Wednesday, December 31, 2008

This was NOT taken at my shul!

...but it is indicative of the kind of anger that is being felt out there, anger that needs to be channelled into something a little more positive. If this actually was taken from a real synagogue (and is not simply the product of an expert photo-shopper), I'd like to know, 1) where it is, 2) whose idea this was and 3) whether the executive director and rabbi have long-term contracts!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

What is Excommunication?

My suggestion that Jewish leaders explore ways to modify the concept of excommunication to fit the current context has spurred interest in that fascinating topic. In a recent interview (
with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic, my colleague David Wolpe preferred some form of shunning to outright excommunication, but I think we are dealing with semantics here. What needs to happen is something that hasn't been totally invented yet.

Some resources:

The Wikipedia entry ( lists 24 offenses mentioned in the Talmud that, in theory, were punishable by a form of niddui or temporary excommunication. Maimonides (as well as later authorities) enumerates them.

The classic Jewish Encyclopedia, over a century old and now entirely online, details especially the biblical background. And then, at and it surveys the medieval use of cherem.

Here is an excerpt:

It may be concluded, therefore, that the rabbinical Anathema, in its developments, was designed to conserve the morality of the community. In the hands of the teachers of the Law it was applied, with scrupulous care, to protect the community against offenders. It was not hastily pronounced. The transgressor was repeatedly warned to mend his ways, to repent, or to make restitution. It was only after every mode of remonstrance had been exhausted, and the offender's pertinacity had become evident, that the corrective powers of the ḥerem were invoked. Three successive times—on Monday, on Thursday, and on the following Monday—the culprit was publicly exhorted. Only when his obduracy continued was the ban pronounced, in the offender's presence, with the formula: "N. N. is excommunicated," or, in his absence, in the words: "Let N. N. be excommunicated" (Maimonides, "Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah; Hilkot Talmud Torah," vii.), without any statement of the reasons for which the Anathema was pronounced. In extreme cases, however, the reasons were publicly given; and then the ban was preceded by blowing the shofar. The ban could be removed by a rabbi or a college of three laymen (Maimonides, ib.).

See for a fascinating exploration of how the early Hasidim were banned by the contemporary rabbinic authorities (called the Mitnagdim). When you think about it, the who's who of the excommunicated (Mordechai Kaplan, Maimonides, Spinoza, the Baal Shem Tov) would comprise an all-time lineup in the Jewish Hall of Fame. I'm far from being in their league, but I'm sure there are rabbis out there who have banned me a few times over, along with the rest of my Conservative colleagues.

So it is clear that this tool has been abused, or at the very least used short sightedly. But there is a difference between those shunned for thier supposedly dangerous or heretical ideas and those who are shunned because of their colossal crimes.

For a religion that preaches tolerance, and it does, Judaism has long been preoccupied with how to deal with outcasts. It needs to be done with great care - and the ultimate step taken only in a situation where it is really warrented. I believe that such is the case with Bernard Madoff.

Feedback on Madoff and More From the Jerusalem Post Interview

I received this feedback from congregant (and active Hadassah member) Rhonna Rogol:

Having recently returned from out of town and immersed in dealing with the repercussions of the Madoff scandal for our Hadassah chapter and Region, I'm just now starting to reflect on your proposal, which I think might be exactly the way to go. It is a courageous and ingenious proposition.

So far only one concern, which is the risk of future misuse. How to we prevent the re-insitiution of the cherem mechanism from potentially being unleashed inappropriately in the future for all sorts of moral outrages and by those who would not be as discriminating as you in how and on whom to impose it? For example, I could easily see from recent community hostility and pre-judgment vis a vis a formerly respected community member recently arrested, that some would be only too ready to advocate total rejection and isolation for him---and this is even before any finding of guilt. What about the Herman Rosenblat who just admitted to fabricating a story about the Shoah (so very damaging in giving would be Holocaust deniers fuel for their ugly fire)? Is he a candidate for a similar punishment? Would that be justifiable in the eyes of some? What about the risk of overzealousness kidnapping the process--is it possible that in Israel (or even here) narrow-minded religious authorities could attempt to hijack the process to impose cherem on more liberal religious leaders? You see where I am going with this. Am I anticipating things that are not realistic? (Pls feel free to post this on the blog).


It so happens that this concern about setting a dangerous precedent was addressed in my responses to other questions posed by the Jerusalem Post's Shmuel Rosner, which for purpose of length did not make it into the blog. Here are those additional questions:

3. The organizations of the Jewish community have no moral authority that rabbis used to have in the past. Don't you think that mixing political leadership with action once taken by religious leadership can be problematic?

Here is a chance to build a new lay-rabbinic partnership, a magnificent opportunity to clean up our communal act. For decades, there has been a power struggle based on an artificial separation of “synagogue” and “state.” Where does true leadership reside? Are the criteria based on education, charisma or the size of one’s portfolio? As our society has become increasingly materialistic, all too often equating net worth with self worth, we’ve begun to see an unraveling of moral leadership. Madoff was honored by institutions both secular and religious. In order to create a new standard for leadership, we need to bring together those two arenas and reaffirm the purity of giving and the mitzvah of tzedakkah. It’s important to add that this is not just a Jewish problem. All Americans are guilty, to some degree, of worshiping at the altar of wealth and celebrity. This is not a particularly Jewish problem, but I am hoping that we Jews can now take the lead in forging a solution.

I think this is something that the wealthy desire as much as anyone. Those who have been honest and good, as well as successful – and there are so many – have had their reputations sullied most of all by Madoff.

4. Aren't you afraid that by acting in such way you will be opening the way for future, maybe more controversial, similar actions against people with which the community-leadership have differences?

No question that with the centralization of power comes the real potential for the abuse of power. That’s why I’m glad we don’t have a chief rabbinate here in America. We’ve seen how that’s worked out in Israel. I do not see this as a precedent-setting measure; rather it should be portrayed as something akin to a “nuclear option,” meant to be employed on a one-time basis. The uniqueness of this action would help people recognize the severity and unprecedented nature of Madoff’s crime. This action will also involve painful soul-searching, a process that I don’t think people will be too quick want to replicate.

5. How practical do you think is this offer - and do you believe it will really happen?

Grass roots initiatives have done pretty well this year (see: Obama, Barack). In fact, I see a new philanthropic model possibly emerging from the kind of giving that fueled the Presidential campaign: Less reliance on the centralized financial muscle of the few and a greater sense of buy-in by the masses. I’ve already gotten positive signals from Hoenlein and other leaders that my ideas are being taken seriously. I know they are groping for the right response. People are still in shock. Many organizations are still at the stage where they are counting their losses. Many are afraid that by pointing the finger at Madoff we’ll just give fodder to the anti-Semites. But they underestimate just how much damage he has caused, not merely to Jews but to Judaism itself.

All Jews are representatives of God and Torah. The Talmud has a story of Shimon ben Shetach, a sage of modest means who lived in the 1st century BCE. One day his students bought him a donkey from an Arab in the market. When they presented the donkey to their teacher, suddenly a precious jewel fell from its fur. The students were overjoyed. Their teacher would be financially secure for the rest of his life. But the sage insisted on bringing the jewel back to its rightful owner, the Arab in the shuk. Upon receiving the gem, the Arab said, “Praised be the God of Shimon ben Shetach.”

What Shimon did was a sanctification of God’s name (a Kiddush ha-Shem). Bernie Madoff, on the other hand, performed the greatest act of “Hillul ha-shem” (desecration of the divine Name) that we’ve seen, perhaps ever. In the rogue’s gallery of Jews who have done such a disservice to the Jewish faith, it would be hard to find one who was so honored by the very people he was betraying.

So, do I believe it will really happen? If not cherem, then something must happen. In this case, we can’t just simply round up the usual suspects. If we just let it ride and pretend it will go away, the ones who will go away will be our own people, our own children. They are watching.

Jerusalem Post Interview

Transcript of my interview with Shmuel Rosner of the Jerusalem Post:

Rosner's Domain: Rabbi Joshua Hammerman on "excommunicating" Bernard Madoff

A couple of days ago, rabbi Joshua Hammerman have sent an open letter to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. He had an idea: to initiate action leading to the excommunication of Bernard Madoff. Since then, he got many reactions, and was on TV to explain. I'm going to ask him a couple of tough and inquisitive questions.
Here we go:

You called upon Jewish leaders to "excommunicate" Barnard Madoff. Why?

The term "excommunicate" really is insufficient here and, as I indicate in the letter, there is a need to create an entirely new category of response. I used the term because in the past, "excommunication" (or, more precisely, cherem) was that ultimate manner for a Jewish community to express its outrage. We have no such tool today and thus far, the response of the organized Jewish community has been tepid, lacking the sense of moral outrage and betrayal that most Jews need to hear.

Ancient and medieval excommunication was both a political and religious response by the community, recognizing not only a moral failing on the part of an individual but also a communal distancing from God. For example, the book of Joshua speaks of a situation when proscribed booty (cherem) was taken illegally following the destruction of a Canaanite city. The entire community was stained by that single act of greed and they suffered for it.

I feel a need for purification here. We have all been sullied. I feel personally violated. My synagogue's teens received free Israel trips three years ago because of the generosity of the Lappin Foundation in Boston, but because that money had all been "invested" in Madoff's fund, that gift that we received was in essence stolen money. It was no fault of the Lappin foundation, of course - and now that foundation has ceased to exist. But think of all the funds that have been tainted, as well as those individuals who have suffered greatly. The simple act of giving tzedakkah has lost its integrity, its purity. Think of all the organizations impacted: Hadassah (lost $90 million), Spielberg, Wiesel. Even should their causes survive, they are tainted. Even those organizations not directly impacted may have profited in some manner from this money that was stolen from innocent people. Every penny that Madoff ever donated is dirty money. While this disaster can never be equated with those episodes in Jewish history where people were murdered, we've lost our innocence here in another, very profound way. It's a moral catastrophe.

What does "excommunicating" him means in practice - is it just symbolic or do you also envision some real actions that should be taken?

It could well end up being primarily symbolic, but it would nonetheless be very powerful. This is a horrible situation, but it presents us with an unprecedented teaching moment. Jews and non Jews alike can now learn that Jewish tradition states that when we enter Paradise, the first question that will be asked of us is whether we were honest in business. The consequences to Madoff should have meaning, but what would be most meaningful would be a constructive effort to address the pain of those who have suffered most - in particular, the work that was done by many of those foundations (both Jewish and non-Jewish). Perhaps a Superfund of sorts could be created to do just that (yes, a moral bailout). A joint statement affirming the prime Jewish values of honesty and integrity in business, along with the primacy of tzedakkah, would be especially powerful if it cuts across all the denominational and organizational fault lines that have for too long divided Jews.

The idea is not to tar-and-feather Madoff; however, I would personally welcome neither him nor his money in my synagogue at present -and a statement to that effect made by the major denominations would have a powerful impact, especially among those who might be inclined to abuse trust in the manner that he did.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Appearances on FOX TV

To see a streaming video of my appearance on FOX Business Network today, click on

See it on YouTube at

To see a streaming video of my interview on New York's FOX 5 Newscast, click on

To listen to the hour-long radio interview done on Barry Farber's syndicated radio show this poast Tuesday, click on and go down to Barry Farber, then click on Tuesday's show. The interview took place during the second hour of the two hour program. Or you can try cutting and pasting this directly into your browser: mms://

Sunday, December 28, 2008

More on Madoff: Reactions to My Letter

Since my open letter calling for Bernard Madoff's excommunication was picked up by the JTA and went viral on Friday, I've received a number of interesting e-mails from all over the world, from Jews and non-Jews. I've also seen the letter pop up in various blogs, including one that used it for anti-Semitic purposes. Overall, the response has been very positive, as I believe I've touched an important nerve in promoting this conversation. Most seem to have understood that my call was not to implement an outmoded medieval punishment, but rather to devise something completely new, based on the principles of forming a community wide response to a particular outrage or heresy, one that expresses the unprecedented nature and severity of the offense.

I've heard even more of the pain that has been felt, both by Jews and non-Jews. One person wrote:

Your reasoning in the letter outlines persuasively the horrible damage Mr. Madoff has done to so many people and organizations. One of my Jewish friends has lost her entire inheritance - $14,000,000. She has cancer and her husband suffers from the last stages of senility. Another Christian friend of mine who also has debilitating cancer lost 40% of his liquid assets. He's selling his house.

I am sure you are aware of all the nightmares now afflicting our People and others. Bernie Madoff not only has destroyed the dreams and hopes of thousands, he has decimated the Jewish soul.

On Monday, I'll be appearing in studio on Fox Business News, and I hope to impress upon their audience that the goal of my plea is not to tar and feather a crook, not to designate a scapegoat and be done with it. No, I am hoping to help people recognize the depth of pain and the hurt, the confusion and the mistrust, and then find ways to seize on this teaching moment to help everyone understand what values Judaism stands for. And then we need to seize this nearly unprecedented opportunity to generate a collective response that cuts across all the former fault lines of Jewish communal life. I hope that response can be a positive one, one that promotes compassion and healing - perhaps even including the creation of a Superfund of sorts for those humanitarian causes, Jewish and non-Jewish, so damaged by the scandal.

Madoff is a Jew, which matters to other Jews not merely because he betrayed his "family," but because every Jew is a representative of the Torah's values - we are all exemplars. This story from the Talmud illustrates it best, describing the great early sage (1st century BCE), Simeon ben Shetach:

Simeon's fairness toward gentiles is illustrated by the following narrative: Simeon lived in humble circumstances, supporting himself and his family by conducting a small business in linen goods. Once his pupils presented him with a donkey which they had purchased from an Arab. On the neck of the animal they found a costly jewel, whereupon they joyously told their master that he might now cease toiling since the proceeds from the jewel would make him wealthy. Simeon, however, replied that the Arab had sold them the ass only, and not the jewel; and he returned the gem to the Arab, who exclaimed, "Praised be the God of Simeon ben Shetach!"

There is one other Talmudic story that I've been seeing quoted often lately. It is from tractate Shabbat 31a, and it states that the first question each of us will be asked when we reach the gates of paradise will be: "Did you conduct your business transactions in good faith?"

The other questions have to do with setting aside time for Torah study, with procreation, hoping for redemption and seeking wisdom. But honesty and trustworthiness in business come first. Even before studying Torah. And honoring parents isn't anywhere to be found.

We also read in a collection of midrash: "Whoever conducts his business dealings honestly is liked by humankind and it is considered as though he observed the entire Torah." (Mechilta Exodus 15:26).

It is becoming clearer by the day the degree to which Madoff's actions were a betrayal of Torah itself. We all stumble from time to time, especially in the murky world of business ethics. But this was an all-time stumble (A friend of mine is convinced that he actually slid into this, because, unlike most Ponzi schemers, he had no exit strategy. Possible, but tell that to the person with the cancer who lost 40 percent of his liquid assets.)

Yes, excommunication has been misused in the past (Maimonides and Spinoza, for example) and the English term connotes something considered un-Jewish (communion). But the concept of "cherem" is very Jewish. The idea of removing impurity from the community is also Jewish. So is responsibility to help repair an aching world. So we need to act.

The question is how?

Friday, December 26, 2008

A Hanukkah Message: Stolen Miracles

People often get hung up on the nature of the “miracle of the oil.” Many historians now agree that this miracle, which does not appear in print until the Talmud, in other words, a good 6-7 centuries after the events of Hanukkah occurred, probably was not a key factor in the early observance of the festival. Those observances had more to do originally with the Maccabees’ military victory (in itself miraculous, but later downplayed by the rabbis for strategic and political purposes). Hanukkah undoubtedly also has some roots in ancient winter solstice celebrations that cut across cultural boundaries.

But the question of whether the miracle of eight days of oil actually happened is of little concern to me. Even assuming there was little sanctified olive oil left at the time they lit the temple’s menorah – a safe bet, since the Greeks had been on a defiling spree – for me the miracle was not how long it lasted, but that the Jews had the faith to light the menorah at all. They knew full well that the resource was scarce but somehow they defied the odds and believed that it might just last – and it is that faith, as much as the flame itself, that filled with the temple, and all of Zion, with a new light.

It is the same faith that led Joseph, in this week’s portion, to manage the most precious economic resources of the Egyptians, their crops, during the seven years of plenty. The returns were tremendous, but he stored the excess away safely. Then, during the seven years of famine that followed, enough remained to feed not only the entire population of Egypt, but also those of surrounding nations, in their version of a global economy.

Joseph was a sound, visionary and responsible money manager. The miracle of Egyptian and Israelite survival depended on it. It was a miracle forged in faith. The people had faith in him, his vision and his wisdom, and he did not abuse it.

What Bernard Madoff did was revealed only over the past few weeks, but it comes on the heels of numerous other blows to our faith in the people who handle our resources. We’ve lost faith in the ability of our leaders and companies to handle money responsibly. We’ve lost faith in our future. And now, in large part because of Madoff, we’ve lost faith even in the goodness and purity of tzedakkah itself.

In Jewish law, this breach of faith is considered a form of stealing, (called G’neivat Da’at), the stealing of one’s hopes, the theft of trust. Of course in this case, it also involves the actual theft of money. But it is the less tangible form of stealing that is perhaps the most damaging. All forms of cheating fall under this category. Detailed discussions of the subject can be found at and

Click on for a nice survey of recent articles (in the NY Times and elsewhere) where people discuss how Madoff’s Ponzi scheme was indeed G’neivat Da’at of an almost inconceivable and unprecedented degree.

I’ve discussed elsewhere my feelings of disgust about Madoff. Rarely have we been so in need of a communal cleansing. But it seems pointless to focus totally on the negative, on distancing ourselves from Madoff and him from civilized society.

Yesterday I saw the timely and transcendent film “Doubt,” in which deception plays a big role. A key idea expressed by the Meryl Streep character is she understood that her deceitful actions necessarily distanced herself from God (even though she felt the ends ultimately justified the means). We need to recognize that here, as well, our focus should not simply be to distance ourselves from Madoff so much as to recognize how, through his breach of faith, we all feel much more distant now from God.

Where there is no trust, God is distant. Where miracles cease, cynicism begins. We’re feeling very cynical about things right now.

So we light the candles tonight, and more tomorrow, and more yet the next day, until our homes are glowing with wall to wall light, enough to light up the world outside. For now, maybe it’s best to channel our anger and frustration into more positive energy.

Who cares about the amount of oil that burned or its cost per barrel! The miracle is that we continue to produce light at all – that, after all that has happened, we still have enough faith to ignite that next match.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

An Open Letter to Malcolm Hoenlein Regarding Bernard Madoff

I have sent this open letter to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Malcolm I. Hoenlein
Executive Vice Chairman
Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Dec. 23, 2008

Dear Mr. Hoenlein,

I call upon the leadership of the American Jewish community, specifically the Council of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations - which includes both lay and rabbinic groups – to initiate action leading to the excommunication of Bernard Madoff.

Such a move would be unprecedented in the annals of American Jewry, and by its scope and power, perhaps in all of Jewish history. But never before has one man done such damage to individual Jews, Jewish organizations and Judaism itself. His actions were a betrayal of trust of an unprecedented degree. An overwhelming and overpowering statement of condemnation is essential. A clear message needs to be sent to others who might also be involved in similar schemes, to the Jewish public seeking moral leadership and to the public at large.

There have been many who have done more harm to Jews. To my knowledge, Madoff has not killed anyone (update: Rene-Thierry Magon de la Villehuchet committed suicide on Tuesday, after the hedge fund he operated lost $1.4 billion because of Madoff). But the foundations and charities he has harmed irreparably will prevent people from getting needed health care or educational assistance, will likely keep Jewish youth from rediscovering their identities and aged Holocaust survivors from recording their stories. Mark Charendoff of the Jewish Funders Network described it to “The Forward” in near apocalyptic terms, as "an atomic bomb in the world of Jewish philanthropy.” An apocalyptic crime calls for an unprecedented response.

But the greatest damage done by Madoff has been to Judaism itself.

David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote in a letter to the New York Times of his concern that the Times’ coverage of Madoff had placed a “striking emphasis on his being Jewish.” But the Times is hardly alone in drawing that connection: Google “Madoff” and “Jewish” and 295,000 Web links already appear. The ADL called this a spike in online anti-Semitism. So we have a situation where Jews are being blamed for a crime that has disproportionately harmed Jews. I can understand why Jewish organizations are jittery about anti-Semites having a field day on this matter, but the most effective way to address it is through a clear repudiation not only of Madoff himself, but of the anti-Judaic nature of his acts.

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. On so many levels, beginning with that commandment about not stealing, Jewish tradition abhors what Madoff has done. Unless we Jews raise our voices louder than anyone else in condemnation of these acts , we are not only giving credence to all the false images being perpetrated by the anti-Semites, but we are perpetuating what the ancient sages dubbed a “hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of God’s name.

Rabbis have employed excommunication often over the centuries, particularly in chasing down husbands who refuse to grant religious divorces to their wives; but usually the impact has been localized. In medieval times, it was used as a political weapon against alleged heretics, like Spinoza and some Karaites. In our time this tool has lost its clout, simply because the Jewish community lacks unity, and because rabbinic sanction has little impact outside the ultra-Orthodox world.

But Madoff’s crimes cut across the Jewish spectrum - like a hatchet, not a scalpel. Hadassah reportedly lost $90 million; the Robert E. Lappin Foundation of Boston, which sent twenty of my community’s teens to Israel for free two years ago, was forced to shut down. Imagine if all the organizations represented by the Council of Presidents were to come together and say, flat out, that Madoff has done irreparable harm to Jews and Judaism and that he is not welcome in any synagogue, JCC or Federation event anywhere. No rabbi will marry him or bury him. No organization will make excuses for him. He is to be cut off. Period.

The mechanism for excommunication would need to be devised from scratch, along with the precise consequences. There would need to be a degree of rabbinic and lay cooperation that we’ve rarely if ever seen among Jews in this country. We are in uncharted territory. But to this point, the response of the organized Jewish community to this scandal has been tepid at best, likely because many fear the anti-Semitic backlash that, ironically, will only be exacerbated by continued tentativeness. Most of those directly impacted by the scandal were blameless save for their blind faith, but too many traveled in the same social circles that honored this man for all the wrong reasons; too many proclaimed his genius. Those images are what will remain unless American Jewry recognizes that there is something rotten that must be exorcised from our culture and from our midst. Some have said that what we need is the equivalent of a moral bailout. What we certainly need is resolute action.

Ultimately, it’s not because of the anti-Semites that this needs to be tackled head-on. Our own children are watching us. If the communal response to Madoff is concerted, unified and reasonable, this could be American Jewry’s finest hour. If not, it will be the continuation of our worst nightmare.


Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Phyllis Chesler: "We'll all be on trial with Madoff"

See Phyllis Chesler's blog on Madoff:

"Few saw the Madoff scandal as necessarily a 'Jewish' problem. They were mainly progressives, thinkers, sophisticated. They did not behave in such ways and they viewed themselves as the true Princes of Israel. If anyone was worried or ashamed, it didn’t show. I doubt that anyone at this Bar Mitzva had invested or lost money with Madoff. It was not that kind of crowd. But, it was Shabbos, we were at a simcha, and obliged to make merry. People were not supposed to be on worry-duty. And yet, a degree of slow-motion complacency, even denial, characterized the affect of those with whom I’d raised the subject. They did not seem to understand that we’ll all be on trial with Madoff, the innocent as well as the guilty, those who are poor, and those who are rich and greedy for more, those Jews who fight for justice for Palestinians and those Jews who fight for justice for religious settlers."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

More on Madoff: The "E" Word

My prior entry on the Madoff scandal has elicited some comments that are worth posting and discussing, with the permission of the authors, who are Beth El congregants, people whom I've known and respected for years.

The first is from Hal Trencher, and it comes as a direct challenge to me:

Hello Rabbi...David , my son sent along your blog regarding Madoff...I have read it and reread it, and upon that I am e-mailing you. I think I get your message, but, I am deeply disappointed in your words, including Shylock and Shanda seems paltry in describing this low life human being...and I am quite certain his wife and probably sons, though, they have judicially not spoken to their parents since they turned their father in....think about all the hurt this man has done to people, trusted friends, children in need, synagogues, Jewish philanthropy's, everyday people, and scores no doubt, when you describe this as a Shanda , I imagine you mean, a sin...well, Madoff is more than a sin!! He is vile , and used misguided and false caring, relationships, business dealings and most of all, his Jewishness to bilk them all....I feel so passionate, that upon hearing of this , before it would grow in severity, I wondered how this would re enforce our Jewish image, world wide and it the most poorest, here is where you can come...not as much personally, but of a man of religion, values, principles, ethics, and perhaps most of all, a leader of a congregation, and taking a position of disgust and unacceptability....that is what people want, I know I want someone who sees right from wrong, evil from good and represents what we should / or at the very least they stand for....Madoff gives you that opportunity, I hope you see that too, and express that to the many, that find him an absolutely disgusting human being and gets his just can start with you....thank you for listening...think about, Ht

I take Hal's words very seriously. And he's right. Being mad at Madoff is not enough. As Jews and as moral human beings we all need to express disgust, not merely for the man, though, but for the culture that enabled him to thrive and gain respect, a culture populated by many of the leaders of the organizations he has harmed. And now people will suffer greatly because of his crimes: some may be denied crucial medical care, others a chance at an education. The more we learn about the extent of this Ponzi scheme, as well as the extent of the damage, the more shocking it becomes.

How do we translate our disgust into action, aside from merely dissociating ourselves from it?

It’s not sufficient to say merely that the man only happened to be Jewish (see David Harris of the AJC’s letter in the New York Times– “Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?”

Well yes, David it DOES matter that he is Jewish, because as one who has been given a place of honor at the table of the Jewish establishment, whose cronies have been equally honored, it means there is something rotten that we need to recognize and exorcise from our culture and from our midst.

Heschel said that in a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible. If we do not raise our voices louder than anyone else, not simply because we are moral but because we are Jews, with ethical principles that abhor such action, we are giving credence to all the false images being perpetrated by the anti-Semites.

Speaking of which, here is what my second congregant, Beth Boyer, sent me.

Hi Josh,

WRT your blog entry on Madoff and the similarities to the Joseph selling, you end by saying, "Madoff is not the first to have sold out his brothers for a couple of shekels."Of course, Joseph was sold at the suggestion of his brother Judah, which brought to my mind that other story of someone being sold, not for a couple of skekels, but for 30 pieces of silver, also by someone named Judah (spelled a tiny bit different when translated from Greek).

It is not unheard of for those who betray people to be compared to Judas, to wit:

Of course, Madoff's betrayal is much more likely to give anti-Semites reason to gloat. After all, it is thought that "Judas" comes from "Jew," see below from wikipedia. Madoff will be in the news for a long time to come, and the news will not be pretty, not within our community, and not towards it.

[edit] Anti-Semitism
Jewish scholar Hyam Maccoby suggests that in the New Testament, the name "Judas" was intended as an attack on the Judaeans or on the Judaean religious establishment held responsible for executing Christ.[29] The English word "Jew" is derived from the Latin Iudaeus, which, like the Greek Ιουδαίος (Ioudaios), could also mean "Judaean". In the Gospel of John, the original writer or a later editor may have tried to draw a parallel between Judas, Judaea, and the Judaeans (or Jews) in verses 6:70-7:1, which run like this in the King James Bible:6:70

Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? 6:71 He spoke of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve. 7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. In Greek, the earliest extant language of the Gospels, the words Judas — Jewry — Jews run like this: Ιούδας (Ioudas) — Ιουδαία (Ioudaia) — Ιουδαίοι (Ioudaioi). Whatever the original intentions of the original writers or editors of the Gospel of John, however, some argue that the similarity between the name "Judas" and the words for "Jew" in various European languages has helped facilitate anti-Semitism. He has also been seen as parallel to Judah, son of Jacob, by such writers as Charles Fillmore and John Shelby Spong

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a supreme challenge before us. We need a prophet's words right now; nothing less can help us. I thank Hal Trencher for his faith in me, but I'm not sure that even Jeremiah would be up to this task. But we've all got to try.

We need words like those recited by Elie Wiesel before President Reagan when he was going to visit that S.S. cemetery in Bitburg. He said, "That place, Mr. President, is not your place."

With the same passion, we need to say that any place where Bernard Madoff resides in security and honor is not a place for Jews. No, by employing this analogy, I am not saying that he is a Nazi. I am saying that we are Reagan. Any association with Madoff sullies the person, institution and yes, even the religion of that person. His life has been far worse than a "shanda," it's been a complete hillul hashem (see a defamation even of God's name.

It has been a long time since the entire Jewish world united on much of anything, but maybe it can unite around this. It has also been a long time since Jewish communities utilized the last resort sanction of excommunication in a constructive manner, save for the humiliation of some recalcitrant husbands.

I propose that the American Jewish community excommunicate Madoff.

There. I've brought up the "E" word for the first time in my professional career, and I bring it up as a representative of the Jewish people and the Torah that we hold so dear. This situation is every bit as dire from a moral perspective as the economy has been from a fiscal one. We need a moral bailout, or everything we cherish will corrode.

I challenge the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations to take up the question of excommunication (known in Hebrew as "Cherem") for Bernard Madoff.

If you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

Maybe David Harris could write up the resolution.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hanukkah with the Mayor

On Thursday, a number of our Hebrew School students serenaded Mayor Dan Malloy and others at Stamford's Government Center in a public celebration of Hanukkah. Here are some photos of the big event. Click on them to enlarge.

Hanukkah Links and How-To's

Hanukkah begins this Sunday night. Here are some ways to enhance your celebration:

1) Best of the Web Hanukkah links and resources:

2) How do I "do" Hanukkah at home (a concise guide to lighting):

3) Light your Hanukkiah while watching the lighting live at the Western Wall! Find the Kotel webcams at

4) Hanukkah as the holiday of the Home -

Snow in Jewish Culture - Spiritual Web Journey

"God says to the snow, 'Fall on the earth...'"Job 37:6

With lots of snow predicted for this weekend, here are some little-known "facts" about snow in Jewish tradition and lore (some more serious than others):


Many traditional Jewish congregations refuse to count snowmen in the prayer quorum.

Medieval Jewish mystics practiced rolling in the snow to purge themselves from evil urges. They were the first snow angels.

Moses Maimonides, 10th century physician to the Egyptian Khalif, prescribed snow as a cure for the hot Cairo summers.

The elders of Safed have 36 different words for snow -- but none for snow removal.

During 3 particularly cold Sinai winters, the Israelites were led by a pillar of snow.

It is forbidden to write in the snow on the Sabbath.
(if you are interested in this topic, see and – halachot on writing on Shabbat and on walking on snow

Following the great Jerusalem blizzard of 1900, Zionist visionary Theodor Herzl proposed the "Uganda option."

According to some rabbinic authorities, one must wait six hours between going out in the snow and in the rain.

On snowy days, the procession of King Solomon's immediate family was pulled by 2,800 reindeer and 1,200 huskies.

Israel's national hockey team participated in the 1992 Winter Games, dominating both the Olympic village and concession area.

On January 9, 1896, a snowball from St. Patrick's elementary school landed in Mrs. Manischewitz's kitchen, inspiring her to invent matzo ball soup.

Spiritual Meaning of Snow, by Rabbi Simon Jacobson

Who has not been awed by the beauty of the city or countryside covered in snow? The serenity and whiteness of snow attracts us. We sense the purity of snow when we wake up in the morning and the streets, which are so often filled with grime, are all covered with a white blanket of snow. Snow is a great equalizer - no matter how big the building, or the car, whether a Lexus or a Hyundai, they’re all covered equally by the snow. Snow has the ability to cover over the impurities of life and remind us of our own purity.

So snow is heaven speaking to us - speaking to us through purity, speaking to us gently and gradually on our terms. Snow is the intermediary stage between heaven and earth; ice is a little closer to the level of earth; sleet is in between snow and ice. Thus every weather condition sends us a message and lesson - whether it’s rain, snow, ice, sleet or hail.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"That Shyster" Bernard Madoff and Joseph's Brothers

As if things in the investment world could have possibly gotten any worse, now we have the Madoff scandal , which, according the Jewish Week, has expanded even more.

So I was in the post office on Tuesday, mailing a package and buying stamps, and the clerk and I got to talking about the tough economic times. As I turned to leave, he added one comment that stuck with me, saying, "and now we have to deal with that shyster." I assume he meant Madoff.

I didn't have my yarmulke on, so I'm pretty sure the clerk wasn't saying that specifically for my ears. It just came out naturally.

I wondered whether I might be too sensitive, ascribing to every insult that sounds remotely Germanic anti-Semitic overtones. So I looked up Shyster on Wikipedia and here's what it said:

A shyster (pronounced /ˈʃaɪstər/) is someone who acts in a disreputable, unethical or unscrupulous way, especially in the practice of law and politics.[1] It is a slang word.


The word is derived from the German verb scheissen, "to defecate" and the English suffix -ster, "one who does". Shyster is an alteration of the German scheißer, which literally means "defecator" or an "incompetent worthless person".[2]

There is no basis to conclude that a possible origin includes Shylock, a character in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and the owner of a stall or shy in a market place.[3]

An example of a modern day shyster would be Bernard L. Madoff, the fund manager and business owner who started the Wall Street firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC.[4]

So, while skirting the question of anti-Semitism, Wiki already puts Madoff into the pantheon of all-time great shysters.

If you look up shyster in the dictionary, Madoff's name is already there!

I wondered whether the postal clerk had read Wikipedia - or contributed this entry.

Shyster or not, Madoff is clearly a Shanda - He's both a great embarrassment to the Jews and a crook who stole particularly from the Jews. So we get it on both ends. We're ripped off and then blamed for it. We haven't seen anything like this since the Jews had to pay the Nazis for their own persecution.

In this week's portion, Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers for twenty silver coins. But a close look at the text leads to much confusion as to whom Joseph was really sold, Ishmaelites or Midianites. Looking at Nechama Leibowitz's survey of the traditional commentaries ( reveals a complex series of transactions and non-transactions that might have perplexed even the best SEC investigator.

And there passed by Midianites, merchants; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph to Egypt. (Genesis 37:28)

This chapter constitutes a turning point in the life of Joseph and the history of the Jewish people; for it marks the descent of the Israelites into Egypt. The interpretation of the above verse has been the subject of much dispute. The accepted explanation is that of Rashi:

This was another caravan, the text informing us that he was sold many times. They drew- refers to the sons of Jacob they took him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites and the Ishmaelites to the Midianites and the Midianites to the Egyptians.

It might well have been the world's first Ponzi scheme. (Why is it that whenever I hear the word "Ponzi" I think of Henry Winkler spreading his palms and going "Heyyyy!"). But the bottom line is that for that paltry sum (you try and go anywhere on just 20 shekels), a band of brothers sold their brother - and their souls - and as result, a the entire family eventually ended up in Egypt, only to become slaves there a few centuries later.

Of course things went swimmingly for some time, as the scam eluded exposure. Only once the seven years of famine began, following the seven years of plenty, were the fissures exposed. So let's see, we've had about seven years of plenty, since we hit rock bottom just after Sept. 11, 2001. And Lehman Brothers filed for bankrupcy on September 15 of this year. Hmm.... You do the math.

This tale of greed just never ends. Madoff is not the first to have sold out his brothers for a couple of shekels.

More on Mumbai: Is it all about the Jews?

Once again, this blog has been quoted in the Forward on the issue of Jewish particularism and Mumbai. J.J. Goldberg, in an article entitled "Why the Jews? Debate Erupts Over How to Explain the Mumbai Terror," speaks of how the old question of particularism vs. universalism is playing itself out in the wake of the terror attack in India.

A Tribute to Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman

As many of you know, my uncle Saul passed away this week - his family affectionately called him by his Yiddish name, "Zelig." I just returned from his funeral in Baltimore, where hundreds gathered to remember him. I appreciate all the e-mails, calls and letters of condolence.

This tribute, from the Baltimore Jewish Times, helps explain why he was so loved by so many:

‘Saul Was The Best’

Community mourns Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman.

Alan H. Feiler, Managing Editor

When asked by a reporter last September about his career highlights, Cantor Saul Zelick Hammerman paused and struggled to come up with an answer. There were just too many, he said. “So many wonderful memories,” said Cantor Hammerman, smiling while lost in his thoughts.

The affable cantor, who served as chazzan at Beth El Congregation from 1952-1997 (and subsequently as the Pikesville synagogue’s cantor emeritus), died last Monday, Dec. 15, of renal failure. He was 82.

In a statement, Beth El’s officers, board of trustees and staff praised Cantor Hammerman for “[elevating] the quality of our worship with his magnificent voice and profound sense of spirituality. … He will forever hold a place of affection in the hearts of all of our synagogue families.”

On Sept. 7, Cantor Hammerman received the David Putterman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly of America. Among those performing at the program were Cantors Avi Albrecht, Kimberly L. Komrad, Melvin Luterman and Emanuel C. Perlman.

“That was one of the most touching events I’ve ever been at,” said Cantor Luterman. “Saul was the best. It was always such a pleasure to be with him. He had a phenomenal sense of humor, and he was so bright. He could meet someone for 10 minutes and tell you what they were all about.”

A native of Boro Park, N.Y., Cantor Hammerman — who recorded three albums of cantorial music — was drawn to Jewish liturgy and music as a child. A former president of the Cantors Assembly, he was a passionate advocate of the chazzanut, the traditional cantorial style.

“I grew up with the melodies,” he told the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES last fall. “My grandfather was a Chasid and taught me the melodies of the Chasidim. As a kid, I used to sing at weddings. I started out in the Yiddish theater.”

While serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a chaplain’s assistant in Hawaii, he was bitten by the cantorial bug. “I delivered salamis throughout the island and performed at Shabbos and High Holiday services,” he said. “I was a chazzan for the Navy, so on the G.I. Bill I studied cantorial music. Instead of wondering what I would do for a living, God said, ‘I’ll help you out.’”

Cantor Hammerman said being an authentic cantor requires “knowledge, feeling, emotion –– so many things. A chazzan is born in the womb. … You have to know the feeling of the song. It’s something you can’t describe, but it’s there. If you sat in shul and heard a real chazzan, you heard someone having a real conversation with God.”

Said Cantor Luterman: “Saul was the kind of guy who said we have to keep the tradition going, that you have to give people that spiritual feeling. He had a beautiful voice. When he sang, you really felt something going on inside of you.”

When coming to Beth El shortly after graduating from the Cantor’s Conservatory of America, Cantor Hammerman did not intend to stay at the congregation more than two years. But after meeting his future wife and Peabody Conservatory-trained accompanist, the former Aileen Goldstein, as well as Beth El’s Rabbi Jacob B. Agus, he said he decided to remain in Baltimore. During his tenure, the congregation grew from 350 families to more than 1,700.

In the early 1970s, Cantor Hammerman toured the country with his brothers –– the late Cantors Herman and Michal Hammerman –– and performed a blend of liturgical and Yiddish folk music. He also performed regularly with his wife, and they co-produced myriad concerts (featuring the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Theodore Bikel, Jan Peerce and Renee Fleming) and theatrical events in the community.

But it was serving as a chazzan that afforded Cantor Hammerman his greatest pleasure. “[It has] given me the breadth to be able not only to chant the music of the masters but to develop my abilities as an impresario,” he told the JEWISH TIMES in May 1997 on the occasion of his retirement.

Cantor Hammerman is survived by his wife and two sons, Jan L. Hammerman and Dr. Samuel I. Hammerman; a daughter, Shelley H. Green; and six grandchildren. He is also survived by a sister, Miriam Avick. Contributions in his memory may be sent to Beth El, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, Md., 21208 or the National Kidney Foundation of Maryland, 1107 Kenilworth Dr., Suite 202, Towson, Md., 21204.

“He was my brother, colleague and teacher,” said Cantor Luterman. “I was very honored to be his friend.”

And here are a few excerpts of what I said about him at the funeral:

"Along with his cherished immediate family and his siblings, Zel loved all his nieces and nephews with an Ahava Rabbah – an expansive love -- and ever expanding love – there was room for all of us – and each of us felt, in some way, like his favorite. He had that power. Over the past few weeks, that has been so evident, as one by one, family members called and visited and each contact just made his day. And now this ever expanding love has been transformed into an Ahavat Olam – and eternal love. One that will always be with us. For Uncle Zel, it was a long journey from the baby of the family to the patriarch. In many ways, he never stopped being the baby. He was joking – even to his final moment of breath. For today, for instance, he left the instruction that I should keep it brief!

From the moment my dad died in my first semester of rabbinical school, Zel became my number one fan, supporter, agent, confidant – he was the voice of my dad at every turn. I knew that his pride was my dad’s pride. He called from his office all the time, and he always had the right advice about the lay of the rabbinic landscape. He shared his concerns about the future of the cantorate and his love for good old fashioned davening. We talked about my dad a lot.

My father passed away 30 years ago, in two weeks. In fact, Zel’s yahrzeit will forever be a week before the first day of Hanukkah. And my dad’s will forever be a week after the first day of Hanukkah. Two modern Hammerman bookends with the ancient Hammer Man, Maccabee, in the middle. From the moment of that sudden death, Zel did not miss a beat. He arranged for me to get assitance in paying off my rabbinical school tuition. He pooled resources from the family and bought me my first Talmud. He took a special interest in making sure my brother was well cared for in the group home that came to bear my father’s name. He was there for us and never stopped being there. For my kids he was the grandfather they never had, and a link to the grandfather they never met. They and my wife Mara loved him dearly, as did my sister Lisa and my brother Mark. He really took care of us when we needed it most.

When my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bernie died tragically, Zel kept us all together. He literally kept himself alive so that he could officiate at all the weddings and have an aliyah at all the bar and bat mitzvahs. We became a tag team under a number of family huppahs. (I always told him to keep it brief.) He took every bit as much pride in the accomplishments of my cousins as he did in mine. He loved us all with an Ahavah Rabbah.

Adonai Sefatai Tiftach u’fi yagid tehilatecha… Eternal God, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your glory.

Saul’s entire life was directed toward the fulfillment of those words before the Amida, ones that ironically, are never chanted aloud. God did open those lips, and the breath and the sounds that poured forth was as pure any heard since the still small voice itself. And now that voice has been stilled, but the love remains. The brothers Hammerman are reunited again, along with their parents and two sisters. And today, the heavens are filled with music."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bar Mitzvahs Play Better Off Broadway (Jewish Week, 12/19/08)

by Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

It was only a matter of time before bar mitzvah became fodder for a Broadway musical. When the teen-filled cast of “13” landed with a splash in October, it seemed a sure bet to capitalize on the success the mega-hit “High School Musical” franchise and America’s ongoing fascination with all things bar mitzvah.

Alas, “13” didn’t even make it to Musaf.

“Variety” reports that, after failing to play to more than 50 percent capacity, “13” will be closing on Jan. 4, a victim of lukewarm reviews and the economic collapse. But while the lights may be dimming on Broadway, a better version of “13” is playing to wildly cheering crowds each week at a synagogue near you. No tickets are needed, plus we throw in free parking and a kiddush.

One of the unseen benefits of the recession is that people are beginning to recapture the true spirit of bar mitzvah. Parties are being scaled back, as even those accustomed to keeping up with the Steins have become too embarrassed to stage something ostentatious at a time when so many are suffering financially. Modesty and simplicity are de rigueur in hard times — check the falling hemlines.

Although I didn’t have the chance to see “13,” I’ve officiated at maybe a thousand bar and bat mitzvahs and I would venture to guess that each one offered more drama and intrigue than “13” did on its best day. With all the joking we do about bar mitzvahs, we often fail to appreciate their power. It’s unfortunate that in many congregations, the “regulars” see them as annoyances and the service too often is turned into a private, family affair. Properly marketed and executed, this rite of passage could be the cornerstone for community building, rather than the embarrassment it has become.

I try to make each service as riveting as possible. It isn’t as hard as one might think, because each of these students has a spellbinding story to tell. We always distribute a family tree and it’s not surprising to have a child whose lineage goes back to Rashi on one side and Paul Revere on the other. We’re endlessly amazed at how each of these students has somehow forged a new path for this dramatic ascent to Sinai.

The part of my job that I enjoy most is working with each student on the d’var Torah. We brainstorm together, seeking that precious intersection between sacred text and the context of a young adult’s life. The stories I hear could fill an entire week of NBC’s Olympic coverage. These are heartwarming, funny and heroic.

Yes, heroic. Maccabee heroic.

Who can retell? Just this fall, while “13” was bombing on the Great White Way, a stream of heroic 13-year-olds was bringing tears to eyes here in the ‘burbs. My congregants met one young girl who single-handedly organized a blood drive, another trying to save endangered bees and another who imaginatively explained what Jews have in common with vampires (the good ones, from “Twilight”). One extraordinarily courageous girl spoke calmly of how her father’s sudden death last spring brought out the goodness in so many people who reached out to help her family. She said, “For Jews, happiness is really all about accepting what life throws at us and appreciating the good things.”

Max, whose portion was “Noah,” spoke of his recent trip to Kenya, saying that when he came home and saw a deer in the yard, as he had a thousand times before, this time, “I looked at it as if I looked at the first wildebeest in Kenya. And I looked at its legs and muscles and the way it moved and ate. And just then did I realize that each individual, no matter how many there are, is special.”

Adam, a huge sports fan, called the Creation “God’s Top Seven Plays of the Week,” and rattled off an ESPN-like commentary about how the separation of darkness from light was God’s way of determining that World Series games should end much too late for kids on the East Coast.

And then there was Danielle, who attended an international language camp in Marbella, Spain, last summer, only to discover that a large group of girls at the camp was Russian. Knowing that her mother had experienced malicious anti-Semitism in the former Soviet Union, and never having met a Russian before who wasn’t Jewish, Danielle decided to hide her identity.

“People might not have found out that I was Jewish,” she said, “except that I was practicing for today [her bat mitzvah]. One day my folder slipped out of my suitcase and a Russian girl picked it up and started looking at it. Within an hour, all the Russian girls knew that I was learning Hebrew. As you can imagine, I was afraid of what was going to happen next. The girls started treating me differently and saying cruel things about Jews. Some of them had never met a Jew before.”

Danielle survived the ordeal and compared this perilous journey to the one taken by Abraham in her portion of Lech Lecha. She concluded: “Abraham may have gone very far from home, but the most difficult part of the trip was what went on inside himself. He went far from home in order to find out who he really was.”

And then she declared proudly, “That’s exactly what happened to me.”

So I am happy to announce that “13” is not closing after all. This long-running musical always played best Way Off Broadway, and it continues playing week after week at synagogues throughout the world. It will win no Tonys, the voices might crack on occasion, but it’s the best reality programming around. There is no better drama to be found: the tale of the Jewish people constantly reinventing itself, a coming-of-age saga about that magical moment when a child’s lifelong search for God truly begins.

Check your local listings.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Human Rights Shabbat

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed 60 years ago this week. See it at At a time when so many are denied their basic rights as human beings, it is important not to let this anniversary slip past.

This Shabbat we’ll be exploring this seminal document in great depth at our Synaplex programs. See the full Synaplex schedule here. I’ll discuss it at our early session and then we’ll be having an interfaith dialogue and welcoming our new congressman-elect Jim Himes a little later on. Afternoon sessions will include discussions with Holocaust survivors, a session with David Rodwin, who worked with impoverished populations in Asia last year on behalf of the American Jewish World Service, and another opportunity seeking employment in these difficult economic times to receive networking assistance from a career counselor. Plus, we’ll have plenty of great food (eating is a human right!) time to schmooze, and it all will be topped off with a super Havdalah Unplugged.

The website of the Rabbis for Human Rights contains much material for this Human Rights Shabbat, including a study session, background material on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and a human rights service. Read which communities are celebrating (you’ll see TBE listed there)

On the Israeli site for RHR, you’ll find two divrei Torah for this week’s portion:

Vayyishlah (Vayishlach or Vayishlah (וישלח Genesis 32:4–36:43) tells the story of Jacob’s reunion with Esau, the rape of Dinah and Jacob’s flight. In our Parsha we learn that when Jacob saw Esau coming with 400 men, he bowed to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, and kissed him, and they wept.

Esau and Jacob were reared in the most ideal household imaginable. Their earliest childhood memories were of life together with his illustrious grandfather Abraham, the paradigm of Human Rights, kindness and purity, who personally oversaw the education of his twin grandsons and gave them the foundations for a meaningful spiritual life. For more, see
Vayyishlah: Human Rights and Reconciliation between Brothers.

See also:
Vayyishlah: Pride and Innocence – about the rape of Dina.

Why the Jelly Doughnuts - and Other (C)Hanuk(k)ah Questions (Hanukkah Web Journey)

(This “classic web journey” from a prior Shabbat-O-Gram may have some inoperative hyperlinks, but, as they say at Dunkin Donuts, it is “worth the trip.”)
I received the following “ask the rabbi” question via e-mail this week:

Rabbi, Perhaps you can answer a Hanukkah question that came up last night as we were eating doughnuts. What is the significance of "jelly" doughnuts versus any other type of doughnut?

This question must be going around, along with the old “Hanukkah” vs. “Chanukah” spelling conundrum. I’ve heard both from dozens of people this week. Indeed, why do the sufganiot, that popular Israeli doughnut treat, have to include jelly? Why not butternut, chocolate or glazed? Why not Boston Creme, for crying out loud? I thought about it and responded:

Hi -
And so I ask, why the applesauce with the latkes? I think in both cases it comes down to sweetness. But then, why the sour cream? Dairy foods are also customary on Hanukkah. The word sufgania is from the Talmud and means "spongy dough." Doesn't sound as appetizing as "Krispy Kreme." Try having spongy dough without something inside to sweeten it up. The Talmud says nothing about jelly -- or that the doughnut should even have a hole, for that matter. It needs more investigation. A dissertation could be written on this!

Well, maybe not a dissertation, but more investigation for sure. Does the jelly symbolize sweetness, fruitfulness, stickiness, or what? Why the jelly?

We begin with an argument based on the implicit connection between certain foods that are traditional on this holiday.

We start the journey at a fascinating Web site explaining Jewish symbols, written from a refreshingly liberal perspective (created by the Jewish Women’s project, Kolot, at the JCC of the Upper West Side): Go to to find Chanukah (they are “CH” people, evidently). Click on “Judith” (or go directly to the summary of this apocryphal tale at and see how the story of Judith ties into this festival and provides it with a unique feminist twist – and also connects it to cheese and dairy products. To see that connection directly, the entire book of Judith is translated at, and you’ll find a reference to cheese in chapter 10. Basically, Judith got the evil Holofernes thirsty with the cheese, drunk with (sweet) wine and then cut off his head and saved the Jews. Anyone know if Osama likes cheese?

So we now have drawn the line connecting Hanukkah to cheese; but cheese is salty, no? Well, if you believe this, you haven’t had a cheese blintz lately. Interestingly, one of the recipes found at the ritualwell site is a Sephardic formula for phyllo triangles with sweet ricotta filling.

Dairy products are frequently tied directly to sweetness. How often is Israel called the land “flowing with milk and honey?”(see Numbers 13:27 and elsewhere) In a land where water is so scarce, the taste of milk takes on an even greater sweetness. Commentators often interpret this as an expression for fertility and fruitfulness. A super article on milk and honey as fertility symbols can be found at Interestingly, the prophet Joel (4:18) draws a direct parallel between milk and fruit juice, saying: “fruits pure as milk and sweet as honey.” The connection is clearly made: sweetness = fruit filling = dairy + honey. Hence, doughnuts without filling just wouldn’t be complete on Hanukkah. Eating a mouth-watering strawberry glazed doughnut is the gastronomical equivalent to splashing around in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Here’s a possible historical argument: In ancient times, the doughnuts had no holes. Dunkin Donuts wasn’t even invented until 1950 ( But even “DDs” does not have the distinction of inventing the uniquely-shaped delicacy. Go to (“A Short History of the Doughnut) and you’ll find that…
“…In a house in Rockport, Maine there is a plaque that recognizes Mason Crockett Gregory with the invention of the doughnut hole, in 1847. The reason why? He hated doughnuts with an uncooked center. (Or perhaps he was just particularly impatient-they cook much quicker without a center) Skeptics point out that Gregory was a sea captain, however, and may well have encountered the jumble version of the confection on his travels, and brought the idea home with him. (This would seem to be the truth behind the legend of a sea captain placing the doughnut on the wheel of his ship for safe-keeping, and then just becoming enamored of the idea.) Even if Captain Gregory came up with the idea, John Blondell was awarded the patent for the first doughnut cutter in 1872. Blondell's version was made of wood, but an 'improved' tin version with a fluted edge was patented in 1889.”
No matter how you look at it, the doughnut hole came many centuries later than Talmud, so when the ancient rabbis spoke of the spongy Sufgania, they couldn’t possibly have been thinking of doughnuts as we know them, the ones with a hole. And if the doughnut has no hole, we all know that it is most likely going to be filled with jelly. Find more about the history of the doughnut at
Some final facts about jelly doughnuts are warranted. It is been pointed out that JFK made a grammatical error in his famous speech where he ostensibly said, in German, “I am a Berliner,” but really said, “I am a jelly doughnut.” This is actually an urban legend (see, but what a great tie in to the Maccabees’ own fight for freedom, were it true! For some cultural parallels to the Sufgania in other traditions, go to -- but be prepared to drool. And finally, go to, where you will read what seems the most plausible explanation for the Sufgania’s jelliness:
Polish Jews adopted a local lekvar (prune preserves) or raspberry jam-filled doughnut, called ponchiks (paczki in Polish) as their favorite Chanukah dessert. Australian Jews, many of whom emigrated from Poland, still refer to jelly doughnuts as ponchiks. When the jelly doughnut made its way to Israel, however, it took the name sufganiyot, after a "spongy dough" mentioned in the Talmud. Sufganiyot subsequently emerged as the most popular Israeli Chanukah food, sold throughout the eight-day festival at almost every bakery and market.
So where did the jelly doughnuts on Hanukkah idea originate? In Poland, of all places, the homeland of that holiest food around: the bagel ( Makes perfect sense. Or at least as much sense as the blizzard that’s happening outside my window right now.
So, are you sorry you asked? Next, you can explore the superiority of the Latke over the Hamentash
As for Hanukkah (h, 2ks) vs Chanukah (Ch, 1k), it’s all about having a total of eight letters. Eight letters – eight nights. See for more on that (that site also is packed with top-notch Hanukkah information).

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Mets Acquire Putz in Three-Team Deal

I'm not allowed to divulge the secret postings of my rabbinic chat group, Ravnet, but I don't think I'm giving away trade secrets in saying that the headline from MSNBC displayed above generated more than a few chuckles.

Yes, I know it isn't pronounced the same. Still, he should fit in quite well with the Mets' bullpen.

LAS VEGAS - The New York Mets overhauled their much-maligned bullpen with twobig moves Wednesday, obtaining J.J. Putz from Seattle as part of a three-team,12-player trade that gives them a setup man for new closer FranciscoRodriguez.

Ethics and Kashrut

You may have seen this article in Thursday's New York Times:

Label Says Kosher; Ethics Suggest Otherwise By PAUL VITELLO
In the wake of sweeping labor abuse charges at a kosher meatpacking plant, an overflow crowd debated whether food produced under such conditions can be considered kosher.

The article speaks of how the Orthodox are trying to find a way to do, essentially, what Conservative Judaism has already done with Hekhsher Tzedek, that is, to link ethical behavior towards workers and animals with the ritual purity of the slaughter and preparation of meat. Such was not the case with Agriprocessors.

Our board voted in November on a resolution endorsing the initiative. There was considerable discussion, as many had concerns as to the degree to which Hekhsher Tzedek's standards conform with existing law. There is always a concern for over zealousness when new standards are being contemplated. The board wished me to communicate those concerns, which I have done (and am doing now with this public blog). But I cannot say how proud I am of a board that took so seriously its role of representing a Conservative congregation looking to take a more active role in a movement that is redefining itself as we speak. I am also proud to be part of a movement that is willing to push the envelope in this area, to not merely be a movement of nostalgia but one of conviction. Conservative Judaism has truly turned a corner with the concept of Hechsher Tzedek.

Here's the Sample Resolution suggested to synagogues by the movement. Our board agreed with all the initial clauses, and then the latter section was simplified and was modified,

The resolution our board passed...

WHEREAS, Temple Beth El of Stamford, Connecticut is committed to encouraging members to perform Mitzvot encompassing ethical and ritual observance; and

WHEREAS, Kashrut is a core value of our congregation and the Conservative Movement; and

WHEREAS, we understand that the laws of Kashrut teach reverence for life and humane treatment of animals; and

WHEREAS, our congregation continues to express its commitment to social justice; and

WHEREAS, Torah teaches us concerning the rights of workers and the importance of business ethics; and

WHEREAS, our congregation continues to express its commitment to environmental protection;

WHEREAS, we are concerned by reports of illegal treatment of workers and animals and illegal business practices within the Kosher meat industry including the impact such reports may have on the commitment to Kashrut;

THEREFORE, be it resolved that the Board of Trustees of Temple Beth El stands behind the development of a Hekhsher Tzedek program that requires compliance with applicable law in the areas of (a) employee welfare, including wages, benefits and health and safety, (b) animal welfare and treatment, (c) corporate accountability and integrity and (d) environmental impact, that would be applied to the Kosher food industry; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Rabbi is authorized to communicate the substance of this resolution to the joint Hekhsher Tzedek Commission comprised of representatives of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly as well as concerns raised by the Board of Trustees in respect of the draft Policy Statement prepared for the Commission by KLD Consulting; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Board of Trustees will review and consider its support of the Hekhsher Tzedek Policy Statement, once finalized, including whether the concerns raised in respect of the draft policy have been addressed.Whereas, our commitment to Kashrut is undermined and discredited by reports of worker abuse, animal cruelty and corrupt business practices within the Kosher meat industry

Therefore, be it resolved that the congregation stands behind the development of a Hekhsher Tzedek to be applied to the Kosher food industry to the extent that it requires full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations.

More information on the initiative can be found at:

The Blog:

Kashrut must also apply to ethics, insist local rabbis
USCJ’s Heksher Tzedek resolution from 2007
Orthodox Rabbis To Set Voluntary Guidelines for Kosher Businesses
Orthodoxy’s Kosher Crisis
OU Threatens To Drop Agriprocessors After Charges
Kosher Plant Is Accused of Inhumane Slaughter

The Importance of Jewish Camping

This Sunday we'll be hosting a regional summer activities fair. Our educator, Al Treidel, assisted by able volunteers, has worked tirelessly to make this very important event happen. While all kinds of activities for all ages will be covered, a special focus needs to be placed on Jewish camping.

There are many excellent Jewish camps. My two kids went to different ones, Ethan to Tevya and Dan to Ramah, and for each, camp has been a source of priceless experiences and growth. While there are many worthy camps that will be on display this Sunday, as a Conservative congregation (whose rabbi was a former camper and staff member), Ramah deserves a special place at our table. I can't guarantee that you'll meet the love of your life there, as I did, but I can guarantee that anyone who goes there will emerge feeling great about who he or she is - and about being Jewish.

As Rabbi Mitchell Cohen wrote this week in a letter, "Camp Ramah, Now More than Ever,"

We live in challenging times. The most important decisions we make may be about the experiences we choose for our children - who will be their friends, who will influence the decisions they make, who will be their role models, and what values will they embrace. Summer camp is expensive, and choosing the right one can be daunting.

Take a look at Cohen's letter to see why so many are passionate about Ramah.

Then, take a look at the latest data on why camping is so crucial to building self esteem and Jewish identity. Look at this page from the website of the Foundation for Jewish Camping:

“There’s a realization that Jewish camping offers a wonderful portal for children to experience a 24/7 Jewish environment where they can live Judaism as fun,” says Jerry Silverman, FJC’s president. “This special and intimate setting allows children to create, and funders are seeing that camp is a tremendous investment opportunity.”

And, elsewhere on that site it states:

Jewish camping in North America has been around for over 100 years. Initially, it was a time to get the kids out of the city to be in the country with their peers in a healthy environment. Today, in addition to the benefits of a summer spent outdoors, Jewish camp has become a place to develop and create a Jewish community, to find Jewish roots, to connect to the land and people of Israel and to live a 24/7 Jewish life. This is where Jewish passion, creativity, and spirituality can grow and leadership skills can be developed. This is where our community's next generation of leaders is nurtured.

It is said that there are three "immersion" type experiences that can have enormous impact on formative Jewish identity in children and teens: day school, camping and Israel trips. We aim for immersion with Hebrew school as well through our Shabbaton and Synaplex programs (and we hope all our 5th 6th and 7th graders will go on next month's Shabbaton!), but given the limited hours we have, it's been shown to be less effective over all. However, studies show that it just takes two out of the three to have a real measurable impact. In other words, if you are not a day school family, the immersion experiences of camp and Israel are especially useful.

Teen Israel tours are optimal, but family experiences are also wonderful. And, along those lines, I invite you to please take a look at the itinerary of our upcoming TBE 2009 Israel Adventure, scheduled for next December.

So we've laid it all out for you. Lots of choices, and lots of chances to build our Jewish future, one child at a time.

Jews, Vampires and the "Twilight" Phenomenon

When a student came into my office to work on her bat mitzvah speech last month, and only wanted to talk about the book and film "Twilight," I wondered how I possibly could link the themes of this story about vampires with Jewish themes. You can read Sophie's own commentary here. I took this as a challenge, because the last thing I wanted to do was perpetuate some old stereotypes about bloodthirsty Jews, which seem to have shared roots with the vampire legends. You can see the results of my research, the handout I prepared for last week's service, by clicking here. I'm grateful to a congregant for forwarding me an additional link from Jewcy, focusing on not only the blood libel connection, but also the theme of the Wandering Jew.

As you'll see from my service sheet, I thought the film had many Jewish themes to reinforce, especially to its target audience of teenagers. I was very impressed with the movie when I saw it (though it felt weird to be just about the only Y chromosome in the place) and immediately I saw Edward Cullen, the "good" vampire here, as the embodiment of the Jewish ideal of self restraint. Pirke Avot considers the true hero to be the one who can control his own urges. For Edward to manange to overcome his innate bloodthirst and not devour Bella is akin to a human choosing to stop breathing and a feat no less spectacular than the way Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav used to act.

Nachman of Bratzlav was Cullen-like, a superhero. He would go to extremes to torture his body. He would fast for days on end, because he so loved to eat, and in this way he learned to control his hunger. Legend has it that he would roll naked in the snow to control his physical desires (and this is without having a hot tub on the backyard). But the most amazing thing about Reb Nachman, in his own estimation, is that he never scratched himself. I kid you not. Never. Imagine a mosquito bite and the itch is just crawling up your arm – and not doing anything about it. The Torah doesn’t command us not to scratch. And the man suffered quite abit in his life. Through all of this, Reb Nachman of Bratzlav said, “My suffering is always in my power.” When things became unbearable, he simply could will away the pain.

When I spoke to people at the service last week about "Twilight," I understood that this was one of the last times this group of 8th graders would be attending en masse. The bar mitzvah "season" is nearly over for this class. So I turned to the subject of drug abuse, alcohol and addiction in general. If kids ever need that lecture, this is the time when they need it most. The book and movie were also speaking of sexual urges, of course, but at one point Edward does call Bella his narcotic - his drug. I took that cue to deliver a very strong message about the dangers awaiting these students as they make the leap to high school.

Judaism's notion of the good and evil inclinations (the yetzer ha tov and yetzer ha ra) fit well into the world of "Twilight." I collected some sources and compared them to quotes from the book in my service handout. You can see some of the sources in an interesting article at According to tradition, we are born with an inclination to do evil, but it is only at the onset of adolescence, bar mitzvah, that our inclination to do good sets in. Perfect timing for Bella and Edward (although Edward's inclination to do good has developed quite a bit more).

So I have my student Sophie to thank in opening my eyes to the Jewish possibilities in "Twilight." I can't wait to see what teen-craze book series the next student brings in.