Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
TBE Israel Adventure, 2012
Thursday, September 22, 2011
Fasting Before A Marathon - Hammerman on Ethics (Jewish Week)
Q - My brother and I are running the Chicago Marathon which is the day after Yom Kippur. We want to fast, however we have been told that it is unwise to do so the day before running 26 miles. Since this is an ethical dilemma, we need your advice.
A – Well, at the very least, by observing Yom Kippur you could label yourself a “fast runner.” Sorry.
This conflict has been a source of great consternation for Jewish runners in Chicago, but there is no consensus among doctors as to how dangerous it is to run after having fasted the day before.
So as a rabbi, what I can tell you is that fasting is required except in a situation where it is a matter of life and death. Basically, that means if a person is ill (or about to deliver a child) and fasting would make you sicker, that is an "out." The problem here is that it you're not really ill – only at risk of becoming ill. I would never want to advise you to do something that could potentially harm you.
The idea of fasting on Yom Kippur is really not as much about what goes into your mouth on a particular day as that you focus on what comes out of it the rest of the year. The most important thing is that YK be a meaningful day for you. So even if you decide to curtail your fast, you can still make the most out of the day.
I can’t recommend curtailing it, but I’ve heard of how Gabe Carimi, the stellar offensive lineman from the University of Wisconsin, when facing the dilemma of playing on Yom Kippur, actually adjusted his twenty four hour fast so that it would conclude just before game time. One might say that he fasted as if he were in Israel, where it’s already dark when it’s 1 PM in Madison. Unorthodox to say the least, but commendable. Now that he’s in the NFL, Carimi’s checked the Jewish calendar for the next decade and was relieved to know that a similar conflict is unlikely to occur. Just the fact that he is so concerned puts him in the Sandy Koufax stratosphere. Over the coming days, as Yom Kippur approaches and the baseball playoffs heat up, it is highly likely that Jewish baseball players Kevin Youkilis, Ryan Braun and Ian Kinsler will face the same dilemma.
A piece of good news this year is that because the holidays fall so late, it gets dark earlier, so Yom Kippur will end early enough on Sat. evening for you to hydrate to your heart's content. I’ve heard that the time of the traditional pasta dinner will be extended by Chicago marathon officials that Saturday night.
So what it comes down to is this. As a rabbi, I can’t give you an easy out from fasting. But I also would never want you to put yourself in any danger and certainly would not advise you to do that.
Meanwhile, let the people running the Chicago Marathon know that they picked a bad day!
The Death Penalty Circus
Q – Was it right for the state of Georgia to execute Troy Anthony Davis?
A – The Davis case has once again put capital punishment on trial. No DNA evidence implicated him, no gun, no fingerprints and a bevy of recanting witnesses. I’d say that there is more than a remote possibility that an innocent man was killed. That being the case, it was, from the Jewish ethical perspective, the equivalent of state sponsored murder.
I only wish that the execution had been televised on all the networks to a national audience. Put it on at halftime of an NFL (National Finish-off-your-opponent-by-beating-his-brains-out League) game. Then perhaps Americans would wake up to their own bloodlust. Or perhaps they wouldn't. In the past decade, four states – New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, and Illinois – have abandoned the death penalty, leaving 34 states still with capital punishment. Maybe this case will help to tip the scales in my own state of Connecticut, where recent legislative votes have been very close.
The Torah mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, ranging from murder to kidnapping, adultery to incest, certain forms of rape, idolatrous worship and public incitement to apostasy, from disrespecting parents to desecrating the Sabbath. But the rabbinic sages effectively abolished the death penalty centuries later. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 stresses the importance of presenting completely accurate testimony in capital cases, for any mistakes or falsehoods could result in the shedding of innocent blood. If any perjury were to cause an execution, "the blood of the accused and his unborn offspring stain the perjurer forever."
In Talmudic times, capital cases required a 23-judge court, while only three judges sat for non-capital cases. Two or more eyewitnesses were required to testify to the defendant's guilt, and their hands would, "be the first against him to put him to death" (Deuteronomy 17:6-7). In a capital case, a one-vote majority could acquit a defendant, but could not convict. Furthermore, if there was a mere one-vote majority or if any judge was undecided, additional judges were added in pairs until the majority ruled against conviction, or until one judge in favor of conviction was persuaded to err on the side of innocence (Mishnah Sanhedrin 5:5).
In practice, the death penalty became almost impossible to implement, though over the centuries there has been a diversity of opinion on the matter. Maimonides claims that murderers should not be executed if there was a question about how the trial was conducted. But if the trial was conducted properly there is no restriction even if it means that one thousand murderers are executed in a single day. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein counters that the purpose of assigning the death penalty to so many crimes in the Torah is to educate people about the severity of the offenses, rather than to end the lives of the offenders. That practice has continued to this day in modern Israel, where not even terrorists with blood on their hands are executed. Only those convicted of crimes against humanity (i.e. Adolf Eichmann) have been executed.
In the U.S., the statistics are daunting:
Nationally, since 1973, 138 prisoners sentenced to death later have been exonerated.
The average time spent on death row by an exoneree is 9.8 years.
DNA has played a role in exonerating 17 death row prisoners. But in many death penalty cases, DNA testing proves impossible because of a lack of testable evidence.
Scientific evidence strongly suggests that Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Willingham, in 2004. Compelling evidence in other cases suggests more innocent people have been executed.
Causes of wrongful conviction include: eyewitness misidentification, police coercion, perjury, prosecutorial misconduct, and inadequate representation.
Nationally, 50% of murder victims are white. In cases resulting in an execution, however, the murder victim is white 76% of the time. Studies in Connecticut, North Carolina, Maryland, and California found that one’s odds of receiving the death penalty increase significantly when the victim is white.
Because of additional resources and preparation required in death penalty cases, a separate sentencing phase, post-conviction appeals, and the added costs of death row facilities, studies consistently find the death penalty to be more costly than life without parole.
Since death sentences peaked in 1996, at 315, nationwide the number of death sentences has been declining. The number of death sentences in 2010, 114, was near the historic lows.
It’s time to put an end to this murderous circus.
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Max Kitay on Ki Tavo
Those of you who know me know how I love to skateboard. I was around 9 years old when I first tried it out, and I must say I’ve gotten pretty good. So, why do I like it? Well, for one thing, it’s lots of fun. I like the speed, the wind in my face, mastering tricks like an Ollie (which is sort of like a jump on the board), or a Kick flip, which is an Ollie, but once you’re in the air, you flip your board and then land on it. I can’t land it yet but I’m trying.
Which brings me to my point: Skateboarding has lots of similarities to Judaism, to my Torah portion and to this time of year before the High Holidays.
You might be interested to learn that Skateboarding is so popular in Israel that there is a new Hebrew word for it, just introduced a couple of years ago. A skateboard is called a galgeshet. It’s similar to the word for a surf board, because it’s like riding on a wave of air.
Skateboarding has taught me a lot about how important it is to never give up. At Scalzi Park, there is what we call a skateboarding bowl, which is a huge bowl with walls curving up the sides. It took me a long time to build up the courage to skate down into the bowl and up the other side. It took a couple of months, lots of trying and trying, starting from the bottom and working my way up. But now I can do it!
In the same way, at this time of year, Jews recognize that improvement does not come easy. As we set our goals for the New Year we also can’t give up, even if we fall short sometimes and seem far from the target. Right now, it’s hard to imagine that climb to Yom Kippur, but if we keep our eyes on that target, we’ll achieve our goals.
Another similarity between skating and the High Holidays is that, while we need speed to make it to the other side, there is also a need for caution and balance. In skateboarding, I like having the wind in my face and you can’t do tricks without generating speed and momentum. But you have to be cautious too. It’s important not to lose your balance.
We all are rushing so much in our lives, but in less than two weeks we’ll be slowing down for Rosh Hashanah, to catch our breath and see how far we’ve come. My portion teaches that our actions have consequences, for good or not. On a skateboard, every slight move or lean can change direction. In life, the same thing is true. Even the smallest mistake can lead to disaster. And even the smallest act of kindness can change a life.
I’ve learned that from my mitzvah projects, the Jumpstart Walk and Friendship Circle. They are great programs that you can read about them in my booklet.
Little did I know that when I’m on my skateboard I’m doing a very Jewish thing. As we prepare for the High Holidays, and I begin this new phase in my life, I hope that together we can all Ollie into the New Year. This has been, after all, a LEAP year. And as we take that leap into the next one, we can truly call these the High OLLIE-days!
Thursday, September 15, 2011
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Simone Teich on Ki Tetze
Just what I thought! So my job here is to help explain some of these laws using examples from my own life. Fortunately, there are lots. I have a very interesting life! But actually, examples of many of these laws can be found in ALL our lives, not just mine.
So here we go: Here’s my commentary on this portion of Ki Tetze.
1. The portion explains what happens when a child becomes rebellious. No, that child is not me. The treatment is very harsh – too harsh to say in most opinions, including those of the rabbis who later commented on it. But really, this mitzvah is talking about how important it is to use discipline and good judgment in raising a child. It so happens that I have just signed on to my first babysitting job. I am very excited to have a chance to babysit these 5 year old twin girls. Once I have experience babysitting, I’ll have my first glimpse at how complicated it is to be a parent. I’ll have lots more sympathy for my parents!
2. The portion instructs us to return lost objects to our neighbors and too show concern even to those we don’t know. So a year or two ago, I was playing mini golf with my mom, sister and brother, and as we were leaving and walking to our car, I saw something in the bushes. When I went over to it, I discovered that it was a wallet. I brought it to my mom to check for i.d. There was no identification but there a few hundred dollars in it. We brought it to the manager and he said, “You can give me the number and if anyone who has lost a wallet calls us, we’ll give them your number to claim it.” We waited for 6 months and no one called. We have used a large portion of that money to buy toys for David’s Closet and the Bennent Cancer Center at Stamford Hospital. Children undergoing treatment get to go and pick out a toy or gift from this closet. I hope that the item they choose makes them feel better. I had fun going to the store and selecting great toys for this kids to have and play with. Those toys we have purchased are in the baskets up on the bima.
3. Another law instructs us to lift animals when they’ve fallen. We once found a dog on the side of the road. He was just sitting there all alone. My mom told us to stay in the car while she went out to see if it had a collar; it did not. After she checked it just walked away and sat on a nearby lawn. We didn’t want to leave but it seemed like that might be the dog’s lawn, so we left. And just last week, my friend’s dog got through the invisible fence. We went running after it and we finally caught him. Even if its not always your animal it is always good to lend a helping hand to other animals and people in need.
4. Another law states that you should build a protective fence on the roof of your house. In those days, people had flat roofs and did a lot up there. In a similar way, my Dad has strict policies that whoever rides a bike anywhere needs to wear a helmet. The idea behind this mitzvah is that we are responsible for the safety of those who come under our care – and especially into and around our homes.
5. Here’s a strange law – we’re not supposed to wear things that mix wool and flax together. In fact, even in those days, the priests did wear wool and flax, but I think the idea here is that every generation needs to make its own fashion statement. And sometimes, its best not to mix things, but sometimes it is. As many of you know, I love fashion design, especially shoes, and I’ve come up with some nice, interesting blends of shoe types. Think Uggs with high heels. Comfortable… Ehh. But it’s a real possibility(sarcastic)! Well, maybe not.
As you can see, the prime message of this portion is that we should care for others. I’ve not only managed to do this with these examples but also through my special mitzvah projects, including donating my hair twice to Locks of Love and the Rocks for Brian project that you can read about in my bat mitzvah booklet.
As I become a bat mitzvah, I hope to discover more ways to apply the wisdom of my portion to my life.
Friday, September 9, 2011
Dip Your Apple
Wednesday, September 7, 2011
TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Sarah Druckman on Shoftim
Today my Torah portion is Shoftim, which means “judges”. Shoftim is a fascinating and very complex torah portion about all kinds of things from soothsayers and black magic, to chopping down trees during war, to unusual rituals around unidentified murder victims. So when I first read it my initial thought was, “what the heck?” and then “I don’t get it” and then, “what does this have to do with me or my bat mitzvah?” But with a little help from the rabbi, some guidance from www.writemybatmitzvahspeech.com and some parental advice, I realized that this portion is about judging, and this, I know something about.
My portion gives judges three pieces of important advice. They are:
• Don’t favor the rich or poor
• Don’t take a bribe, and
• Pursue justice, justly
I would like to think that I practice all three. As for not favoring the rich or poor, my Mizvah project focused on helping feed hungry kids in America. This has shown me first hand not to consider myself any better than anyone else simply because I have enough food to put on my table. Especially in today’s unstable economy, I have learned that people from all walks of life can find themselves without enough money for food.
As for not taking bribes – well I’m only 12, what do I really know about that? But I can say with confidence that I never would try to bribe or influence the judges unfairly at my dance competitions.
The most important advice is the last one which in Hebrew is Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof which I recited in the first torah portion today. The scholars wonder why the word Tzedek, justice, is repeated twice. One response is that it is not enough to pursue justice but you have to do it justly.
Over the past few years I have had many experiences of both being a judge and being judged. In my last two years of middle school I have learned not to quickly judge others. I have found that I need to use my own judgement about people and not be swayed by gossip or rumors. This is not always so easy as a teenager. It is easy to get caught up in wanting to fit in by going along with the popular opinion. I am proud that I can stand up for what I believe in and feel confident in my actions.
For the past 5 years I have been on a dance competition team where a group of judges evaluates our team performances and scores us against the other teams. This year I competed my first solo dance performance. This was the first time that I was alone on stage being judged independently (which was great practice for today). As Shoftim discusses, judges should be fair and impartial. There were times when I felt I was judged justly and other times, maybe not so much. But rather than let the judges scores discourage me, I use their feedback to strive to improve my skills and try harder the next time.
If there is one thing you take away from today’s torah portion, always remember to judge others justly. If someone wrongs you, confront it and deal with it fairly rather than seeking revenge or staying angry. Remember: tzedek tzedek tirdof!