November 21, 2018

Weekly Parsha: Chayei Sarah

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

She finished giving him to drink, and she said, “I will also draw for your camels.”  Gen. 24:19


Yehudis Fishman
Jewish Community Educator
Many sages address how elaborate and even repetitious is the first recorded match made in Torah. In our verse, the matchmaker Eliezer witnesses the gesture that clinches the couplehood of Isaac and Rebecca. She agrees to provide water not just for Eliezer and company, but also for his camels. This action demonstrates more than simple compassion. 

The Kabbalists say Isaac represents the quality of intense gevurah, variously translated as strength, upward propulsion or contraction. To balance such a force, his soul mate needs to be his polar opposite. Therefore, just being kind is insufficient. To bring harmony to the universe, and to manifest the presence of HaShem who “rules heaven and earth,” there needs to be a unification of the strongest upward flight, represented by Isaac, with the most grounded act of relating to and caring for all creatures, no matter how lowly. 

It is interesting that what first catches Eliezer’s attention at the well is the water rising up to meet Rebecca. When she draws water for him and the animals, however, she receives no miraculous assistance and has to use her own strength. These two phenomena, the heavenly gift and the physical effort, both express the principle that uniting heaven and earth requires masculine and feminine energies working together.


Ilana Wilner
Judaic Studies Teacher and Director of Student Activities at Shalhevet High School
Why does Rivka wait until after Eliezer is done drinking to offer water for the camels? The sages offer varying explanations. I believe that Rivka waited because she knew there was not enough water in the jug for Eliezer to drink and also to give to the camels. This simple explanation has a deeper meaning that reveals Rivka’s character. From a place of humility and commitment, she wanted only to promise what she knew she could deliver. 

There is a bigger life lesson here. Rabbi Akiva Tatz, in his book “The Thinking Jewish Teenagers’ Guide to Life,” discusses how to find your role in life. He tells us to draw three circles; in the first list the things you are good at, in the second the things you are passionate about, and in the last what the world needs. He says your role in life should encompass those things at the intersection of these circles. Rather than trying to do everything, he stresses, find the one thing you are truly capable of delivering and focus on that.

Rivka had the ability to know herself, to see the need of the people around her, and then to act accordingly. Having completed the task, she immediately moved on to the next, offering water for the camels. In a world where we try to have it all and do it all, Rivka teaches us the value of emptying your jug first before filling it up again.


Shaindy Jacobson
Director of the Rosh Chodesh Society of the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute
The camel, gamal in Hebrew, and gemilut chassadim, helping others and perpetuating kindness, are etymologically related. 

With these words of great kindness, our matriarch Rebecca gifts us the ultimate safety instruction card for the itinerary of life:

Stay well hydrated. Camels can drink 20 gallons of water in one shot. They are notorious not only for their drinking abilities, but also for their incredible stamina in trekking through arid deserts with waterlogged bellies. We too must drink — the living waters of our holy Torah. The Torah is our hydration. It is what allows us to traverse the terrain of a life well-watered, always drinking, copiously filling our minds, hearts and souls with its elixir of life. 

Join the caravan. The safest, most efficient way to travel through the desert is to travel together. While one camel may successfully cross the desert sands, a caravan of camels exponentially increases the odds of reaching its destination safely. Gemilut chassadim is the essence of building caravans: shouldering the load together, strengthening the less fortunate, helping one another on the journey of life. 

Transform the desert. Camels travel through deserts, the quintessential no man’s land and antithesis to civilization. The Jewish nation sojourned in the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. In life, we often find ourselves traveling through wasteland before finding civilization and creating a home for God. The redeeming factor in this desert trek is the gamal: through gemilut chassadim — goodness, kindness, helping others — we transform the desert itself into the Promised Land.


Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith Hospice Chaplain
We might dismiss water as an incidental feature in this story, but the Torah doesn’t squander words. We must understand water as a vital ingredient wherever it flows in Torah, even swelling to become a character in its own right! 

Whereas in Parashat Noah, water is God’s element of annihilation, in Vayeira it is Ishmael’s elixir of life. In the Book of Exodus, walls of water will frame a sort of holy womb, from which the nascent people of Israel are born. Is it then any surprise that water frequently accompanies a critically important woman in the narrative? Indeed, water arises in the Torah as a dominant and elastic instrument: easing alliances, sealing pledges, signifying partnerships, and often heralding God’s involvement on a sacred stage.

Whether or not she knows it, Rivka’s appearance at the well of Nahor is a test of her character. It may be her physical beauty that grabs the attention of Avraham’s appointed matchmaker, but he asks her to sate his thirst. Then it is Rivka’s thoughtful patience and uncommon generosity, administering water both for him and for Avraham’s camels (dear ships of the desert), that presages her sacred future as a matriarch. 

Moreover, Rivka’s big-heartedness stands in contrast to the occasional hard-heartedness we see in the tents of Avraham and Sarah. Rivka is a standout personality in the Book of Genesis — provoking trust, sustaining man and beast, and in the fullness of time, altering the flow of our Israelite fate.


Rabbi Michael Berenbaum
Writer, Lecturer, Professor, American Jewish University
Character counts. Eliezer is a stranger in a strange land, sent by his aging master to find a wife for his beloved son. How is Eliezer to know who is right? 

He comes up with a test. The maiden who offers both him and his camel a drink of water will be the one. Rebecca’s response exceeds his expectation. She not only waters his camels, she draws until they have finished drinking. 

Such sensitivity and generosity: Eliezer is smitten not by her beauty but her values.

Rebecca is the most impressive of our biblical matriarchs. We see Sarah’s anguish at being childless, her willingness to accommodate Abraham’s hospitality, her laughter at the prophecy, her anger at Hagar and her fierce, sometimes cruel, determination to ensure that Isaac is his father’s sole heir.

 We learn of Leah’s poor eyesight, suffering as the fertile yet unloved wife; and we witness Rachel’s beauty, childlessness and unwillingness to enter the Promised Land without her father’s idols.

But it is young Rebecca who duplicates Abraham’s going forth to an unknown land. She is the Torah heroine who encounters God regarding her turbulent pregnancy. She urges her reluctant son to deceive her husband. She creates the space within which Isaac can make the right choice between his sons, thus transmitting the family legacy to the chosen one. She sends her beloved Jacob into exile to protect him from Esau’s ire. Wise and daring, cunning and unrelenting, she is the one. 

And Eliezer grasps all of this in one gesture.

Weekly Parsha: Vayera

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And [Isaac] said, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the
burnt offering?” – 
Genesis 22:7


Kylie Ora Lobell
Writer

This Torah portion used to disturb me. Avraham and Sarah waited years to have a child, and when they are blessed with Isaac, HaShem commands Avraham to sacrifice his son. Avraham agrees without hesitation. 

Over the years, I’ve read this parsha again and again. And I finally understand why Avraham agreed. 

I converted to Judaism and willingly took on the mitzvot, no matter how nonsensical they were. Give up bacon, my favorite food, because the Torah says to? Yup. Carry during Shabbat only in a place where there are strings surrounding me? Sure. Shake a branch and spend $50 on a fruit for Sukkot? OK! 

I do these seemingly absurd things with enthusiasm because I believe that HaShem wrote the Torah, and I want to follow his word. I am a normal(ish) Jewess, while Avraham was one of the holiest Jews. He had an incredibly close relationship with God. If I am willing to take on laws I don’t understand at my level, you can bet that I would do whatever God said if I had that kind of relationship with him. 

Avraham knew that God does good and only wanted the best for him. I’ve realized how all these mitzvot I took on have improved my life. I feel the holiness when I practice them, even if they don’t logically make sense at the time. Avraham has taught me to have emunah, faith, and follow HaShem, even if I don’t yet know the beautiful journey he’s taking me on. 


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld
Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am

Some verses are so raw, so stark, that applying layers of commentary is nearly a disservice. Isaac’s plaintive, almost outrageously innocent question to his father seems to be in that category. We view Isaac as passive and naïve. Not yet picking up on what even we, the reader, know is transpiring. “Dad, I am confused! What do you have in mind for a sacrifice today?” The utter pitifulness of Isaac in the scene perhaps ought to be preserved as is. 

But our tradition never stands still on meaning. The 18th- to 19th-century Apter Rebbe, Rabbi Avraham Yeshoshua Heschel, reads Isaac not as dull or dimwitted, but sharper even than the knife itself. Imagining Avraham anachronistically concerned about halachic, legal details, Isaac reminds his father that if he were to sacrifice him, he would be an onen, mourner, instantly invalidated from continuing to serve God via sacrificial offering. And, Avraham apparently has no other animal to sacrifice. “Have you thought this through, Father? This apparent act of piety will ineluctably distance you from the God you are intending to obey. You will have neither me, nor a substitute offering. Then what?” 

The stakes are rarely as high. But we need to listen to the voices of others, and within our conscience, warning us of the hidden dangers of complete obeisance. And of piety devoid of ethics. Isaac’s brutal and brutally honest cry reverberates before every one of our utterances and acts of devotion. “Then what?” 


Rabbi Reuven Wolf
Director of Maayon Yisroel Chassidic Center

As Abraham and Isaac are en route to Mount Moriah, Isaac is under the assumption that they will be slaughtering an animal as a sacrifice. But then Isaac notices that his father has not brought a sheep to slaughter and realizes that he is actually the intended object of his father’s sacrifice. 

When Isaac realizes this fact, he calls to his father, “avi,” “my father.” Avi is a reference to Abraham’s natural proclivity toward chesed, kindness. Isaac questions his father, saying, “How can you possibly be ready to act in a manner that is so contrary to your nature? As a naturally benevolent person, how can you be prepared to sacrifice your son?”

Abraham responds, “Hineni beni,” “Here I am, my son.” What Abraham means to say is that in order to fulfill God’s will, he has temporarily discarded his own nature and donned a new nature, that of his son, Isaac, who is characterized by an inner strictness, strength and intensity, quite the opposite of Abraham’s natural gentleness.

We all have our natures. We all have boundaries and parameters that make up our unique personality. Most of the time, we can live within those definitions. But sometimes it is necessary to adopt a nature that is foreign to us, to act in ways inconsistent with our personality, to bend and stretch our own self-definition, for the sake of something larger than ourselves.


Cantor Michelle Bider Stone
Director, Los Angeles Shalom Hartman Institute of North America

In the Akedah, the binding of Isaac story, Abraham is celebrated as the man of faith, but who is Abraham the father? 

Abraham makes his way through the narrative almost completely in silence; only Isaac shatters the quiet with this question. Abraham responds that God will provide “the burnt offering, my son.” It is in this moment, Rashi explains, that Isaac realizes that he would be the sacrifice. And then, silence again as they continue on to what appears to be a horrendous, yet inevitable, fate. 

Kierkegaard comments on the Akedah, “Silence is the snare of the demon and the more one keeps silent, the more terrifying the demon becomes.” After the Akedah, Isaac never speaks to Abraham again. Silence begot more silence. 

To me, Abraham’s silence is heartbreaking. How could he not question God when he commands Abraham to kill his son, his only son, the one whom he loves? Is this not the same Abraham who fought for 10 righteous strangers in Sodom? How could he ignore his helpless son in this moment, instead of making him feel loved and cared for? 

Everyone handles emotional pain differently. Abraham’s defense mechanism is detachment. But his pain doesn’t absolve him of his responsibility to his son. In the end, Abraham doesn’t sacrifice Isaac, but, by his silence, he sacrifices their relationship. It is a lesson in the limits of blind faith, how silence exacerbates trauma, and how giving voice to the silenced can repair a rupture.


David Sacks
Happy Minyan of Los Angeles

The first thing we need to know is that Issac was 37 years old at the time of this event. The next thing we need to know is that he already knew the answer to his question. He knew that he was the burnt offering. 

We know this because a little bit later in the Torah, it says that Abraham and Isaac “went together.” This means, that Abraham and Isaac were united in their awesome desire to do the will of God no matter what it took. 

Our rabbis teach that every person must ask themselves the question, “When will my deeds reach the level of my forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu) Or put another way, how can I offer myself up to God today? 

The Jewish people are living, thank God, during wonderful times. We aren’t hunted, and we don’t confront death on a daily basis. So how do we offer ourselves up to God during our present good times? The answer is not by dying to sanctify God’s name. But by living to sanctify his name. To do that, we must first understand what life is. 

Simply put, life is the canvas we’ve been given to turn our deeds into art. And the greatest art is made when we unify our hearts and minds in the quest of finding God in everything. This is what it means to choose life. And when we do that we sanctify God’s name with every breath. 

Weekly Parsha: Noach

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

“The dove returned to him in the evening, and behold it had plucked an olive leaf in its mouth.” –Genesis 8:11


Rabbi Ilana Grinblat
Vice president of community engagement for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California

When the dove returns with the olive leaf, Noah stays in the ark. Seven days later, when the dove flies away forever, Noah still remains in the ark — until God tells him to leave. Then Noah plants a vineyard, drinks the wine and dances naked in his tent. Traumatized by the destruction he witnessed, Noah turns to alcohol for comfort. 

As I write these words, many people whose homes were devastated by Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas are awaiting word whether it is safe for them to return home. The hard work of rebuilding their lives has not yet begun. A year after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, there are still families without homes or a roof over their heads, and the lightless streets are impassable at night. Noah’s story reminds us that the work of reconstruction after a flood or other calamity can extend long after the stories leave the headlines. 

Likewise, healing from other traumas often begins significantly after the event itself — after we feel physically safe enough to grapple with the emotional pain. Grief can strike long after a death, and we may not even recognize initially that the sadness we’re feeling is a response to that loss, rather than to current events in our lives. Community members typically help at the time of a death but may forget that the hardest time for mourners often comes months or years later. 

After the waters recede, the slow, painstaking work of healing begins. 


Marcus Freed
Author of “The Kosher Sutras,” a yoga-based Torah commentary

Light follows darkness. Rebirth follows tragedy. The old makes way for the new. The empires of Egypt, Rome, Persia and Greece fell and the British empire, unfortunately, took a few hits. We live in times of revolution: #metoo, #timesup, American politics, Brexit and rapid technological progress.

When part of our life collapses — losing a job, a relationship or being diagnosed with a debilitating illness — we can discover new possibilities and become stronger.

An olive leaf symbolizes new personal strength, light and better health. Rabbi Nachman taught that the song of birds, chazzan, represents prophecy, chazon.

There is a commandment to “crush olives for the light” (Exodus 27:20) and one idea is that we are like the olive. Sometimes we need to be crushed to unlock our potential. A miracle vial of olive oil created the lights of Hanukkah. Today our menorahs light up winter, the darkest point in our year. Our skin also can become more radiant by eating olive oil.

After mass destruction, the dove plucked and delivered an olive leaf. Perhaps the bird brought a message that your personal pain can lead to a powerful new chapter.


Rabbi Elliot Dorff
American Jewish University

What a relief it must have been to the people on the ark to see this first sign of land after spending 10 months afloat on a complete water world! During that time, they had no assurance that they would ever again see dry land, so the dove holding the olive leaf symbolized the proximity not only of land, but also of food. This clearly meant nothing less than that they would soon be able to resume life on land under conditions that would be safe, familiar and sustaining for them.  

Think about times of great anxiety in your own life or that of your loved ones: if relief came, in what form did it come? What was the harbinger of that relief? A job offer after a long search while unemployed? The doctor telling you that your cancer is in remission? A “Eureka!” experience when you finally figured out the solution to a difficult problem? A shared hug of reconciliation among family members or friends who had seemed forever at odds and angry with each other?  

As Jews, we bless God “for keeping us alive, sustaining us, and enabling us to reach this occasion” (shehecheyanu vekiymanu, vehigi’anu lazman hazeh) at the beginning of each of the biblical holy days. In happy, dramatic turns in our lives like the ones mentioned above, that blessing also seems appropriate. It did not exist at the time of Noah, but had the people on board Noah’s ark known it, they surely would have uttered it. 


Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Many of my conversations with people in abusive or volatile relationships begin with the following mental negotiation: “Rabbi, I understand that my current situation is unhealthy and unstable, but it is all I know. To leave this life is entering a new world I can’t begin to understand.” The negotiation is often the nurturing of an inner dialogue, a back and forth between an existence that while detrimental, is predictable and another that pulsates with the unknown and endless possibility. Some choose light; but so many return to the dark.

The Radak, the Medieval commentator of the Torah, asks, “Why did the dove choose a leaf from an olive tree?” He explains with an answer found in the Talmud: that even a bitter tasting leaf eaten in freedom was preferable to being cooped up in luxurious surroundings. In other words, the dove put her trust in God, understanding that while new beginnings may be bitter, the hope that freedom brings is worth the initial struggle. 

It is a real gamble: To change direction and embark on uncharted territory. To leave what is comfortable and swim away, praying that you’ll end up on dry land. The dove reminds us that first steps into new worlds are often muddy, dirty and difficult. But first steps lead to trailblazing efforts, and roads that can carry us to lives of purpose and meaning. 

Take a leap of faith. A world of light and wonder awaits.


Daniel Lobell
Comedian, host of “Modern Day Philosophers” podcast

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory), explained that even if something seems bitter like an olive leaf, we need to trust that God is on our side and everything will turn out fine. Ultimately, his covenant with us will prevail, just as it did with Noah after the flood. 

When I think about doves, though, I get a little bitter. I had a great plan to release two doves at my brother’s wedding — the perfect surprise. 

I bought the birds from a live poultry shop on Queens Boulevard en route to the ceremony. We hid one in my wife Kylie’s dress and another up my jacket sleeve. When we were halfway down the aisle, we released the birds, but instead of gracefully soaring away, they awkwardly flapped around, and one landed on some woman’s head. She let out a loud shrill, which luckily was met with laughter from the rest of the crowd. Fortunately, no one ever found out they weren’t even doves. Just white pigeons, a much cheaper option. 

I guess I should have accounted for the fact that birds from live poultry shops never learn to fly because they’re kept in cages their entire lives. My brother was a little upset, but not for long. He loved his wedding gift: wooden kitchen utensils made from, you guessed it, olive wood. I literally extended the olive branch and made things OK. I guess it really is a peacemaker. So the moral is, if you can’t get the bird to do it … you gotta do it yourself. Peace and love.

Table for Five: Sukkot

One question, five answers. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

If you could invite anyone to your sukkah, who would it be?


Rivkah Slonim
Education Director, the Rohr Chabad Center for Jewish Student Life at Binghamton University, State University of New York

Hands down, Devorah Hashofetet, Deborah the Judge, woman of fire. 

Finally, I could have a heart-to-heart talk with the woman who has always intrigued me. We have matriarchs, prophetesses, queens, female scholars, but Deborah is singular in Jewish history, serving as the leader of the Jewish people in her time. 

Deborah, I have questions for you. Forgive me, but just how was it that you alighted to your position? Were you simply the “best man” for the job? What was it like to operate within — nay, to run — the boys club? 

Believe it or not, all these years later, it’s still not a walk in the park. How did it affect your marriage to Barak? I am guessing your relationship was rock solid, as when he balked at your idea of his leading the Jewish people to war against Jabin of Canaan and asked for you to join him, and you replied confidently in the affirmative. But you prophesied that it would be a woman who would win the war. Delicious irony in that subtle insult, no? 

I admire the way you showcase Yael in your song of victory and give her the credit that is due. That doesn’t always happen in a man’s world. Fearless Yael effectively won the war by driving a tent peg through the temple of Sisera, general of the Canaanites. Go, girl! Move over, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I want to watch a full-length feature film on Deborah. For now, though, I will savor our conversation. 


Rabbi Jill Berkson Zimmerman
ravjill.com

To our sukkah, I would invite Rev. Dr. William Barber, a Protestant minister and social justice activist from North Carolina. 

Rev. Barber has an uncanny ability to weave texts from all over the Bible, especially the words of the prophets, into a rhythmic, almost hypnotic cadence that is profoundly inspiring. He preaches and organizes actions on justice, dignity and equality. He has been a voice I can rest in during these divisive times, because he not only speaks truth, he also uses the Bible’s most lofty aspirations to create a vision that compels me to act. 

When I hear him speak, my heart is all on fire. I want to stand up and move toward the world he paints, where each human is treated as the divine creature God made us to be. He is fearless in addressing the immoral climate of today, and like the prophets comes to tell us to turn around. He reminds us that the God of Compassion needs our partnership. 

In our sukkah, I’d ask him about his greatest sources of inspiration and how he manages to keep moving forward with constant pain from his spinal cord injury. I’d want to discuss how to heal the Black-Jewish divisions that unfortunately are not yet whole. I’d want to talk to him about the source of his inner strength, because Sukkot calls us to examine what is enduring and dependable beyond the concrete. 


Ilana Wilner
Director of Student Activities, Shalhevet High School

Before moving to Los Angeles, I roughed it in New York City with three roommates. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment with one bathroom that we somehow converted into a four-bedroom. To say the least, the space was tight, and yet our door was always open to anyone. Friends started referring to our apartment as the orphanage because constantly there were girls sleeping in any available spot. 

During these years, I decided to write my own set of Pirkei Avot titled, “If There Is Room In Your Heart.” If we were maxed out of room at the table and someone wanted to come over, my roommates would look at me and wait for my line, “If there is room in your heart, there is room at the table.”

This soon became my mantra of how I lived my life and have brought it with me to L.A. — everyone is welcome, no exclusions. For a girl who had only been in Orthodox settings, I have expanded my network and experienced the world through different perspectives. 

So if I had to invite anyone to my sukkah, I don’t think I’d be able to answer because I would want that one extra person who shows up when you think all the seats are full, the person your sukkah has no room for but your heart has plenty of space for. Because life happens when people stumble into your home. If there is room in my heart, there is room in my sukkah.


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Aish Hatorah JMI, COO Harkham-GAON Academy

I would invite a Holocaust survivor, any survivor. Let me explain. 

The holiday of Sukkot celebrates the unbreakable faith that is the hallmark of the Jew. Who in their right mind walks into a desert, the most inhospitable environment on the planet? Well, that’s exactly what over 2 million Jews did after they left Egypt! 

Every sukkah testifies to the unconditional faith that Jews display even when their very survival is at stake. The air of the sukkah evokes the undying life force that has traveled with the Jew since he stepped into that desert and its shade reassures those who “dwell” in it that with faith, one can rise above any threat and any challenge. 

A Holocaust survivor is a human sukkah, a walking testament to the power of faith. Anyone who put on a tallit after Auschwitz, celebrated Shabbat after Treblinka or started a family after Bergen-Belsen is living proof that the Jewish spirit is indestructible and that our “Jewmanity” can withstand the most withering assaults. 

Sitting in a sukkah with a survivor is probably the most oxygenated faith infusion you can experience! The convergence is powerful and palpable. So, if you are ever fortunate enough to find yourself in the company of our living Sukkot, breathe deeply. The air is rarified and is the best prescription for the perspective and faith that we all seek. Chag sameach! 


Salvador Litvak
accidentaltalmudist.org

I’m going to assume there are some ground rules to this fantasy. No human being has ever known God as intimately as Moses did, yet he won’t answer our biggest questions. Our teacher Moses hasn’t joined our Sukkot dinner to tell us why good people suffer or where we go when we die, and in truth, perhaps any former human could do that.

So I would ask Moses what it felt like to hold a complaining people together in the midst of a miracle? What is it about us that resists peace and gratitude? We’ve been told over and over again that kindness and service are the keys to contentment, and still we resist. Is it our animal nature that makes us stubborn? Or is stiff-neckedness the most human of all traits?

And what was your best day, Moses? Was it atop Sinai, alone with God, taking dictation? Or was it making the bitter waters sweet and saving a whole population from dying of thirst by tossing in the right stick?

How did you handle the challenge of serving both your nation and your family? Was that an area of regret? Were there others? What did you feel as you stood on the brink of a land promised to everyone but you? Was it enough to be the greatest shepherd in history?

Did you feel that moment had been written long before and you were playing your part? Or did you write your own role?

And do we face the same question?

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!

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes On a Passage from the Haggadah

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

PASSOVER 5778, Haggadah:

“In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt. Just as it says, ‘You shall tell your child on that very day: “It is because of this that God did for me when I went out from Egypt.” ’ (Exodus 13:8) Not only were our ancestors redeemed by the Holy One, but even we were redeemed with them. Just as it says: ‘God took us out from there in order to bring us and to give us the land God swore to our ancestors.’ ” (Deuteronomy 6:23)

Rabbi Sari Laufer
Stephen Wise Temple

With these words, we place ourselves directly in the story — in the experience — of Passover. As we read the words of the haggadah, as we enact the seder rituals, we are living our own stories, our own journeys from the narrow places to expansiveness, from degradation to praise, from darkness to light.

But here’s a remarkable thing about Passover: Like the Torah itself, and perhaps like our lives, it is an unfinished story. While we move from slavery to freedom, the haggadah, like the Torah, ends in the wilderness, not the Promised Land. It teaches us that while we may have come out of Egypt — our own narrow places — we may still have miles to go, with twists and turns along the way. We may never get there.

In our haggadah, as in our lives, perhaps the lessons are in the journey and not in the destination. Torah itself is given in the wilderness. What can we learn in our wanderings, in the meandering and sometimes unwelcome turns of our lives?

I am told that in some Sephardic traditions we add additional questions to the seder: From where are we coming? To where are we going? What are we bringing with us? This is to remind us that the story is our story, the experience our experience, the journey our journey.

Will you get there this year? And more importantly, from what narrowness will you come forth? Who will you bring with you? What story will you tell?

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Valley Beit Midrash, Phoenix

There is no phrase more powerful in the haggadah: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” This moves the seder from a display of nostalgia to a recognition of the need for urgent action, from memory to mandate, from being passive to being active. It is a reminder that the current moment is as imperative as the biblical moment — that at every moment we stand between oppression and freedom, narrowness and expansiveness, hiddenness and revelation.

Such spiritual work is never simple. The esteemed 20th-century Musar teacher Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explains: “We see ourselves in the other, as if every person we encounter is simply a mirror in which we see ourselves! … [W]e have not yet freed ourselves from the self-centered perspective to see that the other is not identified with us…. [I]t is incumbent upon us to focus on the way the other differs from us and see that which the other needs, not that which we need.” (Alei Shur 2:6)

Rav Wolbe teaches powerfully here that to understand the other, we must transcend the self. While it is difficult to understand another’s trauma and impossible to grasp the extent of another’s suffering, we can create the spaces to listen, to cultivate empathy and respond to others’ needs. We must go beyond the notion that we tend only to our own needs — that is not ethical Judaism. Rather, it is essential that we tend to the needs of the other in our midst.

Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Miller Introduction to Judaism Program, American Jewish University

We are all familiar with stories that begin, “Once upon a time.” These are tales of events that happened at a discrete moment in the long-ago past. They can move us and delight us and even teach us something important about ourselves, but they are accounts of something that is over before the storyteller begins to speak.

Then there are stories like the story of the Exodus. According to our tradition, the Exodus didn’t take place “once upon a time.” It takes place over and over and over again in each new generation. We are always on our way out of Egypt, always taking our first fearful and hopeful steps toward the Promised Land. Pharaoh’s army is always at our heels and God’s promise always lies stretched out in front of us — if we have the courage to take it. The cycle of enslavement and liberation is a continuous one. At any point along the timeline we can recognize the same eternal dynamic playing out, on a personal level and on a societal one. In short, this story is our story.

This is the haggadah’s most essential teaching. It has given countless readers of the Bible solace in hard times and inspiration to struggle for freedom. A story that happened once upon a time may be sweet in our ears, but a story that happens each and every day can shape lives and set the destiny of civilizations.

Salvador Litvak
AccidentalTalmudist.org

You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body, and it’s a very limiting vehicle for an eternal soul like you. Even if you live to 120, it’ll be a flash compared to the eons you spend in the World of Souls. The light of that flash, however, is intense. Opportunities abound in this world for lessons and deeds you can take with you.

While you’re here, God and your true identity are hidden. This masking enables you to make free choices. But there was one moment in history when the Eternal One broke through the veil. You and I were there together. We walked out of bondage in Egypt and experienced our authentic selves at Sinai.

When we fulfill the obligation to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt, it’s not a metaphor. We don’t imagine the Exodus, we remember it. And this should not be a once-a-year event. The Alter Rebbe reminds us that we’re commanded to remember the Exodus every day, and that we do so in the Shema prayer, when we recite: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Egypt.” This is called “accepting the yoke of Heaven.”

The great paradox of Passover is that service to God liberates us from both Pharaoh and our own human limitations. As souls, we are sparks of the Eternal. When we remember our true nature, we become free. We also tap into the soul’s unlimited capacity for kindness, wisdom and strength. Shine on!

Rabbi Nicole Guzik
Sinai Temple

Last year, Sinai Temple members went on a mission to Poland. On a trip organized by our sisterhood, we traveled with March of the Living. We marched from Auschwitz to Birkenau, among more than 10,000 people standing side-by-side to signify the 10,000 people that were sent to the gas chambers every single day. We recited the Kaddish over mass graves of children, listened to the stories of Holocaust survivors, thanked non-Jews who jeopardized their own lives to save others, and mourned the millions who perished in Eastern Europe.

Our synagogue’s group was quite diverse, with roots in Poland, Russia, Iran and Israel, among other places. Very few in our group had personal connections to those Jews in the concentration camps. One congregant told me that when he had been a young adult in Iran, the stories of the Holocaust felt very far away. “What about now?” I asked. “Is it difficult to connect to these Jewish stories?” His response will remain with me for the rest of my life: “We are all Jews. It doesn’t matter the country in which we are born. All of this,” he said, pointing to the barracks of the concentration camp standing before us, “this is my story too.”

My teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman (z”l) explains, “I must learn to see myself ‘as though’ I was there by virtue of my communal memory. Memory is what knits together the generations; memory creates the possibility of continuity and history. Memory creates community.”

Passover reminds us that we continue to survive as a Jewish people when we see each other’s stories as our very own.

Ethan and Me

Nothing makes me feel better than seeing Ethan smile. He glows when he sees me and I glow too. As I greet him, I can’t help but erupt into an enormous grin.

Ethan has Downs syndrome, and we met at Friendship Circle of Los Angeles.

Like any friends, first we catch up. I ask him what he learned in Hebrew school, we discuss sports — typically basketball or football — and we sing his favorite song of the moment. Last time it was “Despacito,” but it can range anywhere from a new Taylor Swift hit to Nick Jonas.

Ethan is incredibly entertaining and likes being the center of attention. People gather around because Ethan, with the help of music from my phone, is singing. No, not singing — entertaining. He makes hand gestures, facial expressions and somehow knows every word to every song he requests. He never fails to make everyone at Friendship Circle laugh.

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

He also loves telling jokes. One of his favorites is: “Yesterday, a clown opened the door for me. I thought it was a very nice jester.”

Ethan attends public school, where there are resources and individualized attention to help him learn. Ethan’s family wants him to get a Jewish education, as well. This poses a dilemma for many Jewish parents of special needs children. Religious schools don’t generally have the ability to educate students with significant cognitive differences. Enter Friendship Circle.

I have been volunteering there for 2½ years. It started as my bat mitzvah project. I picked Friendship Circle because I had previous experience with special needs children at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleepaway camp that I attended. There, a unique program exists called Amitzim for people ranging from children to young adults with various forms of special needs, similar to Friendship Circle. I had always enjoyed being with the Amitzim campers, especially when my bunk/tent got to participate in tefilah (prayer) with them.

When I decided to volunteer at Friendship Circle, I imagined I would make some friends and maybe learn a little. What I didn’t know is the depth of the friendship I would develop with Ethan.

My first day volunteering, I knew from the start that it was a perfect match. Ethan is friendly and enthusiastic, as am I. Further, we both love telling jokes, making people laugh and entertaining those around us.

Everyone at Friendship Circle knows Ethan. It always makes my day when an administrator asks me, before the program starts, who my buddy is. Usually, they will stop themselves mid-sentence and say, “Oh, right, you’re with Ethan!”

In the months before my bat mitzvah, my mom and I were sending out invitations. One day, we were in the car, and I asked her if she had invited Ethan yet. We hadn’t previously discussed it, but it was obvious to me that he had to be there.

Typically, once you have your bar or bat mitzvah, your mitzvah project ends. I didn’t exactly think about whether I wanted to continue with it before my celebration, but once I saw Ethan arrive at my party with his family, I realized, for both of our sakes, that I must continue volunteering.

The faculty and teachers at Friendship Circle are incredible, and with their help, Ethan was able to read Torah at his bar mitzvah this past November. He even delivered a drash, a short ethical teaching, that moved all of us to tears.

There are multiple programs at Friendship Circle that enable children with all sorts of cognitive differences to form close relationships with young volunteers. And when I say relationship, I don’t mean a friendship where it is a one-way street. Ethan recently got a smartphone, and when he calls to FaceTime, it’s a treat for me and my entire family, because he insists on talking to everyone!

If you are nearing your bar or bat mitzvah and need a mitzvah project, or you are simply looking for somewhere to volunteer, I suggest checking out Friendship Circle. I don’t consider what I do volunteering anymore. I consider it hanging out with a friend and helping him learn and grow while watching myself do the same.


Molly Litvak is a student at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles. Her father, Sal, is the Accidental Talmudist.

The Men’s Trip

Author (far right) and friends on the 2018 AishLA/JMI Men’s Retreat in Running Springs, CA. Photo by Jonah Light Photography

I try to call my dad every day after I drop off the kids at school, a good way to fulfill the Fifth Commandment. I mention I’m going on a men’s trip for the weekend.

“No wives?”
“No, it’s a men’s trip with the same guys I went to Israel with in 2014. Plus fellas from the 2015, ’16, and ’17 trips.”
“And it’s Orthodox, so women aren’t allowed to participate.”
“Orthodox Judaism has women in it, Dad. This is a men’s trip for the same reason our wives take women’s trips. Some things serve the family best by happening separately.”
“Hmph.”

My father’s skepticism is not surprising. Modern secular culture promotes segregated “safe spaces” only for women and certain minorities. Not straight, white guys. Like many liberal Jews, my father believes that Orthodox Judaism is a sexist patriarchy.

Yet this trip for men was created by women. It began as a subsidized women’s trip to Israel organized by Lori Palatnik and her colleagues at the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, and Aish HaTorah, a Jewish outreach organization. Featuring immersion in Jewish practice, sisterhood and reconnection with one’s Source while visiting the Holy Land, the trip came to be nicknamed Birthright for Mommies.

We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

Participants were re-energized as Jewish women, wives and mothers. Observance increased, but few became Orthodox. Rather, they brought key mitzvahs into the home, such as candlelighting and Shabbos dinner, and transformed the lives of their families by elevating the role of gratitude in the home.

Because they wanted the same experience for their husbands, the men’s trip was born.

My wife, Nina, and I participated in the trips in 2014 with Aish LA. Although we were already more observant than most of our travel companions, the experience was transformative. We connected with ourselves as children of God, as Jews, spouses, friends and citizens.

And I made lifelong friendships with guys I’d never met before. These things happened because we found ourselves in an unfamiliar space: the company of guys at the same stage of life, facing similar challenges in our families, in our careers and in our bodies.

It felt safe to open up to one another, sharing the failures of our pasts and profound fears about our futures. We learned we’re not alone in these journeys, and we shared the wisdom of hard-won experience. We were also blessed with great teachers and leaders. My trip was led by Charlie Harary, others by Saul Blinkoff. Both men were coming on the reunion trip to the mountains.

Nina said, “I would never begrudge you a men’s trip because I love the sisterhood of women-only events. I also like who you are when you return.”

Less than two hours from L.A., we found ourselves in the snow. Charlie opened by explaining a property of the human brain, neuroplasticity. This means that consistent repetition of thought patterns creates new neural pathways. When we learn a new language, for example, we actually alter the structure of our brains.

Thus, to become that better man we all want to be, we need to start thinking, speaking and acting like him. And in order to figure out who that guy is, we need to understand that life must be about service. The great paradox of the world is that one who negates himself for the sake of others will be empowered. One who strives for himself, however, will never become a great man.

Saul followed by sharing what the Torah says about males and females. Eve was created as an azer kenegdo to Adam, an “opposing helpmate.” When our wives oppose us, it can be irritating, even infuriating. But what if they’re actually doing their job? What if their opposition is crucial to us becoming that better man? Women know all too well the value of peace, yet they speak up for our own good. Think how much more peace there would be in the home if we just listened to the rebuke and then reflected on it. We might even figure out how to act on it.

I was invited to share my Accidental Talmudist story because it touches on the life of the soul, Torah learning, and the generational connection between our parents and our children.

Then we sang together like warriors, holding nothing back, and we charged each other to bring this fire back from the mountain.

Learn more about Sal Litvak’s Accidental Talmudist story, and join his followers at accidentaltalmudist.org.

#MeToo and Mashiach

Women’s Bureau 1920, Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

I did not expect to hear a Torah teaching about the #MeToo movement in a Chasidic synagogue. Rabbi Reuven Wolf, however, is not your typical Chasidic rabbi.

On a recent Shabbat, he expounded some verses from one of the lesser-known books of the Bible, Habakkuk:

He shall speak of the end, and it shall not fail; though it tarry, wait for it, for it shall surely come, it shall not delay.

The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the water fills the sea … and

… a stone shall cry out from the wall.

In this prophetic description, the Age of Mashiach, i.e., the messianic age, will not be accompanied only by peace and goodness — the lion lying down with the lamb, etc. —  but also with knowledge of God, God’s plan and the true meaning of the elements in that plan. We will thus finally understand the spiritual purpose of everything, and everyone, in our physical environment.

At that time, even the rocks will testify whether we walked over them for a wholesome purpose or a selfish purpose. In other words, did we employ our resources to make God’s creation a place of greater holiness or less? A place of greater justice or less? A place of greater kindness or less?

If so for the rocks, Rabbi Wolf said, how much for the people in our lives? We will be called to account for the ways we treated everyone we met, and particularly those closest to us. Did we help them realize their true purpose in the creation, or did we exploit them for our own selfish ends?

It is a fact of biology that the human male gives the seed of life and the female receives it. Each provides half the DNA, but the female egg is vast compared with the tiny sperm, and it is the woman alone who nurtures the new embryo for the next nine months. So you would think that the male would be a humble, nurturing partner in the relationship.

Sadly, this has not been the case. Throughout the history of humanity, many men have exploited their size, strength and patriarchal role as giver of the seed to get what they want from women. The sexual relationship should be the holiest interaction on earth, one that enables both partners to join with God in the creation of new life, but men have often hijacked it to give themselves pleasure at the expense of women’s dignity. This is a grave sin — one that harms the woman, the man and the whole of creation.

The fact that we have now crossed a line, that people will no longer tolerate such an established pattern of behavior, is beyond momentous. In the annals of humankind, it is a change akin to the advents of consciousness, fire, language, agriculture, cities and democracy.

According to Rabbi Wolf, the #MeToo movement is not only a world changer, but evidence that the Shabbat of history is at our doorstep.

In the Hebrew calendar, the year is 5778. We are 222 years from Y6K, the dawn of the seventh millennium — a time that will be holy like the seventh day. Our Sages often liken the Age of Mashiach to Shabbat. And just as Shabbat begins before night actually falls, the messianic age is now settling in around us like dusk.

Jewish tradition, like Habakkuk, holds that the end “shall surely come,” and it will not come later than its appointed time. It may, however, come earlier.

We can hasten the redemption by earning it. If the human world grows in kindness and righteousness, Mashiach will come sooner and without pain. If we cannot achieve such growth, Mashiach will come with a sharp birth pang, more commonly known as the apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog.

Such a battle is not hard to imagine on the current world stage, and its consequences would be horrific.

Let’s avoid that fate. Let’s buy in to Rabbi Wolf’s vision of an Age of Mashiach that we usher in by increasing peace, justice, lovingkindness and dignity in the world.

Let’s make sure the #MeToo movement succeeds in protecting women from exploitation and enables them to realize their true purpose as equal partners in the creation.

It’s a good bet. Even if Rabbi Wolf is mistaken, what have we lost? And if he’s right …


Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at accidentaltalmudist.org.

Letters to the Editor: Demographics, Israeli Supreme Court, Salvador Litvak and Marcus Freed

Demographic Study Would Aid Stories on L.A. Jews

As a former Angeleno and current doctoral candidate studying the American Jewish community, I read with disappointment the framing for the story “Building Boom: Is Jewish L.A. Defying National Demographic Trends?” (Nov. 17). I celebrate that a number of schools and synagogues, including my family’s, are growing, but the article does not tell the full story — the fact of the matter is, it can’t, as no one knows the full story of L.A. Jewry. It has been two decades since the last demographic study, the only way to systematically understand what is happening within the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles. A lot has changed since 1997 — for starters, I’m no longer in fifth grade at the VBS Day School.

In the absence of recent data, it may seem all well and good to focus on national Jewish trends as identified by the Pew Survey in 2013, but I’m sure every Angeleno will agree: L.A. is not like the rest of the country. In the absence of up-to-date estimates of the population, geographic distribution, migration habits, ritual practice, organizational involvement and more, communal institutions are left reacting to perceived trends, rather than planning ahead for growth, stabilization or even decline. Would it not be to the community’s benefit to know the relative proportion of 20-something Jews on the Westside who are Orthodox; young families in the Valley interested in Jewish summer camp; or senior citizens in Santa Monica who need social support? It’s only with a local demographic study that questions like these can be answered, so the truly important one can be asked: How can local Jewish organizations help community members lead meaningful Jewish lives?

Matt Brookner, Brandeis University, Somerville, MA (formerly from Tarzana)


Debating the Israeli Supreme Court

I enjoyed the dueling stories by Shmuel Rosner and Caroline Glick on the Israeli Supreme Court. While posed as a debate, the two authors agree that the court suffers from ideological activism and has outsized power in the absence of a written constitution.

But what both miss is the underlying reason for the court’s current misalignment with Israeli society: the judicial nomination process. Whereas in the United States, the executive branch nominates a candidate and the legislature confirms — ensuring democratic input — in Israel, an independent “judicial selections committee” is responsible for nomination and confirmation. The nine-member committee operates in secret, and while composed of members from all three branches, a majority is unelected and therefore unaccountable to the Israeli public. In fact, the largest bloc on the committee is the Supreme Court justices themselves, allowing the court to essentially self-select its composition, refining its ideological uniformity with each successive iteration.

While we in the U.S. view checks and balances among the branches as a vital democratic feature, Israel has chosen a “hermetic seal” between the branches to ensure a judiciary independent of politics. While a noble sentiment, it essentially cuts off the court from its contemporary society, rendering it less and less relevant — and more and more controversial — to the citizenry. Indeed, in order to be saved, the system must be changed.

Jordan Reimer, Los Angeles


Israel and Ancient Claims to Its Land

Professor Judea Pearl conceded too much to the neo-Philistines, who suddenly discovered in 1967 that they, not we, are “Palestinian” (“The Balfour Declaration at 100 and How It Redefined Indigenous People,” Nov. 10.)

First the disclaimer: I hold that those Arabs who stayed in Israel in 1948 earned their Israeli citizenship. They and their descendants richly deserve it.

That said, they are not “equally indigenous.” We have been present in the land of Israel since before recorded history, millennia ago. That is why the Arabs were calling it the “Abode of the Jew” when they first invaded it in 632 C.E. True, most of us were exiled for many centuries, but there was always some Jewish presence. The Arab population, too, dwindled as they destroyed the very soil until it would no longer support them. Most current Arab settlers descended from infiltrators attracted by the new prosperity created by the Zionists.

Louis Richter, Reseda


Torah Portion About Sarah and the Handmaid

Well, that parsha was fun (“Vayera,” Nov. 3).

To David Sacks and Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits: A Jewish child would say “Enough with the tests. I get too many of them in school.”

To Rabbi Ilana Berenbaum Grinblat: Older son, upon viewing his brother when the latter was brought home from the hospital, with the source explained as “Mommy’s belly:” “Put it back.” So sometimes there’s no “anymore” about it.

To Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky: The concentric circle model also applies to how one reveals himself to others. There is a core revealed to no one. The innermost circle can be, but need not be, one or more family members. It can be one or more friends. And so forth.

Finally, to Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh: My late father-in-law’s approach to life was very simple: “Whatever I have is the best.” No matter the example, “mine is the best.” Thus, he didn’t worry about competition, and the women you speak of might do well to consider something similar. I might add that it took a while for him to apply his philosophy to his two sons-in-law.

Steve Meyers via email


From Facebook …

Salvador Litvak Column

There is clearly a distinction between young people who make immature decisions whose ramifications are beyond their scope of experience and serial pedophiles/sexual deviants (“I Shot a Sex Offender,” Nov. 17). The stigma of being convicted of a sexual offense seems to have no pyramid of seriousness, and often the term becomes dissolved into an ambiguous term that simply translates to “sicko” or “pervert.” There are literally ex-prostitutes who are registered sex offenders for prostitution too close to a school or playground (even when no children are present). Studies have shown that the wide-stroke brush of “sex offender” for minor offenses is detrimental to the public at large, places tremendous strain on law enforcement, and has not proven to reduce recidivism. Hearing the words “sex offender” places a stereotypical image in the listener’s mind of a sex predator, when the vast majority of those who commit sexual offenses are not registered offenders. I think the videographer’s open-mindedness is in good faith, and that there is much to learn from his efforts.

Brandon Moore

This is why there needs to be clearly defined parameters as to who is and who isn’t a pedophile. Those who engage in pedophilia are highly recidivist in nature. Extensive studies have shown they cannot be weaned out of it. So, this article would suggest that while he might have engaged in what is considered a sexual offense, it wasn’t pedophilia. The idea that G-d forgives the truly penitent, so we should as well … runs against what we believe — that G-d only forgives, once those we’ve transgressed against, forgive.

Batsheva Gladstone


Back and Forth Column

I actually agree with both of them (“Reform. Orthodox. Let’s Talk.” Reform Rabbi Sarah Bassin and Orthodox Rabbi Ari Schwarzberg, Nov. 10) — but the Orthodox rabbi was correct when he said “Many would applaud others’ activism and philanthropic work while claiming that our resources must be allocated to the sustainability and future of our own community.” In our own synagogue, we have seen the numbers of millennials dwindling and are not seeing the growth necessary to exist in the near future.

Sherri Chapman


Help for Marcus Freed

Thank you Jewish Journal for covering this story and helping to support Marcus J. Freed! (“A Community Rallies to Help Beloved Teacher,” Nov. 17.)

Audrey Jacobs

I Shot a Sex Offender

I frequently write about the importance of listening to the other side on tough issues, but are some positions so odious that they never deserve a hearing?

A couple of years ago, an Australian friend was directing a documentary about a difficult subject: child sex-abuse in his Jewish community. One of the interviewees was a former abuser who had gone on to live a normal family life for decades.

My friend had filmed a conversation between this man and a well-known sex-abuse survivor who had become a whistleblower. He needed someone to film the former abuser — now living in Los Angeles — reading a statement in his home. I’m a film director too, so my pal reached out to me. I figured that if a victims’ rights advocate was OK with interviewing this man, I was OK with filming him.

As I entered his house, I couldn’t help noticing that it was nicer than mine. Evidently, paying for his crime had not impeded his business. We were about the same age, and from the pictures on the fridge, his kids looked about the same age as mine.

His movements were a bit jittery, but he came across as intelligent and upbeat. It felt weird to be in a room with a man who had been convicted of child sex abuse. As a father, it occurred to me that it might be my obligation to clobber him with my tripod rather than film him.

As his story came out, there were some surprises. He had been relatively young when he committed the crime, about 10 years older than his teenage victim. Both had grown up in an ultra-Orthodox environment where people never expressed sexuality publicly and rarely discussed it privately. Masturbation was strictly prohibited. His ideas about sexuality were juvenile even after he became a legal adult.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community.

He made it sound as if the episode that changed his victim’s life and his own was a bit of experimentation that occurred because he was such an immature adult.

In any case, he did what he did, got caught and paid a price. He then moved to a new country, rebuilt his life, started a family, and never again engaged in criminal conduct, according to his telling of the story. He could have sealed his past in a never-to-be-reopened box, he said, except that he now felt a responsibility to help other boys and young men who engaged in similar “experimentation” and then felt so much remorse that suicide seemed like their only option.

Apparently, this happened pretty often.

He noted that God forgives the truly penitent, and so should we.

As I filmed, my mind was racing. Suppose a kid does a dumb thing that doesn’t even rise to the level of criminal conduct, but he feels so bad about it that he becomes suicidal. He can’t discuss it with anyone in his ultra-Orthodox world, but hearing this guy’s statement might help him realize he’s got options.

The man in my viewfinder could have lain low. Instead, he chose to speak up because he felt a responsibility before God and his community. I wouldn’t call him a hero, but his teshuvah — his atonement and turning — appeared genuine.

If the harm he had caused years earlier was a one-time mistake, then this shoot would serve a valuable purpose.

But what if the film’s director and I were being manipulated to cover for a predator? My gut told me the guy’s statement was genuine, but, as my wife often reminded me, I was not always the best judge of character.

Maybe this guy was and continued to be a pedophile, I thought. Maybe I should just run out of there and trash the footage.

Then I learned that people in his current community knew about his past and accepted him anyway. His wife was supportive. He seemed to be the poster boy for rehabilitation.

Isn’t that a value to be promoted? Sure, but do I want him around my kids? There are limits to positive ideology. A halfway house sounds like a great idea — until the parole board puts it next to your home.

In the end, I completed the shoot and sent the footage to Australia. I pray I participated in a worthy project, and that the man I filmed will live out his life on the right path. Perhaps someone else’s life will even be saved. Please God, let it be so.


Salvador Litvak shares his love of Judaism with a million followers every day at facebook.com/accidentaltalmudist.

A fascination with Abraham Lincoln

Filmmaker Salvador Litvak has been trying to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln for 12 years, a dream that was finally realized with the completion of his independent film “Saving Lincoln.” But Litvak is hardly alone in his fascination: This year, we saw the 19th century president catapulted into the 21st century zeitgeist with the release of Steven Spielberg’s big-budget “Lincoln” biopic, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” a fantasy horror film with Lincoln as a vampire hunter; and multiple museum exhibits on the 16th president. So why, 147 years after his death, at this time of ferocious political discourse, has Lincoln become such a high-profile figure?  Litvak believes it may lie in people’s thirst for lost civility. “Not since Moses has there been a man who models so beautifully how to live and how to treat others as Abraham Lincoln,” Litvak said.  

The writer-director of this very American story was born in Chile and came to the United States as an immigrant with his family at the age of 5. His father’s family, from Russia, and his mother’s, from Hungary, each migrated to Chile. His maternal grandmother survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Terezin along with her infant daughter. “My family was extremely conscious of the Holocaust. My grandmother was living with us, and any time there was a Holocaust-related program on TV, she and my mother would watch it with tears in their eyes,” Litvak said. “My family was Conservative, but not Orthodox. Growing up, I didn’t think that Judaism was very spiritual, but that was a big awakening for me as an adult. Now I’m very into it.”

Litvak’s obsession with making a Lincoln film originated with his wife and co-writer, Nina, who as a child discovered Lincoln through a book of his favorite jokes, which she found on her parents’ shelf.  “People don’t know that Lincoln was very funny and was constantly telling jokes and funny stories, so that amazed her when she was 6,” Litvak said. When his wife proposed the idea of a movie, Litvak found he had his own connections to the man. “I had always been fascinated with Shakespeare,” he said. “He wrote about kings and queens, and those stories are very intimate and personal, but they take place on this big stage where the things that happen within those families affect nations. If Shakespeare were writing today, I think he would pick a subject like Abraham Lincoln, because his story is so full of contradictions, so personal and human, yet it played out on this grand stage of history and war.” Litvak said he felt a personal connection as well. “As a kid, I was a tall bean pole with bright red hair … an immigrant. I felt like such an outsider,” he said. “And Lincoln, with respect to the political establishment of the U.S. during the time that he lived, was the ultimate outsider. So I had a similar fascination with him growing up, because I think he’s a hero to everyone who sees themself as an outsider. I think that’s why he’s so loved.”

Litvak and his wife spent two years researching and writing their Lincoln script and were very proud of their completed work but found their timing could not have been worse. “The week that we finished, Steven Spielberg announced that he was making a Lincoln movie based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book. So, at that moment, all the work that we’d done had become useless in the studio world,” Litvak said. “No one would even read it, let alone make it, because of Spielberg’s film.” 

The couple licked their wounds and moved on to make the Passover seder comedy “When Do We Eat?” (2005), which became a cult hit. But their desire to make a Lincoln movie persisted, and with Spielberg’s movie still unrealized, Litvak and his wife decided to move ahead. They tossed out their old script and started from scratch, this time finding a unique point of view from which to tell their story, through the character of Ward Hill Lamon.

“Lamon is a fascinating character, a Southerner who was guarding Lincoln during the war and had saved him from repeated assassination attempts that began in 1861,” Litvak explained. “He came to Washington from Illinois as part of his entourage, because Lincoln liked having him around. He appointed himself Lincoln’s bodyguard, because there was no Secret Service. No one had heard of a presidential assassination at that time, but Lamon recognized the danger and stepped into that role.” (Lamon, however, was not at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.)

The obstacle now was how to tell this grand story on a small budget. “In our research we found these wonderful photographs from the Library of Congress, and I’d seen movies like ‘300’ and ‘Sin City’ and thought, ‘We can do this!’ ” Litvak said. “I bet we can shoot this as a green-screen movie and fill in the background with the photographs. At this point, it was just a theory, and we weren’t sure it was really possible, but we committed to it and assembled a small but incredibly talented and dedicated team to make it happen. It ended up being much more involved and difficult than we ever expected, but we did it.”

While it may be difficult to compete with a big-budget, major studio film on the same subject, Litvak believes his film offers a perspective on Lincoln that has not been seen in any of the previous films on his life. “Perhaps, most important, how dark and difficult his presidency was,” Litvak said. “The gentlest of men, who said he could never break the neck of a chicken for his dinner, charged with armies spilling rivers of blood. He found himself in that position, and we’re showing the unique point of view of this from his close friend Lamon. He saw a Lincoln that no one else saw during Lincoln’s darkest hours.”

“Saving Lincoln” will be released in theaters on the anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Feb. 12, 2013.

To see a teaser trailer of Saving Lincoln and learn more about the film, visit www.SavingLincoln.com