Jewish University. Photo by Laura-Beth Sholkoff, American Jewish University's Whizin Center for Continuing Education

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

This is how Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a panel discussion on March 27 held at the American Jewish University campus.

The event was part of the speaker series, “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations that highlight the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator on a panel titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.” The event drew around 40 people and the panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. 

 Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Koran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

While religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. 

“I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican. The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald

“I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” Chute said. 

Each speaker spoke about the importance of people of various political beliefs listening to one another. Hassan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing amount of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. 

She added she was heartened that following the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, people of diverse political beliefs came together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood.“We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said that the same groups that turned out to support each other after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

Greenwald connected ideas about religion and civic life to the Passover story, including how Egypt is a place of constriction. The journey to the Promised Land is a “tough one and the only way to make it is together,” he said.

Chute spoke about the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 

“I’m comfortable working not to violate that,” he said.

While Greenwald said it is inappropriate for a rabbi to advise others on how to vote, he is comfortable sharing his opinions on the issues of the day. He added it is natural for elected officials to share how their religious beliefs inform their political positions, noting religion is how they bring their “full selves” to their work.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss said religion was not always aligned with causes including the Civil Rights movement and figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

During the Q-and-A, an audience member asked about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before and it’s been a journey,” Hasan Said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” Chute said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”

Here Comes the Judge

Everyone hates to be judged, yet most of us do it. 

Hillel wrote in “Ethics of Our Fathers”: “Do not judge your fellow, until you have reached his or her place.”  

My cousin Sarah recently died five days short of her 34th birthday. She left behind a 12-year-old son, the father of the boy, and her divorced mother and father. She had a brother who killed himself a few years earlier, another brother with heart issues and a close family member who is a pill addict. Sarah’s life was not an easy one.

When Sarah (technically, my first cousin once removed) was around 9 years old, my wife and I offered to have her mother — my first cousin —  and Sarah fly out from Long Island all expenses paid to sunny California and stay with us for a week. Just come and have a good time. The plan was Sarah would go to Disneyland and see a taping of a TV show. The works. When Sarah and her mom exited the plane, I noticed that Sarah was holding a small bag over her face — an airsick bag. Her mother said Sarah had been sick during the entire flight.  

Heading to our house, she just sat with the bag over her face in the back of the car. When we got home, I showed Sarah to a guest room, where she immediately went to sleep. A few hours later, we woke her for dinner. Still carrying her airsick bag and a little doll, Sarah said she wanted to go home. The rest of the night she sat watching TV and holding the bag and the doll. 

The next morning, Sarah’s mom told me Sarah didn’t want to do anything except go back to the airport and go home. After trying to talk Sarah into staying, we all agreed it would be best if they headed home. A part of me was glad to be rid of them. And as soon as Sarah heard I booked them a return flight for that evening, she perked up and had her first meal. She seemed like a completely different person. That’s when my judgments of Sarah really began.  

After sending them home, all I could think was how ungrateful she was. And what a little brat she was. I made those judgments without knowing anything about what her life was like. I was convinced she was just a spoiled, ungrateful kid. 

Over the next few years, except for sending her a birthday card with $15 in it, I don’t remember much communication. When Sarah got older and Facebook became ubiquitous, I read some of her very dark and depressing posts. She seemed like a very sad person. Once again, I judged and I decided to stop following her on Facebook.  

A few years later, her brother came out to Los Angeles and stayed with us for a few days. I helped get him into rehab at the Salvation Army. A few months later, he blew his brains out with a shotgun in a motel room. I phoned Sarah to express my condolences and didn’t talk with her much after that.

Then I found out that she, my Jewish cousin, had found Jesus and was attending church regularly. Her Facebook posts were filled with crosses and Jesus quotes. More judgments on my part. I thought this girl must be so lost even though, admittedly, I knew very little about her. I thought if only she had stayed Jewish blah blah blah blah blah. More judgments. 

Then about two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life. I thought I knew everything. 

I happened to be heading to New York, so I thought, “Why not call Sarah and ask to visit?” Isn’t it a mitzvah to visit sick people? So I phoned and told her that I wanted to visit. She was thrilled. She said, “I’d love to see you.” It had been at least 20 years since I’d last seen Sarah. And so, I rented a car and drove out to Long Island. 

“About two years ago, I heard Sarah had cancer. At this point, I had almost zero communication with her, but I did have a trunkful of judgments and stories I had conjured up about her and her life.”

Sarah was living in a tough neighborhood known for its MS-13 gang members. After my first visit, something happened to me. Most of my judgments seem to fall away completely. After visiting with her, I realized how sweet and wonderful this young woman was. She was a beautiful young person with a great smile and a heart of gold. Her friends loved her. Her religion was giving her strength. She had a huge poetic heart. She even had a motto, “Save the world.”  

I realized how wrong I had been about her. How so much of what I thought about her was based on misinformation. I made it all up. We visited with each other many more times and spoke on the phone and exchanged email and Facebook messages. She was always so kind and so loving and so fragile. Never ever did she guilt me with, “Where have you been for the past 20 years?” or “Sure, now that I’m sick, you drop by.” Zero. She was just happy to see her cousin, and I felt the same. 

As her cancer progressed, she never complained. It just made her sad that she would soon have to leave her son, her friends and family. She said she knew she was in God’s arms and would be protected. Although she told me she didn’t exactly know what that meant, it still gave her great comfort. 

Little by little, as her pain increased, communication became less frequent. When she could talk, she apologized for not calling back sooner. I can honestly say that I felt nothing but love for Sarah since reconnecting with her. Without knowing it, she taught me that I needed to be much less judgmental, and that what you think you know about someone is not the whole picture. Sarah was deep.  

Then one day I got a call from Sarah’s mom. She told me that according to Sarah’s doctor, Sarah had six weeks to live. I immediately made a plane reservation to go to New York the following week. I figured I’d see Sarah one more time. I figured wrong. Sarah died a few days later.

After her death, I asked one of my cousins about the funeral. He said there would be a wake and then a funeral the next day. I asked if she would be buried. Then I decided to shut my mouth before I started judging all over again because her burial wasn’t what I would choose or how Jews would do it. 

Sarah was buried on her 34th birthday. I love you, Sarah. Please forgive me for judging you.

Mark Schiff is a comedian, actor and writer.

Women Praying at the Kotel Is Normal

Members of the activist group "Women of the Wall" pray with a Torah scroll during a monthly prayer near the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City July 24, 2017. Photo by Ronen Zvulun/REUTERS.

“When Adar begins, joy increases.” But not at the Kotel. 

I was there for Rosh Chodesh to celebrate with Women of the Wall (WOW) on its 30th anniversary. Over the years I’ve prayed with WOW whenever I am in Jerusalem on Rosh Chodesh. Being with friends, praying out loud, is meaningful and normal for me. 

But after Friday morning I wonder what “normal” means.

Last week, Jerusalem was plastered with billboards: 

“Keep the Kotel Normal.”

Some excerpts, roughly translated: 

“For 30 years the Reformim have desecrated the holiness of the Kotel. A handful of women create provocations for recognition in a movement that encourages assimilation. Our struggle is not just about the Kotel; their next targets will be conversion, marriage, kashrut and other religious issues. This a struggle about the Jewish character of the state of the Jews. Friday these women will celebrate 30 years of activity. They intend to bring a thousand people to the Kotel, causing damage to generations. The only way to protect prayer conducted according to halachah is if thousands of Jews come to the Kotel this Friday.” 

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students, teenaged boys and girls, were bused in, making it impossible for the more than 500 women who came with WOW to pray. We were spit on, pushed and, in several cases, physically assaulted. Some of the women had panic attacks; it is a miracle that no one was trampled to death. But even more terrifying, and ultimately more tragic, was the hate in the faces of these ultra-Orthodox girls. They were indiscriminant about whom they shoved, including several older women, one of whom is a famous Orthodox scholar. Our more than 200 male supporters also were harassed. It was clear we were in danger, with the police unwilling or unable to keep us safe. So for the first time in 30 years we stopped midway during our prayer and with great difficultly worked our way toward Robinson’s Arch, where we completed the service. 

Keep the Kotel normal. Is this what “normal” will look like?

“What is provocative about wanting to pray at the Kotel?”

Why are these ultra-Orthodox rabbis so fearful of “a handful of women” that they brought busloads of young religious students to stop us from praying? It had to cost a lot to bring buses and coordinate this campaign. Who actually paid? Was this outpouring intended to send a message before the elections? How dare the police blame WOW for provocation? What is provocative about wanting to pray at the Kotel? Especially now, when, after all those years, the right of women to pray out loud wearing tallit and tefillin has been affirmed by the courts. 

In contrast to the Friday experience, the evening before was celebratory. One of the tributes was a video from former chair of the Jewish Agency Natan Sharansky, who said: “The compromise we negotiated in 2016 will eventually be implemented. It is only a matter of time.” Another highlight was WOW’s honoring the paratroopers of 1967. As they received their award, one said: “This award should go to you. We captured the Wall and then we gave the keys over to generals who gave the keys to one of the most extreme factions in Israel. We didn’t liberate the Kotel. It is still a prisoner. You are the paratroopers who will liberate the Kotel.” 

This anniversary is a testimony to how much we’ve accomplished in 30 years. First, we have put the issue of religious pluralism at the center of the Jewish conversation. Second, our persistence and our willingness to compromise has brought us close to our goal. Leaders of many of the major parties in Israel (except Likud) responded to the events with a commitment to implement the Kotel Compromise negotiated in 2016 but later frozen by the government under ultra-Orthodox pressure. Third, on March 6, the attorney general clarified in a precedent setting letter to the Rabbi of the Wall: “Your claim that women’s prayer with a cantor is not in accordance with local custom is
not correct.” 

In other words, the way Women of the Wall want to pray is in accordance with “local custom,” i.e. normal. 

May the time come soon when “normal’ means there is more than one way to be a Jew and there is room for everyone at the Kotel. Then joy will really increase.  

Laura Geller is Rabbi Emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Embrace Ancient Wisdom, Not Modern Politics

Let’s escalate the “Tikkun Olam and American Judaism” debate by elbowing tikkun olam aside and targeting American Judaism directly. The issue isn’t really tikkun olam pro or con — everyone wants a better world. Debating “tikkun olamism” — making a value the value — risks getting pedantic. 

What’s problematic is BlueJews blurring liberal American Judaism and liberal Democratic politics. It’s rabbis politicizing their pulpits, educators politicizing their schools. The real issue is American Judaism’s hyper-Americanization. We are where we live. As that Incredible Cheapening Ray called American pop culture degrades civilization, vulgarizes language, sexualizes interactions, corrodes family ties, coarsens ethics, polarizes politics, ramps up hysteria, its black magic warps American Judaism, too.

Alas, the thoughtful debate these issues require has degenerated into another blue-red, liberal-conservative duel — meaning Reform, Conservative, Renewal and “just Jewish” versus mostly Orthodox. A young Brit, Jonathan Neumann, helped jump-start this overdue debate in his recent book, “To Heal the World? How the Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel.” David Seidenberg’s erudite but irrelevant rebuttal proves that tikkun olam is becoming a red (or blue) herring. Seidenberg’s interesting history of the value’s value in Religious Zionism sidesteps Neumann’s real critique of American Jewry. Seidenberg sounds like a surgeon admiring his handiwork at the patient’s funeral. It doesn’t matter how tikkun olam functioned before — beware the dysfunctional way liberal politics is hijacking Judaism now.

You know you’re a BlueJew if:

• You’re viscerally more pro-choice and anti-Donald Trump than pro-Israel.

• You applauded Barack Obama’s Iran deal but couldn’t cheer Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move.

• Trump gives you more agita than the Ayatollahs, Nasrallah, Abbas, Hamas or Pharaoh.

• You get why the liberal Jewish agenda tracks Democratic Party politics.

• The to-march-or-not-to-march Woman’s March mess distressed you more than a Palestinian terrorist’s recent rape and butchering of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, and you mourned the 17 people killed in the Parkland shooting while ignoring the 13 Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists last year.

• Your rabbi’s Kol Nidre sermon bashed Trump or Israel instead of challenging your congregation spiritually.

• Your synagogue supports asylum seekers more generously than poor Jews.

• You know more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg than the Book of Ruth or Asher Ginsberg — aka Ahad Ha’am, the Zionist thinker.

• You get virtue-signaled when you attend Jewish events, with the speaker making some obvious crack establishing “us” in the room as enlightened, unlike the boobs beyond, be they Trumpistas, Republicans or the Orthodox.

• No pro-Trump Republican would be comfortable in your synagogue or your seder.

This is a vision test, not a loyalty test, asking what do you see, what really makes you see red?

Most American Jews’ deep-blue hues make sense. People are like pasta: We absorb the flavors of the sauces we swim in. Living in Blue America steeps BlueJews in the concerns of their place at this time. Hurricane Trump is like a Category 5 storm that lingers, creating a perma-conversation topic, especially among his critics — about 80 percent of American Jewry.

Here’s the culture clash everyone fears debating. America threatens Judaism by not threatening Jews, while Jews often fail as Jews by succeeding as Americans.

We made it. We fit in. So even when we “do Jewish” — with those ever-dwindling time dollops we devote to being Jewish — our Jewish spaces, conversation topics, accents and obsessions are thoroughly Americanized. Earlier generations were illiterate (when you know you should know something but you don’t know it); today, we’re Jewishly a-literate (when you don’t even know or care what you don’t know).

“Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism.” 

Injecting a legitimate passion for liberal Democratic politics into all facets of an ever-thinning Jewish life at least gives us something to talk about — and our rabbis to rile up congregants about. Yet it’s hypocritical when American Jews who advocate separating church and state blur their Jewish and political identities. If it’s arrogant to assume God is pro-life or pro-settlements, how can you assume God is anti-Trump and pro-Dreamers?

Constantly form-fitting our 3,500-year-old tradition to the ever-shifting progressive platform will strip Judaism of its own distinct shape. Neumann notes that in the 1960s, the haggadah had to be pro-civil rights, then anti-nukes, then green. Now, it better be immigrant-friendly. Beyond barring anyone from your seder who dares to disagree with you politically, what do we gain by reducing timeless documents to political tracts, christening Democratic Party orthodoxy as Jewish theology?  It certainly inhibits many BlueJews from confronting liberal allies who bash Israel or endorse anti-Semites.

Beyond a lack of Jewish authenticity, we’re barreling down the wrong way of what should be a one-way street. Jewish values should infuse our politics, but partisanship shouldn’t poison our Judaism. When Ruth Bader Ginsburg emblazons “Justice, justice you shall pursue” on her Supreme Court chambers, she’s headed in the right direction, integrating her Jewish values into her worldview. But if we emblazoned her partisan statements, such as “He [Trump] is a faker,” on our synagogue walls, our temples wouldn’t be sanctuaries. Our eternal tradition should transcend a prosaic political agenda.

As a way of life, Judaism is in constant conversation with politics, but it requires nuance, proportion. Sometimes, as when Rabbi Richard Hirsch gave Martin Luther King Jr. free office space in Washington, Jews should take moral-political stands as Jews. But in our era, when so much gets politicized, couldn’t we all benefit from sabbaticals — er, cease-fires — from our constant battles? Keep politics relevant, not dominant.

We’re debating our identity’s gravitational center: Is it theological or political, Jewish or liberal, tradition-enriched or headline-driven? Those Jewishly-centered view the world through blue-and-white-colored glasses, not all-blue partisan prisms. When you visit an Israel awash in guns, instead of railing about gun control, can you respect a society that can control its guns? When you see an Orthodox rabbi dressed in black and white, can you see the grays, appreciating aspects of his traditional life, rather than just disdaining him through your black-and-white lens? When you read the Bible, can you appreciate its deeper meanings without judging every word by the editorial line of The New York Times? And when you read about Birthright’s donors, rather than resenting Sheldon Adelson’s conservatism, can you marvel how he and liberals like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman check their politics — temporarily — to cooperate for our Jewish future?

I’m not proposing Jewish blinders to replace liberal blinders. And I don’t fear a creative, confusing mashup — just, please, respect boundaries, proportionality, directionality, keeping politics in the voting booth and religion in the synagogue whenever possible. Dismissing Michael Chabon’s slur against intramarriage as a ghetto of two, let’s embrace our time-traveling, big-question-asking kosher honeycomb of millions of people interconnected with one another and with beautiful values and stories streaming across millennia. Keep Judaism rooted in yesterday’s big ideas, unpolluted by today’s partisan poisons.

Finally, a reality check. How are we doing by treating our pulpits as political platforms and our synagogues as big-chandeliered, high-ceilinged cathedrals of the Democratic Party? Seems to me we’re driving young Jews away in droves. Maybe they’re seeking some respite, some ancient wisdom, some thoughts deeper than our kneejerk reactions, some perspectives wider than our increasingly narrow and narrow-minded partisan positions. Rather than grumbling how the next generation is letting us down, maybe TooBlueJudaism blew it and is letting them down.

Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American History at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”  

Religious Zionism and the Specter of Racism

Photo by Pixabay

Words from a broken, loving, and hopeful heart.

The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serious time.

Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire.” Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.

And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.

Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi‘s essay summarized it best. The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.

And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.

It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many American Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.

There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.

Does the Media Have a Problem With Religion?

As a religious Jew, I constantly feel attacked by the media. All too often, their stories come across as anti-religion, choosing the side of the nonreligious and attempting to make believers in God look like idiots and bigots.

Take, for example, the appallingly unfair perception of the Covington (Ky.) Catholic High School boys who were filmed wearing Make America Great Again caps at the March for Life rally on Jan. 18 in Washington, D.C. Because many of the kids appeared to be Catholic (and white, and anti-abortion, and Trump supporters, and male), the media jumped on their backs, portraying them as privileged racists. A few days later, it surfaced that the video had been heavily edited, that a group of African-Americans identifying itself as Hebrew Israelites had provoked the boys, and that the boys, predominantly a boy identified in media reports as Nick Sandmann, weren’t mocking or trying to intimidate a Native American and Vietnam War-era veteran identified as Nathan Phillips, who appears in the video beating a small drum. (The anti-abortion rally coincided with an Indigenous Peoples March at the Lincoln Memorial.)

A few days earlier, the media were in an uproar over the news that Vice President Mike Pence’s wife was going to work at an “anti-gay school.” This school is Christian. By that logic, every religious school that follows biblical principles should be labeled as “anti-gay.” 

I have been scorned because I am religious. I wrote an article about my conversion to Judaism for a now-defunct website geared toward women called xoJane. I got hundreds of comments from seemingly secular people who told me I’d converted just to be with my husband, that my outfit in the photo was ugly and that I was brainwashed. 

“Whether someone believes in God or not shouldn’t be an invitation to attack them.”

My husband was approached by a major literary agent who heard him on the radio program “This American Life” but promptly dropped him after she assumed he would write about being pro-God. I often submit pro-God essays to publications, but only the religious Jewish media outlets want to publish them. I know that I’m a talented writer and my husband is an amazing comedian. But we don’t speak up because people might dismiss us as being bitter and not talented enough to “make it.” 

Movies and books about individuals who left Judaism often are released and receive worldwide attention and acclaim. It doesn’t matter that many of these people came from abusive homes or that they’re mentally ill. The media seem to eat up any anti-Jewish news. 

The attacks on believers in God are contrary to how pro-God our country is. U.S. demographics reveal more than 70 percent of Americans consider themselves Christians; 80 percent believe in God.  

I was a devoted atheist for 10 years, and I willingly became an Orthodox Jew. It was not because I was in love with a Jewish man or was forced into it. It’s because I believed the Torah was the ultimate truth and it could enhance my life in ways I never could have imagined. Today, when I think about the path my life could have taken, I’m thankful to God that I found him and Judaism. It has made me a better person, one who welcomes others into her home, gives to charity, volunteers her time, loves her husband, cares for her animals, eats ethically and does not judge others for their beliefs. Most of the religious people I know are the same. They’re some of the kindest, most wonderful people I’ve met, and they will go out of their way to do good. Why are the media portraying us differently?  

I hope there comes a day when religious people can feel free to join whatever party they choose and read the mainstream media without feeling disdained or mocked, at best, and attacked, at worst. We are living in radicalized times, when people are increasingly polarized. Whether someone believes in God or not shouldn’t be an invitation to attack them. 

All human beings have value, no matter what their beliefs (or lack of beliefs) are, and shouldn’t be despised for attempting to live their lives in the best way possible and to pursue happiness. It’s not the American way.

My Jewish Mid-Life Crisis

By definition, a mid-life crisis is an emotional crisis of identity and self-confidence that can occur in early middle age. I am 52 years old, so likely past middle age, but I think I am having a crisis of some kind. I am questioning everything, and while I am confident I am clear on who I am, I am struggling to figure out what it is that I want, specifically in my personal life. I should know, but I don’t.


I used to think I wanted to get married again, but the older I get, and frankly the longer I am divorced, I’m not sure I want to. It has been 22 years since I was married and so it could be that I have just given up on the idea. I simply don’t think about it anymore, and I used to. I can barely muster the strength to go on a second date, which makes the chances of my getting married quite slim.


I have always been a woman of faith, and define myself as a Jew, but I am feeling a heightened sensitivity to everything Jewish. Ever since the murders in the Pittsburgh I have been on edge. I make a concerted effort every day to shake the uneasiness I feel, but I can’t. I got upset about something stupid someone I care about said about being Jewish, and I completely overreacted. Or did I?


I am not questioning my faith, but I am questioning how I view it and if I want it to be public versus private. It is bizarre. I had a bout of anxiety last week when I said Good Shabbos to someone, worried I had said out loud where people could hear me. The feeling I had then made me feel not only more anxious, but ashamed that I panicked about something to do with my faith.


Ugh. I am boring myself with this already and need to figure it out because it is effecting how I live my life. I am struggling. My life is markedly different with this crisis hanging over my head. I am questioning everything about myself, which is unfair to me, and I really need to be kinder to me. It can sometimes be easier to be kinder to others than to ourselves, and that is a real shame.


I need to cut myself some slack and I need to sort this all out. I have changed and I am sad about it. I hate that I second guess myself on things that shouldn’t be given any thought or attention. The back and forth in my own head is exhausting. Is anyone else going through something similar? I imagine there is, but I feel alone and am suffocating from all the questions with no answers.


My mother is coming to visit next week, and will surely provide clarity and comfort, but I am really the only person who can answer my questions. The most important question I have is when will I feel safe? When will I freely embrace my faith without fear? When will I stop second guessing everything? When will I date with an open mind to match my open heart?


I am going into Shabbat today with a real desire for peace. I want to quiet my mind and stop overthinking. I want to be free of worry. Impossible for a Jewish mother to be worry free of course, but you know what I mean. I am a good person and a proud Jew and I know this uneasy feeling will pass. I am blessed, and a little crazy, but everything will be okay as long as I am keeping the faith.

Response to Pittsburgh? Let’s Go to Shul This Shabbat

A view of the KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue in 2013. Photo by Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

What is the proper response to Pittsburgh? Grief, yes. Sorrow, yes. Anger, yes. Resolve, yes. Unity, yes.  Surprise, no. Fear, no. My dear rabbi, Rabbi David Wolpe, likes to say that we in America live in a golden age of Judaism after 2,000 years of persecution, fear, torture, murder, hiding and being on the run from land to land.  Now we are living in a country where we are generally treated with warmth and respect by our Christian, Muslim and other non-Jewish neighbors, friends and strangers. We need to be grateful for this.

During the martyrology service this year on Yom Kippur I reflected on how our forebears dared to worship in public, despite Roman orders not to, and paid the ultimate price for it, sometimes in unbelievably cruel ways. Yet the synagogue I attended was nearly empty. It’s a funny thing about freedom — some things we just take for granted. I do. We all do.

Two other prayers stood out for me during the same service. One prayer was for our fellow Jews in other places who are being persecuted. Miraculously, I could not think of one country where this is systematically occurring on a daily basis. Anti-Semitism, yes. But active persecution –even in countries that don’t particularly like us — no, partly because we have been driven out of many countries and are choosing to leave others, because finally after 2 millennia we have a choice. Perhaps it is because we have the United States on our side and countries would face sanctions and far worse. Perhaps because we ourselves have the will and means with which to fight back.

The other prayer is that we should be in Israel next year. But how many Jews have never been to Israel, actively criticize it, don’t support it or don’t stand up to the insidious anti-Semitism that is the BDS movement or to the bullying of our children on their college campuses? As I said, some things we just take for granted.

“By going to synagogue this Shabbat, we can show our resolve and we can thank God for living in such a wonderful country.”

I do not mean to imply that I am saying I am “religious.” I am not, by standard measures, but I am proudly a Jew. I was reading the Wall Street Journal Saturday morning when I happened to see a friend’s text about “what happened in Pittsburgh.”  So the first thought I had, after I had the chance to digest the news, is that I should have been in synagogue that day and I vowed that I would next Shabbat. I texted my kids and told them they should go, too. My brother asked me if we had armed security at our synagogue. The answer happens to be yes, but I go to a high-profile temple (I do not wish to get into the politics of that whole issue except to say that I think we could all agree that no one needs a personal arsenal of military assault weapons). Not every synagogue might make this choice, and law enforcement has vowed to increase its presence. The good news is that 99.99% of Americans are not sociopathic anti-Semitic killers with personal arsenals. So our response shouldn’t be fear.

My suggested response to Pittsburgh? Let’s go to shul this Shabbat.  Let’s fill up ALL the synagogues this Shabbat. Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, LGBT, it doesn’t matter. If you normally go to synagogue, bring your children. If they usually go, have them bring their friends. Bring your friends. Bring your neighbors. By going to synagogue this Shabbat, we can show our resolve and we can thank G-d for living in such a wonderful country. By doing so, we can exercise our precious First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly all at the same time.

G-d bless America and the Jewish people.

Dr. Joel Geiderman is the former vice-chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and is the California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Dating 101

I went on a date this week with a man I met online. While speaking on the phone before meeting, we talked about religion. He referred to himself as spiritual, but not at all religious. He also said if forced to label himself, it would be agnostic. I told him I believe in God and was a practicing Jew. He said there were things about Judaism he thought were interesting, but was not a fan of organized religion as a whole.


I shared I would never have a Christmas tree, and he shared he hadn’t had one in over twenty years. I told him I like to go to temple for Shabbat services and celebrated Jewish holidays. He said he’d accompany me if he was there as simply someone to have by my side, and not to convert. It was an easy and open conversation. I’m trying to think outside the box, so we made a plan to meet for drinks. He is 55, divorced with one adult child, has a dog and a cat.


A Jew and an agnostic walk into a bar. They say hello, order drinks, and sit down for a chat. After five minutes of small talk about traffic and weather, the agnostic asks the Jew what she thinks about Jesus. The Jew replies that she doesn’t often think about Jesus. The agnostic then tells the Jew he “thinks about Jesus often and how he died for his sins”. The Jew reminds the agnostic that he said he was agnostic, and the agnostic tells the Jew religion and Jesus are not synonymous and can be separated from each other.


The Jew, also being a lady, then spends the next 30 minutes listening to the agnostic talk about Jesus. By talk of course he speaks of his hair, clothes, sacrifice, and most importantly, how Jesus didn’t want to ever be considered a Jew. The Jew tells the agnostic it was lovely to meet him and she enjoyed the drink, but she was going to have to head out. The parting words of the Jew are “take care’. The parting words of the agnostic are “Jesus loves you.”


I am a woman who gains strength through faith, so I would never judge someone based on what they believe. To each their own and I feel strongly that religion is personal and everyone can worship in whatever way brings them comfort. I am Jewish and I take comfort in private prayer and being with my tribe at services. That’s how I roll. I am not an expert on Jesus, but I am quite certain that even Jesus was confused by this guy and was shaking his head while watching our date..


My dating life has always been interesting, but lately it has taken a bizarre turn. You can’t make this stuff up, so I have to wonder what it is about me that attracts such dating. I would like to think it is because I am kind so perhaps these people simply need kindness. I asked Jesus about it, since he was clearly on my date with me, and he just laughed. He actually laughed out loud, told me he was sorry, then laughed some more. Sweet Jesus is awesome. Shabbat Shalom and Happy Friday. Be safe out there and remember to keep the faith.

Non-Jewish at the Jewish Journal

When I thInk of religion, I think of a painting my brother drew when he was 8 years old. It’s a picture of my childhood church, where I was baptized and my parents were married. There, in the middle of a center pew, is my stick figure family, fast asleep. He titled the painting “Snooze Town at Easter Mass.”

Although my parents aren’t devoutly religious, they forced us to go to Christianity classes and Mass once in a while. They believed Mass provided good family time and connected us to important values. My siblings and I usually sat in the pew scowling, not the least bit interested in what the priest had to say. Why did we have to be here? Why did we surround ourselves with people we didn’t actually know?

Last year, after contemplating my own beliefs, I decided to give up Christianity altogether, not out of boredom but out of an inability to connect the details of the Bible (which I did not believe in) with the values my parents and I found important. I believed in honesty, generosity, love and compassion. I just didn’t believe in the story of Jesus Christ, our supposed savior. I freed myself to live by my own personal beliefs. I meditated at a Buddhist temple every week, not in an effort to convert to Buddhism but to reflect on my own thoughts. It wasn’t until I started my internship at the Jewish Journal this summer that I realized I had been missing something.

In a strange way, interning at the Journal felt like the obvious next step in my spiritual journey. I had learned at the Buddhist temple that putting myself in an environment where I didn’t fit in (surrounded by Mandarin-chanting strangers) was the perfect environment for me to learn about myself. I thought of the internship as a double win: I would learn about journalism and about Judaism. I did not expect the people at the Journal to be excited about their work. If religion wasn’t exciting, what could be exciting about writing about Judaism?

On my first day, I was welcomed into an extraordinarily friendly workplace, but also into an entirely new religious community.

At the editorial staff meetings, one person would mention the recent work of a certain rabbi and at least one other person would add on something else they knew about that rabbi. Someone would mention a kosher restaurant, and everyone would nod because they had already been there.

The names of rabbis, synagogues and even certain Jewish families made up the common vocabulary. I felt as if I had walked into a family discussing what was happening in their relatives’ lives. And that is how I came to know the Journal: a bunch of hardworking people writing stories about what they valued most — their own family. What I had been missing, what I had been wanting, was a family like this one. For me, religion had always been too much about personal beliefs and not enough about community.

And the community made the religion exciting. I learned where all the writers got their passion when I covered my first event, a protest on Tisha B’Av against the separation of immigrant families, led by the organizations Bend the Arc, IKAR and Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE). I realized that the work of the Jewish Journal matters. The only way to solve these bigger issues is for people to unite and work together, and the first step to that process is raising awareness about what’s happening in the community.

Throughout my time at the Journal, I realized how much I missed out on by growing up without a religious community. I saw how facing the world’s most daunting questions with others creates unbreakable relationships. The strength of those relationships showed in the way everyone knew each other, in the excitement to celebrate the High Holy Days, and in the passion of the writers. I never knew religion could be so exciting, so unifying.

So thank you, Jewish Journal, not only for welcoming me into your staff, but for showing me how religion can power such a unified, loving community.

Evita Thadhani is a high school junior at Milton Academy in Massachusetts.

Episode 101 – Science is a Myth

Science and Religion. The ultimate standoff. It’s hard to imagine two more dichotomous extremes, right? Well, maybe not. Maybe these age old rivals have much more in common than we have been led to believe. Maybe the mythologies that make up religion have nestled in them some deeper truths. Maybe science is a mythology of its own.

Do the two not ultimately attempt to answer the same underlying questions: How was the universe created? How did life on earth begin? How does our consciousness work? What is morality?

Regardless of your personal beliefs, it’s hard to deny that both Science and Religion are extremely captivating.

But whereas the mythologies of religion have been refined to perfection, its stories inducted into sacred canons, crafted into bestsellers, science has been left to the scientists. The mythologies of science have been and are still being written in dry, technical, unapproachable language bereft of any poetic prose that will both enchant the reader and do justice to the vast knowledge scientists possess in 2018.

This ambitious mission is exactly what it seems Dr. Oren Harman took upon himself to accomplish in his new book, “Evolutions: 15 Myths that Explain our World” .

Dr. Harman is a professor in Bar Ilan University, where he’s the Chair of the Graduate Program in Science, Technology and Society. He studied in Harvard and received his PhD with distinction from Oxford University. His fields of expertise include the history and philosophy of biology, the theory of evolution, the evolution of altruism, the cultural history of science and more.

Harman’s work featured in Science, Nature, the New York Times, The Economist and many other honorable platforms.

Prof. Oren Harman joins 2NJB today to talk about his very own mythology of science.

Oren’s books on Amazon

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

Check out this episode!

Discussing God in Human Terms

The biography of God has been written many times, starting in the Torah and continuing over the millennia that have passed since the words “In the beginning” — or, more precisely, the Hebrew word that is transliterated into English as b’reshit — were first written with a quill pen on a sheet of parchment. And the Bible is not the only best-seller whose hero is the Almighty.

Yet Reza Aslan, a distinguished scholar of religions, has succeeded in showing us a provocative new way of thinking and talking about God in “God: A Human History” (Random House). At the core of his book is a simple but powerful insight — we have no choice but to conceive of God in human terms, and not merely because the Bible depicts the Almighty as creating Adam “in our image, after our likeness.”

“It turns out this compulsion to humanize the divine is hardwired in our brains, which is why it has become a central feature in almost every religious tradition the world has known,” writes Aslan, who comes from a Muslim background but briefly converted to Christianity. “In fact, the entire history of human spirituality can be viewed as one long, interconnected, ever-evolving, and remarkably cohesive effort to make sense of the divine by giving it our emotions and our personalities, by ascribing to it our traits and our desires, by providing it with our strengths and our weaknesses, even our own bodies — in short, by making God us.”

Aslan’s intellectual honesty is on display in the paragraph just quoted from “God: A Human History.” When he refers to “the divine,” he uses the pronoun “it” rather than any of the other names of the deity.

Aslan is one media-savvy scholar who does not confine himself to the ivory tower. He appeared frequently on CNN as a commentator on world affairs and as the host of the “Believer” series until a visceral tweet about the 45th president prompted the network to cancel his show. He put his expertise to good use as a consultant on HBO’s series about the end times, “The Leftovers.” And “Zealot,” his revisionist biography of Jesus of Nazereth, topped The New York Times best-seller list.

So Aslan is not afraid of controversy, but he is also careful about what he is and is not arguing in the pages of his new book. “This is not to claim that there is no such thing as God, or that what we call God is a wholly human invention,” he writes. “Both of the statements may very well be true, but that is not the concern of this book.” In fact, he readily affirms that he is among those who “choose to believe that there is something beyond the material realm — something real, something knowable.” But he also warns that “[f]aith is a choice,” and he insists that “anyone who says otherwise is trying to you convert you.”

But he also insists that if there is one thing that all religions share in common, it is what he calls “the humanized God,” that is, a deity whose characteristics are like our own. “The Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Indians, the Persians, the Hebrews, the Arabs, all devised their theistic systems in human terms and with human imagery,” he writes. Even when psychologists and other scientists inquire into the beliefs of devoutly religious people, they find that true believers “overwhelmingly treat God as though they were talking about some person they might have met on the street.”

“Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon.” — Reza Aslan

Inevitably, Aslan looks far beyond the Bible to show us how the divine has been perceived and depicted by human beings, starting in the distant past and continuing to our own times. He argues that the single oldest image of God, which is found in a cave painting that dates to as early as 18,000 B.C.E., is a humanoid form with “the legs and feet of a human being, but the ears of a stag and the eyes of an owl,” an example of deity known to science as “the Lord of the Beasts.” But he insists that the very first image of God can be linked to the deity that we find in the Tanakh: “Even the Hebrew god Yahweh is occasionally presented as the Lord of the Beasts in the Bible,” he writes, citing a passage in the Book of Job in which God boasts of his authority over the animal kingdom.

But Aslan drills down just as deeply into the inner workings of the human brain to explain why not only the Lord of the Beasts but the very idea of the divine entered human civilization. “Religion is first and foremost a neurological phenomenon,” he explains. And it arises from a specific brain function that “encourages us to use ourselves as the primary model for how we conceive of everyone else.”

Thus he conjures a moment in pre-history when a real-world version of the biblical Eve notices a tree in the forest with a trunk that has grown into a shape that resembles a human face. “She transforms the tree into a totem: an object of worship,” Aslan writes. “She may bring it offerings. She may even start praying to it for help in netting her prey. Thus religion is born, albeit by accident.”

The Jewish contribution to the human history of God, as Aslan sees it, can be found in the writings that were brought back from the Babylonian Exile, that is, the compilation of older texts was eventually canonized several centuries later as the Hebrew Bible. And Aslan judges it to be “an extraordinary development in the history of religions,” an idea of divinity that represented a quantum leap from the primitive monotheism that was briefly practiced in ancient Egypt.

“This was a new kind of God, both singular and personal,” he writes. “A solitary God with no human form who nevertheless made humans in his image. An eternal, indivisible God who exhibits the full range of human emotions and qualities, good and bad.”

Aslan proves himself to be a benign controversialist. After conducting us on a wholly fascinating tour through the history of religion — and after smashing more than a few icons — he ultimately defers to our own free will. “Believe in God or not,” he concludes. “You need not fear God. You are God.”

Reza Aslan will discuss “God: A Human History” with Jewish Journal book editor Jonathan Kirsch on April 22 at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. Visit events.latimes.com/festivalofbooks for tickets and information.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

Convicted Murderers Receive Reduced Sentences Because of Their Victim’s Religion

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

A core precept of justice in America and around the world is the simple concept of “equal justice under the law.” However, not all countries follow this model.  In Iran, equality and justice are secondary, determined by your religion rather than your rights.

A recent trial involving robbery, murder and conspiracy reveals the depth of the problem.

Following six years of investigation and trials, three murderers accused of robbery and murder of a 64 year-old Jewish man in Tehran, known as “Hatef,” were handed their sentences by the Iranian judiciary. According to the Iranian Penal Code which is influenced by Islamic tradition, the typical punishment for murder is death by hanging or life imprisonment. However, the same code prescribes that the life of an individual outside of the Islamic faith is not equal to the value. As such, the three men who were convicted of a brutal homicide were sentenced to up to 20 years and lashes, an extremely light conviction in light of the brutality of the crime.

One of the convicted murderers, known as “Houman” was a neighbor of the targeted victim and reportedly knew him for years. Houman allegedly hatched the scheme and recruited the others to assist him. During the course of a home invasion, the elderly Hatef was bound to a chair. In his testimony, one of the convicts expressed regret about this situation and confessed that he had suggested that they release the man before exiting the property. However the suggestion was ignored and Hatef, who lived alone, decidedly was left to die in his own home.

In the subsequent weeks, Houman allegedly contacted his partners, informing them of the foul smell of the victim’s decomposing corpse. They reentered the property and disposed of the body. According to the testimony of one of the perpetrators, Houman then developed a new plot to purchase the victim’s property by engaging a man who resembled him. Months later when the victim’s relatives inquired about him, they learned that Hatef no longer lived there and were handed escrow papers by the new owner, documents that confirmed the sale of his property.

Following years of police investigations and trials, the judiciary branch reviewed the case. Reportedly, Hatef’s nephew had demanded justice and punishment for the perpetrators. Despite a series of confessions and considerable corroborating evidence, the perpetrators were given light sentences simply because the victim was a Jew and his life therefore less valuable than that of a Muslim.

Most justice systems predicate on the notion of fairness. In some societies such as the US, crimes intended to harm someone based on a trait such as their faith actually incurs more severe penalties because the incident is perceived to have a wider range impact. Enhanced penalties are intended to serve as a deterrent, intending to discourage would-be criminals from committing crimes. But the opposite effect is achieved in Iran.

Criminals in Iran can rest easy knowing, if their victims are non-Muslims, they might get away with murder.

Born and raised in Iran, Marjan Keypour Greenblatt is a human rights activist and founder of the Alliance for Rights of All Minorities (ARAM) in Iran.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman


David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

Check out this episode!

In Search of a Prayer During a Trying Time

Photo from Max Pixel.

Last Wednesday I had anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery done on my neck. Two of my discs were bulging so badly they were pushing on my spine. My arm had been numb for several months and even though I did physical therapy for over a year in an attempt to avoid the surgery, I could longer wait and the procedure was finally scheduled. Four hours and six screws later, I am recuperating nicely and the benefits of the surgery were instantly felt. I woke up with no numbness or tingling in my arm, and am thrilled with the results.

My procedure was done at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. When I checked in for surgery I immediately asked if I could see the rabbi from the Spiritual Care department for a prayer. I clarified that if a rabbi was not available, I would happily pray with any member of the clergy. I simply wanted to pray with someone dedicated to God, and the religious affiliation was not that important. As I sat with my son and told him how much I wanted for the rabbi to come and say a prayer, and he assured me it would be fine and we could pray on our own, but not to worry because someone was coming.

I was waiting for the nurse to arrive to insert an IV when Chaplain Phil Kiehl walked in. He introduced himself and said he stopped by as he had heard I wanted to pray with him. I almost started to cry I was so happy to see him. He sat with me and my son and took time to get to know us. He asked about the operation, who the surgeon was, who the anesthesiologist was, what my pain was, and what the goal was. After we chatted for a few minutes he joined hands with me and my son and gave what can only be described as a perfect prayer.

It was kind and honest and made me feel very safe in my faith. It was a prayer of compassion and blessings. When Phil left the room, me and my son turned to each other and both said it was the most wonderful prayer and had left us feeling happy and at peace. I went into surgery feeling comfortable with my medical team and embraced by God. The following day as I rested and waited for the doctor to give permission for me to leave the hospital, a woman from the clergy office stopped by. Her name was Rebecca Stringer and she was paying me an unexpected visit to check in on me as she heard I was leaving.

She had a beautiful smile and a warmth I could feel. Her soul was visible and I was profoundly moved by her. We spoke about prayer and the importance it has in both of our lives. We spoke about our children and she shared she had lost a child to cancer. Her beloved little boy had passed away and she spoke of him in a way that painted a picture of love. This angel has a remarkable mother who is rooted in prayer and faith. She helped me more than she could ever know. We did not share the same religion, but we shared a life of faith which was respectful and embracing in a way that I wish it could be for everyone.

She held my hand and said a prayer that made me cry. I will forever remember her generosity of spirit and the feeling it gave me. Her words brought me real healing. We may practice different religions, but we pray to the same God and our exchange was special. I am a woman of faith and have experienced many blessings, but this was a rare moment of an authentic spiritual connection to another human being. We were sisters in prayer and I felt God holding onto us. When you can connect through God, without the judgment of religion, it is remarkable.

When Rebecca left my room I had a feeling of gratitude in the wake of her grace. My surgery was a success and I thank Phil and Rebecca for their kindness. Prayer is personal and mine is generally private, but my prayer this week had company and it was lovely. There is power in prayer and when voices join together it is wonderful. I feel great and am getting stronger each day. I was terrified going into the surgery and am relieved it is over and went so well. Life is good and good health is a blessing. I am grateful, happy, healthy, and keeping the faith.

Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog at jewishjournal.com.

Motherhood, Surgery, Reflection & Faith

I’m having surgery on my neck tomorrow, and look forward to finally feeling better. It has been a long road to get here and even with all the challenges and difficulties I have faced, this is the first time I feel scared and nervous. I kicked cancer’s ass, but screws in my spine is daunting and has thrown me into a place of deep reflection, mostly about my job as a mother.

Motherhood is a remarkable thing. I remember the moment I was told I was pregnant. I made all these promises to myself about the kind of mother I wanted to be. I had so many plans and dreams for my son before he was even born. I wanted to be a mom from the time I was a little girl and always thought I would have a lot of kids. Life can change dreams.

I have one remarkable son who is a truly wonderful human being. Both because of me, and in spite of me. I am proud of him and it has been my greatest honor to watch him grow up and become a good man. He is 22 years old and has a very bright future. He is a smart kid, but I worry he’ll never fully understand how much I love him. Perhaps he won’t get it until he is a dad.

The anticipation of my surgery has me thinking, and no good can come of that. I remember every time I was unkind or impatient. Every mean thing I ever said about his dad. The times he took care of me because I was sick. The times he watched me cry because my heart was broken. The times I couldn’t afford to get him what he wanted. All of it is vivid and feels heavy.

He will drive me to the hospital and be there when I get out of surgery, which makes me feel both grateful and sad. It is my job to take care of him, but over the past few years he has been taking care of me, and that is hard for a parent to come to terms with. I don’t ever want to be a burden on my child. I want him to be free to live his life and follow his dreams.

I want to hold him tight and tell him a million things, but that seems somewhat morbid. I’m not dying, I’m just having surgery. It is a procedure my surgeon has done hundreds of times with great success. There is nothing to worry about, and tomorrow when my neck is repaired and I feel amazing, I will have forgotten about how scared I was and focus on my blessings.

I will check in with you over the weekend when I am home, and appreciate your prayers and good wishes. I asked the hospital if I could have a rabbi come say a prayer with me before the procedure and they were surprised. Apparently they are not allowed to offer a clergy visit because it is an invasion of privacy, which is a shame. I pray and welcome the visit for a prayer.

The hospital said they would make the request. I let them know if a rabbi wasn’t available any member of the clergy, regardless of their religion would do. I just want a person of faith to pray with me. We all pray to the same God and I asked for an act of faith not religion. How different would our world be if people were able to have faith without religious judgement?

If I can get through the day without crying it will be a miracle. I feel emotional and happy, yet at the same time feel sick to my stomach and am unhappy. To be expected, but not at all a comfortable feeling.  I am going to count my blessings, believe everything will be fine, trust my brilliant son knows how much I love him, and hope he knows he is the reason I am keeping the faith.







Religion in an Uber

I love a cocktail, and because I am a complete lightweight, I use Uber. It is easy and inexpensive, as long as they don’t nail you with their bogus surge pricing. Important to note that if you book an Uber and it cancels on you, then you rebook it 30 seconds later and there is surge pricing, complain to them because that is both lame and unethical. This however is not a blog about Uber pricing, but rather about my recent Uber driver.

If you are interested in people’s stories, talk to your Uber driver. I have met some wonderful people while riding in their cars. I’ve been driven by a Drake lookalike who was so handsome I stuttered when we spoke. There was a grandmother making extra money to help her single mom daughter, who was so great I moved to the front seat. There was a woman who is raising 9 children and drives to get a break from her kids. Uber is great.

Saturday night I went out for dinner with a friend. He drove to my place and we took an Uber to sushi. When we got in the car there was something in Arabic playing and didn’t sound like music, as much as chanting, so I asked if he was listening to prayers, because that is what it sounded like. He told me it actually was prayers, I told him they were beautiful, and somehow we went from prayers to not all Muslim’s being extremists.

I’m not sure if my positive reaction to the prayers made him open up, but he felt compelled to say not all Muslim’s were bad, and many speak out against extremists who are bringing harm to their faith. He wanted me to explain to him why the media never talks about the brave few who are willing to speak out. I didn’t have an answer, which I think made him sad. I appreciated that he wanted to be heard, and felt bad the ride was so short.

We live in a time when it is difficult to be a lot of things. Life has levels of complication when you are gay, black, Jewish, or transgender, to name just a few. It makes me happy when people are proud of who and what they are, so it was great that this man was comfortable enough to play prayers for strangers. He asked me at one point if I was Muslim, and I said no. I didn’t tell him I was Jewish, which I am ashamed of.

I’m not sure why I didn’t say I was a Jew when he asked me if I was Muslim. I’m not sure why I would even have said I was Jewish in that moment. I am proudly and openly Jewish. I say openly because I have many Jewish friends who are quiet about their faith.  It struck me as odd that I would choose this moment to be quiet and not share. I respect his bravery, but am sad for thinking it requires bravery to speak of religion.

Religion has always been something we need to be careful with I suppose. It brings people together, and tears them apart. If fuels love and hate on both small and epic levels. At the end of the day I’ll continue talking to Uber drivers, because connecting to a fellow human being matters, and exchanges about religion can be enlightening if we allow them to be. Sometimes talking to a stranger inspires you to keep the faith.


Writing Out Loud

I’m not one to make resolutions because they set us up for disappointment. Rather than put all my eggs in one basket on January 1st, I simply try to do my best each day. I say a prayer, cross my fingers, and try to be brave enough to take leaps of faith. It is easier said than done of course, but as long as I try I am proud of myself. It doesn’t matter if I accomplish everything I set out to, but it does matter that I put myself out there.

The past year was full of challenges and blessings for me. I have no complaints because everything led me to blessings. I am thankful for the life I have and grateful to have this platform to share myself with all of you. I have discovered over the many years I have been writing for the Jewish Journal that my life is better when my readers relate to my words and share theirs in return. We are all in this together and I value your input.

In 2018 I will write about my always entertaining yet pathetic dating life, my lack of a sex life, my empty nest, my weight, my fascination with the train wreck that is Leann Rimes, my faith, my religion, (faith and religion are not the same thing), becoming a vegan, my son, my cat, my hopes, my fears, my cancer, and everything else that comes along because there is nothing I won’t share with an open heart and a shot of tequila.

I am going to write more often, and not only about what is going on in my life, but what is going on in the world. There is a lot to say and while I have always been open and honest, I’m going to take things to a whole new level and really blog out loud with no fear and no filters. I am excited about a lot of things and sharing them with you is a blessing that continues to inspire me to keep the faith.



Latter Day Jew Wants Jews to Hear His Story of Love and Conversion

Photo by Dusty St. Amand

“I was raised Mormon, poor, in the Midwest; turned out kind of gay, got a little cancer, then converted to Judaism. Try putting all of that in a Tinder profile,” writer-comedian H. Alan Scott quips in the trailer for “Latter Day Jew,” a documentary-in-progress about his life’s journey.

The film will follow Scott, 35, as he prepares for his bar mitzvah at the Reform Temple Akiba in Culver City on Nov. 9.

In the trailer, Scott stumps a prospective party planner when he jokes, “How do you feel about a public bris?”

In his Silver Lake apartment, the comedian turned serious when asked why he was drawn to Judaism.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God, that I’m belonging to a community,” he said. “And I find Shabbat to be a very beautiful, spiritual sort of ‘timeout.’ Of course, I just also love challah bread.”

Scott was sitting in his living room, which sported an Israeli flag, books on Judaism and the Jewish icons he has loved since childhood (Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Nora Ephron and Lenny Bruce). One of his arms was adorned with a tattoo of TV’s “The Golden Girls,” including Bea Arthur, another of Scott’s Jewish celebrity fetishes. (He has a podcast devoted to “Golden Girls.”) His black-and-white cat, Frasier — named for another of his favorite shows — wore a magenta collar affixed with a gold-sequined bow tie.

Scott grew up in not-very-Mormon Kirkwood, Mo., a St. Louis suburb where, he said, “people would ask me if I had three moms.”

In a telephone interview, his one and only mother, Kathleen Giamanco, said she was abandoned by her parents at the age of 8, sent to an orphanage, and then adopted by a devout Mormon family. She said the Mormon upbringing she gave her son was much less strict than how she was raised.

Yet, Scott chafed at the beliefs of the Mormon church, especially its emphasis on the afterlife. “That’s a waste of time, because we’re here right now,” he said. “I’d rather focus on what I’m having for dinner.”

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience. Decked out in a white robe too tight for his chubby adolescent physique, he was lowered into a hot tub by a hunky young missionary. “I wasn’t thinking about anything except that my head was just a couple of inches away from this attractive man’s member,” he said.

Scott’s baptism, at age 12, was hardly a religious experience.

Later, while studying at DePaul University in Chicago, Scott confided to his Jewish academic counselor that he was drawn to Judaism. She promptly forwarded him to local rabbis and Scott began reading about the religion in earnest. He continued his studies into his 20s, while working as a stand-up comedian in New York.

He thought he had plenty of time to convert — until he began feeling a persistent pain in his groin. Just after he moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2012, Scott was diagnosed with testicular cancer and endured grueling rounds of chemotherapy.

It was at that time he decided to convert to Judaism, he said, not because the cancer made him face his mortality but “because I had the time. There was nothing grounding me and I felt lost.” He also thought the time was right to convert because he aspired to become a father one day and wanted to raise his child in a religiously grounded home.

His Jewish psychiatrist suggested he reach out to Rabbi Zach Shapiro at Temple Akiba, who happens to be gay.

“H. Alan asked me if it was common for a young, single male to convert to Judaism, and I said, ‘No, it’s not,’ ” Shapiro recalled. “He’s an incredible young soul with lots of questions.”

Temple Akiba Cantor Lonee Frailich agreed: “To see this particular person on such a unique and different journey — and do it with such grace and humor — is a beautiful thing.”

While there are no statistics on the number of former Mormons who have converted to Judaism, Rabbi Emeritus Fred Wenger of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City — that city’s largest synagogue — said he has presided over the conversions of about 60 former Mormons over the past few decades.

Devout Mormons feel an affinity for Jews, in part, because of their own exodus, due to religious discrimination, from upstate New York to the Midwest to Salt Lake City, Wenger said.

Andrew Reed, a Mormon and a professor of Jewish studies at Brigham Young University, noted that the Mormon church — formally known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — donated land for two Jewish cemeteries in Salt Lake City in the 1860s, as well as space for local Jews to hold High Holy Days services. The church’s love for the land of Israel also led its leaders to send an emissary to then-Palestine in the 1940s.

But, Reed said, there have been some rifts between the Jewish and Mormon communities, one of which resulted from Mormon church members’ pursuit in years past of their belief that they could posthumously baptize Holocaust victims such as Anne Frank.

Wenger said he has spoken to church officials about discontinuing Mormons’ proselytizing efforts aimed at Jewish youths.

Scott said he also took issue with the posthumous baptisms, as well as the church’s support of California’s Proposition 8, approved by voters in 2008, which would have banned same-sex marriage. A federal court in 2010 ruled the proposition unconstitutional.

About two years ago in Los Angeles, Scott professed his commitment to Judaism before a beit din, or rabbinical court, and then immersed in the mikveh at American Jewish University to complete his conversion.

“I love the questioning, that I have freedom of thought, that I can question God.” – H. Alan Scott

After he emerged from the water, Scott recalled, he started to shake and cry. Initially, he thought he was having a panic attack. “I kept thinking, ‘What have I done? Have I gone too far?’ ” he said. “But then I realized that it was this complete embracing of the history of Judaism and Jews. It felt so right.”

Thereafter, Scott struggled to understand how he could be “a good Jew and give back to the community.” He attended retreats of the Jewish organization Asylum Arts and, among other efforts, twice visited Israel, where he met with gay activists.

Then he met with director Aliza Rosen, who had created a CBS series on the murder of JonBenet Ramsey that Scott wanted to feature on his “Talking Crime” podcast.

Rosen recalled that during their first dinner together, she was “completely distracted because he was wearing this very prominent Magen David necklace. I asked, ‘What’s the deal with the Jewish star?’ He went on to tell me his whole story. I put down my fork and said, ‘We’re making a documentary.’ ”

Scott, who writes about gay issues and other topics for publications such as Newsweek, said he is saving jokes about becoming Jewish for his upcoming one-man show, which will be filmed as part of the documentary. He quips that his conversion means he’s finally gone Hollywood.

“In doing this documentary, I want to create a story for the Jewish community,” he said. “I want it to be an affirming story about what’s great about being a Jew.”