8/30/09

How much religion can a public charter school teach? Minnesota Charter School Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy Threatens Law Suit


We miss Minnesota this time of year, especially when we hear that the State Fair opened to record crowds.

There are few events that we have attended anywhere that are quite as vivid as that great Minnesota get-together.

In other Minnesota news, the great Minnesota charter school get-together seems a tad less exemplary of comity and understanding.

The Minnesota Charter School Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy has threatened a law suit.

The question at issue there is one that is watched by many in the Jewish community and in other religious groups.

Simply put: How much religion can a public charter school teach?

Unfortunately, the way this Minnesota instance is framed, it looks like this school is circling its wagons against a perceived investigative onslaught into misuse of funds.

It would be good to litigate this whole subject thoroughly so that religiously sponsored public charter schools can operate openly according to the law within known and sanctioned parameters.

Public interest groups and religious interest groups should join forces here to bring forward a broad-based case on the merits and set some precedents for those parameters. Religious-sponsored public charter schools in the rest of the nation need to be able to operate without fear of litigious disruptions and intrusive investigations.
Muslim school threatens to sue Dept. of Education

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota charter school that educates Muslim students is threatening to sue the Minnesota Department of Education for defamation.

A lawyer for Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy alleges in a letter to Education Commissioner Alice Seagren that her deputy commissioner told a Star Tribune reporter this month that the department is investigating lease aid payments from the state to the school. Lawyer Erick Kaardal says no one at the school itself was notified of an investigation.

State aid to the school, which has sites in Blaine and Inver Grove Heights, has come under scrutiny after allegations it allowed TiZA to use taxpayer money to illegally promote religion.

Education Department spokeswoman Christine Dufour says the department will not respond because officials have not yet seen the letter and no lawsuit has yet been filed.

8/28/09

Midwestern Clear Thinking: Right Wing is Simply the Wrong Wing on Health Care Reform

There is nothing remarkable about this letter which we selected to reproduce. It simply says why we ought to ignore the bullying of the right wing in the health care debate.

From a North Dakota citizen, the message is that the Republicans are lying to you.
Fear mongers poison the debate: Recent fear-mongering and demagoguery by right-wing opposition groups to health care reform represents politics at its worst.
By: Rich Winning, Valley City, N.D.

Recent fear-mongering and demagoguery by right-wing opposition groups to health care reform represents politics at its worst. Public acceptance of right-wing misrepresentation and falsehoods regarding the health care reform bring to mind the late President John F. Kennedy’s statement about “the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.”

A careful examination of the health care reform package will show that it does none of the ominous things current political ads claim. Efforts at extending health care coverage to more people and at the same time bringing needed reforms to that industry without excessive increases in the national debt are in our national interest. Failure to act on these reforms will lead to far worse consequences for our nation.

Those who are responsible for recent attack ads on Canadian, British and other health care systems should consider the fact that according to both the United Nations Population Division and the CIA World Factbook, all of the countries attacked in these ads have longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates than the United States. Maybe we should learn something about health care from them.

8/26/09

Was Superman Jewish?

We posted this article by Michael Gartland in the summer of 2006. It's gone from the servers of The Post and Courier -- Charleston.net News Charleston, SC and we don't recall the original title.

It does touch on the question of whether Superman was a Jew.
Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's the Messiah?

It's actually the question theatergoers are asking after watching the latest summer blockbuster.

'Superman Returns' has had audiences and media critics abuzz over the parallels between the film's main character and Jesus Christ. And it's no surprise; the movie is brimming with biblical and Christian symbolism.

There's Superman in an opening scene sprawled in his mother's lap, a la Pieta. Or there he is falling to Earth, arms splayed out, Christ-like. When Lois Lane tells him the world doesn't need a savior, he replies, 'Every day I hear them crying for one.'

If 'The Da Vinci Code' is this year's anti-Christian blockbuster, 'Superman Returns' serves as its foil. Warner Brothers, the film's producers, have even promoted and screened it in churches. Stephen Skelton recently released a book about Superman as savior, and said that preachers will undoubtedly use the most recent film (and his book) as a teaching tool in church.

'Superman is probably the most vibrant Christ figure in the world,' Skelton said. 'Our conversation about Da Vinci had to be about here's where they got it wrong. With Superman, we can say here's where they got it right.'

Of all the comic book superheroes, none have stories as overtly Judeo-Christian as Superman's. ...

Kal-El's parents shuttled him away from home to avoid imminent destruction. On Earth, he discovered he had special powers and eventually became Superman, a hero and standard bearer for "truth, justice, and the American way."

If it all sounds a little familiar, that might be because you've heard it before in the Bible. To protect their son, two parents placed him in a basket which they sent down a river. The orphan, Moses, became a prophet, a hero from the Book of Exodus.

Like Moses, Superman's birth-parents saved his life so he could help others. And like Moses, Superman had a Hebrew name, or at least one with Hebrew roots. His creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster grew up Jewish in Cleveland, and while they made Superman ostensibly Christian (some comic bibliophiles say Methodist), they also gave him characteristics with Jewish origins. Like the names.

Many of the characters from the planet Krypton have names that end in El, a Hebrew word which means God. For a time, his Earthling stepparents bore the Hebrew names of Eben and Sarah. In some issues of the comic book, they also bore the names of Mary and Joseph, but most typically, are referred to as Jonathan and Martha.

What Siegel and Shuster intended with all of this is still debated. Many comic book historians view Superman as Jewish assimilationist wish-fulfillment, that his creators used this idealized and revered character as an escape from their own difficulties as Jews growing up different in a Protestant culture. Some see Superman as a revised version of the Golem - a nonhuman being endowed with humanlike form - a character so popular among Eastern European Jews around the turn of the century....

8/25/09

Does Forward's Saul Berman Understand How to be a Fan of Jewish Prayer?

Rabbi Saul Berman wrote in the Forward this week in an ostensibly valiant attempt to understand why Jews today are not cheering wildly about their prayer experiences.

He has his theories that rope in such factors as the industrial revolution, the technology revolution, undue communal comfort and the demise of mysticism, as the culprits for the dysfunction of our synagogue services.

It's a free country and Rabbi Berman is entitled to his learned-sounding but utterly misguided opinions.

What bothers us is Berman's prevailing assumption that prayer is indeed a conversation between Jews and God and that is what we should talk about.

Chutzpah.

News flash for the rabbi - that is not the case, never has been.

Of course, we have always said that prayer is the cry out of a Jew to his or her God.

It is hubris and presumption to think that our lofty God listens to every prayer of every Jew.

We pray in the far-fetched hope that our awesome God will hear some small detail of our insignificant yammerings - not in the conviction that he is tuned in to every open Artscroll davener.

Yes. That is, or ought to be, the truly meager assumption of the praying personality.

Still, in spite of the great odds against the effectiveness of our offerings, what is certain beyond doubt is that Jews at prayer are engaged in a collective recitation-ritual -- in which we affirm the basic beliefs of our faith aloud or in silence -- in the presence of our peers.

Those affirmations are complex and cacophonous -- and eminently interesting.

And Jewish prayer would be a marvelously engrossing practice -- if only someone in the rabbinate would stand up and pay attention to the content of the prayers -- rather than retelling the banal and incorrect narrative about prayer -- namely that God is standing around and listening to every whisper of every Jew.

How can I put this so that the average synagogue member will understand it?

Try this. Imagine prayer was as important as baseball.

Try to imagine having lots of conversations with your pals whose content is that banal topic that baseball is the great American pastime. Nothing more than that.

Not a detail about that unbelievable game last Sunday in which the first Met up hit an inside the park home run and the last Met up hit into an unassisted triple play.

No details about what actually goes on out on the playing field.

Imagine just saying to your buddy that we went to the ballgame last Sunday - and baseball sure is America's great national pastime.

That would be a blatantly silly, meaningless and utterly boring way to think or speak, about a sport, or about prayer.

Read a column which basically says things like that by Rabbi Berman here, "Even a New Siddur Can't Close the 'God Gap'."

Bergen Record's Kosher News Galore Today - Pasta, Gefilte Fish and Libyans

The Bergen Record has become our local kosher newspaper with these two fascinating features today.

A Kosher Reboot in Teaneck covers the reopening of the Pasta Factory in Teaneck as a fancy fleishig restaurant with a liquor license.

Gefilte fish right to your doorstep praises the local businessman who has taken over kosher.com - and transformed it into a full service kosher food delivery business.

And in related news, the Record covers the rabbi who wants to sue Gaddafi and the Libyans for taking down his trees and fence.

The editorial comes out strongly for blocking the leader from visiting Englewood. By doing that heroic act - preventing the dictator from setting foot on the holy grounds of Bergen County - we suppose - the world will be a much safer place - or something will have been proven. We haven't yet got that part of the story straight.

Times: Wikipedia Gets Religion About Lashon Hara and Motzi shem ra

It's not exactly the case that Wikipedia is getting serious about lashon hara. It's more accurate to say the guardians of Wikipedia are taking steps to curtail Motzi shem ra, i.e., lies and disinformation about living people, from being spread through their site. For a discussion of both see Wikipedia.

The editors have decided to closely monitor changes to articles about living people, "Wikipedia to Limit Changes to Articles on People" by NOAM COHEN: "Officials at the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit in San Francisco that governs Wikipedia, say that within weeks, the English-language Wikipedia will begin imposing a layer of editorial review on articles about living people...more..."

We still have our concerns about another abuse of Wikipedia, namely, that it is a primary source of student plagiarism.

We warn students on our current syllabus, You are not permitted to use Wikipedia or any other Internet or digital resources for your assignments.

8/24/09

What should we do about our health care nightmare?

Friends and relatives are asking for our opinion. Simple - the health care nightmare needs to be fixed now by congress.

To be clear, we revere the deliverers of health care, the doctors and hospitals. They perform miracles on a daily basis for all of us.

But then the billing and paying nightmare begins. We could go on for days just reciting the stories we experienced or have heard for years now, about convoluted billing, double-billing, over-billing, paying, co-paying, appealing, denying, etc. in the health care profession. Every single paper in the mail from the doctors and hospitals and insurers is certain to contain another surprise - and none of them pleasant.

The insurers want our money, $14,000 a year to cover a husband and wife. Then they want more of our money, through every trick and manipulation you could imagine and many scams that you could never dream up in a million years. And they want to pay the doctors and the hospitals bupkiss.

There is in-network and out-of-network and each has deductibles and copays and who knows what they are or what is the annual maximum. And it you reach the maximum, they will tell you that months later after you have already paid more than you should have - and lord have mercy on your soul if you try to recover anything from anybody.

And try to figure out what is on a bill or on your "explanation" of benefits - which of course should be called "obfuscation" of benefits - as we all know and can testify.

The system is not just broken. It is horribly broken. It is a compound fracture with the bones jutting out. It is a nightmare. It needs to be fixed now - by the government - because nobody else around here is going to lift a finger to mend the broken system.

Talk all you want at Salon and everywhere else ("What went wrong? It's almost Labor Day. Healthcare reform is struggling, the public option is near dead. Why couldn't Obama deliver? by Thomas Schaller - hat tip to Henry.)

If it's broken (and it sure is) then it has to be fixed (by the government).

8/23/09

What are the Astronomical Odds of Seeing at a Mets Game Both an Inside the Park Home Run and an Unassisted Triple Play?


We can tell you that the odds of seeing at any baseball game both an inside the park home run and an unassisted triple play are astronomical.

We did just that today at CitiField. See the video.

Newsday called the game wacky, which it was as this description partially explains,
Angel Pagan had two homers, one inside-the-park, another wacky play on which Phillies centerfielder Shane Victorino pleaded for the umpires to rule the ball out of play although it was barely wedged under the wall padding, allowing Pagan to circle the bases in the first.
Finally, we heartily recommend the less wacky and mostly tasty glatt kosher pastrami hot dog ($7.25).

jpost: Teaneck's Loretta Weinberg is New Jersey's Jewish Grandmother

According to the Jerusalem Post Teaneck's Loretta Weinberg is New Jersey's Jewish Grandmother.
Metro Views: 'Even the State of New Jersey needs a Jewish grandmother'
Marilyn Henry
, THE JERUSALEM POST

Loretta Weinberg is terrific with toddlers and has a lot of advice about how people should behave. But she is not your typical bubbe. Instead, she is known as a "feisty Jewish grandmother" from Teaneck, New Jersey, who surprisingly finds herself as the Democratic Party's candidate to become the state's first-ever lieutenant governor. Weinberg, with a reputation as a fearless reformer, was chosen as the running mate of Gov. Jon Corzine for the November election.

Weinberg, 74, is a seasoned politician. It began with trees. Or rather, the lack of them. Weinberg went to a town council meeting in the mid-1960s to demand shade trees on Teaneck streets for young parents, such as herself, who took their children out in strollers. She prevailed, trees were planted and her local political career was launched.

A graduate of the University of California with a degree in history, Weinberg was elected to the New Jersey State Assembly in 1992. She is known as a liberal, squeaky clean - and undaunted. "She's not afraid to buck the system," said Elie Y. Katz, a Teaneck businessman, town council member and former mayor.

In 2005, while serving in the assembly, Weinberg battled the local Democratic Party chairman, who wanted someone else to fill an empty seat in the State Senate representing wealthy Bergen County. Weinberg won the battle and got the seat. However, the chairman, Joseph Ferriero, subsequently was indicted on fraud charges brought by then US attorney Christopher Christie, who is now Corzine's (and Weinberg's) Republican opponent.

CORRUPTION - the stereotypes, the suspicions, the charges, the convictions - looms large in New Jersey. Corzine unexpectedly choose Weinberg as his running mate late last month shortly after federal authorities charged three New Jersey mayors, assorted state and local political figures and a handful of rabbis from the Syrian Jewish community (in New York and New Jersey) with various corruption charges.

Corzine - a former marine, US senator and head of the financial firm Goldman Sachs - could distance himself from the taint by choosing Weinberg, the reformer.

New Jersey, like the rest of the US, has suffered from the economic downturn and is flat broke. Although she can schmooze and quickly put people at ease, Weinberg doesn't mince words, and she appears unwilling to coddle constituents with feel-good, impossible promises.

ASKED A tough question, she gives a direct answer and explains why you won't be happy with it. Last week, for instance, the editor of an influential Orthodox monthly newspaper, one with a right-wing slant, asked what the Democrats would do to ease the burden of yeshiva tuition costs for the observant community. Weinberg replied: "There are 4,000 Jewish day school students in Teaneck alone. If you give each one $1,000, which is negligible, it would cost $4 million. Where would that money come from? I believe in school choice, but do the arithmetic."

"We in the Jewish community believe in taking care of the most vulnerable among us," Weinberg said to a group of supporters last week in Teaneck. Her politics are shaped by her life experiences and Judaism (she is a member of a Teaneck Reform congregation). Shade trees for her children led her to community and political service. Fighting insurers as she cared for her husband, Irwin, as he was dying a decade ago, made her a relentless advocate for health care and for paid "family leave" programs. Weinberg has two children and two grandchildren.

"She has established a reputation preeminent in the state for standing up for what she believes in," said Charlie Lavine, who lives near Princeton and works on Jewish outreach for the state Democratic Party. "Loretta is tough."

Lavine says Israel is not an issue in this gubernatorial campaign. The state government long has been involved in Israel trade, but the Corzine administration, prodded in part by Weinberg, strengthened those ties.

"Loretta has been a strong advocate for the Jewish community and the enhancement of the Israel-New Jersey partnerships," Katz said.

Last year, Corzine signed legislation establishing the New Jersey-Israel Commission as a permanent part of New Jersey's Department of State. The commission, which deals with economic and cultural relations, had been established nearly 20 years earlier, on a less structured basis. Israel was New Jersey's ninth largest trading partner in 2007, according to published reports.

Recently, new state laws on religious tolerance have been passed. As Weinberg noted, it is important to recognize the diversity of the state's communities. While some laws are of special interest to the Jewish community, others concern all religious minorities. For instance, nursing homes must meet residents' religious dietary needs. Special academic tests and licensing exams must offer alternate dates so people are not compelled to miss important tests because they fall on a religious holiday or the Sabbath.

The position of lieutenant governor is new. It was created because there was no deputy to take the governor's place if the governor resigned or was incapacitated, as happened repeatedly in the last decade.

Christie also has chosen a woman as a running mate for lieutenant governor: Kimberly Guadagno, a former prosecutor who was the first woman elected sheriff of Monmouth County.

If Corzine wins reelection, Weinberg would be: the first lieutenant governor, the first Jewish lieutenant governor, the first grandmother lieutenant governor. She was in the State Assembly when the position of lieutenant governor was debated. She didn't imagine it would have anything to do with her. "Not in my wildest dreams."

But she relishes the prospect. "I have always been direct; I'm not afraid to speak my mind," Weinberg said, adding: "Everyone needs a Jewish grandmother. Even the State of New Jersey."

8/22/09

Rolling Stone: Government Wants to Clobber Copyright Violators

The digital age brings great opportunities for sharing information and even bigger risks of crimes against authors and publishers.

We think it is entirely just and plain common sense that the authorities have made such a giant example of an how costly it will be for a plain person in Minnesota to step over the line and steal artistic creations.

Bravo to the justice department for standing behind this judicial policy.
Justice Dept. Defends $1.92 Million RIAA Fine Against Minnesota Mom

The Department of Justice has defended the $1.92 million decision against Minnesota mom Jammie Thomas-Rasset for illegally downloading 24 songs off of a peer-to-peer network, according to the Daily Online Examiner. As Rock Daily previously reported, Thomas-Rasset asked for a reduction in the fine after she was sentenced to pay the RIAA $80,000 per song when a Minnesota jury found her guilty in her second trial. Thomas-Rasset’s lawyers had been pushing for a third trial, saying the fine of $1.92 million was disproportionate to the amount of damage she had actually done, but the Justice Department agreed with the massive ruling.

“The defendant’s suggestion that the actual harm can be measured to the ‘tune of $1.29 for each of the 24 songs’ … ignores the potential multiplying effect of peer-to-peer file-sharing,” the Justice Department said in legal documents filed last week reinforcing the decision. The papers also mention a 1999 amendment that increased the maximum fine per “infringed work for willful violations” to $150,000, so there is legal precedence for the huge fine against Thomas-Rasset. Lawyers for Thomas-Rasset argued that the $1.92 million fine was unconstitutional, but that too was rejected by the Justice Department...more...

8/20/09

Newsweek: Episcopalians are Assimilating?

Thanks to this article in Newsweek, "Family Feud: Who cares about the arcane battles of Episcopal Church?" we will be walking around all day now scratching our head, trying to reorient totally our thinking about the Jews and Gentiles in America.

See, we were taught that the epitome of assimilation for a Jewish immigrant or his descendant was to attain membership in the Episcopalian Church - the essence of goyishness, if you pardon my Yiddish.

Of course, the story went, this was a bad thing to do if you were a Jew because it meant that part of our tribe was now gone and assimilated into the protoplasm of American Christianity.

Whoa. Lisa Miller informs us today that indeed it is the Episcopalians who are in danger of assimilating into the larger cauldron of the American soup and themselves dwindling due to, what other term could we use, due to assimilation.
This does not compute.
Jews can assimilate by becoming Episcopalians.
Episcopalians cannot assimilate and disappear.
This does not compute.

Here is how Miller brilliantly puts it, knowing full well the irony of the facts:
...After years of dominance, Episcopalians have become a minority religion in America. There are just 2.4 million Episcopalians in the United States, down from 3.5 million in 2001—a 31 percent falloff. (The Episcopal Church is the American branch of the Anglican Communion, a worldwide church that has 80 million members.) By comparison, there are 8 million nondenominational Christians (a low estimate), up from 2.5 million—an explosion of 220 percent over the same period. Thanks to the Great Awakenings and the waves of immigration over the past hundred years there are exponentially more Roman Catholics, Baptists, and Methodists in America than Episcopalians. There are also—surprisingly—more Mormons, more Pentecostals, and slightly more Jews. (This last is especially interesting because at the height of 20th-century anti-Semitism, American Jews who wanted access to the highest levels of status and power would sometimes become Episcopalian. One wonders whether they would have done so had they known that they were switching from one shrinking minority religion to another.) According to the latest data from the American Religious Identification Survey, more people belong to cults and emerging religions than to the Episcopal Church...more...

8/19/09

Reuters: Twitter Your Prayers of 140 Characters or Less to the Wall in Jerusalem

That should do it - 140 character prayers via Twitter to the Kotel.
Twitter site offers followers line to God
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Want to tweet God?

An Israeli university student has opened a Twitter site, twitter.com/thekotel, where prayers can be sent for placement in the crevices of Jerusalem's Western Wall, a Jewish holy site that faithful believe provides a direct line to the Almighty.

"I take their prayers, print them out and drive to Jerusalem to put them in the Western Wall," said Alon Nir, a resident of Tel Aviv.

He said he hoped his initiative on the popular Internet social networking service, where users post brief messages known as tweets, would be "beneficial to people all over the world."

Nir promises to deliver the prayers -- each no longer than a tweet's maximum 140 characters -- on a regular basis.

Prayers, which are sent via a direct message link on Nir's Twitter site, cannot be viewed by the public.

At the Western Wall, where he placed some 1,000 rolled-up papers, Nir told Reuters: "People trusted me with their innermost feelings and secret thoughts ... and it's my duty to provide them with what I promised."

Several services deliver prayers sent by email, text message or fax to the wall. Israeli postal authorities say prayers also arrive from overseas by regular mail, some in envelopes addressed "Dear God."

8/18/09

Meditation - Good - Regular Prayer - Not Good?

We notice all the neurotheology studies focus on the good things about meditation by religious people like Catholic nuns and Buddhist monks.

See for instance this review of a new book on Reuters, How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain.

But we don't hear anything about what the regular daily recitation of prayer  does for your brain.

Unless of course we extrapolate from the article in today's Times, "Brain Is a Co-Conspirator in a Vicious Stress Loop." The research it describes makes a link between stress and repetitive activity, saying that one leads to the other.
...Why should the stressed brain be prone to habit formation? Perhaps to help shunt as many behaviors as possible over to automatic pilot, the better to focus on the crisis at hand. Yet habits can become ruts, and as the novelist Ellen Glasgow observed, “The only difference between a rut and a grave are the dimensions...”
Made us start to think, yes the research shows a connection, but what if the repetitive activity helps to trigger or prolong the stress?

We do know people who claim that going to synagogue for regular prayer makes them nervous.

WSJ: Venezuela's Chávez Wants to Ban Golf and God

Some would object that it is sacrilegious to invoke golf sarcastically and mock its serene meditative inner bliss in the hope of making some cheap op-ed political points for the capitalists over and against the striving of the socialist leader Chávez of Venezuela.

But that is not the tack we take in replying to Daniel Friedman's WSJ essay, "Chávez Takes a Swing at Golf. A 'bourgeois' sport? Or a forced march spoiled?"

The tone of the WSJ opinion aside, Chávez surely makes a valid point about golf, both within his own classical socialist worldview and yes, even in the capitalist context of social constructions.

When we traveled to China and Japan in 1991, knowing that the actual opportunities to play golf would be chancy, we took with us an adjustable golf club - an iron that allowed us to tilt the clubface to the angle of a one iron through pitching wedge (pictured). We surprisingly located, and were able to play at, a nice executive course outside of Beijing. Our decadent capitalist round went rather well with that clever club. Bravo to capitalist ingenuity.

In the Keiretsu-ridden society of Japan, they laughed at us when we told them we wanted to play golf -- the next day! The competition for tee times is so intense there that without interlocking connections, a plain person needs at least 30 days notice to get a round on the board. So we ended up hitting a bucket of balls at the Kyoto driving range adjacent to our hotel. And in the spirit of capitalism, we sold the adjustable club to grateful Japanese golfer for more than we had paid for it in Edina Minnesota.

Really. Do we want to use his golf ban as an argument with which to club Chávez? He does have a valid point. Although golf is a real sport, the way it is allocated to the populace in America surely makes it a blatant divider of people along the lines of social classes.

For a stark instance, consider that the exclusive members-only capitalist Augusta National golf course still does not allow women, just recently opened to a black member and certainly is not known for welcoming Jews over its dark history. And if you are poor, you might aspire to be a caddy there.

Chávez does have a powerful justification for picking golf as a symbolic target in his war on capitalist decadence.

So our point is that it's not effective for the opinion writer in the WSJ to invoke the hackneyed and half-serious alleged divine and mystical characteristics of the game of golf in order to denigrate the fully-justified critique of an often oppressive streak in world culture.

In the context of his argument, here is part of what the writer says.
...Players surrounded by the natural beauty the Lord created are reminded of the limits of man's ability to conquer it. Consider the elusive hole-in-one, the wind that ruins the otherwise near-perfect swing and the bunkers that upset a quick recovery.

"The Calvinists' ideal testing ground" is how the late British-American journalist Alistair Cooke once described it. "The bunkers, the scrubby gorse, the heather and broom, the hillocks and innumerable undulations of the land itself, were all seen not as nuisances but as natural obstacles, as reminders to all original sinners that in competition with the Almighty, they surely would not overcome."

In that sense, golf threatens to undermine a dictator's personality cult by reminding people of the true ultimate power. That's not the kind of message el presidente would probably like Venezuelans to hear—even if he once described Jesus as the world's first socialist...more...

Boston.com: Will Public Schools in Texas Teach the Talmud Next?

The question about whether the Texas schools will teach the Talmud was of course raised tongue in cheek in the course of a discussion cited by boston.com from another discussion at reddit.com.

We opine (also ironically) that at least if the schools in Texas taught the Talmud, the children would learn some critical reasoning. No skills are inculcated when you teach children Bible stories.

The discussion following the post by Lylah M. Alphonse on the subject over at boston.com's Moms page is utterly enlightening, containing this morsel.
...I think it's fair to say that American history, politics, and even pop culture has been informed by Christianity and the Bible. But in today's multi-cultural, global society, where's the push to teach students about other religions? As a commenter at Reddit.com wrote: "I look forward to Texas schools offering classes on the Talmud, Q'uran, Tao Te Ching, LaVey's Satanic Bible, Dianetics, Eastern Orthodox Bible, Wicca, and Atheist/Agnostic texts as well. Wait, they're not doing that? Hmm."

That might be pushing it a bit, but still: Isn't it equally important that high school students in Texas have an understanding of how other religions have shaped the rest of the world?...

8/17/09

What Makes Wine Kosher?


My former student, Max Sparber of Minneapolis wrote in September 2007:

Kosher wine: If it’s good enough for winos and the prophet Elijah, it’s good enough for you

ARE THERE WINOS ANYMORE? There must be, as most American big cities have one section of town that still serves as a skid row. Even if you were to miss the gangs of drunks, often seen shirtless and sipping from brown paper bags, it would be impossible to miss the broken glass. The sidewalks and gutters are filled with shattered bottles. Among the empty vodka and malt liquor bottle shards, the careful observer will notice a distinctive label: that of MD 20/20, commonly referred to as Mad Dog, a sickly sweet wine fortified with various fruit flavors, including “Pink Grapefruit” and “Hawaiian Blue.” Alcoholics still take to Mad Dog for the same reason they have for decades, and for the same reason they favor other sweet wines. It is inexpensive and it kills your appetite, which is an important consideration when choosing between a meal and a drink.

What most winos don’t realize is that while they’re working on enlarging their livers, they are also obeying strict Jewish dietary law. Mad Dog, you see, is produced by Mogen David, and is manufactured under careful rabbinic supervision. Winos, it seems, have a taste for kosher drinks.

In general, most Americans don’t have a very clear understanding of Jewish dietary laws. A Jewish Studies professor at the University of Minnesota used to tell a story about his frequent experiences aboard airplanes, as the flight attendants would inevitably discover that they had neglected to pack a kosher meal for him. According to the professor, who, as a graduate of Yeshiva University, also held the title of rabbi, could always look forward to the flustered flight attendants bringing a regular meal and offering to find a rabbi to bless it. ..... more

Politico: Does Rahm Emanuel Really Have a Kosher Stamp of Approval?

Politico, following up on yesterday's front page Times story, ran today with their treatment, "Israelis sour on Rahm," by Kenneth P. Vogel.

Does Rahm have a kosher stamp of approval to apply to White House policy? We don't think so. One pollster goes out of his way to say that he doesn't believe that having pro-Israel Rahm in the White House, gives Obama permission to be tough on Israel. That whole line of reasoning and counter arguing and speculating is just too Talmudic, even for us.

We recall that Emanuel is a member of the Obama inner circle, but not a foreign policy honcho. Still we have every reason to believe that he will forcefully represent Israel's interests wherever he can.

The issue is that what he thinks is in the best interest of Israel is not precisely what every Israeli or American Jew thinks is in its best interest.

Accordingly, Rahm is tangled up in controversy and subject to the opinions of those folk, who, like us by and large, are known for having and expressing their strong views.

Note that in one key passage in the Politico article Vogel says,
Citing Obama’s call for Israel to cease building new settlements in Palestinian territory, [Israeli pollster Mitchell] Barak asserted Israelis think Emanuel “is giving Obama his Kosher stamp of approval to be tough on Israel, when they thought he was going to be there to explain our position.”

That sentiment is an unfair characterization and reflects a misunderstanding of Emanuel’s role, said Aaron David Miller, a former State Department official who worked on Arab-Israeli peace negotiations under four presidents.

“On matters related to Israel and Middle East policy, Rahm will have a very strong voice, but he’s not the power behind the throne on foreign policy,” said Miller, who worked with Emanuel during the Clinton administration and is now a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “The whole thing is inside Jewish baseball, and it’s not healthy. It’s symptomatic of a real dysfunction in the way some Israelis look at the world and look at America.”
We don't yet see evidence that there is an anti-Israel policy coming out of Washington.

We do see loads of evidence that there are plenty of right wingers in the echo chamber who like to tell fanciful stories with no basis in fact about how bad Obama is for Israel. Pay no attention to the whistling of the wind.

WSJ: Pray for prosperity: There's no business like the prayerbook business

We've been impressed by the new edition of the Koren siddur that has appeared this summer as our previous posts indicated. The appearance of that new edition continues the spate of prayerbooks published in recent years. It bodes well for the future of that important religious publishing niche.

We are going to be paying more attention to prayer this fall, for reasons to be revealed soon enough.

So here is a summer rerun of a November, 2007 account of what was new in spiritual tomes at that juncture from an unlikely materialist source, the Wall Street Journal.

And yet, according to the Times, religion is a primary source of seeking new wealth these days, cf. "Believers Invest in the Gospel of Getting Rich" and account of the Gospel of Prosperity.

Our advice, pick any edition and pray for prosperity. It can't hurt.
HOUSES OF WORSHIP People of the Book(s)
By BEN HARRIS

Last month, the Reform movement, the largest synagogue denomination in America, began shipping its long-awaited new prayer book, "Mishkan T'filah" to congregations. More than two decades in the making, "Mishkan T'filah" (literally, "A Dwelling for Prayer") is billed by its editors as the first prayer book "of the people." And the people have definitely had a say in its production, having tested out various incarnations at synagogues across the country and at several national conventions. If "Mishkan T'filah" is accepted as the standard prayer text in the movement's 900 congregations, it could affect how more than a quarter of American Jews pray.

"Mishkan T'filah" replaces "Gates of Prayer," released in 1975, which in a nod to the movement's ethos of personal choice contained 10 different worship services from which individuals could choose. The new book offers only one. Its principal innovation is its design, a two-page layout in which each prayer is accompanied by a translation from the Hebrew, a transliteration, a commentary and a "spiritual reading" -- all aimed at appealing to multiple orientations within the context of a single service.

The architects of Reform Judaism in 1885 formally rejected the idea that Jews are obligated to perform ritual observances like eating kosher food and keeping the Sabbath; over time it has fallen to individuals to heed their own conscience in deciding what, and whether, to observe. Today the movement is reaping the fruits of that decision. Reform Judaism covers such a vast territory of theological conviction and religious practice -- it includes classical Reform Jews who still conduct Sabbath services on Sunday as well as a younger generation more open to traditions once shunned as inconsistent with the movement's liberal theology -- that it's sometimes hard to see what ties it all together. The editors of "Mishkan T'filah" hope the new book will keep the movement's 1.5 million adherents quite literally on the same page.

If the book does find broad acceptance, it won't be for a lack of alternatives. A number of new prayer books have been or are about to be released that, taking a different tack from "Mishkan T'filah," cater to diverse perspectives rather than joining them together under one rubric.

"Shaarei Simchah: Gates of Joy," the first contemporary Orthodox prayer book authored by women, aims for gender-inclusive language, though within the limits imposed by Orthodox Jewish law. At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a rabbinical student is at work on a prayer book for "anusim" ("forced ones" in Hebrew), descendants of 15th-century Spanish and Portuguese Jews who converted to escape the Inquisition but continued to practice Judaism in secret. And next year, Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a gay-friendly synagogue in New York, expects to publish an updated version of its own prayer book that does away with liturgy that, they worry, appears to privilege heterosexual marriage. In the Amidah prayer, for example, the new text references Jacob's quasi-wives, Bilhah and Zilpah, an acknowledgment of the role of partners of lesser legal status in child-rearing.

The proliferation of Jewish prayer books is itself nothing new. Prior to the printing press, individual communities had no choice but to develop their own liturgies, which reflected their particular religious and cultural sensibilities. Today, with our raucous religious marketplace, those sensibilities have multiplied, and with them, the desire for ever more particularistic forms of prayer. Around the country, smaller prayer communities have sprung up to satisfy the diversifying needs of the religious market, each committed to an ever more nuanced religious and spiritual outlook. Many experiment with new ways to balance the often conflicting demands of egalitarianism and tradition. Others place particular emphasis on music or the arts, or on social justice or participatory worship. The new prayer books reflect this fragmentation.

But seeing prayer books as a means to satisfy, and thereby validate, this diversity begs the question of whether the function of prayer is to affirm the individual's personal religious outlook. Perhaps worshipers should be encouraged to wrestle with traditional texts, even problematic ones, rather than edit them out of existence.

At the moment, the former view is ascendant, particularly in more liberal precincts. But it wasn't always this way. In the Reform Hebrew school where I used to teach some years ago, the instructors encouraged students to see prayer as one of the great unifying forces in Jewish life. We justified the hours spent mastering the prayerbook -- whose broad structure has been essentially static since the second century -- as an exercise in kinship with Jews world-wide, equipping students with knowledge such that they could visit any synagogue anywhere in the world and feel at home.

The very notion of a niche prayer book threatens that idea, a concern that the editors of "Mishkan T'filah" likely had in mind when deciding to consolidate 10 services into one. It is, of course, important that prayer resonate with a person's core beliefs. But the cost of achieving such a resonance, in an era when the colors of belief come in near-infinite shades, is high.

8/16/09

Telegraph: Muslims Swimming Back to the Dark Ages

In the modern world we learn to respect each other's customs.

People who swim in public pools customarily wear bathing suits, not clown costumes.

There is nothing immodest about wearing a bathing suit at a public pool. It is accepted behavior and quite proper.

Men at the pool do not mistake the women who dress according to the prevailing norms as sexually provocative or immodest.

Yes, Ultra Orthodox Jews do not participate in mixed swimming for reasons that only they need to know and to explain to others if they wish to.

So too should be the case for Muslims in France or England. If they wish to act outside of the norms of society, they may stay home and do so and explain their decisions to their group's own members.

By imposing on others a practice that appears to be from the Dark Ages (calling it medieval would be anachronistic), Muslims are mocking themselves. They are not preserving any meaningful cultural or religious values.

See the story, which will continue to gather coverage in the media for another two or three weeks and then fade away, as the summer comes to an end.

jstandard: Jews at Woodstock

Nate Bloom in the Jewish Standard has some data on the Jews who organized and performed at Woodstock 40 years ago.

We did not make it to the festival. But we did see Hair on Broadway last Wednesday.

8/15/09

Was Les Paul Jewish?

Yes, according to the blogger ShockHound (Dan Epstein), guitar legend Les Paul was a Jew.

No, according to Dan at jonj he went to church socials as a child, so he was not a Jew.

Our guess - no, awaiting more concrete evidence.

Here is his 8-13-2009 post:
ShockHound is deeply saddened to report that Les Paul, a man whose technological innovations massively transformed the electric guitar — not to mention recorded music as we know it — passed away last night at the age of 94.

Born Lester William Polfuss in 1915 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, the son of Jewish immigrants initially embarked on a career as a country guitarist at the age of 13, billing himself as Red Hot Red and Rhubarb Red, before gravitating towards jazz in the 1930s. After moving to Hollywood in the 1940s, Paul lent his nimble guitar stylings to recordings by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters, before striking Top 40 gold with a series of duets featuring his wife, Mary Ford. Their ethereal, playful hits like "Vaya Con Dios," "How High The Moon" and "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise" all featured multi-tracked, vari-speeded and electronically-echoed guitars and vocals — techniques that Paul actually invented and perfected in his home studio, and which would later become commonplace in the recording industry. Paul's Thomas Edison-like flair for technological tinkering earned him the nickname, "The Wizard of Waukesha"; he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2005.

Of course, Paul's best-remembered legacy remains the solid-body electric guitar, a device he began tinkering with in the 1930s. Frustrated by the feedback and lack of sustain endemic to the hollow-body electrics of the day, Paul created "The Log," a length of 4" x 4" lumber outfitted with a guitar neck, a bridge and a pair of electric pickups, which he then deposited in the hollowed-out body of an Epiphone guitar. Though Paul's axe was about as awkward-looking as the Frankenstein monster, the ideas and innovations that led to its creation were eventually incorporated into the first solid-body electric ever manufactured by the Gibson Guitar Corporation — a model known as the "Les Paul."

(Contrary to popular belief, however, Paul didn't actually invent the solid-body guitar; Leo Fender was working on one at the same time Paul was tinkering with "The Log," and the Rickenbacker company issued a solid-body of its own in the 1930s.)

Introduced in 1952, the Gibson Les Paul has long since become one of the iconic axes of rock n' roll, prized for its beefy sound, singing sustain and fast-playing neck. The guitar's adherents have included Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, Ace Frehley of Kiss, Slash of Guns N' Roses and Velvet Revolver, and Ozzy Osbourne's right-hand men Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, to name but a few — and nearly every guitar manufacturer has since "borrowed" some of the Les Paul's innovations for their own axes.

And yet, despite the guitar's popularity among hard rockers, Paul himself remained true to his musical roots, recording with country picker Chet Atkins in the 1970s and playing weekly residencies at New York City jazz clubs throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Still, he was always happy to share the stage with the young guns who idolized him, and he retained his charming Midwestern modesty 'til the end. Honored last year at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters Concert, he joked, "Everybody thought I was a guitar until I played here tonight."

According to a press release issued by Gibson Guitars, Paul died from respiratory failure at a hospital in White Plains, New York, surrounded by friends and family. Of course, the Wizard of Waukesha had more friends than could ever fit into a hospital room, and his "family" extends at this point to just about anyone who's ever rocked a solid-body guitar or run a mixing desk. If you listen today to any music made in the last 60 years, spare a kind thought and a prayer for ol' Les — because chances are good that, in one way or another, he had something to do with it. — Dan Epstein

8/13/09

Newsweek: Evidence that religion is not a biological artifact in human beings

In Newsweek's August 31 issue, Sharon Begley, in "(Un)wired For God" argues that, "Religious beliefs may not be innate."

We do not understand the arguments or the debate.

It's troubling that Begley's evidence about this biological claim of innateness of a type of belief and behavior, is entirely sociological, not at all biological.

That's just bad research, isn't it?

We detect more difficulties here than the phase mismatch of using soft science to verify or falsify hard science.

We are just not sure whether either the soft or hard scientists have reached any consensus on what is "religion." We'd like to see the rigorous statement these folks use of what constitutes religious belief or practice. So far we've not seen such definitions. We have to take it on faith that these researchers know what they are seeking.

Perhaps these guys hope to find little crosses or Jewish stars embedded in human strands of DNA. We don't mean to be too glib. We just don't know what these folks are looking for or talking about.

Anyhow, if you "believe" that "religion" is "hard wired" into human nature, there is some new "evidence" that it is not.

No wonder magazines like Newsweek are going out of business.
...In brief, the number of American non-believers has doubled since 1990, a 2008 Pew survey found, and increased even more in some other advanced democracies. What's curious is not so much the overall decline of belief (which has caused the Vatican to lament the de-Christianization of Europe) as the pattern. In a paper last month in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology, Gregory Paul finds that countries with the lowest rates of social dysfunction—based on 25 measures, including rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, unemployment, and poverty—have become the most secular. Those with the most dysfunction, such as Portugal and the U.S., are the most religious, as measured by self-professed belief, church attendance, habits of prayer, and the like.

I'll leave to braver souls the question of whether religiosity leads to social dysfunction, as the new breed of public atheists contends. More interesting is the fact that if social progress can snuff out religious belief in millions of people, as Paul notes, then one must question "the idea that religiosity and belief in the supernatural is the default mode of the brain," he told me. As he wrote in his new paper, "The ease with which large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign . . . refute[s] hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state." He posits that, rather than being wired into the brain, religion is a way to cope with stress in a dysfunctional society—the opium-of-the-people argument...

msnbc: Bradley Beach NJ Bans Cigarette Smoking on the Beach and Boardwalk

Smoking cigarettes makes you - and the people around you  - sick - even if you are outdoors.

Thank you Bradley Beach for taking this step towards eliminating all cigarette smoking from our state.

If you smoke cigarettes - you are killing yourself and your loved ones - please quit today.
Jersey Town Bans Smoking on Beach, Boardwalk, Sidewalk

Some towns down the Jersey Shore have banned smoking on their boardwalks. Others, like Belmar, have set up smoking zones on the beach but away from most sunbathers. But little Bradley Beach is about to one-up everybody.

The mayor and town council say they will soon pass an ordinance to ban smoking on the beach, the boardwalk, in fact, all the way out to the curb of Ocean Avenue (that includes a sidewalk)...more...

Times: Critic Says Yale Press Decision to Ban Muhammad Cartoons is Idiotic, Cowardly, Silly and Unnecessary

We've had some strange experiences in the last few weeks with an academic publisher of religion books.

In that vein, according to the Times, Yale will publish a book by Jytte Klausen without its key illustrations,
The book, “The Cartoons That Shook the World,” should not include the 12 Danish drawings that originally appeared in September 2005. What’s more, they suggested that the Yale press also refrain from publishing any other illustrations of the prophet that were to be included, specifically, a drawing for a children’s book; an Ottoman print; and a sketch by the 19th-century artist Gustave Doré of Muhammad being tormented in Hell, an episode from Dante’s “Inferno” that has been depicted by Botticelli, Blake, Rodin and Dalí.
A professor cited by the Times was highly critical of the decision.
Reza Aslan, a religion scholar [said the] book is “a definitive account of the entire controversy,” he said, “but to not include the actual cartoons is to me, frankly, idiotic.”

In Mr. Aslan’s view no danger remains. “The controversy has died out now, anyone who wants to see them can see them,” he said of the cartoons, noting that he has written and lectured extensively about the incident and shown the cartoons without any negative reaction. He added that none of the violence occurred in the United States: “There were people who were annoyed, and what kind of publishing house doesn’t publish something that annoys some people?”

“This is an academic book for an academic audience by an academic press,” he continued. “There is no chance of this book having a global audience, let alone causing a global outcry.” He added, “It’s not just academic cowardice, it is just silly and unnecessary.”
It seems to us that the religion book publishers need to get into the real world and take a good look around at how people do business. They are way out of touch.

WSJ: We Don't Know Why 50 Rabbis Flew to Stop the Flu

No, we cannot explain why rabbis had to go up in a plane to pray to stop the flu.

If you do believe that you can pray to God to stop a particular epidemic, then you also believe that you can pray anywhere, although a synagogue would be the expected venue of choice, or an earthly location in the center of a town or a region.

Accordingly, don't ask us to explain the aviating actions of these meshuggenahs, as mentioned in the WSJ...
In Israel, about 50 rabbis prayed on an airplane that circled the country earlier this week in an effort to fight the flu, the BBC reports. The aim was “to stop the pandemic so people will not keep dying from it,” one rabbi told a local newspaper, according to the Associated Press.

8/12/09

What is the purpose of “Mishkan T’filah” - the newest Reform Jewish Prayerbook?

The Jewish Reform movement published a new prayerbook two years ago. At the time the NY Times reported...
The movement’s leaders hope the new prayer book will help revive a worship experience that many Jews avoid.

Scott A. Shay, the author of “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry,” said, “Let’s not forget that more than three-quarters of American Jews don’t go to any synagogue on a regular basis.

“Each movement realizes that the real struggle for the future and soul of American Jewry are those who are outside of the synagogue today,” said Mr. Shay, a banking executive who has been active in Jewish organizations.

“Each movement is really struggling with, ‘How do you bring them in?’ ” he said. “This prayer book is an attempt toward that for the Reform movement.”
That conclusion to that article is silly. Prayerbook reform in Reform Judaism has a long and venerated history that has more to it than just "bringing them in" to the Temples.

It reflects a consensus of the real beliefs and thoughtful considerations of the movement.

The editor of the siddur is more authentic and accurate in her description (yes, a woman is the editor):
“It reflects a recognition of diversity within our community,” said Rabbi Elyse D. Frishman, the editor of the prayer book. “We have interfaith families. We have so many visitors at b’nai mitzvah ceremonies that I could have a service on Shabbat morning where a majority of people there aren’t Jewish,” she said, referring to bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies on Saturday mornings.

“There are even those in my community who come to Shabbat worship each week who don’t believe in God,” said Rabbi Frishman, who leads the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. “How do we help them resonate with the language of prayer, which is very God-centric and evokes a personal God, a God that talks to you in a sense? There are many, many Jews who do not believe in God that way.”

Unlike the Reform movement’s last prayer book, “Gates of Prayer,” which was published in 1975, the new prayer book has a Hebrew title, “Mishkan T’filah” (which means a sanctuary or dwelling place for prayer). And it reads from back to front, like a traditional Hebrew text, which was only an optional format when “Gates of Prayer” was published.

It was Rabbi Frishman who thought up the innovative layout for the new prayer book, or siddur.

There are four versions of each prayer laid out on a typical two-page spread. (Since the book is read back to front, the right page is read before the left one). On the right page is the prayer in Hebrew, the transliteration of the Hebrew prayer into phonetical English, and a more literal translation. On the left-hand page is a more poetic translation of the prayer, followed by a metaphorical or meditative passage reflecting on the prayer, sometimes by a well-known writer like Langston Hughes or Yehuda Amichai.

Rabbis who prefer to lead a more traditional service can choose a prayer from the right-hand side of the page, while those who prefer a more alternative approach can choose from the left side.

“This is a way of having the best of both worlds,” said Rabbi Peter S. Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the association of Reform rabbis, which is publishing the book. “You have the possibility of doing, if you want, an entire service in Hebrew, as traditional as you can be within the Reform movement. At the same time, you can do something extremely creative.”
We believe all those who publish prayerbooks deserve a loud Bravo! for the valiant efforts they have put in. You can buy it here.

8/11/09

What were two bad Jewish prayer decisions?

At its establishment, Chief Rabbi Herzog prescribed that the Prayer for the State of Israel be recited after the Torah reading in the synagogue on Sabbaths and Festivals.

This was Jewish prayer mistake number one.

He incorrectly mandated that this particular recitation remain unimportant, peripheral, second rate, and really not a part of the davening. It was a quick and dirty innovation. And it was wrong.
  • First off, on account of its placement, the prayer is often recited by the gabbai, not the hazzan.
  • Second, the prayer is frequently recited in a monotone, not chanted, and from the side of the bimah, not from the front and center of the synagogue.
  • Third, the prayer is recited after the Torah reading and before the Musaf service - in a liminal area - between the established parts of the davening. It seems to me to be placed in a tertiary context that makes it even less prominent in the liturgy than the personal mesheberach blessings recited for individuals who receive aliyot to the Torah.
You don't have to be an expert in Jewish liturgy to conclude that this prayer is generally presented as an afterthought, recited quickly, and that it has been pasted in to our davening. In fact in many synagogues, the text is not printed in the prayerbook, It is actually pasted into the back cover of the siddur.

It is high time for some prayer-book reform.

We ought to be inserting a real prayer for the modern state of Israel into the crux of the actual prayer services of our tradition. We perhaps should have the chazzan chant it properly from the bimah. We perhaps should have the congregation join in responsively or together with the chazzan in singing the prayer with joy.

Perhaps we should say this prayer three times a day - every day - in our Amidah or after the Alenu.

For sure we must not equivocate about the State of Israel. It is real.

We live in Teaneck. Most of our friends have been to Israel. Most of our community members have been inspired by the State and its history. We ourselves have lived there and visited there many times.

The State of Israel is a factual, powerful, pervasive, long-lasting creator of religious moods and motivations.

Yes it is time to promote the thanksgiving, praise and petition concerning the modern State of Israel as a real and central theme of all of our synagogue prayers.

It is time to correct the error of the former Chief Rabbi and promote the Prayer for the State of Israel to a much more prominent place in our liturgy.

At its establishment, Chief Rabbi Herzog prescribed that the Prayer for the State of Israel contain the phrase, "the beginning of the blossoming our redemption."

This was Jewish prayer mistake number two.

The State of Israel is the redemption of the Jewish people. Not the "beginning of the redemption." Not the "beginning of the blossoming of the redemption."

It is the actual, historical, theological, political, social and cultural redemption of the Jewish people.

Anyone who denies this is not in touch with reality. Anyone who hedges about it with language that is wishy-washy and ambivalent and preliminary - is just a redemption denier.

We Jews of all denominations must say the Prayer for the State of Israel more frequently, more centrally and more forcefully.

Meanwhile, we do not know how to cure these errors. Here for information purposes, is the current flawed prayer in translation.
Our Father in Heaven, Rock and Redeemer of the people Israel; Bless the State of Israel -- the beginning of the blossoming our redemption. Shield it with Your love; spread over it the shelter of Your peace. Guide its leaders and advisers with Your light and Your truth. Help them with Your good counsel. Strengthen the hands of those who defend our Holy Land. Deliver them; crown their efforts with triumph. Bless the land with peace, and its inhabitants with lasting joy.

And visit all our Brethren of the house of Israel, in all the lands where they are scattered, and bring them rapidly to Zion, Your city and to Jerusalem, where Your name lives, as it says in the Torah of Moses, Your servant: ‘Even if your dwelling is at the end of the sky, God will congregate you from there, and bring you from there, and will bring you toward the land that Your forefathers inherited and you will inherit it.’ Dedicate our hearts to love and worship Your name and to keep all that is in Your Torah, and send us the son of David, the Messiah of Your justice, to redeem those who wait for Your salvation. Appear with the glory and the pride of Your strength, in front of all the inhabitants of the Universe, and all those who have breath will say: “The God of Israel is the King, and He reigns over all.” Amen.

8/10/09

What is the nature of Kavvanah (Concentration) for Prayer in Judaism?


We first published this in
New Perspectives on Ancient Judaism, Lanham, 1987, based on a paper delivered December 2, 1985 at the Bar Ilan University Talmud Department, Departmental Seminar, Ramat Gan, Israel. It's one of our favorite articles.

The common definition of the term kavvanah is "intention" or "concentration" during prayer or another ritual. A precise definition of this word has been elusive because it refers to an intangible inner state of mind, an abstract concept of thought, and not a physical or tangible action. In this study we analyze several sources in the Mishnah and the Talmud which use the term kavvanah in reference to the recitation of the Prayer of Eighteen Blessings and the recitation of the Shema`.

Obviously, the Talmud predates by centuries the development of the rich conceptual expressions of the modern disciplines of social science, especially of psychology and sociology. Accordingly, rabbinic texts use more indirect and primitive terminology and conceptualization to describe the inner states of a person's mind and the social aspects of prayer and ritual.

Even though rabbinic idiom was constrained by a limited terminology, rabbinic sources express sophisticated notions regarding inner states of consciousness. When we examine several rabbinic texts and translate into more contemporary terms some concepts of the rabbinic rules and interpretations regarding inner states of mind, we discover strikingly mature attitudes towards those aspects of consciousness, intention or concentration during prayer, called in the texts, "kavvanah for prayer."

In addition, an historical analysis of the concept of kavvanah in early rabbinic sources shows that the idea does not remain static within rabbinic thought but evolves in the various documents. Let us proceed to pursue these issues concurrently.... [more...][repost from 4/07]

8/8/09

Times 1952: Rabbi Zev Zahavy Named Rabbi of Zichron Ephraim (Park East) Synagogue

About 57 years ago, the Times published this news about my father's appointment as rabbi at Zichron Ephraim, now called the Park East Synagogue.

Over the next few years The Times went went on to publish accounts of about 200 of my dad's sermons.

He spoke out frequently and eloquently on how he thought the world ought to confront contemporary issues of his day from a progressive Biblical and Jewish point of view.

I collected the Times' reports. You can read them online here.

8/7/09

jstandard: Should Bard's Leon Botstein Celebrate the AntiSemite Richard Wagner?

No. Botstein should not bring Wagner to Bard.

In part it's because we sat through Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots last Sunday watching Leon Botstein slog his way through four hours of conducting, while we were thinking about this question.

But mainly it's just that these articles by Warren Boroson are so thorough and critical in exploring the question in Teaneck's Jewish Standard, namely, Should Bard's Leon Botstein celebrate the antiSemite Richard Wagner?

Boroson has done some impressive research on Wagner and spent some face time with Botstein. He put together an impressive exploration of the evil man Wagner, the energetic conductor Botstein, and the odd decision one Jew made made to celebrate the Jew hater par excellence of the Western music.

Botstein has made a bad choice and it bothers us.

His music festival at Bard is a public community event which should under no circumstances valorize a rabid antiSemite. Period.

More troubling though is what Botstein says in defense of Wagner about the coincidence of creative genius and aberrant behavior. He makes some sweeping generalizations that we have often heard, and even uttered ourselves in some contexts of our youth.

Towards to beginning of our teaching career, in a large lecture class, we once said something like what Botstein espouses, along the lines that creativity and kookiness go together.

We got an immediate, strong, palpable unspoken reaction from our students. They told us without saying a word, through their quizzical looks, their body language and their breathing, that what we had said to the class was more than factually wrong.

It was insulting to all creative artists and performers. Since that day, we never made that mistake again.

Botstein, saying more explicit words to the same effect in his newspaper interview and in his lectures, has chosen to insult his artistic colleagues, known and unknown, by his nonsensical general statements about their personalities, spoken as some kind of bizarre defense of Richard Wagner.

And he has chosen to insult his Jewish neighbors by deliberately producing Wagner's work. There is no excuse for this behavior. It is wrong.

We ask him to stop. It is not too late to cancel Wagner at Bard.

Here are the links to the must read stories from Warren Boroson and the cover story from the Jewish Standard:
Richard Wagner: The devil who had good tunes
Warren Boroson • Cover Story

Composer Richard Wagner’s feelings about Jews were summarized in his statement that “I hold the Jewish race to be the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble in it.”

His virulent anti-Semitism poses a painful problem for music-lovers and particularly for Jews. He was not only a despicable human being but a great artist, and we want to believe that all geniuses are decent human beings — kind, generous, fair, selfless, and modest....

8/6/09

PC World: Murdoch Pay Per News is Coming - Meanwhile How to Read the WSJ for Free Using the Google Washing Trick

PC World reports that Rupert Murdoch and other publishers are cooking up a plan to start charging you and us for reading most of their content online.

Boo. Hiss.

The good thing about this PC World story is the tidbit that they throw into it that makes explicit how you can legitimately circumvent the WSJ paywall restrictions on their content by going through Google to read a story:
...But will customers be willing to pay for content they are used to getting for free? I think it's possible, but it depends on how much newspaper content ends up behind paywalls.

The other question is whether newspapers would allow the common trick of using Google to get around the WSJ paywall. When you want to read something on WSJ.com that's behind its paywall, all you have to do is copy the headline, plug it into Google and follow Google's link to read the complete article for free. The WSJ allows this loophole so it can grow its readership, and the paper probably hopes some of those free readers will subscribe in the future. Since Google helps to increase WSJ readership, the Google loophole is likely to remain in place and could become a trend at least for News Corp sites. But if that's the case, I wonder whether readers will be willing to fork over subscription fees, or whether the "Google washing" technique to keep on getting free content will become a common tactic among online readers...

8/4/09

Times: Leon Botstein Revives "Les Huguenots" - Meyerbeer's Hit Opera About Religious Violence


Drawing on what we have seen over the years, our own opera criticism framework anticipates that German operas will alternate the themes of war, love and war, while Italian operas will fluctuate the action between love, war and love.

Now we have a new thesis to factor in. The French grand opera a la Meyerbeer presents us with the thematic content of religion, love and religious violence.

The Times reviewed the Bard Opera Performance that we enjoyed and endured for four hours on Sunday. Leon Botstein revived "Les Huguenots" - Meyerbeer's massive hit opera about religious violence in general and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 in particular.

That outbreak of European violence serves as a quintessential textbook example of religion at work at its worst in support of bloodshed and hatred. That historic event triggered the continuing slaughter over several months of thousands of French Calvinist Protestants by the Roman Catholic forces of Charles IX and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici.

The opera's composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer was a German Jew who wrote the opera in French, the language of this production.

Botstein, who holds multiple jobs as music director of several orchestras and president of Bard, will present the work of the notorious Richard Wagner in a few weeks up at Bard. Botstein is a secular Jew himself, but a self-respecting Jew, and in that context perhaps bears some guilty feelings about touting Wagner. So, we speculate, partially as a corrective for Wagner, and partly because of his concern for the spreading religious violence in our current day and age, he valiantly resurrected "Les Huguenots".

In his program notes, Botstein does make note of Meyerbeer's influence on Wagner and of the theme of religion and violence which is so utterly obviously the point of the opera.

It's may be precisely because the theme is so overbearing that the opera fell out of favor in the past century. We found it oppressive at times during the opera to hear religious hatred set to grand music and sung by such talented baritones and sopranos. But judging the popularity of the work, that apparently was a great attraction to the French in the nineteenth century. Go figure.

As everyone points out, including the Times, Meyerbeer did put everything but the kitchen sink into his grand opera, including in this instance much bloodshed (and be warned, in the Bard production there is a smattering of tasteful nudity).

The Times' review is mixed but mostly positive. Bard suffers from its proximity to the city and hence to the Met and from the inevitable comparison to the unmatchable competition. If this production had been staged in say Minneapolis, the critics would have fallen all over themselves to praise it to the sky.
Music Review | 'Les Huguenots'
Rediscovering an Opera of Love and Slaughter
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — There have been many cases of historically momentous operas that claimed the public in their day, then fell into neglect. But the near disappearance of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s French grand opera “Les Huguenots” is especially baffling.

For nearly 100 years after its astonishingly successful 1836 premiere in Paris, the opera was a mainstay of the repertory, especially in France. It was the first work in the history of the Paris Opera to reach the milestone of 1,000 performances.

“Les Huguenots” was last performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1915, in an Italian translation with a cast that included Enrico Caruso, Frieda Hempel and Emmy Destinn. It is amazing to read a review of that performance from The New York Sun in which the opera is referred to as “the familiar old work.” What happened?

Once again the conductor Leon Botstein, a champion of neglected works, has leapt into the breach, presenting a production of “Les Huguenots,” which opened on Friday night in the SummerScape festival at Bard College here. (It is linked to the Bard Music Festival’s Wagner and His World series, which will offer two weekends of concerts, lectures and panels this month.) For the second performance of this four-hour, five-act opera on Sunday afternoon, the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts was packed. Renaud Machart, the music critic of Le Monde, had come from Paris to see his first production of the work, an indication of how far the opera has fallen from view...more...
Followup...

The WSJ has a review-essay of some substance about the opera in which the author notes that Wagner in fact, "devoted a chapter in his book “Opera and Drama” to “The Nadir of Opera: Music by Meyerbeer.”"

8/3/09

NPR: Gemara = $1000 to Crooked NJ Rabbis

NPR alerts us to the slang of NJ Rabbis. "Let's learn together, you bring the gemaras," doesn't mean what we thought it meant.
Court Papers: The Language Of Money Laundering
By Robert Smith

The characters in the Sopranos aren't the only criminals who love their food and colorful slang. Court documents in last month's big New Jersey corruption bust reveal that the rabbis charged with money laundering have their own dramatic flair. The court papers say an informant was taping all his meetings, and the results read like a Kosher version of Goodfellas.

Bank fraud is repeatedly referred to as a "schnookie" in the charges, which makes it adorable. And since five of the accused are rabbis, they know their way around the ancient codes. "Gemara" may be the second part of the Talmud, but the court papers say that for these guys it also meant a thousand dollars. "I'm bringing 55 gemaras," the informant says, meaning $55,000. The accused would allegedly set up times to meet by asking when they wanted to "learn together."

But apparently the rabbis were more hungry for food than for knowledge. Prosecutors say these portly gentlemen would meet in chocolate shops, bakeries, grocery stores. According to official charges, when they went for the laundered money, they would say they were going to "pick up the potatoes." The cash came bundled in cereal boxes, the charges say: $97,000 in Apple Jacks, $118,000 in Cinnabon Crunch.

Barack Obama's Birth Certificate



Note to sane people:

You need to tell anyone who sends you an email about Barack Obama's birth certificate to stop this nonsense unless they want to be branded a complete kook.

NBC Denies New Law and Order Rabbis series in the works


NBC has denied that it is planning a new spinoff of the popular "Law and Order" TV series.

So it is not true.

This quashes all the rumors of a new series that was allegedly going to be called,

"Law and Order: ORU"

(Orthodox Rabbis Unit)

8/2/09

Times: Copyright Infringement Does Not Pay for Joel Tenenbaum

Warning - copyright infringement is a serious and costly crime... even more serious if you can prove that it was willful.
Graduate Student Fined in Music Download Case
A jury decided on Friday that a Boston University graduate student who admitted to downloading more than 800 songs from the Internet between 1999 and 2007 should pay $675,000 in damages to four record labels for copyright violations, The Associated Press reported. The student, Joel Tenenbaum, right, testified Thursday in federal district court in Boston that he had downloaded and shared hundreds of songs by artists including Nirvana, Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins, and said he had lied in pretrial depositions when he said friends or siblings may have downloaded the songs to his computer. The record labels involved in the case have focused on 30 songs that Mr. Tenenbaum, 25, downloaded. Under federal law they were entitled to $750 to $30,000 for each infringement, but the jury was permitted to raise that to as much as $150,000 a track if it found the infringements were willful.

How can we stop Orthodox Jewish anti-gay terrorism?

As of the time of this post we do not know that it was an Orthodox Jew who perpetrated yesterday's terrorist attack against gays in Tel Aviv. The speculation is that it was.

We will modify this post if it turns out that the gunman was not an Orthodox Jew. Still, no matter who pulled the trigger, some vitriolic Orthodox Jewish rhetoric has created an atmosphere conducive to terrorist acts like this one.

Here is the story link from the LA Times [hat tip Yochanan III]:


Gunman kills two at gay center in Israel
By Richard Boudreaux
Reporting from Jerusalem -- A masked gunman slipped into a community center for gay teenagers in Tel Aviv and sprayed the room with automatic rifle fire late Saturday, killing two people and wounding at least 10 in what activists called Israel's deadliest crime against homosexuals....more...
Whoever it was, we take these options from our previous post and ask how they apply to the current situation:

Five scenarios for solving the problem of religious terror and violence.

1. the forceful eradication of the terrorists
- not a practical solution
2. "cracking down" -- one step back from wiping them out - a round-up is inevitable and the Israeli government will impose closer scrutiny of religious institutions and their rhetoric
3. violence wins - never an option
4. separation of religion from politics - long-term this must be a value that is inculcated in any democratic state
5. secular authorities embrace moral values, including those associated with religion - in part always a valid avenue to explore, but that's never going to include the "value" of anti-gay hatred.

Concluding Questions on Religion and Terrorism

This is the final post in our series based on Mark Juergensmeyer's monograph, Terror in the Mind of God.

In these posts we employed an interpretive framework looking for the "Logic of Religious Violence." We entered into the minds of those who perpetrate acts of violence in the name of religion. Then we stepped back to analyze what we observed.

Here we look back and ask a few concluding questions.

The Continuum and the Characteristics

You have noticed by now that we have avoided labeling the forms of religion that we have studied as "fundamentalists" or "cults". We agree with Juergensmeyer that what we study is a single continuum of religion. At the same time, the sub-systems we have looked at share characteristics of radical forms of their parent systems. Juergensmeyer says,
The radical religious movements that emerged from these cultures of violence throughout the world are remarkably similar, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or Sikh. What they have in common are three things. First, they have rejected the compromises with liberal values and secular institutions that were made by most mainstream religious leaders and organizations. Second, they refuse to observe the boundaries that secular society has imposed around religion -- keeping it private rather than allowing it to intrude into public spaces. And third, they have replaced what they regard as weak modern substitutes with the more vibrant and demanding forms of religion that they imagine to be a part of their tradition's beginnings.
The fact that these movements are marginal, however does not mean that they are intrinsically different from mainstream religion. As strident as some of them appear, I hesitate to label them "cultic" or "fundamentalist," as some observers have described these politically active religious movements that have emerged in the late twentieth century. In my view, it is not their spirituality that is unusual, but their religious ideas, cultural contexts, and world views--perspectives shaped by the sociopolitical forces of their times. These movements are not simply aberrations but religious responses to social situations and expressions of deeply held convictions. In talking with many of the supporters of these cultures of violence, I was struck with the intensity of their quests for a deeper level of spirituality than that offered by the superficial values of the modern world.
The Militants v. the Mainstream

The groups that practice terror also preach a healthy disdain for the mainstream groups of the parent religion. As Juergensmeyer shows, this is often insulting and vituperative:
In America members of Christian militia groups have disdained liberal Protestantism and even mocked Christian conservatives. Richard Rutler left the Presbyterian ministry to form his own Church. William Pierce, writing in The Turner Diaries, observed that "the Jewish takeover of the Christian churches and corruption of the ministry is now virtually complete." Pierce went on to say that the liberal clergy was less interested in the teachings of Christianity than in "government 'study' grants. 'brotherhood' awards, fees for speaking engagements, and a good press." He was even more vituperative about conservative Christians, whom he called "the world's greatest cowards." Adding insult to injury, Pierce claimed that the cowardice of most Christian conservatives was "excelled only by their stupidity." It was the rare Christian who saw, as Pierce's characters did, that the governmental system played a key role in "undermining and perverting Christendom" and that its destruction was essential for the emergence of true Christianity. Matthew Hale took this position one step further and rejected Christian churches entirely, claiming them to be a Jewish conspiracy. His World Church of the Creator was intended, therefore, to be not just a branch of Christianity but an antidote to it.
The tension between militant and mainstream religion has existed within virtually every tradition. In Judaism, for example, at the rime of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the orthodox Jewish leadership in Israel was dubious that rabbis could be found who would give religious sanction to such an act, and their doubt turned to astonishment when several rabbis were located who indeed gave authorization for killing another Jew under the moral precedents of traditional law. Yoel Lerner told me that he regarded the rabbinic establishment in Israel as "comfortable" and "cowardly" -- "unwilling to rock the boat" over political issues that he thought their beliefs should command them to champion.
The Search for Hard Religion

Another commonality among the groups we have encountered is the quest for a harder and more real form of their own religions -- one that rejects indulgence and comfort. Juergensmeyer gives a salient example,

Mahmud Abouhalima told me that the critical moment in his religious life came when he realized that he could not compromise his Islamic integrity with the easy vices offered by modern society. Abouhalima claimed that he had spent the early part of his life running away from himself. Although involved in radical Egyptian Islamic movements since his college years in Alexandria, he felt there was no place where he could settle down. He told mc that the low point came when he was in Germany, trying to live the way that he imagined Europeans and Americans carried on: a life in which the superficial comforts of sex and inebriants masked an internal emptiness and despair. Abouhalima said his return to Islam as the center of his life carried with it a renewed sense of obligation to make Islamic society truly Islamic--to "struggle against oppression and injustice" wherever it existed. What was constant, Abouhalima said, was his family and his faith. Islam was both "a rock and a pillar of mercy." But it was not the Islam of liberal, modern Muslims: they, he felt, had compromised the tough and disciplined life the faith demanded.
Abouhalima wanted his religion to be hard, unlike the humiliating, mind-numbing comforts of secular modernity. His newfound religion was what he perceived to be traditional Islam. This was also the case with born-again Sikhs in the separatist movement in India: theirs, they claimed was real Sikhism.
Does Globalization Cause the Backlash of Religious Terrorism?

We categorically reject the line of reasoning that says because of oppression X people are driven to response Y. It makes no logical sense to us. Yet there are many who seek to discover the "cause" of our terrorist maladies in globalist terms. Juergensmeyer explains,
Is the rise of religious terrorism related to these global changes? We know that some groups associated with violence in industrialized societies have an antimodernist political agenda. At the extreme end of this religious rejection of modernism in the United States arc members of the American anti-abortion group Defensive Action, the Christian militia and Christian Identity movement, and isolated groups such as the Branch Davidian sect in Waco, Texas. When Michael Bray and other members of the religious right cast aspersions at "the new world order" allegedly promoted by President Bill Clinton and the United Nations, what he and his colleagues feared was the imposition of a reign of order that was not Just tyrannical but atheist. They saw evidence of an anti- religious governmental pogrom in what they regarded as a pandering to pluralist cultural values in a society with no single set of religious moorings.

Similar attitudes toward secular government have emerged in Israel--the religious nationalist ideology of the Kach party is an extreme example--and, as the Aum Shinrikyo movement demonstrated, in Japan. Like the United States, contentious groups within these countries became disillusioned about the ability of secular leaders to guide their countries' destinies. They identified government as the enemy. In Israel, for instance, Hamas and the Jewish right have been in opposition not so much to each other as to their own secular leaders. This fact was demonstrated by the reaction of Jewish settlers in Gaza to a Hamas suicide bombing attempt in
1998, soon after the Wye River accords, in which an activist attempted to ram a car loaded with explosives into a school bus filled with forty of the settlers' children. One of the parents immediately lashed out in hatred--not against the Arabs who tried to kill her child, but against her own secular leader, Netanyahu, whom she blamed for precipitating the action by entering into peace agreements with Arafat. Her comments demonstrated that the religious war in Israel and Palestine has not been a war between religions, but a double set of religious wars--Jewish and Muslim--against secularism.
What makes them hate the Modern?

Calling religious terror a symptom of postmodernism does little to illuminate the phenomenon. Yet many seek this line of inquiry. For reasons that are clear, individualism and skepticism are the enemies. Juergensmeyer summarizes,
The postmodern religious rebels that we have examined in this book have therefore been neither anomalies nor anachronisms. From Algeria to Idaho, these small but potent groups of violent activists have represented growing masses of supporters, and they have exemplified currents of thinking and cultures of commitment that have risen to counter the prevailing modernism -- the ideology of individualism and skepticism -- that has emerged in the past three centuries from the European Enlightenment and spread throughout the world. They have come to hate secular governments with an almost transcendent passion. These guerrilla nationalists have dreamed of revolutionary changes that would establish a godly social order in the rubble of what the citizens of most secular societies have regarded as modern, egalitarian democracies. Their enemies have seemed to most people to be both benign and banal: modern, secular leaders such as Yitzhak Rabin and Anwar Sadat, and such symbols of prosperity and authority as the World Trade Center and the Japanese subway system. The logic of this kind of militant religiosity has therefore been difficult for many people to comprehend. Yet its challenge has been profound, for it has contained a fundamental critique of the world's post-Enlightenment secular culture and politics.

For this reason these acts of guerrilla religious warfare have been not only attempts at "delegitimization," as Ehud Sprinzak has put it, but also relegitimization: attempts to purchase public recognition of the legitimacy of religious world views with the currency of violence. Since religious authority can provide a ready-made replacement for secular leadership, it is no surprise that when secular leaders have been deemed inadequate or corrupt, the challenges to their legitimacy and the attempts to gain support for their rivals have been based on religion. When the proponents of religion have asserted their claims to be the moral force undergirding public order, they sometimes have done so with the kind of power that a confused society can graphically recognize: the force of terror.