12/21/13

Our First Sabra Zahavy

Our family has deep ties to Israel. In the late 1950's my American grandparents picked up from New York City and went on aliyah to fulfill their dream to live in State of Israel. When they passed away my father and his siblings inherited their property. My dad and mom loved Israel and visited many times. They are buried in Jerusalem near my grandparents and an aunt and uncle.

I brought my family along on my numerous research leaves and sabbaticals to live in Israel in our family apartment in Jerusalem. My son Yitzhak and his wife Julie met when they were both living in Tel Aviv. They came to live in New Jersey and now they and their children Shaiel, Yair, Gavi and Eitan moved from New Jersey to Israel on aliyah in August 2013 to live in Zichron Yaakov.

And now Yitz and Julie and family have a new member. Julie gave birth to a baby boy on 12/18/13.



I'm proud of my family connections to Israel that now continue in such meaningful and substantial ways!

12/19/13

Neshama Carlebach Converts to Reform Judaism

So there is no ambiguity - Bravo to Neshama Carlebach for her decision to convert to Reform Judaism.

I'm sure it was difficult for her even though it is such a rational move. A person who grows up Orthodox has a hard time leaving Orthodoxy. It is a really "sticky" form of Judaism.

Neshama explains her decision in a highly personal essay published 12/18/2013. I think it is important because of the sensitivity and metaphor with which Carlebach expresses her choice. She calls her decision "Aliyah" and her relationship to Orthodoxy that of a "refugee".

Although I am Orthodox and nearly all of the women in my family are too, it amazes me that women can tolerate Orthodox Judaism at all in the 21st century. Perhaps some Orthodox women would care to explain to me how they accept the idea that they sit in the back of the shul, that they don't count for a minyan, that they cannot be called to the Torah, that they cannot train to become rabbis and that they cannot sing in public. I'd like to hear the reasoning so that I can understand.

Carlebach has done a logical thing, and here is how she explains it. (Hat tip to KS for sending me the link!)
Why I Am Making 'Aliyah' to Reform Jewry
Reb Shlomo's Daughter on Being 'Refugee' From Orthodoxy

By Neshama Carlebach

(JTA) — I grew up Jewish. Simply Jewish.

My late father, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, raised us in an observant Orthodox household. Our lives were filled with beautiful ritual and we celebrated the wonder of a familial spiritual connection.

That said, we also danced along the fine line of progressive Judaism. My father’s Torah was an expression of the beauty of Judaism. He taught the world to love and cherish Shabbat – even on a Tuesday – and to love Jewish rituals in an open hearted, expansively spiritual way that often set him apart and alienated him from many established religious groups.

12/12/13

Is Bernard L. Madoff Jewish?

We memorialize the fifth anniversary of the discovery of the greatest theft in history with a rerun of one of our most popular blog posts. December 11, 2008 we posted this.

Yes, Bernard L. Madoff is a Jew.

Bernard Madoff was arrested and charged today with allegedly running a $50 billion Ponzi scheme, according to U.S. authorities.

According to Yeshiva University, "Bernard L. Madoff, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees since 1996, was elected chairman of the Board of Directors of Sy Syms School of Business in 2000. Mr. Madoff is chairman of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, one of the nation’s largest third-market dealers in New York Stock Exchange and over-the-counter securities. A Benefactor of the University, Mr. Madoff recently made a major gift to the Sy Syms School."

Forbes reports this 'UNFORTUNATE SET OF EVENTS':
"Bernard Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry," his lawyer Dan Horwitz told reporters outside a downtown Manhattan courtroom where he was charged. "We will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events."

A shaken Madoff stared at the ground as reporters peppered him with questions. He was released after posting a $10 million bond secured by his Manhattan apartment.

The SEC filed separate civil charges.

"Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud -- both in terms of scope and duration," said Scott Friestad, the SEC's deputy enforcer. "We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the scheme and protect the remaining assets for investors."

The SEC said it appeared that virtually all of the assets of his hedge fund business were missing.

Madoff had long kept the financial statements for his hedge fund business under "lock and key," according to prosecutors, and was "cryptic" about the firm.

12/10/13

God Is Dead? Is Black Sabbath Kosher?

Google Play gave me a holiday gift last week - 26 free songs (December Deals) - and I have listened to them all several times. Wow. There is in this grab bag stuff in Google's offering of music I would never listen to, let alone own. (See the FREE PLAYLIST December Deals. All month long, Google Play is giving away free tracks and discount albums from some of music's biggest stars. Grab these while you can, and check back next week for another batch of gifts by your favorite artists by the Google Play Music Team.) (iTunes - goodbye! Google Play is so here!)

I am obliged to comment on one track among the free ones: God is Dead? by Black Sabbath?. It's heavy metal and yet I like it. Well, maybe like is too strong. I can abide it. As music I reluctantly admit it is kosher, it is intriguing and fun. Not certain about the group being kosher. Here is the official music video - not bad too.



No we should never do this. Song lyrics are not messages of philosophy or theology. But anyway, what does the song say? Here is the dramatic ending:
Nowhere to run
Nowhere to hide
Wondering if we will meet again
On the other side
Do you believe a word
What the Good Book said?
Or is it just a holy fairytale
And God is dead?
God is Dead [x4]

Right!

But still the voices in my head
Are telling me that god is dead
The blood pours down
The rain turns red
I don't believe that God is dead
God is Dead [x4]
And finally, the title. What is with the question mark?? I surmise that some producer decided a song with the title God is Dead will not fly. So he added a question mark to it. Just my guess. The song might strike you as a bit Kohelet-like. If you dared to make the comparison.

12/6/13

JStandard: My Dear Rabbi Column for December: Sad Divorcee & Doesn't Shuckle

Dear Rabbi: Your Talmudic Advice Column
Published in The Jewish Standard

Dear Rabbi,

A few years ago I divorced my wife, after a long marriage. We had grown apart and were living separate lives. Now my ex-wife is ill, and her prognosis is not good. Although we are not married, I still bear great affection for her and enduring admiration for her as the mother of my children. When she does pass away I will want to mourn for her in a visible way. At her funeral, I plan to tear my clothing in k’riah as a sign of mourning for her. What do you think?

Sad Divorcee
New Milford

Dear Sad,

You pose a woeful personal question, one that has possibly conflicting objective and subjective elements. Legally you are not married to this woman, and so you assume that you have no obligation or expectation to mourn your former wife. And socially it may not be acceptable in your community to adopt a standard different than what others practice. Those are the outer issues.

Your inner feelings tell you loud and clear to mourn for a woman whom you did love as a husband and continue to love in an adapted non-marital relationship as an ex.

On the merry-go-round that is our complex world, the variations on the issue you raise in this question can be dizzying. What will be the difference in the mourning practice if neither ex-spouse remarries? If one remarries? If both remarry? What will be the effect if marital infidelity triggered the divorce? In such a case, do children need to mourn a parent who was unfaithful as a spouse? What if the spouse was a convicted criminal? What about mourning for stepparents and stepchildren?

12/5/13

Richard Brody at New Yorker Rips Hannah Arendt

I've always despised Hannah Arendt for the chutzpah of mitigating Eichmann's horrifying evil, "He was a typical functionary" she says, and his evil was "banal".

And I am one of those, "Jews who were infuriated by [her] charges of Jewish complicity in the Holocaust."

Brody has a lucid powerful new post on the matter of Arendt in the New Yorker ("HANNAH ARENDT’S FAILURES OF IMAGINATION") in which among other trenchant observations he says,
... Arendt reveals the ground for her belief that Eichmann was no ideological Nazi but, in fact, was just a blind functionary. Not being an intellectual, he couldn’t have had “ideas” or “terrifically interesting things” to think about Hitler, and, therefore, he couldn’t have “really believed in Nazism.” I’ve long believed that her division of the world into those who “think” and those, like Eichmann, who speak in what she calls “clichés” reflects the snobbery of a proud member of the intellectual class. It’s a strange badge of intellectual honor to ascribe true belief in Nazism solely to intellectuals, and it is yet another sign that the passions and the hatreds on which the movement ran were essentially beyond Arendt’s purview. Second, her charge against the intellectual class—that they invent “completely fantastic and interesting and complicated things” and get “trapped in their own ideas”—is the perfect description of her own heavily theoretical and utterly impersonal view of Eichmann.

Frozen Chosen Minnesota Jews Make the News: Sigi Wilf Ceremony for a New Stadium and Binyomin Ginsberg Kvetches at the Supreme Court

Vikings ceremonially break ground on new stadium:

Team owners Zygi and Mark Wilf also attended, along with executives for HKS Inc., the stadium architect, and Mortenson Construction, the stadium builder, and star running back Adrian Peterson.

“What a day,” Zygi Wilf said to the gathering. “It was always our intention to bring a championship and a stadium” to Minnesota, he said. “We are embarking on our way to both.”

Wilf said the new stadium will “provide a tremendous game-day experience. … The fan experience has driven” the design of the stadium from the start, Wilf said.

Mark Wilf followed his brother to the podium and said the team will soon have “a great shot” at hosting a Super Bowl in the Vikings’ new home....

Supreme Court cool to Twin Cities rabbi who was booted from WorldPerks for complaining:

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Tuesday of a Twin Cities man who was stripped of his top-level Platinum Elite status in Northwest’s WorldPerks program because, the airline said, he complained too much and schemed to get bumped from flights in return for compensation.

Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, 52, of St. Louis Park, said that Northwest, which has since been absorbed by Delta Air Lines, failed to act in good faith when it barred him in 2008 from its frequent flier program and took his miles away. The airline countered that federal deregulation of the airline industry in 1978 rules out claims like Ginsberg’s.

Most justices during arguments signaled that an opinion favorable to Ginsberg could give rise to state-by-state rules that the deregulation law was intended to prevent....

Is Rapper Kanye West Anti-Semitic?

Is Kanye West Anti-Semitic?

Abe Foxman thinks he is because he said Jewish people have "connections." Slow racism day, Abe? Gotta go digging for publicity, Mr. Foxman?

Hey ADL! We do have "connections" whatever that means! Abe! We have you, the ADL. What better "connection" than that?!

Kanye West said some silly meaningless general things about blacks, Jews and "oil people". He is entitled to make dumb statements. He is a rapper, that's what he is paid to do. Rap is provocative and really dumb. It's not philosophy or political or social commentary.

Kanye! Keep entertaining us with your really dumb things and saying your dumber things. That's what makes you so gosh darn charming and popular.

You are hereby certified as rap-kosher.

Here is the post with the scoop, "Kanye West upsets Jewish leaders with Obama commments:"
Outspoken rapper Kanye West has found himself in trouble with U.S. Jewish officials over remarks he made in a radio interview last month.

While chatting to Power 105 in New York on November 26 , West was asked for his opinion on U.S. leader President Barack Obama - and his thoughts appear to have upset the national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The rapper said, "People want to say Obama can't make these moves or he's not executing. That's because he ain't got those connections... Black people don't have the same level of connections as Jewish people. Black people don't have the same connections as oil people."

His statement has been called anti-Semitic by Abraham H. Foxman, who is demanding he apologizes.

The ADL director says, "This is classic anti-Semitism. There it goes again, the age-old canard that Jews are all-powerful and control the levers of power in government. As a celebrity with a wide following, Kanye West should know better.

"We hope that he will take responsibility for his words, understand why they are so offensive, and apologise to those he has offended."

12/2/13

Were J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Jewish?

Were J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller Jewish? No, they were not Jews. But many people in China think that they were. An utterly amazing positive stereotype of Jews permeates China.

I felt this great warmth when I visited in 1991 as a professor of Jewish Studies. I was invited to lecture at universities and institutes and was treated like royalty.
Chinese equate Jews with wealth
SHANGHAI, China -- Showcased in bookstores between biographies of Andrew Carnegie and the newest treatise by China's president are stacks of works built on a stereotype.

One promises "The Eight Most Valuable Business Secrets of the Jewish."
Another title teases readers with "The Legend of Jewish Wealth." A third provides a look at "Jewish People and Business: The Bible of How to Live Their Lives."

Is a Smart Wig Kosher?

Sony has filed for a patent for a smart wig. I have a smart watch - that makes sense. But a smart wig - I am not so sure. Nevertheless, I deem the idea both kosher and intriguing.

Here is the gist of the report from Gizmag, SmartWig: Sony wants to sweep wearable electronics under the rug, by Brian Dodson (hat tip to David E. Y. S.):
The developers of Sony's SmartWig, Hiroaki Tobita and Takuya Kuzi, shared their thoughts on this...

“There is a wide variety of wearable computing devices, such as computational glasses, clothes, shoes, and so on... However, most wearable devices have become neither common nor popular... We think one of the biggest reasons is the style... the focus has been [on] function, not style... The goal of SmartWig is to achieve both natural and practical wearable devices.”

Function, however, is an important part of wearable electronics. Digging into US Patent Application Publication US20130311132, the key components of a SmartWig appear to be a sensor, a CPU, a communications interface to a second computer, and (of course) a wig that hides all this.

Although the patent covers a number of serious potential applications, such as a SmartWig to help a blind user navigate their surroundings, a health monitor, or an EEG interface for neurofeedback applications, most of the applications contemplated appear to be on the fringe, likely only to serve niche markets.

Other applications approach the ridiculous, such as the Presentation Wig. This coiffure will allow its user to control a laser pointer by wiggling one's eyebrows (that's right, it comes with frickin' laser beams attached to the head), and to step through a PowerPoint slideshow by tugging at the right sideburn.

11/26/13

Was the Family Dog Brian Griffin from the Family Guy TV Series Jewish ?

No, Brian was an atheist, as revealed in an episode in 2009. We say was because, as Mail Online reported, "On Sunday's episode of the long-running animated Fox staple Family Guy, family dog-writer-alcoholic Brian met his maker when he was hit by a car. The anthropomorphic pup died on the operating table when doctor's were unable to save him in time."

Update: Brian was resurrected after three weeks, saved by Stewie. (Hat tip to KS.)

But, in the episode on October 4, 2009 titled “Family Goy,” the matriarch of Seth MacFarlane’s Animated show Family Guy, Lois Griffin, learned that she is a Jew and then conducted a Seder during which Stewie recited a berakhah in perfect Hebrew.

Here's the twisted plot summary from Wikipedia:
While at the Drunken Clam, Peter falls in love with a cardboard cut out of Kathy Ireland. He takes her home and has an 'affair' with her. Soon he is caught by Lois who calls him an idiot. Peter introduces Kathy to the kids as their new mom, but after finding that Chris took her into his room, he angrily confronts her and ends up ripping her in half. He tearfully buries her in the yard and begs Lois for forgiveness. Lois forgives him and they have sex and Lois is shocked when Peter discovers a lump on her breast, causing her to go to the hospital the next day to have it tested for breast cancer. The test comes back negative, but while looking through her medical records, Dr Hartman discovers that Lois's mother is a Jewish Holocaust survivor, making Lois and her children Jewish by heritage. Barbara confirms her heritage, and Carter admits he kept it a family secret so that they could join the country club. Despite not being Jewish himself, Peter takes to it eagerly, much to Lois's frustration. That night, Peter is visited by the ghost of his stepfather, Francis, who warns him that he will go to Hell for not being Catholic. The next day, Peter decides to re-convert the family to Catholicism and becomes prejudiced against Lois' heritage, becoming anti-Semitic.

11/25/13

For Hanukkah Free 665 page translation of Hullin by Tzvee Zahavy

Incredible 665 page translation of Talmud Hullin!

Free for Hanukkah Kosher Talmud is free for your Kindle or Kindle App. Here is the Product Description:

To know what food is kosher, that is, fit to eat according to rabbinic Judaism, you must study the principles set forth in this volume, the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Hullin.

This translation, (approx. 665 pages) adheres closely to the text so that the reader has a sense of the structure and balance of the original. Yet at the same time it conveys the flow of the legal arguments and debates, the dramatic unfolding of events in stories, and the sensitivities to words and language in the exegetical texts.

Its aim is to facilitate a smooth conversation between readers and the text so that, without consulting the original Hebrew and Aramaic version, they can appreciate the substantive meaning and recognize some major aspects of the style of the Talmudic text.


Define Judaism: Ten Seminars by Tzvee Zahavy, Kindle Edition is on sale for Hanukkah!

Define Judaism: Ten Seminars, Kindle edition, is on sale for Hanukkah!

When I taught “Introduction to Judaism,” a popular Jewish Studies course at the University of Minnesota, as a final essay assignment I gave to the class this task: “Define Judaism.” Even though it was an open-ended question, my students considered this to be a tough assignment requiring analysis, synthesis and much thought. I originally wrote up these “seminars” as part of an independent study guide for one version of “Intro to Judaism”—a distance learning offering in the continuing education division of the university. I now offer this volume to the general reader to help seekers and students of all ages and all faiths to better understand and define Judaism.

11/22/13

Is Yoga Kosher?

Does doing yoga make you a Hindu? asks William Kremer across the pond at the BBC. He wrote a smart article on the subject with insights from a number of smart people.

He frames the issue in terms of whether people see yoga poses as religious practices.
For many people, the main concern in a yoga class is whether they are breathing correctly or their legs are aligned. But for others, there are lingering doubts about whether they should be there at all, or whether they are betraying their religion...

Farida Hamza, a Muslim woman living in the US, had been doing yoga for two or three years when she decided she wanted to teach it.

"When I told my family and a few friends, they did not react positively," she recalls. "They were very confused as to why I wanted to do it - that it might be going against Islam."

Their suspicions about yoga are shared by many Muslims, Christians and Jews around the world and relate to yoga's history as an ancient spiritual practice with connections to Hinduism and Buddhism.

11/19/13

Countdown deal for the Kindle edition of "God's Favorite Prayers" by Tzvee Zahavy

Countdown deal for the Kindle edition of God's Favorite Prayers starts 11/20/13. Price goes down to $.99 and then back up again. Hurry and get your copy!

Why is this book on prayer different from all the other books on prayer? Because this book introduces you to the six ideal people of prayer and the different ways that we all pray to God.

When you pray, are you doing so as a Scribe? A Performer? A Mystic? A Meditator? A Priest? A Celebrity? Find out how these archetypes use different methods of prayer in this exciting and entertaining book about spirituality.

Reviewers have praised this book:
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--Rabbi Eliezer Diamond Ph.D., Associate Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics, Jewish Theological Seminary

"... An engaging, humanly sensitive introduction to the types of religious personalities whose views are expressed in the diverse parts of the Siddur and, more generally, in components of Jewish liturgical practices... A fine text for helping students and interested lay people gain an understanding and appreciation of the spiritual viewpoints expressed in Jewish liturgical texts."
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"It is not often that one has the opportunity to share the authentic personal experiences of a distinguished scholar in the field of liturgy, who is also an award-winning teacher. These two elements stand out in Tzvee Zahavy's God's Favorite Prayers. Zahavy takes us on an amazing journey into the world of Jewish Prayer and into the personalities that make up the 'quorum' in the synagogue. His observations and insights will inspire people of all faiths, who truly seek out a way to make prayer, both personal and communal, a meaningful part of their lives."
--Rabbi Shimon Altshul, Director, the Ludwig and Erica Jesselson Institute for Advanced Torah Studies, Bar Ilan University

11/17/13

Who says: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise?

I was speed reading through a pile of new books last week and came across a marvellous article in a new collection by Charles Krauthammer, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics. The book looks really good. I recommend it.

Here's the little article that caught my eye because I am known to be asking the "are-they-Jewish' question here on my blog.

Krauthammer says in the article (partly tongue in cheek) that everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise
Krauthammer's Law: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise
By Charles Krauthammer

Strange doings in Virginia. George Allen, former governor, one-term senator, son of a famous football coach and in the midst of a heated battle for reelection, has just been outed as a Jew. An odd turn of events, given that his having Jewish origins has nothing to do with anything in the campaign and that Allen himself was oblivious to the fact until his 83-year-old mother revealed to him last month the secret she had kept concealed for 60 years.
Apart from its political irrelevance, it seems improbable in the extreme that the cowboy-boots-wearing football scion of Southern manner and speech should turn out to be, at least by origins, a son of Israel. For Allen, as he quipped to me, it's the explanation for a lifelong affinity for Hebrew National hot dogs. For me, it is the ultimate confirmation of something I have been regaling friends with for 20 years and now, for the advancement of social science, feel compelled to publish.
Krauthammer's Law: Everyone is Jewish until proven otherwise. I've had a fairly good run with this one. First, it turns out that John Kerry — windsurfing, French-speaking, Beacon Hill aristocrat — had two Jewish grandparents. Then Hillary Clinton — methodical Methodist — unearths a Jewish stepgrandfather in time for her run as New York senator.

11/15/13

Kindle Countdown Deal for "God Bless You" and "Eleazar: Rabbi, Priest, Patriarch" by Tzvee Zahavy

It's Underway 11/16/13!

Kindle Countdown Deal for my 
Kindle edition books 

"God Bless You" and "Eleazar: Rabbi, Priest, Patriarch"



The origins of Jewish prayer in the first five centuries of the Common Era, known also as the epoch of early rabbinic Judaism, the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, the era of the Tannaim and Amoraim, and the time of Jesus and early Christianity. 

A detailed analysis of the textual evidence on the subject mainly from the books of the rabbis, the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Talmud, that finds the seams of timelessness and recovers the outlines of the origins of the great prayers of the Jewish people.



For anyone concerned with the formative period of rabbinic Judaism, the study of Rabbi Eleazar b. Azariah and his traditions is naturally important. He was prominent as a rabbi, a priest and a politician. According to rabbinic texts, Eleazar was a major figure among the rabbis at Yavneh in Israel in the second century C.E. Rabbinic literature speaks of Eleazar in more than two hundred places. One narrative describes that he was an important political figure at Yavneh and reports that he played a role in the events surrounding the deposition of Gamaliel II from the patriarchate. Many other traditions juxtapose his teachings with those of Aqiva, Eliezer, Joshua, and other major rabbis of the early era.

Check Out Talmudic Books
See the 36 Volume Kindle Talmud in English
Ponder the Questions of Whence and Wherefore
Experience God's Favorite Prayers

11/14/13

Are Statins Kosher?

The NY Times Op-Ed, "Don’t Give More Patients Statins" by JOHN D. ABRAMSON and RITA F. REDBERG argues that no, it is not kosher to start giving more classes of people statins in order to prevent heart attacks.

I have a high risk profile but in June 2008 I stopped taking statins (and several other drugs). The "side effect" for me was liver disease - quite an "effect". My liver readings were so high that the doctor called me to tell me to stop the Lipitor statins immediately. I also stopped monitoring my cholesterol - no point doing that if you are not trying to magically reduce the numbers with drugs.

This past year I increased my aerobic workouts by more that 50%. I swim 1.5 miles a day. I finally had my cholesterol tested and not surprisingly the numbers were good - especially for the HDL good cholesterol, and the good ratio was high. I don't smoke, I reduced my bad activities, the stress in my life, by orders of magnitude. And I increased my good activities significantly - e.g. golf, etc. ;-) I lost weight - a lot of weight - by watching everything that I eat. And I do not plan on ever taking a statin again.

Now the drug industry wants to detach the statin prescriptions from the cholesterol numbers - and guess what? This is not going to mean that fewer people should take statins. It will mean that more people should take them. Get it? I sure as heck admire the chutzpah of those drug companies.

But in answer to our title question, no statins are not kosher. Even those "studies" that show some correlation between statin use and fewer cardiac incidents are suspect to me. The math makes no sense. Reduction of risk by 50% is actually reduction of incidents by 1%. And my guess is that some time soon real scientists will conclude that it is the reduction of smoking, not of cholesterol levels, that has lead to the decline in cardiac disease in recent years.

Here is what Abramson and Redberg argue in the Times.
ON Tuesday, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology issued new cholesterol guidelines that essentially declared, in one fell swoop, that millions of healthy Americans should immediately start taking pills — namely statins — for undefined health “benefits.”

This announcement is not a result of a sudden epidemic of heart disease, nor is it based on new data showing the benefits of lower cholesterol. Instead, it is a consequence of simply expanding the definition of who should take the drugs — a decision that will benefit the pharmaceutical industry more than anyone else.

11/11/13

A Menorah is not a Torah


Fairlawn NJ allowed the display of a Menorah in its Borough holiday display on public land a few years ago for the first time -- after debating the matter for a mere 30 years.

Why was that a good thing? Let me probe into this issue.

Like handshakes and holiday greetings -- seasonal trees and lamps can represent religion on a permitted surface level.

But Fairlawn and other municipalities should not feel free to promote all religious symbols in public government displays. Nativity scenes and Torah Scrolls, for instance, always symbolize faith in a more serious and illegal manner.

So says the U.S. Supreme Court in a classic decision in 1989 that allowed some displays of religious symbols on government property while prohibiting others. At that time many expressed dismay over the ruling. Conservative Roman Catholic scholar Michael Novak, for instance, argued that the ruling represented a governmental aversion to religion, that the court was saying that, "The religiousness of Jews and Christians is to be shunned as if it were an infectious disease."

11/10/13

Is it kosher to force your neighbors to pray?

Is it kosher to force your neighbors to pray? No, it is not. I hope the Supreme Court agrees. Noah Feldman sees the issue too broadly in his op-ed, "The Founders Prayed, Why Can’t the City Council?" at Bloomberg - regarding the lawsuit over prayer at public meetings in Greece, NY.

Coercion is part of life. I believe coercing religion on other people should not be tolerated. I am against it whether it is Christians in America coercing Jews and atheists to hear their prayers or whether is it the Orthodox in Israel forcing non-religious Jews to follow their strictures.

Thoughts on coercion: There are many forms of coercion. Some are overt and pushy. Others are subtle and even seductive. Those may be more dangerous because it takes us time to detect them.

Some coercion is good for you. Some is good for other people, but not for you. It's best to ask "who benefits" from the coercion, and it is usually them, not you.

Some coercions make sense and some coercions defy logic. Some are serious and some are comical. Some are urgent and current and others are nostalgic and historic.

In America we believe that life is better lived with less coercion and more freedom of choice. It's silly to argue that I should be free to coerce you to do something. Freedom is absolute and two sided.

Thoughts on prayer: All good prayer is poetry. All prayer is ritual. Many prayers are a framing devices. They mark the beginning and end of other activities, like a meal. That's confusing to some who think we need to frame a council meeting with a prayer. We don't. Politics is not sacred and no matter what we do to frame it with rituals, we cannot make the profanity of politics into a sacred activity.

I think the founding fathers were wrong allowing prayers to open sessions of congress. I think they were joking around, giving the reverends some ceremonial role to make them feel good because they were not going to cede them any influence over public life in America.

For a time recently (and I hope that time is passing) the Christian right organized into a political bloc and did have some ostensible influence over politics in the public arena. That was not what our founding fathers envisioned.

Within a religious group of like minded members, prayer is an expression of common beliefs. Prayer is a hope for relief or guidance or reward -- primarily for the members -- and as an afterthought for the universe.

Feldman believes that "What’s most likely is that the court will reaffirm the exceptional nature of legislative prayer, warn the town against official coercion, and live with the contradictions between past and present."

That's like punting on first down. It makes no sense to those who understand the nature of the game. I hope the justices take a stand on this. I think they do know the game and will not avoid some aggressive play.

America is stronger when all coercion is limited and when all prayer is kept out of our public political life.

11/5/13

Forcing Two Religions on Your Children

The Times op-ed "Being ‘Partly Jewish’" by SUSAN KATZ MILLER appears to make the case for forcing two religions on one's children. Katz Miller is the product herself of such an upbringing, which she thinks is just fine and dandy and she is the author of “Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.”

Here is how she starts her opinion article:
IN the course of a year, my family celebrates Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Passover and many Shabbats. We also celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter. We are part of a growing movement to raise interfaith children with both family religions.

Many Jewish leaders and institutions consider this a terrible and potentially damaging choice — one that will confuse young people, create Jews for Jesus and ultimately contribute to the demise of Judaism. But as an interfaith child and an interfaith parent, I refuse to accept this blame, or subscribe to such pessimism. Both my experience and my research tell me that we are turning out young adults who feel deeply connected to Judaism, not through coercion, but through choice.
And here is how she ends the article:
My own community, the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington, is led by the Rev. Julia Jarvis and Rabbi Harold White. Ms. Jarvis told me, “I think actually we’ve made Judaism very attractive, because we’re not trying to force these kids to stay Jewish — because it’s a choice.” Rabbi White agrees, adding that these interfaith communities “might even increase the numbers of Jews.”

Dual-faith parenting is an exercise in letting go. We dare to give our children full knowledge of their religious backgrounds. We think it’s working: for the parents, for the kids and even for Judaism.
"We do it so it must be good" is not a strong argument. And yes, the sociological conclusion that intermarriage is a net gain for the Jewish people is mathematically defensible but psychologically difficult for many Jews to accept. If a Jewish man marries a Jewish woman you have potentially one Jewish family. If both marry "out" and 51 percent of the resulting families raise Jewish kids, that is a Jewish population gain.

My problem is with the assertion, "it's a choice" for the kids to decide what religion to follow. In America it is always a choice because we live in free country and nobody is forced to join a religion. Unless you are a child and your parents force you to go to synagogue or church. That is no choice. That is parental coercion - something that we tolerate and even value because we have the notion that parents ought to pass a religion along to their children.

When parents coerce children to attend the services and practice the rituals of two religions, that is not enabling a "choice". That seems to be a case of dual coercion. And it is something that we ordinarily do not tolerate well in our society. Why? Partly it is because it's too much for the average child to learn and practice not one but two religions.

Let's be honest. Double coercion does not foster the lovely ideal of choice. It forces two religions on children. That is legal but in spite of the op-ed's best intentions to make it so, it may not be laudable. Children do not have unlimited bandwidth to absorb the details and demands of two religions. And they are sensitive to the approval and disapproval that may come their way from many friends and neighbors who witness odd behavior.

So is it as claimed by the op-ed, "you may choose one of two"? Or is it more honestly, "you must come with us to both"?

Letters to the editor criticize the op-ed from other perspectives.

11/4/13

CNN: Apple software sucks

CNN Money says: "Apple should focus on its mediocre software".

The article points out shortcomings in major apple software offerings, "...nearly every offering from Apple ranges from mediocre (iTunes) to awful (Maps)."

I asked a few IT professionals about the recent decision by Apple to give away free its iPad software like Pages, Numbers and Keynote. They said they are giving it away because the software is not very good, and not popular.

I think iTunes lacks in many respects - it is not intuitive - it is at times confusing. And I have been frustrated trying to use it for years. IOS 7 just came out and it too lacks any noticeable sophistication. It does not allow any significant customization or creativity.

I have an Android phone and a 7" Android tablet. I'm thinking, Why not just get a 10" Android tablet and ditch the iPad 3?

I bought an iPad Air on 11/1 and brought it home. Can't honestly think of why I want to keep it. Yikes. Looks like the magic of the apple spell has been broken. I returned it 11/4.

Yes, 11/4 I returned the iPad to the Apple Store in the Garden State Plaza - just a few hours before a man fired shots in that mall and then committed suicide.

Ironic: my kids heard the news and called me from Israel to see if I was okay. I was okay.


11/3/13

Sunday Speculation: Will Sheldon Adelson pay Yeshiva University's sex victims settlement costs?

This Daily Beast article, "Israel as a Totem for Jewish Identity" by Lisa Goldman, describes at some length a strange event at Yeshiva University involving Richard Joel, Shmuley Boteach, Sheldon Adelson and Bret Stephens and concludes with the following biting assessment:
One can perhaps tolerate the views expressed on Tuesday night in semi demented, rich old uncles. But not from a man who purchases and wields political influence at the highest levels. And not from someone who writes for one of the most important newspapers in America. It was embarrassing to witness this anti-intellectual event, particularly at an academic institution that was supposed to be the crown jewel of Judaism's modern Orthodox movement.
I was not at the event but there is no dispute that she summarized correctly what went on there. At one point Goldman reported, "Adelson also mentioned, as reported by several media outlets, that the United States should lob a nuclear bomb at a swathe of unpopulated Iranian desert as a means of forcing the Islamic Republic to give up its enrichment program."

My question is why did YU host such an odd event? Perhaps the juxtaposition of names and concerns earlier in the Goldman article helps us understand: "Boteach and Stephens were joined by Yeshiva University president Richard M. Joel, who is currently dealing with the dire fallout from a $380 million class action sex abuse suit brought by former students, and by Sheldon Adelson, a casino mogul who is one of the richest men in the world."

Joel suffered a setback at the courts this week regarding the sex abuse lawsuit. From what has been reported, it sounds like the matter will go to trial. He ought to be worried.

So what then is my talmudic Sunday Speculation? That Adelson already has written Joel a blank check to cover the cost of settling the suits. Hence he gets on a panel, gets credibility, and can say whatever he pleases.

And note well, if my speculation is correct, there is nothing at all illegal about what I have described here. Adelson got creds. YU got an evening of panel entertainment. Boteach and Stephens got paid. Everybody wins.

Note further, Adelson is #11 on the Forbes 400 list with a net worth of $28.5 billion. If he pays the entire $280 million as a settlement for YU, he will still be worth over $28.2 billion.

11/1/13

JStandard: My Dear Rabbi Talmudic Advice Column for November: Praying for a sick pet and making Talmudic Life Decisions

Published in The Jewish Standard: Dear Rabbi. Your Talmudic Advice Column

Dear Rabbi,

In our shul on Shabbat, in the middle of the Torah Reading Service, the Gabbai announces that he is going to recite the prayer for those who are sick. He says that when he pauses at the place for the name of the sick person, anyone who wishes to make a prayer for someone who is ill should stand in his pew and speak the name of the person they wish to include in the prayer. I follow the instructions and in an undertone, at the pause, I recite the legal name of my friends and relatives who are ailing. I also include the name of my pet dog who is ill. Is this okay?

Love my pet
Alpine

Dear Pet Lover,

You ask about whom we can pray for in the synagogue, and how we can pray for them. Yes, in my view you can include anyone you want in your mesheberach prayer list. In that prayer we ask that God who blessed our ancestors (Hebrew words: “mi sheberach”) to bestow on the people whom we name, “healing of the soul and healing of the body -- along with (healing) all the ill of Israel (some add: and all the ill who dwell on Earth)… soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say: Amen.”

There are several issues related to your question. To begin with, is there any evidence that prayers like this one that we make for the sick are effective? Second, when you recite the prayer does it matter with what name you identify the person for whom you are praying? Third, can you pray for the health of an animal?

10/30/13

Is Kathleen Sibelius Jewish?

No, Kathleen Sibelius is not a Jew. President Barack Obama's Secretary of Health and Human Services is Roman Catholic.

Sebelius was raised in a Roman Catholic family in Cincinnati, Ohio. She served for eight years as a representative in the Kansas Legislature, eight years as Insurance Commissioner and then was elected governor.

Sebelius is the daughter of former Ohio Governor Democrat John J. Gilligan -- the first father/daughter governor pair in the United States after her election.

10/29/13

Starting Today My Book "God's Favorite Prayers" is in the New Kindle "Matchbook" Program

God's Favorite Prayers


If you buy a new print edition of this book (or purchased one in the past), you can buy the Kindle edition for FREE. Print edition purchase must be sold by Amazon. Learn more.

God's Favorite Prayers

Are Paper Books Kosher?

Is owning dead-tree real-paper books kosher in this age of e-books? Some say no. Some say yes.

Andrew Couts does not exactly ask that question. But he does raise the issue of whether a person can defend his decision to amass what he calls a "book collection." I suppose a collection is less than a library.

As a professor of the humanities I accumulated a substantial library over the years. And I thought that action was defensible, even necessary. I "needed" to have all those books. Even though I wasn't living in the sticks and I had a major research library on my Big Ten campus, I needed to own eighteen bookcases worth of books. Those were my professional tools, and like a tradesman I could not just go and borrow tools every time I needed to work on a project.

On the Digital Trends site Couts frames the question of why we need to own all those paper-books in the context of the digital age. Why own paper when you can own the digital impulses of a book?

Couts opines mainly against real-paper book in, "Is there any reason to own paper books beside showing off? Not really."
Like some kind of sadomasochistic twit, I’ve moved houses three times in the past three years. Each of these moves reintroduced me to the symptom of insanity commonly known as a large book collection. The bulk of my household’s possessions come in paperback and hardcover, you see – dozens of boxes and hundreds of pounds worth of pulp that take up more space in a moving truck than all of my furniture combined.

My book collection is a burden...
His points that follow are perceptive. Books are conspicuous egotistical objects, he says.
My book collection, I realized this weekend, is one of the few things in my home that makes me seem smart. Visitors step into my living room to see shelves and shelves of tomes – Hemingway, McCarthy, Kafka, Tolstoy, Franzen, Sedaris, Bukowski, Fitzgerald – each creased spine revealing more about my interests and intellect. At least, that’s what my subconscious likes to believe. Just as vacation photographs show off where we’ve been, books show where our minds have traveled. They have, in other words, become little more than an elaborate way to brag.
He also reviews the reasons that we might give in defense of owning real books, saying, "...there are good reasons to prefer the old medium..."

For Couts that does not include the Shabbat prohibition of electrical devices that some Orthodox Jews observe. [I say "some" because recent reports claim that something like 50% of Orthodox kids use their phones to text on Shabbat. It is fair to assume that some of those kids also read online sites and maybe even ebooks on the holy day.]

It's not reasonable to assume that Orthodox authorities will suddenly decide to permit the use of ebooks on the Sabbath. Orthodox practices change slowly, if at all. In the near term, if you are an observant Orthodox Jew who wants to read your "collection" on the Seventh Day, it will have to be a paper library, not a digital one.

Bottom line: If you are Orthodox (modest or egotistical), or if you are just plain egotistical and like to brag (Orthodox or not), you will want to have your paper books arrayed in book cases around your house, because they don't just make you look smart. They make you look pious too.

10/26/13

Is Charles Krauthammer Jewish?

Is columnist and Fox TV commentator Charles Krauthammer Jewish? Yes he is a Jew.

In JPost interview Krauthammer reflected on his Talmudic upbringing. He described himself in the interview we cite here as not very religious:
As for my own practice, it's fairly minimal, but I go on the required days. I go to Yizkor, those kinds of things. I once described to a friend my Jewishness - I said, I'm a Jewish Shinto. I believe in ancestor worship. That's the heart of my Judaism.
We disagree with most of what neoconservative Charles Krauthammer says about foreign policy. But from the excellent interview he gave to the Jerusalem Post, "The unfashionable Charles Krauthammer," we learned that his eloquent argumentation skills derive in part from his Orthodox Talmudic education.
Can you talk a little bit about your own Jewish upbringing and sense of Jewishness, and how that influences you? ...
I grew up in a Modern Orthodox home. I went to Jewish day school right through high school, so half of my day was spent speaking Hebrew from age six to 16. I studied thousands of hours of Talmud. My father thought I didn't get enough Talmud at school, so I took the extra Talmud class at school and he had a rabbi come to the house three nights a week. One of those nights was Saturday night, so in synagogue Saturday morning my brother and I would pray very hard for snow so he wouldn't be able to come on Saturday night and we could watch hockey night in Canada. That's where I learned about prayer...
He suffered a tragic swimming accident when in medical school which left him paralyzed.

He has a new book out and is the subject of a Fox News program and was on Jon Stewart's show to promote the book, Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics.



Here is the entire article. It is no longer available at jPost.

"The unfashionable Charles Krauthammer"

10/22/13

Times: Four out of Five Americans Believe in Angels

I no longer give any credence to surveys about religion.

According to surveys, eighty percent of Americans believe in angels.

Really?
Conjuring Up Our Own Gods
By T. M. LUHRMANN 
BIG SUR, Calif. — “AMERICANS are obsessed with the supernatural,” Jeffrey J. Kripal, a scholar of religion, told me here at Esalen, an institute dedicated to the idea that “we are all capable of the extraordinary.” 
Surveys support this. In 2011, an Associated Press poll found that 8 in 10 Americans believed in angels — even 4 in 10 people who never went to church. In 2009 the Pew Research Center reported that 1 in 5 Americans experienced ghosts and 1 in 7 had consulted a psychic. In 2005, Gallup found that 3 out of 4 Americans believed in something paranormal, and that 4 in 10 said that houses could be haunted...

What are the Agunah Chronicles?

What is "The Agunah Chronicles"? I know what "The Vagina Monologues" is. It's an episodic play written by Eve Ensler which ran off broadway.

"The Agunah Chronicles" is a supposed "forthcoming book" that does not appear on Amazon when you do a search for it.

Don't you just cringe when someone makes claims about a "forthcoming book" that are not verifiable and they get that published in the Times?

Anyhow, "The Agunah Chronicles" "authors" wrote a letter to the New York Times . Here is what appeared in the Times:
The scandalous situation of kidnapping and torturing recalcitrant husbands who withhold a Jewish divorce, a “get,” from their wives is a result of the Orthodox rabbinate’s failure to use the compassionate and creative solutions long available under Jewish law to free women from dead marriages (“U.S. Accuses 2 Rabbis of Kidnapping Husbands for a Fee,” news article, Oct. 11).

Pious agunot, women desperate to be free of their husbands, many of whom are violent, criminals or pedophiles, are vulnerable to corrupt rabbis who tell them that yielding to extortion or torturing their husbands is the only way they can ever be free to remarry and raise a family.

Opportunistic thugs, sometimes mythologized as heroes, run amok because mainstream Orthodox rabbis insist that even violent and degenerate husbands retain control over their wives. Every rabbi who fails to use the peaceful avenues available under Jewish law to free agunot opens the way for this shocking disgrace of the Jewish community.

SUSAN ARANOFF
RIVKA HAUT
Brooklyn, Oct. 11, 2013

The writers are co-authors of the forthcoming book “The Agunah Chronicles,” a nonfiction account of helping agunot struggle for freedom in rabbinical courts in the United States.
I don't think the thugs who beat up the husbands are the "corrupt rabbis" here. It's the other ones -- those who deny a woman the right to divorce her husband. But let's not quibble. Anyway... where can I order the so-called "forthcoming book"?

UPDATE: I'M TOLD BY A FRIEND THAT I OVERSIMPLIFIED THIS PROBLEM AND MY VIEWS ARE MARGINALIZED.

I said in reply: Thanks for your assessment but on the contrary, the opposite is the truth. My view is mainstream.

Each day that rabbis claim this is a complicated problem that has no easy solution, they marginalize themselves and the orthodox community even more from the rest of the Jewish world and from the rest of the civilized societies of the world.

It is time to accept that women have the right to divorce their husbands and to enact that as our process and stop the marginalization of Judaism.

My hope is that now - after the publicity of the current scandal - civil courts will actively intervene in the process and issue instructions that a woman be given a divorce by rabbinic authority. And there are rabbis who will do just that, thus, by the intervention of the civil authorities, ending the current oppressive system.