Thursday, December 12, 2019

Shabbat-O-Gram - Women's Headcoverings, Jewish Nation or Religion, Human Rights Day


Shabbat Shalom!

Photos from last weekend's dinners at congregant homes.  
See more in our fall album

Shabbat Shalom

Join us for our pre-Hanukkah celebration on Friday evening.  The service begins at the early time of 7PM (following dinner for those who have signed up).  Katie Kaplan and I will be leading the service.  Click here to sign up for dinner.

Hanukkah Links: From MyJewishLearning 
Are Jews better off being called a nation or a religion?

Anti-Semitism keeps rearing its ugly head onto the front pages.  A week doesn't go by without someone referring to anti-Semitic tropes, which have replaced Torah cantillation  as the most popular tropes in Jewish jargon.  A helpful guide to anti-Semitic tropes is the AJC's handy new glossary, "Translating Hate."   As AJC notes, stopping anti-Semitism begins with understanding it.  

So yes, you'll find "dual loyalty" there, and references to clannishness, greed and a discussion of when anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism overlap. Thus far, nothing about Jews being "brutal killers," who would never vote for a wealth tax. Presumably, they'll put that into the next edition.

There is certainly much that is confusing about the topic, and now we add another complexity, with this week's Executive Order designating Jews as a nationality, like Italians and Irish, rather than a religion, like Christians and Muslims. 

According to Ari Hoffman in the Forward, the order is really more of a suggestion.  He writes:

As the Jewish Insider reported, there is no mention at all of a redefinition of what it means to be Jewish in the order, and no effort to recategorize Jews as a different protected class. This order actually alters very little; it suggests - rather than mandates - that U.S. government departments adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism when enforcing anti-discrimination statutes, which, far from criminalizing criticism of Israel, specifically states that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.
So, first we need to ask: Which are we, anyway, a nation or a religion?   Then we need to ask which is better, and who gets to decide?   

So, let's cut to the chase: We are neither a nation nor a religion.  We are both.  And neither.  Jews are a people

In Israel, Jews are considered a nationality, in America, primarily a faith group. For Jews and Judaism to thrive, we need to be a combination.  Being a "people" combines elements of tribe and tradition. 

We are a group, inextricably tied to an idea, a story, and a mission. 

The Forward asked 23 rabbis what Jews are, exactly, and Rabbi Jill Jacobs responded: Jews are a people. The tongue-in-cheek term "Member of the Tribe" may actually be the most accurate. As a tribe, we have a history, ritual practices, a land, civil laws, and cultural practices. It is a mistake to suggest that Judaism is simply a religion, parallel to Christianity (or to talk about a Judeo-Christian tradition) - that erases much of who we are. A major component of anti-Semitism has long been the difficulty for most of the world of figuring out who Jews are. The desire to put us into the "religion" box leads to confusion and anger when we refuse to stay in that box, but rather to self-define, and to live our full selves in the world.

As I mentioned in my Rosh Hashanah sermonWe need to lead the way in redefining what group identity means.  We don't want to give up Jewish peoplehood, which cuts to the core of who we are and the story we have to share.  But we need to show the world how being tribal means shifting from a mentality of "us versus them" to a more expansive, inclusive, nurturing model - a model that leads us to the place where, ultimately, the "them" cease to be othered, and there's only us.

I do understand the logic behind the Executive Order, which is to offer Jewish college students protections of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whereby the government can withhold funding from any college or educational program that discriminates 'on the ground of race, color, or national origin.'

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations cheered the move, saying:

With a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism at home and abroad in recent years, particularly on college campuses, the Jewish community has persistently advocated for the protections this measure provides against Jew-hatred.  Jewish students are now included in the groups protected under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meaning US institutions of higher education risk federal funding if they fail to act against anti-Semitic discrimination on their campuses. We hope this will abate the increasingly virulent Jew-hatred on display at some colleges and universities across the country.

The ADL welcomed the order, saying in a statement that it was "an important step acknowledging the growing concern about anti-Semitism on American college campuses."
But Truah, an organization of progressive rabbis, criticized the move, saying that the order  "purports to fight antisemitism while only reinforcing antisemitic stereotypes that suggest that Jews are not loyal to the countries where we live, and threatening first amendment rights including the right to criticize sovereign countries.  (The) Executive Order will actively fuel the rising tide of white nationalism and violence against Jews. To those Americans who harbor mistrust of their Jewish neighbors, this Executive Order gives credence to their belief that Jews are guilty of not just dual loyalty but principal loyalty to the nation-state of Israel, as opposed to the United States or any other country where a Jew lives. Too many Jews throughout history have lost their lives or have been expelled because of this unconscionable falsehood."       

I share the Conference of Presidents' concerns about protecting Jews on campus from attack (and our own TBE students have been personally involved in several such situations this semester, at places like Syracuse, Emory and Brown). But I much prefer another move that was made recently by the Administration, in Homeland Security's new (and sadly belated) effort to address the growing threat of White Supremacy. Jews on campus should never feel threatened for being Jewish (or supporters of Israel), but it's the growing network of emboldened White Supremacy that is killing Jews - and others - in Pittsburgh, Poway, El Paso and elsewhere.

My bottom line - let's address anti-Semitism in ALL its manifestations, on campus and off - but let's do it in a manner that does not change the legal definition of who Jews are.   

The unexpected consequences of a change of status could be significant.  If Jews are no longer to be seen as a religion but as a nation or ethnicity, how will we be able to claim religious discrimination if the Supreme Court decides to adopt the Christian (and decidedly non-Jewish) belief that human life begins at conception?

Whether we are seen as a religion or a nation, people are going to find reasons to hate. I hear that even Hallmark's making anti-Semitic Hanukkah movies this year.  Really. So I'm not sure how much it will really help Jews on campus for us to be seen as a nation.

Meanwhile, violent anti-Semitic attacks have spiked to levels unseen in decades. Researchers at Tel Aviv University in Israel said in May that attacks targeting Jews around the world rose by 13% in 2018, to nearly 400 cases; about one in four took place in the United States. The Anti-Defamation League said it found 1,879 anti-Semitic incidents reported throughout the United States in 2018.  And in Jersey City, Jews were killed this week because they were Jews, evidently by followers of an anti-Semitic Black Israelite sect that has nothing to do with Black Hebrews, other African Americans or Judaism. 

Just another group for us to track.

Happy Hanukkah!

On Account of a (Woman's) Hat

Over the past few weeks, while we were all being distracted by small things like Israel's endless election cycles and that little impeachment thing, something of truly earthshaking significance was happening under the radar: Conservative Judaism's Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued a landmark ruling on whether women and girls should wear yarmulkes or other head coverings during prayer. While this matter has been discussed for a long time, this was the first time a formal teshuvah was written and passed, by a vote of 16-1, with five abstaining.
And the answer: A resounding "Yesss! ...Sort of." As with everything in life and in Judaism, it's complicated. But the complexities illustrate important truths.
The responsum is 17 pages long - you can read it here - and we will unpacking the responsum at services this Shabbat morning - but let me cut to the chase and deliver it's four main recommendations:
1. Women and girls should cover their heads when reading from the Torah and when receiving an aliyah.
2. In deference to the notion of respecting the community (kavod ha-tzibbur), women and girls should cover their heads when acting as prayer leader.
3. When praying the three daily services - shaharit, minhah, or ma'ariv - as an individual, women and girls should cover their heads at least when reciting the
amidah and ideally during the entire prayer service.
4. Headcovering at other times is a matter of personal piety, and a woman or girl may cover her hair with a garment of her choice; that garment need not publicly identify her as a Jew.
There's a whole lot to digest here, but the recommendations do not stray far from our longstanding philosophy, which embraces both tradition and egalitarianism. We've long encouraged girls and women to wear tallit, for instance, but have respected that some have more traditional views on what is proper religious attire for women. That's part of what being pluralistic is all about. We need to be respectful of people's feelings and not be shaken when their priorities differ somewhat from ours.
The responsum provides some background to the dilemmas we face. It states:
For some women, a decision about headcovering rests on the following calculus: headcovering, while not obligatory for males, has long been understood as such a strong Jewish custom as to have become obligatory. Even if traditionally worn by men, a headcovering need not be inherently male. Thus, egalitarianism would suggest that women also understand themselves as part of this custom and similarly cover their heads.
For other women the decision rests on a different calculusheadcovering as a symbol of piety and Jewish identity has largely been a male practice. Women's headcovering is too easily identified (even if mistakenly) with women's hair covering after marriage. Headcovering, in this view, should not be conflated with covering one's hair (with a wig or in services, a doily) for reasons of modesty.
Furthermore, the problems of non-egalitarian practice cannot all be solved through a model that presumes men as the norm and requires women to imitate their practices. Since there is no decisive female tradition about headcovering and the lack of a headcovering does not have any ritual consequences, the male norm need not necessarily apply. Indeed, in contrast to tallit and tefillin which are both categorized as time-bound commandments, there is no specific commandment to cover one's head. Therefore, a woman who strongly believes in the obligation of both men and women to fulfill the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin might choose to take a different position in regard to headcovering. Recognizing the integrity of both of these positions and the commitment to egalitarian practice that each positions reflects, this teshuvah will lay out a halakhic path for women and girls who are deciding whether or not to cover their heads in synagogue and for communities considering communal policy on headcovering.
The crux of the matter is that since wearing a yarmulke is just a custom and not a matter of biblical or rabbinic law, we are welcome to be creative with it. The problem is that this custom has been practiced for so long that it has taken on the impact of something of far greater import than was originally intended. If you don't believe that, look at how indignant people get when a male visitor - Jew or non-Jew - forgets to don a kippah when entering our sanctuary. We get indignant because it is seen as disrespectful. Yet in so many synagogues of movements to our left, not wearing a
kippah is the norm, while in synagogues to our right, a woman wearing a yarmulke (as opposed to a wig or good ol' glam doilymight be looked at with scorn. That actually has happened at the Kotel of all places, where a while back, a security officer refused entry to one of the Women of the Wall for wearing a yarmulke.
What we put on our heads may not be a matter for halacha, but the choice carries enormous emotional baggage. Our ethnic and national identities, ideologies and tribal affiliations are all mixed in, along with gender considerations. If my hat has an interlocking N-Y, it conveys a very different message than one with a big, bold B. To be wearing the same garment means we are, to a degree, on the same "team."
In one of Shalom Aleichem's most famous stories, "On Account of a Hat," a pious but gullible Jew mistakenly exchanges hats with a gentile officer, and this ordinary Jew is suddenly treated like royalty. (See the storhere). Maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge by appearance or let looks be so important to us.
But the new CJLS responsum also reminds us that, to a degree, clothes do make the man - and woman. If we want to be true to our egalitarian ethic, we need to offer women the opportunity to be fully expressive of their Jewishness, right down to the choice of what to wear on their head. And we all need to be open to creative ways of taking our ideals and putting them into practice.

Human Rights Day

Finally, this week was Human Rights Day.  Our Jewish community used to mark this important anniversary with a public ceremony at Government Center each year.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed on Dec. 10, 1948 and it may have been the U.N.'s proudest hour.  During a week when we are profoundly concerned about maintaining democracy and human rights at home and abroad, concluding a year when people have been taking to the streets in Hong Kong, Lebanon, Algeria, France, Haiti, Indonesia, Chile, England, Russia, Hungary and, yes, the U.S., we need to be reminded of what is most sacred.  Download the poster below and take a few moments to reflect on it.  It helps to put things into perspective.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, December 6, 2019

Shabbat O Gram for December 6: Absurdities and Atrocities, Ukraine's Jewish President, A Daughter's Tribute, Dair-y Ask? The Torah's most AWKWARD Moment, Shabbat-O-Gram


I had the pleasure of welcoming our 7th graders to my office, 
as they planned next week's (mock) Brit Milah

Shabbat Shalom

Another busy weekend ahead here, along with the prospect of binge watching the new season of "The Marvelous Mrs Maisel." I caught the first episode last night, and cringed sympathetically along with Mrs. M as she tried to mouth the lyrics of "White Christmas." I've been there.

A special mazal tov to Jonathan and Allison Ostroff, who will be given the Harvey Peltz Award at this Sunday's UJF Annual Meeting.  Much deserved!  Also, mazal tov to the other TBE members being honored or elected, including Tara Shapiro, Cathy Satz and Caryn Halbrecht.

At Friday night services, Beth Styles and I will welcome a large group of BBYO teens, and I've prepared a special teen-friendly dvar Torah for tonight (which older folks will like too).  


Shabbat-in-the-Round on Shabbat morning will also be co-led by myself and Beth Styles.  Join us at 9:30 for the freshest muffins in town, with our meditative, informal service beginning at 9:45, followed by lunch, where we'll be joined by our growing number of Shabbabimbam and Kids-in-the-Round families.  During the service, we'll focus in on the most awkward scene of the entire Torah, when Jacob thinks he's marrying Rachel but wakes up with Leah.  Really...what was he thinking?  Click here to preview the Parsha Packet

Dair-y Ask?

An interesting question was raised regarding the Havdalah / progressive dinners on Saturday night (an event that is sold out).  Since some of the dinners will be meat meals, is it OK to serve dairy appetizers at the synagogue before people head out for dinner?  Traditionally, one waits a substantial amount of time between meat and dairy meals, but the reverse is not usually required. In other words, if you have cheese first, it isn't necessary to wait hours before a steak dinner.  But some more stringent rabbis would say that it depends on how hard the cheese is, since harder cheese gets stuck in your teeth and remains there.  It's all very complicated.  Did you realize that rabbis also had to be certified dentists?  Did they floss back then? For those who are interested in the hows, whats and whys of waiting between meat and dairy, you can read more about it here.

It's complicated, but the separation of milk and meat is among Judaism's most important rituals, for several reasons:

1) It is one of the most visible features of a kosher home.
2) It is not easy (although there are short cuts and it's not necessary to go way beyond the requirements), and practices that require extra effort are the ones that cement lifelong bonds to a tradition (or, I suppose, spur rebellion from it).  
3) It links Jews geographically.
4) It links Jews to our grandparents and other ancestors, going back centuries.
5) The idea is that milk is the stuff of life and meat symbolizes death - and Judaism emphasizes the separation of life and death, and the triumph, ultimately, of life.

Here is a more general discussion packet on Kashrut, and some links to additional "How tos" and "Whats."  Ultimately we ask: Why Kosher? Louis Jacobs writes, "Unlike the ethical and moral precepts of Judaism, the dietary laws seem to defy human reasoning. Why should it matter to religion what a man eats and, if it does matter, why are these particular items of food singled out as forbidden?" Maimonides believes it was a matter of good health.  Nachmanides sees it is beneficial to the soul rather than the body.  The Torah sees these laws through the prism of holiness.

From my perspective, the "whys" boil down to identity, spiritual discipline, ethics and social connection.  Kashrut preserves Jewish identity as a contact point for Jews across the globe and across the ages. Culture, after all, is transmitted though the stomach.  Tastes and smells are deeply embedded in our childhood memories.  Kashrut enables us to eat ethically and not indiscriminately, focusing on the sanctity of life and the pain of the animal.  It turns eating from a basic biological instinct to a sacred activity.  

All that said, my decision regarding this weekend's program is that it is OK for us to be serving cheese here before sending people off to their meat meals, since the location is changing, which gives enough time to elapse between the appetizer and the meal.

To Give or Not to Give? (and where?)

Register for our JTS Beyond Dispute series, which starts a week from Tuesday.  Our first session will provide Jewish sources lending perspective on the question as to whether we should focus on Jewish causes in our volunteer and philanthropic efforts, or more universal causes.  This quandary came through to me this week in two articles that appeared in the NY Times - on consecutive pages; one on the devastating impact of climate change (see below) and the other about an anti-Semitic attack on Jewish graves in Alsace (see photo above).  Which should take precedence for us?  (Spoiler alert - for me, there is no clear line between "Jewish and non-Jewish" causes, especially in regards to hate crimes and the environment.)   Register online for the class.


A Daughter's Tribute

Over the holiday week, the family of TBE's Matthew Klein gathered at our cemetery for his unveiling, marking a transitional moment of their grieving process.  Matthew's daughter Samantha shared some lovely words on that occasion, and she has now published them on the website of "Modern Loss," co-founded by TBE's Gabi Birkner.  I've attached the link below, along with some of her introductory words.  I am so proud of Samantha for taking her pain and transforming it into a balm that can help to soothe others who are suffering.

The following is something I've been writing on and off for the past year and a half. Although I could keep re-writing it forever and ever (I break out my laptop to work on it whenever I hear a song or watch a movie or see an object that reminds me of my dad...which is pretty darn often), I decided today, the second anniversary of my father's passing, was the last day I would work on it and that it was time to get it out into the world and for my fingers and tear ducts to take a much needed break. It's not a masterpiece, but it'll do.

I'm sharing it with all of you because I'm hoping it can help and touch individuals who haven't necessarily lost someone close to them (knock on wood!), so that it reminds you to appreciate them while whomever it may be is still on this earth. I also hope it provides some sliver of hope and / or comfort for those who haven't yet dealt with their grief over the loss of a loved one, and happen upon this while not looking for it. Please feel free to share it with anyone who you think it would benefit.

Ukraine's Jewish President
If you have a chance, read the Atlantic's profile of Ukraine's President Zelensky, by Franklin Foer, a really important article, for lots of reasons, not the least of which being the underappreciated Jewish angle to this story. Ukraine is the only nation in that area to have seen a DECREASE in anti-Semitism since 2014, as opposed to Hungary, Poland, and other more Putin-friendly (and corrupt) nations. Ukraine is the place that brought us the Cossacks (read this backgrounder and weep) and the notorious Ukrainian prison guards at Treblinka, including Ivan the Terrible. It has a horrible history of Jew hatred. But part of their heroic response in standing up to Russia has been their willingness to stand up to their own history of anti-Semitism. America should unequivocally support these trends as we continue to defend Ukraine and the reforms of Zelensky's anti-corruption movement.  It would be naive to state that anti-Semitism has been wiped out in Ukraine.  But Foer's article describes an authentic national teshuvah taking place in the least likely of places.  

See a few excerpts below:
As I watched Zelensky rise from afar, I couldn't quite believe that Ukraine would elect a Jewish vaudevillian as its president. My grandmother came from western Ukraine, and I grew up hearing bitter stories about the anti-Semitism of her neighbors. When I first visited the country, in 2002, her voice rattled around my head. I decided against announcing my Jewishness to my translator, although I struggled to fabricate fresh reasons to refuse the pork he kept ordering for me. During one of our meals, he confirmed the wisdom of my reticence by noting confidingly, "Stalin was a bastard to Ukraine because he was a Jew." (Stalin was a bastard, but he was not a Jew.)...

In the past few years, nearly every European nation has witnessed a surge of anti-Semitism. Ukraine, still home to at least 50,000 Jews, is the miraculous exception to this trend. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that only 5 percent of Ukrainians reject Jews as their fellow citizens-the lowest number among the countries surveyed in the region. Although vandalism of synagogues and cemeteries persists-and the country has a weakness for venerating 20th-century heroes who instigated pogroms-there hasn't been a single anti-Semitic assault reported in the country since August 2016. (If only New York City could say the same.) A researcher named Vyacheslav Likhachev told me that surveys show that Ukrainian parents would be pleased if their daughters married Jewish men, because Jews are identified with devotion to family.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine cemented this new philo-Semitism. The Kremlin's tactics didn't consist just of storm troopers and militias. Propaganda depicted Ukrainians as neo-Nazis. "There was a steady drumbeat from Russia that a fascist junta was taking over," according to Sam Sokol, the author of Putin's Hybrid War and the Jews. In the face of this slander, Ukrainians self-consciously set out to debunk the charge. "Anti-Semitism dropped sharply after the Russian invasion," Likhachev told me. Ultra-nationalist political parties, which the Russians portrayed as dominant, performed terribly in the subsequent elections. 

Absurdities and Atrocities

WATCH this viral video of Sacha Baron Cohen at the recent ADL "Never is Now" summit in New York.  He was the keynote speaker and his address is well worth 20 minutes of your time.  As 2020 approaches, we are seeing once again the massive injection of conspiracy theories and coordinated "fake news" attacks by operatives, foreign and domestic, on the platforms of social media.  Facebook, Google and Twitter, especially, need to take concerted action to protect our democracy.  We have become much more savvy but even the most savvy among us can easily fall victim to what he calls "the most sophisticated propaganda machine in history."  Below is the video link, along with some quotes from the address, which can be read in full at

ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019
ADL International Leadership Award Presented to Sacha Baron Cohen at Never Is Now 2019
"Voltaire was right, "those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."  And social media lets authoritarians push absurdities to billions of people."

Zuckerberg speaks of welcoming a "diversity of ideas," and last year he gave us an example. He said that he found posts denying the Holocaust "deeply offensive," but he didn't think Facebook should take them down "because I think there are things that different people get wrong."  At this very moment, there are still Holocaust deniers on Facebook, and Google still takes you to the most repulsive Holocaust denial sites with a simple click.  One of the heads of Google once told me, incredibly, that these sites just show "both sides" of the issue.  This is madness.  To quote Edward R. Murrow, one "cannot accept that there are, on every story, two equal and logical sides to an argument."  We have millions of pieces of evidence for the Holocaust-it is an historical fact.  And denying it is not some random opinion.  Those who deny the Holocaust aim to encourage another one.

Take the issue of political ads.  Fortunately, Twitter finally banned them, and Google is making changes, too.  But if you pay them, Facebook will run any "political" ad you want, even if it's a lie.  And they'll even help you micro-target those lies to their users for maximum effect.  Under this twisted logic, if Facebook were around in the 1930s, it would have allowed Hitler to post 30-second ads on his "solution" to the "Jewish problem."  So here's a good standard and practice: Facebook, start fact-checking political ads before you run them, stop micro-targeted lies immediately, and when the ads are false, give back the money and don't publish them.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman