1/14/21

Resources in the analysis of the connections between terrorism and religion

I taught a college course about religion and politics and terrorism in 2005. Now the content and the analysis of terrorism is more real and more relevant and more frightening than ever.

Here is a linked guide to my substantial blog posts of study resources in the analysis of the connections between terrorism and religion.

12/24/20

Kushner: Crimes, Misdemeanors and Philanthropy

[I first published this blog post on 12/06/2006.]

“Behind every great fortune is a great crime,” my friend Charlie used to assure me on the golf course as we discussed the meaning of life. He exaggerated to make his point that it is commonly understood that people break laws in the pursuit of wealth. Lately we don’t have to look far to find proof.

When the wealthy donate the products of their ill-gotten gains to charities we face some meaty moral issues. Do yeshivas, synagogues and federations have the obligation to investigate the source of the munificence that donors offer? How far must they go to be sure that the money is clean and that the donor is not a crook? Are there circumstances when accepting money from a scoundrel is morally right?

In a recent local example Harold Kushner, a billionaire real estate developer and businessman in Essex County, made substantial donations to Jewish charities including Yeshiva University and a local yeshiva, subsequently named after him, the Kushner Academy. Now said individual has been arrested for allegedly paying prostitutes in an effort to suborn the perjury of witness that could testify that he made illegal contributions to political candidates.

This is not a “great crime” but the full story of Kushner’s fortune has not yet unraveled. We may derive some moral guidance in today’s scandal ridden times at what some people argued regarding earlier ill-gotten gains.

Back in the eighties New Yorker, Ivan Boesky made millions of dollars through the exploitation of illegal insider information. He did not earn his fortune honestly and through hard work. We know that he broke laws with impunity.

12/16/20

The Celebrity Archetype in Jewish Prayer: A chapter from my book "God's Favorite Prayers"

A chapter from my book.

The Celebrity’s Prayers

Aleinu

(Hebrew: עָלֵינוּ, “upon us”) or Aleinu leshabei'ach (“[it is] upon us to praise [God]”), meaning “it is upon us or it is our obligation or duty to praise God.” A Jewish prayer recited at the end of each of the three daily services. It is also recited following the New Moon blessing and after a circumcision is performed.

—Wikipedia, Aleinu

 

M

y quest for perfect prayer and for spiritual insights evolved, not just at synagogues on the ground but also one time during my davening on a jumbo jet flight at an altitude of 39,000 feet and a speed of 565 miles per hour. That is where, by happenstance on an airplane in 1982, I met Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-Israeli Orthodox rabbi, an ultra-nationalist writer and political figure and, later, a member of the Israeli Knesset.

I recognized Kahane right away when I saw him on the flight. He was a famous New York Jew. In the 1960s and 70s, Kahane had organized the Jewish Defense League (JDL). Its goal was to protect Jews in New York City's high-crime neighborhoods and to instill Jewish pride. Kahane also was active in the struggle for the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate from Russia and to immigrate to Israel. By 1969, he was proposing emergency Jewish mass-immigration to Israel because of the imminent threat he saw of a second Holocaust in an anti-Semitic United States. He argued that Israel be made into a state modeled on Jewish religious law, that it annex the West Bank and Gaza Strip and that it urge all Arabs to voluntarily leave Israel or to be ejected by force.

It was then, by coincidence, that I traveled with Kahane on a long Tower Air flight to Israel. As was common on flights to Israel, a few hours after takeoff, Jewish men gathered at the back of the plane. As the sun became visible in the Eastern sky, they formed a minyan, kind of an ad hoc synagogue. In this unusual and somewhat mystical setting, I prayed the morning services with the rabbi and others at the back of the jumbo jet.

12/12/20

What is Hanukkah?

As the Talmud asks, What is Hanukkah?

If you are wondering what is the official meaning of Hanukkah as presented in Jewish liturgy, here is the text we insert for the holiday, no spin added,
And [we thank You] for the miracles, for the redemption, for the mighty deeds, for the saving acts, and for the wonders which You have wrought for our ancestors in those days, at this time.

In the days of Matityahu, the son of Yochanan the High Priest, the Hasmonean and his sons, when the wicked Hellenic government rose up against Your people Israel to make them forget Your Torah and violate the decrees of Your will.
But You, in Your abounding mercies, stood by them in the time of their distress. You waged their battles, defended their rights, and avenged the wrong done to them. You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah.

You made a great and holy name for Yourself in Your world, and effected a great deliverance and redemption for Your people Israel to this very day. Then Your children entered the shrine of Your House, cleansed Your Temple, purified Your Sanctuary, kindled lights in Your holy courtyards, and instituted these eight days of Hanukkah to give thanks and praise to Your great Name.

The Hanukkah Avatar

Hanukkah has its avatar. I wrote about this in my classic book, "God's Favorite Prayers."

...The concept of avatar has several meanings. First an avatar can be an embodiment or a personification of a substantial idea, for instance, "the embodiment of hope"; "the incarnation of evil"; "the very avatar of cunning." In some respects I describe in this book how the prayers serve as avatars of several diverse personalities. In this sense I can say that the Amidah is an avatar of the priest.

An avatar in the context of religions can have another meaning. In specific it is a manifestation of a Hindu deity, particularly Vishnu, in a human, superhuman or animal form. As an example of how the term is used is, “The Buddha is regarded as an avatar of the god Vishnu.” In this sense of the term, I created my archetypal avatars, such as my “priest,” as representatives of the core values that inhere in the prayers...

... The most recent technological application of the word avatar denotes a computer user's self-representation or alter ego, in the form of a three-dimensional model within a computer game, or as a two-dimensional icon picture on a screen, or as a single-dimensional username within an Internet community.

... On two special occasions, Hanukkah and Purim, we add paragraphs to the Amidah to describe the victories of heroic Jews of the past. I see these hero figures as avatars of the priest.

11/26/20

Thanksgiving Sermon of Rabbi Zev Zahavy from 1943

Here is my dad's incredible inspiring and uplifting sermon from 1943 for the holiday of Thanksgiving. It was a dark year in the history of humankind. Yet Rabbi Zahavy found ways to weave together precepts from our classical Jewish tradition to give hope and optimism to those who faced the bewildering frightening world of 1943.

I read this sermon every year and it inspires me more each time. My father was an impresario of the rabbinic pulpit.

Click here for Rabbi Zev Zahavy's 1943 Thanksgiving Sermon, published by the RCA, Rabbinical Council of America.





A big hat tip to Zechariah for finding this and sending it to us.

Thanksgiving Turkey Drumstick Jack-O-Lantern Pumpkin Pie Table Song - A Lone Pumpkin Grew

Thanksgiving is upon us and we sing traditional holiday songs at our Thanksgiving dinner.

Here are the words to one of our favorites...

Oh a lone pumpkin grew on a green pumpkin vine.
He was round
he was fat
he was yellow.
"No silly jack-o-lantern shall I make," he said.
"I'm determined to become a useful fellow."

So he raised up his head
when the cook came around
and at once he was chosen the winner.
His fondest wish came true
he was proud pumpkin pie
and the glory of the great thanksgiving dinner...

For the glory of the jack is in the lantern
as he sits up on the gatepost oh so high;
and the glory of the turkey is the drumstick
but the glory of the pumpkin is the pie.

Here's a YouTube 2009 home video of the song -- we don't know the folks -- it sounds like our familiar melody and we heartily endorse it.

11/11/20

Is Ronald A. Klain Jewish?

On 10/18/14 I posted this about Klain who is back in the news now: 

Yes, the new Ebola Czar Ronald A. (Ron) Klain is a Jew. He previously served as Vice President Joseph Biden's Chief of Staff.

President Obama will appoint Klain according to CNN citing White House press secretary Josh Earnest, "to make sure that all the government agencies who are responsible for aspects of this response, that their efforts are carefully integrated. He will also be playing a role in making sure the decisions get made."

Klain previously served as Chief of Staff and Counselor to Vice President Al Gore. Klain also knew Biden as a result of his service as counsel to the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary when Biden chaired that committee.

Klain lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with his wife Monica Medina, who is not a Jew, and their children Hannah, Michael and Daniel.

The Times reported in 2007:

... when they married, Ron Klain and his wife, Monica Medina, struck a deal: their daughter and two sons would be raised Jewish (for him), but they would celebrate Christmas (for her).

Despite their satisfaction with the arrangement, the couple, who live in Chevy Chase, Md., have never put up the tree while Mr. Klain’s mother is visiting from Indianapolis. Instead, they wait until after her annual December visit.

“I grew up in Indiana, with a decent-size Jewish community, but we were a distinct minority,” Mr. Klain said. “Not having a Christmas tree was very much part of our Jewish identity in a place where everyone else did.”
In the HBO movie "Recount" Kevin Spacey played Ron Klain.

Spacey, who was born in South Orange, New Jersey to Kathleen A. Spacey (1931-2003), a secretary, and Thomas Geoffrey Fowler (1924-1992), a technical writer, is not a Jew.

11/10/20

What my Rebbe, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Said to Me about Women, the Torah, the Synagogues and Checks

It is essential for Orthodox Judaism to provide women with full equality - to count them for a minyan, to call them to the Torah, and, after proper training, to ordain them as rabbis.

When Women Write the Checks
(I originally blogged this here in March, 2005 - published in the Jewish Press 2014)
 

In 1973, after I completed my Semicha studies with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, I attended his summer shiurim (Talmud classes) in Boston and then started as a PhD graduate student at Brown University.

Brown was known as a progressive community in an era of ferment. Some of us Orthodox graduate students gathered at the Hillel to engage in a traditional Minyan. Not surprisingly some of the women students there wanted to know how far we could push the envelope. Could we conduct an Orthodox service and give women aliyot to the Torah?

I knew these were all sincere and properly motivated students, seeking greater fulfillment in their practice of Judaism. So when they asked me to drive up to Boston and to discuss this issue with the Rav, Rabbi Soloveitchik, I readily accepted the challenge.

10/5/20

Jewish Black Magic: They Cursed Ariel Sharon with the Pulsa D'Nora in 2005 - and can it work in October 2020 for someone else?

I've spent years teaching numerous college courses on religion - always with the disclaimer that we will cover only the positive aspects of the subject. Religion used for evil, that is for war or other forms of harm, is a misuse and distortion of systems of faith.

Curses, I reasoned, were a misuse and distortion of religious practice.

Curses invoked before the Rabin assassination changed my mind about that. Prior to that tragic event, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a group of "Kabbalists" intoned the pulsa curse outside the Rabin residence. Once again, in the summer of 2005, another group gathered to invoke the curse against P.M. Ariel Sharon. It seemed to me that curses indeed were part of our religion - like it or not.

One blogger, Canonist, dealt briefly with the curse back in July 2005, complete with a link to the video of the curse "ceremony" and quotations from learned professors:
Praying for Ariel Sharon's Death

Yesterday's death-curse seems thus far to have gone unanswered by the Almighty, but we'll see. Generally speaking, I don't write much about Israel and the disengagement, but this latest is quite interesting. PaleoJudaica's got a great roundup, including descriptions of the pulsa de-nura ceremony, its detractors, and the threat of prosecution that've come out of it. Meantime, you can actually watch the ceremony in this video, which, with a bunch of people in sweats reading from photocopies, looks oddly like some run-of-the-mill Jewish ceremony, like burning chametz or somesuch. The video comes courtesy of Samuel Heilman, via a listserv to which he wrote, with the subject "Jewish Jihadists": "Lest any of you think that only Islamists have jihadists, see the video below in which so-called 'religious Jews' pray for Prime Minister Sharon's Death in a Pulsa De Nura." Bold words on both sides. Let's see what comes of them.
Erudite rabbis have written about the matter, explaining that magic is not a part of Judaism, as in the following: