November 19, 2018

Decomposing Bodies, Congealing Carcasses, Corpse Dust, and Other Rabbinic Interests by Isaac Pollak

A dead or decayed body

Questions of Ritual purity and Impurity, Tahor and Tamei, received a great deal of attention in the Talmud – much more so then the Laws of Shabbat or Kashrut Laws. The Rabbis developed intricate systems of rules of purity with no practical usefulness. Questions of purity were an issue during temple times but when the Talmud was redacted the Temple had been destroyed for around 500 years or so (as much time as separates us from Columbus); a subject studied diligently with a great deal of intricacy was, and still is useless. There were no Red Heifers and most Jews were living in the Diaspora and all Jews were ritually impure.

To explore this, let’s take a walk thru Chapter 7 of the Tractate Nazir, which I was recently studying, and see the mindset of the Rabbis.

It was known that touching a corpse (dead body) caused one to become ritually impure (Tamei). However, actually touching a corpse isn’t necessary to became impure; just being under the same roof, or in certain cases under an overhanging branch or a projecting wall is enough. It’s as if the impurity of the corpse permeates the area all around it, and taints all with which it comes into ‘contact’.

So the Talmud questions,” How much of a corpse does it take to transmit impurity?” Here is where the text gets into queasy graphic descriptions of various forms of putrefaction.

Say that a dead body has begun to liquefy: Does the fluid from a decayed corpse also transmit impurity? How can one tell that the fluid is actually flesh, and not the remains of spittle or phlegm, which do not transmit Tamei? The answer, Rabbi Yirmeya says in the Talmud, has to do with whether the liquid subsequently congeals. If it does, it is from the corpse, and thus unclean; if it doesn’t, it is probably a bodily fluid, and thus clean.

Animal corpses follow a different protocol. An animal carcass imparts “severe impurity” only while it’s still considered fit for human consumption. Once it has decayed to the point of being inedible for people but still be appetizing to dogs, it imparts “light impurity.” And when dogs would not touch it, the carcass ceases to transmit impurity at all. Then the Talmud starts discussing animals that have putrefied, animal fat that has turned to liquid in the sun, and much more – not for those with queasy stomachs.

The Rabbis ask what happens with a dead body that has turned entirely to dust. According to the Mishnah, a “full ladle of dust” is the amount required to transmit impurity – tumah; the Talmud defined this as the amount you can hold in your two cupped hands. However the Talmud continues, by the time a corpse has turned to dust, it is hard to tell whether the dust contains just the body, or whether matter from other sources has gotten mixed in – for instance, the clothes it was buried in, or wood from its coffin, and the Talmud informs us of a principle “that mixtures do not transmit Tumah.” As a result, the Talmud concludes that dust is Tamei only if it comes from a corpse that was “buried naked in a marble coffin or on a stone floor,” so there is no other source of dust in its vicinity.

The question of mixtures raises a number of other theoretical issues. What exactly constitutes a mixture when it comes to corpse dust? What if you bury two people in the same grave? You might think that this would be twice as unclean as a single corpse, but the Talmud rules otherwise: because mixtures do not transmit Tumah, a mixture of the dust of two bodies therefore does not transmit impurity.

Pushing the question further, the Rabbis ask about borderline cases. Ordinarily, the hair and nails of a corpse are impure as long as they are attached to the body. What if you cut off a corpse’s hair and buried it alongside the body- , would this then constitute a mixture? What about a woman who dies while pregnant, do she and her fetus constitute two separate corpses, or is the fetus considered part of the mother, like an internal organ?

This question, raised in BT Nazir 51:B, would seem to have major implications for our own debates about when a fetus is considered a living being. The Rabbis of the Talmud dig and push the boundaries to attempt to get to the ultimate truth of the penultimate principle of an issue, and its exacting, precise regulation. Ever more complex scenarios and legal conundrums quite removed from reality are elaborated in the process of elucidating precise detailed legal definitions.

The logic of the Talmud often seems convoluted and intimidating, every page alludes to customs and political arrangements which are terribly obscure and have little relevance to our world. But what fun to study its intricacies. The people represented in it were intelligent, articulate and dedicated to the remarkable project of helping an ancient tradition survive and thrive. The arguments stimulate, the logic and disciplined sharpness is at times breathtaking, their language and wit gives pleasure, and the immensity of their achievement provokes awe.

It has been instrumental in our survival over the millennia.

Isaac Pollak is the Rosh/Head of a Chevrah Kadisha on the upper East Side of Manhattan, NYC, and has been doing Taharot for about 4 decades. He is fascinated by and a student of customs and history concerning the Chevrah Kadisha and Jewish burial and mourning ritual. He is an avid collector of Chevrah Kadisha material cultural items, with over 300 historical artifacts in his own collection. He serves as chairperson of the Acquisition Committee for Traditional Material Culture at the Jewish Museum in NYC, and is CEO of an International Marketing Company. He is a student, participant, and lecturer in Gamliel Institute courses.



Isaac Pollak

Isaac Pollak

[Ed. Note: another article by the same author is to be found HERE.  You can also search for other articles in this blog HERE. — JB]


Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Dan Fendel and Edna Stewart, with guest instructors.

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th. More details will be sent out soon.

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Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.





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!

A solar eclipse deserves a blessing

Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

We are on a fantastic journey, over which we have precious little control. As our universe expands, we are pushed deeper and deeper into space. We travel along, like some pebble carried with the tide. Our own galaxy, like hundreds of millions of others, rotates, and it does so at about 168 miles per second. On one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, our solar system has its own rhythms. Within the solar system, our home planet goes around our local star, the Sun, and our moon orbits around our home planet, even as the Earth and the Moon spin too.

Once in a while, in the midst of all this motion, the Moon travels between the Earth and the Sun in such a way as to block the light of the Sun from reaching us. It casts a shadow on our planet. The blockage may be partial or complete. We call this event a solar eclipse. In a total eclipse, when the Moon obscures the entire solar disk, the fullest form of the Moon’s shadow, the umbra, lasts no more than a few minutes in any one spot, but the effects are stark as darkness literally covers the Earth and the temperature drops.

We will ooh and ah as the eclipse begins, but we know that this too shall pass. All that was will be again and soon. Normalcy will return. One might think that it would be an occasion for a blessing, a b’rakha. After all, Jews seemingly have blessings, or b’rakhot, for every event and circumstance, from the sublime to the mundane, and from the time they arise to the time they go to sleep. And there are well recognized blessings for similar occurrences. For instance, when one sees a comet or lightening, there is Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reyshit (Blessed is the Eternal One, Sovereign of the universe, maker of the works of creation). When one sees something beautiful like a tree or an animal, one might say Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheynu melekh ha’olam, she’kakha lo b’olamo (Blessed is the Source of wonder, Ruler of the cosmos, that such things are in the world). There are blessings on reaching the ocean, on smelling fragrant grasses and spices, even on witnessing an earthquake. But traditionally, there is no blessing for an eclipse. Why? To answer that question, we need to understand some science and some Judaism.

An eclipse is, of course, a phenomenon entirely the product of natural forces. It depends primarily on a few basic facts. First, at present and on average, the Sun is about 400 times farther from the Earth than is the Moon and, in a grand coincidence, the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times larger than that of the Moon. So, in general, the Moon now is just the right size at just the right distance to be able to block light from the disk of the Sun. Second, the orbit of the Moon is tilted slightly to that of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For there to be an eclipse, the Moon’s path must intersect with the Earth’s orbital (ecliptic) plane. Third, neither the orbit of the Earth around the Sun nor that of the Moon around the Earth is circular. Rather, both are elliptical. This means that one satellite or the other is sometimes closer and sometimes farther from the object around which it rotates.

Knowing the orbits of the Earth and Moon, astronomers can calculate when solar eclipses have occurred in the past and can predict when they will occur in the future. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) has created a catalog of solar eclipses of all varieties reaching back four thousand years and looking ahead another millennia.

Though solar eclipses may be visible up to five times a year somewhere on Earth, they are still a relatively rare event at any particular place on the planet. The last total solar eclipse to be seen in the lower forty-eight states of the United States cast its shadow over several states in the northwest part of the country on February 26, 1979. The next one will be on August 21, 2017. It will be observable as a total eclipse in a path extending east and south from Salem, Oregon to Charleston, South Carolina. We won’t have to wait as long for the total solar eclipse that will follow. It will be visible from Texas to New England on April 8, 2024. The paths and dates for future total eclipses in the U.S. can be seen here.

Mentions of eclipses appear long ago in the early annals of human records. From Mesopotamia, for instance, we have references to the Ugarit Eclipse dated to 1375 BCE and the Assyrian Eclipse of 899 BCE.  In the East, in China, eclipses were described in writings from the Shang Dynasty and the Bamboo Annals regarding events in the fourteenth and ninth centuries BCE, respectively. Further west, in Greece, the epic poem Odyssey credited to Homer refers to the obliteration of the Sun and unlucky darkness, perhaps inspired by an actual eclipse in 1178 BCE. Later in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides and the poet Xenophon spoke of eclipses, generally in connection with military engagements. Indeed, the interval between lunar eclipses, known as the Saros cycle, was apparently recognized by astronomers in Chaldea (now southern Iraq) as far back as 800 BCE.

So, it is quite surprising that eclipses are not mentioned directly either in the Torah or the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, which were written, edited and canonized in the first millennia BCE. Are eclipses not mentioned because they were unknown to the authors and editors or were they simply understood to be natural and not supernatural phenomena and, therefore, not worthy of mention?

The curious absence of any mention is highlighted, perhaps paradoxically, by two passages, in the Tanakh, one in the book of Joshua and the other in the book of Amos. According to the book of Joshua, during a battle between the Israelites and five Amorite kings at Gibeon, the Sun stood still for twenty-four hours, presumably to allow the Israelites to win. (See Josh. 10:1-15.) Recently, some Israeli scientists have advanced the idea that the author of Joshua was really referencing an eclipse on October 30, 1207 BCE. This seems more than a plausible stretch, though. Putting aside whatever evidence may or may not exist concerning the historicity of the battle itself, to sustain their argument, the scientists must first translate the Hebrew word “dom” not as it has traditionally been understood as describing the Sun becoming  still or stopping, but as the Sun having been merely clouded over or darkened. True, translations are often, subjective, but then the scientists must also essentially disregard the biblical claim that the event lasted an entire day, not the very few minutes that would mark the duration of a total solar eclipse. (See Josh. 10:12-15.) If the author of Joshua was trying to describe a rare solar eclipse, the author could easily enough have noted the growing darkness and the re-emergent light and cast the scene as an omen for Israelite victory. But the author made no mention of an eclipse’s effects or progression, and claimed an entire day of shining sun to be unique – which indeed it would have been.

In the book of Amos, the prophet was railing against those who would defraud consumers. (See Amos 8:4-10.) He said that God would not forget the miscreants’ misdeeds and that punishment would come by making the Sun set at noon and darkening the Earth on a sunny day. Again, some might argue this is a reference to an eclipse, but, here, too, the description is wrong and the rhetorical point seems to echo an earlier message about the “day of the Lord,” a time when Israel would be saved. (See Amos 5:18-20.)

The earliest clear references to eclipses from Jewish sources appear to be the philosopher Philo and the historian Josephus, both of whom lived in the first century of the Common Era. In one work, Philo recognized eclipses as the “natural consequence” of rules governing the Sun and Moon, but also stated that they were “indications” of doom, such as the death of a king or destruction of a city. (See here.) In his treatise on the history of the Jews, Josephus mentioned an eclipse and did so as part of a story about Herod’s treatment of the high priest Matthias and Herod’s death. A reader could infer that the eclipse was an omen of Herod’s demise, but it was clear from Josephus’s account that Herod was quite sick anyway and had prepared his will in anticipation of his death. (See Antiquities 17, Ch. 6, Sec. 4.)

By the time the main text of the Babylonian Talmud was completed around the end of the fifth century of the Common Era, a negative view of a solar eclipse had clearly crystalized. In connection with a discussion of the view that rain on the festival holiday of Sukkot suggests heavenly displeasure, the rabbis engage in a series of analogies, including a discussion of eclipses. That discussion begins with the following proposition attributed to the Sages:  “When the sun is eclipsed, it is a bad omen for the entire world.” (See BT Sukkah 29a.)

For those involved in this discussion, that idea only raises other questions.

  • Why is it a bad omen for the world? According to the Talmud, because the Jewish people calculate their calendar primarily based on lunar cycles and other nations base theirs on the solar cycle.
  • Can we be more specific about those at risk? The Talmud states that when the eclipse is in the eastern or the western sky, it is a bad omen for the residents of that area. When the Sun is eclipsed in the middle of the sky, the entire world is in danger.
  • And what is the signal that the eclipse is giving? The answer found in the Talmud is colorful, literally: “If during an eclipse, the visage of the Sun is red like blood, it is an omen that war is coming to the world. If the Sun is black like sackcloth made of dark goat hair, then arrows of hunger are coming, because hunger darkens peoples’ faces.”
  • But why would the Sun be eclipsed at any time? The Sages have answers here, too, in fact, multiple sets of them. In one view, the Sun is eclipsed on account of (1) a president of the court who dies and is not eulogized properly, (2) a betrothed young woman who screamed in the city that she was being raped and no one was available to rescue her, (3) homosexuality, and (4) two brothers whose blood was spilled as one. Alternatively, the sun is eclipsed on account of (1) forgers of a fraudulent document intended to discredit others, (2) those who provide false testimony, (3) those who raise small domesticated animals in Eretz Yisrael in a settled area, and (4) those who chop down good fruit producing trees.

As the recognition grew that solar eclipses were predictable events, part of the natural order, traditionalists tried to square the philosophical circle and reconcile the regularity of such events with presumably irregular eruptions of bad times and occasions of sins requiring divine intervention and punishment. (See, e.g., here and here.) According to one of his followers, because he understood an eclipse as a warning, as a time to take care, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson (1902-1904) explained that eclipses were “meant to be opportunities for increasing prayer and introspection – as opposed to prompting joyous blessings, [and so] we do not recite a blessing when witnessing one.”

This approach, however, is insufficient and unconvincing, regardless of the value of prayer and introspection. It fails to acknowledge the reality that science confirms about the regular order of local orbits. It fails to dispel expressly and strongly the general – but totally false -notion of a causal connection between natural events in the sky and human behavior on Earth. It fails to reject specifically the unsustainable rationales in the Talmudic passages cited above speculating why eclipses occur, and it fails to refute the false equivalencies among the various circumstances noted there.

This approach is also inconsistent with the traditional practice of offering blessings, as noted above, for more frequent, often more terrifying and clearly more dangerous events. After all, a total eclipse of the Sun is no less impressive than is lightening or an earthquake. And, further, this approach runs counter to the long standing tradition expressed in the Talmud (Menachot 43b) which calls on us to recite b’rakhot frequently during our waking hours, even to the extent of one-hundred a day. On the day of a solar eclipse, we should focus on ninety-nine other things and not note that the disk of the Sun is being obscured?

Even more importantly, the preclusion of a b’rakha regarding an eclipse undermines the emotional and intellectual benefit of a blessing, a principal purpose of which is to raise the level of consciousness of the person saying it. The words give literal expression to the remarkable thing or event which the individual’s senses have encountered or soon will. A blessing, then, is an empowering act, and to deny an individual, any individual, the opportunity to acknowledge, realize, concentrate, appreciate and grow can only limit a person’s mind and spirit, stunting his or her humanity.

With an orientation of modern, reality based Judaism, we can and should appreciate the order in the cosmos, especially the regularity of orbits. We can and should recognize the total dependence of all life as we know it on the energy that we receive from our local star. As the umbra approaches and recedes in a total solar eclipse, we can see the light change, sense the drop in temperature. Even as it compels us to look to the sky, that sight, that feeling should unite us, and draw our attention away, if just momentarily, from the troubles on Earth.

All of this elicits awe and gratitude, two primary bases for blessings. How appropriate then, as one looks (very carefully and with appropriate equipment) upward during a solar eclipse to acknowledge one’s awe and express one’s gratitude for having reached this season and being able to observe and to feel the works of creation. Here is one way:

     As the eclipse nears . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Source of Life that fashioned the stars, that sends forth heat from the Sun to warm us and light from the Sun to nourish the food we eat and provide the wonderful colors that so enrich our lives.

     When standing in the shadow . . . Modim Anakhnu Lakh – We are thankful for the opportunity to be reminded how fleeting and precious our time here is, how bound we are, one to the other, how much we should treasure the moments we have and the people with whom we share this most amazing planet.

      As light reemerges . . . Barukh Atah – Blessed is the Sustainer of Life. May we be refreshed and renewed by the harmony of the spheres, and may our lives be worthy of the gift we have received and continue to receive through the arrangement of the cosmos.

     Your words may well be different. Write them. Share them. We do need blessings now.

  A version of this essay was published previously at

Daf Yomi, justice, and the minimum wage

A recent living wage rally in New York. Photo by The All-Nite Images/via WikiCommons.

Those of us participating in Daf Yomi are now four and a half years into the current cycle, with three years to go. Studying a page of Talmud a day, we are combing the broad expanse of the ancient rabbinal discussions that make up the Mishnah and the Gemara. In our recent studies of tractate Bava Metzia, we delved into concepts that are relevant for controversial policy issues in the news today—one of them being the minimum wage.

The issue of the minimum wage—sometimes referred to as a living wage or a just wage — continues to be a contentious issue. Presumably, we as a society would like to ensure that those who work earn a reasonable wage, one that is, at a minimum, sufficient to cover one’s basic human needs. Surely, the thinking goes, any compassionate society would do no less. But the issue is not so straightforward, and our Jewish tradition, including the Talmud, provides some guidance.

Insisting that employers pay their employees a minimum amount undoubtedly helps those who’s wages will be higher—which seems beneficial in and of itself. But it will inevitably have unintended consequences. For example, how will it affect other workers? If employers decide to hire fewer workers, will some workers lose their jobs, or not be hired in the first place? Is this compassionate?

Economists have looked into this question, but there is as yet no consensus. Some cite statistics that show that there is no marked decline in employment. Others have data to prove that the imposition of higher wages does reduce employment. The American Enterprise Institute just came out with a 48-page paper on the subject, concluding that the minimum wage does appear to reduce employment, but they also called for more research.

There is another potential unintended consequence. Many teenagers and young adults are often looking just to get started in the job market. Many are thrilled to have a job, any job, even if it pays only $7.50 an hour, in order to get some experience—ultimately enabling them to eventually move on to jobs requiring more skills and experience which will pay more. Imposing a higher minimum wage may deprive young people of these initial jobs. Is this compassionate?

These social science questions are important, but there’s actually a deeper question. Is legislating a higher minimum wage even just? In mandating higher minimum wages, government is requiring that employers pay their lower-skilled workers more than they might otherwise pay them—and more than workers might actually be willing to accept. Is this consistent with our traditional notions of justice? This question is not a new one. It comes up in ancient Jewish texts—related to property rights, labor law and charity law—including Bava Metzia.

Property rights are usually considered to be sacrosanct. As Joseph Isaac Lifshitz explains in Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis, there are numerous prohibitions in the Bible relating to the property of others — against, for instance, stealing land and acquiring property through fraud. The Eighth Commandment prohibits stealing. The Tenth Commandment prohibits even the coveting of one’s neighbor’s property. As evidence of the importance of private property, Lifshitz notes, “punishments … are meted out in the Bible to those who undermine the social order through their flagrant disregard for it.”

This presumably entails not just the private property of individuals but also that of companies. One would assume that, absent some extraordinary public purpose, government should not have the authority to coerce companies to expend their own resources, their own private property, in certain mandated ways—like paying their employees more than they otherwise would. This kind of government mandate would seem to be a violation of companies’ property rights.

Some might say that the needs of employees, particularly poor employees, should take precedence over the rights of employers. However, one could ask the question—in a potential dispute between employees and employers, should not justice be blind? As it says in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great.”

What about labor law? Should there not be some requirement for companies to pay their employees a living wage? According to our Jewish tradition, this is a little more complicated, requiring inferences from other law.

Dealing fairly in business, including pricing things fairly, is one of the cornerstones of the law, again going back to the Bible. As it says in Leviticus 25:14, “When you make a sale to your fellow or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another.” This is called the law of ona’ah—“overreaching”—which is prominently discussed and debated in Bava Metzia.

 In his 2008 Tradition article “The Living Wage and Jewish Law,” Rabbi Aaron Levine, the late Yeshiva University economics professor, explains that “The law of ona’ah prohibits an individual from concluding a transaction at a price that is more favorable to himself than the competitive norm.”

The Talmud does not explicitly discuss the idea of the minimum wage, but, extrapolating the law of ona’ah to wages, one would conclude that the wages that a company pays should not be substantially below the going rate for comparable jobs. As Levine notes, “A worker who cannot command a living wage in the marketplace cannot claim a living wage based on ona’ah.” As one can see, according to the law of ona’ah, wages should not be based on an employee’s needs.

There have been challenges to this perspective, however. For example, Jewish law stipulates that judges are to be paid a living wage. But can the case of a judge, who’s hired by a community to devote himself exclusively to his or her judicial job, be extended to the private sector?

Levine speculates that “if [the private sector employer] offers the head of a household a full-time job and stipulates with him that he may not take on outside employment, [the employer] must pay [the employee] a ‘living wage.’” This, however, is not common, particularly for lower-skilled workers, so this challenge is not a compelling one.

Another challenge comes from the Biblical law of lo talin—also discussed in Bava Metzia—the prohibition against withholding a worker’s wages. As it says in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You must not withhold the wages of a poor or destitute hired worker … You must give him his wages on the day they are due, and not let the sun set upon him, for he is poor, and he depends on it.”

These Biblical verses can be interpreted to mean that, if a worker does receive payment on time, then he will be able to provide for his family—thereby implying that employers are required to pay their workers enough to provide for their families. However, as Levine shows, “The inference is unwarranted.” The verses are not meant to suggest that a violation of lo talon will literally endanger the employee’s life. They’re intended to underscore the employer’s moral obligation to pay one’s workers on time.

This brings us to the law of charity. Is there a basis for a higher minimum wage as an act of charity? What exactly is required of employers?

Helping someone get out of poverty is one of the highest levels of charity. As it says in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, “If there will be among you a needy person … you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand to your needy brother. Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall give him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”

Providing a needy person with a job—with a competitive wage—is one of the best examples of charity. At the same time, is it the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees have enough to provide for themselves and their families?

If a young adult is having difficulty making ends meet, we would expect that his or her family, not the employer, would be first in line to help out. But what about the case of a needy employee who has primary responsibility for his or her family?

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 has been interpreted to mean that the community as a whole, not one individual nor one employer, has the moral responsibility to help those in need. Referring to the responsibility as dei mahsoro—“give him sufficient”—Levine notes that Jewish law “has interpreted the dei mahsoro mandate as a collective responsibility, rather than a duty for individuals to shoulder alone when they personally encounter charity cases. Because the ‘living wage’ mandate saddles employers alone with the burden of relieving poverty for the working poor, it does not follow from dei mahsoro.”

The idea of the minimum wage, while seemingly reasonable and compassionate, raises several difficult issues. From an economic perspective, it may actually reduce employment, which would not be compassionate for those struggling to find a job. It also raises important issues of justice. Based on property rights, labor law and charity law, as defined by many of our sacred texts and sages, the idea of the minimum wage is problematic. We may have a moral obligation to help those in need, but we also have a moral obligation to deal with each other justly.

The sun shines on us all equally

Photo from Pexels

Parashat B’shalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16)

“In that hour the ministering angels wished to utter the song [of praise] before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He rebuked them, saying: My handiwork [the Egyptians] is drowning in the sea; would you utter song before me!”

— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the most powerful — and ethically challenging — teachings in the Torah as the Hebrews cross the Sea of Reeds, to be followed by the Egyptians, who are drowned. Jews are taught not to take joy in the pain of others. This is especially true when it is the pain of our enemies. The Bible and Talmud are full of remonstrations against this practice, and yet, sometimes it is all too easy to succumb to our yetzer hara (evil inclination) and do just that.

I will always retain the sad memory of walking into a cigar lounge in 2014, and hearing many of the people there cheering as they watched CNN. I thought it must be some sporting event; instead they were watching the destruction of a terror tunnel into Israel, and the people were cheering at the death of the Palestinian terrorists.

Dozens of parents had just lost their children, siblings had lost their brothers, and children had lost their fathers, and we could be assured that they all would hate Israel forever. In my mind, there was nothing to celebrate. Remembering the teaching of how God chastised the angels when they started to celebrate the death of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds, I accepted that it was necessary to destroy the tunnels, but simply wrong to celebrate the agony of others. Pharaoh, those terrorists and other adversaries are not our “enemies.” Rather they are adversaries that need to be defeated — but still respected as creations of God.

It is an important Jewish understanding — and particularly important now — that we don’t need to polarize our world even more by viewing the world through the lens of “enemies,” but instead respect all of life strongly enough that we work to change those adversaries into friends.

It seems that almost daily we read about incidents of hate around this country, from both sides of the political aisle. Instead of the healthy debate that is illustrated throughout the Talmud by our Sages, we see conservatives and liberals viewing the “other” not as wrong, but as evil. Each side seems to revel in any shortcoming by the other. History has shown repeatedly that if we continue down this path of celebrating the pain of our adversary, it leads only to a mutual pain for everyone involved.

So how can we regain a healthy and respectful dialogue with those whom we oppose? How can we learn to do what we believe we must without sacrificing our Jewish essence?

One of the many answers that our tradition teaches can be found in the holiday of this weekend, Tu B’Shevat. As we remember the goodness of God’s creations, as we celebrate the gifts that God has given to all of us no matter what our beliefs, our Sages teach that it can influence our behavior to embrace our personal differences and respect every other human. The celebration of nature has the potential to lead us to understanding. In nature, we find a balance that we can emulate in our interpersonal relationships.

There is an ancient text, “Perek Shirah” (Chapter of Song), that reminds us to treasure all of nature, and as a byproduct, to treasure all others, even if we disagree with them. It includes prayers about all aspects of nature — from the elements to plants to animals — and teaches us that when we really appreciate these Divine gifts, we change how we act with others. The idea is simple: bring balance and harmony to every relationship in nature, including between your friend and foe, and the benefits will extend from this world to the next.

As the political climate becomes polarized and it is difficult to stay centered, it is incumbent upon us to remember this Jewish teaching. Let us not only celebrate this magnificent holiday of Tu B’Shevat, but return to nature and appreciate the gifts that God has given us all. Maybe then we can bring real harmony into the world.

My prayer for all of us is to appreciate the divine gifts of life, including the disagreements we have with other people, and to use these disagreements as bridges to understanding and respecting one another — making adversaries into friends and remembering that we are all children of the same God.

The real meaning of Tikkun Olam

There’s nothing like studying the Talmud to learn more about Judaism.  I’m not referring to long hours in a Jerusalem yeshiva with one’s head buried in the text, but rather to the study program called Daf Yomi.  Reading a page a day, one can get through the entire Talmud in seven and a half years.  In the current Daf Yomi cycle, followed throughout the world, I along with my Talmudic haburah are now four years into it, with another three and a half years to go.

As anyone who has cracked open one of the many volumes knows, the Talmud offers extensive discussions on just about every conceivable moral issue imaginable.  It’s undoubtedly archaic in context, but it’s no less relevant in concept today than it was thousands of years ago.  The analyses that the ancient rabbis bring to bear in debating the various issues is beyond impressive.  It’s no wonder yeshiva buchers end up being among the very best law school students.  For novices like myself, it’s a challenge just to keep up.

A few months ago, while studying tractate Gittin, the volume dealing with divorce law, we came across the well-known concept of tikkun olam.  According to everything I had learned growing up as a typical reform Jew, tikkun olam means “repair of the world” — sometimes referred to as “social justice” — often entailing government programs to make the world a better place.  However, delving into the Gemara, the Talmudic commentary, I was in for a little surprise.

According to the translation in the ArtScroll publication, tikkun olam means “benefit of society.”  In the Koren publication, it means “betterment of the world.”  Either way, the meaning is very different from the popularized one often used today.  As Adam Kirsch, head of the graduate program in Jewish studies at Columbia University, observed in his recent Tablet article, “We have interpreted ‘the betterment of the world’ to mean the improvement of society in the name of social justice … I don’t mean to disparage this idea … but there is no doubt that this is not what our ancestors meant when they used the words tikkun olam.”

As discussed throughout Gittin, tikkun olam relates to traditional rules of morality and justice in a limited number of situations, and to certain adjustments in isolated instances when the rules could lead to perverse results.  Like with the popularized version of the term, the goal is to improve the general Jewish society.  However, its use as explained in the Talmud is not intended to expand what’s done to create a better society but rather to adjust how certain rules are applied.  The Gemara cites several situations where tikkun olam applies.  Three examples will help to clarify the idea.

Under traditional divorce rules, a husband (assumed to be living separately from his wife) could employ a scribe to draft a get (the traditional document that effectuates the divorce) and could use an agent to deliver the get to his wife.  If the husband changed his mind, he could declare the get nullified in court.  This may seem reasonable, but the rabbis pondered a potential problem.  What if, after the get is drafted and the agent sent on his way, but before the agent delivers the get to the wife, the husband changes his mind and nullifies the get in court?  What if he then sends a second agent to meet up with the first agent, but the first agent delivers the get to his wife before the second agent arrives?  Would the wife think that she’s divorced, even though the husband nullified the get in court?  Presumably so.  What if the wife, believing she’s divorced, remarries and has a child?  Would the child be illegitimate — a mamzer?  The rabbis were not comfortable with this possibility.

For the benefit of society — mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam — Rabban Gamliel the Elder, head of the Sanhedrin for many years during the Second Temple period, changed the rules.  In Gittin 32A, “The mishna relates that initially, a husband who wished to render the bill of divorce void would convene a court elsewhere and render the bill of divorce void in the presence of the court before it reached his wife.  Rabat Gamliel instituted an ordinance that one should not do this, mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  He concluded that, under these circumstances, a husband could not nullify a get in court.  Rather, the husband would have to deliver the message directly to his wife or directly to the first agent before the get is delivered to the wife.  Otherwise, even if the husband changes his mind, the divorce would be effective once the wife receives the get.  In this way, the normal rules for nullifying a get were adjusted so as to prevent the wife from thinking that she was divorced when she was not, and thereby to avoid the potential birth of mamzerim.  As Kirsch notes, “It is to avoid this kind of uncertainty that the rabbis instituted a reform in the divorce process — the kind of reform they refer to as mi’pnei tikkun olam.”

A second example, also in Gittin, involves kidnappers and ransoms,.  Kidnappings were evidently not uncommon in ancient days.  In the case of a kidnapping, one would think that a family would have the freedom to redeem a captive for whatever price they could negotiate — even a very high price if the family could afford it.  But the rabbis were concerned about two major consequences.  First, they were concerned that a high ransom would incentivize kidnappers to kidnap more people, which would obviously not be good for the community.  Second, they were concerned that a high ransom would also incentivize kidnappers to demand a high ransom for other captives, thereby putting an additional financial burden on the community.  For these reasons, in the Mishna in Gittin 45A, the rabbis decided that “captives are not redeemed for more than their actual monetary value, mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  In this way, the rabbis restrained the freedom of affluent families to negotiate high ransoms. 

Here is a third example from Gittin, this one of an economic nature.  Under the ancient rules of the Sabbatical Year, debtors were to be relieved of their obligations in the seventh year — i.e., their debt at the time was to be forgiven.  This certainly sounds like a compassionate approach for those unable to get out from under the burden of debt.  At the same time, the rule had a perverse effect.  As the Sabbatical Year drew near, lenders, concerned that debtors would not repay the debt, would be unwilling to lend.  As author Hillel Halkin notes in his 2008 Commentary article on the subject, “the regulation was having the paradoxical consequence of only making life for the poor harder by preventing them from borrowing at all.”  Initiated by Hillel the Elder, a new rule was put in place.  As it says in the Mishna in Gittin 34B, “Hillel instituted a document (a prosbol) that prevents the Sabbatical Year from abrogating an outstanding debt mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.”  With the prosbol in place, lenders would continue to lend, even as the time of the Sabbatical Year approached.

As one can see, the idea of tikkun olam was utilized in very specific situations in order to avert particular unintended consequences.  Traditional rules were adjusted so as to prevent certain undesirable outcomes.  This has nothing to do with the popular notion of tikkun olam — “social justice” to “repair” the world.  Rather, tikkun olam as discussed in the Talmud relates to individual actions in selected circumstances — and adjustments in the rules to avoid potentially perverse results for the community. 

This raises the inevitable question — how did the idea of tikkun olam take on its current connotation?  The Aleinu prayer, which likely dates back to the Second Temple period, includes a similar term — l’taken olam b’malkhut Shaddai — but this has an altogether different meaning.  Based on the common translation, the prayer expresses the hope that the world will be “perfected” under the Kingdom of the Almighty.  In the 16th century, tikkun olam became part of Lurianic Kabbalah, but this was a very different idea, as well.  As Halkin explains, while the Lurianic tikkun “calls for mending the entire cosmos …  these efforts … are strictly spiritual, involving prayer, religious ritual, and meditation.”

The current connotation can be traced back to the beginning of the post-War period.  Brandeis University professor Jonathan Krasner, in his 2014 article “The Place of Tikkun Olam in American Jewish Life,” identifies three distinct groups that transformed tikkun olam over the past 75 years.  The first were theologians who, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, looked for ways to re-imagine the covenantal relationship between humans and God.  They included Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine, and various Reform and Conservative rabbis, including Rabbi Leo Baeck and Rabbi Harold Schulweis.  Under tikkun olam, as used by these Jewish leaders, “the Jews were not merely partners with God but ‘senior partners in action,’ entirely responsible for the execution of the covenant.”

The second group were educators — including Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis Camp, and Rabbi Raphael Artz, director of Camp Ramah in New England — many of whom sought to reinvigorate Jewish education, including social action and tzedakah, under the rubric of tikkun olam.  For example, as Krasner notes, in speaking to a group of campers in 1960, “Bardin insisted that it was their ‘task’ as Jews to ‘fix the world.’”  Similarly, Rabbi Artz, in a 1967 address to Jewish educators, proclaimed, “The ultimate goal of man’s partnership with God is Tikkun olam.”

The third group was political.  Beginning in the 1970’s, a number of progressive rabbis and community leaders began appropriating tikkun olam for their publications and programs.  As Krasner notes, at the New Jewish Agenda’s founding conference in 1982, “The platform asserted that ‘many of us base our convictions on the Jewish religious concept of tikun olam (the just ordering of human society and the world) and the prophetic traditions of social justice.’”  In the early ’90’s, says Krasner, “others took up the effort to shape a progressive Jewish politics around tikkun olam.”  Among these was Michael Lerner, who founded Tikkun, a left-wing alternative to Commentary magazine.  “Lerner hoped to energize alienated Jews with a model of Judaism that rejected the crass materialism and hypocrisy of middle class suburban Jewish life in favor of a Jewishly grounded ethic of social justice.”

Today, tikkun olam is part of modern, liberal discourse, even though its popularized connotation has little to do with its traditional meaning.  In discussing the term in his 2014 article “The Assimilation of Tikkun Olam,” Levi Cooper, a faculty member at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, notes that “It has become a watchword for any value, even if a particular value — worthwhile as it may be — is not rooted in Jewish tradition.”  This brings us back to the tradition — the Talmud — in which tikkun olam served a very important, but specific, role when applying rules of morality and justice in certain circumstances.

The Talmud, I’ve learned, is more than amazing — parsing in minute detail the many moral and judicial issues that inevitably come up in the normal course of life.  The focus is primarily on what’s right and just for those directly involved.  In several limited instances, the rabbis had a wider perspective to keep an eye on the effects on the community as a whole and to adjust specific rules as needed — mi’pnei tikkun ha-olam.  The idea of “social justice” may, for many, still be worthwhile, but, according to the Talmud, tikkun olam it is not.

Talmudic temptation

From a glass-enclosed cabinet in her Westchester home office, historical novelist Maggie Anton removed a small clay pot. Indicating the Hebrew characters inscribed on the pot in the same Aramaic text as in the Talmud, she noted the rough outline of a demonic form inside the “incantation bowl.” She explained during an interview that during the fourth to sixth centuries, the same time that the Talmud was being created, the bowls, purchased in an antiquities store in Israel, were ubiquitous in Iraq — once known as Babylonia — the setting for Anton’s latest novel, “Enchantress.”

One of the many types of archaeological evidence of Jewish sorcery — “they call upon Jewish angels, they mention the four matriarchs, they quote Torah, some even quote Mishnah” — the discovery of these bowls represented a high point in Anton’s research for her love story set in fourth-century Babylonia. Until then, the Talmud had been her only primary source. 

“Sorcery is a very important thread in the Talmud that most scholars have preferred to ignore until recently,” Anton said. “Illness was caused by demons or the evil eye, and Jews had a reputation for knowing the secret magic that did healing. In the Talmud, you’d go to a healer to be cured, and they would write a spell for an amulet that you would wear. Or they would do an incantation on a bowl, and they would bury it under your house. Everything was from demons and the evil eye.”

The Talmud also claimed a major presence in Anton’s earlier trilogy, “Rashi’s Daughters.” A former clinical chemist for Kaiser Permanente, Anton said that she never could have written “Enchantress” without first telling the story of the great scholar who lived in 11th-century France. The availability of historical documentation on Rashi helped greatly. Teasing out the basic information from just the Talmud about the characters in another book, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter,” was much trickier.

And none of these would have occurred if she hadn’t decided to study Talmud in 1992 with feminist theologian Rachel Adler. Drawn to the intellectual rigor of talmudic study, Anton, who comes from a secular Jewish family, said, “I was 42. My mom had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My kids were mostly out of the house. I had worked at the same job for a lot of years. I needed to have my brain doing stuff it hadn’t been doing before.”

But there was another reason. “I knew women weren’t supposed to study it; that it was forbidden at that point. And, of course, all you have to do is make it forbidden, and you make it much more attractive.”

Anton’s research into the life of Solomon ben Isaac (one day to be known as Rashi) and his family began “just for fun.” However, she grew increasingly fascinated once she started learning more about the vintner and scholar. “He was really a feminist, considering that he lived in 11th-century France. I was very surprised that 900 years ago, women in his community did wear tefillin and wear tzitzit and blow shofar. This was a kind of a black hole in Jewish history ignored by everybody.”

Four years later, she had completed the first draft of her novel. After making 12 copies of the manuscript, she showed it to her husband, daughter, some close friends and four rabbis. They all thought it should be published. 

Among the many surprise twists of her literary trajectory, Anton’s publishing experience has been the most surprising of all. Although she had a literary agent, publication eluded her. Outside of Anita Diamant’s 1997 “The Red Tent,” there didn’t appear to be a market for this kind of fiction. 

Many aspiring authors might have given up at this point. Not Anton. Hiring a literary shepherd, she and her husband, Dave Parkhurst, a patent attorney, became publishers themselves.

“I knew how to reach Jewish women, and I knew there was interest. I did a lot of cold calling of [synagogue] sisterhoods, Hadassahs and National Councils of Jewish Women chapters. Then I went all over the country and Canada and hit the Jewish talk circuit — sold books in the back of the room. They would tell their friends. There was buzz.” In 18 months, 26,000 books had sold.

When the big publishers caught wind of that phenomenal figure for a self-published novel, a bidding war ensued between HarperCollins, Penguin and Crown. “This was the first book in a trilogy, and they wanted the rest of it,” said Anton, who chose Penguin. To date, close to 150,000 copies of the first volume of “Rashi’s Daughters” have sold, and it remains her strongest seller.

Meanwhile, the memory of a piece of Talmud she had studied long ago still resonated. When Penguin asked if she had anyone else in mind, she remembered the girl whose rabbi father had given her the choice of marrying one of two teenage boys, his best students. The daughter’s answer of “both,” she said, “just blew my mind. I thought, ‘What courage, what audacity.’ And I immediately thought of her.”

The author reports that all of the books have received starred reviews from the Library Journal. In addition, “Rav Hisda’s Daughter” became a National Jewish Book Award finalist. 

Nevertheless, Anton acknowledged there have been losses. Chief among them was the hit taken by her love of reading fiction. “I was a voracious reader. I devoured thrillers, murder mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, romance, kids’ books,” she said. “As the author, I now see the scaffolding, the craft. I’m much more fussy. My pleasure in reading novels is sadly diminished.”

As for the future, Anton will go only so far as to say, “There’s a story banging around inside my head. It haunts me at night. It’s there, lurking.”

However, with four grandchildren and a husband who might enjoy traveling in retirement, the 64-year-old Anton is clear about one thing: “I’ll write it on my own time. I’ll write it like I wrote the first volume of ‘Rashi’s Daughters.’ I’ll write the book I want to read.”

Bringing new questions to the seder table

With Passover upon us, an almost universal association with the biblically based holiday is the reciting of the four questions, commonly chanted by the youngest person seated at the seder table. Our tradition has long emphasized the importance of asking good, probing questions. The ones cited in the haggadah are nothing more than basic examples to stimulate discussion and interest in the night’s proceeding.

Here are four questions of a different type. These don’t appear in the Passover haggadah, but rather in the Talmud, tractate Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Shimon Ben Zoma, who lived in Israel during the first third of the second century, asked them. His questions could not be more fitting to the Passover night.  

1) “Who is wise?”

“One who can learn from others.” Building on the rabbi’s response, be mindful to learn from other people’s experiences, living or deceased. Think of the wise child described in the haggadah.  Characteristic to the wise child is one who is inclusive and appreciative of those who have contributed, and continue to contribute, to the teachings and understanding of our age-old, wise religious tradition.

2) “Who is strong?”

“One who can say no to him-/herself.” Self-discipline is difficult.\ It’s not easy to diet or exercise or give up aspects of our lifestyle to which we’ve grown accustomed. From the standpoint of Passover, it’s not easy to go one full week without leavened grain products, let alone maintain the standards inherent to the observance of the holiday. But as difficult as it is to say no to yourself, it is even harder to know when to say yes. The Jerusalem Talmud sums it up best (Kiddushin 4:12): “You’ll be held accountable for every legitimate pleasure you’ve denied yourself.”

3) “Who is rich?”

“One who is happy with what he/she has.” How many of us can say, “I have enough.” During the Passover seder, we sing the song “Dayenu,” which translates, “It would have been enough for us.” I wonder how many sing that song and actually mean it?  How many of us are happy with our spouse, our children or our friends? Do we repeatedly try to change them? “Dayenu” is not a plea for complacency. If anything, it’s a plea for perspective and heightened appreciation for the things we do have.

4)  “Who is honored?”

“Those who honor others.” If you want to keep friends and maintain family bonds, honor them. Stop competing against them. The word for honor in Hebrew shares the same root letters as the Hebrew word “heavy” (it also relates to the word liver; the liver is an especially heavy organ). At times, it is literally heavy, or minimally difficult to give honor. Not uncommonly, we’re fixed on ourselves. Next time you’re in a conversation, see how quickly the discussion shifts to you and your interests. Be particularly mindful of that tendency when seated around the seder table. Bear in mind, honor doesn’t mean agreement. An additional rabbinic comment makes the point; the one who is ultimately honored is the one who flees from being honored.

Freedom for all human beings is the leitmotif interwoven throughout Passover’s celebration. But tied into the notion of universal freedom is the simple freedom to pose questions. This Passover, as you sit around your seder tables, ask questions; ask questions the likes of those asked by Rabbi Ben Zoma. Don’t be bound by the “classic” four questions. Remember, they’re only examples. While you form your own probing questions to deepen your Passover experience, don’t forget to come up with some equally good answers.

Rabbi Michael Gotlieb is the rabbi of Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

Talking tachlis with ‘YidLife Crisis’

Two 30-something Jews sit in a restaurant, eating and bantering in sharp comedic bites. Their cadence is classically familiar, evoking influences from the Talmud to “Seinfeld” and the Borscht Belt; their arguments are essentially Jewish, centering on Jewish tradition, identity, hypocrisy and contemporary cultural meaning. Oh, and they’re speaking Yiddish. 

Meet “YidLife Crisis,” a Yiddish comedy Web series created and produced by Montreal writer-performers Eli Batalion, 34 (who still lives there), and Jamie Elman, 38 (who now lives in Silver Lake). 

“Yiddish was never meant to be spoken only by older people,” Elman said. “Yiddish was always meant to be the secular Jewish language — since we’re representing secular cultural Judaism, we’re making Yiddish part of that.” 

It is “YidLife Crisis’ ” humor and inflection that resonates with a generation raised on “Seinfeld” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” even if they don’t speak Yiddish; an older demographic may not get the humor but delights in the Yiddish resurgence. But as a series, “YidLife Crisis” is less about the tactic and more about the tachlis — the real discussions that millennials are having about Jewish culture and tradition.

In its four webisodes, “YidLife Crisis” tackles topics such as circumcision and what the essential nature of “Jewish” is, and uses talmudic cadence to debate Montreal bagel supremacy — all conversations that continue to resonate with them as 30-something cultural Jews walking in the secular world. 

Some of those conversations came to light at “El Yid” at El Cid, a “YidLife Crisis”-headlined performance at Silver Lake’s El Cid restaurant, produced with two L.A. nonprofits, East Side Jews and Yiddishkayt. Other performers riffed on contemporary Jewish life and identity — host and comedian Jessie Kahnweiler welcomed everyone to what she called “Circumcision: The Musical” and rapper Kosha Dillz presented his rhyming anthem “Everything Is Kosher.” Later, Mendy Pellin — a Chasidic comedian and creator of YouTube channel Jewbellish — proclaimed that he only believes in “same-sects marriage” before taking the stage to rap the song “Talk Yiddish to Me.” (At that point, a woman seated toward the back of the room turned to other audience members and said in disbelief, “What is happening?!”)

Over the last five to 10 years, Elman said, each Passover after spending time with their families for the seder, he and his Montreal friends “meet up late night to hang out.” Questions about the future inevitably come up: “Most of our parents are still alive, but what about when it’s up to us? What are we going to do? Will we marry Jews? What do our parents want, and what do we want? What is the essence of a Jewish life? We can’t help but talk about these things after the seder. The conversations get intense, but one of the things we love most about Judaism is the encouragement to ask questions.”

One episode in particular has raised questions from some audience members. Episode 2 finds Chaimie and Leizer (the “YidLife” alter-egos of Elman and Batalion, respectively) in a deli, where an initial debate about a lean corned-beef sandwich becomes a discussion about women’s bodies and introduces the soon-to-be-indispensible Yiddish neologism “nakkideh zelfie” (“naked selfie”). In a simultaneous nod to and subversion of the famous deli scene from “When Harry Met Sally,” let’s just say that Leizer decidedly will not have what Chaimie’s having.

“This was about mirroring in a non-religious context the hypocrisy that we point out in the other episodes,” Elman said, pointing to the first episode’s story’s dueling absurdities: Leizer eats on Yom Kippur but won’t mix meat and milk, while Chaimie would never eat an improperly assembled poutine. “The content is racy and pushes the envelope,” Batalion admitted. “Some may interpret it as offensive, but it is meant as an homage to the zaftig body, which has often been rejected by modern middle- and upper-class society.”  

At El Cid, in an all-in-good-fun premeditated bit, Kahnweiler happily balanced the scales by objectifying the pair. She said Elman reminded her of  “a day-old Canter’s Danish that begs you to take it home, and so you buy it and eat it quickly in shame and it’s unfulfilling,” and Batalion more resembled “the last little piece of gefilte fish left in the jar. You’re not really sure what it’s made of, but your mom makes you eat it anyway, and it gives you indigestion.”

What’s next for Chaimie and Leizer? “People want to see Jamie enjoy himself and see Eli in pain,” the pair agreed. The duo had originally produced the Web series with funding from the Montreal Jewish Community Foundation and has started searching for new investors, grants and content partners to help them perpetuate “YidLife Crisis.” They also tour cities and festivals with their unusual approach to comedy and conversations. 

When their tour took them to Israel in December for the Comedy for a Change conference, they weren’t sure whether their Diaspora-based webseries would resonate. “Do Israelis also question their Jewish identity? Do they relate to the paradoxes — and hypocrisies — of religious practice and faith?” Once there, they learned that Israelis do, in fact, share this struggle. “Jewish identity is, indeed, complex in the modern world, both in the Diaspora and in Israel.”  

Yiddish purists have criticized Elman and Batalion for not speaking the language properly, but the two admit their approach to the pidgin language is nonacademic. “It’s like putting on your dad’s jacket,” Batalion said. “It allows us to pay tribute and be like our elders, but doesn’t fit exactly the same way.” While Batalion was Yiddish valedictorian at Montreal’s Bialik High School, Elman acknowledges that he is “YidLife’s” “worst Yiddish speaker.” 

“We did it on purpose; we’re not speaking the Yiddish from Second Avenue during the 1920s, or from Tevye the dairyman. Many Jews don’t know exactly what Yiddish is, where it came from and how our version differs from the original.” 

“We meant it to be absurd,” Batalion said. “Imagine the world exactly like it is, except everyone speaks Yiddish and no one explains why. That, to us, was the joke.”

Don’t know whom to vote for tomorrow? Ask the ‘Talmud’

“Whom to vote for and whom not to vote for?”

Thus begins page 17 of the Talmud’s Tractate Voters. It continues: “One should not vote for Likud or Zionist Union or Shas or Yachad or Kulanu or Meretz or the Arabs or Israel Is Our Home or Yahadut HaTorah or The Jewish Home or Yesh Atid, but, rather, solely for the empty ballot itself.”

This page of Talmudic commentary was penned not by a second century rabbinic sage but by Doron Chitiz, a Judaic-studies teacher in the Israeli city of Raanana who, in the spirit of the recent Purim holiday, injected some cynicism into the otherwise heavy political campaign preceding Tuesday’s elections.

The South Africa-born Chitiz, 29, studied in yeshiva during college and ably employed the Talmudic style in his spoof, including abundant biblical citations and rabbinical-logical conclusions.

While writing previous Talmudic-themed Purim spiels — those tackled alcohol and soft-drink choices — Chitiz created a template for the body of the text along with faux analysis in the two margins by 11th-century scholar Rashi and the medieval commentators known as Tosafot, blending Hebrew and Aramaic and employing Rashi’s particular typography.

This year’s edition is so sharp that readers might imagine those rabbinic legends duly impressed, nodding in affirmation while stifling guffaws.

Chitiz, who will vote for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, is an equal-opportunity skewer.

Not Likud, his Talmud writes in Tractate Voters (page 17 for the March election date; Chapter 20 for the new Knesset edition), because of the Yom Kippur plea, “Forgive us, pardon us, atone for us.” M’chal, Hebrew for pardon, happens to be Likud’s ballot symbol.

On Likud’s need for pardoning, Tosafot helpfully explicate: “Apparently, for her summoning an electrician on Yom Kippur night,” the “her” being Netanyahu’s wife Sara, who was accused of that very transgression in a recent state comptroller’s report.

Not Zionist Union, as per Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall whiten as snow.” Whiten, Chitiz’s Talmud infers, refers to the party’s co-head, Tzipi Livni (her surname’s root is “white”), and also the blank ballot.

Not Kulanu, because Exodus 18:25 states: “Moses chose,” not that Moses was chosen, a reference to party leader Moshe Kahlon.

Not Meretz, derived from the injunction to run to perform mitzvot, whereas Meretz (whose root means run), an avidly secular party, employs no such haste.

And on and on, one sacred cow after another falling to Chitiz’s dagger.

When he passed around photocopies to fellow Purim dinner attendees, those possessing a sense of humor laughed, Chitiz said. Those without critiqued stylistic incongruities with the actual Talmud.

Chitiz will review the text with his students as a civics lesson. Later on, they’ll have to write a report in Talmudic form.

As to his plans Tuesday, when the country traditionally shuts down and Israelis fill every grassy spot for barbecues, Chitiz will follow his own Talmud’s order: “On the 26th of Adar, Election Day, it’s a mitzvah to grill.”

Why Chanukah matters

There’s a certain narrative about Chanukah that has become near conventional wisdom among American Jews, and it goes like this:

Chanukah is a fun holiday that is big in America, thanks to its proximity to Christmas. But really, it’s a “minor” holiday that is more impactful culturally and sociologically than religiously, and it can’t really compare to the “big” ones of Yom Kippur and Passover.

And that’s all true. But it’s also too simple.

Chanukah matters for many reasons. It matters because, as one historian put it, it allows American Jews to feel included in the American holiday season while also remaining distinct, because they have their own holiday. It matters because, as one rabbi put it, Chanukah provides light in a season of darkness, giving families good reason to come together and celebrate. It also matters because, as another rabbi said, Chanukah carries an anti-assimilationist message that is as relevant today as it was 1,800 years ago.

Chanukah is a rarity within Judaism. It’s a holiday that, because of its scant halachic background, doesn’t provide much fodder for legal or practical disagreement between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox. But it’s also a holiday that rabbis and Jewish academics and educators seem to agree is significant — uniquely so for American Jews — but for a variety of reasons. 

Chabad emphasizes the spiritual message of always increasing light. Modern Orthodox Jews focus on the sages’ narrative of the oil miracle pointing to God’s omnipresent role in the Maccabees’ military victory. Conservative and Reform Jews find meaning in why the sages altered Chanukah’s story by reducing the role of the Maccabees and increasing that of God, and also in how Chanukah allows Jews to feel just as American as Christians do in December. And many communal leaders see Chanukah as an ideal time to reach out to less-connected Jews.

Chanukah is a holiday that takes on different meanings for each different group of Jews. But it also offers something that no other Jewish holiday offers, and it does so without the conflict that often characterizes how other parts of Jewish religious life ought to be observed: Chanukah is a home- and family-based holiday, with eight nights of candle-lighting and lots of good food and celebration — there is no argument about that among any mainstream group of Jews. And it also happens to be an easy and fun way to practice Judaism during a season dominated by the image of the fun and warmth of Christmas. 

Chanukah’s message, meanwhile, is unique and cannot be found in any other Jewish holiday: To maintain Jewish religious practice in an open and liberal society that values assimilation is a challenge. But even with the holiday’s warning siren against assimilation, Chanukah and, to a certain extent, its message, have spread in America mainly because it has paired itself with Christmas. The irony is impossible to ignore.

Misremembering Chanukah

“Most Jews don’t know the stories of Chanukah, and if they do know the stories, they don’t know the real stories,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

The sanitized version of Chanukah casts the underdog Maccabees as winners of an unlikely victory against the mighty Greeks, and after the war, when the Jews went to light the menorah in the Temple, there was only enough oil left for one day, but the oil miraculously lasted for eight days. Voila! That’s Chanukah — Judaism surviving against all odds with God’s hand clearly present. 

Typically left unexplained is the story of religious division among Jewish traditionalists and assimilationists, the religious zealotry of the Maccabee and Hasmonean victors and why Jewish tradition emphasizes the miracle of the oil over the military victory.

The Chanukah story most Jews don’t know is that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. (the Second Temple era) was as much an outward revolt against the Greek attempt to destroy religious and spiritual Judaism (there was no genocidal intent) as it was a civil war to violently defeat Hellenist Jews who wanted to abandon or compromise religious Judaism to fit into Greek culture, which primarily valued science, philosophy and the arts. Hellenized Jews were so fanatic in their anti-Judaism that some males tried to reverse their circumcisions, according to the First Book of Maccabees, or I Maccabees, which, along with II Maccabees tells the official story of the Jewish war against Hellenism, from the point of view of the Maccabees. 

The era’s urban Jews, as a generalization, wanted a Hellenized Judea. Rural, more traditional Jews wanted to maintain their distinct Jewish identity and resist the force of Greek assimilation. Pro-Hellenist Jews, fed up with the refusal of the traditionalists to assimilate, requested that Antiochus — the Greek king at the time — send military forces to suppress the traditionalists.

But the occupying Greek forces were not the traditionalists’ first target. The trigger for their revolt was an apostate Hellenist Jew who offered a sacrifice to a Greek god in Modi’in, according to the Book of Maccabees. Mattathias, a traditionalist and the father of Judah Maccabee, saw the Jew about to perform a sacrifice, killed him, and then killed a Greek officer and tore down the altar where the sacrifice would have occurred.

And thus began the Maccabean revolt, which ended in a Jewish victory that propelled the Maccabees and the Hasmonean dynasty (essentially the political party of that era’s traditionalists) into power after the miracle of the war and the oil. The Hasmoneans’ story has been largely forgotten by modern Jews, in large part thanks to rabbinic Judaism’s decision during one of the early centuries of the Common Era to keep I Maccabees and II Maccabees out of the Torah canon, banished to the less authoritative realm of biblical Apocrypha — stories of Jewish history important enough to remain in our collective memory but kept out of the official canon for one reason or another. 

Purim, like Chanukah, also commemorates the Jews’ survival (although Chanukah celebrates religious, not physical, survival) against a mighty enemy — Haman and his cronies in Persia. The rabbis, though, elevated Purim above Chanukah, at least as far as halachah is concerned, by canonizing it. Open a Tanakh and the Book of Esther will be there; the Books of Maccabees won’t be. The rabbis of the third century felt uneasy canonizing and issuing their stamp of approval upon the Hasmoneans, an ultimately oppressive group of Jewish rulers who forced Jews into observance and killed religious deviants. 

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Modern Orthodox Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach said the Hasmoneans’ extremism and their intolerance put them out of favor with the more moderate views of rabbinic tradition. “They were not the people of compromise,” Fink said.

Ironically, even though the Hasmoneans were the most extreme group of Jews ever to rule the land of Israel, the populace absorbed Hellenistic culture anyway, touting Jewish kings with names like John Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Jews, meanwhile, have adopted  Greek-derived words like Sanhedrin and synagogue to label core elements of religious Judaism.

And while Jews under Hasmonean rule experienced the spread of the very same Greek culture that the Hasmoneans so violently opposed, they also came under Roman occupation after two Hasmonean brothers fighting for the crown — John Hyrcanus the Pharisee and Aristobulus the Sadducee — asked the Romans to settle the dispute. The Romans then took advantage of the Jewish infighting to invade, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the Roman exile, which lasts to this day and, according to Jewish tradition, will last until the coming of the Messiah and the construction of the Third Temple.

The rabbis of the Talmud who decided to omit the Maccabean version of history from official canon were not willing to elevate the tyrannical Jewish regime that lost Israel to the Romans, even if it was traditional in its religious practice. They felt, too, that the Chanukah story needed a miracle, and it needed God’s role to outweigh that of the Hasmoneans, so the rabbis told the story of the miracle of the oil, a spiritual miracle featuring God’s suspension of the law of nature. And this story came to outweigh the significance of the unlikely Maccabean victory that would lead to a dark period of Jewish power and a disgraceful fall.

The rabbis’ edited version of the story says much about how they believed Judaism needed to be understood during the era of Roman exile, especially by Diaspora Jews. 

“Although we were happy that [the Maccabees] won, that’s not the Judaism that we want to perpetuate,” Fink said. “The Judaism that we want to perpetuate is the one that speaks of light. To me, [the rabbis’] message was, ‘Don’t become an extremist.’ ”

A holiday of few (practical) disagreements

Disagreement is a pillar of Judaism, and most Jewish holidays are staging grounds for practical disagreements. Orthodox Jews disagree with Conservative and Reform Jews about how electricity should be used on Shabbat and other holidays. What’s considered chametz on Passover? What’s kosher? What’s not kosher? How many days of Shavuot should be observed? Should Shavuot be observed? 

Chanukah has no such disputes, which makes it one of the only agreeable festivals in the Jewish calendar.

“It’s one of the holidays with the least amount of halachic material,” said Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “There isn’t that much opportunity for much difference. From that perspective, it’s wonderful, because the entire Jewish community is observing it in the same way.”

And Chanukah is one of the most widely celebrated Jewish holidays in the United States, up there with Passover and Yom Kippur, allowing American Jews to shelve their differences for eight days. Orthodox Jews wary of Americanizing Chanukah accept, sometimes begrudgingly, that capitalizing on the Christmas spirit and ritualizing gift-giving has helped lead many Jews to observe the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and displaying it publicly, which Maimonides held is a particularly important mitzvah because of its commemoration of the survival and spread of religious Judaism. 

And non-Orthodox Jews skeptical of many tenets of rabbinic Judaism, and who may feel that Orthodox practices unnecessarily separate Jews from American culture, have proudly embraced Chanukah’s central halachic feature (lighting the menorah) as Jews’ way to take part in America’s holiday season while maintaining a unique Jewish identity.

“The truth of the matter is the rituals are pretty much the same,” said Feinstein. “You have a holiday that has no politics; no one’s saying that my version of the holiday is better than someone else’s.” 

The differences in practices, Feinstein said, are not between American Jews of different denominations, but between American Jews and Jews in other countries. From the gifts to the decorations to the food to the music, Feinstein said, “American Jews celebrate Chanukah very differently than, say, South African or European or Israeli Jews.”

Chanukah, Americanized

Nowhere else is Chanukah celebrated with the grandiosity that accompanies it in the United States. 

“It is not such a huge event in Israel, where Christmas is not a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” said David Myers, a UCLA history professor and Journal contributor.

How did Chanukah become a cultural phenomenon in America?

“Timing is everything,” said Jonathan Sarna, a historian and professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It was historically a minor holiday and only became more major because of Christmas.”

This year, Chanukah ends on Christmas Eve, right in the middle of the American holiday season, giving American Jews the sense of full participation in a time when the vast majority of Americans associate the word “holiday” with Christmas.

Myers says that American Jews’ ability to adapt their holiday into “mainstream cultural norms” is similar to what other Diaspora Jewish groups did in learning the language of their host countries in Spain, Persia, numerous Arabic societies and, especially, Germany, where Hebrew and German combined to form Yiddish. “This kind of dynamic has occurred throughout Jewish history,” Myers said. “Jews have continuously adapted names, languages and cultural values from their host societies.”

In the late 1800s, Myers said, observant Jews in America “sought to revive memory of the holiday as a traditionalist reaction” against Reform Judaism’s wish to assimilate into American culture and de-emphasize Jews as a distinct people. Then, in the mid-20th century, many more American Jews, primarily non-Orthodox ones, revitalized Chanukah with the aim of turning it into the other major winter festival alongside Christmas, which is when gift-giving became the norm.

Why did Chanukah become a holiday celebrated by most American Jews, while holidays of greater stature according to Jewish law, such as Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are primarily celebrated by Orthodox Jews? It’s not just because of Christmas, Feinstein said. Chanukah, as a holiday of lights, has a particular appeal in its spiritual and physical light during the short winter days. “Its correspondence with Christmas and its correspondence with the winter solstice are what give it its power,” Feinstein said. 

Fink pointed out that while Christmas has helped elevate Chanukah’s status in America, Orthodox Jews would celebrate the holiday no matter what time of year it fell.

“They are not the ones who are benefiting from this kind of American holiday atmosphere,” Fink said, adding, though, that Chanukah’s gaining from the presence of Christmas should not be viewed as a negative thing. “I’m not saying that we celebrate Chanukah because [Christians celebrate Christmas], but it’s a time that people are going to have an interest in experiencing their own traditions, so it’s wise to capitalize on it.”

Chanukah’s proximity to Christmas, in that sense, not only helps American Jews by acting as a “counterweight” to Christmas, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple said, but benefits from the Christmas spirit, drawing upon one of America’s three biggest holidays (Thanksgiving and New Year’s being the others) to make Judaism fun for those whose only Jewish observance throughout the year might be fasting on Yom Kippur and sitting down at a Passover seder. Chanukah, Wolpe said, is “minor in terms of its status halachically [but] major in terms of its status sociologically.”

“Among Jews who don’t have the strongest identification or the greatest education, there’s a lot pulling them into the general population,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of interfaith affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “I think, arguably, that Chanukah has played an important role in giving non-Orthodox families a little bit of a hedge against the Christmas spirit.”

In America, Chanukah has drawn less-religious Jews into joyfully fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting the menorah and has brought American Jewry as a whole closer to the (American) ideal of having both a distinct American identity and a religious identity, as Sarna believes.

“Chanukah allows Jews simultaneously to be part of and apart from, and that’s really a microcosm of what a minority religious community wants to be,” Sarna said. “It wants to stress its distinctiveness even as it wants to be part of a certain zeitgeist.”

Wolpe, contrasting what Chanukah and Yom Kippur offer American Jews in terms of feeling more, well, American, said, “Look, the White House does a Chanukah lighting, they don’t do a Yom Kippur fast, because Chanukah allows them to understand, yes we have a holiday, they have a holiday — and that matters in a society that’s always striving for balance and has lots of different factions.”

Martin Weiss, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia, lights the Chanukah menorah on Dec. 5, 2013, as U.S. President Barack Obama looks on during the day’s second Chanukah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House.  At left is Margit Meissner, a Holocaust survivor from the former Czechoslovakia. At right is U.S. Navy Lt. Ron Sachs. Photo by Consolidated News Photos

Myers, going a step further, believes the development of Chanukah in America is today’s example of how Diaspora Jews have managed to keep Judaism alive while blending into foreign nations. “It offers proximity to the American cultural mainstream while permitting some degree of preservation of Jewish distinctiveness,” Myers said. “Precisely the work of cultural adaptation and modification that allowed for Jewish renewal and, ultimately, survival.”

‘We don’t need to compete’

Perhaps no group has done more in America than Chabad to thrust Chanukah into the public square. American Friends of Lubavitch organizes the annual lighting of the National Chanukah Menorah in front of the White House; Chabad emissaries across American campuses place a menorah next to visible pedestrian walkways; Chabad families strap giant menorahs to the roofs of their cars and drive around like that for eight days. Whereas the commandment to publicize the miracle of Chanukah is fulfilled by most Jews by placing the menorah in a window, Chabad ratchets the practice up several notches, placing menorahs everywhere.

On the Chanukah agenda for Rabbi Moshe Greenwald, co-director of Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles, is the public menorah lighting at City Hall, this year with Mayor Eric Garcetti — Greenwald’s seventh such lighting; separate menorah lightings at a Los Angeles Clippers game and outside Staples Center; and organizing yet another lighting at Pershing Square, an urban park in the center of downtown. 

“In America, it’s particularly meaningful, because here we can practice all the observances in full view in public,” Greenwald said.

Greenwald added, though, that Chanukah, as one of Judaism’s “most important holidays,” doesn’t need Christmas to make it important. The holiday can stand on its own spiritual and religious merit, he said. “We don’t need to compete in the marketplace of holidays,” Greenwald said. “I don’t want to look at it as the Jewish Christmas.”

There’s irony to Chanukah’s piggybacking on Christmas in the United States, and Greenwald’s objection to making Chanukah the “Jewish Christmas” alludes to it — one of Chanukah’s main lessons is that Jews must resist the temptation to discard tradition in favor of a newer culture. At the same time, though, Chanukah’s attachment to Christmas is perhaps the main reason that the holiday is observed by so many non-Orthodox Jews; the same can’t be said for a holiday such as Simchat Torah, which is given a higher halachic status.

“I think that outside of Orthodox Judaism, there’s almost this wink-wink, nudge-nudge, this is our version of Christmas,” Fink said. “Orthodox Judaism really would be very uncomfortable with that.”

And as a holiday that warns against succumbing to “pressure from any outsider alien society,” Adlerstein said, Chanukah matters as much today as it did for the Maccabees: “The conflict between Jews who wished to bring their own practice more in conformance with the cultural milieu and secular surroundings, and traditionalists who wanted to hold on to core Jewish beliefs and practices hasn’t gone away one iota in 2,000 years.”

Rabbi Arye Sufrin, assistant principal at YULA Boys High School and assistant rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation, said one message he tries to teach his students is not only Chanukah’s plea to “maintain the tradition” but also why it’s so important to publicize it with pride, a luxury afforded Jews in this country. “We can do that today, but there was a lot that had to happen” to reach this point of openness and safety, Sufrin said. “Chanukah is not a minor holiday.”

When Bill and Hillary Clinton turn to Judaism…

What do you do when you are president of the most powerful nation on earth and you get caught red-handed having an affair? 

You turn to the Talmud, of course.

At least that's what former President Bill Clinton did, according to recently released documents from the Clinton Library, in the aftermath of his scandalous dalliance with Monica Lewinsky, who was then a young, impressionable White House intern. 

According to reports, the White House consulted Jewish Studies scholar Susannah Heschel, a professor at Dartmouth and the daughter of renowned rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel, who cited Jewish law — known as halacha — to exonerate the libertine president, just as it exonerated promiscuous Jewish men for centuries.

“According to classical Jewish law,” a senior aide for Hillary Clinton wrote to political fixer Sidney Blumenthal in January 1999, “President [Bill] Clinton did not commit adultery; adultery is defined as a married man having intercourse with a married woman, and Monica Lewinsky is single.”

O, the benefits of being unwed! 

According to the New York Post, which first reported the story, the aide went on to insightfully suggest that, “At worst, President Clinton is guilty of the common sin of onanism [masturbation], a sin that probably afflicts the consciences of most Jewish men at one time or another.”

Heschel was apparently the brains behind this Talmudic mind-bender, reiterating an ancient Jewish law that defines adultery as when a man, married or otherwise, has sexual relations with a married woman. In those days, men were permitted to have multiple wives and multiple relations, while women were expected to remain chaste. In other words, a man could have Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, while Libertine Bill gets to be a one-and-holy.

And there’s a biblical hero as precedent:

“From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn president Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David?” Susannah Heschel reportedly wrote. “King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered.

While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”

I asked Rabbi Aaron Alexander, Associate Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University if he would have offered the same dispensation as Heschel.

“As someone who considers himself a male feminist, I think [what Clinton did] is absolutely adultery — without a doubt,” Rabbi Alexander said.

“Whether it falls into the strict category of halacha is neither here nor there, because what he did was go outside the context of his own marriage with another person, whether she was married or not.”

Alexander allowed that Heschel was correct in understanding the law, even though he finds it disturbing. “Technically,” Alexander said, “according to a strict definition of halacha, a man can take on multiple wives; but if she [Lewinsky] had been married [in biblical times], she would have been the one stoned to death.”

“When it comes to adultery, it’s so complicated,” he added. “And it shows the extend to which misogynistic traditions develop over time, that they never lose their roots and can still be problematic” — even in the 21st century.

“And it’s dangerous for Judaism and dangerous for religion; but mostly, it’s dangerous for women — this idea that biblical religious law has a double standard that is so apparent, that when it comes to two people who did the exact same thing, one is patur — exempt — and one is hayevet — obligated.”

As both an observant Jew and a teacher of Jewish law to rabbinical students, Rabbi Alexander said it is laws like these that make religion in general, and Judaism, in particular, a hard sell to enlightened modern minds — even if they have worked wonders for President Clinton.

“Anybody who might have thought religion can be used as tool to elevate dignity will see this [verse] and say, ‘Look what we can do! Look how we can maneuver religion so that people with power can stay there.’”

Shape shifting

Listen carefully.  This is an actual teaching by the ancient Hebrew sages, as recorded in the Talmud:

“After seven years, the hyena turns into a large bat. After seven years as a large bat it turns into a small bat. After seven years as a small bat it turns into a thorny weed. After seven years as a thorny weed it turns into a thorn. After seven years as a thorn it turns into a demon” (Talmud Bav’li, Baba Kama 16a).

Wow. Like how does one begin to comprehend the meaning of this seemingly nonsensical teaching? What were they smoking back then? What were they on?

In order to explore this obscure lesson, we need to first understand that the mystical wisdom of Judaism does not consider the beginning chapters of Genesis as the “story of Creation,” but rather as the “creation of Story.” This is more the root meaning of the popular Kabbalistic term “Sefirah,” as in “the Ten Sefirot.” Most students of the Kabbalah have been schooled to understand the term Sefirot as representative of the emanating radiance of Divine Luminations that carry the Intent of Creator for Creation to become and unfold. Absent the variety of vowels that adorn it with meanings ranging from “sapphire” to “sphere” to “sefer” [book],” at its bare root the term implies the more down-to-earth concept of “story.”  In the words of the 18th-century Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen: “The universe is God’s book; the Torah is its commentary” (Tzidkat HaTzadik, No. 219). This “Book,” or Story, is in turn, divided into three segments, each of which, in Hebrew, is spelled exactly the same: סְפָר סָפֵר סִפֵר – Boundary [space], Counting [time], and Telling [matter] (Sefer Yetzirah, 1:1) — the laws of the Universe, the dynamics of Time, and the drama of Everything. The first, סְפָר, is the story itself. This is it, and it is what it is, and this is how it works. It is unchangeable, so much so that God would have to re-create the entire universe from scratch if salt, for example, were to be rendered sweet or your nose was to be situated in the back of your head. The second, סָפֵר, is about the context in which the story unfolds, the scenario through which the story weaves, all of which is determined by the fluid nature of Time, which flings open the gates of absolutes to the endless horizons of possibility and change. And the third, סִפֵר, is the actual telling, the actual playing-out of the story. It is Matter’s translation of Space as filtered through Time. It is Creation creatively weaving Creator’s intent, partially sticking to the script, partially improvising, which is what translation is all about.

The hyena is a creature symbolic of scavenging, known for its tendency to move in on what others have achieved through their own hard and patient efforts, only to snatch it away from them. This is Hyena’s story, its nature, how its script was written at the time before time when God thought “Hyena.” As Hyena journeys impulsively through its pre-scripted life cycle, the dynamics of Time gradually morphs it into a blind creature that flies about erratically and is also known for its blood-sucking tendencies, namely a large bat. Hyena has not made much use of its eyes and had surrendered its life path to the radar of its ears and nose which in turn drove it to wherever there was a recent kill, to wherever there was an opportunity to take advantage of someone else’s endeavors. As its gluttony intensifies, the hyena, now in the form of a large bat, further translates itself into a smaller bat, enabling it to feed on yet more possibilities, smaller, more accessible meals, and with greater expediency. Lazily resigned to the automated flow of Space and Time, absent personal participation in the direction of its story, the hyena’s life journey continues exclusively focused on scavenging and usurping, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a weed, where it no longer has to move all over the place in search of sustenance, it simply can just stay put where it is and usurp the nutrients intended for others.

The weed remains the hyena. The story remains the same, only the translation has over time mildewed in Darwinian reversal. The translation continues yet further when the hyena-turned-weed is so entrenched in its newfound way of scavenging without the hunt that it becomes fearful of losing its precious ground and focuses on becoming self-protective, so much so that in time and with time it morphs into a thorn. Along each phase of its shape-shifting, the hyena grows farther and farther distant from its core essence, from its original story, its aboriginal roots, to the point where its life focus eventually turns into an obsessive but futile attempt to fill the vacuum created by lifetimes of desperately trying to satiate the longing within through the accomplishments of others. In other words, in time and with time, it ultimately morphs into a demon. Because, basically, that is what a demon is all about. It is a shapeless creature that manifests and thrives within the vacuum; it is an entity that flourishes in the twilight of oblivion, in the undefined chasm between story and translation (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 7:7; Maharal, Derech Chayyim, folio 236).

This Talmudic narrative is then about the default fate of the hyena’s shape-shifting process. What I mean by that is this: Life goes on and the world continues to spin with or without our participation. The story unfolds in spite of us. However, absent our involvement, the story eventually dissipates into the ether, and life empties into the Abyss of the Great Void. Sort of like what Solomon may have implied when he wrote: “All of the rivers empty into the sea, yet the sea is never full” (Proverbs 1:7). This is the difference between Chapter One and Chapter Two of the Book of Genesis. They are not two different accounts of Creation, as posited by too many well-meaning modern-day scholars. Rather, Chapter One is about the Creation and Chapter Two is about how the activation of Creation awaits the participation of Creation: “And all of the trees were not yet upon the earth and all of the grasses of the field had not yet sprouted because God had not caused it to rain upon the earth and there was not yet a Human to tend to the earth” (Genesis 2:5).

If a hyena chooses not to participate in the translation of its story and redirect its shape-shifting from one that is subject to the whim of chance to one that is consciously directed to unfold in cadence and in congruency with its story, its ultimate shape-shifting undergoes the aforementioned phases of metamorphosis and climaxes in shapelessness. And in the process of disconnecting from its story, the hyena loses its self-essence and is no longer Hyena.

And what applies to the hyena applies to us humans as well, “for the circumstance of the human and the circumstance of the animal is one and the same circumstance; as with one, so with the other” (Ecclesiastes 3:19). After all, it was we who defined the animals (Genesis 2:18). It was we who in that moment integrated their story within ours and our story within theirs. “The souls of animals and of humans,” the Zohar teaches, “are imprinted one within the other” (Zohar, Vol. 1, folio 20b). Or, in the words of the 13th-century Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet, “the souls of animals are sparks of the human souls” (Manuscript Parma-de Rossi 1221, folio 288b). No doubt that the Talmud’s depiction of the shape-shifting of the hyena is cloaked in allegory to gently remind us of our own like process and its challenges. And just in case you truly think they were just talking about the animal world, and that you and I as humans are scot-free, the teaching continues with one more passage: “And as for you, O human, after seven years, you will turn into a snake! – by way of your spine.”

So, the default metamorphosis for a hyena is bat, then weed, then thorn, then demon, and the default metamorphosis for you and me is snake. Why snake? What in the nature of our relationship with Snake would make it so that Snake becomes our default metamorphosis?  Because in the beginning Snake was the very first creature to activate, to “break the ice,” to take the initiative and move beyond itself and engage Other. It even spoke our language. And it awakened us out of our primeval stupor with the cunning use of one of its most creative inventions: Question. Question, in turn elicited Response. And the elicitation of Response, in turn, created the very first dialogue. Snake, in other words, initiated us into the world of Response. The shadow cost of all this was the introduction of ey’vah, of enmity (Genesis 3:15) — Adam blames Eve, Eve blames Snake; everyone’s pissed-off at each other for what happened. Where Snake went wrong was in its failure to allow Adam and Eve the space to long for, to want, to desire the fruit, and so they ended up eating of it not out of their own volition, their own personal translation of the story, but out of submission to a voice, an interpretation, not their own. Therefore, Snake is our default metamorphosis. If we resign to just roll along in life and not participate in the translation, we’re as good as Snake. Our spine, our backbone, the very pillar that holds us upright in our life walk, shape-shifts into Snake, and, like in the Garden, we lose our connection with our essential selves and the story out of which we emerged.

To avoid such a fate, the rabbis suggested, we ought to get into the practice of being thankful for what he have, for what Creator gifts to us morning, afternoon, and evening daily, especially those things we tend to take for granted. In this way we remain connected to our story, and we actively participate in and contribute to its translation. And so it is to our advantage to use our spine toward this objective, as in “bowing in gratitude.”

Adam and Eve did not get involved in the translation; they left it completely up to the snake. And so they ended up making love to demons for 130 years (Midrash Bereisheet Rabbah 24:6). If you ever studied that particular midrash, you may still be traumatized by such a horrific statement. What?! — Adam and Eve spent 130 years screwing demons? Maybe not literally, but that is precisely akin to what happens when we cast our lives into the vacuum of resignation as opposed to the fecundity of participation. We go the way of Hyena.
Creation is a story. Your life, your choices, your actions, they are all your unique take on the Story as it unfolds in the distinct scenario of your personal life walk. My spine is my snake self, and how it will manifest, whether as a rerun of the Serpent in the Garden of Eden story or of something totally different and perhaps even healing for me — by shedding layers of what went wrong in my own personal Forbidden Fruit escapades – depends on me, on my translation. It depends on whether I deceive myself into thinking that “my power and the might of my own hands alone has accomplished all this” (Deuteronomy 8:18), or whether I open my eyes and heart to the gift of simply being, and express my gratitude for that and for all the trimmings that go with it that are so easily and so commonly taken for granted. And so I will pray my gratitude in the declaration of ba’ruch atah, “Blessing Source are You!” And while doing so, I will shape-shift into a bamboo shaft or a snake, or, in the tradition of the second-century Rabbi Shey’shet – both! For it is said that “when he would recite ba’ruch [“Blessing Source”], he would bow like a bamboo shaft bending in the wind. When he would next recite atah [“are you”], he would slither upward like a snake” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Shekalim 25b). In other words, how we use the snake we already are, largely determines the snake we will ultimately become – self-deceiver, or self-healer. After all, who did Moses wrap around the Tree of Life in order to heal us? None other than the very same snake who talked us into eating of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Moses daringly re-interpreted the snake story from one of nemesis to one of genesis (Numbers 21:9). He restored Snake to its original story, so that Snake might have the chance to do a better job at translation, since the first time around a lot got lost in translation, to the detriment of both Snake and Human.

The question Creator posed to humanity in the Garden was: “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9). Or, paraphrased:  Will you resign yourself to Snake’s choice of translation for your story? Will you absently glide with the flow of Space and allow the dynamics of Time to morph you by default into the whimsical vacuum of demonic oblivion? Or will you actively participate in the drama of the translation, and become involved in your own shape-shifting, so that you never in the process lose your connection with the Story? Will you resign to the seeming hopelessness of world events as they spin out of control toward the black hole of chaos, or will you hold steadfast to your continued participation in and contribution to the translation of your story?

How we shift within our own personal stories has a rippling effect on the macrocosmic Story. In the words of the Zohar: “With the arrival of the New Year [Rosh Hashanah], we blow our breath through the ram’s horn [shofar] to unify the elements of Air [space], Fire [time] and Water [matter], and to merge them into a single voice that is the Song of Earth [our story]. Through this sound we awaken the Voice of the Above [God’s story] so that the Song of Heaven joins in unison with the Song of Earth until they become one unified resonance that shatters and confuses all of the forces of divisiveness” (Zohar, Vol. 4, folio 99b).

So may it be, beginning with 5775.

Rabbi Winkler lives in Thousand Oaks and is the author of Magic of the Ordinary: Recovering the Shamanic in Judaism as well as numerous other works on Jewish mysticism, history, law, lore and theology. Together with his beloved, Rabbi Dr. Miriam Maron (, he directs the Walking Stick Foundation, which he founded in 1997 (

Immunity and Impunity: Fear and Loathing in Gaza

“The terrorists are firing rockets from schools, from mosques, from hospitals, from heavily civilian populations. We have to try and are doing our best to minimize civilian casualties. But we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.”– Benyamin Netanyahu, on July 24, 2014

Instead of using a Torah passage to begin a teaching, I want to start with these words of Netanyahu. On the same day that Bibi spoke them, Israel may have bombed a UN school, which had become a place of refuge for Palestinians who left their homes to escape the shelling – at least fifteen died, and a hundred were wounded. We don’t know for sure if it was Israeli fire that hit this school, but Israel has shelled schools two other times during this war. As Bibi said, “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.” I want to drash these words – explain them – using Torah and rabbinic tradition.

The Talmud (Beitzah 32b) says that the Jews are a compassionate people (rachmanim), and that someone who claims to be Jewish but doesn’t show the quality of compassion is not really a Jew. Sefer Chinukh (Yitro 42) says that Jews are “compassionate people, sons and daughters of compassionate people”. The Zohar (1:174a) even says that when Jacob received the name Israel after wrestling the angel, that this was in order to allow Jacob to become attached to this quality of compassion.

According to rabbinic tradition (both midrash and Kabbalah), the most important name of God, YHVH (often translated as Lord), is also tied to compassion, whereas the name Elohim is tied to God’s judgment. The Zohar explains that Jacob was renamed Israel in order to bring down into the world that quality of YHVH’s compassion.

At the same time, there still is a need for God’s judgment. When is that? Says the Zohar (ibid.), “When the wicked abound in the world, God’s name becomes Elohim” – because God must bring judgment upon the wicked in order to save the world.

Now listen again to what Netanyahu is saying. He is not just prosecuting a war, he is carrying out a judgment, deciding between those who should have immunity, and those who should not. It is as if Bibi were casting the IDF in the role of instrument of God’s judgment. Bibi sounds a note of compassion (“we have to try to minimize civilian casualties”), but he does so in order to validate that what is raining down upon Hamas is truly justice, not just vengeance.

But what is justice, and what is vengeance?

Take a step back, to before this war. One of Hamas’s demands is an end to the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza has been going on since Hamas came to power. The blockade has always had several purposes. One was to stop arms from being smuggled in. But, many say, another goal was to make sure the Gazan Palestinians knew that they had chosen wrongly by electing Hamas, by electing a government that rejects the existence of Israel. To put it bluntly, the people were made to suffer because they had sinned.

When Bibi says that there can be no “immunity or impunity”, it doesn’t just mean impunity for Hamas. It means that there is no place in Gaza safe from Israel’s arm of justice, the arm that brings down God’s judgment. In reality, because of the way Gaza is set up and fenced in, this means no impunity for anyone. There is no place in Gaza where non-combatants, families, children, can be immune from attack – not the beach, not a school, not a hospital.

It is possible to claim that it is right for Israel to enact God’s judgment. After all, the same Zohar passage teaches that even though Jacob became attached to compassion when he was renamed Israel, sometimes Israel must turn back into Jacob: “When Jacob was not in the
midst of enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Israel; when he was among enemies or in a foreign land, he was called Jacob.” From the Zohar’s perspective, when Israel is in the midst of enemies, it is both necessary and right for Israel to turn back into Jacob, to embody and become the instrument of God’s judgment.

And yet: “One who shows no compassion, it is known for sure that he is not of the seed of Abraham.” (Talmud, ibid.) I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Hamas members, being Muslim, are also of the seed of Abraham. That Hamas has been hiding rockets in schools, daring Israel to fire on places that should be safe (see Haaretz.) That Hamas used concrete to build miles of tunnels and no public bomb shelters. And that Hamas’s lack of compassion, to their own people and to Israeli civilians, shows that they are neither true Muslims, nor of the spiritual seed of Abraham.

Yet Netanyahu’s nod to compassion also seems like the nod of one who has lost compassion’s compass, not like one “from the seed of Abraham”. Why must there be no place of “immunity or impunity”? What if Israel decided to never shell schools and hospitals where people were taking refuge?

Surely I will never be called on to make such decisions, and I also know that people in Israel – Jews and Arabs – are traumatized by Gaza’s rocket fire, and that it needs to stop. I know Israel needs to defend itself. And yet…

This shabbat, we read about the city of refuge or “ir miklat”, where someone who has accidentally killed another can flee in order to be safe from punishment. (Numbers 35) Just as happens in war, outside the city of refuge (by analogy, in the chaos of a combat zone), a “blood-redeemer” has the right to avenge the victim’s death. However, if this blood-redeemer attempts to kill a person who has reached a refuge, he or she is counted as a murderer.

But what if there is no refuge? What if the fighting leaves no site of refuge in Gaza to which people can flee? As Netanyahu has clearly said, there will be no place off-limits to Israel’s artillery. If Hamas makes any building a target, the IDF will shoot at it.

The idea of a city of refuge isn’t just an analogy; the idea at its heart threads its way throughout Jewish law, which requires that if one besieges a city, one side of the city must be left open for people who wish to flee. “A place should be left open for fleeing, and for all those who desire to escape with their lives.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Kings and Wars 6:7)

If one prosecutes a war, in a place where innocents have no place safe to flee to, and no way to leave, then that becomes murder. If the attacking army drops leaflets and calls civilians, telling them to evacuate an area that will be bombed, but there is no place to evacuate to, what compassion is this? How does it affect the “purity of arms” that has always been the hallmark of the IDF?

And yet – such liberal interpretations are good, but this week’s Torah reading is also a bonanza for the most right-wing policies. It defines the borders of the land of Israel in a way that includes all of Gaza and the West Bank (Numbers 34), and in Numbers 33:55, it commands the Israelites to “drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you” because otherwise “they will be thorns in your sides and they will harass you”. The rabbinic response was that these strictures applied only to the original Canaanite nations, and not to anyone else, certainly not to the Palestinians. But that won’t stop those right-wing people who believe that God is on their side, who may wish to believe that they are the arm of God’s judgment.

One thing is true, however. If we ever were “compassionate people, the sons and daughters of compassionate people”, we can no longer count on this. Along with hundreds of Palestinians and dozens of Israelis who have died, so has our claim as Jews to be the unwavering seed of Abraham. Perhaps if we realized this, we would be ready to make peace, one broken people to another.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks spends a weekend in L.A. envisioning the Jewish future

Swiping his finger to the left, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s now-former chief rabbi, and arguably the world’s most prominent religious Jewish leader, was looking for a text he felt might show how Orthodox Jews can spread a Jewish message to the Western world.

He wasn’t leafing through the Talmud, and he didn’t have in mind a specific passage from the Torah. He wasn’t even looking for a Jewish text. 

He was browsing his iPad, and after a few seconds lost in his app collection, he finally found what he was looking for.

“The Waste Land” — a poem by T.S. Eliot, an American-born Englishman widely regarded as among the 20th century’s most influential literary figures.

“Hang on,” Sacks said, as he prepared me for the pinnacle of the app, a specially filmed performance by actress Fiona Shaw. “This is magic. This is the masterpiece.” 

Shaw’s voice — that of the Petunia Dursley character from the “Harry Potter” series — emerged majestically from the speaker: “The Waste Land. The burial of the dead.” 

This is how Orthodox Jews might learn from and teach religious texts? 

Sacks put his beloved iPad down and looked at me, ready to clarify.

“Can you imagine having a siddur [prayer book] where you’ve got the text,” he said, “You’ve got the translation, you press one button [and] you get the commentaries?” Then added, “You press another button, and you get half a dozen shiurim [lessons] on that paragraph.”

It was Sacks at his most dynamic, blending Western poetry with ancient tradition, rabbinic commentaries with one of Silicon Valley’s proudest inventions. 

I was sitting with the former chief rabbi, his wife, Elaine, and his assistant at a table in the lobby of the Luxe Rodeo Drive Hotel in Beverly Hills. It was the morning of Feb. 23, and I was still absorbing the past four days, during which I had followed Sacks, the unofficial spokesman for Modern Orthodox Jewry, around Los Angeles. 

From Feb. 20 to Feb. 23, he gave 11 lectures to Los Angeles’ Orthodox community, all but one in the Orthodox Pico-Robertson neighborhood, as part of a weekend sponsored by Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, a local Modern Orthodox school.

[Related: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, left, met with students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy, including Eli Isaacs and Sarina Finn, both eighth-graders and student council presidents at the school. Photo by David Miller

Speaking everyone’s language

Sacks knows how to keep the tone light. 

His first public appearance in Los Angeles was on Feb. 20 at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills, joining talk-show host Michael Medved and the head of the Orthodox Union, Rabbi Steven Weil, for a panel discussion in front of 300 people. 

As at every event he spoke at during the weekend, he did not shy away from people who sought his attention. Dozens from the audience introduced themselves and wanted to speak with him. 

Like any good rabbi, he started with a joke. He recounted how, upon his appointment as Britain’s chief rabbi at just 43, someone asked him, “Aren’t you a little young for the job?”

His response: “Don’t worry, in this job I’ll age rapidly.” 

His audience that evening was predominantly parents and grandparents, so his leadership message to them was about communal religious leadership. “Make friends with Jews who are less religious than you are — and by lifting them, you yourself will be lifted.”

His speech followed a performance by the Shabbaton Choir, a British choral group that has traveled around the world with the rabbi. As he took the microphone, he expressed his gratitude to the choir and then asked the crowd to give them another round of applause. In fact, during a musical event on Feb. 22 at Congregation Mogen David, he joined the choir in song.

On Feb. 21, Sacks was at the Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for three consecutive addresses. He spoke first to grade-school students, then to local political, educational and religious leaders, and, finally, to teens from local Orthodox high schools.

With the children, most of whom may not appreciate for years to come who they were meeting, the rabbi did not change his message; he simply tweaked his delivery and tone. 

“Your young [class] presidents are going to be presidents of the United States one day,” Sacks said as he walked through the aisle that separated the boys from the girls, making eye contact with the young children. “Get to know them now, because one day they are going to be very big stars — and so are all of you.”

A few minutes later, upstairs, Sacks led a roundtable discussion with a diverse group of Los Angeles’ political, educational and religious leaders, that notably included a woman rabbi — Rabbi Deborah Silver of Adat Ari El Synagogue — as well as a Christian clergymember — Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Catholic Church, illustrating that although Sacks predominantly speaks to Orthodox groups when speaking to Jewish audiences, he does not wish to restrict himself to that relatively small enclave. 

It was, for him, an opportunity to impart a few ideas to the people — Jewish, Christian, secular — who will help shape the next generation of leaders. 

More than 20 people were in the room, and when each said his or her name and position, he looked at them warmly and acknowledged their presence.

“Each one of you is engaged in God’s work,” he said. “The purpose of education is to allow people to achieve their full dignity in the image and likeness of God.” 

Sacks stressed teaching kids how to teach, relating a conversation that he’d had with his late father when he was only 5 years old. 

Walking home from Shabbat services with his father one day, the young boy asked his father to explain certain prayers and Jewish practices. Sacks’ father, who’d dropped out of school at 14 to help support his family, answered:

“Jonathan, I didn’t have an education, so I can’t answer your question. But one day you will have the education I didn’t have. And when that happens, you will teach me the answers to those questions.”

By the time he took the podium Saturday morning for his Shabbat address at Beth Jacob Congregation, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Western United States, nearly 800 people filled the main sanctuary. It was so packed that, so as to not violate fire code, the synagogue had to turn away throngs of people who had hoped to hear the former chief rabbi.  

As he prepared to speak, the anticipation inside was palpable. 

Standing sideways, with his right arm propped on the podium, Sacks glanced toward Beth Jacob’s Senior Rabbi Kalman Topp, then toward the congregation, and said with a smile, “I am going to try very hard to deliver a good speech. Do you know why? Your rabbi promised me that if I do, he will give me a lollipop.” 

The room immediately relaxed as Sacks began to explore his main passion, and something he hadn’t yet spoken of at much length during this visit — the deeper messages hidden in the stories of the Torah.

The week’s portion was Vayakhel. On the surface, the text speaks in detail about the Israelites’ construction of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, a portable holy place the Jews built as they wandered in the desert where they could properly worship God. 

It’s a very technical, detailed Torah portion, and Sacks related that in one of his learning sessions with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he had pointed out that while God needed only a few verses in Genesis to create the entire universe, the Torah dedicated five entire portions to the construction of the Tabernacle. Why?

Because, he said, until the Jewish people were given a task to build, a project that called for unity and purpose, they could not possibly lead.

Now 65, Sacks is a London native, but has known America well since the summer of 1968, when, while studying philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, he came to the United States to meet as many prominent rabbis as he could. With a $100 unlimited Greyhound pass, he traveled from New York to Los Angeles to stay with his now-late aunt in Beverly Hills.  

Based on the recommendations of many rabbis he met, the young Sacks was most eager to meet Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and the now-late leader of the Chasidic Chabad-Lubavitch movement — who was viewed as religious Judaism’s ambassador until his death in 1994.

That encounter, he’s often said, set him on the path to becoming the leader of two synagogues, the director of the rabbinic faculty at Jews’ College (now the London School of Jewish Studies) and, perhaps just as formative, a philosophy scholar and a lecturer at several secular British universities, including Manchester and Essex. 

Beyond the texts, Sacks demonstrated during his speeches here and in our interview his deep knowledge of non-Jewish philosophy and history — Plato, Aristotle, Darwin, Tocqueville, Locke, Churchill — as well as popular culture. 

Aaron Sorkin’s screenwriting in “The West Wing” was “genius,” he told me, and “Gravity” is an “extraordinary film” that demonstrates the existential need for faith.

Bridging Judaism with society

In his 22-year term as chief rabbi, Sacks was far more than a leader for British Orthodox Jewry and the 62-member synagogues, all Orthodox, of the United Hebrew Congregations. He became the bridge between Orthodoxy and British society, publishing 25 books in 24 years, several of which could just as well have been written for non-Jews.

Like many leaders, though, Sacks could never please everyone, on either side of him. Agudath Israel of America, a leadership organization of ultra-Orthodox Jews, criticized Sacks following his July 2013 retirement dinner, in which he critiqued what he sees as a trend toward increased insularity within the Orthodox world.

It was a message he repeated in Los Angeles. “There are Jews moving very far away from social engagement, turning inwards,” Sacks told me, choosing his words very carefully. The implication, though, was clear — much of the ultra-Orthodox world is not spreading the Jewish message to the outside world, and that has led to the growth of what he called “aggressively secularized tendencies.”

For the British Jews more liberal than he, Sacks was perceived as beholden to his country’s Charedi community during his tenure. He did not, for example, attend the funeral of prominent British Reform Rabbi Hugo Gryn, and he never attended Limmud, the largest annual interdenominational Jewish education event, now held worldwide and which got its start in London.

In 2012, Sacks signed his name to a joint response from Britain’s rabbinical court to the government, opposing same-sex marriage. In response, 26 prominent British Jews wrote an open letter criticizing Sacks for trying to “influence how the generality of the population leads its life”— somewhat ironic because influencing society, and not just the Jewish community, is one of his main goals.

And yet, even as he openly admires some of Nietzsche’s work, he also has written groundbreaking commentaries on four Orthodox prayer books, for Shabbat, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. According to his office, he’s currently working on ones for Sukkot and Shavuot.

And although as chief rabbi, Sacks did not speak on behalf of Britain’s Reform, Conservative or Charedi movements, from a marketing perspective he might as well have been, for British society viewed him as the Jewish spokesman.

As he became Great Britain’s de facto Jewish ambassador, a Sacks brand developed — a polished look for television appearances, a royal-sounding voice for radio broadcasts, a scholarly tone for books and op-eds, and an ability to condense his message into sound bites while rarely making news for saying the wrong thing.

Although he shies away from attracting controversy, Sacks will be outspoken when he feels he must. At a BBC-sponsored debate, Sacks told Dawkins that the beginning of Chapter 2 in the atheist’s book, “The God Delusion,” is a “profoundly anti-Semitic passage.”

In Britain, Sacks was viewed as the face of British Jewry by two groups of people — his natural followers, the Modern Orthodox, and also the politicians and media. His acceptance into the House of Lords as Baron Sacks of Aldgate, and his regular broadcasts and documentaries on BBC, helped inject Torah ideas into the British conversation.

In America, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour recently interviewed Sacks about Jewish assimilation, the Israeli-Arab conflict, anti-Semitism, the Vatican, Iran and Ariel Sharon — topics with which every Jewish community in the United States has grappled in recent months.

He is quickly climbing to the top of the American media’s speed dial list for interviews on all things Jewish — if he isn’t already there.

During his talk at YINBH, he told a story about one of his core goals — to reach Jews who don’t attend synagogue regularly (which includes 76 percent of American Jewry), teach Jewish things to non-Jews.

So Sacks decided that, as chief rabbi, he would broadcast regularly on BBC Radio. Yes, its audience is overwhelmingly non-Jewish, but, all the better.

“A Jewish guy comes to his office one morning, and the non-Jewish guy who has the office next to him says to him, ‘You know, I heard your chief rabbi on the radio this morning. He’s quite good,’ ” Sacks said at YINBH. “I turned a whole of non-Jewish Britain into an outreach organization for the sake of Judaism!”

The Orthodox ascent?

Sacks’ prediction of an Orthodox ascent in America stems from the October report by the Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” which says that the Orthodox community’s relatively high birth rate and low, or nonexistent, rate of intermarriage could give it a comparative demographic advantage, over time, to both the Conservative and Reform movements.

“It has become really clear that Orthodoxy is the only element of the Jewish people in America that’s growing,” Sacks said. Based on Modern Orthodoxy’s current position in American Jewry, Sacks’ prediction sounds a bit, well, optimistic. 

According to the Pew survey, only 11 percent of Jews in America identify as Orthodox, and only 3 percent as Modern Orthodox. In other words, Sacks is predicting that a minority within a sliver of American Judaism may hold, within 25 years, the mantle of influence.

A second Pew analysis, however, shows that Orthodoxy is gaining ground on Conservative and Reform Jewry — very quickly. Twenty-seven percent of Jews younger than 18 live in Orthodox homes, and as sociologist Steven M. Cohen told the Forward in November, “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” while the non-Orthodox has been losing 10,000.

Therefore, Sacks calls upon the Orthodox movement to prepare as if it will soon inherit American Judaism’s mantle, so that its members will know how to lead on a mass scale and not just in yeshivas or at Shabbat morning sermons.

“The non-Orthodox Jewish world always had a strong sense of tikkun olam [repairing the world],” Sacks told me. “What I’ve tried to show is we in the Orthodox world can have that sense as well.”

“We’ve got a technical glitch”

Mesopotamian cuneiform, Chinese ideograms, Linear B — Sacks was more philosopher than rabbi as he delivered a short keynote address at Harkham Hillel’s gala at the Universal City Hilton, offering a call to Orthodoxy’s leadership to use technology to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to make learning more interesting for Jewish children.

Today, he said, we are living through an information revolution, inaugurated by “Steve Jobs [coming] down the mountain with the two tablets, the iPad and the iPad Mini.”

In fact, he related, on the morning the iPad was released, Jan. 27, 2010, Sacks walked into his London office and told one of his assistants, “This is the game changer.”

When sitting with me, Sacks asked if I could wait a moment as he showed off some of his favorite Jewish iPad apps. “I hear God knocking at our door saying, ‘Use Me. Use this gift that I have given you to spread My message,’ ” Sacks said

“Let’s have a look at this week’s parsha [Torah portion],” he said as he played with an app that serves as a type of Wikipedia for Jewish texts. “Touch that, here are the mefarshim [Torah commentaries].”

And then, Orthodoxy’s challenge stared us in the face.

The app froze. 

“We’ve got a technical glitch,” Sacks said humorously, referring to his app — or was he speaking about the Orthodox movement? 

“It took a long time for Orthodox Jews to be able to develop the techniques and the skills,” Sacks said. “We just haven’t had enough time, to be honest with you, to develop the real resources for the Web and the iPad.”

And beyond creating operational iPad apps, Sacks wants Orthodox Jews to act more like, well, him — using mass media to communicate.

Of course, in America, the decentralized nature of Judaism — there is no chief rabbi — makes it difficult for any one person to spread his religious ideology. That’s why Sacks believes observant Jews should work with Hollywood.

“I would so love to see a film not just about how Jews died, but how Jews live, and I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough of those,” Sacks said, a message that recurred in several of his Los Angeles appearances. 

Speaking at YINBH, he even let the audience in on one of his script ideas — a film on the life of Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman — and said, only half-jokingly, that he would love to see someone in the room help turn his idea into a film.

Less power, more influence

As he adjusts to a career in which he no longer has the power of chief rabbi, he seems to believe his new role may allow him more influence. 

Perhaps that is why issues of leadership seem to make its way into most of his work these days.

Every week, Jews across the world receive an e-mail from his office titled “Covenant & Conversation” containing his weekly essay on the Torah, written in English but also translated into Hebrew and Portuguese.

In it, he weaves together biblical narrative with a historical, philosophical and scientific framework — Oxford meets Yeshiva University. This year, he decided, each essay will center around one theme — leadership. 

In Britain, Sacks showed that to influence a society, leaders must work with the followers they are given, and not compromise on core principles for the sake of adding fans. 

In America, he suggested that a window of opportunity is opening up — a window that will allow America’s Modern Orthodox movement to inject Torah values into mainstream American culture, as he has tried to do in Britain. 

And whether the predicted Orthodox ascent comes to pass, and whether Sacks’ insistence on preparation for leadership pays off, he is giving something to American Orthodox Jewry, something that perhaps no one else can deliver quite as well — a clear, passionate and hopeful 25-year advance warning. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talked the talk

As one who has studied a folio of Talmud each day for the last 14 months, I am tempted to present President Hassan Rouhani’s interview with CNN as a text to be studied, dissected point by point, sentence by sentence in talmudic fashion.

According to the translator hired by the Iranian government to translate the CNN interview, the Iranian President said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.

“But in general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.

“And just as even such crimes are — if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.

“So what the Nazis did is condemnable. The dimensions of whatever it is, the historians have to understand what it is. I am not a historian myself, but we — it must be clear here, is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or — or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people.

“So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them, whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.

“For us, it’s the same. It’s the taking of a human life and an innocent human life is (INAUDIBLE) in Islam. It’s actually something that we condemn and our religion also rejects.

“But this does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.”


CAMERA, the media monitoring organization, has claimed:

Rouhani never said the phrase “the Holocaust.” He never said “reprehensible.” And he never indicated that he believes the Nazi genocide of the Jews as documented by real historians ever happened. 

Multiple independent translations by Farsi speakers conflict with CNN’s translation and support a claim by Iran’s radical Fars News Agency that CNN mistranslated the interview. Instead of “the Holocaust,” Rouhani vaguely referred to “historical events.”

Let us also examine CAMERA’s words:

Significantly, CNN maintained that the president’s translator — and, to the best of my knowledge, nobody has challenged them on this matter — was hired by the Iranian government and not by the network. 

Might we not learn that Rouhani was addressing two audiences — the international audience that he was seeking to charm and the audience of his critics at home who are ready to pounce on every word? So he, as many political leaders do, walked the fine line between covering his “posterior” at home and charting a different course as he approached the West.

Would it not be wise to accept the words as translated, and proclaim time and again that the president of Iran has accepted the basic historical fact of the Nazi crimes against the Jews — and others — commonly known as the Holocaust, and then force him to deny it if he was misunderstood, mistranslated or if the pressure from home becomes too great?

His first sentence was: “I have said before that I am not a historian personally and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust as such, it is the historians that should reflect on it.”

I concur.

As one who has edited a book of more than 800 pages titled “The Holocaust: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed and the Reexamined” consisting of essays by more than 30 of the greatest scholars of three generations, I salute him for saying that understanding the dimensions of a historical event is the work of historians, but not of historians alone.

Poets and philosophers, psychiatrists and sociologists, physicians and lawyers, historians and writers, artists and musicians reflect upon the meaning of the Holocaust. I am pleased that he endorses their efforts.

Who can take issue with his next two paragraphs expressing moral condemnation?

“But in general, I can tell you that any crime or — that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that the Nazis committed towards the Jews, as well as non-Jewish people, is reprehensible and condemnable, as far as we are concerned.

And just as even such crimes are — if they are to happen today against any creed or belief system or human being as such, we shall again condemn it.”

Neither can one object to the paragraph that follows shortly thereafter:

“So if the Nazis, however criminal they were, we condemn them, whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn, because genocide, the taking of the human life, is condemnable and it makes no difference whether that life is a Jewish life, a Christian or a Muslim or what.”

I was intrigued by what the president then said:

“For us, it’s the same. It’s the taking of a human life and an innocent human life is (INAUDIBLE) in Islam. It’s actually something that we condemn and our religion also rejects.”

I wish that CNN’s Christiane Amanpour had followed up. 

Does that mean that he condemns the groups supported by his own government and its predecessors that fired rockets on non-combatants and that used bombs in civilian areas and used suicide bombing as a weapon without distinguishing between combatants and innocent civilians? Forget for a moment violence against Israelis and Jews. Is the president really ready to condemn the violence of radical Islam against fellow Muslims?

We should remind him of these words and see how they are reflected in Iranian policy going forward.

The venerable Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman objected to the next two paragraphs — the seifa, the last part of his statement.

“But we — it must be clear here, is that when there is an atrocity, a crime that happens, it should not become a cover to work against the interests or — or justify the crimes against another nation or another group of people …

“But this does not mean that, on the other hand, you can say, well, the Nazis committed crimes against, you know, a certain group, now, therefore, they must usurp the land of another group and occupy it. This, too, is an act that should be condemned, in our view.”

Jewish groups responded defensively, almost impulsively. Such a response presumes that Jews stole the land from the Palestinians.

Of course, the victimization of the Jews did not justify stealing another people’s land. We concur.

Jewish claims to the land now called Israel are deep and historical, and from its inception, the Zionist movement made deliberate and public efforts to buy the land from its owners and to gain international legitimacy for its efforts at statehood, culminating in the Nov. 29, 1947, United Nations resolution calling for two states, one Jewish and one Arab.

The West Bank was only conquered in June 1967 after Jordan attacked Israel, following formal requests from Israel that Jordan stay out of the war and assurances that Israel would not attack Jordan first. Egypt never asked for Gaza to be returned to it during the Sinai negotiations — would that they had!

So the Iranian president, is correct: The Holocaust did not justify stealing land. The Jewish people did not lay claim to the land of Israel after the Holocaust, but well before it. They did not steal the land, they bought it and settled it and later conquered it in a defensive war. 

The Jewish community would be wise to welcome President Rouhani’s affirmation of the Holocaust as a historical event and his condemnation of genocide, but let us not make too much of it. 

His statements mean only that he has ended one dimension of the lunacy of the last regime, and that we now are dealing with a clever, rational actor, which is most useful as one contemplates nuclear negotiations.

We should hold the Iranian president to the humanitarian and religious values he seemingly affirms and remind him of his condemnation of acts of violence against innocent civilians.

Such words — whether uttered by the president or his translator — should be welcomed but must be followed by actions.

During the height of the Cuban missile crisis, President John F. Kennedy received two different communications from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — one conciliatory and one belligerent. He responded to the former but not to the latter, and nuclear catastrophe was avoided. Might history repeat itself?

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at

Glatt or not? Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17)

The Torah says that the laws of kashrut separate us from the nations and make us a holy people by precluding us from eating detestable things (Deuteronomy 14:2-3, 21). Inasmuch as kashrut is a defining aspect of Judaism and the Jewish people, it seems worthwhile to look a bit more closely at kosher rules. In doing so, we consider not only the Written Law found in the Chumash but also the Oral Laws that have come down through the Talmud.

With mammals, the Torah states that the animal must be a ruminant that both chews its cud and has split hooves. Classically, we associate cows and sheep as the permitted mammals, eating beef and lamb. Deer also would be permitted, making venison potentially kosher. Goats, too. For that matter, even giraffes.

To determine whether an animal’s meat is kosher to consume, we next must be assured that it is slaughtered properly. Among other things, the shochet (slaughterer) must use a chalef, a specific kind of rectangular knife whose blade must be at least twice as long as the neck width of the animal; it must also be exceptionally sharp and free of any nicks. The knife must achieve a rapid, smooth slice that severs the trachea and esophagus promptly. If the slaughtering errs, the meat is forbidden even though the mammal was a permitted species. 

Even if the slaughter is successful, as it usually is, the shechted animal’s lungs next must be inspected. If the lungs are found to have adhesions, particularly larger ones, that finding can render the animal non-kosher. The bodek (internal organ inspector) can determine which lung adhesions disqualify the slaughtered animal from being kosher. The simplest lung inspection result is when the slaughtered animal’s lungs are found to be smooth. (Glatt is Yiddish and chalak is Hebrew for “smooth.”) If smooth, with no adhesions, then the properly slaughtered meat is acceptable. It still will need to be soaked and salted, drained of its blood.

A quarter-century ago, kosher consumers were not as particular about whether meat was from an animal found to have had smooth lungs. If it had adhesions, consumers knew the inspectors would not have let the meat to market unless those adhesions were meaningless. But careful inspections take time, and time is money. Nowadays, with higher hourly rates, bodeks need to move faster, often operating from huge centralized plants that distribute across the country. The financial reality is that lungs with adhesions may not be getting as careful a look as they require and as they used to command, while glatt meat always is fine because it poses no added time demand. Hence, the new primacy of glatt kosher meat.

The rule on permitted fowl differs from that governing mammals. In the mammals’ case, we follow the two rules: chews its cud and split hooves. However, regarding birds, the Torah offers no “rule” but instead lists a wide variety of forbidden birds by name. Any fowl not on the list is deemed kosher. However, uncertainty exists about the exact identities of certain biblically prohibited birds, because some of those listed Hebrew names are esoteric. Therefore, for birds, the kosher rule is that the fowl is a permitted type only if the Jewish society has an unbroken tradition that, yes, this is a permitted bird. In America, such permitted fowl include chicken, ducks and geese. Turkeys, though, are tricky. After all, how could there have been a tradition regarding the kashrut of turkeys? Therefore, there were and still are some kosher consumers who avoid turkey. However, the greater majority note that kosher consumers in America always ate turkey, treating them as part of the chicken family, and that became this land’s tradition.

With this background, a few mysteries may be resolved. Buffalo meat, bison and yak can be kosher. Goat could be kosher, hence the kosher status of goat’s milk and cheese, but its meat tends to be tougher, so less desirable. Deer can be kosher, but they typically run too fast to be caught for shechitah (slaughter), and we may not eat animals that have been killed any other way. Goose is exceptionally fatty, so it is a less cost-effective buy except during Chanukah season when fried foods like potato latkes are in vogue. And the giraffe would be easy to slaughter, although fiercely violent, but the chance that its lungs will be found to have disqualifying abrasions is intimidating because giraffes are much more expensive than cows and harder to mitigate financial losses arising from an invalidated slaughter or bad lungs. Nevertheless, it is a myth that the absence of kosher giraffes is because slaughterers (shochtim) do not know where to slice. It is simply that, because of the steep financial risk, most slaughterhouses just don’t want to stick their necks out. 

Rabbi Dov Fischer, an adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is the founding spiritual leader of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at

New Hillel president: We’re going to be inclusive

The Talmudic sage Hillel famously disagreed with Shammai, but still respected him and promoted ahavat Yisrael — the love of every Jew. As the incoming president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, Eric Fingerhut wants to channel the spirit of the organization’s namesake.

“I seek to follow his teachings — his inclusive approach to Jewish life,” Fingerhut told JTA Monday. “Ahavat Yisrael is the model we follow.”

A former Ohio congressman and chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents from 2007 to 2011, Fingerhut was confirmed this week as the successor to Wayne Firestone, who resigned the post last year. He comes to Hillel with more than three decades’ of experience in education and public service, most recently as vice president of education and STEM Learning (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) at Battelle, a research institute in Columbus.

From 1993 to 1994, he represented Ohio’s 19th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. After losing his reelection bid, he ran for a seat in the Ohio state senate, where he served from 1997 to 2006. In 2004, he was the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, losing to George Voinovich, a former Cleveland mayor and Ohio governor.

“Hillel has a very compelling and frankly clear mission and vision, which excites me and motivates me,” Fingerhut said. “We are going to reach out and be there for the Jewish students on all of our campuses to provide them with the highest quality activities so they can figure out what their connection to the Jewish people is, and what their Jewish life is going to be like.”

Hillel has more than 550 locations in North America, Israel, the former Soviet Union, Europe, and Latin America. More than 400,000 students participate in Hillel activities in North America alone, while the organization says 100,000 students join every year. Fingerhut would like to see Hillel continue its growth on the campuses where it already has a presence and expand to new locations, which means promoting the organization’s importance to potential donors.

“We have to be aggressive in communicating to the Jewish community that the future of their communities is on our campuses,” he said.

It’s no secret that some campuses have become havens for anti-Israel activity in recent years, a fact that certainly concerns Fingerhut. A pro-Israel stance is essential not just to Hillel but to his own personal beliefs, he emphasized.

“Hillel is pro-Israel. It exists to help build love for and support for a safe, secure, free, democratic Jewish homeland, and that is part of our core mission,” he said.

But with a vibrant and vocal pro-Palestinian community on many campuses, Fingerhut conceded that Hillel has not done an adequate job winning hearts and minds.

“We’re clearly not succeeding where we need to be, but the goal is clear. And as president I will be constantly working with our partners to improve our strategy and introduce new and better ways to install that love of Israel in the next generation,” he said. “They will act on what they have learned in these formative years.”

Drawing new interest to the Talmud

This story originally appeared on

Last August, in conjunction with the beginning of a new seven-and-a-half year cycle of “daf yomi”—the daily study of a double page of the Babylonian Talmud that is observed by tens of thousands of Jews worldwide—Nicholls inaugurated an online “Draw Yomi” project that day-by-day results in a hand-drawn response to what she has studied.

“Here I go. Full of optimism and hope that I will not be defeated by the daily discipline of learning,” the London-based Jewish artist wrote on her blog to initiate the project.

With drawings of a human heart, a scorpion, and the Hebrew word “Amen,” Nicholls introduces and explicates the often-arcane world of the Talmud.

“Drawing is a way to slow down and get the brain to take a different path,” she told

After several months, that path—which is available for view on her website,—has illuminated with graphic and thought-provoking drawings a world of Jewish law, storytelling and contemplative thought that had previously been limited mostly to the word and textural study.

In Nicholl’s illustrations—each illustration is accompanied by a reference to the text from which she bases the illustration—Talmud study shifts to the visual as Hebrew letters anthropomorphize into fists, and a human skull helps to illustrate “the blessings on all the weird and wonderful things in the world.”

As a kind of warm-up to Draw Yomi, Nicholls had earlier created a drawing a day for the 49 days of the counting of the Omer. As it turned out, she missed the ritual of sitting down to draw every day. “I like the immediacy and deadline,” she said.

To create her illustrations, Nicholls, who describes herself as a traditional Jew, first studies the double page portion to get a “sense of what’s up on the daf (page)” and to search for a theme she can illustrate.

With raised fists, Jacqueline Nicholls's interpretive Talmud drawings also take on social issues. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

Sitting in her studio, she limits her time for the drawing to thirty minutes. “I use a kitchen timer,” she explained. “The drawings are not a finished piece of art–more like a sketchbook,” added the artist, who in September had a showing of her previous artwork at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery in Manhattan.

Nicholls said she has found that drawing is not only a process of study, but also a “way of taking the daf out of the yeshiva.”

Moving even further from the yeshiva, Nicholls, who studied anatomical art and medical drawing, does not shy away from illustrating the female form. For example, to illustrate a daf that she interprets as being “all about life and babies,” she illustrates a pregnant woman in position for childbirth.

Each week, to further explore the text, Nicholls invites a learning partner to add another voice to the ongoing Talmudic conversation by engaging in chevruta—the time-honored method of Talmud study where two students bounce ideas, questions and interpretations off of each other.

“She has changed the medium for commentary,” said Rabbi Deborah Silver, who has been one of Nicholls’s chevruta partners. “She holds up a particular kind of mirror to the text,” added Silver, the assistant rabbi at Temple Adat Ari El in Los Angeles who studied with Nicholls before she began the Draw Yomi project. “I know her for along time, and this is her language,” she said.

Silver explained that the drawings are a “springboard” serving to “take the conversation deeper, quicker,” showing a more concentrated view of Nicholls’s thought process.

Depending on the Talmud daf (page), Jacqueline Nicholls's interpretation can take a whimsical approach. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

For instance, to illustrate a daf on what it means to forget, and specifically to forget Shabbat, Nicholls shows a woman missing the top of her head. “Is forgetting the same as never knowing?” she asks.

To capture a Talmud page on waiting for Shabbat to be over, Nicholls shows a clock overseen by three stars. On the belief that crying can cause blindness, she draws a tearful smoldering eye.

If there is humor in the text, Nicholls shows that, too. To illustrate a page that likens a city to a person with limbs, we don’t see a serious city with “Broad Shoulders,” as we might imagine from Carl Sandberg’s  “Chicago,” but an animated town with bent arms, cartoony fingers, even a couple of feet.

But to illustrate another page of Talmud that speaks of “cities that are dangerous to enter if you are from the wrong neighborhood,” Nicholls’s buildings grow angular, and with raised arms, look ready for a fight.

After more than half a year of the project, Nicholls has received interest from several quarters, including “a fairly right-wing chasidic chap,” and others who are approaching daf yomi using social media and international conversation. There has even been interest from those wanting to buy the drawings.

A woman with the top of her head missing in a depiction of a daf (page) from Tractate Shabbat in the Talmud by Jacqueline Nicholls. Credit: Illustration by Jacqueline Nicholls.

In May, Nicholls was also invited to serve as a scholar and artist-in-residence at Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan, where she presented the Draw Yomi project and heard comments from people who had been learning daf yomi for years. She said she was “pleasantly delighted” by the feedback she received.

At this stage of the Draw Yomi project, Nicholls knows “a couple of people who like my art, check in and see my drawings quite regularly and have now started learning daf yomi themselves.”

“What she does is jump the language barrier,” said Rabbi Silver.

Elul and Jewish pluralism

A typical study session for Elul, a pluralistic Israel-based beit midrash (house of study), doesn’t confine itself to a discussion of Abraham’s journey in Genesis. It naturally segues into a rabbinical story about the patriarch breaking his father’s idols, followed by a poem by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and a couple of open-ended questions about drawings that illustrate the same topic. 

Perhaps most important, it does so while appealing to all Jews: religious and secular, men and women, young and old.  

On a recent Shabbat, about 30 Modern Orthodox men and women got a taste of this in the backyard of a West L.A. home. That’s where Shlomit Ravitsky Tur-Paz, Elul’s incoming executive director, helped lead one of several events at various L.A. Jewish venues, part of a U.S. tour aimed at making American Jews aware of what Elul does and to gain both vocal and financial support for it in the United States. 

The group was founded in 1989 by Ruth Calderon, an Israeli academic who recently became a member of the Knesset in the Yesh Atid Party. The name “Elul” is a contraction from a talmudic passage in which, during a dispute between two factions, a voice calls out and tells those who are arguing, Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim chayim — both “these and those are the words of the living God.” Calderon’s point was that no particular version of being Jewish has cornered the market on truth; both “these” and “those” may be valid.

For nearly 25 years, the organization’s task has been to get “these” and “those” to listen to one another.

“There are two parallel Jewish nations in Israel, one secular and one religious,” Roni Yavin, departing executive director, told the Jewish Journal. “These two don’t meet, never intersect. Religious track. Secular track. 

“Yet both are Jews, both are Israelis, both have a common history, the same roots. We need to focus on what these two have in common. We need to study and discuss across this divide to find what values are shared, and develop those, develop a common language and culture.” 

She continued, “When people of different backgrounds study together, like at Elul, and really talk with one another, listen to one another, they find things in common. Each generation has to look at Judaism and make interpretations that are appropriate to the time. When people study together, like at Elul, they find new interpretations.”

Calderon, in her maiden speech given before the Knesset in February, spoke passionately about the importance of a new Jewish model, one that includes secular Zionism and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as everything in between.

In this speech, which has become something of a YouTube sensation and gotten tens of thousands of hits, Calderon stated one of Elul’s cornerstone principles: The Torah is a living document, not only because of its rich fount of wonderful stories, but also because it provides us with the tools for dealing with current issues. She said that secular Israelis bear responsibility for having ceded “ownership” of religious texts and thought to religious Israelis. 

“Nobody took the Talmud or the rabbinical writings from us,” Calderon said. “We gave it away at a time when it seemed there was a more urgent and important task at hand — to build a nation. … Now the time has come to reclaim what is ours.”

Elul’s headquarters are in Jerusalem, but there are chapters throughout Israel, with hundreds of Israelis using its resources on a regular basis. It reaches out to thousands, especially children, on special occasions throughout the year.

At the Jerusalem beit midrash, you might find a storyteller acting out a biblical story for children, an immigrant women’s group finding guidance in rabbinical wisdom or a Talmud study group that includes a secular leftist, a right-wing settler and an Orthodox rabbi. 

In Los Angeles during the recent gathering, there was a lively give-and-take that explored the story of Abraham and his father, Terah: what it means to turn away from the path of your parents and grandparents — what you gain and what you risk by smashing your father’s and grandfather’s idols. 

People talked about their own experiences as parents and children. Instead of giving answers, Ravitsky Tur-Paz asked questions and encouraged dialogue, respecting all comments. The most poignant moments may have been when Ravitsky Tur-Paz, 39, and Yavin, 54, talked about “breaking idols” in their own families, and how that has affected them and the choices they’ve made. 

Ravitsky Tur-Paz, an Orthodox and traditional Jew, spoke of how her mother encouraged her to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) because she had been forbidden the opportunity by her own parents. As a result, Ravitsky Tur-Paz became a paratrooper and officer, then later an attorney. She has remained observant while promoting feminist causes as well as religious and educational pluralism.

Then Yavin told her own family story. While traveling to Palestine in 1913 as part of the Second Aliya, her grandfather, epitomizing his new life as a chalutz, a pioneer, threw his religious texts into the sea. Yavin and her parents were brought up in Israel as fervent — and secular — Zionists.

Elul’s approach may be slightly unconventional — they employ dramatic presentations, art, music, even “pub crawls” — but it’s always Jewish texts they deal with, the same ones that Yavin’s grandfather threw over the side of a ship 100 years ago. So, by having led Elul for 10 years, Yavin has figuratively smashed the idols of her grandfather just as Ravitsky Tur-Paz did when she joined the IDF. 

The two women come from different points on the Israeli religious spectrum, yet they work and study together, and both are passionate advocates for Elul’s objectives: promoting pluralistic Judaism, strengthening Jewish identity, creating social change in Israel and ensuring a rich future for Judaism.

The time for this kind of work has finally come, Yavin said.

“The pioneers, like my grandfather, abandoned religion because they had so much else to do at the time,” she said. “In those early years of the 20th century, there were so many things involved in building the foundation of the state that they had no time for religion, and they gave away that aspect of Jewish life to the Orthodox. But we secular Jews also feel that we are spiritual, so we want our religion back, because it belongs as much to us as it belongs to them. 

“Our aim,” she concluded, “is to take back Judaism.”

What would Woody Allen do?

Paris-Manhattan,” whose respective residents consider their city to be the center of the known universe, is the title of an appealing French movie by a first-time feature film director.

The movie centers around Alice Ovitz, a Jewish pharmacist in Paris, and her worshipful obsession with the American director and actor Woody Allen, who is strongly associated with his native Manhattan.

Alice’s passion is unrequited, as she never tries to contact Allen, who, however, makes a cameo appearance toward the end of the film.

Alice, played by the stunning Alice Taglioni, studies Allen’s movies with the dedication of a yeshiva student poring over Talmud passages and frequently offers DVDs of the master’s works to her pharmacy customers who come in complaining of depression or anxiety.

In her bedroom, she keeps an oversized poster of her hero and converses with him about problems of love, life and career moves.

She poses her questions and the poster Allen responds with appropriate lines taken from his various movies. It’s a shtick lifted from “Play It Again, Sam,” in which Humphrey Bogart’s Rick (“Casablanca”) counsels Allen on how to upgrade his love life.

Alice could use some of Rick’s advice herself, for between running the pharmacy and watching Allen’s movies, she hardly has time for dates, though her father frequently reminds her she isn’t getting any younger.

The father, Isaac Ovitz (Michel Aumont) is married to an alcoholic wife, so he takes on the role of the family’s Yiddishe Mameh, bugging his daughter about finding a mate and evaluating potential suitors.

Into all of this appears Victor (Patrick Bruel), of rough-hewn appearance but with a sensitive soul, who has come to install a burglar alarm system in Alice’s pharmacy.

The system emits clouds of chloroform, which knock out any intruder, but also any innocent bystander in the neighborhood.

Victor starts romancing Alice but faces two obstacles. First, he admits that he has (gasp) never seen a Woody Allen movie, and second, he has a formidable rival in the suave and sophisticated Pierre.

The only way Victor figures he can outscore the competition is to give Alice the one thing she desires most — a face-to-face meeting with the actual Woody Allen, in the flesh.

So crucial was Allen’s participation to the project that had he refused, the film’s director and screenwriter, Sophie Lellouche, would have dropped the whole project, Lellouche said in a transoceanic phone call.

As it turned out, enlisting Allen’s cooperation wasn’t nearly as formidable a task as she had feared.

On a trip to New York, she tracked Allen down at a nightclub where he regularly plays clarinet with fellow jazz musicians. Allen asked Lellouche for her script, and in a few days called back to say that he was available for a cameo role — uncredited and unpaid, yet.

It helped that Allen loves Paris, where the film was shot, a sentiment reciprocated by the French, who esteem him even more than do his American countrymen, according to Lellouche. “We love his intellectual humor,” she observed.

Lellouche drew heavily on her own background in writing the screenplay for the movie. “I come from a traditional Jewish family; we get together every Friday night for a Shabbat dinner,” she said.

“My father is exactly as I show him in the film, but my mother is certainly not an alcoholic — as a matter of fact, she never drinks.”

To her father’s relief, Sophie married when she was 28; her son just celebrated his bar mitzvah, and she also has an 11-year-old daughter.

Lellouche said there is much of herself in Alice Ovitz. “I am a dreamer and poetic; I feel that anything can happen anytime,” she said. “But the movie’s Alice is much more dynamic than I am.”

Reviews of “Paris-Manhattan” have ranged the spectrum from ecstatic to devastating, but Lellouche professes not to be bothered by the bad ones. “I’m very optimistic,” she said, “and in any case, it is not my aim to make movies everyone will like.”

Lellouche’s only previous film credit is a short movie, titled “Dieu, Que la Nature Est Bien Faite,” translated somewhat awkwardly as “God, That Nature Is Well Done.” Her original concept for that film was of a woman as the central character, who went out on a lot of blind dates and developed the ability to tell within two minutes what was on the man’s mind.

Because the idea seemed pretty obvious and repetitive, she switched her protagonist to a man who could tell what his woman companions were thinking.

“Paris-Manhattan” opens May 3 at three Laemmle theaters, the Music Hall in Beverly Hills, Town Center in Encino and Playhouse in Pasadena.

Learning how to respond to sin

“For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Kohellet, 7:20)

Everyone has their moments of failure, when they transgress. Not necessarily out of malice, but in response to temptation or opportunity or out of fear. Rarely do we see such failures play out in the kind of paradoxically public and intimate way, as the way we have seen failures in our community play out over these past 2 weeks. As a result of these transgression and failures, we have lost trust in a longtime community vendor whose products used to grace our Shabbat tables.  And many feel uneasy — or worse — about our local Kashrut agency that left a gaping hole in its supervision and which, in the opinion of some, has neither apologized sufficiently for its role in what happened, nor explained what specific measures it will take to prevent this sort of breach from happening again.  We have been confused by some of the words and deeds of community rabbis, and become unsure of who and what we should believe. It has been an awful couple of weeks in our community, and for all we know, the story is still not over. But it is already the right time to think about how we will respond spiritually and mortally to what has happened, so that this not become an episode that was filled with sound and fury but ultimately signified nothing. And so that we can emerge from this story as a stronger and better community. 

I’ll suggest two appropriate and necessary responses, one that is personal to each of us, and one that is more communal in nature. There’s a Talmudic story about Rabbi Yannai who was approached by the members of his community and was asked to render a Halachik ruling concerning a privately-owned tree whose branches had grown beyond the private domain, and which were now obstructing the passage of people and goods in the public domain. Curiously, Rabbi Yannai told the parties that that he could not rule just yet, but that they should return the next day. When they reconvened on the morrow, Rabbi Yannai ruled unequivocally that the tree needed to be removed.  “Ah”, the tree’s owner quickly responded. “Do you Rabbi Yannai not yourself have a tree whose branches extend into the public domain?” “Indeed so”, the sage replied, “but go out and see. If mine is still there, then you may keep yours there. But if I have cut mine down, than you must cut yours down as well”. Rabbi Yannai’s first response to the communal controversy was to examine himself, and his own degree of sensitivity to the community’s needs. Which led him, during the intervening night, to go out and remove his own tree.

Without excusing or justifying the bad and the questionable behavior that has come to light over the past weeks, personal introspection is one of the right and proper responses to it. The integrity of our outrage at others, for their having betrayed our trust and having acted behind our backs, is measured by our willingness to engage in self-reckoning, and to recognize that we too have not yet perfected ourselves in these areas. We all make promises that we don’t fully keep, and act differently when we think that no one is looking.  Similarly, the meaningfulness of our criticism that others did too much circling of the wagons and not enough forthright admission of fault, is completely tied to our willingness to search for evidence of the same tendency within ourselves – and none of us can claim that we’ve never acted similarly.

For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

And there is also a way to respond on a communal level. There is a level of consciousness and commitment that all of us together need to expect and demand from everyone who serves the Jewish community in any capacity. For inspiration we can look to the “Hineni” prayer recited by the chazzan on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The chazzan describes his fear and trembling as he stands before the Divine Judge. But the text makes clear that his fear and trembling is also the result of his consciousness that he is a public servant. “Do not hold them accountable for my sins; do not condemn them for my transgressions”, he says.  He realizes that he has undertaken a literally awesome responsibility in agreeing to represent the community, in assuming the role of “klei kodesh”, of a holy instrument who facilitates Israel’s encounter with God. And his greatest fear is that, even inadvertently, he might cause material or spiritual harm to the community he is serving. This level of consciousness and this degree of commitment represent the baseline that we must expect from anyone and everyone who takes it upon him or herself to serve the Jewish community.

And yes, this is an extremely rarefied expectation, and a very high baseline. But they are the very ones which explain the otherwise deeply puzzling story of God’s decision to bar Moshe from entry into the land over Moshe’s seemingly minor infraction of striking the rock. As Rambam explains, the community’s need for water in the desert was legitimate. And Moshe’s chastising them as “rebels”, and with the accumulated frustration of forty years, crashing his staff –  the symbol of his Divine appointment – upon the rock, was inappropriate, hurtful, and an abuse of his role as a communal leader, which is to say, as a communal servant. And to this day, everyone who takes on the role of klei kodesh walks in Moshe’s gigantic footsteps. 

As connected and involved Jews, we each make a myriad of Jewish-living decisions and choices daily. And the unfortunate events of the past two weeks have presented us with an invaluable opportunity to express, through our choices, the expectation that anyone who serves our community – whether as a rabbi or as a baker, as a school administrator or a butcher, as a chazzan or as a board member – possess the awesome consciousness that he or she is a “klei kodesh”, and function with the absolute commitment to, above all else, never bring material or spiritual harm to the community. Please don’t think that you can’t have an impact. Right now, more than any time I can remember in the life of this community, terms like “preserving trust”, and “the need for transparency” carry a power than no one can ignore. Collectively, we can make something good happen.

My Dad told me a story on his deathbed, a story he had never told me before. In the mid-70’s,  as a professional social worker, he was the director of a Federation storefront, charged with servicing the needs of the Soviet Jews who were coming to the Rockaways in large numbers at that time. By the mid-80’s the immigration had slowed to a trickle. An influential board member suggested that my father manipulate the numbers, to obscure the reality that the clientele had sharply decreased in size. But my Dad wouldn’t do it. Because he knew he had been entrusted with the Jewish community’s funds and resources, and now they were better placed elsewhere. And he closed the service center, and at age fifty-something, he looked for a new job. That was the first time he had told me this story. And it was the last story he ever told me.

Nobody can — or should — paper over or minimize the awful events of the past few weeks. But we can — and must — know how to respond to them.

Judaism’s greatest lesson: Behavior matters most

If I were asked to identify the greatest Jewish teaching, the most important lesson to be learned from all of Judaism, I would argue that, aside from ethical monotheism, it is that behavior matters more than anything else, and certainly more than feelings.

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.


The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.


The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act. 

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

Social Justice

“Social justice” is a politically loaded term. Nevertheless, I will deal here only with the intent of those committed to “social justice” — to helping people who are less well-off than we are. 

We have here another prime example of the relevance of the Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters: Making social policies that work is what matters. Too often, social justice policies are enacted because they make their proponents feel good because they think they are doing good, not because they actually do good. To give but one of many examples, everything I have read confirms what common sense suggests: Lowering standards for college admission for blacks has done far more harm than good for black students. But proponents don’t seem to care about that; what they care about is feeling that they are helping a historically persecuted group.


In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.


The rule that one should not rely on feelings to determine one’s behavior even applies to sex with one’s spouse. That is why the Talmud actually lists the number of times per week/month/year a man owes his wife sex. The same holds true for wives. If a woman is married to a good man whom she loves, in general she shouldn’t allow her mood alone to be the sole determinant of whether she has sex with her husband. It is far better for her, for her husband and for their marriage to have sex even on some occasions when she is not in the mood. Of course, it is his obligation to then try to get her in the mood, but she should allow him to at least try to do so even on occasions when she is not in the mood.


Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.

You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet. 

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

Drawing close: Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27)

With his brother Benjamin’s fate hanging in the balance, Yehuda “draws close” to the Egyptian viceroy (whose true identity is not yet known). Yehuda had sworn to his father he would return Benjamin safely to Canaan, but now Benjamin is facing confinement and servitude in Egypt. Why does Yehuda “draw close” to the viceroy? As the 19th century commentator Netziv puts the question, “Was Yosef unable to hear Yehuda from where he had been standing until now?”

Netziv observes that the viceroy had made clear that he’d be dealing with Benjamin’s “crime” strictly by the book. He rejected the brothers’ initial statement — “The one in whose hands the goblet is found, let him die!” — because servitude, not death, was the proscribed penalty for theft. Justice was not an ad-hoc construct in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Yet Yehuda’s only hope was to persuade the viceroy to bend the rules, to deviate from “the book” and allow a surrogate to be enslaved in place of the criminal, to allow Yehuda himself to serve in Benjamin’s stead. This is why Yehuda draws close — to have a conversation that would be off the record. Yehuda literally wants to speak in a whisper: “Please allow your servant to say a word into the ear of my master.”

But the gesture of “drawing close” is not about confidentiality only. It also symbolizes Yehuda’s hope of recharacterizing their relationship, of moving the conversation from one realm of personal identity to another. As long as the conversation takes place within the realm of their political relationship and identities, he knows he doesn’t stand a chance. 

Yehuda opens with, “We have told my master that we have an old father who has a child of his old age. That child’s brother is dead, and now the child alone remains, and his father loves him.” Yehuda is seeking the ear not of the viceroy of Egypt, but the ear of a person who also has a father and a mother, who perhaps also has a brother, and who knows the strength of both filial and fraternal bonds. Yehuda literally traverses the customary distance that separates the ruler from the ruled, the politician from the commoner. 

The Talmud (Kiddushin 32b) has a discussion about whether a person who represents law and authority is permitted to exit his formal, political identity and enter a softer, purely human one. The first opinion cited is that of Rabbi Ashi, who says that a nasi (prince) does not possess the prerogative to set aside his position. The needs of the body politic demand that he always remain faithful to the expectations associated with his appointed station.

The talmudic discussion continues, however, by citing a story involving several other leading sages: 

“It once happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Zadok were reclining at a banquet hosted by Rabban Gamaliel’s son, while Rabban Gamaliel [the president of the Sanhedrin] was standing over them and serving drink. When he offered a cup to Rabbi Eliezer, he refused to accept it out of respect. But when he offered it to Rabbi Joshua, he did accept. Rabbi Eliezer said to him, ‘What is this, Joshua! We are sitting, while Rabban Gamaliel is standing over us and serving drink?’ ‘We find that someone even greater than he acted as servitor,’ Rabbi Joshua replied, ‘Abraham was the greatest man of his age, yet it is written of him, “And he stood over them [the wayfarers] as they ate.” ’

“Rabbi Zadok said unto them: ‘How long will you overlook the honor of God and speak only of the honor of men? The Holy One, blessed be He, causes the winds to blow, the vapor to ascend, the rain to fall, and the earth to yield … shall not Rabban Gamaliel stand over us and offer drink?!’ ”

The Talmud’s conclusion turns the original premise on its head, asserting that to step outside of one’s appointed station in order to act with loving care and compassion is not only not forbidden, but is the conduct no less than God Himself.

We are not princes, but we each occupy stations of honor and power. We each possess identities above and beyond our simple identities as human beings. Parent. Boss. Partner. Teacher. CEO. Chair. Rabbi. And we regularly face the question as to whether we ought — in response to the human drama that is facing us — step outside our position and engage simply as fellow human beings. 

When do we stand firm and enforce the law that we represent, and when do we choose to hear Yehuda’s plea? When do we insist that others must present themselves to us if they want our attention, and when do we run out of our tents to greet and to feed? When do we insist that others serve us, and when do we initiate the blowing of the wind and the falling of the rain? 

Yehuda draws close all the time.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation.

Bar-Ilan student kicked out of class for not wearing yarmulke

A Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor kicked a male student out of his class for not wearing a yarmulke.

The incident reportedly occurred last week and later came to light on the Bar-Ilan Facebook page. A complaint posted omn the page over the weekend by a classmate and the stream of comments following it were removed on Tuesday but then circulated by screenshot.

“How is it possible that a lecturer tells a student to get out of class for not wearing a kipa, and the university backs that teacher?”  the student wrote on the Facebook page.

The university responded that all students signed a form at the time of enrollment that they agreed to wear mandatory head coverings in basic Judaism courses. Not all professors strictly enforce the rule.

“The obligation to wear a yarmulke in classes pertaining to religious texts is meant to respect the institution's Jewish tradition and values. According to the university guidelines, students are obligated to wear a yarmulke in Judaism classes,” according to the university's official response.

How to bring religion into politics

For nearly two millennia politics was poison for the Jewish people.  The principle aim in understanding the machinations of power was to make oppression less onerous.  Great swaths of tradition that spoke to the exercise of power lay mostly unexplored.  Today there is a resurgence of interest and I would like to highlight three crucial lessons from the anomalous historical experience of Judaism.

Vote not veto.  Religious convictions cannot be exiled from the public sphere.  To ask someone to set aside their religion is to exile passion, conviction and principle.  Imagine the analogy; we would say of a candidate, or a voter, “you may enter public life, but whatever you believe deeply you must set aside.”  It is ludicrous.  So a public declaration of faith as a determining factor in a vote on an issue or a candidate is both sensible and inevitable.

At the same time, my religious conviction cannot serve as argument in the public discourse.  Religion is not an irrational belief, but it is an orientation of soul.  To ask you to see with my eyes, or vote with my conscience, is tyrannical.  This is not to discount the ability of religion to persuade; it is a caricature that it relies only on unfounded assertions.  But the argument must follow the same rules as political argument in general and work by persuasion, not prophetic fiat.

Against the tyranny of majority or minority.  The first is clear and arises as a special fear from Judaism as a minority tradition in every land except for modern Israel.  In religion the majority will inevitably set the parameters but precisely because we are dealing with the deepest convictions of a community, special care must be taken to carve out the greatest possible space for the minority. 

These are easier principles to enunciate than to practice.  Is not working on the Sabbath a ‘right’ such that an employee cannot penalize a worker for his refusal?  Does covering one’s face with a veil in public impinge on the public’s right sufficiently to warrant prohibition?  The decision in such cases is of course a balance, but I am arguing for the weightiness of the minority community, whose unusual practices are too often unsupported because unsympathetic.

However we are familiar with the phenomenon of minority groups so passionate that the numbers of the many bow before the frenzy of the few.  Intensity of belief is a delicate calculation in politics because often the indifference of the many is due to failing to envision the consequences of lassitude.  When the law is enacted or fails, suddenly there is recognition of what is at stake. Jews, along with many others, have been as often victimized by a galvanized minority as by a cruel majority. 

Mutability.  The Jews passed through innumerable lands and saw many different political configurations.  Even today in Israel the situation has changed often and is still in flux.  So here is a plea for something in politics that we could use more of in religion as well – epistemological humility.  These are complicated questions and we are unlikely to get them right without many wrong turns. Moreover, they are questions whose surrounding conditions will change, so even if we did get them right, they will not necessarily be right in changing circumstances.  An indulgence that may be permitted a small minority for example (use of a drug in a religious ceremony is one example) may prove impossible if the minority grows larger.

“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” is some wise and often unheeded Talmudic advice. 

What is most needed?  Clichéd though it may be, civility and an assumption of goodwill.  Respect for the other is a constant challenge as we encounter the other in an age of immigration and the growth of cities.  We will increasingly jostle up against each other.  The difference with religion is that as it poses the problem it also suggests the solution.  There is nothing in the ideology of nationalism that encourages amity. Different cities or sports teams spur division but do not instruct us on tolerance. But religion, while sometimes serving as a generator of differences, also teaches that all human beings are in God’s image.  So as it divides it provides the impetus for uniting.  It is up to us to be faithful uniters and that begins by making the public sphere open, raucous, opinionated, respectful and kind.

Perspectives: Religion and Public Life is a blog series about the relationship between religion and secularism run by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The aim is to offer a wide range of opinion and expertise on the subject, drawn from around the world. Rabbi Wolpe’s reflection is part of this series. Find the latest blogs here (

David Wolpe is senior rabbi at Sinai Temple. This article is excerpted from a longer essay written for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation as part of its ongoing series, “Perspectives: Religion and Public Life.”

Talmud in Downtown L.A.

Around 2,500 people turned out for the citywide Siyum HaShas celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Aug. 1. The event marked the completion of the seven-and-a-half year cycle of daily Talmud study known as Daf Yomi.

The program began with Mincha (afternoon prayer) just after 5:30 p.m. and featured several speakers, including Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City. Dayan Aaron Dovid Dunner, a sitting member of the London Beth Din, delivered a main address.

“Everybody can be a Daf Yomi person,” Dunner said. “You find time for business and for pleasure. You can find time for Daf Yomi if you want to.”

Rabbi Mechie Blau served as master of ceremonies and opened the night by congratulating the misayamim, those who had completed the Daf Yomi learning, and pointing out that this year’s Siyum took place in the days following Tisha b’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

“Everyone here deserves to be applauded,” he said. “This celebration shows that we are ready to restore the glory of the beis hamigdash.”

The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion event featured a live digital linkup with a larger celebration at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey.Approximately 90,000 men and women attended the New Jersey Siyum.

This year marks the 12th time that Daf Yomi has been completed, dating back to the practice’s Polish inception in 1923.

While the event focused mainly on those who had completed the daily learning cycle, only a minority of those in attendance had actually completed Daf Yomi. Rabbi Baruch Zheutlin, a sixth-grade Talmud teacher at Yeshivat Aharon Yaakov Ohr Eliyahu, said that though he had not completed Daf Yomi, he felt like a part of the celebration for several reasons.

“The Siyum combines two great things: Jewish unity and Torah study,” he said. “And I learn Gemara, so this is my celebration too.”

Zheutlin said he brought his 8-year-old son so that “he could see the honor of so many Jews unifying together.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Siyum’s press liaison, said that the impact of the Siyum could be seen as early as the next day when morning Daf Yomi Shiurim took place, beginning the 13th cycle.

“There were a lot of new faces on Thursday,” Adlerstein, who is the director of interfaith affairs at The Simon Wiesenthal Center, said. “Many people saw the majesty of Torah at the Siyum and were inspired.”

The next Siyum HaShas is set to take place early in 2020.

Talmud: The seven-year cycle

Whoever learns halachos every day is assured that he will be a citizen of the World to Come. For it is stated: The ways (halichos) of the world are His. Do not read halichos, but halachos. (Niddah 73a)

After seven and a half years of daily study, my voyage through the sea of Talmud ended with these words, as approximately 90,000 Jews filled every seat of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the completion of Daf Yomi in an event called the 12th Siyum HaShas. My voyage began with a miracle, and ended in transformation.

On March 2, 2005, I ventured into The Mitzvah Store on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. I’d been there a few times, but it was not a regular stop. I grew up proud to be Jewish, I had a bar mitzvah, and I always considered myself a spiritual person with a rational belief in God (i.e. it made more sense to me that God created the world than that it just happened).

I sought out spirituality in many places and traditions, but I was never satisfied. Then my grandmother, of blessed memory, Magdalena Miselbach, passed away in September 1997, and I felt a deep pull to explore my own backyard. I did not realize then, or until the very moment of writing this paragraph, that her passing coincided with the 10th completion of the Daf Yomi cycle.

In 1997, I simply started going to synagogue, not because I was supposed to, but because I wanted to. I soon became a student of Rabbi Mordecai Finley — a brilliant teacher of Chasidus and the transformative power of our tradition. Learning from him and other great teachers like Rabbis Shlomo Schwartz, David Wolpe, Mark Blazer, David Seidenberg and Jonathan Omer-Man, I drank in all the Torah I could, and I embarked upon the path described by Reb Springsteen: A time comes when you need to start being the man you aim to become.

Along the way, I often heard about the Talmud. I knew the word, but I never attended a yeshiva, and I had no real sense of what it meant.

On previous visits to the bookstore on Pico, I would look at the long shelves of Talmud and shake my head. Those volumes seemed like bricks in a wall separating the super-religious from everyone else.

After seven and a half years of learning, however, I had a new thought. Why be intimidated? OK, so each set of Talmud looks like three Encyclopedia Britannicas. But I was an English major in college, and they’re just books! There must be a book one. I’ll get that and see what it’s like. I found Berachos 1, and took it to the counter.

The kid at the register said, “So, you’re doing Daf Yomi.”

I said, “What’s Daf Yomi?”

Looking at me strangely, he answered, “It’s a worldwide program for learning Talmud. Everyone reads one page a day on the same schedule, it takes seven and a half years to read the whole thing, and today is day one.”

There are 2,711 pages in the Talmud. I could’ve bought that book on any one of those days. As a spiritual rationalist, the odds against this “coincidence” did not escape me.

“OK, God, I get the message. I’m doing Daf Yomi.”

Many times I thought I would fail. It has been called the world’s longest marathon. I have a family and a high-pressure occupation. Could there be enough hours in the day? Well, if God was so generous as to arrange a miracle for me to commence Daf Yomi, I figured He would also give me the strength to finish.

After seven and a half years of learning Talmud, much of it under the wise and gentle guidance of Rabbi Mechie Blau, I reached the long-awaited day at MetLife Stadium. MetLife Stadium? Are you kidding me? I grew up in New York. I’m a rabid Giants fan. And on Aug. 1, I joined about 90,000 Jews to fill every seat of the Giants’ stadium for a Talmud event? Unbelievable!

Accompanying me were my son, Avi, 7, my brother David and my old friend, Lionel Leventhal. Avi has never known me not to be a Talmud student. David is a cardiologist in Boston who pulled multiple favors to attend. Lionel says he was inspired by me to commence the Daf Yomi in the new cycle. My father, unfortunately, could not attend due to knee surgery, but his ticket went to Bryan Bridges, whom I met through my Accidental Talmudist page on Facebook. He, too, is now embarking upon the Daf. I was prepared for a wonderful night, but the reality exceeded the expectation.

If one attends a college for four years, takes all the required classes and hands in her assignments, has she not completed the endeavor? Does the graduation itself really matter? One possible answer may be found in the Talmud.

Tractate Shabbos lists 39 categories of work from which we must abstain on the Sabbath. These laws are derived from the kinds of work needed to build the Tabernacle. Examples include planting, plowing, grinding, kneading, slaughtering, tanning, writing, etc. The 38th category, however, is a bit surprising: makeh b’patish, or striking the final blow.

Writing a story is work. Writing the last word of the story ought to be the same sort of work, but it’s not. When you strike the final blow, the story becomes a story, the brisket becomes a brisket, and in my case, the talmudist becomes a talmudist. Not an expert. Not even a competent talmudist. But at least a person who can be described as such without speaking falsely.

The final blow was not what I thought it would be. Our Team Siyum arrived early — very early. Along with my partners, Eric Chaikin and Nat Rubin, I am producing a documentary about the Talmud and the people who learn it. The idea only came up in the last few months as the Siyum approached, and my role in it thus far has been mostly as a participant because I am so busy completing my film “Saving Lincoln.”

We reached the stadium at 3 p.m. It rained all day. The afternoon prayers, or Mincha, began at 7:30 p.m. As the lights came up, the rain went away, and the stadium became silent: a roaring silence of people focused on God. When we reached Kaddish, and the prayer leader completed the first section, 92,000 answered in unison: Y’hay shmay rabbah m’varach l’olam ul’al’may al’mayah! (May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity!) May we all merit to hear such a great gathering of Jews praying together again and again. There is nothing like it.

The Daf Yomi cycle was proposed in 1923 my Rabbi Meir Shapiro. Could he have imagined such a realization of his dream? MetLife Stadium became a temple, linked to dozens of venues around the world, including the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, all for the sake of Talmud.

Butchers once filled stadiums to celebrate their plans for annihilating our people. Now we filled the stadium.

Speeches followed, praising the teachers and students who made this moment possible. During one of them, Lionel turned to me and said, “More than the 2,711 pages — I’m proud of you for the person you’ve become.”

“The person I’ve become?”

“Sal, I’ve known you for 29 years. You’re different now. Not that you weren’t a nice guy before, but I would now hold you up against anyone in terms of respectfulness and kindness to others. It’s in the way you speak to your wife and kids, and everyone. It has to be because of this.”

I was speechless. I knew I was doing a good thing, learning for all those years. I felt the hours of study would bring me closer to God, as I strove to understand His laws and the wisdom of my people. But there were so many days when I was just slogging through complex ideas and retaining precious little. In what way could that change me? And do I really treat people differently?

The night reached its apex: I pulled out Tractate Niddah. All his life Avi watched me proceed from one volume to the next, and this was the moment of reading the final words of the final book. We read them, and then the stadium erupted! Dancing, jumping, singing at the top of our lungs. Avi, David, Lionel, Bryan, Eric, Nat — we were all exhilarated! Avi said, “Now that’s a Jewish party!”

There was more to the night, including commencing the Talmud again with Berachos 1, as I had so many years and pages ago. Yet it was neither the last page nor the first page that constituted the final blow.

Two days later, Avi and I drove up to a family reunion. This particular branch of the family had often suffered from painful arguments because every member had a different approach to religion. All were dreading the next Shabbat, when the final eruption was sure to occur, thanks to an argument that happened while Avi and I were away. Hearing about it during the drive back, I remembered what Lionel had said to me, and I remembered a phrase we often read in the Talmud: Torah scholars increase peace in the world.

I approached each family member individually. I asked them what the argument was really about. So much of Talmud study is just that: piercing the veil of words to decipher exactly where viewpoints differ. What is at stake, and is there really a contradiction? I explained to each what I had heard the others say, and proposed a way, a halicha, by which we might navigate this fragile situation.

And it worked! Shabbat was a joy! That is why we study halachos, per the final words of the Talmud. So we can find a halicha.

The 39th and final category of work is hotza’ah: carrying from domain to domain. May we all merit to learn and to teach, to come nearer to God than we were a moment ago, and to carry that knowledge to another domain.

Salvador Litvak writes the Accidental Talmudist blog at He wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln,” explores Abraham Lincoln’s fiery trial as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon.

Climbing mount Talmud

It is a commitment like few others. Seven and a half years of daily study — every day, no time off, no vacations, no holiday breaks, in sickness and health, at home and while traveling. Started almost 80 years ago, by a rabbi named Meir Shapiro, the study of the Daf Yomi — literally, a page a day — this week ends its 12th cycle of learning and immediately begins its 13th. As I write this post I’m still undecided: Should I, can I, will I?

Some basic facts: The Babylonian Talmud is a compilation of rabbinical discussions, sayings, rulings and stories drawn together between the third and fifth centuries CE, and studied ever since. Except for the Bible, it is the most important Jewish book, and even more than the Bible, it is the book Jews relied on as they were developing their practices and customs over the last 1,500 years. It is not an easy read: 2,711 pages, many of them written in Aramaic, and challengingly encoded in ways that make it almost impossible for the untrained eye to understand. I’ve studied Talmud here and there, more intensively at a younger age, more sporadically in recent years. I can read it and understand what I’m reading, if I get help from the many available commentaries and guides.

If one takes it one page at a time, every day, for approximately seven and a half years, one is able to say: I’ve read it all, including those parts of the long 36 tractates that are rarely visited by students, some of them dealing with issues that can seem quite bizarre to the untrained reader.


90,000 to gather in N.J. stadium for completion of Talmud

Ninety thousand people are expected to gather in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey to celebrate the completion of the Talmud study cycle.

The 12th siyum hashas will take place at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the East Rutherford stadium, the home of the Giants and Jets football teams.

Attendees are finishing a program called Daf Yomi, in which participants study a double-sided page of Talmud per day until they finish the entire work of nearly 3,000 pages. The cycle is completed every 7 1/2 years. Participants learn the same page on the same day.

According to Business Wire, attendees at the stadium will have come from as far away as Australia. The ceremony will be simulcast to 80 cities in 15 countries.