Friday, February 26, 2010

Jewish Atheists

Recently seen quoted from Leonard Fine (A Reform Jewish leader):
A Jewish atheist is someone who knows exactly what the God he doesn't believe in demands of him.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Kosher Scrolls? Sacred Scrolls!

First, some background. For those who don’t know, Judaism requires that holy scrolls, such as (and especially) the Torah be written in very specific ways. For everyday use (e.g. study, reading), you don’t have to worry. But, the Torah scroll from which we read on Shabbat has to be handwritten by a specially trained scribe (sofer). In addition, incredibly minor flaws in the text (such as one letter being partially erased/scratched out) invalidate the entire scroll – it’s no longer usable for ritual purposes. Keeping a scroll in proper, kosher* condition is thus very difficult, and winds up being very expensive (since only trained scribes can do repairs, as well).

* “Kosher” doesn’t only apply to food. It really just means “proper,” and is used to more-or-less mean “conforming to Jewish law.

On one of my my Rabbinic e-lists, a question has come up about why we, as Reform Rabbis (who don’t believe that we are bound by the law, only that we are to be educated and influenced by it) would care about this? Why spend large amounts of money (thousands of dollars in some cases) “repairing” scrolls which are perfectly usable? Why rely on Ultra-Orthodox Jews (since they make up the vast, vast majority of scribes) to keep our scrolls in “working order,” when they don’t even consider us to be true Jews, ourselves? Isn’t this just elevating ancient customs, which may have made sense when they were created, to holy status? Isn’t that what we, as modern, Liberal Jews, are committed to not doing – not doing something just because it’s always been done that way, especially when there’s a better way?

On the one hand, I find the argument compelling. I had a very hard time articulating why I should care about the kashrut (kosher-ness) of a scroll. Why not, as some colleagues suggested, just use a printed text (even in book form) for Torah reading on Shabbat? Why not use any well-written version, so long as it’s correct*

* it’s worth noting, as an aside, that some of the impetus behind the strict laws was probably to guarantee careful and accurate transcription, in the pre-computer, pre-printing press days.

But, even though I found that point of view intellectually sufficient, it didn’t sit well with me. Could I really picture taking a mass-produced scroll out of the ark on Shabbat? Or, just breaking open a nice, easy to use, printed book, instead? The idea of it seemed so improper as to make me almost physically uncomfortable. It just seemed wrong, but I couldn’t express why. There are many things that I do which are not according to tradition or Jewish law. Why did I get hung up on this one?

The best answer I’ve seen so far came from a colleague of mine. He fired off a quick response, so he apologizes for the somewhat rambling nature of this (I’ve only made minor adjustments), but I think he captures something essential in his thoughts:

What is left among our Jews, and non-Jews among us for that matter, that is sacred anymore? What is left that we take seriously? Shabbat? Not so much, by and large. And don't even start a discussion about candle lighting times. Do we use it as a way to pay attention to the natural world? No, thank you; we Reform Jews have long ago ushered in, and said goodbye to Shabbat on our own time schedule, not that of the spinning planet. Yartzeits [anniversaries of the death of a loved one]? Barely. We have the list which we read each Shabbat, but there is little urgency to come say kaddish by most of the children of those on the list. And then, when they do care, they often call in to move the date the name is read, so it can be more convenient. What then? What is truly kadosh [holy, sacred] to our people? What is left that they are willing to let take primacy in their lives? Not even shiva [the first 7 days of mourning for a loved one] holds a grip, by far. And that one is about comforting their friends! One of the few things left is the holiness of Torah and the mezuzah klaff [the small parchment which is in the mezuzah]. That is one of the few things left where people feel small in its presence. People worry over the Torah, fret over letting it touch the floor. They subsume themselves to the importance of Torah. They WANT it to be perfect, kosher, fit and proper even if they don't understand how that is accomplished. Same thing on a smaller scale for the mezuzah klaff. They care. We have Jews who CARE about something Jewish. We have a last thing that gives a sense of awe.

And yet now we might suggest that really, it doesn't matter. Yet another moment of holiness turns out to be not quite that holy. A couple letters flaked off? Eh, don't worry. You're telling me I can print a better, sharper and let us never forget cheaper v'ahavta for the mezuzah from my computer? Fantastic. Who wants something handmade anyway? I understand that we ought not make a fetish of things but respect and devotion is not the same as a fetish. Wanting something handmade from a skilled artisan that has a pleasing look and feel, what's the problem? I don't check the political stance of the woman who sells ceramics at the summer art fair, do I? Could we make our own? Sure there are liberal sofrim out there, and as soon as I no longer care about making the salary I make, as well as develop handwriting that is legible, I'll drop what I'm doing and become one. Until then, I guess I'll work with people who know how to do it. And I'll let my people have one last, final, tiny, remnant of kedusha in their lives. Because just about every thing else that gave people that sense has been debunked and reduced and dismissed.

Larry Freedman

Personally, I have never opened a Torah scroll without being affected by the moment. Sometimes only in small ways, very often in a deeper sense. There is something awe-some in this text which ties us back, on so many levels (content, form, use) to all who came before us.

Rabbi Freedman is right – there aren’t many things which liberal Jews like us let have authority over us*. We change, as we have the right to, nearly everything which doesn’t “work” for us. But, at some point, to some degree, religion must also be about serving something other than ourselves. It must be about obligation and (as loaded as this word is) submission, as well as being about our own needs and wants.

* Berit Milah - ritual circumcision - would be another, by the way

Maybe that’s enough. Maybe having this one place where we don’t get to make the rules is reason enough to not change those rules. Maybe even the most liberal of Jews among us can find a use in saying, on occasion, that it’s really not up to me.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Reform Responsa

Our class on Reform Responsa has been going great, and we’ve got one more session – Thursday at 7:30 p.m. Even if you haven’t joined us, yet, you’re welcome to do so – we look at different cases each time, so you can jump in whenever you want to.

The three topics for this week (subject to change, of course) will be:

  • What does Reform Judaism say about in vitro fertilization, and about the status of an embryo so created?
  • Would Reform Judaism support compulsory immunization of children?
  • Does Reform Judaism endorse, allow or forbid same-sex marriages?

As a prelude to the class, I want to open up a discussion on one of these. I really want to do the last one, but I’m going to avoid it, because it’s often hard to have a controlled, measured discussion about topics like that in a forum like this. So, let’s stick with immunization.

Speaking from your own perspective – is it right to compel parents to immunize their children? If you have any knowledge about this, what do you think Reform Judaism would/should say about that? And, what are the reasons behind your opinions? That’s at least as important as the opinions themselves.

Let the games begin…


So, I just watched Tiger Woods’ speech. I wasn’t going to comment (I try to remind myself that I’m a Rabbi, not a pundit), but I found myself with a few thoughts, which I might as well share, especially since they do relate to Jewish teaching.

First of all, I have absolutely no opinion about Tiger’s sincerity. I’m sure that many people will be chiming in, praising him for how clearly he meant what he said, and offering this and that “proof.” Others will find it completely disingenuous, and believe that it was nothing more than a desperate PR attempt. As I often try to remember,  acknowledging our own ignorance is often a good place to start. No one, with very few exceptions, has any idea whether Tiger really meant what he said. Certainly, no one reading this blog.

Maybe that’s why I did appreciate one thing he said very early in his speech – the real apology is not contained in his words, but rather in his future deeds. Maimonides, one of the greatest teachers in Jewish history, famously taught that a sin is truly forgiven when, and only when, you have a chance to commit it again, and you choose not to.


I also very much appreciated his almost total lack of the use of the term “mistake;” he only used it once. It’s an enormous pet peeve of mine when public figures issue an apology for their “mistakes.” These weren’t mistakes – they were transgressions. They were, if you like the term, sins. They were failings. And, he said that. Again acknowledging that I have zero idea if he meant what he said, he took complete and total responsibility for what he did. He blamed his actions entirely on his own character flaws and shortcomings.

To Maimonides, and to Jewish tradition, the last step of teshuvah (repentance) is indeed changing our behavior. But, the first step is acknowledging what we did wrong. It seems to me that that has to mean more than just saying, “I did it.” To truly acknowledge our transgressions, we have to acknowledge that we alone did them, and that we are totally responsible for them. No other people, forces or factors share the blame.

In the end, Tiger will probably be the only one who ever really knows if his repentance was (actually, will be) true and sincere. But, in the mean time, my initial reaction is that his speech gives us a fairly good starting point for talking about what true teshuvah looks like.

Learning from a scandal?

The Modern Orthodox world in Israel has been somewhat rocked by a scandal. One of its most prominent leaders has been accused of having sexual relations with some of his male students.

I’ve been hearing various reports about this, and the details aren’t clear. Obviously, unless the allegations are untrue (and, at this point, it seems unlikely that they aren’t true), the actions of this Rabbi are despicable, and we don’t need to add any caveats to that.

Also incredibly disturbing are reports (rumors?) that some of the higher-ups in his organization may have, initially, tried to handle the offences by simply removing him from his school position, and shuffling him around the movement, trying to keep him away from trouble, and from publicity. In other words, these Jewish leaders may have done exactly what the Catholic Church has been so rightly condemned for doing with its own pedophiles. If true, that would be, in every sense of the term, a hillul haShem – a desecration of God’s name.

One interesting comment, though, came from a writer by the name of Ben Hartman who wonders if there isn’t a much-needed lesson contained in this awful violation:

The downfall of such a respected rabbi could also lead to a healthier view of moral and religious leaders in the community. If found guilty of the accusations, Elon could illustrate to countless yeshiva students that every great man is still, in the end, a man, that every gadol hador [ed: a great teacher of his generation] is human and has weaknesses. This could lead many in the community to question the edicts and judgments of charismatic religious leaders, and turn instead to the Torah – and themselves – as the ultimate moral beacons.

I’m not sure that idolizing a person has ever been a good idea. People, even the best of them, are flawed, and often deeply so. To put our total faith in a person is probably always misguided. In my ongoing diatribe again fundamentalism, this is probably an important thought – if your belief or actions are based on the belief that a teacher, or any person, is perfect and infallible, then take a big step back, take a deep breath, and remind yourself that no person is perfect, and no one is infallible. Respectful skepticism, at a minimum, will lead to much greater truth than an uncritical acceptance of another person’s truth.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

King Tut

OK, I’m going to take a deep breath here, and try not to sound like some kind of puritanical kill-joy. But, I’ve got to admit that I’m more than a little uncomfortable with the whole King Tut thing.

If you didn’t see the news, scientists now think that they know what killed King Tut: malaria and complications from a broken leg (along with a lifetime of painful, genetic maladies). From a scientific point of view, I find this fascinating. The fact that we can diagnose genetic diseases in mummies, the fact that we can isolate the DNA of the Malaria-causing parasite from that human DNA, all in a 3000+ year-old mummy is simply amazing. Awe inspiring.

The glimmer of insight it gives us into the Boy King’s life is also powerful. Apparently, he was almost certainly unable to walk without excruciating pain, due to a birth defect. “Boy King” sounds pretty cool, but when you picture a life of pain and confinement, which ends before 20 years due to a withering disease – well, it certainly makes me think of Tut as a sad, tragic figure, more than anything else.

So, I get the “cool!” factor which is involved here. It really is impressive stuff, and many levels.

But, let’s remember, that this boy is dead.

Sorry to be a bit melodramatic, but when we talk about performing tests on “his mummy,” that can be a kind of euphemism which lets us ignore that we’re actually performing tests on his body. His corpse. The reason he was mummified is that his people believed that it was a sacred duty to preserve the body, in order (if I remember this properly) to help guarantee a good afterlife. I’m not saying that I buy into that – that by digging up the mummy, putting it on display and running countless tests on it, we’re now disturbing his immortal soul, and he’s suffering torment in the land of Anubis. Tut is gone, and his pain ended over 3000 years ago.

But, Judaism does believe that bodies are sacred, even after they are no longer alive. In fact, caring for, and respecting a body is one of the highest mitzvot in all of Judaism. And, like Judaism, Western Culture supposedly counsels us to respect other cultures and religions, in so far as we can without hurting ourselves. So, why then, I have to ask, is it ok to treat a corpse, even a very old one, this way? Why is it ok to dig it up, put it on display for a few decades, run tests on it, publish pictures of it, and generally ooh and ah over it?

I know it sounds awfully old fashioned, and I know that it’s beyond Quixotic to complain about these things. But, when I eventually die, I’d like to think that I’ll be treated with all of the respect demanded by my tradition. And, even though I know it won’t bug me in the least if it doesn’t go this way, I’d also like to think that my body, which our tradition understands as a sacred trust, on loan from God, won’t be used as a tool of idle speculation and amusement a few thousand years from now.

A bit of kindness might be in order

I’m not a big Sarah Palin fan. Those who know me will recognize this as an understatement on the same order as “I’m not a big Mets fan” or “I’m not a big fan of being attacked by a hungry alligator.” But, as someone who tries to see issues on their own merit, rather than as always tied to the people involved, and as someone who tries to be as non-partisan as is reasonably possible, let me side with her on one issue.

Apparently, a recent episode of The Family Guy made fun of people with Down Syndrome, and referenced Trig Palin (Sarah’s 22 month old son, who has Down Syndrome) in particular. The Palin family has responded with a very emotionally honest, classy statement, authored by Trig’s sister, Bristol:

When you’re the son or daughter of a public figure, you have to develop thick skin,” Bristol Palin said. “My siblings and I all have that, but insults directed at our youngest brother hurt too much for us to remain silent. People with special needs face challenges that many of us will never confront, and yet they are some of the kindest and most loving people you’ll ever meet. Their lives are difficult enough as it is, so why would anyone want to make their lives more difficult by mocking them?

As a culture, shouldn’t we be more compassionate to innocent people – especially those who are less fortunate? Shouldn’t we be willing to say that some things just are not funny? Are there any limits to what some people will do or say in regards to my little brother or others in the special needs community? If the writers of a particularly pathetic cartoon show thought they were being clever in mocking my brother and my family yesterday, they failed. All they proved is that they’re heartless jerks.

Look – I often find things funny that others find offensive, so I’m not going to lambaste the show for what they did; that would be hypocritical. And, I know that Todd McFarlane, the writer/creator of the show, revels in pushing boundaries and stomping on taboos; that was probably the point of the clip, more than any specific cultural/political statement. I strongly believe in Free Speech, and I’m not trying to get into an argument about whether McFarlane should have been allowed to write/air this piece.

But, I have to admit that I feel a lot of sympathy for the Palin family at this moment. Having a child with Special Needs is incredibly difficult, and the battle to keep your child, whom I’m sure they love as much as I love mine, protected from teasing and nastiness must be never-ending, and exhausting. Maybe McFarlane should be allowed to air a show such as this. I’m just not sure that the world is any better for having done so.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tonight's Reform Responsa - cancelled

I'm sick, and don't think that everyone will appreciate me coughing my way through class, so I have to cancel tonight's session of "Reform Responsa." My apologies, but we'll pick it up next week.


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Reform Responsa

Last week, we started a four-week course on Reform Responsa. If you don't know, Responsa are answers which rabbis give to questions they are asked.  Often, these might be very specific, technical questions: am I allowed to eat this?  What is the proper blessing for this?  That kind of thing.

The Reform Movement has a long history of doing Responsa, although they differ in several ways from more traditional Responsa.  Coming from the Reform world, they are more willing to change previous law, and they focus more on education, and less on dictating the single, proper answer.  Because of all of that, they provide a unique way to learn about Reform Jewish decision-making.  Essentially, they try to give us the tools which we need to make our own decisions, as Reform Jews.

I'm still sorting through the various Responsa which we might look at for tomorrow’s class.  But, here are two early frontrunners:

  • should a synagogue superintendent, who lives on the synagogue premises, be allowed to keep a gun in his apartment?
  • Should a synagogue board member, who has been accused of cheating a fellow member in a non synagogue related activity (e.g.  a business matter) be allowed to remain on the board? What if the facts of the case have been established beyond dispute?

If you feel like getting the conversation rolling now, feel free to chime in with comments. But, don’t go for a simple yes/no – what are your reasons? What are the factors – the categories of reasons – which go into your answer? For example, the attitude of Judaism, in general, about guns will come into play for the first question. The second question deals with, among other things, the role of a Board Member, as well as the issue of gossip/accusations.

And, of course, if you find this interesting, come join us tomorrow (Thursday) at 7:30!

Correcting God

I'm currently working on a blog post, and I'm using speech recognition software, because my wrist strain is acting up again.  It's pretty neat (and it's built into Windows Vista, so you can use it for free if you have Vista or Windows7) – you just speak, and it transcribes your words.  If it misunderstands something, you just say “correct XXX”, and it lets you fix the error. 

That means that, if, say, you're a rabbi writing blog posts, you might find yourself saying, “Correct God” quite often.

I got to admit -- that doesn’t exactly feel right…

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Asking and Telling

On Friday, I blogged about a group of 1000 Rabbis who railed against the potential end of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the admission of openly homosexual (and bi-sexual) men and women into the military. It was the end of a long week, so my post was relatively short, and perhaps a bit snarkier than I would normally allow myself to be (though, you should have seen the first version).

If you're interested in the topic, Frank Rich has an Op-Ed in today's New York Times which does a much more thorough job of destroying the "letting them in will wreck the military" argument.

the most common last-ditch argument for preserving “don’t ask” heard last week, largely from Southern senators, is to protect “troop morale and cohesion.” Every known study says this argument is a canard, as do the real-life examples of the many armies with openly gay troops, including those of Canada, Britain and Israel. But the argument does carry a telling historical pedigree. When Harry Truman ordered the racial integration of the American military in 1948, Congressional opponents (then mainly Southern Democrats) embraced an antediluvian Army prediction from 1940 stating that such a change would threaten national defense by producing “situations destructive to morale.” History will sweep this bogus argument away now as it did then.

And, as for the Rabbis who oppose inclusion on religious and moral grounds? Well, a true refutation of that view would take more time than I have at the moment (because, it's really an ongoing argument against Fundamentalism of any kind), but, for now, a bit of snark will have to do.

Friday, February 5, 2010

1000 Rabbis CAN be wrong

OK, I'll freely admit that this one is some self-righteous, self-affirming, fish-in-a-barrel type stuff, but when 1000 Rabbis decide to speak for the rest of us, and predict divine retribution for daring to allow gays to openly serve in the military, then it seems incumbent on the rest of us in the Rabbinic world to say something:

When Americans are suffering economically and millions need jobs, it’s shocking that the Administration is focused on its ultra-liberal militantly homosexualist agenda forcing the highlighting of homosexuals and homosexuality on an unwilling military. This is the equivalent of the spiritual rape of our military to satisfy the most extreme and selfish cadre of President Obama’s kooky coalition.

That's me. Extreme, selfish and kooky. And proud.

We agree with Eileen Donnelly of the Center for Military Readiness that this will hurt the cohesiveness of the military, cause many to leave the army, and dramatically lower the number of recruits, perhaps leading to the reinstatement of a compulsory draft.

You know, just like we predicted would happen with blacks. And women. Also, it's impossible to think that the military would benefit from having a larger pool from which to recruit at the exact same time that it's having trouble finding people willing to serve, right?

Thirteen months before 9/11, on the day New York City passed homosexual domestic partnership regulations, I joined a group of Rabbis at a City Hall prayer service, pleading with G-d not to visit disaster on the city of N.Y. We have seen the underground earthquake, tsunami, Katrina, and now Haiti. All this is in sync with a two thousand year old teaching in the Talmud that the practice of homosexuality is a spiritual cause of earthquakes. Once a disaster is unleashed, innocents are also victims just like in Chernobyl.

So, all of those other disasters were caused because the people in those places were too tolerant of gays, and therefore brought down God's wrath on themselves? I'm not even going to bother refuting the basic idea here, because if you do believe such things, then I don't think you're really open to rational arguments.

Let me take a deep breath, and pray that everyone remembers that you don't need to be a bigoted, backwards-thinking nincompoop to be a Rabbi. Even if 1000 Rabbis disagree with me on that one.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

1,000,000 Thanks

In the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) quickly created a relief fund, and urged all congregations to pass on the news to their congregants (they also promised that 100% of all funds would go directly to aid; none will be used for overhead). The outpouring of support from our movement has been extraordinary, and this morning we received an e-mail announcing that the donations to the fund have passed $1,000,000!

I am proud to let you know that today we surpassed $1,000,000 in contributions to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Haiti Relief Fund! Kudos to all the clergy and congregations that have helped spread the word and made this relief effort a priority. Special praise is due our colleague Marla Feldman for her herculean efforts to coordinate the effort and assure that every dollar is well spent to help those most in need.

A few highlights:
  • Nearly 9000 individual donors have contributed thus far; -60% of the total raised to date came from on-line gifts;
  • To date, $140,000 has been allocated and another $350,000 worth of proposals is ‘in the pipeline’. (All allocations information is and will be available at
  • We have received numerous gifts from religious school students, congregations and NFTY youth - including those who raised funds from fellow passengers on their flight to a conclave!

It is at times like this that our Reform Movement lives the values we teach and preach. Thanks to all of you who helped make this wonderful effort possible.

Rabbi Elliott A. Kleinman
Chief Program Officer
Union for Reform Judaism
633 Third Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Fax 212-650-4229

The need in Haiti has not subsided - so neither has the need for donations. Please, whether you've already made a donation, make a donation today.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Rabbinic Humor

A conversation was recently held, on one of my Rabbinic e-mail lists, about deleting God's name from a computer. For those who don't know, Judaism forbids the destruction of God's name. Once God's name is written down*, that piece of paper is sacred, and can't be thrown in the garbage, or burned, etc.

* that applies to God's formal name - spelled yud-heh-vav-heh in Hebrew - not various other nicknames, such as "God" or "Eternal One")

So, that led someone to ask their Rabbi about computers. What, this congregant wanted to know, does it mean if you store God's name on your computer? Is your Hard Drive now sacred? Can you never delete the file? Sources were checked, and everyone agreed that there was no need to worry - God's name wasn't really on the harddrive. All that was there was a series of one's and zero's.

Which led one colleague of mine to reply, "Not true. There are no zero's. God is only One."

Rabbinic Humor. Never a good idea.

By the way, if this topic interests you, then the more difficult question is what do we do if God's name appears on our computer screen? If we scroll down, and thus "erase" God's name from the screen, does that count as an illegal destruction of God's name? If you want to know the answer, check out this Responsum (Rabbinic legal opinion). And, if you find that interesting, then think about joining us on Thursday evenings (starting at 7:30) in February for our class on Reform Responsa!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Swords and Plowshares

Just came across an old favorite, from Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Thought it's worth sharing:

Don't stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don't stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them.

Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.