9/8/14

Is Bruce Levenson Jewish?

Yes Bruce Levenson is a Jew. He is the team owner who has decided to sell Atlanta Hawks over a racist e-mail that he wrote in 2012. He admits that he, "wrote an 'inappropriate and offensive' email concerning African American spectators."

Levenson is a highly visible and communally active Jew. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports:
Levenson is a noted philanthropist who has been acknowledged for donating to organizations such as Birthright Israel, the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Youth Philanthropy Institute. Levenson has supported BBYO, the Jewish-American youth movement says on its website, adding that he also served as the Aleph Godol of Brandeis AZA.

Levenson was also among 100 prominent American Jews who sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April, urging him to “work closely” with Kerry “to devise pragmatic initiatives, consistent with Israel’s security needs, which would represent Israel’s readiness to make painful territorial sacrifices for the sake of peace.”

Levenson accompanied his NBA team on a tour of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. in April, and took his Holocaust survivor mother-in-law along with him.

9/6/14

Online Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Kol Nidre services, on Video, on a Live Webcast

Our sincere and heartfelt best wishes to all our readers for a Year of Blessing and Health, Prosperity and Good Cheer.

Rosh Hashanah 5775 - 2014 falls on Thursday, the 25th of September and will continue for 2 days.

Yom Kippur 5775 - 2014 falls on Saturday, the 4th of October.

From Central Synagogue in NYC come Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur online services and videos. Scroll down to find the feed and schedule. See the LIVE webcast of Kol Nidre service this year.

Also see Video-streamed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur Services.

The 92nd Street Y also plans a webcast of services.

Rabbis on videos at various places discuss atonement and repentance. There also are holiday video recipes for tzimmes, honey cake and tagelach that you can find online.

In these coming Days of Awe all of this is good nourishment for the soul.

9/5/14

My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for September: What About Slow Pray?

Dear Rabbi,

I have been attending a 6:30 daily morning minyan at my local synagogue for many years. Right after minyan I rush out to catch a bus and go to work in the city. Many others at the minyan are on tight schedules and must connect with car pools or take their children to school. We always have completed our services at 7 promptly to satisfy our schedules.

Recently a man who is a mourner in shloshim (the first thirty days of mourning after losing a relative) was asked to lead the services, as is our custom. He recites the prayers clearly and accurately but there is a problem. He goes too slowly and sometimes finishes at five or ten minutes after seven. I have had to leave several times before the service is completed so that I could get to my bus.

I want to ask the man to speed up his davening. My friend says that is rude and I should not approach him. What is your advice?

Slow Pray in Bergenfield


Dear Slow Pray,

I play a lot of golf. So please allow me to describe a somewhat parallel question involving slow play that I encountered one recent day in that more profane activity. I was playing on a local course with three friends. The group in front of us was playing way too slowly. After several holes we all became antsy waiting for the foursome ahead of us to hit and move forward.

One of my friends insisted that we talk to them when they are on the next tee, to implore them to play faster. I argued that was poor etiquette, and if we wanted to get the pace quickened we had to speak to the ranger on the course and ask him to reprove the slow players.

We debated the point back and forth in our foursome for a while and eventually we did find the ranger and asked him to intercede. He spoke to the slowpokes, play picked up, and we did not have to confront the offending players.

Of course, slow play is not the same as slow pray. But you need to balance your desire for a steady and predictable speed with the needs of the community of praying people. You probably have a gabbai, a member of your minyan who is in charge. It’s best in a big minyan if you speak to the gabbai about the delay and let him approach the mourner who is leading your services.

If your minyan is small and friendly, you may take a chance on explaining your schedule-needs directly to the slow shaliach tzibbur (leader). It’s likely that he will not be offended and will make efforts to pick up the pace.

I do hope that you find helpful this brief Talmudic analysis and advice for the day-to-day reality of the pace of our contradictory world, where one person’s slow pray may be another person’s perfect day.

Tzvee Zahavy has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for September: Troubled by Demons

Dear Rabbi,

I’ve been studying the Talmud and have come across some passages that take seriously things like demons, demon possession, and exorcisms. This got me thinking and asking: If the Talmud promotes primitive superstitions that I reject, why should I take seriously anything else that it teaches?

Possessed in Paterson


Dear Possessed,

You are correct to be concerned about this content. The Talmud’s Jews lived in Babylonia 1500 years ago, in a world that was filled with shedim, mazikim, and ruhot — demons and spirits, some evil, some not. The Talmud’s Jews believed that demons lived all around them, in trees, in bodies of water, on housetops, and in latrines. The Talmud cautions its readers that it’s a good thing that demons were invisible since, “If your eye could see them, you could not endure with them around. They surround a person. They are more numerous than people. Each person has a thousand demons on his left side and ten thousand on his right side.” So yes, demons appeared persistently throughout the Talmud and in the midrashim.

That cultural fact reminds us vividly of something that most observant Jews would prefer to forget — that the wisdom of our ancient books comes along with the naive baggage of a less scientific, less philosophical era.

So what are your options? Sure, you can insist on a take-it or leave-it approach to the Talmud. Since part of it is superstition and you reject that, then you may say let’s toss away the whole work.

As a rabbi I am obligated to remind you that we believe the religious and theological wisdom of the Talmud provides a profound and meaningful basis for our spiritual lives. It’s part of the extended Oral Torah that derives its authority from what God gave to Moses at Sinai.

And so does that mean that we rabbis today believe that the demons spoken of in the Talmud were, and are, real entities?

Some fundamentalist rabbis, even today, will say that yes, demons are real, exactly as described in the sacred texts.

More modern rabbis will suggest to you that there are sophisticated ways to handle this issue.

The traditional nuanced believer’s response will be to remind you that for centuries great scholars and sages have distinguished between the halachah (the legal and ritual content) and the aggadah (the folklore and legend) in the Talmud. Serious sages have agreed that we need not accept the aggadah at literal face value. And teachings about demons are part of the aggadah that can be glossed over or taken symbolically.

A common modern and somewhat trite and obvious explanation based in this free approach to the aggadah is the idea that demons are merely metaphors. We can say that we all have our own personal “demons” of one sort or another, demons with which we struggle. In this frame of interpretation we affirm to take hold and keep the aggadah, including what it says about demons, but with a grain of salt and a heap of free associations.

What’s my advice to you then? Talmudically, I see three possible paths. First, if you have already decided to reject your faith and community, you will conclude that you must be utterly consistent and throw the baby out with the bathwater. A second path open to you, if you have decided to continue in your community, is that you accept the traditional answers that distinguish between that which we consider to be authoritative and that which we no longer need to heed.

And a third path for you is that you continue to explore and struggle with the metaphoric use of talmudic ideas like demons. I know one person who spends several hours every month with a professional therapist trying to deal with the personal issues of his life in a modern behavioral way. Yet on occasion he finds it most helpful to concretize an issue that he faces, and to imagine it takes the form of a demon, and then to actively banish it from his life.

Whatever path you choose, I hope this question does not haunt you much longer and that the paths of your life not be beset by demons.

Tzvee Zahavy has published several new Kindle Editions at Amazon.com, including “The Book of Jewish Prayers in English,” “Rashi: The Greatest Exegete,” “God’s Favorite Prayers” and “Dear Rabbi: The Greatest Talmudic Advice” which includes his past columns from the Jewish Standard and other essays.

9/2/14

Is Surfing Kosher?

Yes Surfing is kosher. There's no reason for anyone to argue that it isn't.

And yet, the Times is genuinely surprised that a rabbi can surf, perhaps based on the artificial assumption that surfing is not a kosher sport, and a rabbi would not engage in it. It's a contrived bias and it also shows how narrow the conception of rabbis and rabbinical lifestyles has become.

The article is "A Rabbi’s ‘Spiritual Playground’ Extends to the Surf - NYTimes.com" and the author is astonished that a rabbi could be interested in or participate in surfing. [Hat tip to Yitz!]

There is no basis for the assumption. See my surfing posts on this blog.

I've been interested in surfing since I was sixteen. I use surfing as a metaphor in my book, "God's Favorite Prayers" where I speak about the "perfect wave of prayer" that I sought in my travels around the world.

My cover design for that book is based on the iconic Endless Summer poster.

Talmudic analysis: A slow news day at the end of the summer resulted in a silly straw man story about a rabbi who breaks the imagined mold and engages in a cool activity.



8/29/14

Is Kevin Kline Jewish?

Though his father was Jewish, actor Kevin Kline is not a Jew. Wikipedia reports, "Kline's father was Jewish, from a family that had emigrated from Germany; Kline's mother was of Irish descent, the daughter of an emigrant from County Louth. Kline was raised in his mother's Catholic religion (his father had become an agnostic)... He graduated from the Catholic Saint Louis Priory School in 1965."

In the controversial new film, The Last of Robin Hood Kline plays Errol Flynn (who was not Jewish). The movie recounts Flynn's last scandalous affair with young underaged girl - Beverly Elaine Aadland - and has received some criticism and negative reviews because of that pedophilic theme.

8/27/14

My Rebbe, Rabbi Gerson Yankelewitz has died at 104

My Talmud teacher in high school, my rebbe for two years, passed away a few days ago at age 104. Rabbi Yankelewitz taught his talmud shiur in Yiddish, a language that I did not speak. Yet I somehow thoroughly understood Rabbi Yankelewitz's shiurim. He made the texts so clear and was so patient, that I learned a tremendous amount while studying with him. After his shiur I went on the study with Rav Aharon Lichtenstein for two years, and then with Rav J. B. Soloveitchik for four years, and I became an ordained rabbi.

I admired Rabbi Yankelewitz for being brilliantly learned and yet never boastful. And my highest compliment, I liked him as a person. He was at once a gentle man and a gentleman and a firm and persistent teacher.

Reading this meaningful obituary below, I found myself near tears. It briefly describes a truly beautiful soul who has departed from our world. I am sure the soul of Rabbi Yankelewitz will cheer and brighten the next world, where I pray that he has everlasting peace in the paradise of Gan Eden with all of the eternal rewards that he so richly earned and deserves.
Long-serving YU Prof Succumbs At 104. Rabbi Gerson Yankelewitz remembered as ‘true giant’; studied with fabled leaders of old world Jewry.
Steve Lipman

...Rabbi Gershon Yankelewitz, died at 104 on Aug. 19 of a heart attack he suffered during the morning Shacharit service in upstate New York, where he spent his summers for several years. He was buried in Israel.

Rabbi Yankelewitz, who lived in the Pelham Parkway neighborhood of the Bronx, was believed to be the oldest person who maintained a regular teaching schedule at any university, yeshiva or rabbinical school in the United States, according to a YU spokesman. With the title senior rosh yeshiva, he taught a daily Talmud class and conducted a weekly Mussar (ethics) lecture for 60 years, and gave a daily lecture on Mishnayot between Mincha and Maariv services at the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway.

8/26/14

My Best Seller for Kindle: Rashi the Greatest Bible Exegete

Many scholars believe that Rashi was the greatest Bible exegete.

To learn all about read about Rashi and his work purchase this best seller book at Amazon: Rashi: The Greatest Exegete. It was written by Maurice Liber. I added a new Foreword. Price: an amazing $0.99. Description follows:

The paradigmatic master of medieval rabbinic commentary was Rashi (Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac, 1040-1105) a scholar from the north of France. While he is often credited with the move to “literal commentary” in medieval times, even a cursory study of his commentaries reveals how indebted he was to the rabbinic exegesis of the earlier classical compilations. With Rashi we witness the mature development of a new paradigm of interpretation. He delicately balances his interpretations between gloss and exposition. He picks at and edits the earlier Midrash materials and weaves together with them into his commentary the results of new discoveries, such as philology and grammar. His main proposition is hardly radical within rabbinism. He accepts that there is one whole Torah of Moses consisting of the oral and written traditions and texts. In his commentaries he accomplished the nearly seamless integration of the basics of both bodies of tradition.

Also please consider: 
The Book of Jewish Prayers

Was Elvis Presley Jewish?

No, Elvis Presley was not a Jew.

Wikipedia reports that, "The family attended an Assembly of God church, where he found his initial musical inspiration. Presley's ancestry was primarily a Western European mix: on his mother's side, he was Scots-Irish, with some French Norman; one of Gladys' great-great-grandmothers was Cherokee. Presley's father's forebears were of Scottish and German origin."

A Cantor who lived above the teenaged Elvis in Memphis recalls the Elvis at times was his Shabbos Goy - that is, he turned on lights for the Orthodox man who would not do that on the Sabbath. [Hat tip to Barak!]

The interview with the cantor was done by KCRW.

They summed it up: "The story of an orthodox Jewish family who lived above Elvis Presley’s family in a house in Memphis. They would often call on teenage Elvis to be their Shabbos Goy - the gentile who would perform "work" that religious Jews did not do while on the Sabbath or day of rest. In return, the Fruchter’s may have unwittingly influenced Elvis’ music."