Is US Supreme Court Justice David Souter Jewish?

No, US Supreme Court Justice David Souter is not a Jew. He is an Episcopalian.

According to published reports he plans now to retire from the court.

The religious make-up of the US Supreme Court is as follows:

John Roberts (Chief Justice) - Catholic
Stephen G. Breyer - Jewish
Ruth Bader Ginsburg - Jewish
Anthony M. Kennedy - Catholic
Antonin Scalia - Catholic
David H. Souter - Episcopalian
John Paul Stevens - Protestant
Clarence Thomas - Catholic
Samuel Alito - Catholic

In addition to Ginsburg and Breyer, five previous justices have been Jewish:

Abe Fortas
Arthur J. Goldberg
Benjamin N. Cardozo
Felix Frankfurter
Louis D. Brandeis

Forward Sort of Reviews Princeton Professor Peter Schaefer's book about Jesus in the Talmud

First, the essay "Do Jews Have a Jesus Problem?" in The Polymath column of the Forward by Jay Michaelson is not a book review. It's a free association on a topic.

Second, even if you don't care that it is not a book review and that it is a free association, you ought to care that it at least be an accurate essay in its non-genre. But it is not. Take this crucial claim for instance,
The image of Jesus that one gets from the Talmud is that of an illicit, sex-crazed black magician who uses trickery to lead Israel astray. In BT Sanhedrin 103a, Jesus is depicted as a poor disciple who “spoiled his food,” which Schafer speculates may be a euphemism for sexual misconduct: “to eat the dish” being a recognized Talmudic euphemism known for the sex act itself. A later emendation adds that he “practiced magic and led Israel astray.” And the virgin birth is ridiculed as a cover-up of Jesus’ true parentage: His mother was an “illicit woman” (another Talmudic locution), perhaps even a prostitute.

Strong stuff — no wonder they don’t teach it in Sunday school...more...
(Huh?) I don't see how you can get away in this day and age with saying "strong stuff" about a Princeton professor's interpretation of euphemisms which may or may not be accurate, when the text itself is cryptic and miniscule and incidental to the Talmud as a great literature.

They don't "teach it in Sunday school," because they don't teach what is not there, what may not be true and what is a flea circus in a side show - when there are dramatic main events going on in the big tent.

So there we have a non-review of a speculative book by a Christian scholar writing about peripheral ephemeral texts which comprise a microscopic sample of the Talmud - itself a primary source of our sophisticated Judaic wisdom and learning. (Purchase the Schaefer book here?) (See David Klinghoffer's non-review of the same book here.)

Sorry, I must go now and return to the planet earth where I am working on my current research project - professional wrestlers in classical opera.


The Talmud Does Not Sanction Torture (It's the Bible that Sanctions Torture)

Not surprising - given the latest round of news revelations and the release of memoranda from the Bush administration - there are new posts about Jewish views on torture. It appears that it can be argued that the Talmud does not sanction torture in any way, shape or form.

For a good quick summary of the issue, see Benjamin Wiener's, Talmud v. Torture: The Jewish Case Against "Enhanced Interrogation":
Jewish legalism, at its best, is a means of actualizing the dictates of the prophetic voice through a regimented system of behavior: a code of conduct thoroughly imbued with an ethos and a morality. The most articulate condemnations of torture that Judaism has to offer are therefore presented most effectively as deeply spiritual legal analyses.

The best of these, in recent years, was composed by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub for Rabbis for Human Rights, an international organization focusing on a number of progressive issues both in America and Israel. Weintraub’s series of essays, published in 2005, outlined a case against torture, rooted in Talmudic teaching and Jewish collective memory.

In the Talmudic dictum ain adam mesim atsmo rasha (“a person may not incriminate himself”), she found the basis for traditions militating against self-incrimination that were even more extensive than the parallel American statutes, and included particular provisions against coerced confession. She followed this with a discussion of the overarching principle known as kavod ha-briot (“human dignity”), contrasting notions like tselem elohim (“creation in the image of God”) and hamalbin pnei heviro b’rabim (“whoever shames his fellow in public has spilled his blood”) with the depredations of Abu Ghraib.

Jewish law does clearly place preeminent value on the preservation of life, and articulates circumstances in which a rodef (a “pursuer”) may be harmed or killed to prevent his murder of another. But in her third essay, Weintraub demonstrated how the application of this principle to the kinds of practices then being sanctioned by the Bush Justice Department was a gross miscarriage of its meaning.

Finally, turning from the discursive to the evocative, and rooting herself in the Torah’s injunction against “abusing the stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt,” she suggested that a history of slavery, martyrdom, discrimination, and genocide should predispose Jews against systematic policies of wanton abuse.
Weintraub's own "Jewish Values and Torture" page links to her essays on the topic, which are the product of a great deal of more sustained research and thoughtful analysis.

This conclusion that Jewish values in the Talmud do not sanction torture reassures us about the role of religion in preserving our humanity. But it does not make us ecstatic.

Why? Because we all can see justifications of inhumanity and cruelty on the top surface of some of the formative biblical narratives our major world's religions.

Obvious to anyone who reads the holy scriptures: God appears to torture his favorite people in the narratives of the Tanakh, the Hebrew bible, and then in the dramatic narratives of the Christian bible, God undeniably sets up the circumstances in which people torture and kill his son.

Okay - you can argue that sending an entire people into slavery in Egypt is not an exact analogue to the instances of torture that we are debating now in our current events. If you argue it, I will grant that forcing a nation into slavery is not analogous to specific cases of torture, like the ones sanctioned by the Bush administration. Overall we must argue that the slavery of an entire nation in Egypt is arguably much crueler.

Now how about a more analogous example.

Waterboarding is a form of torture wherein your torturer makes you think that you are drowning and you are going to die. And then the torturer stops the torture and doesn't kill the victim.

That seems to us a lot like when you, the ultimate authority, command your follower to go and kill his own son, as God does to Abraham in Genesis 22. Commanding a father to kill his own son - that's worse than making someone think they themselves are dying - isn't it? And then you go ahead in that biblical instance and stop the torture - you prevent the man from doing that act of killing.

Is that not a much crueler variation on the waterboarding torture?

And what about another instance - when you, God, send your only son to Israel to have him tortured by crucifixion and killed on the cross - as the Gospels narrate?

Doesn't that raise the issue, if God tortures people, and people were created in the image of God, then it is nothing unexpected that people in turn engage in torture of each other - is it?

Or is it really more analytical to say that we humans tell the biblical stories about the wishes and actions of our Creator to suit and reflect our own torture-and-cruelty-thirsty needs?

So, without belaboring the point any further, we will stop here and affirm in conclusion - this is why we mostly consider ourselves to be Talmudic and not Biblical.


Is Senator Arlen Specter Jewish?

Yes, Senator Arlen Specter is a Jew.

His biography (excerpted from Wikipedia) echoes some familiar patterns among American Jews.

He was born in 1930 in Wichita, Kansas to parents Lillie Shanin and Harry Specter who emigrated from Russia in 1911. His father served in the US infantry during WWI, and was badly wounded. During the Depression, Specter's father was a fruit peddler, a tailor and junkyard owner. Specter worked with him, learning the importance of hard work at an early age.

Specter graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania in 1951. He served in the United States Air Force from 1951 to 1953 during the Korean War. He graduated from Yale Law School in 1956.

He is married to the former Joan Levy, and they reside in the East Falls section of Philadelphia. They have two sons, Shanin and Stephen, and four grandchildren, Silvi, Perri, Lilli, and Hatti.

Spector has served with distinction in the senate as a Republican from Pennsylvania since 1981. He switched to the Democratic party on 4/28/2009 and will stand for reelection in 2010 - as a Democrat.


Video - Is former NFL player Alan Veingrad Jewish?

Yes, former NFL professional football player Alan Veingrad is a Chabad Hasidic Orthodox Jew!

Times: A university department chairman who wants to dissolve all departments

In his times op-ed, "End the University as We Know It," author MARK C. TAYLOR opines that we need to, "Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs."

When Professor Taylor applied for the position of chairman of his department - he knew that the job description was to manage a unit within the parameters of the status quo of the university. Now it is possible that he will never get another administrative position in any university. Some will argue that it was professionally a bad idea for him to go make a public statement that universities, like the one that he works for, are all screwed up, and for him to call to "End the University as We Know It."

On his main points, the university as we know it - like all institutions - is a compromise between the ideal and the real. There's no evidence cited in his op-ed that any changes that Taylor recommends have the slightest chance of succeeding.

Taylor proposes that all universities, "Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure."

If universities ended tenure, for instance, then sure they would have the ability to make more progressive changes. But replacing your staff is never easy. And the temptation to follow fads could easily lead an institution down dead ends and to big losses instead of any gains. It's also been proven true that by granting tenure universities can pay and retain their most qualified and competent staff at much lower salaries and lock in a stable long term work force.

Taylor calls for us to, "Transform the traditional dissertation."

As far as graduate education goes, a PhD in the humanities was never meant to produce only dissertations that were useful or even interesting. Obtaining a PhD is a rigorous ordeal to determine who is equipped to pursue authentic research in a discipline, who has mastered the literature and the tools of that discipline and who can be trusted with the responsibilities of a professor. Do away with the vetting processes of the graduate school and you may well end up hiring a whole cadre of staff members who just don't get what a sustained academic enterprise is all about.

Of course if we, "Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs" we won't need to teach any disciplinary knowledge. Academic credentials in such a world would be superfluous.

Suffice it to say, for the good reasons we stated and for many more that we have not enumerated, we don't much agree with Professor Taylor's proposals.

Update: Letter writers to the Times clobbered the life out of the essay.


Tzvee's Law: In Your Comparative Religions Course - Teach Hinduism Last

It's one of our laws.
In Your Comparative Religions Course - Teach Hinduism Last.

Why? First off, we know a heck of lot more about Judaism, Christianity and Islam and chances are so do our students. Always teach from the greater known to the lesser known.

Second off, if comparative religions is indeed an endeavor in which we compare apples to oranges, Hindu religion is a prickly pineapple.

But really, good pedagogy says you should arm your students with as much content and as many critical tools as possible before dropping them into the thicket to strive with the interpretation and understanding of the complex of Hindu religions.

What reminded us of this pedagogical law that we observe?
Another Incarnation
The Times' review today of 'The Hindus: An Alternative History' by WENDY DONIGER - reviewed by PANKAJ MISHRA: "Wendy Doniger tries to remedy the enduring impression of a 'unified Hinduism' created in large part by the first British scholars of India."

Alas, the review is positive but not glowing.

Also of interest are two other reviews of religion books in the Times today.

One book reviewed today deals an alleged revival of religion in the world - but all it seems to discuss is a change of style in religious organization.
'God Is Back'
God is enjoying an international comeback with the help of a model made in America, argue two editors at The Economist.
The other review deals with a book that chronicles a man's waning interest in religion. Ho-hum.
'Losing My Religion'
Bearing witness to the news had a decided effect on the beliefs of a writer who covered religion for The Los Angeles Times.

Video: Obama's Holocaust Day Speech

Meaningful remarks. [Hat tip to Mimi.]


Friday Fun Features: Noah's Ark Model, Temple Model, Undercover With the Fundamentalists

From WSJ.
Hong Kong Christens an Ark of Biblical Proportions
The First Built as Big as Noah's, It Joins a Global Regatta of Replicas

HONG KONG -- This city's three billionaire Kwok brothers have just the answer for the rising waters threatening the global economy: the world's first life-size replica of Noah's ark, built to biblical specifications off the coast of this recession-struck Chinese financial center.

The message in its 450-foot-long hull, its rooftop luxury hotel and 67 pairs of fiberglass animals: "The financial tsunami will be over," says Spencer Lu, the Kwoks' project director at Noah's Ark, which is opening soon....more

From MINA.
Farmer spends 30 years on model Biblical Temple
Brick by brick, tiny figure by tiny figure, Alec Garrard has painstakingly worked for 30 years on an astonishing recreation of Herod's Temple....more

From AP.
Ivy Leaguer `infiltrates' Falwell's university

PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Kevin Roose managed to blend in during his single semester at Liberty University, attending lectures on the myth of evolution and the sin of homosexuality, and joining fellow students on a mission trip to evangelize partyers on spring break.

Roose had transferred to the Virginia campus from Brown University in Providence, a famously liberal member of the Ivy League. His Liberty classmates knew about the switch, but he kept something more important hidden: He planned to write a book about his experience at the school founded by fundamentalist preacher Jerry Falwell.

Each conversation about salvation or hand-wringing debate about premarital sex was unwitting fodder for Roose's recently published book: "The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University."...more

[Hat tips to Yochanan Hashlishi.]


Soon to be a major horror film: "Erev Shabbos the 13th: the Ponzi Chapter"

We can't wait. Too bad Boris Karloff is not around to play the role of Bernie Madoff.
L.A. Producer Filming Madoff Movie
Filmmaker Speaks With Scheme Victims In South Fla.

Crews from a Los Angeles production company were in Palm Beach County on Wednesday shooting for the movie.

The man behind the project, producer Edmund Druilhet, said his goal is to release the film later this year.

The filmmakers must still talk with people who fell for the scam of the decade.

Madoff took an estimated $65 billion from people across the country -- from cab drivers to retirees to CEOS.

Druilhet is executive producer of L.A.-based Dragonlion Media. He and his staff arrived in West Palm Beach on Tuesday. They're on a mission to tell the story of Madoff's mess on the big screen.

Druilhet said he has plans to turn it into a major feature film and documentary.

"Well I'm doing two projects," he said. "I'm doing 'Madoff: Made Off with America,' and I'm doing 'Satan of Wall Street,' which is how he has been labeled in the media. I'll have about six interviews today, then dinner with some people."

The crew plans to shoot a handful of locations on Palm Beach, including Madoff's mansion, which was recently seized by U.S. marshals.

"This is a very important part of history," Druilhet said. "There's something really incredible that went on here and has gone on here. I think it's much deeper than what we've seen on the surface. I think that this story is going to continue to evolve."

Druilhet said the story hits too close to home. He said his father lost half his retirement with Madoff. He said he has also interviewed victims who live in Aspen, Colo., and New York.

"It makes for a good movie," Druilhet said. "I want to do a very accurate and positive spin on this. I want it to be done right and that's why I took responsibility for doing it."

Druilhey said he plans to show a shorter version of the film at Cannes Film Festival next month. He said he hopes it will hit theaters by mid-August.

Jonathan Mark in the Jewish Week Pens a Disrespectful Jewish Blog Post

It's one thing when you disagree with an issue, express that and advance an argument in favor of your POV.

It an entirely other thing when you purely and persistently mock young idealistic and sincere religious leaders.

To read pure disrespect without a point to be found in it, see the blog posted at the Jewish Week under the rubric "Route 17: Associate Editor Jonathan Mark on Just About Everything" with the mocking title, "A Rabbi Named Sue."

For another strong view on this issue see the essay by Leora Tanenbaum, (author of "Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality") -- 'A Rabbi Is Not a "Rabbi" in the Jewish Orthodox Twilight Zone', Huff Post. She concludes with this flourish:
Hurwitz is already a role model and many people will come to regard her, if they don't already, as a Judaic authority. If now is not the right time to call female rabbis "rabbis," then when?
Well Leora how about, Never!

Orthodoxy defines itself as a boys' club. It's not some peripheral value. We've argued for naught over women's issues in Orthodoxy. Forget about it.

Want to be a woman rabbi? Join up with the Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative movements where you will be welcomed. End of story.

Is Judge Jay Bybee Jewish?

No, Judge Jay Bybee is not a Jew. Bybee is a Mormon, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Bybee graduated from Brigham Young University and earned his Juris Doctor from BYU's Law School.

On April 16, 2009, President Barack Obama released an internal memorandum signed by Bybee during his tenure at Office of Legal Counsel of the United States Justice Department addressed to CIA General Counsel John Rizzo and dated August 22, 2002, which concluded that waterboarding did not meet the legal definition of torture ["Bybee memo"].

On April 19, 2009 an editorial in The New York Times ("The Torturers’ Manifesto") argued that Bybee is "unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the Constitution" and called for Bybee's impeachment from the federal bench.

A Naive Nicholas Kristoff Announces the Reformation of Islam

Funny, the Taliban in Pakistan don't look like moderate Muslims.

Based on a single conference held at Notre Dame, a Catholic Christian university in Indiana, Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has concluded that Islam has moved towards the mode of reformation that is "analogous" to the reformation of Christianity and the modernization of its thought and theology more than a century ago.

To this we say, Une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps.

And read your own paper, we say to Kristoff, as the Taliban march ever closer to the capital of Pakistan ("Alarm Grows Over Pakistan’s Failure to Halt Militant Gains"), for there is immense danger in misrepresenting what is the current state of Islam. In the Times, opinion need not coincide with fact:
"Islam, Virgins and Grapes"  If the Islamic world is going to enjoy a revival, if fundamentalists are to be tamed, if women are to be treated equally, then moderate interpretations of the Koran will have to gain ascendancy....


Holy Sex Books!

What we need now is books about money, not sex. Our financial crisis is killing us as people and murdering our institutions.

Poorly timed as usual, religious publishers are busy ejaculating sex books of every stripe and denomination. Some of us suspect that the spate of these books is an act of desperation, to rescue the publishers and authors from financial crisis. Better they should write about money.

Let's just be clear about our assessment of this burst of sacred self-help sex manuals. When we want to learn how to play better golf, we buy a book by a golf pro, not a rabbi. To learn about any sport or other important activity we'd suggest one turn to professionals with actual credentials.

Here's the link to the review from PW ("In Religion Publishing, Sex Is Hot") and the list of what it covers:
  • Dr. Les Parrott's Crazy Good Sex: Putting to Bed the Myths Men Have About Sex (Zondervan, May).
  • Dr. Kevin Leman, Turn Up the Heat: A Couple's Guide to Sexual Intimacy (Revell, Mar.)
  • Intended for Pleasure (Revell, 1997) by Ed and Gay Wheat
  • Kiss Me Like You Mean It: Solomon's Crazy in Love How-To Manual by Dr. David Clarke (Revell, May)
  • No More Headaches: Enjoying Sex and Intimacy in Marriage (Focus on the Family/Tyndale, Aug.) by Dr. Julianna Slattery.
  • The Passionate Torah: Sex and Judaism (NYU Press, June), an anthology edited by Danya Ruttenberg
  • Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (NYU Press, Sept.) edited by Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser and David Shneer
  • Dale S. Kuehne's Sex and the iWorld: Rethinking Relationship Beyond an Age of Individualism (Baker Academic, July)
  • Dennis P. Hollinger's The Meaning of Sex: Christian Ethics and the Moral Life (Baker Academic, June)
  • The Kosher Sutra by Shmuley Boteach
  • Rabbi Shefa Gold's In the Fever of Love: An Illumination of the Song of Songs


Yale’s Jewish a cappella group Magevet Stages “Bernie Madoff: The Musical”

Sounds like this production was a riot. Yale Daily News: "A cappella group mocks Madoff in an original musical." -
...In their skit, the Bernie Madoff character, played by Daniel Olson ’12, lures Magevet into his apartment for a homestay, and convinces the group’s business manager, played by Yedidya Schwartz ’11, to hand over Magevet’s finances with the promise of sky-high returns. For the rest of the concert, the group continued to parody Madoff’s Ponzi scheme with a series of songs.

Once Madoff wins the manager’s trust, he breaks into a jubilant song, “If I Did a Ponzi,” set to the tune of “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof.” At the climax of the song, he sings “Lord who made the Nasdaq and the T/ Would you make me rich as clotted cream?/ Would you wreck my family’s special dream/ If I did a Ponzi Scheme?!”

As Madoff’s plan moves closer to completion, the group sings an updated version of the “Les Misérables” song “One Day More.” In reference to the FBI’s discovery of the fraud, the Madoff character sings “Tomorrow I’ll discover what the FBI can do./ One more scam. One more plot. One day more!”

The musical ends with Madoff’s imprisonment. The song “A Whole New World” — a reworded version of the song from “Aladdin” — mocked the special treatment white-collar criminals receive in jail. The lyrics included references to Martha Stewart and Ken Lay, horseback riding and golf, calling prison “summer camp with no parole...”

Times' Sorkin: US Banks Lying About their Profits

It's amazing to watch how our news media inches ever closer each day to reporting the actual facts about our big US Banks.

Andrew Ross Sorkin writes today on the topic. Although to describe how our big banks have been characterizing their recent performance as businesses Sorkin does not use terms like lying, deceitful, dishonest, two-faced, insincere, untruthful, mendacious, double-dealing or false, he does cite sources who say that Banks report profits "out of thin air" or that they claim to "pull a bunny out of a hat" or that they engage in "sleight of hand" or that "they pulled the same trick" or that their reports are "perfectly delusional."

This is the how the Times describes our banks.

Vatican Stays to Hear Iranian President's Anti-Semitic Diatribe in Geneva

It was really disappointing, but not at all unexpected, to hear that while other civilized diplomats walked out when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad lapsed into his (utterly ironic) anti-Semitic tirade at the UN Geneva conference on racism, the Vatican's boys stayed to listen. According to the AP story, "Ahmadinejad dropped Holocaust denial from speech,"
Ahmadinejad's accusation that the West used the Holocaust as a "pretext" for aggression against Palestinians still provoked walkouts by a stream of delegates including representatives of every European Union country in attendance. But others, including those from the Vatican, stayed in the room because they said he stopped short of denying the Holocaust.

The walkout came after Ahmadinejad accused Western nations of complicity in violence against Palestinians surrounding the foundation of Israel.

The original text of his speech said, "Following World War II, they resorted to military aggression to make an entire nation homeless on the pretext of Jewish sufferings and the ambiguous and dubious question of Holocaust."
The notion that, "the Vatican stayed in the room because they said he stopped short of denying the Holocaust" is not at all credible in light of the Bishop Williamson affair and should have been questioned by the AP.

The Vatican rehabilitated the Bishop within the church hours after he publicly denied the Holocaust on television. Vatican actions show that they support Holocaust deniers while at the same time Vatican words claim they do not. Such dissonance is the stuff which erodes an entity's credibility.


Reminder: Google Search has no sense of humor

Just a random thought based on a report from a blogger about my Purim post that Rush Limbaugh is Jewish.

Google can retrieve all kinds of information from the web but it cannot tell you which of the hits are funny.... yet.

David Holzer's book "The Rav: Thinking Aloud"

My son brought me a gift that he purchased in a book store in Monsey NY today - David Holzer's new book "The Rav: Thinking Aloud" subtitled "Transcripts of Personal Conversations with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik."

We studied with the Rav for four years when preparing for my ordination at Yeshiva University.

After turning the pages, we can say with certainty that this book is in a class by itself. We have heard that it is causing quite a stir in the modern Orthodox community.

On page 53 for example we get some insight into the Rav's "cooking." We are told that he liked to eat sour cream and cottage cheese mixed together (so do we and it was a big favorite of my mother) and that the Rav cooked his own scrambled eggs.

The book is printed is large type on glossy paper. It is well bound and professional in appearance with a nice cover.

Blogger Asks Why Pope Benedict Supports the Durban II Hatefest

Damian Thompson at his UK Telegraph religion blog asks, "Why is Pope Benedict supporting the UN's 'anti-racist' hatefest against Israel?"

Here, here. Indeed his reference is to the pope's enthusiasm for the upcoming and rapidly disintegrating United Nations conference on "racism" in Geneva, Durban II. He says,
With respect, Holy Father, it's not an opportunity to fight racism; like the disgusting fiasco in Durban in 2001, it's an opportunity for African dictators and Jew-baiting Islamists to fulminate against Israel and the neo-Nazi, anti-Arab hordes that are sweeping across racist Europe, while dismissing any trifling Muslim assaults on other faiths as Islamophobic myths.

I wonder if the Vatican is sending any bishops to Geneva. I can think of one who'd feel at home there, can't you?
Well put, and just when we were just thinking we hadn't seen a reference to British Catholic bishop and Holocaust denier Richard Williamson for a few days.

What is Apocalyptic Eschatology?

The term "apocalyptic" describes an element within a worldview that "reveals" a previously hidden facet of a divine plan.

In classical Judaism and Christianity this often describes an "eschatology" - that is a story of the end of time as we know it.

So, "apocalyptic eschatology" is not just a multi-syllabic phrase that you will want to know in order to impress people at cocktail parties. It describes a set piece of beliefs that speaks about revealing to the select few the details of the impending end of time, the end of civilization as we know it, and the initiation of a new more perfect order.

Its story goes that for society to end and be transformed there needs to be first a global struggle of the forces of good against the powers of evil. We will know the time is upon us by the signs of changing events which are revealed to the select.

More often than not, the community in the throes of an episode of apocalyptic eschatology will produce an increase in social conflict growing out of a paranoia, will engender a phase of hyperactive preaching offset by political passivity, and will experience a growing sense of the ominous as the group edges towards the expected dramatic end of time.

Our concern in the past has been to explore some of the apocalyptic moods and motivations that we identified in recent phases of Orthodox Judaism.

We originally wrote an essay in 1987 to analyze some of the characteristics that we started to see more pronounced within Orthodox Judaism at that time. We posted this in 2005 with revisions that we made in 1994, taking into account Rabbi Schachter's responsum regarding women's prayer groups.

In this assessment we didn't consider the violence committed by Yigal Amir and Baruch Goldstein, important events with religious apocalyptic contexts.

We have taught a university course several times called, "War and Peace in Judaism, Christianity and Islam" where we did take into account those traumas and other relevant data.

Here is the opening of my essay:
Fundamentalist spokesmen in Orthodox Judaism of late have grown more vocal and militant. Recent protests, proclamations, and actions of Orthodox Jews have not just risen in intensity. Rather a substantive transformation has overtaken a segment of the Jewish community. It does not suffice to categorize Orthodox groups as "reversionary" "ultra" or "right-wing". We must explain what generative conception distinguishes one group claiming to be Orthodox observers of Torah and mitzvos (commandments), true to the ideals of halakhah (Jewish law), and loyal to their rabbinic figures of authority, from another group claiming the same traits, but appearing to form its social life and defend its ultimate goals in recognizably different manners. Some forms of fundamentalist Orthodoxy have become apocalyptic styles of Judaism. This form of Judaism has coherent world views and particular ways of life that thrive on conflict, that live on the margins of society and that employ predictable modes of discourse.

Times' Frank Rich Eulogizes Gay Bashing in America

In our opinion it's still a little premature to declare that same-sex marriage is a nationwide done deal. But Frank Rich thinks so - quite eloquently in his Times op-ed today. It's his judgment that a recent anti same-sex marriage TV ad marks the tipping point in the shift of public sentiment and legal momentum on the issue.

The u-turns by right wing religious leaders play a key role in his assessment:
More startling still was the abrupt about-face of the Rev. Rick Warren, the hugely popular megachurch leader whose endorsement last year of Proposition 8, California’s same-sex marriage ban, had roiled his appearance at the Obama inaugural. Warren also dropped in on Larry King to declare that he had “never” been and “never will be” an “anti-gay-marriage activist.” This was an unmistakable slap at the National Organization for Marriage, which lavished far more money on Proposition 8 than even James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.
While Rich may be too optimistic, I cannot recall any other issue on which prominent conservatives have flip flopped quite so dramatically.


LA Times: Reform Seminary to Close Campuses in a Serious Retrenchment (or is this a fund-raising ploy?)

President Rabbi David Ellenson of the Hebrew Union College is one of our favorite people. He is a straight shooter and a practical man. That's why we take this news seriously. He's not a person who'd engage in doomsday fundraising. Anyway, it is clear that once you rumor the closing a campus, you can't expect it to flourish.

The LA Times has this catastrophic story about potential closure of the HUC campus there. It's a major setback for Jewish studies on the coast ("The Los Angeles campus, which opened in 1954, is adjacent to USC and, in a cooperative arrangement, offers credit classes for USC students in Judaic studies. Its library holds more than 125,000 volumes of Judaica as well as large holdings of microfilm and recordings.")

This is also a signal to the other Jewish seminaries to follow suit and begin closing facilities.
Jewish seminary considers closing two U.S. campuses
Facing a $3-million deficit this year, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion may keep one of three locations in Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati.
By Larry Gordon

The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a seminary and graduate school for Judaism's Reform movement, is facing such deep financial troubles that it is considering closing two of its three U.S. campuses, which include a location near downtown Los Angeles.

In a letter sent this week to members of the college community, its president, Rabbi David Ellenson, said pension funding problems, flat donations and declines in its endowment had placed the institution "in the most challenging financial position it has faced in its history -- even more so than during the Depression."

As a result, Ellenson wrote, Hebrew Union's board of governors will meet next month to discuss such scenarios as whether to keep just one of its three U.S. campuses in Los Angeles, New York and Cincinnati, where the college was founded. Other alternatives include merging some academic programs but keeping more than one of its U.S. campuses open, he wrote in the letter, which was released by his office. A decision is expected in June. ..more...

Times to New York Jews: OK to Have a Bagel Now

Two rabbis in Teaneck gave conflicting advice today from their pulpits about when to start eating chametz after Pesach. One said to wait a week and another said to wait an hour.

The "rabbis" at the Times though have no hesitation to encourage New York Jews to resume their bagel fressing ASAP.
Passover’s Over, and Bagels Are Back, Big

Giasuddin Ahmed ran through the timetable. “The guys arrive at 4:30 a.m. to make the bagels,” he said. “At 5:30 a.m., the coffee. Open, 6 a.m.”

He left out one step. Someone had to tear down the white paper that had been taped over the plate-glass windows of the store he runs — and the signs that said the store, 72nd Street Bagel, on the West Side, would be closed for Passover.

Mr. Ahmed and other bagel makers say that the first business day after the holiday ends — Friday — is typically one of their busiest days of the year as Jewish customers line up to observe the passing of at least eight days of yeast privation.

Bagel makers spent Thursday contemplating the end of Passover. Some, like Mr. Ahmed, gave their ovens and mixing bowls the once-over after time off during the holiday, which started at sundown on April 8. His store follows kosher dietary rules and treats Passover as an eight-day holiday, as many observant Jews do. (Reform Jews typically celebrate Passover for seven days, said Rabbi Andy Bachman, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.)...more...

Forbes: Prison Consultant Larry Levine Won't Help Bernie Madoff

Yikes. You know you really hit rock bottom when an ex-con, turned prison consultant, won't take your case.
There's Something About Larry
Lexi Feinberg

After serving 10 years, Larry Levine did what any respectable criminal would do: He became a consultant.With white-collar crime surging and the SEC on the prowl, business is booming for former federal prisoner Lawrence J. Levine, founder of Wall Street Prison Consultants.

He's the go-to guy for corrupt businessmen who engaged in fraudulent behavior and are looking for ways to dodge the fist of the law -- but even he wouldn't speak to Bernie Madoff.

"His people called me; I refused to help him," Levine said. He then added, "I don't help child molesters either."...more...

Post Madoff and Merkin - Scandal Proof Conflict of Interest Policies for Yeshiva University Board of Trustees

We are not sure why it took so long but according to sources Yeshiva University has come up with new conflict of interest policies for its board of Trustees.

We wrote way back on December 19, 2008...

In light of the recent scandalous malfeasance by Yeshiva University Board Treasurer Bernard Madoff and by J. Ezra Merkin, head of the investment committee, and the resulting loss of $110 million of the University's endowment, we recommend these new policies for the Board of Trustees of Yeshiva University.

We believe adopting these policies is the only way to safeguard the Board from future scandals. Under these new guidelines, the university will be able -
(1) to decrease the length and frequency of board meetings,
(2) to eliminate complaints of bullying and intimidation by some members of the Board, and
(3) to absolutely guarantee that no Board member will disgrace the reputation of the university and its community or cause losses to its endowment.
Here is our proposed wording of the new guaranteed safe guidelines:
The University will continue to name to the Board of Trustees distinguished and wealthy leaders of the Jewish community. However all names placed in nomination and ultimate selection of Trustees will be limited to those individuals who fulfill these criteria:
(1) they have completed their substantial contributions to the University in cash, and...

(2) they are already deceased....

Talmud Tractate Bava Me-Senate: Franken and Coleman Dispute the Case of Two Jews Holding on to a Seat

The antics over in Minnesota of the two Jews disputing one seat (in the senate) have frequently reminded us of the Talmud.

Beginning Talmud students often start their learning with the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Baba Mezi'a where two Jews are disputing the ownership of one garment,
For those of your who wish to start learning Mishnah and Talmud today, start here with Learn Mishnah.

Here is the latest on the senate dispute from the Star Tribune. Now that the three judge Minnesota "beis din" has found in favor of Franken, public sentiment is turning against Coleman.
Coleman explains his continued legal efforts
By KEVIN DUCHSCHERE and BOB VON STERNBERG, Star Tribune staff writers

Republican Norm Coleman said he will appeal Democrat Al Franken's court victory in the U.S. Senate race next week. But for now, he said, he's hoping to relieve the frustration many Minnesotans feel about the five-month recount process that has still left the state one senator short.

Coleman, who was featured in a New York Times article on Wednesday and has done several interviews with local media this week, said he recognizes that people are frustrated with the length of the recount and that it's important to explain why he's continuing to contest Franken's 312-vote lead.

"In spite of what some say, that somehow this is an effort to delay something -- no," he said today in a meeting with the Star Tribune's editorial staff. "There are very legitimate, important constitutional questions regarding whether or not people's vote should count.

"There are thousands whose votes haven't been counted, and this is the one path to make that happen."

Coleman was referring to 4,400 rejected absentee ballots that his campaign says are similar to ones that have been counted.

He said that he expects an appeal to be filed early next week, well within the 10 days that state law gives him. Joe Friedberg, the noted defense lawyer who led his legal team during the recount trial, will argue the case before the Minnesota Supreme Court, Coleman said.

Coleman said he is focused on the state appeal and declined to say whether he would take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary, although he wouldn't rule that out.

He also said he wasn't concerned that extending the recount might damage his political prospects should he lose.

"I say this humbly, I don't spend 30 seconds worrying about my political future," he said.

Meanwhile, although Coleman handily beat Al Franken last fall when it came to endorsements from the editorial boards of Minnesota's newspapers, that support is starting to erode.

In the wake of Coleman's setback this week at the hands of the three-judge panel overseeing the U.S. Senate contest, a growing number of newspapers that endorsed Coleman are advising him to throw in the towel.

The editorial boards at daily newspapers in Owatonna, Albert Lea, Worthington and Faribault have said he should step aside. All of those papers endorsed him last year.

The St. Cloud Times, which endorsed independent candidate Dean Barkley, has also called for him to give up his fight. So has the Winona Daily News, one of the few papers that endorsed Franken.

Editorialists at the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the state's biggest papers, have said he should continue to make his case to the state Supreme Court.

Even the New York Times has weighed in on the Senate contest with an editorial headlined, "It's Over, Norm. OK?"

Voz iz neis? A Yiddish GPS

Chicago Jewish News by Joseph Aaron reports enthusiastically on the new positive Jewish accomplishments in our world. He deserves attention. Here is my favorite item from his April 10 posting about the iGo Yiddish GPS:
Get ready now. You've heard of a GPS, that amazingly little device you put in your car which gives you directions to where you are going, telling you where to turn and all the rest necessary to get you from one point to another?

Well, now in Israel they have a GPS that provides those directions in Yiddish. One of the many wonders of having a Jewish state is that the Jewish language is the language of everyday life. For most Israelis, that's Hebrew and there have long been GPS devices that speak Hebrew. But because many Orthodox Jews in Israel are most comfortable speaking Yiddish, yes, there is now a GPS that does just that.

So Yiddish-speakers can use the product to locate more than 10,000 Jewish points of interest - including the addresses and telephone numbers of thousands of synagogues, mikvehs (ritual baths) and kosher restaurants. Meanwhile, more secular points of interest - such as nightclubs, non-kosher restaurants and Internet cafes - are not in the database.

Amazing. And yet there's more. When the device is switched on, the user is automatically shown the Travelers' Prayer. Instead of pressing "OK" to skip to the next screen, the option is instead "Amen."
Aaron doesn't tell us what the GPS says when you make a wrong turn. Instead of the simple announcement that we get from our Garmin - "Recalculating..." - does the Yiddish GPS kvetch and berate you for being such a shlemiel?


False Priests Pretend to Protect Notre Dame from Contamination by Barack Obama

Last week we read about the Obama Notre Dame controversy in "Degrees of Acceptance at Notre Dame," an op-ed by RICHARD V. ALLEN in the Times:
THERE is turmoil in South Bend, Ind. — and around the country. The Rev. John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, has invited President Obama to deliver the commencement address at the university on May 17 and to receive an honorary degree.

As a result, many alumni are up in arms denouncing the decision. Priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals have criticized the university and its president. South Bend’s own bishop, John D’Arcy, has announced that he will not attend. At the same time, other members of the Notre Dame community have responded, with similar force, that Mr. Obama should be allowed to speak...
This debate has provoked us to think on the issue of what we are calling, protecting a university from contamination by an unclean speaker.

Apparently functionaries have appointed themselves the guardians of the precincts of religious universities. They make a fuss now and then about how one particular party or another needs to be kept away from the sacred space of the holy school.

We saw this on a small scale not long ago in a debate about whether a certain bible scholar should have been allowed to speak at the Orthodox Jewish Yeshiva University. But that was small potatoes.

We are seeing this played out on a larger scale now with the outcry over whether President Barack Obama ought to be given an honorary degree and be permitted to speak at the graduation this spring at the Catholic Notre Dame University.

Sure it's easy enough to reduce all this hollering to brute politics and dismiss it out-of-hand. Some ardent religious conservative wants to ascend a bully pulpit and this type of occasion gives him just the ladder he needs to climb up and demand attention.

We've never been a big fan of pure reductionism as a means of religious analysis. We are eager to believe that there is more going on than just that superficial process of finding a place to yell loud about your pet social or political peeves.

Accordingly, we think its important to examine the dynamics of these "guarding" activists and try to abstract some deeper cultural meaning or understanding from the hue and cry that they are raising.

We note well that keeping a holy precinct free from contamination of uncleanness is a classical role that priests play in the major religious traditions of the world. Perhaps the specific examples from Yeshiva and Notre Dame permit us to explore how this process plays out in our modern society.

The contemporary religious university does present us with an essential quandary. It's an institution that has to function as an open society of inquiry because it is a university. Yet the religious university is also a symbolic presence of the religion that it stands for – a quasi-sacred space – an eruption of the holy into the profane world around it.

Of course there are all kinds of gradations of the holy precincts in all religions. Universities can never be classified on the level of holiness as pure places of worship (though they surely will have within the campus walls some actual places of prayer).

Still, we recall with a smile the classic Peanuts cartoon wherein one of the cartoon's characters declares to another, an anxious student who is fretting aloud in a religious way before an exam, that "Hoping and praying should never be confused with studying."

Students of classical Judaism will recognize the concentric circles of spatial holiness that the ancient sources documented, namely, in increasing levels of sanctity, all other countries on earth, the Land of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, the Temple structure itself, and within that, the Holy of Holies.

In modern times we find more complex and often overlapping notions of sacred space. But our premise says that people have decided Notre Dame and Yeshiva are sacred spaces, regardless of what kind of real inquiry or behavior goes on inside the brick and mortar structures of those American religious campuses.

The premise thus established, the struggle can commence over who ought to be allowed to enter and be honored in such precincts.

If that is the case, we think this struggle sorely lacks subtlety. Opponents of the potentially defiling commencement speech by Obama at Notre Dame say nothing about whether he can enter and speak at a classroom at the Law School on the campus. Apparently that would be just fine. They say nothing about whether the library ought to purchase and lend out Barack's books. If the guy is not kosher, should we even let him into the house? Well you get my point.

This lack of refinement over the presence of the defiling agent in the spaces of holiness makes us abandon analyzing the whole debate as if it was a bona fide religious struggle to maintain purity in some pristine priestly precincts.

We've replayed now the tape of what we think is going on here in the Obama versus Notre Dame affair. And yes, as the referee at the football game would say, upon closer examination, we've got to say that it's not a legitimate touchdown, that a foul has been committed.

Our replay indicates that purely political actors have wrapped themselves up in the garb of priests to act as if they were holy men guarding the holy sanctuary. These spokesmen pretend to be holy and thereby attempt to prohibit their opponents from defiling speech.

In fact, they are in no way holy, they guard nothing, they just want to make pure political points, to stand on the back of religion to help broadcast their messages and aggrandize their own images.

Our bottom line conclusion then, by their cheapening actions, these would-be priests in fact debase their own religious traditions.

(Published in the Jewish Standard, April 17, 2009.)

Times: Talmudic Tax Talk

Joseph Aiment ("Another View: Ponzi Schemes Raise Tax Questions" in the DealBook blog) informs Times readers about the Talmudic tax ruling that will benefit people who lost money in the Madoff scandal:
One of last month’s guidances was a revenue ruling that clarifies the income tax law governing the treatment of losses in such Ponzi-type investment schemes (Rev. Rul. 2009-9). The second was a revenue procedure that provides a safe-harbor method of computing and reporting the losses (Rev. Proc. 2009-20).

Under Internal Revenue Code Section 165, these theft losses are not capital losses subject to the limits of being offset by capital gains plus $3,000 per year of ordinary income, when the loss exceeds capital gains from investments. Further, these losses are not subject to the “personal casualty and theft losses,” which are treated as an itemized deduction subject to a reduction of 10 percent of adjusted gross income over the $100 reduction that applies to many casualty and theft loss deductions.

The theft loss is deductible in the year the fraud is discovered, except to the extent there is a claim with a reasonable prospect of recovery. The theft loss includes the investor’s unrecovered investment, including income reported in prior years. It can create a net operating loss for the taxpayer which can be carried back and forward to generate a refund of taxes paid in other taxable years.
Allowing the use of the theft deduction is a great leniency for the victims of the fraud. (Should we say "casualties," Daphne?)

The leniency itself is Talmudic and the subsequent issues raised are even more Talmudic, namely, what about the downstream investors? Are they permitted to use the leniency as well? Does investor intention or knowledge play any role in all of this?
How will the losses from these investments, which were ultimately made in a Ponzi schemer’s program, be treated? The investors did not directly or knowingly invest in the Ponzi scheme.

Three investment/hedge funds operated by J. Ezra Merkin, Ascot Partners, Ariel Fund and Gabriel Capital, were paid $470 million in fees and performance bonuses from clients. They are parties to a complaint filed by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo alleging civil fraud regarding $2.4 billion from these funds that was invested with Mr. Madoff, purportedly without clients being aware of where their money was being invested...

If the taxpayer-investor had no knowledge that the fund in which he or she invested had reinvested in a Ponzi-scheme and did not know it was a Ponzi scheme when losses flowed through to their investment fund, but subsequently were informed — either because their fund revealed this information to them, or the civil or criminal lawsuit against the Ponzi schemer revealed that among its investors was the fund that the subject taxpayer-investor had placed his/her funds — will the taxpayer-ionvestor be entitled to theft loss treatment, in effect, as an indirect, unknowing investor in the Ponzi scheme?

And will the Internal Revenue Service be willing to permit a Ponzi-type scheme theft loss to indirect investors of these funds, whether or not they knew with whom their funds were ultimately invested (and lost)? Will a criminal action be a mandatory element of the facts in order to take the theft loss for income tax purposes?

We envision that the extent of these losses and the topics that arise as a result may go far beyond the anticipated scope of the announced revenue ruling and revenue procedure in the Internal Revenue Service’s guidance.
I never dreamed that pondering the intricacies of the tax law could be so rewarding to a Talmudist.


Mazal Tov Minnesota Senator Al Franken (again)

MINNEAPOLIS, April 13 (UPI) -- A three-judge panel ruled Monday that Democrat Al Franken defeated Republican Norm Coleman in Minnesota's 2008 U.S. Senate race...

StarTribune: Postville Kosher Agriprocessors Manager Pleads Guilty

Most troubling - "thousands of state child labor law charges" remain.
Former Iowa kosher slaughterhouse personnel manager pleads guilty to immigration charges
DES MOINES, Iowa - A former personnel manager arrested after a massive immigration raid at a kosher slaughterhouse pleaded guilty Monday to federal immigration charges.

Elizabeth Billmeyer, 48, of Postville, pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to harbor undocumented aliens for profit and one count of knowingly accepting counterfeit resident alien cards. She faces up to 20 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

Billmeyer was working at the Agriprocessors Inc. plant in Postville, once the nation's largest kosher slaughterhouse, when federal agents arrested 389 people in an immigration raid last May.

Over a five-year period leading up to the raid, Billmeyer conspired with others to harbor illegal immigrants at the plant for commercial advantage and private financial gain, according to a release from the U.S. attorney's office.

The company and other top managers, including former plant vice president Sholom Rubashkin, were charged last year with conspiracy to harbor undocumented immigrants for profit, aiding and abetting the harboring of undocumented immigrants and conspiracy to commit document fraud, among other counts.

Agriprocessors has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and at one point ceased production, although some lines have since reopened.

Billmeyer and others at the plant still face thousands of state child labor law charges.

She remained free on bond, and a sentencing will be scheduled after a pre-sentence report is prepared.

A telephone message left for Billmeyer's attorneys wasn't immediately returned.

New York Magazine: The Sad Tragedy of the Mumbai Hasidic Missionaries

New York Magazine continues to amaze us with its substantial writing on subjects that intrigue us and hit home.

The sad tragedy of the Mumbai Hasidic missionaries brings tears to our eyes in the current article, "God’s Work," By Jesse Green, with its description and ensuing details, "Newlyweds Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg heeded the Rebbe’s call to bring the joy of their faith to every part of the world. But the world did not respond in kind."

It's a story that is so close to us because my son and daughter-in-law met and befriended the couple in Mumbai when they first arrived there on their mission in 2003...


Was the Times Deceived by Ezra Merkin's Bizarro Sister Daphne?

In the Bizarro World of the old Superman Comics,
...society is ruled by the Bizarro Code which states "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!". In one episode, for example, a salesman is doing a brisk trade selling Bizarro bonds: "Guaranteed to lose money for you". Later, the mayor appoints Bizarro No. 1 to investigate a crime, "Because you are stupider than the entire Bizarro police force put together". This is intended and taken as a great compliment (Wikipedia).
Let's consider two Bizarro World op-eds that were published recently.

The most damning accusations that we read in the Cuomo complaint against J. Ezra Merkin was the pattern of deception that he engaged in over decades - giving all his investors' money to felons and ponzi schemers while claiming brilliance in the financial world for himself.

Deception can take many forms. Daphne Merkin, Ezra's sister, engaged in literary and creative deception when she wrote about Madoff recently on the op-ed page of the Times.

She apologetically called the victims of Madoff's fraud, "casualties," and tried to deceive us all, by making it appear that intentional crimes were actually unintended acts of God.

Now let us fast forward to today to witness some heavy-duty name-dropping tap-dancing in defense of Daphne at the Times by the following folk.
  1. Clark Hoyt, The Public Editor, dedicates his column to the Merkins, "Behind a Byline, Family Ties."
  2. Hoyt invokes: "David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, defended Merkin’s column and the amount of disclosure in it."
  3. Hoyt throws Mary Duenwald, "one of Shipley’s two deputies" into the stew.
  4. Hoyt talked to Daphne, who reported to him, “I thought many times before accepting the assignment..."
  5. Hoyt hauls in Shipley’s other deputy, George Kalogerakis, who "signed off on" the "disclosure" within the essay that Daphne and Ezra are "siblings."
  6. And finally Hoyt announces, "Andrew Rosenthal, Shipley’s boss, said he thought there could have been more disclosure."
Nobody at the Times deigns to consider the notion that running that op-ed was a complete fiasco, a mistake, an ill-timed and ill-conceived idea.

Why? Because utter hubris protects you from even entertaining such notions.

Speaking of utter hubris, we refer our Orthodox Jewish readers to the wonderful contretemps of the Jewish Press to the op-ed of one Rabbi Avi Shafran who wrote recently that he approved of the character of Bernard Madoff and had no respect for the heroism of Captain Sullenberger. JP's editorial, "Avi Shafran's Bizarro World," starts,
We are still stunned by a column written by Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, which was syndicated last week by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Titled "Bernie, Sully and Me," the column expresses admiration for confessed massive swindler Bernard Madoff and something less than enchantment with Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the airline pilot who made headlines recently for his heroic landing of a crippled jet in the Hudson River....more...
Not to worry though. We are confident that no matter what anyone says, Avi and Daphne will be back to continue their utterly entertaining Bizarro writing. That's how things work in the Bizarro World.

Are the Wealthy Donor Board Members Like Madoff and Merkin Ruining Our Universities?

Roy M. Poses MD writes a blog called "Health Care Renewal" about issues in the medical industry and medical education. It's not an area that we normally follow. But the doctor has taken an interest in Yeshiva University's board as an example case for a point he wants to probe.

Poses posits that university boards are heavily influenced by "finance leaders" and that may be causing some unanticipated problems.

He has started to do his homework on the subject, but he does not fully spell out his thesis. It seems to me that he is thinking as follows - in the metaphor of medical terms.

Universities have a "capital" deficiency in their systems. (They are non-profits.) To alleviate this they take in "finance leaders" as members of their boards. (That gives them access to donors and donations.) In the past few months we  we have seen a combination of the ill effects these "leaders" (i.e., Wall Street) can have to weaken our economy, and particularly we witnessed how some  (i.e., Madoff and Merkin) can have malevolent lethal effects on their investors' pools of capital.

Accordingly, Poses says in his provocative blog post, "Hedge Fund U," it's time to look hard at the unintended deleterious side-effects of the main medicine.

Good work. Great thoughts...
Seeing how readily Madoff's institutional investors, in particular, the leadership of Yeshiva University were bamboozled, I thought maybe it was time to see who that leadership actually was.

Yeshiva's current Board of Trustees is listed here on the University web-site, but without any detail about the people whose names appear there. A bit of Google searching revealed that the group included, besides Merkin and Madoff,
- Morry J Weiss (chairman), who is on the advisory board of Primus Venture Partners, a private equity firm
- Sy Syms (vice chairman), who is on the board of the Israel Discount Bank of New York
- Alan E Goldberg (treasurer), who is co-managing partner and co-founder of Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm
- Israel A Englander, who is co-founder if I A Englander & Co, a financial derivatives trading firm, and founder of Millennium Partners, a hedge fund (also note that Millennium Partners and Mr Englander personally settled lawsuits in 2005 that charged they used an elaborate scheme using market timing, as per this NY Times story)
- Ruth L Gottesman, the spouse of David Gottesman, the founder and senior managing director of First Manhattan Company, an investment adviser, (and also a former chairman of the Yeshiva University board)
- Lance L Hirt, another partner at Lindsay Goldberg, a private equity firm (see above)
- Michael Jesselson, the president of Jesselson Capital, an investment company
- Henry Kressel, a partner and senior managing director of Warburg Pincus, a venture capital company
So, before the resignation of Madoff and Merkin, nine of the 40 officers and trustees of Yeshiva University were in finance, all in leadership positions (and the board also included the spouse of another financial leader). Most were not in retail banking or retail stock brokerages, but in the more exotic areas of finance that are most associated with the global economic collapse, including derivative trading, hedge funds, private equity, etc.

On one hand, it would appear that a board so heavily stocked with finance leaders ought to have been sophisticated enough to do the due diligence their role required in evaluating the university's investments. On the other hand, perhaps the enrichment with finance people created a clubby atmosphere that discouraged questioning their fellow financiers too closely.

That almost 25% of Yeshiva University's board was composed of finance leaders is striking, given that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that less than 6% of employed people work in finance. But note that we previously found that 50% of the Harvard Fellows (the equivalent of their board of trustees' executive committee), and 69% of Dartmouth College's charter (self-appointed, as opposed to elected by alumni) trustees were leaders in the financial sector. This is somewhat anecdotal evidence, but it suggests that leaders of finance are much more prevalent among the top leadership of elite US institutions of higher education than would be explained by their prevalence in the population.

This raises the question of why financial leaders seem to have become so prevalent in academic leadership. This question is important, since this prevalence seems to have increased in a time when the culture of the leadership of the financial sector seemed to become more and more alien to the values that academic leaders ought to support, culminating in a global financial collapse that many blame on the sector leaders' arrogance, greed, and sometimes outright corruption.

At least it seems a reasonable hypothesis that some of the problems of academia, and particularly the problems of medical academia, may have been at least enabled by leadership more used to working in an increasingly amoral marketplace than to upholding the academic mission.

We hope that there will be more interest in who now leads academia, especially medical academia, how they got there, and what they have wrought.


Jewish Week: Which of the Four Sons is Ezra Merkin?

It's been an unfortunate few months for many of our colleagues, friends and relatives because of the losses they suffered in the scandals engendered by the massive frauds and criminal misrepresentations of Bernard Madoff and his enabler J. Ezra Merkin.

The Jewish Week editors cap off their weak coverage of the entire episode with a smart-alecky editorial asking which of the Haggadah's four sons is Ezra Merkin, which of the Haggadah's four sons are the investors, yadda, yadda.

The Merkin story is one of the biggest philanthropic and financial disasters ever to hit New York's Jews. Yet this is a rambling piece written from the desk, no additional work was done to research the essay. Too bad. Here's the editorial's ending, with the editors' sorely lame homily tagged on.
But we have yet to hear an apology or explanation from Merkin himself, who has portrayed himself as a victim rather than an enabler of Madoff.

This is but the latest chapter in what is sure to be a long story of legal battles for Merkin, who to date is being sued by New York University and businessman Mort Zuckerman. The fact that it comes on the eve of Passover is another reminder of the holiday’s timely theme of avoiding material excess, symbolized by chometz. (What are we to make of the fact that we refer to money as “bread” and “dough”?)
For eight days, we sacrifice some of our comforts for the price of freedom. It’s a bargain if we take that gift, and the message of the holiday, to heart.

Who attended Barack's Amazing White House Seder?

Who attended Barack Obama's Amazing White House Seder? The Washington Post provides the answer with an official picture from the event. We heard that lots of people asked for invitations. Clearly this was a personal event for Barack and his family and some friends and close advisors, not a political opportunity.

The blogs have pored over the photo to discern that the attendees used the Maxwell House Haggadah, one that has been distributed free by the coffee company for over 50 years!

The WP article lists the attendees.
Washington Life: A Low-Key, High Profile Seder
By Garance Franke-Ruta
Last night, President Obama held what the White House believes is the first Seder to be hosted by a sitting American president at the White House. A small affair, the private event in the Old Family Dining Room was a kind of reunion for its participants, a number of whom had attended an informal Seder together a year ago in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg, Penn.

Organized by Eric Lesser, a class of 2007 Harvard graduate who worked as a luggage wrangler and driver on then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign, the 2008 Seder was an impromptu marking of the annual Jewish holiday celebrating the escape from slavery in Egypt. Obama joined the dinner's young organizers in the basement, along with his close longtime friends Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, who were traveling with him at the time.

At the conclusion of the Seder, Obama and the assembled group jokingly added "Next year in the White House!" after the traditional Seder refrain "Next year in Jerusalem!"

And so it was. Lesser, a campaign legend for his dancing skills and heroic rescues of wayward press suitcases, is now a special assistant to Obama adviser David Axelrod with a West Wing office abutting the president's, and organized the traditional second night of Passover service.

The menu was traditional Eastern European: matzoh ball soup, brisket, roasted chicken, noodle kugel and macaroons for dessert. The White House chefs cooked the food but used recipes provided by the attendees' families.

Attending, beginning on the president's left and going clockwise, were: Samantha Tubman, assistant social secretary; Melissa Winter, the first lady's deputy chief of staff, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.

Continuing clockwise are: associate White House counsel Susan Sher, her son Evan Moore and Michael Cohen (both obscured); Valerie Jarrett, director of the office of public liason; and Eric Whitaker, a longtime friend of the Obamas (obscured).

On the opposite side of the table, starting on the president's right and continuing counterclockwise, are: Sher's husband Neil Cohen; Laura Moser (Arun Chaudhary's wife); Chaudhary, the White House videographer; Herbie Ziskend, another 2007 college graduate and former campaign baggage handler, now an aide to Vice President Biden; Eric Lesser and his father, Martin Lesser; Lisa Kohnke, deputy director of advance; Dana M. Lewis, the first lady's personal aide; and Obama personal assistant Reggie Love.

The guests using pillows are doing so not because the White House chairs are uncomfortable, but because of the contemporary custom of using pillows to symbolize the Passover service injunction to eat the meal reclining, itself a means of symbolizing being at peace and free.


Silly Newsweek List of Top Rabbis Gets an Even Sillier Commentary from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic

That Silly Newsweek List of Top Rabbis gets an even sillier commentary from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic: An Annotated Guide to America's Top Rabbis.

The difference - Goldberg intended to poke fun when merited.

Update (4/17/2009): Steven I. Weiss on the Huffington Post agrees with us...about the value of the list and we commented now on his post:
yes the newsweek exercise was silly, the result was demeaning to many hard working and sincere pulpit rabbis and academic theologians in the American Jewish community who are not self-promoting celebrities. it would have been totally okay if the list were the "50 top celebrity rabbis" - and i mean this truly - there is nothing wrong with being a celebrity rabbi. just be clear that contrary to the superficial newsweek mentality, celebrity is not the same thing as influence in our society.

Writer Nathan Englander's Talmudic Passover Reminiscence in the Times

We knew if we kept this blog going long enough, the world at large would begin to recognize the utter centrality of the Talmud.

Writer Nathan Englander's Talmudic Passover reminiscence in the Times begins in his op-ed, "MY life has turned Talmudic. A friend, aware of my religious upbringing, talked me into doing a new translation of the Haggadah..."

Wow. Englander, who recently was a "proudly and radically secular" Jew, is now claiming to have gone Talmudic. We like how that sounds.

And we like Nathan the writer. He's a lyrical scribe who can evoke strong emotion in a few lines, like these in his op-ed about his childhood seder memories,
And the rituals in our home were many. I remember stealing and hiding the afikoman during the endless Seder meal (a tradition meant to keep youngsters awake). I remember all the preparation that went into that meal, the heavy brass mortar and pestle in a kitchen filled with steam, and the dishes — my great-great grandmother’s china, used two nights a year for 100 and more. The wine was decanted into carafes, the salt served in filigreed silver wells. We were not fancy people, CorningWare white the rest of the year. But these two nights, remembering slavery, were to be celebrated as if we were kings, the poor seated with princes, all meant to recline.
Strong stuff. We look forward to reading his Haggadah. Here is the rest of his Talmudic op-ed, "The Passover Song"...

JP: Obama's Amazing White House Seder

Can we say, "Guess who's coming to Seder?"

This is an enormously meaningful story for the Jews of America. (HT to Town Crier.)

Happy Passover to all.
Obama to host Seder Thursday night

HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, Jerusalem Post correspondent

US President Barack Obama will celebrate Passover Thursday night with staff and friends in what is believed to be the first White House Seder attended by an American president.

The event was slipped onto the president's public schedule Tuesday night with little fanfare, following a letter signed by Obama earlier in the day wishing Americans who mark the day a "peaceful and relaxing holiday."

While presidential proclamations in honor of Passover have been common throughout the administrations of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, this year's Seder is believed to be the first of its kind.

"I'm really happy to hear about it," said Steve Rabinowitz, who once led a staff Seder in the Clinton White House but didn't know of any White House Seder in which the president had personally taken part before now. "It's been an extremely open White House to all faith communities, certainly including ours."

William Daroff, who runs the United Jewish Communities' Washington office, recalled that former president Franklin D. Roosevelt snuck out the back door of the White House in 1943 to avoid seeing rabbis marching out front to demand US action to save European Jews from the Nazis.

"Sixty-six years later the President of the United States is spending Thursday evening with his friends and family celebrating the liberation and survival of the Jewish people," Daroff noted, calling the event "a testament to how far we have come as a Jewish people in America.

"Jews are a vital component in the mosaic that is American culture and society. Our welcome through the front door, and the dining room door, of the White House speaks to the inclusiveness of today's America and of President Obama," he said. "This night is indeed different from all other nights."

In his letter, Obama called the story of Jews' ascent from slavery to freedom in the Land of Israel as "among the most powerful stories of suffering and redemption in human history," accompanied by rituals and symbols that indicate "the beauty of freedom and the responsibility it entails."

He also said the holiday presented a message for all humankind. "As part of a larger global community, we all must work to ensure that our brothers and sisters of every race, religion, culture and nationality are free from bondage and repression, and are able to live in peace."

He concluded his letter with the traditional Hebrew greeting "chag sameach," or happy holiday.

Though Passover starts on Wednesday evening, Obama will be hosting the second Seder, on Thursday night, apparently so that those in attendance can celebrate with their families on the first night.

The guest list was not immediately available, though it is likely to include top Obama advisors David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, both of whom are Jewish, as well as some of the key Jewish donors to Obama's presidential campaign.

Rabinowitz said that thought he hadn't been invited, "I'm only sorry that I won't be there to see the president and his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel say at the same time, 'Once we were all slaves. Now we are all free.'"


Newsweek Chronicles the Recession in Christianity in America

Newsweek's big RELIGION feature this year is Jon Meacham's penetrating essay on the current state of religion, i.e., Christianity, in our good land. If the title "The End of Christian America" without a question mark looks like it is a mistake to you, then you are not alone. The article summary promises to investigate, "The percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 points in the past two decades. How that statistic explains who we are now—and what, as a nation, we are about to become."

The essay combines statistics with anecdotes and some sweeping historical observations, in the expected Newsweek style. It's written from the vantage point of an editor looking out on America from his upper story corner magazine office.

To get your attention the writer gives you some startling clear news, e.g.,
...the new NEWSWEEK Poll, fewer people now think of the United States as a "Christian nation" than did so when George W. Bush was president (62 percent in 2009 versus 69 percent in 2008). Two thirds of the public (68 percent) now say religion is "losing influence" in American society, while just 19 percent say religion's influence is on the rise. The proportion of Americans who think religion "can answer all or most of today's problems" is now at a historic low of 48 percent. During the Bush 43 and Clinton years, that figure never dropped below 58 percent.
Meacham hedges this and the other statistics that he cites quite a bit warning us not to see them as any indications that we are entering into a "post-Christian" era in the USA.

There is always a lot for the chattering masses to debate in the sweeping generalizations of cover stories in weekly magazines. (There are 1500+ comments online for this article as of today, a number sure to grow. Everyone wants to get into this act.)

Meacham comes close to sounding like he is able to tell us what will come next in our great country. We consistently rail against the predictors of our future because we see it always as a thinly veiled way to try to advance a hidden agenda.

The one point glossed over by Meacham is the search for culpability at the top to explain the weakening of American affiliation. No, we don't mean he should seek to blame the ministers, priests, rabbis and imams for not being charismatic or energetic enough. There are good and bad actors and actions in all areas of Christian hierarchies up to and including the Pope. There is nothing right or wrong with the product that they have to offer. And all the fancy packaging in the universe is not going to make more than a 1 or 2 percent difference in the palatability of our Western religions.

No, we think the eight years under George Bush during which he cynically used religious issues and faith communities as a means to achieve and maintain political control and to bully our nation has led to the current religious recession. And that retreat is what Meacham is chronicling in the essay.

This recession in Christian religious affiliation is quite tangible, says Newsweek. We fear that it may deepen and become a worldwide faith-depression. That's happened in the past. Still, we are optimistic that with the right kinds of stimulus packages and rescue plans, the systems of religious affiliations may be saved from bankruptcy. I don't want to belabor the metaphor. You get the point.

Here is the article link.


Cuomo Sues Ezra Merkin for Fraud, calling him a glorified mailbox for Bernard Madoff

The 55 page complaint is here: THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK By ANDREW M. CUOMO, Attorney General of the State of New York -against- Plaintiff J. EZRA MERKIN and GABRIEL CAPITAL CORPORATION, Defendants.

Update: The Times has 687 pages of the complaint posted with the exhibits as an adjunct to their article on the Cuomo filing. We call it "Tractate Prevarication."

In the complaint one victim calls J. Ezra Merkin a "glorified mailbox" for Bernard Madoff - because all Merkin did was "passover" investor funds to the Madoff Ponzi scheme (seasonal pun intended).

Until seeing this characterization of Merkin as a mailbox, we just could not figure out what kind of worker Ezra looked liked in the latest news photo of him. He did not look much like an investment guru or a hedge fund manager to us. He did not look  like a rabbi, priest or minister or a professor of English.

But now it is clear. In the picture Merkin looks like a mailman at best, or perhaps, at worst, more like a mob bag man or a numbers runner.


NYU Wants Everyone to Hear the Lies of the Lord of Greed and Selfishness J. Ezra Merkin

The Post has a story about NYU's request to make public files pertaining to its lawsuit against J. Ezra Merkin. We don't know what difference this will make. Everyone already knows that he lied and lost billions by giving his investors' money to the Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff.

Now, any investment manager with an iota of responsibility for his profession, with a scintilla of concern for his fellow human being, would have by now made some attempt to reach out to his investors -- ordinary people, universities and charities -- and say to them that he will work the rest of his life to make them whole on their investments, that he will sell his apartment, his house, his paintings, whatever it takes, to provide for them restitution for their losses.

Stop laughing. Yes I know that this notion is about as far from reality as Jupiter is from the sun.

J. Ezra Merkin is the absolute lord of greed and self-interest whose only assurance to his clients after the news of Madoff's confession and since then was the undocumented claim that he has lost his own money too -- as if a single sentient being would care about or believe that utterance.

Be that as it may, to us it makes no difference what his exact verbatim lies were to his clients. But if they are revealed you can rest assured that we will let you know.