Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Does MIchael Vick Deserve a Second Chance?

Michael Vick and Forgiveness - Jewish Week - Hammerman on Ethics

Q - Does Michael Vick deserve the accolades he is getting? Or does he deserve to die, as Tucker Carlson said last week on Fox News in response to President Obama's congratulating the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Vick a second chance? Carlson said: "I'm a Christian, I've made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances. But Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did in a heartless and cruel way. And I think, personally, he should've been executed for that. He wasn't, but the idea that the President of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs? Kind of beyond the pale."

Is it ethical to forgive Vick so soon?

A - Really, Tucker! Is it ethical to listen to Fox News when they allow someone to incite a lynch mob simply as means of taking yet another cheap shot at the President? Even when he is doing the most Christian thing imaginable, forgiving a repentant sinner, Obama can't buy a break from the Foxxies.

But the question here is not whether the President deserves a break, but does Vick - or, more precisely, does any ex prisoner? To that the answer is a resounding yes. Successful re-entry of those who have served their time is a major concern in our society. Nearly 650,000 prisoners are released from state and federal prisons each year, the vast majority of whom face legal and social obstacles that go far beyond the notion of punishment fitting the crime.

As for Vick, ESPN's Rick Reilly says it's time to forgive, that Vick has paid his debt. Torturing animals flies against everything Judaism believes in - hence the laws of Kashrut, which inculcate kindness to animals and sensitivity to all life. As a vegetarian and dog owner, I take those laws even further in my own personal practice, and every fiber of my body abhors what Vick did. But Jewish law mandates that the death penalty is meant to be utilized only in the case of the murder of a human being, and even then only in extraordinary circumstances.

Vick deserves a chance to play again, and he's making the most of it. I would not rush to anoint him Mr. Role Model, though, as many have. Americans love a comeback story, but don't confuse Vick with Michael Oher, a real hero, who was last year's NFL comeback cover boy. Last week, Vick said he would vote for himself for MVP, a disturbing sign that he may not have learned much about humility in prison. But fortunately he played himself out of the running against the Vikings, and Tom Brady, who does not profess to care about individual honors, will win it going away.

For Vick, the biggest prize is yet to be won, and I'm not talking about the Super Bowl. It's the prize of being able to go to bed peacefully every night, feeling fully content at having done more good than Ill for the world. For as long as those 47 rescued pit bulls are still alive, shaking, cowering and unable to bark, those peaceful nights should remain as elusive as ever.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Blanket of Peace

Perfect storms are hard to appreciate when you are living through them. Taking the dogs out last night in blinding blizzard conditions, I thought all three of us would blow away. Even when I promised an extra treat, they were not intent on making that trip a productive one. But how could I blame them; I was asking them to do something perfectly normal at a time when we felt like we were aboard the Andrea Gail.

But in its wake the storm, like life, left a blanket of peace. I just spent a few moments of solitude at the cemetery next door, until the wind chased me out, reminding me of the fine line that exists between a bucolic New England scene and a forbidding Arctic tundra.

Our cemetery is always beautiful, but it never looks more beautiful than when it is covered by a foot and a half of fresh, blowing snow, and then add to that skies as blue as they became this afternoon. The blowing snow almost seemed playful, sifting spiritlike between and among the gravestones, and then churning up a whirlwind in the distance. The snow's surface is smooth and velvety, but with ripples looking somewhat like rings on a tree trunk or the grain of rounded olive wood. Some of the graves are nearly completely covered by the blanket of snow. Everything, everywhere is touched by its frosting.

See the pictures below and click to enlarge. May all who lie beneath that white blanket rest in peace.

(And note that this is not one of those photo essays where I would use the heading "Wish you were here." :))

Sunday, December 26, 2010

From Moshe to Moo Shoo

We had a nice turnout yesterday for our service and Chinese food Kiddush lunch. Yesterday's portion contained the birth and naming of Moses. And it occurred to me that in fact he was named in anticipation of the Jewish obsession for Chinese food. From MOSHE to MOO SHOO. Exodus 2:10 - "And she called him Moses, because from Column A of the menu she drew him."

Friday, December 24, 2010

E-books and Shabbat - from the Atlantic

See People of the E-Book

People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age
By Uri Friedman

The migration of print media to the web and digital devices has stirred society to ponder many Big Questions: Is Google making us stupid? Has technology short-circuited our children's attention spans? Are we frittering away our lives gaping at smartphone screens? All this while the most obvious question goes unanswered: what will Jews read on the Sabbath?

Many observant Jews do not operate lights, computers, mobile phones, or other electrical appliances from sundown on Friday until three stars appear in the night sky on Saturday. They abstain from these activities because, over the last century, rabbinic authorities have compared electricity use to various forms of work prohibited on the Sabbath by the Bible and post-biblical rabbinic literature, including lighting a fire and building. The difficulty of interpreting the Bible's original intent and applying it to modern technology has rendered electricity use on the Sabbath one of the more contentious topics in Jewish law.

E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.

When they're not praying, studying, eating, socializing, or sleeping, observant Jews often devote a substantial portion of the Sabbath's 25 hours to reading - in print. As former New York Times religion reporter Ari Goldman explains in his book Being Jewish, it's thanks to the Sabbath that the "simple pleasure of reading is alive at least one night a week in our house." He recounts how "children who find every excuse all week not to read happily pick up a book on Friday night" and how he and his wife clip newspaper articles during the week to share with their children at the Sabbath table.

E-readers are problematic because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.
Yet industry trends suggest digital media will eclipse print in a matter of decades. U.S. News & World Report is printing its last issue for subscribers this month, adopting a "digital-first" strategy already embraced by news outlets like the Christian Science Monitor. A Forrester Research analyst argued last month that book publishers must prepare "for a day in which physical book publishing is an adjunct activity that supports the digital publishing business."
So how are Jews responding? Some are thinking of ways to accommodate emerging technology within the structure of traditional Sabbath observance while others wrestle with the implications of the shifting media landscape for Jewish law and observance. A number stress that, regardless of legal considerations, the Sabbath's rules and spirit have never been more important they are today, when technology saturates our lives.

The discussion arises at a moment when all religions are exploring what the digital revolution means for their communities, whether it's the Amish deciding which devices to adopt, Muslims experimenting with online worship, or Roman Catholic clergy wondering whether social networks represent a new form of pastoral ministry.

Perhaps the simplest way to engage with digital media on the Sabbath is to plan ahead and print reading materials out during the week. But others are floating more high-tech solutions. The blogger Morris Rosenthal, for example, imagines a special Kindle that can bypass Sabbath prohibitions by disabling its buttons, turning itself on at a preset time, and flipping through a book at a predetermined clip.

Jeffrey Fox, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and the head of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution in Riverdale, NY that trains women to be religious leaders, doubts this type of device will catch on. Unlike popular Sabbath-compliant electronic appliances such as the Shabbat Elevator or the Shabbat Amigo scooter, he explains, there is no burning need to read a Kindle on the Sabbath, absent print materials vanishing entirely.

Fox believes that e-readers - like other electrical appliances that don't generate light and heat - are technically permissible on the Sabbath but should not be used because they are a step away from forbidden activity and because, in epitomizing our weekday existence, aren't appropriate for the Sabbath.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, says that even if an e-reader is invented that adheres to Jewish law, he worries such a device could undermine the Sabbath's values.

"The Torah says you shouldn't leave your place on the seventh day," Nevins explains. "You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don't go out of those boundaries ... The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience."

Nevins is writing a legal opinion on using electronic devices on the Sabbath in which he supports the use of appliances like electrical wheelchairs that help disabled individuals participate in communal life but not devices like e-readers that could disturb the Sabbath's tranquility. He plans to submit the opinion for discussion and eventually a vote to the Conservative movement's law-making body in May.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York, explains that since the Reform movement doesn't consider Jewish law binding, "The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it."

Fox thinks that if the Orthodox community comes to reevaluate its stance on electricity use on the Sabbath, it won't be a reaction to e-readers alone but rather a result of our homes, in the next 50 to 75 years, becoming so thoroughly wired that Jews will be left with no choice but to use electronic devices.

Nevins sees parallels between contemporary discussions about electronic devices and the Conservative movement's decision in the 1950s (when the automobile and television were the new technologies) to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.

"As Jews were moving to the suburbs ... we said we're going to lose everyone if we don't let them drive to synagogue," he says. "To some extent it was true because people would drive one way or the other but, on the other hand, making peace with [driving to synagogue] formally undermined an ideal we have, which was the neighborhood community. There is a similar danger here. If we become too relaxed about this we could lose the distinctive flavor of Shabbat."
Nevins' message about shielding the Sabbath's spirit against the gale of digital transformation echoes among Jews of different levels of observance.

In a trend that probably hasn't dealt too severe a blow to the e-reader market, some observant Jews are refraining from buying e-readers altogether, reasoning that they do the majority of their reading on the Sabbath (see here, here, and here). One such e-reader holdout, an Orthodox Jew named Renee Beyda, explained in the Forward that she wouldn't want it any other way:
There is a saying in Judaism that one should be flexible like a reed, but that doesn't mean that my family will be buying e-readers anytime soon. After dinner [on the Sabbath], all five of us crawl under the fluffy down comforter of my king-size bed, each holding a book, vying for a spot close enough to the sole lit lamp in the room. These are the times I marvel at how only something as bizarre as keeping Shabbat could create this scene, which holding a screen could never replicate.

This past March, Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit led by Jewish artistic types, launched its first annual National Day of Unplugging to underscore the group's "Sabbath Manifesto," an attempt to recast the ancient Jewish day of rest for the modern age. Jews of various backgrounds joined non-Jews in experimenting with the Manifesto's principles, the first of which declared, "Avoid Technology."

The blogger Menachem Wecker framed the digital dilemma confronting Jews succinctly in an article in the Forward back in 2007: "Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?"

Wecker could, of course, be presenting a false choice, since observant Jews may eventually be able to Kindle on the Sabbath without violating injunctions against kindling a fire or engaging in other types of work. Yet the possibility, as of now, appears remote.

Outside the realm of the Sabbath, meanwhile, the Jewish community is, in many instances, making the most of emerging technology, be it through Jewish prayer book apps, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis adopting Twitter and Facebook for communal outreach, or Rabbi Yoffie, at a Union for Reform Judaism convention in 2009, urging the Reform Movement to launch congregational blogs as one way to engage young Jews and "create an online, Oral Torah of ongoing Jewish discourse."

Expressing a sentiment many religious communities and, more generally, many of us can identify with, Rabbi Fox explained, "There's real value in embracing technology. It's just about knowing when to turn it off."

Christmas and Shabbat: A Messianic Moment

Who needs Hanukkah, when this year, Christmas coincides with an even more important Jewish holiday: Shabbat!

Everyone's anticipating the coming of the Messiah this week - even some traditional Jews, citing an oft quoted Talmudic aphorism that the Messiah will come when all Jews observe two Shabbats in a row. The way I see it, the rabbis then knew what rabbis now know - that there's as much likelihood of that happening as for all Jews to agree about which synagogue to join or whether fluffy matzah balls taste better than chewy ones. The sages' goal was both to encourage greater Sabbath observance AND to help people understand that the advent of the messianic era is likely a long way off. That paradoxical blend of urgent action and profound patience has fueled the Jewish Way for two thousand years. But no one is patient these days, particularly Jewish messianists who think that the advent of the End of Days is at hand.

Well, for our Christian neighbors, Advent is now approaching its zenith, and for them Christmas is a time to proclaim the Good News of a Messianic arrival. So what does this have to do with Jews? Well, because everything will be closed tonight and tomorrow - on Shabbat - Jews, like Christians will not be working. No one will be working (except for those who own Chinese restaurants). Like it or not, most Jews will ll be observing Shabbat! Now, if we simply get all of them to light candles, make kiddush and come to services, this week AND next week, we'll be home free.

Of course, by this logic, if we succeed in bringing the Jewish Messiah, will have Jesus to thank! Jeez, this is confusing. And whose Messiah would come in that case, theirs or ours? That's why they call it the Messiah - it's so darn MESSY.

Messianism is messy, but it's also alluring and, in my mind, necessary. We'll be discussing that tomorrow morning at services and at our Kosher Chinese Kiddush lunch. Join us - and preview the discussion materials by clicking here. And just think: if every Jew were to come to services tomorrow....

Join us tonight too, at 7:30 PM in the chapel. A note of thanks to those who will be volunteering today at local homeless shelters. Once the sun goes down and Shabbat begins, the official TBE involvement in the program will end (we value volunteering and helping the homeless tremendously, but Christmas can't trump Shabbat - it's a legal fiction we've used whenever the 24th falls on a Friday), but I know many individuals will still be volunteering and I appreciate their dedication. I also invite all of them to join us for services after your stint at Pacific House or St Lukes shelters. What a perfect way to make a meaningful evening even more meaningful.

I invite the rest of you too. We'll have a relatively small crowd tonight and could use some warm bodies. The cantorial B-team will be featured (me), but don't let that dissuade you! I can't promise any egg nog, but maybe a little Manischewitz?

Meanwhile, as many head off to warmer and colder climes for the remainder of 2010, we can take stock this week and realize that we have much to be thankful for. Here at Beth El, these are very exciting times, and, as I step back and breathe deeply following five especially frenetic months, I'm especially grateful for the spiritual renaissance that is taking place here, thanks in large part to Cantor Mordecai and our revitalized Shabbat services. I'm grateful for all my other dedicated co-workers too, and our lay leadership - and all of you - for the support you continually provide. We've gotten some very nice end-of-year donations in for our challenge grant. Your help is always appreciated.

We may not be heading into a Messianic era (my guess is that we are not), but some believe that the Messiah is actually already here. Sublime perfection is right in front of our noses. We just need to notice it. And appreciate it.

Merry Shabbos to all...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Photos at a Bris? (Hammerman on Ethics)

Q - My son's bris is in a couple of days and lots of family and friends will be attending. I'm OK with people taking pictures but I really don't want photos of my son all over the Internet. What can I do?

See the response at Photos at a Bris?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jewish Ethicist Jewish Week Event


TBE on Facebook


Now Temple Beth El has its own page. We're still at the beta stage but you can look for us (and like us - we love to be liked). Having our own Facebook page will help us to get the word out about programs in a more efficient (and less obtrusive) way, plus it will facilitate some nice dialogue within our TBE family. Of course you can also friend me any time - I'll always say "yes" (I'm easy).

Chow Down on the 25th!


Chow MEIN, that is. When Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was asked what she was doing last Dec. 25, she said that she was probably having Chinese food like most other Jews. Well, this year, you can have your fortune cookie and eat it too! Join us next week for services followed by a hot, kosher Chinese lunch and some Kiddush Konversation on, appropriately, "The Messiah: A Jewish View." You can preview the discussion materials by clicking here.

If you are interested in learning the background as to why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas, see this interesting article from Tablet.

Is it permissible to sell or rent an apartment to a non-Jew in the Land of Israel?

I've collected some articles relevant to the current controversy in Israel where a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a letter indicating that it is prohibited by Jewish law to sell or rent property to non-Jews in Israel. The New Israel Fund initiated a petition protesting that ruling (which Prime Minister Netanyahu also opposes) and it has thus far been signed by over 1100 rabbis. To find a link to that petition as well as other articles and a halachic responsum on the issue by a Masorti (Conservative) authority that runs counter to that offered by the Ultra-Orthodox sources, click here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Do The Right Thing (Jewish Week)

Do The Right Thing

Staff Report

Randy Cohen, above left, who has been writing “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times for 11 years, asserted that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should win the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-secrecy campaign.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, above right, who writes about ethics for The Jewish Week, described a tough call he had to make as a fledgling rabbi when he learned of two synagogue board members carrying on an affair. He forced them to resign.

There was no shortage of what to talk about at “Ask The Ethicists,” The Jewish Week Forum held at Temple Emanu-el last Tuesday evening, including scenarios posed by some of the estimated 350 people in attendance.

The conversation, moderated by The Jewish Week’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, above center, ranged from privacy in an increasingly open society, to what to do when houseguests apparently steal a knick-knack from your house. (Steal it back, was what the audience member did.)

Cohen, an Emmy Award-winning writer for “Late Night With David Letterman” in the 1980s, brought a mix of humor, thoughtfulness and instinctive ethics to the discussion, noting that he sometimes finds it disturbing when his mother usually agrees with his advice.

By far the most controversial column he wrote, he said, was eight years ago when he advised a woman not to deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent who would not shake her hand for religious reasons.

That’s no excuse, Cohen said at the time and still maintains. He said he lost count after receiving more than 4,000 letters, most of them angrily disagreeing with him.

Rabbi Hammerman said he relies on Jewish texts and values, and the teachings of his late father, a cantor, who always told him to “be a mentsch.” The rabbi recounted how just a few days earlier he discovered an unpaid-for yahrtzeit candle in his shopping cart after shopping at a local supermarket in Stamford, Conn., where he leads Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation. He said he went back in to the store, waited in line again and paid the 94 cents, feeling good that his dad, whose yahrtzeit he was about to observe, would be proud.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: William Bralower on Hanukkah

Shabbat Shalom and happy Hanukkah!

This time of year can bring out differences and tensions among people of different backgrounds. Yes it’s true that our holidays might be different, but beneath it all these is so much that we share.

The Joseph story, which includes my portion, is a perfect example of that. Joseph and his brothers never got along, but by the end of the story --- and even in the middle section that we read this week – Joseph recognizes that he still loves his brothers and that they are really not all that different from him.
For most of the story, Joseph is pretending to be different, putting on Egyptian clothes and taking an Egyptian name. The brothers don’t recognize him. But when Joseph meets them, he can’t help but cry eventually. He hides those tears for a while, but in the end, he reveals himself to them, and the differences are wiped away.

In my home we’ve learned that not only are differences among people overrated, but also differences among animals. By the way, in case you don’t know, my house has lots of pets. It all began when I took home the 5th grade class pets, two guinea pigs. They messed my room, so I gave them back; but then on a vacation, we met two insect experts who convinced me that tarantulas are great pets. I asked my mom if we could get them and she said “sure,” so now I have two of them. Then came three leopard geckos, now two. They get along really well. I also have 2 fire toads and, last but not least, two standard poodles, one cockapoo and possibly a fish. Long story.

What has having all these creatures taught me? That despite all the differences, all of us eat, all of us need our space, all of us have times when we want to be together and other times when we prefer to be alone.
As for my dogs, let’s just say that they sometimes act like Joseph and his brothers. If I pet one more than the others, the others might feel jealous and attack the one who’s getting the attention.

How do I try to handle the situation? It’s hard to know when to step between them and when to let them fight it out. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s usually best to let them work it out on their own. Eventually they come to realize that it is better to get along than to fight, and that they share so much in common. Like their doggy bed.

At my school, I recently learned how nice it is to be able to share things during this holiday season. In band class, we heard we’ll be doing a Christmas song, and so I said, “maybe we should have a Hanukkah song.” Sure enough, they put one in!
This is the time of year when we should celebrate our differences but also appreciate how in the end, we’re all very similar and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Optimism Now, Apocalypse Later (Jewish Week)


The Ethics of WikiLeaks (Hammerman on Ethics

The Ethics of Wikileaks (Jewish Week) -

Was the leaking of a trove of private diplomatic communications ethical? And once leaked, is it ethical for news organizations to publish them?

It’s rarely ethical to intercept private communications and make them public. But are official state communications ever really private? In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a ban of excommunication to those who opened other people’s mail. But he also stated that it was OK to open mail that had been discarded, i.e. placed into the public domain. After a certain time, most government material finds its way into those very same places, whether the trash bin or some presidential library. I can’t wait to see the Wikileaks exhibit at the Obama Library someday – or maybe at the Julian Assange / Daniel Ellsberg/ Joe Wilson Whistle Blower Museum.

Once the quarter million cables were made available to the public, newspapers like the NY Times were on solid ethical ground in publishing those materials that do not put lives at risk or directly harm the national interest. But freedom of the press carries a moral cost. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Anthony E. Varona, professor and associate dean at American University-Washington College of Law, said the line is still unclear between "giving the public the news it has a First Amendment right to receive and serving as instruments of lawlessness."
Ethics is often situational, and in this case, while the cables have revealed nothing terribly startling, it has exposed the alarm felt within among Arab leaders regarding Iran, which should make it easier for Israel and America to pursue a harder line in responding to the threat.

Weren’t you just shocked, shocked to hear that Saudi King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran and that the Chinese had hacked into Google? Assange has not upended the world order; he’s simply removed the emperor’s clothes.

I am troubled, however, that we’ve crossed a perilous line; there is no such thing as confidentiality anymore. Transparency in government is a good thing, but privacy and trust are also vital. We read in Proverbs (11:13) "A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence.” The Talmud (Yoma 4b) adds that even trivial details of casual communications should not be disclosed without permission. Jewish sources also indicate that in this case individual needs could be trumped by overriding communal concerns.

It seems that the State Department now needs to learn what the rest of us knew long ago. Every time you click and send, expect that message to eventually be out there for the entire world to see.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Rabbinic Abomination: Jews Only in Safed

The ruling by fifty rabbis in Israel forbidding the sale of homes to non-Jews is an embarrassment almost more shocking, if that is possible, than the acts of religious fanaticism that have preceded it. I almost feel like I need to add it to the sordid list included in my current Jewish Week article, "Optimism Now, Apocalypse later," which has been making the rounds in progressive Jewish circles. The frustration continues to build. Prime Minister Netanyahu has correctly come out opposing this rabbinic ruling. But he has the power to fire them, and to expunge this strain of hatred from his government.

I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Judaism teaches that every human being is created in God's image, every person is imbued with dignity and worth, and that the stranger is to be welcomed in our midst.

Here are some articles from the Israeli media:

Bibi Slams Rabbis' Ban on Renting to Non-Jews
Ha'aretz - Rabbis Forbidding Renting Homes to Arabs Say Racism Originated in Torah
JPost: The Fire is Still Burning - Racism is Spreading
Survivors to rabbis: Nazis wouldn't rent to Jews
Arabs on rabbis' letter: We are losing our humanity
An unholy battle in a holy city
Safed chief rabbi defends ban on renting homes to Arabs‎ - Jerusalem Post
Ketzaleh Supports Rabbi Eliyahu's Efforts to Keep Tzfat Jewish‎ - Arutz Sheva
Chief rabbi starts racism debate in Israel‎ BBC

There is simply no way to put a good spin on this one.

Below is a statement just released by rabbis representing J-Street:

This week’s ruling by rabbis in Israel that forbids the renting or selling of homes to non-Jews is deeply disturbing and represents a cynical and offensive use of Torah and Jewish values to promote a discriminatory, fundamentalist ideology.

As rabbis, we join with Prime Minister Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders in condemning this racist decision and standing up for the democratic principles on which Israel was founded.

Rulings such as this that pervert Jewish teachings are inimical to what it truly means to be a democratic homeland of the Jewish people – and undermines the commitment to human rights and justice commanded by the Torah and expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The rabbis’ decision also violates the basic ideas of tolerance and understanding we expect any religious leader to uphold. To attempt to connect this intolerant agenda to our values and history as a people is both irresponsible and unacceptable.

We hope Prime Minster Netanyahu will move quickly to suspend these municipal state-funded rabbis from their posts.

"Ask the Ethicists" Video Highlights

My "Ask the Ethicists" conversation with the New York Times' ethicist Randy Cohen was most enjoyable - for me and the 300 or so that attended. For those who couldn't be there, below is a small sampling of the event, which was covered by The Jewish Channel. The Jewish Week will be posting a video of the entire event shortly.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The 94-Cent Yahrzeit Candle

We are constantly being tested, and with each test we pass, our character becomes more refined and pure. Most of the tests are small, but from small things come much larger ones. The rabbis taught, "Mitzvah goreret mitzvah" one mitzvah leads to another... and the same goes for sin.

My father, a renowned cantor, was a moral mentor to me, although he died very young. Perhaps in part it was because he died at the most vulnerable time for me, just as I was starting rabbinical school, that his imprint has been so lasting. Click here to see what I wrote about him on his tenth yahrzeit, way back in 1988. He was the consummate mensch.

So last week I went to Fairway (the new one in Stamford) and bought a cartload of items, including a small candle for my father's yahrzeit, which falls Thursday night. After unloading my bags into my car, I handed the shopping cart to a parking lot attendant. A moment later, I heard him shout, "Hey you forgot this."

He was holding up the candle. Immediately I realized that I had forgotten to pay for it and had left it in the cart. I took the candle and, for an instant, my mind went through all the machinations that you go through when you are trying to figure out the consequences of the moral decision you are about to make. Yes, it was a bother to go back into the store - and I was i a hurry. Yes, I could "get away with it" by simply leaving, and no one would ever know. And how much was this little candle worth to Fairway, after all? What difference would it make?

But when I thought about what this candle is for, it really was no contest. How could I even think of lighting a stolen yahrzeit candle to honor Mr. Mensch? Or anyone?

I ran into the store as if I were holding hot coals. No, I hadn't stolen intentionally, but until it was back inside the store, the candle was contraband. I ran to the nearest cashier. The value of this near grand-theft: 94 cents.

Some mitzvot come cheap.

A few weeks ago a significant percentage of our seventh graders told me they've at times lied when going into the movies, in order to get the under-12 discount. Most were prompted by their parents to do that. At the local Majestic Theater, it costs $8.50 for a matinee showing of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The cost of a child's ticket?


If your child has just turned twelve, think of how much value you will get by instructing him to walk up to the window and tell the truth. Talk about getting bang for the buck!

A moment of honesty could buy a lifetime of integrity. That's the gift that will keep on giving.

And it's the gift my dad gave me once again last week, in the parking lot at Fairway.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Civility as a Political Virtue

Civility as a Political Virtue (from
by Peter Wehner

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

Friday, December 3, 2010


And check out this Hanukkah song, the best ever written by a Mormon!

Joseph and Wikileaks, Transparency, Government and the Press

See this week's Parsha Packet, to be used during our discussion at services. The topic is WikiLeaks, government and the press, with a focus on the ethics of transparency and privacy. Joseph does some pretty underhanded things in the portion, framing his brothers for spying. What would have happened if WikiLeaks had exposed this corruption? Were his actions justified? Check out our discussion guide here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Month-Long Hanukkah (Stamford Advocate)

A Month-Long Hanukkah

by Joshua Hammerman

from the Stamford Advocate

Welcome to December, which for many Jews, especially children, heralds the so-called "December Dilemma," that annual uphill battle against the pervasive, domineering cultural crescendo of all things Christmas. Typically, the greatest ally in this fight has been that once-minor but now trendy festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the triumph of the Jewish spirit against the forces of assimilation. Jews have been able to match those Twelve Days of Christmas with our Eight Crazy Nights, pit menorah against mistletoe, watch dreidels twirl against the tinsel, our lights against their lights, the blue and white against the green and red.

It's not a fair fight, especially with regard to the songs, although if you disqualify those Christmas classics written by Jews, things get interesting.

This year presents an unusual complication. Hanukkah began on the evening of Dec. 1, far closer to Thanksgiving than Christmas. By the time Santa starts his Elijah-like jaunt from house to house, Hanukkah will have been over for more than two weeks, the last bits of wax will have long disappeared from menorahs in Jewish homes and even that pervasive smell of sizzling potato batter will be long gone.

What gives?

The lunar Hebrew calendar is 354 days long, so, given the 11-day difference between 354 and 365, Jewish holidays typically occur 11 days "earlier" each Gregorian year. The ancient rabbis were also brilliant mathematicians, and in their desire to keep festivals seasonal, they devised a scheme whereby an entire leap month is added seven times during each 19-year cycle. This way, Passover can't occur in the summer, Rosh Hashanah in the winter -- and Hanukkah will almost never occur before Dec. 1.

Since 1950, the first day of Hanukkah has fallen in November exactly five times, most recently in 2002. Two other times (1972 and 1983), the holiday has begun on Dec. 1. The next time it begins this early will be in 2013, when Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving, thereby creating a "November Dilemma" for Jews pondering whether to stuff the turkey with potato latkes and replace cranberry sauce with apple.

By contrast, Hanukkah has coincided with Christmas four times during the past decade alone, most recently in 2008. Incidentally, the holiday's forays into January are just as rare as those extending back into November, just five times since 1950.

My interest in this is very personal. My father was born on the first day of Hanukkah in 1918, a rare year when the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving, and he died on the last day of Hanukkah in 1979, which just happens to be the most recent time the holiday ended on New Year's Day. Plus, our last name, in rough translation, means Maccabee.

But this dilemma raises questions that go far beyond my own family. What should Jews say when well-intended shopkeepers wish us a "Happy Hanukkah" on Christmas Eve, weeks after our holiday has ended? Do we return those unwanted Wiis and Barbie dolls during those non-existent "after Hanukkah sales," or do we dare hold onto them until Dec. 26, when the prices really go down? Without Hanukkah to fall back on, how do we resist the Yuletide onslaught on television and in our schools? Is it possible to add a few weeks onto Hanukkah on a one-time-only basis?

I suppose that with the Christmas season now beginning sometime in October, there's nothing so wrong about letting Hanukkah be extended a few weeks in the other direction, especially since that will enable Jews and their neighbors to share this season of good will in a manner that respects diversity rather than demanding homogeneity.

So by all means, wish me a Happy Hanukkah all month long. If that legendary oil could miraculously burn for eight whole days, what's another sixteen? The ancient rabbis instructed Jews to increase the light each night in order to spread the joy and publicize the miracle. No one ever said that we have to stop at eight. In fact, Jewish law states that the Sabbath can be extended far beyond its natural conclusion on Saturday night, even until Tuesday. So let Hanukkah linger as well, even if only in the well wishes of neighbors.

In the spirit of Jerry Herman's song from "Mame," "We Need a Little Christmas," another Yuletide classic with a Yiddish soul, maybe this year we should sing, "We a Little MORE Hanukkah," enough to last clear to the end of the month.

Let's keep those flames burning, all December long -- and even beyond. During these trying times, we all could use a little more light.

Joshua Hammerman is rabbi at Temple Beth El in Stamford

Jewish Views on Messiah

This week I had the honor of leading sessions on Messiah and Messianism at, of all things, an Advent retreat for Christian clergy. It took place in a beautiful setting, at a convent situated right on the water in Rowayton. It was a wonderful opportunity to share and learn. Advent, after all, is their time of anticipation for the onset of redemption. Jewish messianism has its parallels but is far more, well, messy.

Here is the packet of materials I put together for the retreat. I plan to utilize them here for a discussion at Shabbat services on Dec. 25. Save the date. Maybe we'll even serve Chinese food.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Outrageous Hanukkah Wikileaks Disclosures

According to well-informed sources,there is no such thing as confidentiality anymore. The Wikileaks revelations confirm that the best commincations strategy these days is simply not to say anything to anyone, especially if you have something bad to say.

But now that revelations are spewing forth by the wiki-second, I feel safe in revealing these recently discovered classified dispatches from the secret e-files of Judah Maccabee:
Text to his brother Eliezer after the swine-in-the-temple incident (Leaker's note - their disparaging nickname for Antiochus was "Anti-tochus):

"Anti-tochus went too far this time. He sort of looks like that pig. And did you see that women he travels with? Sort of a cross between Muammar Gaddafi and Angela Merkel"

E-mail to Hannah, after the martyrdom of her seventh son.

"Way to go, H. Not to worry. Someday there will be a holiday and everyone will eat donuts and potato pancakes! That'll show 'em. Maybe we'll even name the holiday after you... I know... Hannah...kah!"

Friday, November 26, 2010

Israeli TV Accessible to Americans

GOOD NEWS - The Israeli Network now has English subtitles for many of its programs. This will allow the most popular Israeli TV programs to be accessible to those who are not proficient at Hebrew - it's also a great way to learn some Hebrew and really connect to Israel. The channel has been available for some time via the DISH Network, but the other piece of good news is that they are now expanding to local cable systems. Cablevision already has an extensive international lineup, so it would seem a natural to include the Israeli Network. Imagine being able to watch Israel's top newscasts every day, along with top comedy, drama and children's programming, with English translation. This could go a long way toward helping Americans (Jews and non-Jews) see what is really going on over there. Check the Israeli Network's new website and then contact Cablevision and ask for it! The number is 203-348-9211. Also, email me at if you would like your name included in a petition I'll be sending Cablevision to bring The Israeli Network to our area.

Counting our Blessings on Thanksgiving

It's often said that Jews have no need for a Thanksgiving festival, since every day should be Thanksgiving day. And indeed, our tradition calls upon us to recite 100 blessings every day, including those over food. But just as Mothers Day is a good thing even though every day should be Mothers Day, so is Thanksgiving a great innovation (borrowed from Sukkot), because it's one day when EVERYONE is doing the same thing in this country, a profoundly religious act, no matter what their background - the act of giving thanks.

Here's a way to bring Jewish content to our Thanksgiving meals.

As we sit down with our families at the table, pause for a moment to remember how fortunate we are, to be thankful for every moment that we are alive, for the capacity to love and to share. Say a spontaneous prayer and try to give it a Jewish context - the formula for a blessing would be perfect. Just begin as we would with any blessing, "Baruch ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-olam" and then add, in English "we are so thankful for ___."

Tradition instructs us to try to utter 100 blessings every day, whether spontaneous or not. Some can be found in the grace after meals (see Birkat Ha-mazon explained in Wikipedia and in the Jewish Virtual Library) If you would like to add some or all of that beautiful prayer to your Thanksgiving meal, it can be downloaded at Birkat Hamazon [pdf]

Airport Screenings and Jewish Ethics: Hammerman on Ethics (Jewish Week)

Has airport security crossed the line? Things were far less complicated back when only Superman had X-ray vision. As long as we stayed clear of the Daily Planet, we were in the clear. Now, with the new airport security measures, nothing is hidden anymore - not even our privates are private. Is this a good thing?

See my answer here.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hanukkah: National or Family Needs - Which Comes First?

Which comes first, national or family needs? Click here to see how that plays out in the Hanukkah story.

Parsha Packet for Mikketz - Hanukkah: Sweet Vengeance

After all the calamities of Jewish history, and in particular the Holocaust, how should Jews respond? By seeking revenge or reconciliation with former enemies? Click here for "Sweet Vengeance," with a focus on the story of Joseph and his brothers, as well as the Hanukkah story and the film, "Inglorious Basterds."

Parsha Packets: Jewish Symbols and the Problem of Chrismukkah

At what point does the blending of cultures take so much away from two distinct celebration that each loses its true meaning, and the groups lose their distinctiveness? Can this blending be avoided? Click here for the Parsha packet, "Jewish Symbols and the Problem of Chrismukkah"

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Andrew Young on Vayishlach

Shabbat Shalom!

Good morning, everyone. My name is Andrew Young and I’ll be your host for this edition of, ESPN’s Torah-Center, the world’s most comprehensive telecast for anything related to Jews and Sports.

And that’s the end of our show today...thanks for coming.

No, just kidding. In fact, there’s lots of news today, and believe it or not, it all has to do with this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s portion is Va-yish-lach. It begins with Jacob sending his messengers to speak to Esau. The two hadn’t seen each other in 20 years, since the big birthright upset. Jacob’s messengers return and report that Esau is on his way to see Jacob, along with 400 armed men. Apparently, Esau likes to bring his own fans, preferring not to give anyone home-field advantage.

Not surprisingly, Jacob is afraid. He fears that Esau will kill him and his family. So he divides his family and his possessions into two, hoping that one half could escape if the other is attacked by Esau and his men.

Jacob then prays to God for protection. He starts sending Esau and his advancing men a parade of gifts. The Torah tells us specifically what he sent – two hundred female goats; twenty male goats; two hundred female sheep; twenty rams; thirty camels and their colts, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty donkeys and ten horses. Personally, I wouldn’t be very pleased with any of those gifts, and neither would my mom. That, sports fans, is a lot of pets!

But, the night before that happens, Jacob wrestles with someone, and emerges victorious from an all-night steel cage wrestling match... OK, so maybe there was no steel cage. The mysterious opponent is either God, an angel, himself, or maybe even Esau! Jacob emerges the champion, but he injures his hamstring. Not bad enough to be put on the DL, at least not back then when men were a lot tougher. But the injury is bad enough that he’s limping, and he clearly complains quite a bit about it, because all Jews then decide not to eat the part of the thigh that Jacob injured, somehow insisting that we needed another rule about keeping kosher. As if we needed even more of those rules! During the fight, Jacob might have had some memory loss, because he keeps telling everyone that his name isn’t Jacob, but Israel, which means “someone who has wrestled with God and prevailed.”

You know, in Judaism, we wrestle with ourselves a lot, trying to stretch ourselves to the limit and beyond and do things we wouldn’t normally be able to do. This reminds me of some of my experiences on the baseball diamond, like the time I was given a game ball and I felt my teammate deserved it more. So I gave it to him. But then he gave it back to me and we just kept tossing it back and forth. The two of us were sort of wrestling for the other one to have the ball, even though both of us hoped to get it. In a way, I was struggling with myself to be a good teammate every bit as much as I was struggling with him over the ball.

Some people believe that Jacob may have been wrestling with an angel, or with Esau, or Esau’s shadow - but I believe he was really wrestling with his own fears. All his life he had been running away from those fears, and from Esau. It was time to confront both of them. And once he did that, he was not the same person anymore. So it was time for him to have a new name.

Anyway, he survives the wrestling match, and when he finally meets Esau, he’s relieved to see that, after 20 years, Esau is no longer mad at him. The two brothers kiss and hug and cry together.

This wasn’t an easy reunion for Jacob. Like a lot of things that we worry about, in hindsight, there wasn’t a lot to worry about. But if I look at Jacob’s side of the story as not just worrying, but also preparing as best as he knew how, I see the whole story a little differently. Despite the happy outcome of the reunion, this was a big deal for Jacob, and he prepared for it like it was Game 7 of the World Series. And he let everyone know it was a big deal, and he bothered half his family and a whole lot of animals in the process.

Jacob and Esau might be considered one of the earliest examples of true sibling rivalry. So in a way, I’ve been preparing for this portion, even living it, for the last several years. It’s been difficult, because of course, I know NOTHING about sibling rivalry. Right Marissa?

Seriously, I’ve worked hard, and for me, today is a big deal that involved a lot of worrying and a lot of preparation.

I know it’s not over, just like Jacob and Esau’s reunion was not the end of their story. But it’s nice to reach a resting point where I can stop worrying for a little while and celebrate with people who are so important to me.

Hanukkah E-Lesson - A Public or Private Observance?

From the Conservative Yeshiva:

Hanukkah: Public or Private Observance?
By Rabbi Hillel C. Lavery-Yisraeli
This E-Shiur is made possible by a generous grant from Temple Zion Israelite Center, Miami, Florida

CY Hanukkah E-shiur Sourcesheet 2010 (pdf)

CY Hanukkah E-shiur 2010 (pdf, printable version of this webpage)

Hanukkah is often celebrated as the holiday of “religious freedom.” More accurately, it is a holiday celebrating our ability to practice Judaism unhindered, without pressure or influence to do otherwise. At the time, in the second century BCE, many Jews attempted to combine their ancient Jewish practices with newly popular Hellenistic ones; the Maccabees sought to put an end to this.

Though Hanukkah customs abound, such as eating oily foods, spinning tops, gambling, school plays and synagogue parties, the days of Hanukkah are halakhically distinguished from the others in two ways: changes in our regular daily prayers (“Al HaNissim” in Amidah and Birkat HaMazon, recitation of Hallel, and a special Torah reading), and the lighting of a special Hanukkah lamp (today called a menorah or Hanukkiah).

The main elements of the Hanukkah story are the miracles that happened at the time: the victory over the Syrian-Greek forces (“the few against the many”), and the little cruse of oil which burned for eight days – for which we light candles nowadays. A main theme of the Hanukkiah-lighting ritual is “Pirsumei Nisa” – publicizing the miracle. This concept is often misunderstood and misused, for example when giant Hanukkiyot are set up in public spaces, as I will explain later. We shall analyze several passages in the Talmud to understand “Pirsumei Nisa“ better.

[Source א:] The Talmud (Shabbat 23b) deals with poor people who cannot afford to perform all the mitzvot incumbent upon them and therefore must choose which to perform (and which not). It gives preference to the mitzvah that will provide comfort for the family (Shabbat candles) over the Hanukkah lamp, from which no use or benefit may be derived. On the other hand, the rabbinic requirement of lighting on Hanukkah comes before the rabbinic requirement of saying Shabbat Kiddush over wine, since the Hanukkah light has the special quality of “Pirsumei Nisa“. For whom is this “Pirsumei Nisa” done? If it were a need of the community, perhaps it would override one’s family’s needs, as communal needs usually take precedence. However, this is not the case here. The “Pirsumei Nisa” only overrides a family’s other ritual needs.

[Source ב:] The Talmud in Shabbat 21b determines that the Hanukkah lamp should be lit “from sunset until the streets are empty,” a time period in which it will be seen, even if it is only by stragglers (the poor, non-Jewish wood-gatherers – Rashi). The discussion then raises two different interpretations of what this phrase means: 1) that it is the time period during which it must be lit (without specifying how long the lights must burn), and accordingly, if the streets are empty, it’s too late; or 2) that it fixes the length of time it must be capable of burning, regardless of when it’s actually lit (even if late at night), which assigns less importance to it being seen.

[Source ג:] Like the time for lighting the Hanukkiah, so too the location is very important. The Talmud in Shabbat 21b instructs that it be placed strategically so that it will be visible to others – outside one’s doorway, or in a street-facing window if one lives above street-level. And the Hanukkiah must not be placed too high (Shabbat 22a) – if it’s more than twenty cubits (approx. 9.6 m) above street level, people won’t be able to see it easily and one doesn’t fulfil her/his obligation.* The ability for the public to see the Hanukkiah is an integral requirement.
Yet the public’s viewing is not our only consideration. The Hanukkiah must be recognizable as belonging to one’s house (Shabbat 21b) – within a handbreadth of the doorway, or in the window. The Talmud (Shabbat 23a, not on the Source Sheet) indicates that one away from home should have someone else light there if possible; lighting on a bus, in an airport, on an airplane, in a public square, at city hall, or at a party does not discharge one’s obligation, and a blessing recited over such a lighting would sadly be in vain. In times of danger (21b) when the balance of public-private observance – just outside one’s residence – is not feasible, the Hanukkiah is moved indoors; “Pirsumei Nisa” in such circumstances is limited to one’s family. The only exception to the requirement that the lighting be at one’s residence is the lighting in the synagogue before our evening prayers, also for “Pirsumei Nisa“. Even so, the one who lights there has not fulfilled her/his obligation, and lights again at home with a blessing. Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayyim, 671:7. (Lighting candles in shul in the morning is a mere custom, no obligation is fulfilled and no blessing is said.)

Jews in the diaspora have clearly been influenced by the way our neighbors celebrate Christmas. Some Jews may feel a need to compete, using giant Hanukkiyot and public lightings attended by dignitaries. But this was not the intended nature of Hanukkah’s “Pirsumei Nisa“. In Judaism, Hanukkah is a minor holiday. “Pirsumei Nisa” is meant to be observed primarily with our families, and shared with our community but from within the family setting. It is to emphasize how Judaism is safe and strong when we safeguard it in our homes. This balance of public and private observance is what gives Hanukkah its special nature, and is one that should not be overlooked.

*One whose window is more than 10 meters above street level should, if possible, light at the entrance of the building, or in the hallway at the entrance to his/her apartment. Some say that if there are other windows level to and looking towards his/hers, then one’s window can be used even if it’s more than 10 meters above street level. When none of these is possible, one relies on the dispensation mentioned in Source ג (originally for times of danger) and lights inside one’s home.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Special Place in Hell-Israel News - Haaretz Israeli News source.

A Special Place in Hell-Israel News - Haaretz Israeli News source.

An astute Israeli journalist travels to America to see why so many American Jews have been turned off to Israel, and he discovers, amazingly, that it seems to be in the Israeli government's interest to turn them off even more.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cheating Scandal at Central Florida

The cheating scandal to end all cheating scandals. University of Central Florida

UCF Cheating Scandal Follow Up of the Day: Nearly two weeks after University of Central Florida professor Richard Quinn used highly-detailed analysis to accuse many of the 600 students in his Strategic Management course of cheating on their midterm exam, over 200 have come forward to admit to using a stolen test bank to determine the answers.

“I don’t want to have to explain to your parents why you didn’t graduate, so I went to the Dean and I made a deal,” Quinn said during the 15-minute lecture in which he laid out his reasoning for the accusation (above). “The deal is you can either wait it out and hope that we don’t identify you, or you can identify yourself to your lab instructor and you can complete the rest of the course and the grade you get in the course is the grade you earned in the course.”

Despite the egregious nature of this incident, Quinn said he was “looking forward to moving past this incident and focusing on the rest of the semester.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hanukkah Sourcebook

Click here for a sourcebook filled with information about Hanukkah, including historical background, halachic guidelines, creative rituals and how to deal with the December dilemma.

God and Messiah: A Sourcebook

Click here for a sourcebook filled with material on how Jews view God and Messiah.

Stealing Truth: Is It Ever Ethical to Deceive?

Click here for a Parsha Packet on the importance of truth, using several scenarios to determine when, if ever, it is proper to deceive. Plus a look at business ethics and Jewish values in marketing practices.

Davvenology 101: The Power of the Word

Click here for a creative Synaplex Learner's Service, "The Power of the Word," with a focus on how we can use prayer to improve our ability to communicate holiness in how we speak to others.

Davennology 101: Mah Tovu and the Search for Home

Click here for a Parsha Packet on the prayer Mah Tovu, part of our Davvenology 101 series exploring the meaning and power of prayer.

Growing Gender Segregation in Israel Exposed

Report exposes growing gender segregation in Israel (New Israel Fund)

IRAC, the Reform movement’s Action Center, has published a comprehensive 50-page report entitled "Separation Between Men and Women in Public Places." The report analyzes the expansion of gender segregation over the past decade to encompass buses, government and municipal offices, health clinics, sidewalks and private businesses such as stores and restaurants. The report was presented to the Knesset last week.

The report’s authors stress, "The report’s aim is to expose social processes taking place in Israeli society that are supported by authorities even though they are against the law and there has been no public debate on the subject."

In recent years, the NIF family has fought an intensive campaign against growing gender segregation in Israel's public cases and has won court orders regarding segregated buses and sidewalks.

Read more about the report in the Jerusalem Post

Here is IRAC's first-hand report:

I have such great respect for the Beatles. They were huge, and they changed the world through their music. At IRAC, we strive to be the Beatles of pluralism. We try to get Israel to walk to a different beat. This week, I decided to borrow a few words from John, Paul, George and Ringo (in blue) to bring you up to speed with our work with the government.

Last Tuesday, we reeled and rocked in the Knesset. IRAC hosted a conference, with a little help from our friends in the Knesset, called Mudarot La’mhadrin, which translates roughly into Excluded Due To Mehadrin (ultra-Orthodox Jewish requirements for modesty or kashrut). Citizens, leaders of organizations and communities, professors and Members of Knesset spoke up about gender segregation in the public sphere.

Our legal team presented a 42-page report compiled over the past several years documenting how this phenomenon is escalating, with numerous cases—on buses, on public streets, at the Western Wall, even at medical clinics—showing that the increasingly strict ultra-Orthodox rules do not only separate men and women, but also humiliate them and keep them in a subjugated position. While it’s only available in Hebrew at the moment, I assure you that it is being translated into English and will be available soon.

We had a full room, and they saw the photographs that we presented showing real-life examples of segregation and signs that enforce it. Women and men spoke their minds, demanding that the State fix a hole where the rain gets in. One woman shared that she was excluded from her own father’s funeral ceremony, explaining that the funeral director told her that only men could partake in certain parts of the ceremony. Those who shared were no longer seen as fools on the hill; leaders in the government and members of the press listened intently throughout the conference.

Next month, we’re holding another session about issues of marriage. The conference on the subject of freedom of choice in marriage will advocate for a large portion of Israeli society who come from back in the USSR who could get married anywhere but not in Israel, their own country.

There are many members of Knesset who disagree with our continued presence there. I’ve got a feeling it will be a long and winding road, but we’re working eight days a week, and it’s getting better all the time.


Anat Hoffman

Newton synagogue cancels talk by critic of Israeli policies - The Boston Globe

Newton synagogue cancels talk by critic of Israeli policies - The Boston Globe

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Parsha Packets for Vayishlach: Darfur, Names and Peace

Two recent and one current parsha packets for the portion of Vayishlach:

Darfur and the Jewish Soul (2008)

What's in a Jewish Name (and why we change them)? (2009)

And this years...

Waging Peace - This year we explore Jewish sources regarding the prime value of making peace - whether it between family members (Hello, Thanksgiving!), nations (say, Israelis and Palestinians), or in our communities. See stories by Carlebach and Gilad Shalit, and find out what we can learn from why the Egyptian plover bird cleans out the gums of the African crocodile.

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvha Commentary: Richard Greenbaum on Vayishlach

It was about three years ago. My little league team was playing for a spot in the championship game. In the top of the first, everything went wrong. A combination of hits and errors – one of them by me – led to a 5-0 deficit. In the dugout, our coach went bonkers. It would have easy for us to get down on ourselves. But I didn’t get too down on myself. There was plenty of time left. And sure enough, we climbed back into it and won the game in the bottom of the 6th. I got the game winning hit, a single over third base with the bases loaded.

Last summer, I was playing chess with my camp social worker, who happens to be an excellent chess player. Early in the game, he captured my queen. Now in chess, losing a queen is not the best thing that can happen. It’s a big blow. When it happens, your chances of winning are slim, especially against a tough opponent.

However, the only thing in chess worse than losing a queen is giving up entirely, which I didn’t do. It was a long, intense match, about an hour. In the end, I was able to control the board with my bishops kept trying as hard as I could and I was able to win.

I’m sure you are all wondering how does my Torah portion connect to chess board and baseball games. The portion contains another kind of athletic competition, a wrestling match, one that lasted all night long. One of the wrestlers was Jacob. Of that we’re sure (although by the end of the night he had a different name – Israel). No one really knows who Jacob’s opponent was.

Many people think Jacob was wrestling against Esau’s angel. Others say he was wrestling himself.

What does it mean to wrestle with yourself? I’ve faced some tough opponents over the years, but most often the true opponent I’m facing is myself. That’s what happened in that baseball game and chess match.

In Jacob’s case, he had a lot on his mind and some fateful decisions to make. He was about to meet his brother for the first time in 20 years, and the thing he had heard was that Esav wanted to kill him. All his life, Jacob had been running away, be it from his brother Esav after their father’s death, or from Lavan, his deceiving father in law. Here Jacob had a chance to run away yet again, but part of him wanted to stand strong. He had to overcome his own fears to do the right thing and make up with Esav.

In chess, I’ve developed some guidelines on how to keep my own emotions in check. (Get it?) It’s all about staying calm and keep face. It’s also about planning ahead, not underestimating your opponent and never be afraid to put your pawns to work. Jacob actually split his camp in two, moving all the pieces around, and being prepared for whatever Esav decided to do.

These guidelines also make sense in life. For part of my mitzvah project, I am teaching a student with challenges how to play the guitar. Though it’s not as obvious, there is a distinct opponent in any instrument that you play: yourself. Mastering an instrument take a lot of work, and it is very easy to quit. When I took piano, it was hard at first. But glad my mom encouraged me to keep playing. The fact that we had just bought a piano certainly helped J My student is doing really, really well.

And now that I have become Bar Mitzvah, I am reminded of the quote from Pirke Avot, the Wisdom of our Fathers,

איזה הוא גיבור--הכובש את יצרו

Who is a hero? He who defeats himself" (4:1).

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Gabriel Groz on Vayetze

A Few Words from Gabe:
The Way Up is the Way Down

Shabbat shalom.

Thank you all for joining my family and me as we celebrate my becoming a Bar Mitzvah. I am honored that you are spending Shabbat with us, and feel so grateful to have so many with whom to share my joy. This Shabbat has a special significance for me, but it also has a special significance for this congregation, as it coincides with the first event marking Temple Beth El's 90th anniversary.

In fact, the name of this synagogue comes straight out of Vayetze, my Torah portion,
which tells the story of Jacob on the run from a home life that is, at best, difficult. Jacob, away from home for the first time, goes to sleep in a place (Makom in Hebrew) somewhere along his journey. God comes to him in a dream, showing him a ladder with its top reaching heaven and its bottom touching earth. Angels are ascending and descending the ladder. Jacob wakes up and says, “God is in this place, and I, I did not know.” He realizes that all ground is holy, even in the desolate location in which he finds himself.

Indeed, in Hebrew, one of the names of God is HaMakom, which simply means “the place.” As God is everywhere, wherever we find ourselves must be “The Place”. Recognizing the Overwhelming Divine Presence, Jacob takes the Stone that he slept on and anoints it with oil, consecrating the Place, which he names Beth El, which in English means “the House of God”.

This Torah portion is so rich with topics for discussion that it's hard to know where to start. The commentaries on Jacob's Ladder alone fill many bookshelves. The image of Jacob's Ladder is striking; angels continuously ascend and descend the ladder, making a circuit. The imagery of the circle recurs in Judaism, for example, with the seder plates we use on Passover and Tubishvat. It is also inherent in the way we practice Judaism: when we finish reading the Torah, we begin all over again.

When I started to think about this imagery, I asked myself why are the angels on Jacob's ladder making the loop? In our culture, we usually associate ascent with important thoughts, with enlightenment, and with progress, while we associate descent with the past, with failure, and with corruption of the mind. I think this is a limited way of looking at things. We know that when you are climbing a mountain, descent from the zenith is just as important as getting up to the top. We also know that when you are scuba diving, you need to come back up to the surface. In both cases, you see the wonders of the world, but you have to make a return trip. Ever upward is just as unhealthy as ever downward.

In Mandarin Chinese, which I am studying and really love, “down” and “up” can have very different meanings from their English counterparts. A common meaning of the word “down” (xia4) is “next.” Because the Chinese language talks about the future optimistically, “down” has a positive connotation. For example, “next year” (ming2nian2) literally translates to “bright year”. The word for “up” (shang4) means “previous”. And one synonym for shang4 is qu1, which is the verb “to go”. The Chinese language thinks of things that have already happened as having gone. For example, the word for “last year” (qu1nian2) literally translates to “the year that went”. If you follow this line of thinking, then “up” means “went” and “down” means “next”. It's kind of like what a great Jewish sage said, “Hello, I must be going.” By the way, that sage was Groucho Marx.

In a way, “Hello, I must be going” is a theme of Vayetze, in that Jacob doesn't expect to remain in Haran for very long; he plans to take refuge there for only a short time, while Esau's temper cools. But Jacob's family dynamics are complicated. His mother's favoring of him sours his relationship with all of his immediate family members, especially his brother; his uncle Laban connives against him; his wife angers her father by stealing his idols; his cousins are jealous of his wealth; and his brother is amassing wealth and arms. His one choice is to flee, and eventually to reestablish himself.

This aspect of Vayetze resonated with me when I began to think about what kind of Mitzvah Project I wanted to work on. As I was looking at various ways that I could make a difference locally, I came upon the organization Kids in Crisis. Kids in Crisis provides 24-hour support to help children and their families resolve conflict. The stories of many of the children served by Kids in Crisis bear similarities to Jacob's story. Both the children at Kids in Crisis and Jacob come from troubled homes; both seek temporary refuge. Like Jacob, the children stay for a time, and with help and hard work gain a better footing in life, and then move on. And in a way, Kids in Crisis could also be thought of as a ladder leading to a better life.