7/31/09

Jewish Standard has six stories about the (Latest) New Jersey Rabbi and Politician Scandals


Teneck's Jewish Standard has six solid stories about the (latest) New Jersey rabbi and politician scandals...

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7/30/09

What do Sexuality and Humiliation have to do with Terrorism?

Mark Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence engages in some broad personality analysis in one of the latter chapters of his book. This nicely augments his social and cultural insights earlier in the text. The theories may be on shakier ground.

Here is a brief excerpt. You can formulate an opinion on your own.
Nothing is more intimate than sexuality, and no greater humiliation can be experienced than failure over what one perceives to be one’s sexual role. Such failures are often the bases of domestic violence; and when these failures are linked with the social roles of masculinity and femininity, they can lead to public violence. Terrorist acts, then, can be forms of symbolic empowerment for men whose traditional sexual roles— their very manhood— is perceived to be at stake....

Although supporters of the Christian militia in the United States have not had the Indians’ experience of being a colonized people, their attitudes toward modern liberal government is similar to those of neoconservative Hindu nationalists. Both would agree with the characterization offered by William Pierce that liberal government expects an obedience that is “feminine” and “infantile.” These are fears not only of sexual impotence but of government’s role in the process of emasculation. Men who harbor such fears protect themselves, therefore, not only by setting up veiled defenses against the threats of powerful women and unmanly men, but also by attempting to reassert control in a world that they feel has gone morally and politically askew.

In Israel, the Jewish activist Avigdor Eskin, who accused Yasir Arafat of having a sexual penchant for boys, meant this as not so much a character assault as a political criticism. Eskin offered the example of Arafat’s alleged bisexuality to show that the Palestinian leader could not even control his own passions, much less the destiny of a geographical region that Eskin regarded as sacred. 61 Eskin, a somewhat effete musician and philosopher, might have gained encouragement in his attitudes from the American religious right, for whom antihomosexuality is something of a virtue, and with whom Eskin had frequent contact. Raised in Russia, Eskin for a time traveled through the United States appearing on the television programs of evangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as a spokesperson against the Soviet oppression of the Russian Jewish community. Eventually emigrating to Israel, he became politically active among the Russian Israeli community and was selected in 1998 by Russian immigrants as the fourth most well-known person in the country. When I visited him in March 1998, he was deeply involved in anti-Arab political activism and was under detention for charges of planning to toss a pig’s head into the quarters of the Muslim shrine the Dome of the Rock, charges he denied. Whether or not the charges where true, however, his comments confirmed that Eskin’s main social concern was not homosexuality but politics and the restoration of what he regarded as righteous biblical order.

The point I have been making is that the homophobic male-dominant language of right-wing religious movements indicates not only a crisis of sexuality but a clash of world views, not just a moral or psychological problem but a political and religious one. It is political in that it relates to the crisis of confidence in public institutions that is characteristic of postmodern societies in the post– Cold War world. It is religious in that it is linked with the loss of spiritual bearings that a more certain public order provided.

When the lead character in The Turner Diaries saw on television the horrific scenes of mangled bodies being carried from the federal building he had just demolished with a truckload of explosive fertilizer and fuel oil, he could still confirm that he was “completely convinced” that what he had done was necessary to save America from its leaders— these “feminine,” “infantile” men “who did not have the moral toughness, the spiritual strength” to lead America and give it and its citizens a moral and spiritual purpose. From his point of view, his wretched act was redemptive.

Trivializing the effect of their violence, this character and his real-life counterparts Timothy McVeigh, Mahmud Abouhalima, and many other calculating but desperate men have tried to restore what they perceive to be the necessary social conditions for their sexual and spiritual wholeness. Their rhetoric of manhood has been a cry to reclaim their lost selves and their fragile world.

What they have in common, these movements of cowboy monks, is that they consist of anti-institutional, religio-nationalist, racist, sexist, male-bonding, bomb-throwing young guys. Their marginality in the modern world is experienced as a kind of sexual despair that leads to violent acts of symbolic empowerment. It could almost be seen as poignant, if it were not so terribly dangerous.

Why Do Religious Terrorist Martyrs say that they aim to kill the demons?

Juergensmeyer in Terror in the Mind of God makes a convincing case that the encouragement of people to become martyrs is a part of many religious systems. Martyrdom is the label that when applied to defeat and death, turns it into victory:

Overcoming defeat and humiliation is the point of war. The story of warfare explains why one feels for a time beaten and disgraced--that is part of the warrior’s experience. In cases of cosmic war, however, the final battle has not been fought. Only when it has can one expect triumph and pride. Until that time, the warrior struggles on, often armed only with hope. Our personal tales of woe gain meaning, then, when linked to these powerful stories. Their sagas of oppression and liberation lift the spirits of individuals and make their suffering explicable and noble. In some cases suffering imparts the nobility of martyrdom. In such instances the images of cosmic war forge failure--even death--into victory.

The idea of turning death into ritual starts in the practice of religious sacrifices:

The idea of martyrdom is an interesting one. It has a long history within various religious traditions, including early Christianity. Christ himself was a martyr, as was the founder of the Shi’i Muslim tradition, Husain. The word martyr comes from a Greek term for “witness,” such as a witness to one’s faith. In most cases martyrdom is regarded not only as a testimony to the degree of one’s commitment, hut also as a performance of a religious act, specifically an act of self-sacrifice.

This dimension of martyrdom links it to the activity that some scholars see as the most fundamental form of religiosity: sacrifice. It is a rite of destruction that is found, remarkably, in virtually every religious tradition in the world. The term suggests that the very process of destroying is spiritual since the word comes from the Latin, sacrificium, “to make holy.” What makes sacrifice so riveting is not just that it involves killing, hut also that it is, in an ironic way, ennobling. The destruction is performed within a religious context that transforms the killing into something positive. Thus, like all religious images of sacrifice, martyrdom provides symbols of a violence conquered--or at least put in its place--by the larger framework of order that religious language provides.

There is some evidence that ancient religious rites of sacrifice, like the destruction involved in modern-day terrorism, were performances involving the murder of living beings. The later domestication of sacrifice in evolved forms of religious practice, such as the Christian ritual of the Eucharist, masked the fact that in most early forms of sacrifice a real animal--in some cases a human--offered its life on a sacred chopping block, an altar. In the Hebrew Bible, which is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the book of Leviticus gives a detailed guide for preparing animals for sacrificial slaughter. The very architecture of ancient Israeli temples reflected the centrality of the sacrificial event. The Vedic Agnicayana ritual, some three thousand years old and probably the most ancient ritual still performed today, involves the construction of an elaborate altar for sacrificial ritual, which some claim was originally a human sacrifice. This was certainly so at the other side of the world at the time of the ancient Aztec empire, when conquered soldiers were treated royally in preparation for their role in the sacrificial rite. Then they were set upon with knives. Their still-beating hearts were ripped from their chests and offered to Huitzilopochtli and other gods, eventually to he eaten by the faithful, and their faces were skinned to make ritual masks.

JUERGENSMEYER further defines and presents his theoretical framework as follows:

Why are such gory acts of sacrifice central to religion? The attempt to find answers to that question has been a preoccupation of scholars for over a century. The insights of such pioneering thinkers as smile Durkheim and Sigmund Freud have been revived by recent scholars, including Maurice Bloch, René Girard, Walter Burkhert, and Eli Sagan, who give social and psychological reasons for the virtual universality of violence in religious images and ideas. Most of them see the symbols of violence as playing an ultimately nonviolent and socially useful role.

According to Freud, for instance, violent religious symbols and sacrificial rituals evoke, and thereby vent, violent impulses in general. Accepting Freud’s main thesis, Girard amended it by suggesting that the motivation for violence is --mimetic desire--the desire to imitate a rival--rather than the psychological instincts of sexuality and aggression. Like Freud, Girard claimed that ritualized violence performs a positive role for society. By allowing individuals to release their feelings of hostility toward members of their own communities, symbols of violence enable affinity groups to achieve greater social cohesion. “The function of ritual,” claimed Girard, “is to ‘purify’ violence; that is, to ‘trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals.” Those who participate in ritual are not consciously aware of the social and psychological significance of their acts, of course, for Girard claimed that “religion tries to account for its own operation metaphorically.”

Much of what Freud and Girard said about the function of symbolic violence in religion has been persuasive. Even if one questions, as I do, Girard’s idea that mimetic desire is the sole driving force behind symbols of religious violence, one can still agree that mimesis is a significant factor. One can also agree with the theme that Girard borrows from Freud, that the ritualized acting out of violent acts plays a role in displacing feelings of aggression, thereby allowing the world to be a more peaceful place in which to live. But the critical issue remains as to whether sacrifice should he regarded as the context for viewing all other forms of religious violence, as Girard and Freud have contended.

My own conclusion is that war is the context for sacrifice rather than the other way around. Of course, one can think of religious warfare as a blend of sacrifice and martyrdom: sacrificing members of the enemy’s side and offering up martyrs on one’s own. But behind the gruesome litany is something that encompasses both sacrifice and martyrdom and much more: cosmic war. As Durkheim pointed out, religious language contains ideas of an intimate and ultimate tension, one that he described as the distinction between the sacred and the profane. This fundamental dichotomy gives rise to images of a great encounter between cosmic forces--order versus chaos, good versus evil, truth versus falsehood--which worldly struggles mimic. It is the image of war that captures this antinomy, rather than sacrifice.

Why do religious terrorists create demons?

JUERGENSMEYER spells out a succinct and eloquent explanation that affirms:

Put simply, one cannot have a war without an enemy.

This means that some enemies have to he manufactured. As Stanley Tambiah noted in his analysis of ethnic conflict, the “rites of violence” in religious riots in South Asia led inevitably to the “demonizing of victims and their expulsion or annihilation in the idiom of exorcism.”
The demonization of an opponent is easy enough when people feel oppressed or have suffered injuries at the hands of a dominant, unforgiving, and savage power. But when this is not the case, the reasons for demonization are more tenuous and the attempts to make satanic beings out of relatively innocent foes more creative.

As we have seen before, each religion’s script is different in its details. JUERGENSMEYER generalizes about demonization:

These blanket characterizations of a people make the process of dehumanizing an enemy easier. It is difficult to belittle and kill a person whom one knows and for whom one has no personal antipathy. As most Jews are aware from centuries of experience at the receiving end of anti-Semitism, it is much easier to stereotype and categorize a whole people as collective enemies than to hate individuals. The Christian Identity activists still regard Jews this way, and as we have seen, some Jewish extremists collectively brand Arabs in such a manner. To many Muslim activists, America and Americans are collective enemies, with the particulars of how and why they threaten Muslim people and their culture left unspecified.

This phenomenon of the faceless collective enemy explains in large part why so many terrorist acts have targeted ordinary people--individuals whom most observers would regard as innocent victims. In the eyes of those who planned the Hamas bombings in the buses of Jerusalem and Tel Avis the schoolchildren on their way to class and the housewives on their way to the shopping mall were not innocent: they were representatives of a collectivity--Israeli society--that was corporately the foe. An Israeli on the other side of the struggle confirmed that he regarded innocent Arabs as enemies as well, since there were no such things as civilians in “a cultural war.” Echoing this sentiment, a leader in the Hamas movement told me, “No one is innocent in the war between Arabs and Jews.” He indicated that he regarded all Israelis as soldiers or as potential soldiers, including women and children.

There can in fact be more than one target or enemy:

The idea of the enemy is sufficiently flexible that it can include more than one group. In fact, as political scientist Ehud Sprinzak has argued, the efforts to “delegitimize” an opponent by considering it to be an enemy has often been “split.” The hatred inspired by what Sprinzak has called “the radicalization of a group of extremists” has been directed toward “two separate entities.” In such instances the enemy includes not only the primary target, hut also a secondary target. It could be any person or entity that is seen as supporting or defending the primary target.
The primary enemy is the religious rival or local political authority that directly threatens the activist group and against which there is usually a commonsense basis for conflict and animosity. The secondary enemy is a less obvious threat: a moderate leader on one’s own side, for example, or a governmental authority who is trying to be fair-minded. Both can infuriate an activist who has bifurcated the world into heroes and enemies in a cosmic war. Secondary enemies, such as government authorities, are seen as not only defending the primary enemy hut also belittling the very notion of cosmic war. One of these secondary enemies’ greatest failures, from a radical’s point of view, is their inability to take seriously the notion of an absolute, sacred struggle. Instead they treat disputes as if they were rational differences over which reasonable people can come to some sort of accommodation or even agreement. This view is anathema to those who see the world at war.

How do the notions of a cosmic war become symbols and rituals in a religious system?

JUERGENSMEYER summarizes an illustration regarding symbolism:

The images of warfare in Protestant Christianity situated the faithful in a religious cosmos that inevitably had a moral valence, hut this has not been the case in all traditions. The battles of the Mahavamsa, the Hebrew Bible, and the Hindu epics, for example, testify to a different sort of ultimate encounter. The motif that runs through these mythic scenes of warfare is the theme of us versus them, the known versus the unknown. In the battles described in the Hebrew Bible and in such epics as the Ramayana, the enemies were often foreigners from the shady edges of known civilization--places such as Canaan, Philistine, and Lanka. These foes often embodied the conceptual murkiness of their origins; that is, they represented what was chaotic and uncertain about the world, including those things that defied categorization altogether. In cases where the enemy possessed a familiar face--as in the Mahabharata, where war was waged between sets of cousins’ chaos is embodied by the battle itself. It is the wickedness of warfare itself that the battle depicts, as the mythic figure Arjuna observed at the outset of his encounter with Lord Krishna on the battlefield. To fight in such a circumstance was to assent to the disorder of this world, although the contestants knew that in a grander sense this disorder is corrected by a cosmic order that is beyond killing and being killed. Such was the message of Lord Krishna in his address to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita.

JUERGENSMEYER says of the elements of religious ritual of violence and warfare that:

Thus violent images have been given religious meaning and domesticized. These acts, although terribly real, have been sanitized by becoming symbols; they have been stripped of their horror by being invested with religious meaning. They have been justified and thereby exonerated as part of a religious template that is even larger than myth and history. They are elements of a ritual scenario that makes it possible for the people involved to experience safely the drama of cosmic war.

What makes America such a prevalent enemy for the religious terrorist?

JUERGENSMEYER presents these criteria:

Why is America the enemy? This question is hard for observers of international politics to answer, and harder still for ordinary Americans to fathom. Many have watched with horror as their compatriots and symbols of their country have been destroyed by people whom they do not know, from cultures they can scarcely identify on a global atlas, and for reasons that do not seem readily apparent. From the frames of reference of those who regard America as enemy, however, several motives appear.

One reason we have already mentioned: America is often a secondary enemy. In its role as trading partner and political ally, America has a vested interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This has often put the United States in the unhappy position of being a defender and promoter of secular governments regarded by their religious opponents as primary foes. Long before the bombing of the World Trade Center Sheik Omar Abdul Rahman expressed his disdain for the United States because of its role in propping up the Muharak regime in Egypt. “America is behind all these un-Islamic governments,” the Sheik explained, arguing that the purpose of American political and economic support was “to keep them strong” and to try to “defeat the Islamic movements.” In the case of Iran prior to the Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini saw the shah and the American government linked as evil twins: America was tarred by its association with the shah, and the shah, in turn, was corrupted by being a “companion of satanic forces--that is, of America.” When Khomeini prayed to his “noble God for protection from the evil of every wicked traitor” and asked Him to “destroy the enemies,” the primary traitor he had in mind was the shah and the chief enemy America.

A second reason America is regarded as enemy is that both directly and indirectly it has supported modern culture. In a world where villagers in remote corners of the world increasingly have access to MTV, Hollywood movies, and the Internet, the images and values that have been projected globally have been American. It was this cultural threat that brought an orthodox rabbi, Manachem Fruman, who lived in a Jewish settlement on the West Bank of Israel near Hebron, to regular meetings with Hamas related mullahs in nearby villages. What they had in common, Rabbi Fruman told me, was their common dislike of the “American-style” traits of individualism, the abuse of alcohol, and sexy movies that were widespread in modern cities such as Tel Aviv. Rabbi Fruman told me that “when the mullahs asked, who brought all this corruption here, they answered, the Jews.” But, Fruman continued, “rabbis like me don’t like this corruption either.” Hence the rabbi and the mullahs agreed about the degradation of modern urban values, and they concurred over which country was ultimately responsible. When the mullahs asserted that the United States was the “capital of the devil,” Rabbi Fruman told me, he could agree. In a similar vein, Mahmud Ahouhalima told me he was bitter that Islam did not have influence over the global media the way that secular America did. America, he believed, was using its power of information to promote the immoral values of secular society.

The third reason for the disdain of America is economic. Although most corporations that trade internationally are multinational, with personnel and legal ties to more than one country, many are based in the United States or have American associations. Even those that were identifiably European or Japanese are thought to he American-like and implicitly American in attitude and style. When Ayatollah Khomeini identified the “satanic” forces that were out to destroy Islam, he included not only Jews hut also the even “more satanic” Westerners--especially corporate leaders with “no religious belief” who saw Islam as “the major obstacle in the path of their materialistic ambitions and the chief threat to their political power.” The ayatollah went on to claim that “all the problems of Iran” were due to the treachery of “foreign colonialists.” On another occasion, the ayatollah blended political, personal, and spiritual issues in generalizing about the cosmic foe--Western colonialism--and about “the black and dreadful future” that “the agents of colonialism, may God Almighty abandon them all,” have in mind for Islam and the Muslim people.

What is the process that religious terrorists use, called Satanization?

JUERGENSMEYER defines and discusses the stages and purposes of satanization:

The process of creating satanic enemies is part of the construction of an image of cosmic war, and some of the same criteria listed at the end of the previous chapter that make sacred warfare possible also make possible a satanic opponent. When the opponent rejects one’s moral or spiritual position; when the enemy appears to hold the power to completely annihilate one’s community, one’s culture, and oneself; when the opponent’s victory would he unthinkable; and when there seems no way to defeat the enemy in human terms--all of these conditions increase the likelihood that one will envision one’s opponent as a superhuman foe, a cosmic enemy. The process of satanization is aimed at reducing the power of one’s opponents and discrediting them. By belittling and humiliating them--by making them subhuman--one is asserting one’s own superior moral power.
Satanization is to some extent a process of “delegitimization,” as Sprinzak has described it. He has identified a three-stage series of progressive steps aimed at discrediting one’s opponents, humbling them, and reducing their power. The first stage involves a crisis of confidence over the authority of a regime or its policies. The second stage is a conflict of legitimacy, in which a challenge group is “ready to question the very legitimacy of the whole system.” The third stage is a full crisis of legitimacy. At this stage the challenge group extends its hostility to everyone in society associated with a regime it regards as illegitimate, and both the regime and ordinary citizens are satanized--or as Sprinzak puts it, they are “derogated into the ranks of the worst enemies or subhuman species.” It is this dehumanization that allows a group to “commit atrocities without a second thought.” It is in this stage, according to Sprinzak, that acts of terrorism can he justified.

What is a good recommended resources for further study?

The New Yorker article, “The Man Behind Bin Laden” gives us an insight into the detailed thinking of one religious group that encouraged and developed the notions of martyrdom and demonization.

Bergen Record Page One: Two Tales of Solomon Dwek's Political "Gifts"

The first Bergen Record page one story today of the rabbi's son lists (see below) the NJ state politicians who received "gifts" from Solomon Dwek, the informant who was responsible for the arrest of 44 people in last week's FBI corruption roundup... "Key witness made nearly $200,000 in campaign contributions."

The second story shows why we have to put "gifts" in quotation marks. It traces a typical quid pro quo (that is, a favor or advantage given or expected in return for something) of NJ "gift" giving -- how those payoffs get you expedited service at the Department of Environmental Protection.

The story, "DEP e-mails follow lawmaker's request," tells us that, "Days before his arrest on federal corruption charges, a state assemblyman called New Jersey's environmental protection agency seeking help for a developer prosecutors say gave the lawmaker $15,000 in bribes."

This is a textbook example of how bribery and corruption transforms a culture of fairness with an even playing field and equal opportunity for all into a murky swamp land of mobsters and crooks.

Just a question. In what course at what university or business school will they teach that this is a textbook example of wrong conduct?

Better yet. At what Yeshiva or Christian Seminary will they give lessons on how to detect and deter such corruption?

None that we know of.

The list of "gift" recipients from the Record:

The informant at the center of a recent corruption scandal was a frequent campaign contributor before he went undercover. Here’s some of the recipients, and what they say they will do with the money now.
Recipient Total received Plans for the money
N.J. Republican State Committee. $51,000 Giving to charity
Assembly Republican Victory Committee. $20,000 Keeping it
U.S. Rep. Frank J. Pallone, Jr., D-Long Branch $18,900 Charity
State Sen. Thomas Kean Jr., R-Westfield $8,400 Charity*
State Sen. Joe Kyrillos, R-Monmouth $5,200 Charity
N.J. Democratic State Committee $6,500 Keeping it
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. $3,500 Charity
State Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth $2,750 Charity
State Sen. Brian Stack, D-Union City $2,600 No response

7/29/09

An Ironic Ninth of Av Editorial by Israeli Editor Aluf "Kamtza" Benn in the New York Times


The rabbis of the Talmud mocked the self-destructive lack of diplomacy of the Jews of antiquity in the symbolic story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza.

We are so far removed from the cultural context of their Babylonian academies that we cannot fully decode the Talmud's meaning in this narrative.

What is certain is that the Talmud provides us with a ridiculous story in which inviting the wrong guest to a meeting and saying the wrong things in an assembly led to cosmic consequences, namely the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the end of Jewish sovereignty.

Here is a part of the ancient tale.

It was because of 'Kamtza and Bar-Kamtza' that Yerushalayim was destroyed …"
"For there was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but who was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, 'Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,' but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead."
"The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, 'Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!' Bar-Kamtza said, 'Since I'm here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.' "
"The host responded, 'No!' "
" 'I will pay for half the cost of the feast.' "
" 'No!' "
" 'I will pay the entire cost of the feast!' "
" 'No!' And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!"
"Bar-Kamtza thought, 'Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I'll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king."


Now the rabbis of the Talmud knew well and good that it was not a mixed up invitation that had the ultimate impact on Jewish destiny. It was the will of God to punish his people for failing to observe his commandments that led to the exile. The book of Lamentations and so many other sources made all of this theologically clear.

We are sure that the Talmud taught this tale for another reason and that is to remind us then and now to beware of the moronic antics and lack of diplomacy of some of our own Jewish spokesmen.

In short the story is there in the Talmud to inform us that while God controls our destiny, the stupid acts of some Jews can and do damage our interests.

It's an unbelievable coincidence that just days before this fast day, which we commemorate tonight and tomorrow, just yesterday, a Jewish writer exhibited in an op-ed essay a pristine example of just that antic idiotic behavior.

And as a Talmudic rabbi of today we need to emulate our predecessors of yore and rise to mock that utterly pointless exercise of self-destructiveness.

Aluf Benn, the editor at large of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, said in the Times,
In his global tours and TV appearances, President Obama has spoken to Arabs, Muslims, Iranians, Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans, Russians and Africans. His words have stirred emotions and been well received everywhere.

But he hasn’t bothered to speak directly to Israelis.
Now this arrogant insult is so beyond dumb, ordinarily we wouldn't have even commented on it.

But as we said, it's a rabbinic obligation to remember on the Ninth of Av to mock such nonsense.

There is more for us to denounce. The writer says further on in his abomination of desolate opinionating,
In Mr. Netanyahu’s narrative, the president has fallen under the influence of top aides — in this case Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod — whom the prime minister has called “self-hating Jews.”
It's not enough to berate the president for alleged slights that simply make no sense. Obama more than any other US president has spoken clearly and unequivocally of his support of Israel -- even in his address to the Arab World from Cairo!

Yet the Israeli, Aluf "Kamtza" Benn, without any care for its ramifications, went on to disrespect the top Jewish advisors of Barack Obama in public in the Times and to do so in the name of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel!

Mr. Benn, we say to you in the spirit of the Talmud, please take your complaints about who attends or does not attend your party, your accusations about who is a good Jew and who is not, and shove all of them up your self-destructive nose.

As we said and firmly believe, fortunately it is God who decides the fate of our people.

But all of us need to remember on this occasion of the fast of the Ninth of Av, and every day, that bad diplomacy has hurt us in the past, and it does harm our interests in the present.

iPhone Jewish apps: find shuls, find East with a mizrach compass and more, for Palm Pre coming soon

Via Jeffrey Goldberg:
A new iPhone application, aptly titled Synagogues, directs users to nearby congregations, replete with their denomination, rabbi's contact information ...RustyBrick -- which, among other things, locates nearby kosher restaurants and mikvahs ...
Jeffrey doesn't mention that some are free and some are pricey apps, e.g., from RustyBrick, Shabbat is free, Siddur & Zmanim is $9.99, Kosher is $4.99, Mizrach Compass is $.99 (we'd get that one if we had an iPhone), and from Lost Tribe Apps, Synagogues is $.99.

RustyBrick informs its customers, "RustyBrick is currently working on developing many of our popular iPhone Apps for the Palm Pre, including many of our Jewish iPhone Apps. "

Update: Scandals bring back the spotlights... In June theTimes Praised Syrian Jewish Flatbush Yeshiva Graduate Playwright David Adjmi

Once a Boyhood Outsider, Now Reflecting on His Tribe
Robert Stolarik for The New York Times. David Adjmi outside the high school division of the Yeshiva of Flatbush, in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.

Update: We would not be surprised to see this play back in a theater real soon now following the unfortunate publicity that the Syrian Jewish community has suffered after the FBI sting operation and the subsequent arrest of Rabbi Saul Kassin and other prominent members of the group.

In June, the reviews for the Adjmi play were mixed. But the Times liked it as this review shows: Once a Boyhood Outsider, Now Reflecting on His Tribe By FELICIA LEE

We see this situation as bad for his tribe, but a boost for the writer. David Adjmi’s play “Stunning” is set in the Syrian-Jewish enclave of Brooklyn where he grew up. [The Times review comes with audio interviews.]

By the way Wikipedia says, "The term playwright is not a variant spelling of playwrite, but something quite distinct: the word wright is an archaic English term for a craftsman or builder (as in a wheelwright or cartwright)."

7/28/09

Turmoil at Yeshiva College as Dean David Srolovitz Unexpectedly Resigns after just 3 years

President Richard Joel has announced in an email that his college's dean (pictured) is resigning (unexpectedly) and that he is appointing a temporary two year replacement.

He says, "I have accepted Dr. David Srolovitz's resignation as dean of Yeshiva College, effective September 1, 2009. David will be on leave as Professor of Physics, as he accepts a high level research opportunity in Singapore..."

The quickly designated replacement-dean is a solid scholar and a real mensch but is hardly the seasoned administrator that one would want to have in the demanding position of college dean, "Professor Barry Eichler has agreed to a two year appointment as dean of Yeshiva College. Dr. Eichler, a graduate of the Yeshiva College class of 1960, earned his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and spent over forty years on its Jewish Studies Faculty as an expert in Assyriology."

Joel concludes his email announcement by sidestepping the dire situation and instead expressing his pleasure at "advancing" -- "These are exciting and challenging times for us all. At Yeshiva Collage, I am pleased that we are advancing in the realms of top academic leadership."

Talmudic Analysis: When a top administrator prematurely jumps ship, this cannot be interpreted as an "advance."

Star Ledger: Giles Gade Runs the Shomer Shabbos Cross River Bank in Teaneck.

We do not recall coming across a Sabbath Observing bank in the US -- until now.

The Star Ledger profiles Giles Gade who runs the Shomer Shabbos Cross River Bank in Teaneck. It's closed for business on the Sabbath day. But alas, he can't guarantee he will keep the Sabbath policy going.
...Q: Is Cross River a Sabbath-observing bank?

A: Yes. We close at 4 p.m. on Fridays.

Q: Is that for the comfort of the customers or the employees?

A: For both. Obviously, if we have demand from the customer base, we will accommodate them. We're trying to respect the Sabbath laws, if possible. We obtained authorization from the state to be open these hours. If our clients start complaining about it, then we will have to adjust that policy.
Where is the bank, you ask? It is at 885 Teaneck Road, across the street from the Teaneck Public Library and Police Station and just up the block from the Holy Name Hospital. The bank's web site is here.

ynet: Outrage? Iranian Mohammad Alirezaei Won't Swim Against Israeli Mickey Malul

We were just about ready to write a vigorous opinion to protest the outrage that ynet reports, namely that Iranian Mohammad Alirezaei won't swim against Israeli Mickey Malul at the world championships in Rome. He did the same thing at the Beijing Olympics.

We wanted to say this was an instance at least of bad sportsmanship on a national level, that it was a bad way to mix politics into an international sports competition, and perhaps that it represented a blatant racist act.

Then we remembered that... most of the Haredi, Hasidic and other Orthodox Jewish men that we know won't swim in the same pool with any woman.

Yes, different explanations. But similar outcomes.

So we said to ourselves, Never mind.

7/27/09

It's not just us - New Yorker Pans the Kindle; While TechCrunch Touts the Apple Tablet as the Kindle in Technicolor


We've bought and returned three Amazon Kindle book readers. Each time we ordered the gadget with much excitement. We bought into the hype and bought the readers.

The first one was just disappointing. We read two books on it and then read that they were in such short supply that people were paying up to $1000 for one on Ebay right before Christmas. We got $950 for ours.

The second one was just disappointing. We tried sending some books and texts to it and just got exasperated. The technology was starting to look to us 25 years old. It couldn't recognize Hebrew. We sent this one back to Amazon.

The third one was the DX - the big sized one. Yes, it was starting to sound better and look better - but not by that much. It could read PDF files - so the foreign language problem was diminished. But at nearly $500 for a one function book reader with a really clunky browser - when full functioning laptops were starting to sell for $300. Nah. Back it went to Amazon, yet again.

We love Amazon and buy lots of products from them. They ship fast and they are reliable to a fault and they take stuff back without a question most of the time if it is broken or if you just change your mind. You pay to ship it back in the latter case.

Amazon is a great retail sales operation. It revolutionized online ordering. It's a great software company too. It makes its own customer tracking and product matching algorithms. It is a great book selling company. The world's best.

But we are not yet ready to declare the Kindle and its technologies for book reading an unmitigated success.

So we wonder if the deal here is the old story of the oil company that buys up all the alternative energy companies - wind power, electric car batteries and the like. Why? So it can give the impression that it is exploring the next generation of energy technology when all it is doing is slowing down the alternative industries.

It could be called the T. Boone Pickens Gambit. Pickens, the natural gas magnate, announced his commitment to wind power just last year. And now, well he is so sorry that it did not work out.

Has Amazon bought into the e-book market in order to slow it down?

Makes a lot of sense. They would not want to cannibalize their own bread and butter business of selling real live hard books, would they?

Anyway, that is not what Nicolson Baker says, writing in the New Yorker this week. He is not into conspiracy theories. "Amazon is very good at selling things, but, to date, it hasn’t been as good at making things," the picture caption of his article reads. He doesn't like the Kindle. He pans the device, the technology and he clobbers Amazon for its failures. In a nice New Yorker manner, of course.

TechCrunch predicts meanwhile that the anticipated Apple Tablet will be the Kindle in Technicolor i.e., "Apple’s Tablet Is The Kindle In Technicolor (With Laser Beams)" with the touch screen that we expect to find on our 21st century devices.

7/26/09

Accused Syrian Community Rabbi Saul Kassin is a Book Author

We've found references to a book written by accused Syrian Community Rabbi Saul Kassin.

It's title is, The Light of the Law: Guideposts to Biblical Commandments and Their Rabbinic Commentaries, and it was published by Shengold Publishers in 1980 or Schreiber Publishing Incorporated in 1981.

One of the subjects it is associated with in the cataloging information is, "Commandments, Six hundred and thirteen."

The book is cited in the bibliography of a course by Dr. David W. Gill for REGENT COLLEGE Distance Education whose title was, "APPL/INDS 559: BUSINESS ETHICS: ENGAGING MORAL ISSUES IN THE MARKETPLACE."

Our Talmudic analysis: In light of recent arrests, Dr. Gill may wish to revise his syllabus.

Also the cataloging category for Rabbi Kassin's book may need to be amended to read, "Commandments, Six hundred and twelve."

Bergen Record: Why is it so easy to use Shuls and Yeshivas to Launder Money?

Harvy Lipman of the Record explains why lack of regulation over religious non-profits makes it so easy for shuls and yeshivas to launder money and provide phony IRS receipts.
Law shields religious charities from scrutiny
BY HARVY LIPMAN

One of the key elements of the money-laundering case brought Thursday against several leaders of the Syrian Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Deal was the use of charities linked to religious groups as conduits.

According to the federal complaints, checks made out to the charities were sent to Israel, where the funds were run through other entities and returned to money-laundering clients for a fee.

This is not the first time federal authorities have uncovered a scam utilizing religious charities to launder money. In fact, less than two weeks ago, Naftali Tzi Weisz, the grand rabbi of a Brooklyn-based Hasidic sect, agreed to plead guilty to one charge in a case involving charities connected to his group. That scheme involved steering donations to the charities, which would transfer the money through various Israeli banks and organizations and return 80 percent to 95 percent of the funds to the donors.

Thus, a donor who gave $100,000 would get a tax deduction for the full amount, even though only $5,000 to $20,000 of the money went to charity.

Several experts in non-profit law said that federal tax law significantly hampers regulators’ ability to ferret out abuse by charities linked to religious groups. Under the Internal Revenue Code, such organizations are not required to file tax returns as most non-profits are. Of the half-dozen charities named in Thursday’s federal complaints, only one has filed federal tax returns.

“There’s no regular flow of information the way there is with every other form of taxpayer, whether an individual or a tax-exempt entity,” said Marc Owens, a Washington lawyer and former head of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service.

“Because of that lack of information, the IRS has a difficult time determining if something irregular is going on. There are no documents to look at.”

Oversight ‘difficult’

Daniel Kurtz, a Manhattan lawyer and former director of the New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau, said religious groups’ exemption from filing tax returns also hamstrings state regulatory agencies, which rely on the information in the returns.
“Obviously, it makes it tremendously difficult to exercise any level of oversight,” Kurtz said.

He noted that some restraints on government review of religious groups’ activities are warranted under the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom.

“There may be some things that would look unusual at another organization, like spending a lot of money for vestments to clothe a priest, that are none of the state’s business,” Kurtz said. “But the total lack of oversight is troubling.”

Owens said Congress has recently added a section — restricting audits — to the tax code, even further limiting oversight of religious groups.

“There’s a requirement that a high official of the IRS determine that there is a reasonable probability an audit will find information that endangers the church’s tax-exempt status before an audit can be conducted,” he said.

That’s quite different from other non-profits, which can be audited if an IRS examiner sees any reason to suspect a problem.

“You can’t start an audit of a church because an agent drove by a church and saw something suspicious, like a big car parked in the driveway,” Owens said.

Complicating matters, the tax code doesn’t define what constitutes a church.

“There are no regulations, but the issue has been addressed by a series of court decisions over the years,” Owens said. The IRS has developed a set of 14 criteria to decide whether an organization constitutes a religious group that have been endorsed to varying degrees in subsequent court rulings.

Chief among them are whether the organization has a congregation, holds regular services, ordains ministers based on a set of prescribed studies and has its own place or places of worship.

“An organization does not need to meet all of them, but it needs to meet a goodly number,” Owens said.

Corzine Chooses Teaneck's Loretta Weinberg as Running Mate

The Bergen Record reports big news for our little town.

Governor Corzine has chosen our own Loretta Weinberg as his running mate for the statewide office of Lieutenant Governor.

We met Loretta at a Barack Obama rally in early 2008. She was an early Obama booster, at a time when the state leadership was behind Hillary.

She's a clean politician and a straight shooter. Loretta will make a great LG.

7/25/09

Times: Two Seekers Questioning the Accepted Truth -- one at the end of his mission and one at the beginning

Do you thoroughly and critically question the accepted truth that has been taught to you? And if you find out that truth is malarky, or worse, that it is pernicious, do you reject it and tell the world what you have discovered?

The difference between a conservative and liberal. A conservative pretends to be critically searching for the truth when in fact he is playing mind games with his enemies. A conservative has no plan B, no desire to change or to inform the world of a newly discovered truth. Yes, a conservative pretends to alert us to a truth, but instead spreads slander and libel and rumor to crush his foes.

A liberal thrives on new knowledge -- because progress depends on upending the givens and moving on to the new. A liberal discovers truth and reveals it -- to move the world forward away from evil and towards good.

Frank Rich writes about the greatness of Walter Cronkite - he sought truth, he found truth and he told it to us all. He moved our country away from evil. As Rich says so brilliantly about the consummate master,
...What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart...more...
And then there are the rank beginners seeking truth for themselves first -- escaping the leg irons of conservative dogma -- before they can move on to spread new knowledge even to the next person. A college memoir (and we detest memoirs in general - mostly because of Daphne Merkin and her ilk's pompous arrogation of the genre) by a Baptist boy shows us how to unshackle the chains. George Fox University (wherever?) student Dustin Junkert takes his first astonishing stabs at seeking real truth in "What My Faith in God Looks Like":
I grew up quietly and without thought. My mom was a secretary at the Baptist church, and I led the worship team senior year of high school. My youth pastor was one of my best friends. I believed in God and my parents, my friends, and the four walls of my house. All things were within reach, simple and inspiring. And I told my girlfriend I wanted to be a writer...more...
Two seekers of truth - one at the end of his mission and one at the beginning.

7/24/09

Is Rabbi Saul Kassin the Godfather of the Brooklyn Syrian Jews?

Rabbi Saul Kassin leaves federal court after being charged with money laundering

Rabbi Saul Kassin, the chief rabbi of Sharee Zion in Brooklyn, leaves court after being charged with money laundering of proceeds derived from criminal activity. Kassin was one of 44 people charged in a corruption probe by the FBI. (Video by A.J. Chavar, Michael Monday, and John Munson/The Star-Ledger)

There are disputes out there about what to call the expected new HBO series based on the crooked New Jersey politicians and rabbis who were arrested yesterday by the FBI:

The Syrianos or The Sephardos?

Either way this is a true tragedy, not a cable TV series.

We wonder about the arrested Brooklyn Syrian chief rabbi, Saul Kassin. We make a fair assumption that the FBI does not arrest a high profile religious leader like that unless they have a whole Talmud of evidence against him. The FBI does not want to mess up that kind of arrest.

So then we have to wonder how and why does a saintly religious leader become so corrupted and get himself arrested by the FBI? The answer is - he does not wake up one morning and say, "No more Mr. Nice Guy."

Corruption creeps up on a person like that, one step at a time. And some of you say, let's give him the benefit of every doubt. He may have been cleverly fooled by those around him - and he may never have known about what was going on. We say okay, that's your right. Think that if it makes you feel better.

The actual road to corruption is not a slippery slope. It is a rocky path. First step, nobody says anything. Years go by. Times get tough. Second step, climbing down gets easier. Still nobody is the wiser. And the community benefits, doesn't it? Well, not right now.

Sarina Roffé wrote this about the Kassin ancestry:
The name Kassin is traced to a long line of rabbinical scholars, as well as to the French wine merchant and Jewish community leader Fedia Jacob Joseph Cassin and French jurist and statesman Rene Samuel Cassin, winner of the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize. The name can be spelled a number of ways, including Cassin, Kassin and Katzen.

The Kassins have nearly five centuries of rabbinical and Torah scholars behind them. Indeed, they fulfill the meaning of their ancestral name, Cassin. The Hebrew term Cassin means head of the community. The biblical word refers to captain or judge and occurs often in the Tanach. Kassin pre-dates the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, indicating the family held positions in Spain as judges and leaders for hundreds of years. The name Kassin was also recorded as a Jewish surname in Vauclause, France in the 14th Century. The Kassin family spans over 500 years of unbroken scholarship and leadership, compared to great Jewish dynasties in Eastern Europe.

Their story is traced to 16th Century Spain, where, according to original Hebrew records translated by Rabbi Shaul J. Kassin in his 1980 book, The Light of the Law, his ancestor Señor Shlomo Kassin lived in 1540.

As a wealthy Spanish merchant, Señor Shlomo Kassin fled Spanish persecution for the safe haven of Aleppo, Syria in 1540 where he soon became head of the Jewish community there. In Aleppo, Señor Shlomo devoted his energy to Torah study and to good works.

Heeb Movie Interview: Unattached Young Orthodox Jews on the Upper West Side

Normally we don't read Heeb because we aren't hip enough. But this film article seemed offbeat. And is it ever!

There are (we guess - no statistics offered) several thousand young Orthodox Jewish single men and women on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Some of them are profiled in a new film. It says there is a problem if these singles do nor marry and propagate the species.

So many things are wrong with this contrived analysis it is hard to know where talmudically to start. Let's just ask two questions and move on.

First, are non-Orthodox young American men and women also living as singles for longer on the Upper West Side and throughout the country for that matter? We think the answer is yes. And we think it is a result of powerful cultural and social forces. If we are right, then there is nothing abnormal about the MOJ UWS situation. It's not our strange crisis. It's an artifact of our civilization.

Second, are these young singles happy and well adjusted? True there have been a few tragic UWS instances - suicides stand out - that beg for an explanation. Yet we have not seen any evidence that there is an epidemic of culturally generated depression up there. There is lots of evidence of high achievement in career and creativity and of happy well-adjusted young people leading normal and superbly productive lives.

If then the cohort in question is happy and normal - we'd say happy as a clam - but that is a problematic idiom for Orthodox Jews - what then is all the tumult and the shouting about? We think there's no need to solve a problem that does not exist. It ain't broke. Don't try to fix it up. Leave them alone. They will be fine. Heeb it here:
The Upper West Side “Singles Crisis”

I thought a "singles crisis" referred to running out of ones at a strip club, but then I saw Unattached. The new documentary explores the predicament of aging 20-year-old single women in the Upper West Side’s Modern Orthodox community failing to find a match. This "plague" is causing major anxiety in the community; the longer young people remain unwed, the more likely they are to leave the fold.

The film has won a Student Academy Award, screened at mainstream and Jewish festivals around the world and is currently available on the Documentary Channel. Heeb caught up with director J.J. Adler, a video director at The Onion, after it’s New York premiere at Rooftop Films this summer... more...

7/23/09

Times: Syrian Jewish Rabbi Saul Kassin Arrest by FBI Shakes His Community and Us Too


The arrest of a saintly looking man, a rabbi, their leader, a man who instructs his community on what is kosher and what is treif, has shaken the Syrian Jewish community, according to the Times.

It has shaken us too. We have sat reading the news accounts and we cried.

This after all, appears to be the greatest imaginable betrayal of trust by a religious leader that we have witnessed in our memories.

You cannot stand before your flock and purport to tell them what God wants them to do to be good and moral - in this case it was notably to promulgate an edict of who God wants them to marry - and in your own life tolerate and foster corruption and immorality.

Hypocrisy is not a strong enough term to describe this behavior.

The common internal term for it in the community of Jews is "chillul hashem" - desecration of the Lord. But that's just an ejaculative - not a descriptive. The Lord is not desecrated by the acts of hooligans, no matter what are their titles, hairstyles or undergarments.

We left the door unlocked for our ostensible mentors and now they have walked away with our silverware.

This is a desecration of a communal trust - a spouse who has cheated - a business partner who has stolen - a best friend from childhood who has spread a vicious rumor about you.

This is a father who has abused his children - a husband who has beaten his wife - it is all the worst things you can imagine in human relations - magnified by that charter that we call "religion" that we have agreed to abide by because we believe in a thing called "trust."

Read it and weep for that dear friend called trust has died.
Syrian Sephardic Communities Shaken by Charges Against a Leading Rabbi
By PAUL VITELLO

The young receive free educations and the old get free geriatric care. Family businesses connect relatives in a web of interdependence to the furthest reaches of kinship. Wedding receptions with 1,000 guests are common. A Friday night Sabbath dinner with 40 people is the norm.

And that enveloping tradition among the Syrian Jewish communities of Brooklyn and New Jersey seemed to redouble the shock and outrage among their members Thursday after the arrests of five Sephardic rabbis in a New Jersey corruption investigation.

“Shock and disbelief — my cellphone, my office phone — they’re ringing off the hook” said Assemblyman Dov Hikind of Brooklyn, who represents an Orthodox Jewish community adjacent to the southern Brooklyn neighborhoods where about 75,000 Sephardic Jews live. “People do not believe it.”

In a criminal complaint, the F.B.I. said the rabbis used their congregations’ charitable organizations to launder about $3 million — passing what they were told was a donor’s ill-gotten gains through their charities’ bank accounts, and then returning the money to the donor in exchange for a cut of 5 to 10 percent.

The donor turned out to be an apparent F.B.I. informer, Solomon Dwek, who, like the rabbis, is a Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent.

One of the five rabbis, Saul J. Kassin, 87, a slight, soft-spoken man who has written several books on Jewish law, leads the largest of about 50 Sephardic synagogues in the United States, Shaare Zion in Brooklyn. He is considered the leading cleric of the national community.

The congregation was founded by his father, Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, who was known from 1932 until his death in 1994 as the chief rabbi of Brooklyn’s Syrian Sephardic Jews.

David G. Greenfield, executive vice president of the Sephardic Community Federation, a group representing the approximately 100,000 Sephardim in Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey, said in a statement, “The community is shocked and saddened by these allegations, which go against every value and teaching the community holds dear.”

He added, “If over time these allegations are proven, we must remember that these are the isolated actions of a few individuals.”

Sephardic Jews trace their ancestry to Spain and various parts of North Africa and the Middle East, as distinct from the Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe. They include Moroccans, Turks, Iranians and Iraqis. But most belong to families that emigrated to the United States from the Middle East, especially Syria, because of anti-Jewish attacks there after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.

Unique among groups within Judaism, Sephardic leaders have tried mightily to strike a difficult balance between preservation of identity and participation in the American entrepreneurial dream, said Prof. Aviva Ben-Ur of the University of Massachusetts, author of “Sephardic Jews in America: A Diasporic History.”

In 1935, Rabbi Kassin’s father issued an edict forbidding both marriage outside the faith and marriage to Jewish converts, she said. At the same time, Sephardim, unlike the ultra-Orthodox who live at a remove from American society, attend public schools in the lower grades and are encouraged to succeed in business.

Among the successful businesses founded by Sephardic Jews are Jordache and Bonjour, the jeans makers, and the Conway and Century 21 department stores.

Phone messages left at Rabbi Kassin’s home were not returned. At the home of his son, Jacob S. Kassin, a woman answered and said the son would not be available to comment.

David Ben-Hooren, a member of the congregation and publisher of The Jewish Voice and Opinion, a conservative monthly newspaper, spoke to reporters at the synagogue, on Ocean Parkway.

"When the facts come out, we’ll find out that those rabbis never broke the law,” he said. “I believe they’re going to be vindicated. Knowing those rabbis for many years, I know that they devoted their lives to charity, and there’s no way that they benefited from any of those activities."

FBI Raids Deal Synagogue and Yeshiva and Arrests Syrian Jews and Rabbi Saul Kassin for Money Laundering


There is a special place in hell for crooks who use public elected offices, synagogues and yeshivas to carry out their racketeering.

The shocking coverage at nj.com includes photographs of the FBI taking evidence out of the Deal Yeshiva and of people screaming at photographers outside "Rabbi Jacob Kassin's house" in Deal NJ.

According to records, Rabbi Jacob Kassin died in 1994, so we don't know why this house is identified that way - though the picture above is of a guy in a nice golf shirt identified as one, "Jakie Kassin, son of the current SY chief rabbi, by the pool at his home in Deal, N.J." from the Times profile in 2007 by Zev Chafets of the SY community.

Updates: The Times reports these details:
Weysan Dun, the special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Newark office, said the rabbis arrested — including the grand rabbi of the Syrian Jewish community in the United States, Saul Kassin of Brooklyn — were part of a vast money-laundering conspiracy with tentacles in Israel and Switzerland. Another person, Levy-Izhak Rosenbaum of Brooklyn, was accused of enticing vulnerable people to give up a kidney for $10,000 and then selling the organ for $160,000...

The rabbis arrested were from enclaves of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn and in Deal and Elberon, communities along the Jersey Shore in Monmouth County.
The WSJ reports more about the informant and the rabbis:
The key to the investigation was an Orthodox Jewish real-estate developer, according to a person familiar with the matter. Solomon Dwek was arrested on bank-fraud charges in 2006 and was forced to seek bankruptcy protection for himself and his companies, which owned about 300 residential and commercial properties. Mr. Dwek, 36 years old, a religious-school head and philanthropist from Ocean Township, was charged with defrauding PNC Bank out of $25 million. Mr. Dwek remained free on a $10 million bond. A lawyer for Mr. Dwek couldn't be reached for comment.

To ensnare most of the defendants, the Federal Bureau of Investigation used Mr. Dwek to attempt to bribe numerous public officials in New Jersey, including Hoboken and Jersey City, according to a person familiar with the matter. The probe roped in several other real-estate developers who also wanted to bribe officials. The criminal complaints unsealed Thursday referenced an unnamed "cooperating witness" who represented himself as a real-estate developer seeking to pay bribes. A person familiar with the matter said Mr. Dwek is the witness.

"The politicians willingly put themselves up for sale," Mr. Marra said in an afternoon news conference. "They existed in an ethics-free zone."

Mr. Cammarano, who became Hoboken mayor on July 1, allegedly agreed to take $10,000 in bribes from the cooperating witness in exchange for supporting the developer's future plans in Hoboken. The alleged bribes occurred during Mr. Cammarano's mayoral campaign earlier this year, according to the FBI's complaint, which also charged an associate of Mr. Cammarano, who allegedly served as a middleman and took cash for him.

Mr. Dwek was also the key to the money-laundering probe, according to the person familiar with the matter. Under the FBI's direction, Mr. Dwek represented himself as someone who engaged in illegal businesses and schemes including bank fraud, trafficking in counterfeit goods and concealing assets and monies in connection with bankruptcy proceedings.

Among the charged rabbis for money laundering and other fraudulent acts are Edmond Nahum, the principal rabbi of Deal Synagogue in the shore community of Deal, in Monmouth County; Eliahu Ben Haim, principal rabbi of Congregation Ohel Yaacob, also in Deal; Saul Kassin, a rabbi Shaare Zion Congregation in the New York borough of Brooklyn; Mordchai Fish, a rabbi at a Brooklyn synagogue, Congregation Sheves Achim; and his brother, Lavel Schwartz, also a rabbi.
The Star Ledger site provides numerous photos of the arrested politicians and the list of those arrested and this story:
N.J. officials, N.Y. rabbis caught in federal money laundering, corruption sweep

NEWARK -- A New Jersey assemblyman and the mayors of Hoboken and Secaucus were among public officials arrested this morning by FBI agents in an international money laundering and corruption probe that includes rabbis in the Syrian Jewish communities of Deal and Brooklyn.

Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt (R-Ocean), Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell and Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega are among those already brought to the FBI building in Newark. Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini has also been arrested.

Mayor Peter Cammarano is one of many people brought to FBI Headquarters in Newark after an being taken into custody early this morning.

A total of 30 people have been taken into custody, officials said.

The arrests are the result of a two-year FBI and IRS probe that began with an investigation of money transfers by members of the Syrian enclaves in Deal and Brooklyn. Those arrested this morning include key religious leaders in the tight-knit, wealthy communities.

The federal investigation then expanded into a public corruption probe.

No indictments have been released, though court appearances are expected later today in U.S. District Court in Newark. Nearly 20 people have already been led into the FBI building in Newark as the sweep continues to unfold in two states.

Agents also raided religious institutions to make arrests and collect information.

The Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office and the IRS took out at least three boxes from the Deal Yeshiva, as students were arriving at school. The Deal Yeshiva, on the corner of Brighton and Norwood avenues, is a prestigious religious school in town.

Authorities also searched the Ohel Yaacob synagogue on Ocean Avenue in Deal and removed several boxes.

Assemblyman Van Pelt, 44, is also the mayor of Ocean Township, a post he has held since 1988. He holds degrees from The College of New Jersey (Criminal Justice) and Regent University (Public Policy and Government).

Cammarano, 32, a Democrat, was elected mayor of Hoboken in June. He was elected Hoboken City Councilman-at-Large in 2005. According to his campaign website, Cammarano is an attorney at the law firm of Genova, Burns, & Vernoia, which has offices in New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.

Cammarano previously worked as a law clerk for Superior Court Judge Kevin Callahan in Jersey City. He is a member of the New Jersey State Bar Association and the Association of the Federal Bar of the State of New Jersey, as well as the bar associations for Hudson, Bergen and Essex Counties. He has also worked as an adjunct professor at Montclair State University.

Elwell, 64, has served for more than two decades as mayor and a member of the town council. Elwell and his council slate recently won victory in their contested Democratic June primary contests.

Elwell is the president of a family-owned trucking company. He is a former Secaucus Board of Education member and a decorated Vietnam combat veteran.

7/22/09

How did Religion Motivate Sikh Terrorists?

Why have religious conviction, hatred of secular society, and the demonstration of power through acts of violence--so frequently been part of Sikh activist movements?

In Terror in the Mind of God, Mark Juergensmeyer interviewed Simranjit Singh Mann and concluded that the Sikh movement which engaged in terrorism took its shape against Hindu power and the influence of secular society in general:
Bhindranwale disdained--indeed loathed--above all else was what he described as "the enemies of religion." These included "that lady born in a house of Brahmans"--the phrase he used to describe Indira Gandhi. But it also included his fellow Sikhs, especially those who had fallen from the disciplined fold and sought the comforts of modern life. Even his dislike of Indira Gandhi was grounded in a hatred of secularism as much in an opposition to Hinduism; in fact, he often regarded the two as twin enemies. He reflected an attitude held by many Sikhs that what passes for secular politics in India is a form of Hindu cultural domination. So conscious are many Sikhs of what they regard as the oppressiveness of Hindu culture that they react strongly when scholars locate the origins of their tradition in a medieval Hindu milieu.
Who was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and what role did he play in Sikh militarism?

Juergensmeyer summarizes:
The Sikh movement contained a diversity of points of view, however, and one of the most strident of its advocates--someone whom Mann admired--saw the struggle almost solely in religious terms. This leader was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a rural preacher from central Punjab who became the spokesman for Sikh militancy from its first stirrings in 1978 until his movement's nadir--and Bhindranwale's martyrdom and the tragic events of 1984. Bhindranwale was a homespun village preacher who called for repentance and action in defense of the faith. Mann regarded him as one of Sikh history's most impressive leaders because of his ability to summarize great themes in simple phrases and clearcut images. According to Mann, he "articulated the hegemony of Hindu power and the injustice suffered by Sikhs, and he did it all with a consciousness of Sikh history and tradition."
See this website for a story about B from the Sikh Times.

What were the Sikh justifications for violence?

Though not entirely spelled out, Juergensmeyer lets his subjects speak to this point:
Harjap Singh answered indirectly. "In Sikh history," he said, "young men go away in battle and do not return. They are our martyrs."

This simple justification for young men's fighting in battle--killing or being killed in sacred struggle--runs deep in India's religious traditions. Long before Sikhism developed as a separate religious tradition in the sixteenth century, in India's ancient Vedic times, warriors called on the gods to participate in their struggles and to provide a divine leverage for victory. The potency of the gods was graphically depicted in mythic stories filled with violent encounters and bloody acts of vengeance.
See this site for more about Sikh religion and culture. [If you are in a library -- mute your speakers first before clicking.]

What were some of the Hindu justifications for violence?

Complex as this may be, Juergensmeyer gives a capsule of some motives and moods that support both violence and non-violence:
As India's religious traditions developed, images of warfare persisted. The great epics--the Mahabbarata and the Ramavana--contained grand accounts of wars and battles, and the enduring sermon of Lord Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita, was recorded in the Mahabharata as being delivered on a battlefield. The Gita gave several reasons why killing in warfare is permissible, among them the argument that the soul can never really be killed: "he who slays, slays not; he who is slain, is not slain." Another reason is based on dharrna (moral obligation): the duties of a member of the ksatriya (warrior) caste by definition involve killing, so violence is justified in the very maintenance of social order. Mohandas Gandhi, like many other modern Hindus who revere the Gita, regarded its warfare as allegorical, representing the conflict between good and evil. Gandhi, who ordinarily subscribed to nonviolence, allowed for an exception to this general rule when a small, strategic act of violence would defuse a greater violence.
[repost from 10.01.2007]

7/21/09

Friday Night Lights: Bold Theft of Infiniti Wheels on Shabbos Eve from Street in Front of a Teaneck Mansion

Imagine our shock when walking up Warwick Avenue in Teaneck last Saturday noon to Shabbos lunch at friends and seeing a nice late model black Infiniti automobile up on cinder blocks.

All four of its wheels had been stolen the night before!

It's a scene we'd more expect to see in the old South Bronx.

On the way back from lunch we watched the Teaneck police process the crime scene. They expressed neither shock nor surprise at the crime.

We can't/won't say whose house it was parked in front of.

Neighbors: Do you have wheel locks on your car?

Petition: Religious Jews Condemn Violence by Religious Jews in Mea She'arim and Ramat Beit Shemesh

From: David Bar-Cohn
To:  Jews and non-Jews everywhere 
In the spirit of the Talmudic dictum "silence is like agreement" I feel compelled to speak up.

Violence in the name of religious Judaism -- brought to media attention by demonstrations held in Mea She'arim and Ramat Beit Shemesh as well as by sporadic violent incidents committed there and elsewhere -- has caused untold harm to people, property, and to the reputation of Judaism itself. It is therefore time for the overwhelming silent majority of good, decent, peaceful and law-abiding religious Jews to raise a voice in opposition to this violence.

Whether it is stones or soiled diapers being thrown at police officers, cars and buses being pelted with rocks, women being intimidated or beaten for their dress or for refusing to sit at the back of the bus, public property being destroyed, trash bins and refuse being burned, or other uses of force as a means of religious expression or coercion, it has become necessary to say that which should go without saying:

SUCH VIOLENCE IS COMPLETELY ANTITHETICAL TO AUTHENTIC JEWISH THOUGHT AND PRACTICE, AND I CONDEMN IT WITHOUT RESERVATION AND IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS.

Sabbath desecration or other acts which may go against religious Jewish sensibilities DO NOT justify a violent response. Harming people or property in the name of Judaism is a FAR GREATER desecration. Indeed it runs counter to what it means to be a Jew, wherein "love thy neighbor" is the central pillar of Jewish life and a vital part of all ritual observances.

With my signature as well as those of other like-minded individuals, this petition shall stand as testimony to all those who search the web for terms such as "religious Jewish violence" that there is a strong voice among religious Jews which opposes this violence unequivocally.

(While all who agree are welcome to sign this petition, religious Jews are especially encouraged to do so, since it is their voice which most critically needs to be heard.)

Sincerely,

The Undersigned

7/20/09

Is Britney Spears Jewish Yet?

As Andy Borowitz wrote in one of the funniest essays ever to appear in the New Yorker, Britney Spears may be a Jew soon.

Or then again, maybe not.

Borowitz reveals the entries from Britney’s Conversion Diary.

Under the sway of Jason Trawick and Madonna and with the help of the legendary Rabbi Pearlstein, Britney valiantly describes her struggles with her conversion to Judaism.

All we can say is LMJAO.

[hat tip to mimi]

7/19/09

Times: A Star comes forth from Yavne Israel - Omri Caspi Will Play in the NBA for the Sacramento Kings

It is safe to say that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who established the center of rabbinic Judaism at Yavne after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed nearly 2000 years ago in the year 70, would be proud of the accomplishments of the Yavnean King of our era, Omri Caspi.

A great article in the Times reports that Caspi's going to the NBA!
...No Israeli has ever played in the N.B.A. Until last month, none had ever been drafted in the first round.

When the Kings took Casspi with the 23rd pick, he became the first Israeli to secure a guaranteed contract, which will almost assuredly make him the first to play in an N.B.A. game.

That moment will come this fall. The celebrations began immediately on draft night.

“It was a huge festival in Israel,” said Dan Shamir, a longtime Israeli coach who worked with Casspi when Casspi was a teenager on the national team. “For many years, people were asking when Israel will have an N.B.A. player. When it actually happened, it made huge headlines.”

At home in Yavne, a suburb of Tel Aviv, the 21-year-old Casspi celebrated with friends and family, and wept. The emotions were overwhelming, not only because Casspi had attained a goal, but also because he had realized a nation’s dream...more...

Times: Maureen Dowd Invokes the P-Word (Pharisee) in Her Attack on the Republicans

Why did Maureen Dowd ruin her otherwise spot-on strident critique of the current hi-jinks of the sanctimonious republicans by invoking the P-Word - Pharisees?
Pharisees on the Potomac
By MAUREEN DOWD

Like cats that have lost their whiskers, the Republicans seem off balance now that they have lost their talent for hypocrisy...continued...
We get the allusion to the Gospel Pharisees who were called "hypocrites" and a "brood of vipers."

The problem is that we Jews consider ourselves to be the heirs of the Pharisees. No, not the heirs of the caricature of the Pharisees that Matthew 23 describes in its vitriolic polemic. We are the derivative descendants of the actual historical Pharisees who were pious observers of the laws of the Torah.

Dowd is to be commended for calling out the repeat-offender republicans for their utter hypocrisies.

But she should leave us out of her critique. She should call down woes to the Republicans without getting all biblical on them.

And just one more thing for Maureen to consider. Republicans by no means have an exclusive franchise of hypocritical life-styles. Why not just admit that to get to the pinnacle in politics you are likely to be a sleaze-bag - spelled with a capital R or a capital D. That seems a safer message and assumption.

And you know what? The R-hypocrites don't care if you waste an op-ed criticizing their antics. It's one less column devoted to the discussion of the real issues that bedevil our country.

Move back to the issues Maureen and stop showing off your broad phylacteries - herein - your profound knowledge of the Bible (wink wink).

By the way, if you folks want to refresh yourseves on the attack that was launched on our ancestors in Matthew 23, try this site. Choose any translation that suits you and start from verse 13. It's ugly rhetoric.

7/18/09

What does the Amazon Kindle 1984 Affair teach us about copyright infringement?

We ask, What does the Amazon Kindle "1984" affair teach us about copyright infringement?

Amazon made a mistake. The company sold some copies of a book by George Orwell in violation of its copyright.

The officials at Amazon deemed this such a serious error that they went ahead and retrieved all the offending copies that they sold from their customers' Kindles.

The managers at Amazon knew the irony of a "Big Brother" deleting copies of the book "1984" would make for a juicy unflattering story in the news media.

They also knew that copyright infringement by any author, publisher or book dealer is a despicable and unforgivable offense. It is a game ending sin. Once the trust is breached, it is gone.

Amazon did the right thing even though it has resulted in many mocking articles and blog postings.

Amazon is to be commended for their decisive and honest actions after discovering their copyright infringement mistake.

Applause please.

May Orthodox Jews pray in a basement?

We raise this Talmudic question after hearing a fine presentation last week by Professor David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College, which touched on many subjects including an analysis of a famous statement by Rabbi Israel Hildesheimer.

The 19th century Orthodox leader wrote an essay in which he replied to Hungarian Orthodox rabbis who forbade a whole bunch of synagogue innovations such as sermons in the vernacular, robes, choirs, spires, weddings in the shul, or pretty much any change in the synagogue from what they liked. Rabbi Hildesheimer pointed out that these edicts had no basis in Jewish law and took issue with his Orthodox adversaries.

An irony of the lecture apparently went right over the heads of all 50 or so people in attendance in Teaneck.

The sponsor was Davar, an alternative Orthodox minyan group that meets in the finished basement of a local home in the town. Although all speeches are offered in the vernacular, there are no spires, choirs or spiffy robes to be found anywhere in sight. No danger of the aesthetic innovations of other religions influencing this venue. It is a spacious and pleasant basement, but it was not designed originally to be a spacious and pleasant sacred space of worship.

This big question has always nagged at me. If you have an beautiful synagogue facility nearby - designed to be a sacred space - are you permitted to pray in a basement?

True, there is nothing rancid or offensive in such a venue. But the setting of Judaic prayer is part of the performance of the mitzvah - so should Jews not build and use the most aesthetic places that they can for prayer?

And given the choice of praying in an alleyway, a basement or a nice synagogue, is it not obvious that one should opt for the more classy locale?

Just a Talmudic inquiry tinged with irony.