Is US Supreme Court Justice David Souter Jewish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now how about a more analogous example.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Is Senator Arlen Specter Jewish?

Yes, Senator Arlen Specter is a Jew.

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

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

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

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

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


Video - Is former NFL player Alan Veingrad Jewish?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Alas, the review is positive but not glowing.

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

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

Video: Obama's Holocaust Day Speech

Meaningful remarks. [Hat tip to Mimi.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Hat tips to Yochanan Hashlishi.]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Judge Jay Bybee Jewish?

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

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

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

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

A Naive Nicholas Kristoff Announces the Reformation of Islam

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

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

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

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


Times' Sorkin: US Banks Lying About their Profits

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

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

This is the how the Times describes our banks.

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

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

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

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

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


Reminder: Google Search has no sense of humor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blogger Asks Why Pope Benedict Supports the Durban II Hatefest

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

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

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

What is Apocalyptic Eschatology?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Times' Frank Rich Eulogizes Gay Bashing in America

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voz iz neis? A Yiddish GPS

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Mazal Tov Minnesota Senator Al Franken (again)

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

StarTribune: Postville Kosher Agriprocessors Manager Pleads Guilty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Who attended Barack's Amazing White House Seder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The difference - Goldberg intended to poke fun when merited.

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

Writer Nathan Englander's Talmudic Passover Reminiscence in the Times

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

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

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

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

JP: Obama's Amazing White House Seder

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

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

Happy Passover to all.
Obama to host Seder Thursday night

HILARY LEILA KRIEGER, Jerusalem Post correspondent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Newsweek Chronicles the Recession in Christianity in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is the article link.


The Age: Scientology, Kabbalah, Buddhism and the other popular Hollywood religions

"Another passing fad or a genuine search for meaning? Stephanie Bunbury parses and unpacks the complicated relationship between celebrities and religion." An appropriately entertaining, superficial, derivative, armchair essay on Scientology, Kabbalah and the other popular Hollywood religions from Melbourne's The Age.
Like a prayer
by Stephanie Bunbury

Before L. Ron Hubbard wrote Dianetics, according to the memoirs of several of his old muckers in science fiction, he told them that the way to make real money would be to start a religion. He went on to invent Scientology, then took it to its natural heartland, Los Angeles, where the Church of Scientology's luxurious Celebrity Centre caters to the very particular needs of the famous.

Right from the start, he directed his underlings to target the stars. So sneer as you might at Scientology's mix of banal self-help techniques, comic-book mythology about invading aliens and bizarre layers of secrecy, there is no denying that time has proved Hubbard to be, in one way or another, a true visionary.
Hubbard could have just been following the money. Actors can be paid as much as $US20 million for making a single film; you could reasonably expect that an effective marketing campaign would find at least a few both able and willing to pay the $US360,000 it reportedly costs to reach Scientology's innermost sanctum of understanding. But, in fact, it wasn't just a matter of finding clusters of people with startling amounts of money who were less likely to be hard-headed than, say, bankers about how they spent it. Even if they didn't pay anything, they would be worth the effort.

Because Hubbard and his followers clearly recognised that if you want to reach hearts and minds out there in the world, you cannot do better than have a sprinkling of celebrities to carry the message. Nobody knows how many Scientologists there are, but their starry list of known acolytes includes Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman, Giovanni Ribisi and any number of others.

Tom Cruise was Scientology's beaming poster boy for years before his unbridled couch-bouncing on Oprah Winfrey's show heralded a series of appearances in which his enthusiasm for his life as an Operating Thetan finally rendered him incoherent. "Now is the time, OK?" he said, somewhat mystifyingly, in a typical outburst. "It is being a Scientologist; people are turning to you, so you better know it ... And if you don't, you know, go and learn it!"

In America, where entertainment is a prime export, celebrities also enjoy unparalleled access to the corridors of power. When the US put pressure on Germany to legalise Scientology through the international forum of the Helsinki Commission, it was John Travolta, Isaac Hayes and Chick Corea - all prominent and committed Scientologists - who were on hand to speak on its behalf. They also published an open letter, signed by a wish list of Hollywood celebrities, comparing the German Government's stance to that of the Nazis.

Successive German governments have not relented, but Cruise reinforced the message recently by choosing to play Claus von Stauffenberg, a German national hero who was executed for his part in a military plot to kill Hitler, in a film made in Berlin. It wasn't hard to join Valkyrie's dots: here was a Scientologist standing up, once again, to the Nazis.

But while it is clear enough why marginal religions need the stars, why the stars are so susceptible to them is more mysterious. In a country where 81 per cent of the population identifies with a specific religion, the entertainment industry has always been notably agnostic.

About a third of Americans identify as born-again Christians, an exclusive path to salvation that is not too compatible with a business full of Jews, gays and the generally damned. If there are people in Hollywood who have been born again, they aren't too evangelical about it.

The spectacular exception is Stephen Baldwin, raised a Catholic along with brothers Alec, William and Daniel, who saw the light after September 11 and has since gone on the road with his right-on, right-wing "Livin' It" mission to the young and tattoo-friendly, inviting tens of thousands of young boys to sign "decision cards" promising to join him in "the gnarliest thrill ride" with Jesus. His conversion came complete with a flaming variety of conservatism; he now believes, for example, that efforts to end global poverty and violence are examples of the "stupid arrogance" that rightly earns God's wrath. Bono, he just knows, is in league with the Devil.

Celebrity religions are cut from a much smoother cloth than this. Fifty years after Scientology found a home in Hollywood, a secularised version of the Jewish mystical cult of Kabbalah has become the spiritual choice de nos jours; adherents range from Demi Moore to Gwyneth Paltrow.

Meanwhile, we are into our second generation of Buddhists: Goldie Hawn has passed the baton to Kate Hudson. There is even, on the shadowy fringe, a sybaritic Church of Satan that could once claim Jayne Mansfield as a member. Faith-hopping is a Hollywood commonplace: even Tom Cruise, in his pre-movie days, was a Franciscan seminarian.

The explanation for this religious frailty may lie in the nature of acting as much as the shared characteristics of people who do it. Actors, it is often noted, are generally insecure. But that's inevitable, surely, given that even the famous ones don't know where the next job is coming from and the job depends not on experience or even a skill set, but on whether some guy in a suit thinks they're hot. They only have themselves to sell.

They can see, moreover, that those selves are under constant scrutiny; whole magazines are devoted to passing on glimpses of their cellulite, signs of marital breakdown or evidence of creeping insanity. Apparently, everyone is looking at the stars, all the time. Not that they find that a negative thing, necessarily. Not at all. They didn't get into this business, most of them, in order to stay anonymous. Or to be poor. Or to make nice, necessarily. And the new religions don't expect them to.

Kabbalah was originally an esoteric occult offshoot of Judaism based on a 13th-century commentary on the Torah called the Zohar. It purported to explore the nature of God and the universe via arcane forms of mysticism - using numerology to reveal hidden truths in the Torah's words, for example - that were considered so complex that Kabbalah studies could only be undertaken by Jewish male scholars over 40 who had spent their lives poring over the sacred texts.

Karen and Philip Berg changed all that. In 1971 they opened their first Kabbalah Centre, aiming to offer a simplified version of this pursuit to everyone, Jew or Gentile. Their "technology of the soul" - or "McMysticism" in the eyes of its critics - is largely stripped of any faith content or even Hebrew words that might "alienate people", according to a centre spokesman.

Madonna was first seen wearing Kabbalah's defining $26 red string (supposedly cut from an ur-string wound around Rachel's tomb in Jerusalem, although reports that they are labelled "Made in China" suggest this may be true only in a spiritual sense) in 2005. Where Sandra Bernhard - her sometime gal pal - had led, she followed, eventually bringing successive bosom chums Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan into the fold, albeit temporarily. It was a great story. There would have been less fuss, the star complained, if she had "joined the Nazi party". It is intriguing to note, just in passing, how often those jackboots march through the argument.

Both Scientology and Kabbalah are career-positive: being in the right mental place, they suggest, is crucial to the commercial success that is the sole measure of worth on the Hollywood scale. "Why is Kabbalah suddenly so attractive for artists of various domains, you may wonder?" writes the entertainment editor on the Softpedia website. "The answer is pretty simple: because it promotes physical welfare and wellness, because the 'divine system of wisdom' is primarily based on the principle that the 'Creator wants you to have everything you want': that is, money, good relationships, love and happiness. What more could one man ask from his petty existence on Earth?"

Actually, apart from the candle-lighting and talk of chakras, testimony of its aficionados suggests that Kabbalah, like the less controversial aspects of Scientology, is largely a variety of self-help. Ashton Kutcher, for example, explained that Kabbalah had improved his relationship with Demi Moore. "It is one of the essential ingredients in the success in our marriage," he said last year. "Every time that we come against a challenge, we turn to the tools we have learned and a solution follows."

Before Moore discovered Kabbalah, she was a disciple of the fantastically successful self-help guru Deepak Chopra - an Indian doctor whose advocacy of meditation owes a good deal, in turn, to Beatles guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi - whose success in Hollywood has made him a celebrity in his own right. Moore's daughter Scout told Harper's Bazaar that she was quite comfortable with Kabbalah in the home because it represented only the last in a long line of conversions. "She has always moved from religion to religion, with different stages of her life."

What Kabbalah and Scientology offer that self-help doesn't, however, is some comfort in the face of the yawning emptiness of the cosmos. Even the biggest stars will die, or perhaps not. In an article on Kabbalah in Salon magazine, journalist Daphne Merkin - who was raised as an Orthodox Jew - reports how she discussed the cult with Mystic Madge in an interview for a glossy magazine occasioned by the release of Confessions on a Dance Floor. She and Guy Ritchie were taking Hebrew lessons at the time and she had been renamed, at least for devotional purposes, Esther. She no longer believed in death, she told Merkin, but in a concept of reincarnation taught at the Kabbalah Centre.

Reincarnation has no place in Jewish theology, but Kabbalah's "reconciliation of science and spirituality, of the Garden of Eden and string theory", as Madonna put it, follows its own precepts. " 'The thought of eternal life appeals to me'," she told me, as though she were trying on a new outfit in front of a mirror," Merkin wrote. "'I don't think people's energy just disappears.'

"When I asked her why she hadn't stuck with Catholicism, which incorporates belief in an afterlife, she snapped in reply: 'There's nothing consoling about being Catholic. They're all just laws and prohibitions. They don't help me negotiate the world.' ''

The caricature of celebrity-friendly religions, of course, is that they are long on consolation and short on anything else, such as uncongenial moral codes or an actual God whose own celebrity, celeb-watching snarks suggest, might occasionally overshadow the star's own. This may be part of the appeal of Buddhism, however vaguely understood it may be by many Westerners who flirt with it. Anyone can latch on to ideas of individual spiritual growth and the pursuit of physical and mental well-being. After all, it sounds a lot like therapy. Everyone in Hollywood understands that.

Celebrity Buddhists accordingly abound: Oliver Stone, Keanu Reeves, Orlando Bloom, Uma Thurman, Tina Turner and Sharon Stone are among the many who have declared themselves, more or less convincingly, to be fans of shedding all desire. Naomi Watts said after making The Painted Veil that she was "drawn" to Buddhism and was, in an odd counterpoint to the red thread brigade, wearing "Buddhist beads" around her wrist.

Richard Gere, raised a Methodist, is perhaps Hollywood's best-known Buddhist, adhering to a disciplined schedule of meditation that does not, in fact, suggest his religious choice is an easy option. In the process he has also committed himself to the Tibetan cause, visiting the Dalai Lama in northern India several times a year and lobbying ceaselessly at home on his behalf. The story of his conversion is that he tried meditation for the first time back in the mid-'70s, when he had retired to bed in depression after being fired as lead actor in The Lords of Flatbush.

"Back then, doubts were eating away at me," Gere said later. "And Buddhism as a religion seemed like the therapeutic way to deal with that ... For the first time, I felt I had really found myself." As an actor who embodied a certain kind of sexualised narcissism peculiar to movies, he could see a way of "cutting himself down to size", as Der Spiegel put it in a long profile centred on his choice of faith. "Gere is a narcissist seeking to overcome his infatuation with his own image."

More recent Hollywood conversions have included some that are almost archaically conventional. The days when people had to change religion to match their partner's might have been thought to be over, but Isla Fisher has spent years on the preliminary studies required for Jewish conversion in order to marry Sacha Baron Cohen. They have had a child in the meantime. Just last week it was reported that Leonardo diCaprio will reportedly undertake the same arduous training to marry his Israeli girlfriend.

And last year, having long since dropped out of Kabbalah via Alcoholics Anonymous, Lindsay Lohan posted her intention to convert to Judaism. Her plan, by contrast, is pure Hollywood. Her girlfriend Samantha Ronson is Jewish and Lohan said that she had become close to her family and was attracted to their beliefs. They, too, are said to be considering marriage in a state that will permit it. But she is still only 22, so has time for a few changes of heart yet.

Despite the absurdities of celebrities in search of a god effect - it can't be too substantial, but should be spectacular - any of us can understand the urge to embrace the momentarily transcendent. It's that sense of missing something that makes Christmas-and-Easter churchgoers wish they did this more often, or puts us in awe of Uluru or a sunny morning, or allows us to take pleasure in traditional ritual that means little to us simply because preceding generations have said the same words and made the same gestures in company with their fellow human beings. The most determined non-believer can see what a church or equivalent offers in our world.

But in the middle of the movie industry, with its naked adulation of success and money, its emphasis on surface gloss and a competitive ethos that some say makes everyone else implicitly untrustworthy, the longing for a refuge from "the infectious malaise of secular life", as Daphne Merkin puts it, must be proportionately greater. And if it comes with "an up-to-the-microsecond sense of branding" and excellent merchandise, so much the better. After all, however much those celebrities might be looking for a haven, they're still in Hollywood.

Newsweek names the top shuls in America - the 25 best Jewish synagogues (and the 50 top rabbis)

Sure to stir some controversy. Newsweek names "America’s 25 Most Vibrant Congregations" -- based on the unscientific opinions of Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, News Corp. executive vice president Gary Ginsberg and JTN Productions CEO Jay Sanderson. They say the list is based "on the following criteria:"
  • Social and Community Engagement
  • Growth of Membership
  • Outreach to Young People
  • Diversity of Programming
  • Programmatic Innovation
  • Dynamism of Religious Services
  • Success of the Rabbi
No New Jersey synagogues on the list.

They also name the best 50 rabbis in the companion articles:
[P.S.: Two NJ Orthodox rabbis without synagogues on that list. We don't know why Obama's rabbi, Capers Funnye from Chicago is not on it.]

The Congregations
Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Mass.
Beth Elohim draws its 900 very diverse congregants from more than 30 Greater Boston towns and focuses on social action and education.

Temple Israel, Boston
New England's largest Reform congregation continues to grow and expand.

Kehilat Hadar, New York
One of the most dynamic traditional congregations in America, with an innovative companion yeshiva, Mechon Hadar.

Central Synagogue, New York
Central Synagogue has long been one of the leading synagogues in New York and America, but its lofty position has not stopped it from evolving to meet the changing times.

B'nai Jeshurun, New York
From its beginning, Congregation B'nai Jeshrun has been at the forefront of spiritual and communal innovation.

Temple Israel, White Plains, N.Y.
Temple Israel is committed to diverse learning opportunities for congregants of all backgrounds and ages.

Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y.
An Orthodox synagogue committed to bringing spirituality to the entire community.

Congregation Beth Elohim, Brooklyn, N.Y.
A 148-year-old synagogue quickly adapting to Brooklyn's exciting, young population.

Germantown Jewish Centre, Philadelphia
A model for pluralistic and egalitarian worship and community.

Temple Micah, Washington, D.C.
Puts a premium on an individual's Jewish journey, and its programming reflects that unique approach.

Sixth and I Historic Synagogue, Washington, D.C.
Sixth and I Synagogue focuses on unaffiliated Jews, and its nondenominational, nonmembership approach is making an impact in Washington.

The Shul, Miami
"One of the country's most unorthodox Orthodox synagogues," reaching out to Miami's diverse Jewish population, including Sephardic Jews.

The Temple, Atlanta
Atlanta's oldest and most progressive synagogue.

Temple Emanu-El, Dallas
Founded in 1875, Temple Emanu-El was the first synagogue in North Texas, and its pioneering spirit continues to place it at the forefront of Jewish life.

Central Reform Congregations, St. Louis
St. Louis's only congregation strives to capture the attention and the involvement of its diverse community.

Beth Jacob Congregation, St. Paul, Minn.
Beth Jacob Congregation has made Shabbat the focus of its programming.

Anshe Sholom B'nai Israel, Chicago
One of America's most innovative Modern Orthodox synagogues.

IKAR, Los Angeles
A leader in reaching young Jews with its integrated approach to social action and spiritual growth.

B'nai David Judea, Los Angeles
An Orthodox congregation that has been a leader in enabling religious women to lead tefilah and read from the Torah.

Sinai Temple, Los Angeles
A Conservative congregation that embraces study and tradition while being open to new methods and ideas.

Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, Calif.
Valley Beth Shalom continues to be one of America's most relevant and community-minded synagogues.

Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco
San Francisco's leading house of worship, reaching an eclectic community.

Congregation Beth Am, Palo Alto, Calif.
A Bay Area congregation committed to bringing Reform Judaism into congregants' lives outside the sanctuary.

Kavana Cooperative, Seattle
A spiritual cooperative, enabling all its congregants to be leaders as well as participants.

Is Rabbi Capers Funnye Jewish?

Obviously, you say, Rabbi Capers Funnye is a Jew. But not so fast.

Funnye is labeled in the title of the Times Magazine's story as "Obama's Rabbi." As you read the fascinating story by Zev Chafets you get a sense of the way in which the black Jewish community that he serves evolved, how its members' identities as authentic Jews have been problematic and how the Rabbi himself underwent a conversion to remove all doubt about his bona fides as a Jew. This account leaves room for much debate to follow about the contours of the definition of who is a Jew in the American community.
Obama's Rabbi
Rabbi Capers Funnye celebrated Martin Luther King Day this year in New York City at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, a mainstream Reform congregation, in the company of about 700 fellow Jews — many of them black. The organizers of the event had reached out to four of New York’s Black Jewish synagogues in the hope of promoting Jewish diversity, and they weren’t disappointed. African-American Jews, largely from Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens, many of whom had never been in a predominantly white synagogue, made up about a quarter of the audience. Most of the visiting women wore traditional African garb; the men stood out because, though it was a secular occasion, most kept their heads covered. But even with your eyes closed you could tell who was who: the black Jews and the white Jews clapped to the music on different beats.

Funnye, the chief rabbi of the Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, one of the largest black synagogues in America, was a featured speaker that night...more...


A video of 40 lashes - ancient flogging in modern times from the Taliban in Pakistan’s Swat Valley

When studying the bible and Talmud I occasionally mused, If only we could go back in time and actually see the past.

But we can. You ask, By what magic can we go back 4000 years in time?

How is this possible to witness the act of ancient Biblical flogging?

Thanks to this source, here is it - pre-modern society captured on a cell phone video.

WSJ: Rabbi Bleich and Professor Sarna Dispute the Essence of the Blessing of the Sun

We've been thinking... Did the Beatles have this blessing in mind when they wrote their song?

Here comes the sun, here comes the sun,
and I say it's all right
Little darling, it's been a long cold lonely winter
Little darling, it feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun, here comes the sun
and I say it's all right

Anyway, we love Talmudic disputes - especially when they take place in the Wall Street Journal.

While this one is not fully articulated (they rarely are to start with), you can appreciate the differing views of the rabbi and the professor regarding a simple old blessing. It's nicely presented in the article, "Love the Earth? Bless the Sun," By JULIE WIENER, concluding,
"There is no question that our relationship to the physical world and the sun is different than it was 28 years ago, let alone 2,000 years ago," says Nigel Savage, whose Jewish environmental group, Hazon, is organizing a sunrise ceremony on the roof of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. The Hazon event will also officially launch the Jewish Coalition for a Sustainable Upper West Side, a campaign pushing for more pedestrian- and bike-friendly policies in the neighborhood.

For Mr. Savage and other Jewish environmental activists, it makes sense to connect "blessing the sun with the power of the sun and with some understanding of how the sun's rays are affecting the planet in the 21st century."

The Teva Learning Center, a group that teaches about Judaism and the environment at Jewish day schools, summer camps and Hebrew schools, has dispatched a special "Birchat HaChama" bus. Running solely on reused vegetable oil, the bus has been visiting synagogues and Jewish community centers along the East Coast and in Ohio, sharing information not just about the sun blessing but also about a variety of environmentally friendly technologies, such as solar-powered ovens....

All of this is "a little bemusing" to Rabbi J. David Bleich, a Yeshiva University Talmud professor whose scholarly tome "Bircas HaChammah" was published in 1981 and re-released this year by the Orthodox Jewish publishing company ArtScroll Mesorah. According to Rabbi Bleich, environmental concerns are "issues in and of themselves and are totally unrelated to the blessing of the sun." He sees the blessing as an occasion to acknowledge the wonder of God's creations, not a political statement. "I suppose you can connect anything," he says. "You can draw dots and lines; you don't have to be logical."

But Brandeis's Mr. Sarna points out that the environmentalist remaking of the sun blessing mirrors the transformation over the past few decades of Tu b'Shvat, the Jewish "birthday of the trees," from a Zionist holiday to a sort of Jewish Earth Day. "Some will be unhappy with that, and others will understand that's a process as old as ritual itself," Mr. Sarna says. "When one looks at Jewish history, one finds there are rituals and practices that one generation discarded suddenly take on wonderful significance for a new generation."...more...