Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Talmud for Christmas: Tractate Chopsticks

A lost Talmudic tractate has been discovered that answers age-old rabbinic questions about the appropriate way for Jews to fully accomplish the obligations associated with eating Chinese food on December 24th/25th.

By Rabbi Rick Brody & Rabbi Rachel Kobrin with inspiration from: Rabbi Jeremy Winaker, Rob Kutner, Carolyn Austin, Bill Seligman, Sam Rosenstein, and Rabbi Ben Newman.

MISHNAH 1: Our Rabbis ask: When does one begin the Festive Meal of Chopsticks? Beit Shamai omrim [The School of Shammai say]: on the 24th day of the month of December, because one should “larutz la'asot mitzvah” [run to perform a holy act]. Beit Hillel omrim [The School of Hillel say]:

Through the entirety of the night of the 24th and the day of the 25th is mutar [permitted]. But the mehadrin [those who wish to embellish their osbservance] wait until the final hours of the 25th, because we “ma’alin b’kodesh v’lo yordim” [ascend in holiness and do not descend]. V’yesh omrim [And there are those who say]: “To extend the simchah [joyous occasion].”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Was Heschel a Conservative Jew?

TODAY MARKS FORTY YEARS SINCE the passing of Rabbi Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel. I decided to take a look at Heschel's life and legacy as well as Heschel's identity among other Jews.

In order to attain an adequate appreciation of the preciousness that the Jewish way of living is capable of bestowing upon us, we should initiate a thorough cleaning of the minds. Every one of us should be asked to make one major sacrifice: to sacrifice his prejudice against our heritage. We should strive to cultivate an atmosphere in which the values of Jewish faith and piety could be cherished, an atmosphere in which the Jewish form of living is heartily approved or at least respected pattern, in which sensitivity to kashruth is not regarded as treason against the American constitution and reverence for the Sabbath is not considered conspiracy against progress.

Without solidarity with our forebears, the solidarity with our brothers will remain feeble. The vertical unity of Israel is essential to the horizontal unity of כלל ישראל. Identification with what is undying in Israel, the appreciation of what was supremely significant throughout the ages, the endeavour to integrate the abiding teachings and aspirations of the past into our own thinking will enable us to be creative, to expand, not to imitate or to repeat. Survival of Israel means that we carry on our independent dialogue with the past. Our way of life must remain such as would be, to some degree, intelligible to Isaiah and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, to Maimonides and the Baal Shem.

A wide stream of human callousness separates us from the realm of holiness. Netiher an individual man nor a single generation can by its own power erect a bridge that would reach that realm. For ages our fathers have labored in building a sacred bridge. We who have not crossed the stream must beware lest we burn the bridge.

- excerpted from “Toward an Understanding of Halacha” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 404-405; delivered at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Sixty Fourth Annual Convention (Estes, Colorado), 1953, Volume LXIII, edited by Bertram W. Korn.

40 years ago today marked the passing of a long-standing professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)–the founding bastion of Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews have preserved the legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel by naming after him the honors society of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth movement: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Honors Society of United Synagogue Youth.

A profound scholar, who once taught (albeit briefly) at the American Reform rabbinical academy, Hebrew Union College, Heschel lived a life that sounds nearly larger than life. This Jewish leader, who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., was not only a published scholar, but also a published poet. He not only poured out his heart onto a page when comparing Kierkegaard and the lesser-studied Kotzker Rebbe, but he also fought with his soul against the War in Vietnam.

To attempt a full biography of Heschel here would be foolish, but suffice it to say that Conservative Jews often have much pride in the multi-talented rabbi who was once a teacher at their own seminary.

Despite the attitude of Conservative Jews towards him, the question must be asked: Was Heschel actually a Conservative Jew? Despite Conservative Jews’ sense of pride in Heschel, was he truly one of their own?

During his lifetime, Heschel completed his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin and sank into rabbinic studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a denominationally unaffiliated German rabbinical seminary, where Judaism was studied through a critical academic lens. Prior to those forays into a more assimilated world, much of Heschel’s education took place within the walls of a traditional yeshivah (as it was also in the Orthodox world where he initially received his rabbinic ordination).

His religious fervor is evident in his writings–as is the immensity of his expertise in critical Jewish studies. Yet his scholarship did not appear to alter his religious practice. Despite his boldness in stating that the Torah itself is an interpretation (a midrash) of Divine revelation–the shape of his Jewish observance did not become somehow less Orthodox on account of his gutsy theology.

From my vantage point, it is tough to say that Heschel ever fully embodied Conservative Judaism. In fact, it would be say that Heschel was ever representative of a singular Judaism other than a well-read, globally minded, somewhat liberal Orthodox Judaism.

In his time, Heschel articulated beliefs that rarely matched up with those held by lay Conservative Jews and by Conservative Jewish leaders other than Heschel himself. His backgrounds in the Hasidic world and the critical scholarly world offered Heschel the combined advantages of textual knowledge and philosophical radicalism rarely found in the Conservative Jewish leaders (especially rabbis) of his time. Compared with Heschel and his upbringing, these contemporaries were raised in environments far less affected by Jewish knowledge, tradition, memory, and observance.

Yet Heschel was among the most charismatic voices in Conservative Judaism–not because what he preached most honestly matched with what Conservative Jews said, believed or ever came to believe, but because his primary audience happened to be those training to become Conservative Jews (not always leaders, and those training to become leaders did not always succeed).

If brains are not enough to impress someone, sometimes looks will make a person outstanding. Simply put, Heschel’s teachings may in ways be less preserved in the popular imagination than the way he looked. Heschel looked a lot more frum than many other leaders in the Conservative Jewish world. Conservative Judaism, often lacking strong leadership, found an inspiring–perhaps exotic–image in Heschel. While his appearance changed over the years, the visual that came to be associated with the greatness of Heschel has never been the rare clean-shaven photo of the scholar, but rather the wild hair and outstretched beard of a sage.

It is fortunate that Conservative–and non-Conservative–Jews today often embrace Heschel’s name and his writings (whereas, when Heschel was alive, JTS was apparently an atmosphere where his presence was often unwelcome and absent). But Heschel is frequently hailed by liberal Jewry as “one of their own” when, in fact, almost everything about his biography, practice and philosophy differed completely from the experience of approximately 99% of non-Orthodox Jews. Heschel–deeply spiritual and politically liberal–did not find his intellectual home in an American Hasidic community. By the sake token, Heschel–committed to traditional text study and stringent observance of mitzvot–did not necessarily find a home in the American liberal Jewish community. I wonder if Heschel actually never found a home.

My own estimation is that, as much as Conservative–or any other–Jews want to claim Heschel as their own, it is vital to recognize how he was rarely welcomed as one of anyone’s own in his lifetime. I suspect that today he still would be out of place at JTS–or any liberal or Orthodox institution.

When Heschel spoke of the Jews, he spoke fervently of K’lal Yisra’el, but he spoke on behalf of no one other than himself and a Judaism no one has ever known since. Let his memory not be a false idol. May his memory be a blessing.

Jonah Rank is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter at @JonahRank.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Compassion: From the Bible's Joseph to Bruce Springsteen

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN’S MOST RECENT hit single, “We Take Care of Our Own” has been played non-stop throughout this year, especially during President Obama’s re-election campaign, the democratic national convention and at his victory party in Chicago. When my father in law introduced me to the song a number of months ago, I felt conflicted by its message.

On the one hand, Springsteen correctly exhorts the American people to overcome our selfish habits and take care of our country and our people. Yet on the other hand, while we strive to be one big family in the USA, the truth is that we are much more than a family that takes care of our own. We take care of everyone. We view our role in the world as a country that will do its utmost to ensure peace and democracy and opportunity in every corner of the world. Sometimes we have to tread gently, like recent events have shown with the Arab Spring, and other times we can be more assertive. Is Springsteen’s message to take care of our own in contradiction to this value?

When Joseph understood from Pharaoh’s dreams that the famine would not only affect Egypt but would spread to other countries, he didn’t inform and advise them to begin saving and storing their produce. Did Joseph not care about the inhabitants of those lands? In this week’s Torah portion, Joseph gives Benjamin a larger portion of food and clothing than the rest of his other brothers. Did Joseph not care for them because of the way he was treated?

Bruce Springsteen Jewish

I think it’s fair to say that both Joseph and Springsteen care deeply about everyone, but recognize that priority must be given to their own. We can all agree that as much as Springsteen cares about his fellow Americans, he cares doubly as much for his family. Joseph too: as much as he cared about the other inhabitants of the world, he loved and respected his fellow Egyptians that much more. Moreover, as much as he loved his half-brothers, Benjamin was his full brother, so he naturally had a greater affinity for him.

We see a similar concept in Jewish law as it relates to giving Tzedakah. “Aniyay Ircha Kodem,” our greatest priority is to give Tzedakah to people in our city before anywhere else; even more than the needy of Israel (according to most opinions). Does that mean Jewish law places little to no value on giving charity to needy people outside of our community? No, it means that the rabbis adopt the Springsteen approach to take care of our own. Frankly, if everyone takes care of their own community, we would not need to care for someone who is from a different one!

In the spirit of “taking care of our own,” there are many issues that the Orthodox Jewish community needs to address, be it the recent sexual abuse scandals, the drug and alcohol abuse that plagues our communities, and the way in which we treat homosexuals.  But after the events on Friday in Newtown, Connecticut when a young man brutally murdered 20 kindergarteners and 6 adults, what’s most important right now is for all of us to “take care of our own” in a different way. Let’s hug our children tighter. Shower them with more love and affection than ever before. Help them to understand that God’s children are placed in this world to be forces for good and people filled with compassion and loving kindness.

We are tasked to be “Oheiv Et Habriyot,” lovers of all the inhabitants of the world. At the same time, we need to be “Springsteenian” and take care of our own; to shower our children with extra love, attention, and guidance so that they can grow up to be a true beacon of light unto the nations. May evil cease to exist and I pray that God wipe away all the tears from our faces. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and a dynamic Orthodox rabbi. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Hanukkah Fun with Too $hort, Zooey, Jimmy Fallon and the Houston Rockets

Cross-posted to Blog.RabbiJason.com

A COUPLE YEARS AGO I wrote about non-Jews observing certain Jewish customs. I looked at such examples as Justin Bieber reciting the Shema in Hebrew before each concert as well as non-Jews maintaining kosher diets, hanging mezuzahs on their front doors, dancing the Hora at weddings and erecting sukkahs.

The new trend seems to be non-Jewish celebs adopting Hanukkah rituals. While conservative pundits in the media claim there is a war on Christmas, just the opposite seems to be true about Hanukkah. More menorahs are being displayed in the public square. Chabad Lubavitch has politicians and celebrities light super-sized menorahs. Even Gene Robinson, a gay Bishop, brought a Hanukkah gift of dreidels to Jon Stewart when he visited the Daily Show during the holiday. And a call for new Hanukkah songs has been answered by a rapper.

Heeb asks, "Has Hanukkah become the must-be-seen celebration for the hip and famous, regardless of semitic bona-fides?" What prompted that question was a simple tweeted photo from singer/actress Zooey Deschanel, who is Roman Catholic. Deschanel's tweet said "Happy Chanukah y’all!!!" and was linked with an Instagram photo of her lighting the Hanukkah menorah. That photo has received close to 100,000 likes on Instagram.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Win 2 Tickets to See Matisyahu

Win 2 tickets to see Matisyahu live in concert.

Just go to the PopJewish.com Facebook page and click "Like". Then leave a comment to the Matisyahu post with "Matisyahu concert tix" as the comment text. One Facebook user will be drawn to see who gets the tickets. Details of the concert below.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Stevie Wonder Not Overjoyed About Israel

WE'RE ALL FAMILIAR WITH HEARING Stevie Wonder sing "Isn't She Lovely," but it's become clear that he wasn't talking about Israel when he sings that song. The Grammy-winning singer and song-writer was all set to perform at a Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fundraising gala, but he is now refusing to appear.

The event is set to occur on December 6 in Los Angeles and Stevie Wonder has performed in the past for other Israel-related celebrations and fundraising events. His reps claim that Wonder's decision to pull out of this event is based on a strong recommendation from the United Nations to withdraw his participation based on his participation with the U.N. as a "Messenger of Peace."

What's odd about this is that the UN supposedly doesn't tell its "Goodwill Ambassadors" where they can and cannot support. Most likely this was a result of pressure from fans through social networking sites, including an online petition with several thousand signatures.

The change.org petition states, "You were arrested in 1985 protesting South African Apartheid, now we ask you: please remember that apartheid is apartheid, whether it comes from White Afrikaaner settlers of South Africa or from Jewish Israelis in Israel. Desmond Tutu has recognized that Israel’s Apartheid is worse than South Africa’s -- will you stand with us against apartheid and cancel your performance at the IDF fundraiser."

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Lincoln's Time Machine

THEY SAY THE BOOK IS always better than the movie, and for the most part that tends to be true. But when it comes to “Lincoln”, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of Abraham Lincoln, I don’t think that’s the case.

The most difficult part of truly understanding history is that we inevitably view the historical figures through our modern sensibilities. Since we didn’t live in the times they were living, it is impossible to fully comprehend the conventional wisdom of that time and the culture they lived in. It is unfair to look back fifty years, let alone a hundred and fifty years, and ask “How could they have done that?” Much like fifty years from now people might look back at our generation and ask things like, “Why was it such a big deal that an African American was elected President?”, “Why did they allow children to play tackle football?” or “They used to sell cigarettes in supermarkets?” You have to live in the times to understand the mindset of those times.

Two years ago I was watching an old “Meet the Press” episode with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I was shocked by some of the questions, as they asked him if the restaurant sit-ins were doing more harm than good and whether they had a right to break the law since segregation was legal in much of the south. My immediate visceral response was abject shock. How could they ask Dr. King these questions? Why weren’t they thanking him for his work? Why weren’t they supporting him?

In order to understand the entire dialogue I needed to put myself in their times and to understand their mindset. This was a country that still was unsure about the immorality of segregation.

This same difficulty applies to the Torah. As we try to understand the lives of our matriarchs and patriarchs, we need to understand their mindset. Take, for example, the difficult story of Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. It seems incomprehensible and unconscionable. Yet, to fully understand their actions we need to put ourselves in their shoes. The first two generations of the Jewish people had seen a succession of father to son. Avraham handed the reins to Yitzchak, and Yitchak to Yaakov.

Yaakov now prepared himself for a similar transition. He had to fight for his father’s recognition as the next leader, and it made his life exceedingly difficult. So he figured that by declaring his intentions from the outset it would simplify the process. Yosef would be the next leader, and that was that.

However, Yaakov’s eleven other sons were not a collective Eisav to be dismissed. Their actions were not spurred on by petty jealousy and sibling rivalry. They were not young children, they were adults. They saw that Yaakov was trying to recreate the leadership structure he had inherited, but that leadership structure was now obsolete. The twelve sons would become twelve equal partners. They were right, they saw the future. They should not have sold Yosef, this could have been handled in a much more peaceful manner, but to understand the issue we need to understand their collective mindset.

To me, that’s what struck me about Lincoln. I found myself thinking and feeling as they did. The heroes of the movie are pushing for the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, but in no way support voting rights for African Americans or women. They are not ready to declare that people are truly equal, merely that everyone should be equal before the law. Lincoln himself openly supported the idea of colonizing the freed slaves in Liberia or Haiti. At times I felt guilty seeing them as paragons of virtue, when today their views would be virulently racist.

Yet, the power of film is that we are truly transported into their times. You begin to feel as they feel and take their world at face value. Even though some of their ideas would be anathema to us, when you understand the times they lived in you can appreciate the courage they showed in espousing controversial beliefs.

I thank Lincoln for providing me with that experience and allowing me to live in that world, even if only for two and a half hours.

Sometimes the movie is better than the book, because it can help us think and feel as they did. The vivid presentation and incredible acting act as a time machine into a forgotten world. Lincoln teaches us the most valuable of lessons, to understand another’s thoughts and actions you truly need to put yourself in their shoes.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is the rabbi of Congregation Adath Israel in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul

Sunday, November 18, 2012

We Should All Learn From Magic Johnson, Especially the New York Jets

ANONYMITY OFTEN SERVES A very important purpose in religious and secular life. The Talmud teaches us that one of the greatest forms of charity is “Matan BiSeter,” anonymous giving, which spares the recipient from embarrassment and shame. It can also be used as a sort of deterrent: Moshe asked God to delete his name from the Torah if He destroyed the Jewish people after they worshipped the Golden Calf. Ultimately, God had mercy on them. In our society, anonymous reporting of information can play a crucial role in our national and local security.

Under some circumstances, however, anonymity is a vice and not a virtue. The New York Jet football players who anonymously criticized Tim Tebow acted cowardly. Giving constructive criticism can be helpful to an individual, if it’s done in a respectful and sensitive fashion. Indeed, the Torah commands us to reproach someone about their negative behavior as a means of improvement and not for the sake of shaming them; but public criticism is only warranted if the transgression necessitates it. If Tebow’s teammates honestly believed that he was failing the team, they had a right to be critical. It would have been proper for them to approach him privately with their criticism, or, if they felt it necessary, they could have criticized him publicly, but in that case, they should have the courage to stand behind their criticism. Instead they made a public mockery of him for no rhyme or reason and did so anonymously!

I found it ironic that the same day this NY Post expose on the Jets was published, Laker legend, Magic Johnson, showed them “how it’s done” when confronted with a similar challenge and frustration. When it comes to basketball (or real estate) decisions, it’s hard to argue with Magic. He knows his beans. If he believed that Phil Jackson or even (gasp) Jeff Van Gundy were the best available choices to serve as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, he may well be right. He was angry that Jim Buss chose Mike D’antoni (I like the choice, personally), but he didn’t share his anger with the world. Quite the opposite; he kept his composure.

Magic Johnson Pop Jewish

Two days after the hiring he tweeted, “The reason I haven't tweeted in 2 days is because I've been mourning Phil Jackson not being hired as the Lakers head coach.” He followed it up with this: “My mother always taught me that if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.” Later that evening he was on NBA countdown on ESPN and explained that D’antoni is a good coach, but not the best fit for the Lakers and that he doesn’t trust the decision making of Jim Buss.

There’s probably more to both the Tebow and Jackson stories than we know. As a long time Laker legend and former part owner of the team, Magic surely knows much more than he’s sharing. But his behavior shows us how we need to act when we are upset and frustrated with a person or situation. Magic didn’t stand behind the veil of anonymity, when he had something critical to say. In fact, Magic reminded everyone on Twitter a few days back that, as a player, he took responsibility for having Paul Westhead fired. He’s blunt and frank, but always acts respectfully.

Thanks Magic for showing us how to handle ourselves the right way. But I hope you are wrong about D’antoni.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is the co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and a rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @Rabbi_Hess

Friday, November 16, 2012

Call Girl; No Phone - Sex Trafficking On Rise in Pop Culture

ED SHEERAN RECENTLY RELEASED THE SONG "A TEAM". The lyrics go like this: And they scream, “The worst things in life come free to us”, 'Cause we're just under the upper hand and go mad for a couple grams. And she don't want to go outside, tonight. And in a pipe she flies to the motherland or sells love to another man…Loose change, bank notes, weary-eyed, dry throat, call girl, no phone.

The video is a little intense but ultimately tells the sad story of a young homeless woman with no means who sells sex for drug money to escape the pain of her existence.

The music is ironically sweet for such a chilling portrait of a life on the streets. But it tells an incomplete and unrealistic tale. This woman has no pimp threatening to beat her if she doesn’t bring in enough cash for the night. She is free to come and go as she pleases instead of being locked in a hotel room being sold online by a third party. The song says she is 18 but most these women are not women at all-they are girls. The average age is 11-13 years old.

I met with an anti-sex trafficking advocate his week who said “trafficking is the new black.” I didn’t get permission to quote that line so I can’t tell you who said it to me but I promise this person is super cool and meant it to be as snarky as it sounds. Oh, and I am pretty sure they meant ANTI-sex trafficking is the new black. Given that 7200 men have sex with trafficked minors each month in Georgia alone, I would say the act itself is, well…so last season.

The trend has been rising to the fore for a while. MTV has a (slightly ironic) do not objectify women campaign, Jada Pickett Smith spoke out to Congress, Olivia Wilde, Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, America Ferrera, Dipti Mehta and Gabrielle Union all appeared in Nick Kristof’s PBS documentary, Half The Sky (where are all the men?). The Demi and Ashton Foundation (still going strong even though they are not), and the super cool “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” video with John Legend, Heath Evans, Simon Baker, Ludacris, Bradley Cooper, Jason Mraz, Justin Timberlake, Thomas Jane, Sean Penn, Jamie Foxx…well the list goes on (and I guess we found the men) all have been out there for some time.

We now even see it on tv shows. Law and Order SVU, Human Trafficking; a Lifetime TV movie with Mira Sorvino and Donald Southerland, Criminal Minds, NCIS Los Angeles and many other popular shows have episodes taking on the topic.

But not until the ultimate trend setter stepped in-no, not Isaac Mizrahi, not Elle magazine, not-oh heck, who am I kidding-I don’t know enough about fashion to list names…but it was President Barack Obama in his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. Our fight against human trafficking is one of the great human rights causes of our time …The change we seek will not come easy, but we can draw strength from the movements of the past. For we know that every life saved -- in the words of that great [Emancipation] Proclamation -- is "an act of justice," worthy of "the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God." That’s what we believe. That’s what we're fighting for.

Well if words like that don’t make a trend take off, I don’t know what will.

Subsequent responses by Nick Kristof, Melissa Harris-Perry and the ABC OpEd aired last month have solidified the issue as the hottest fashion in injustice this season.

Soon we will have rubber bracelets and hipster t-shirts-all the accoutrement for a good fall trend.

Forgive the term, but without action, all of this is social action masturbation. We feel good that we are battling an injustice-but what have we done other than join the outrage? It is a critical first step, but cannot be the last one.

As Jews, we are called to act. Deuteronomy 16:20-Justice justice though shalt pursue. It is not a passive command but a rigorously active one. So what do we do? There are four ways of engaging in justice work:

1. Educate yourself and others about the issue and HOW TO GET INVOLVED because this is happening to 250-500 new GIRLS each month in every city 15-20 times per night just to meet the demand.

2. Donate funds to organizations you trust who are will be worth ambassadors for you in fighting this fight (check out trafficking.openjewishproject.com for a list of organizations)

3. Volunteer with a group and in a way that feels comfortable for you in your community

4. Advocate for laws which will help make a change such as Trafficking Victims Protection Reallocations Act (TVPRA) which is poised to lose funding any second now. To pass this critical bill out of the Senate, your sign on is needed. Click here to encourage your Senators to push this through especially if you live in Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Alabama, South Carolina, or Arizona where there has been the most resistance.

Nationwide there is a three-pronged attacked: Educate law enforcement so they know the girls are the victims not the villains. Increase services for victims of trafficking. Reduce the demand for paid for sex. So join the trend. “Like” the fan page, learn more about it, get involved!

Rabbi Rachael Bregman is an alum of Clal's Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. She's the founder of the Open Jewish Project and a rabbi at The Temple in Atlanta.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Could Toronto Blue Jays Choose Rabbi As Manager?

WHILE THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS have already been having an active off-season with some big potential trades, the baseball talk in Toronto's Jewish community has to do with the team's next manager.

Zev Icyk is currently studying at the Rabbinical College of America, one of the largest Chabad Lubavitch yeshivas. Located in Morristown, N.J., the 25-year-old has bigger plans than just becoming another Chabad rabbi. He's interested in getting an offer to be the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays next season.

Originally from Thornhill, Ontario, Icyk is a lifelong Toronto Blue Jays fan. He's also got some baseball experience. He even threw a no-hitter playing for his college team. He pitched for the Canadian Thunderbirds under coach Allan (Tex) Montgomery, and attended Muscatine Community College in Iowa in 2008-09 as Warren Icyk.

According to the Toronto Sun, Icyk wrote in an email to the Blue Jays organization, explaining: "I have drive, motivation, experience and personality to take the Jays where Alex Anthopoulos wants them to go... The Jays would be the most aggressive and exciting team in the bigs. I am the only rabbi in the world with the ability to manage in the majors."

Rabbi Zev Icyk - Toronto Blue Jays Manager
Zev Icyk will soon be ordained as a Chabad rabbi, but he's willing to put that aside if the Toronto Blue Jays want him as their new manager.

Icyk said, "I just got married. My wife Sara asked, 'why devote your life to baseball since you were three years old and not apply?' If I can get an interview with Mr. Alex Anthopoulos, I'll be on a plane to Toronto the next day."

While the future rabbi is a long shot (okay, he's not shot) to become a manager in Major League Baseball, it does make for a great story. If nothing else, the Blue Jays should comp him a few tickets for next season (no Shabbos games!) and let him throw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Rabbi Jason Miller is the co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog. He's an educator, entrepreneur and blogger from Metro Detroit. He blogs at Blog.RabbiJason.com and is on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Downfall of David Petraeus and Why Leaders Disappoint

TWO DAYS AGO MY COLLEAGUE, Rabbi Amy Small, wrote a powerful piece putting the news glut on the David Petraeus scandal into perspective as neighborhoods continue to reel after Hurricane Sandy and many are still without light or heat in their homes. While I wholeheartedly agree with her call for priorities, particularly when it comes to what gets the media’s attention and our own, I find myself reflecting on the Petraeus case this week, and looking at another aspect of the story. I think it is because I can empathize with many who feel such disappointment in a man who was held in such high esteem.

And what I notice is that it is not unusual in these situations, when the esteemed fall off the pedestal that we have put them on, for our society to take things to the other extreme. Disgust is expressed; more than disappointment, so often the whole being and legacy of an individual is put down and not just the specific behavior that is the focus of attention. I’ve noticed many commentators on the radio and TV in recent days questioning Petraeus’ judgment on all matters, given his clear poor judgment on the matter of an illicit relationship.

My reflections and empathy stem, I think, from my own experience of watching an admired teacher fall from grace. When it happened, it also involved inappropriate relations that, as is so often the situation with men in positions of power and influence, were largely inappropriate because of the unequal power relations involved. While it was questionable whether the behaviors were illegal, there was no question that they were morally and spiritually deeply flawed.

Petraeus Pop Jewish

How do we react when someone we have learned from and admire acts in a way that deeply disappoints or, more, causes hurt and harm to others? Is it possible to maintain a connection or a friendship? As a rabbi, should I continue to share wisdom in the name of the teacher I learned from? Should one simply stop speaking of the person, or do we have an obligation to speak out and loudly about their deficiencies so that they become known to all?

Clearly the answers to these questions will depend on the nature of the behavior. Sometimes we must speak out. Sometimes we simply walk away in disappointment.

In my own life I have tried to walk the line, distinguishing between the behavior and the broader legacy, teaching or guidance received. I continue to share the wisdom of my teacher and recognize its value. I do not speak of him, knowing that we live in a society that so often conflates words with personality, and I do not wish to lead others to flock around him. But the line that I try to walk is one where I recognize, with humility, that our leaders who disappoint are often holding up a mirror to our own souls. We may be repulsed, but is it solely because of our leaders’ behavior, or because we are reminded that even people who do great things are flawed human beings?

And, if those we mistakenly placed on pedestals can fall off them so easily, that must surely mean that each and every one of us, even if we think of ourselves as good people, are equally capable of revealing our flaws and weaknesses at any time. And that is a picture we don’t like to look at. So we ostracize and demonize the one, blotting out their good, so that we can more easily label them and their actions as ‘not us.’ But, in the quiet of a moment alone, if we are willing to take a good, hard look in the mirror, we find that its really not quite that simple.

Rachel Gurevitz is a PopJewish.com blogger and the Senior Rabbi of Congregation B'nai Shalom, Westborough, MA.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Boss Springsteen to the Rescue

ON FRIDAY NIGHT, WHILE JEWS around the east coast will gather together at Synagogues for their first Shabbat davening since the devastating Hurricane, the pop-culture world will be having their own spiritual experience at the Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. Bon Jovi, Billy Joel, Sting and “the Boss” Bruce Springsteen, among others, are headlining a benefit concert to help raise money for the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
As someone who grew up in the teeny bopping, R&B and Rap world of Los Angeles, my exposure to these “God's of Rock N Roll” is somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I am most certain that “the Boss” will sing, “My City of Ruins,” a song which he wrote to honor the victims of 9/11 and one which provides inspiration following any tragedy, and certainly in the aftermath of Sandy.

The song highlights different images of people trying to cope with tragedy: the guy depressed to find his congregation gone, “the younger ones on the corner like scattered leaves,” without direction and unable to process the tragedy that unfolded in front of them. The robbers and thieves who use tragedy as an opportunity to exploit others, the fellow that's deep in prayer and is unsure how to proceed and move on with his life. And finally there's a devastated spouse who has lost his life partner. Springsteen exhorts them to “rise up;” to show the resolve, strength, and fortitude to re-focus and put the pieces of their lives back together.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The New Halloween

LAST SUNDAY I WENT WITH MY FAMILY to the Bronx Zoo, and suddenly Purim broke out. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I am used to seeing the paraphernalia all around, and children in costume for weeks on end. However, it seems to me that Halloween has changed. Halloween used to represent cartoonish gore, a mixture of carved-out pumpkins, bats and cobwebs. It used to be Casper the Friendly Ghost. Halloween is now Tim Burton. Walking around the Bronx Zoo, I was struck by how realistic the imagery was. It was replete with tombstones, lifelike corpses and skeletons, and dismembered limbs. It has gone from cute and scary to gory and morbid.

You can now find Halloween depictions like the one below across the country. What has changed? Why has Halloween become so morbid?

When we try to understand the greatness of our patriarch Avraham, we must take into account his social context. The Talmud is Avodah Zarah (19a) explains that Avraham lived during two of the most persuasive societies we have ever seen. He lived during the generation that built the Tower of Bavel, and he rejected their forced collectivity. It wasn’t only Avraham. At the end of Parshat Noach (10:11-12) we learn that Ashur went and built big cities, especially the city of Ninveh, which we know from the book of Jonah. Rashi (quoting the Midrash) says that Ashur saw that his sons were getting swept up in the culture of Nimrod and wanted to join the group building the Tower of Bavel, he decided to pick up his family, move far away and start a new town, a new society. That is why the city of Ninveh was so dear to Hashem and why Jonah was sent to tell them to repent, its origins were pure and holy.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Bird and Binders

LAST NIGHT I WAS on a cross country flight from LA on Virgin America, and on the entertainment system MSNBC and Fox News were on consecutive channels. I flipped between them to listen to their reaction to Tuesday night’s debate, and you might be surprised to hear that each network had a very different take on who won the debate.

After about ten minutes of blatant partisan salesmanship, in which they lauded the performance of their preferred candidate without a single mention of a misstep, I turned it off out of fear that otherwise I would attempt to poke my eyes out with a plastic fork. It was a close call.

Election season seems to have gotten more and more difficult to stomach, and social media is abuzz with friends and family offering their opinions on the election. The political debate dissolves into memes and catch phrases, “Big Bird”, “the Binder”, or “texts from Hillary Clinton”. Debate coverage focuses on body language and how “Presidential” the candidates seem.Has our political system gone out of control?

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Noach, we see the fate of Noach’s generation was sealed because of “Chamas”. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) and explains this term to mean that the final straw was a generation of theft, where everyone was either openly or surreptitiously stealing from one another. While idol worship and sexual immorality had already been rampant and reached unfathomable levels, the world still had hope. However, once society was no longer safe, once lawlessness had engulfed humanity, there was no longer any hope and Hashem brought the flood.

The Talmud explains (Sanhedrin 56b) that there are seven Mitzvot non-Jews are expected to keep, and by doing so earn a place in the “World to Come”. They are referred to as the “Seven Mitzvot of the sons of Noach”:

1. Prohibition of Idolatry
2. Prohibition of Murder
3. Prohibition of Theft
4. Prohibition of Sexual immorality
5. Prohibition of Blasphemy
6. Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
7. Establishment of courts of law

The name is very telling, it is the sons of Noach that are commanded to promote these concepts to the world. The establishment of a just legal system, even one that is not in any way based in Jewish Law, is a prerequisite for a moral society. The desire to acquire money and power at all costs makes a just legal system precarious even in our times. The stark contrast of the American elections and the Syrian massacres could not be more telling. Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal regime illuminates how far someone will go to maintain their power; the murder of tens of thousands of his own citizens is not nearly as important to him as his own power.

In America, our leaders are forced to concede that their power is limited. That no matter how successful they are, eventually they must willingly hand over the reins. It goes against the strongest of human instincts, but we have created a social contract that will not allow it any other way. It is truly the power of the people.
This creates an entirely different dynamic. The candidates end of pandering to voters, making promises they can’t keep and flip flopping on issues depending on whose votes they need. A politician’s job is to get elected, and often truth, integrity and even dignity are sacrificed in the name of that goal. It can be easy to lose sight of the glory of this process. They have to beg for our votes. They need to convince us, so ultimately the power remains in the hands of the people. We can’t lose sight of how rare this has been throughout human history.

So enjoy these next three weeks. The smear campaigns, the vicious attack ads, and even the partisan politics. Ultimately they are the sign of a healthy republic, and a nation living up to the “Seven laws of the sons of Noach”

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who built the first eruv in San Francisco. He has also founded the "Jewish Ethics and the Internet" program. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gangnam Style is More Than a Horse Dance

‘GANGNAM STYLE’ HAS BEEN all the rage for quite some time now and deservedly so. It's got a great beat, a Korean singer whose nickname is short for psycho, and a ridiculous dance. It shows you how far our society has evolved since the Macarena that we all clumsily danced to some 17 years ago. But in the area where the song truly excels, it has fallen on deaf ears.

“Gangnam style” is a satire not only about this ritzy neighborhood in Korea that according to PSY is very fancy and professional during the day, but has crazy parties at night, but about every neighborhood and community in which people are wholly enveloped in the pursuit of wealth. PSY reminds us all that life is meaningless when our thoughts, aspirations, and actions are centered on money. The song also laments the fact that even when we are fortunate enough to attain financial stability and flexibility, all too often, we do not know what to do with our wealth and end up spending it frivolously, without thinking or prioritizing. The music video does a great job of capturing the emptiness of it all, along with the other quirkiness and craziness. (For a great explanation of the song, check out the blog, ‘My Dear Korea.’) Apparently, Korean's spend more money on a latte at Starbucks than on a meal. Yikes.

PSY has attracted upwards of 80,000 fans to his concerts and hundreds of millions of viewers of his YouTube video who scream the lyrics of Gangnam Style on the rooftops while doing the horse dance. I wonder, however, how many of his fans have internalized the song’s message that we need to unify around values of justice, peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of other noble causes. When our lives revolve around money, the world devolves into one that is completely self-centered, arrogant, petty, disingenuous, and fractured.

Don't take my word for it or PSY’s for that matter; King Solomon said it better than we ever could, especially because he amassed more wealth than we will ever earn. In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, he recalls all that he has acquired. “I acted in grand style: (maybe he was the biblical version of Gangnam style, dancing the epic dance of his time.....the Hora.) I built myself houses, I planted vineyards...I amassed silver and gold for myself....thus I grew and surpassed any of my predecessors in Jerusalem....then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that it was all futile.”

All the money in the world didn’t satisfy King Solomon. Spending it lavishly didn’t evoke feelings of accomplishment and achievement. The Jewish community should take note. Our Birthday parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, weddings and other celebrations have often become way too excessive and unnecessarily elaborate. Even Hollywood, home to the most frivolous of spenders, has taken note of and mocked our craziness when it released the film “Keeping up with the Stein’s” a few years back.

Here in the United States, we are still in a recession and many of our friends and neighbors are suffering economically. But regardless of our financial status, we have to ask ourselves whether our lifestyles and spending habits are consistent with Jewish values? Are they rooted in acts of charity, social justice, equality, and spirituality or are we living life predicated on the values of “Oppan Gangnam Style?” Are we ready to join PSY in the quest for meaning in life, or are we content chasing the “holy dollar?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with people earning a ‘good’ living or even amassing a fortune. Without such people, it would be impossible to support the poor and the many worthy organizations that benefit from the contributions of the generous philanthropists among us. The problem lies in the attitude of those individuals who believe that their lives are defined by their ability to make and spend money. We can do better.

As we continue to sing along with PSY, perfect the horse dance, and scream “Oppan Gangnam Style,” for a few more weeks before the craze is finally over (apparently it ended a few days ago, according to CNN), don’t forget about his challenge to us to find real meaning in life. And as Jews, let’s consider King Solomon’s final words of Ecclesiastes as our answer: “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”

Rabbi Joshua Hess is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is the co-founder of the PopJewish.com blog and is on Twitter at @RabbiHess.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lance Armstrong - Taking the Good with the Bad

FROM ALL THE AVAILABLE evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion - Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater. Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times is accused with using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes.

On Wednesday, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release the agency claims that, “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.” In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling.

Unless there is some massive conspiracy Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked. He will likely be stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves. But before we condemn him to the purgatory reserved for other performance enhancing drug users, along with fellow club members Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for he is not your everyday drug cheat.

For millions of people Lance Armstrong was and remains an inspirational figure. After surviving a battle with testicular cancer, which spread all over his body, he became a symbol of hope when just three years later he won his first Tour de France title. Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Armstrong established a foundation dedicated to fighting cancer and helping those afflicted cope with their disease. Over the years, the “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer, and his charity has seen its donations rise astronomically during the past few weeks. I encourage you to visit www.livestrong.org to see all the good this organization does and its many, many success stories. Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.

There is a midrash which tells of two types of trees which were intertwined. One of them contained life-giving medicine, while the other contained a deadly poison. The gardener said, “If I water the tree which yields life giving medicine, the tree with the deadly poison will grow along with it. But if I don’t water the tree with the deadly poison, how will the tree sprouting life-giving medicine continue to exist?

When it comes to Lance Armstrong, I suggest we have to take the good with the bad. While he cheated his sport and himself, this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer. Despite his actions, it is OK to break out your yellow “LiveStrong” bracelets, for truly, in the case of Lance Armstrong, it is not just about the bike.

Rabbi Josh Lobel is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Silicon Valley, California.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Rabbi Becomes a Baseball Free Agent

I BLAME MEL HALL. It was Memorial Day 1991, and my cousins, my brother and I were going to Yankee stadium to see the Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox. Given that I didn’t grow up in a big city, I had never been to a Major League baseball game. At the time, I wasn’t a baseball fan. I had rooted for the Mets during their run to the World Series in 1986, but I was really a baseball free agent. I was looking for a team but hadn’t found one. My cousins were huge Yankees fans and assured me that the game would be great and that we’d have a good time.

So we piled into my Cousin Josh’s car and headed to the Bronx. On the way, Josh was explaining to me the history of the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. When we got to the stadium I couldn’t believe it. Now I had seen Yankee stadium dozens of times on television, but it was something else to see it in person. We found our seats in the right field mezzanine a few rows behind the façade and settled in for what my cousins were calling, “The greatest rivalry in sports.”

The day played out like a sports movie. This was not the same Yankees that we watch on television today. Their lineup was good, but was not the superstar lineup that this year’s Yankees trot out every game. After trailing the entire game, Mel Hall stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on first and second. On a 2-2 pitch Hall hit a home run right to right field right in front of where we were all sitting.

That was the day when I became a Yankees fan. In spite of the fact that both my father and brother were, and have always been Dodgers fans, I decided to jump on the Yankees bandwagon. All of fourteen, I found myself attracted to the glory, the history and yes, the arrogance that the New York Yankees carried with them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Michael Jackson's Recipe for Change

THERE'S AN OLD SEA STORY about a ship's Captain who upon inspecting his sailors found their stench intolerable. The Captain suggested that perhaps it would help if the sailors would change their underwear occasionally. The first mate responded, "Aye, aye sir, I'll see to it immediately!" The first mate went straight to the sailors berth deck and announced, "The Captain thinks you guys smell bad and wants you to change your underwear." He continued, "Pittman, you change with Jones, McCarthy, you change with Witkowski, and Brown, you change with Schultz."

The Moral of the Story: Someone may come along and promise “change,” but don’t count on things smelling any better.

I didn’t relate this joke to segue way into politics and to discuss the pro’s and con’s of the POTUS as it relates to his domestic and foreign policies vs. the Romney/Ryan Ticket. Nor did I intend to discuss the success or failure of Obama’s 2008 election promise of “change”. Rather, instead of examining the flaws and failures of others and determining the changes they need to make, we need to take a critical view of ourselves and pledge to change.

Not many people know why the 10th of Tishrei was selected as the holiest day of the year, as a day of forgiveness, of change and second chances. In fact, the Torah is also somewhat silent about it simply stating that the 10th of Tishrei marks the holiday of Yom Kippur where we ask for atonement from God. But a closer look at the text shows that Yom Kippur commemorates the single most important event in our history: the receiving of the second set of tablets. The second set carries more significance than the first set because on this day, on Yom Kippur our ancestors were forgiven for the sin of the Golden calf. From then on, this day was established as a day of forgiveness for the Jewish people.

Who Will Live On? (What Ben Folds Five Taught Me About Lists)

IN COLLECTING FANS' FUNDING for their new album The Sound Of the Life of the Mind, Ben Folds Five did something very clever. They promised that everybody who donated would get their name printed for all to see. Everybody gets to be a “Vice President of Promotion” listed in the liner notes.

Although I’ve been listening to the album since its early release for us Pledgers (September 12, Ben Folds’ birthday), today is my first day holding the physical CD that finally came in the mail.

Just a few days after the High Holidays have ended, I’m looking at this list:

And, that’s just one of two pages of names.

I’ve already spent around half an hour scanning names on one side of the page, and I still haven’t found me. The PledgeMusic site tells me that there were altogether 7525 pledgers.

In terms of paper, 7525 is a lot of people. Compare it to God’s attendance list of who’s alive in the world today.

There’s this image that recurs on the High Holidays in the prayer Untanneh Tokef (“Let’s declare power”) where God, reviewer of the Book of Life, is counting the sheep of the flock (i.e. God’s children, humanity). And as God is counting, God determines the destiny of each soul who passes before the Divine.

?מי יחיה ומי ימות Mi yihyeh umi yamut?
Who will live, and who will die?

I’m beginning to think that my name will not live on as an immortal fan of Ben Folds Five. I do not see my name on the list. Did the great BF5 actually miss me?

Right now the time is 11:29 AM.

I will check back in when I have found my name–or reached the end without finding myself.

11:37 AM. Anxiety or doubt has gotten the better of me, and I read the rest far faster than the other half.

I did not find my name.

Ben Folds Five may be human and the promise of immortalized fandom may be a small feat, but I realized very fast I was fulfilling a religious desire of so many Jews throughout history, hoping they made the list: whether it was the Heavenly list of who would make it this coming year, or if it was the human list of who would be spared from the cruelties of extermination camps.

I am lucky that this is the list that concerns me in my life. Not believing in God’s list of who gets to live is relieving. And not being concerned with lists of persecution or protection is a blessing in my life.

But, if I believed in God’s list, and I knew that the carefully programmed Pledge Music site, in coordination with Ben Folds Five’s album design team, probably in cooperation with Copy & Paste, left me off of their list, who could say that God wouldn’t have also forgotten me?

Jonah Rank is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Read his blog and follow him on Twitter at @JonahRank.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Book of Death and the Book of Mormon

I LOVE SPEAKING TO OTHER Rabbis to find out how what they are going to speak about on Yom Kippur. What are they going to focus on? What do they think are the most essential concepts to focus on going in to next year? In Manhattan, we are blessed to have a collection of some of the most talented Rabbinic speakers in the world. Yet, it is another Yom Kippur speech today that is getting all the attention.

Today, the “democratically elected” president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is speaking to the UN General Assembly. This, after the attacks on US embassies throughout the Middle East, makes us wonder how we should feel about the events of the past three weeks?

The Kli Yakar (Lvov and Prague, 1550-1619) asks a basic but important question. He wonders, if the Kohen Gadol (high priest) is not allowed would die if he entered into the Holy of Holies all year round, why is he allowed in on Yom Kippur? Either it is too holy for him to enter or it’s not, how can there be a one day exception?

He answers that the reason that he can’t enter is because he is a representative of the entire Jewish people, and the discretions of the entire nation are too numerous for him to withstand the Divine judgment needed to allow him into this sanctuary. However, on Yom Kippur we are angels. We are treated as if we are free of sin and without a Yetzer Harah (desire to sin). The Kohen Gadol can enter the Holy of Holies because our merit, and lack of indiscretions, allows him to enter unencumbered by our misdeeds.

On Yom Kippur, our conscious is clear. Our minds are free. Our values are unambiguous. We need to asses and clarify those values on Yom Kippur and use that to light the way for the rest of the year. We must be true to our values, because it is very easy to allow them to be compromised.
On September 11th, 2012, as the Egyptian protesters were beginning to surround the U.S. Embassy, they released the following statement:

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Today, the 11th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Americans are honoring our patriots and those who serve our nation as the fitting response to the enemies of democracy.”

On the morning of September 13th, after the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Libya and the murder of ambassador Chris Stevens, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said:
"The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind."

The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others? Really? It is now U.S. policy to actively protest and speak out against denigrating other religions? If you walk down Broadway less than 30 blocks you’ll come upon a little show called “The Book of Mormon”, which won Best Musical at the 2011 Tony Awards and opened this year’s awards with a musical number. “The Book of Mormon” openly mocks the Mormon faith. It is so popular that celebrities are often seen at the show including Cher, Jack Nicholson and none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

To the best of my knowledge, she was not there protesting “The Book of Mormon” for an intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. I have yet to see the government come out with statements condemning “The Book of Mormon”, or its creators’ Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s TV show South Park, which regularly lampoons every religion and creed, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Scientology.

If the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others, than we should not allow Ahmadinijad, the most blatant abuser of that tolerant ideal, to pass through customs. What does it say that this hate-monger, who props up an equally evil regime in Syria, is allowed free passage and to speak his hateful mind on U.S. soil?

If we have a value that we hold dear, then we need to be consistent about it. We need to fight for it. If we truly believe that freedom of speech is a value that we hold dear, than why would we even begin to state that we “deplore any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others”? All that does is call into question how much we truly value freedom of speech. If we want our values to have any merit, any credibility, we need to constantly be strengthening them.

We are either building trust and credibility or we are destroying it. Every action we do, every statement we make, we are either building a foundation of credibility, or we are slowly destroying it. In 1966 the United States has close to 200,000 troops in Vietnam, and polls showed that the government had a 66% approval rating for their involvement in the region. However, by the late sixties/early seventies the government had lost support for the war. Why? Robert McNamara, the Secretary of Defense during the war, wrote in his memoir In Retrospect that the problem is that the government began lying to the American people. They were understating how unlikely it was to win the war, and overstating how good the war was going. As what they were saying wasn't matching up to what people knew was happening, slowly the government lost credibility and the trust of the people.

The results might not be obvious at first, but when we are losing credibility and trust, in time it comes back to bite us. It makes small mistakes seem bigger, and it prevents people for cutting us any slack.

The big story this past week was the replacement referees in the NFL. The NFL’s big mistake was thinking that as long as the TV ratings weren’t falling, the quality of the games didn’t matter. That is very short sighted. Ultimately, you are building trust or losing it, gaining credibility or diminishing it. Every action, every statement is doing one of those two things. The NFL was losing credibility day by day, and they didn’t seem to understand that. It can take decades to build a reputation, but it can all be lost in a matter of days or weeks.

Just look at Joe Paterno. He was at Penn State for six decades, building a rock solid reputation that seemed to be based on a consistent commitment to his core values. In the end, he lost it all. As John Amechi, a former Penn St. basketball player said of Paterno, “You can’t be a part time man of principle.” The foundation of their moral standing had appeared strong, but ultimately it was shown to be compromised. They had cut corners, they had pushed uncomfortable truths under the rug, they had postponed difficult decisions indefinitel and allowed their credibility to slowly erode until it affected their very core.

This wasn’t one decision, one “mistake” in not properly reporting Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, it was the daily ignoring of what they had seen and what they had heard. From 2001-2012 at least four men: Joe Paterno, Tim Curley, Grant Spanier and Mike McQueery went to work every day, saw Jerry Sandusky working with children in his Second Mile program and forced their conscious deeper and deeper down until it had been blocked from sunlight. Their credibility eroded every time they chose to ignore what they suspected, and quite possibly knew. You can’t have an eleven year “mistake”, it was a willful ignoring of their most basic morality that caused things to crumble so completely.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik asked: why are there a book of life and a book of death? If there is a book of life, then by default whoever is not in that book is not getting the benefits therein. Why does Hashem need a second book, a book of death? He answers that it is not a “book of death”, but rather a “book to judge the dead”. This time of year Hashem is judging the deceased as well. They are being judged on the long term ramifications of their actions. Did our grandparents fight tooth and nail to remain Jewish when it was extremely difficult to do so, did they save money for our parents or our Jewish education? Did they help someone get back on their feet, or introduce someone to their Bashert? If so, they are still racking up merit.

Our actions can affect the merit of our ancestors, and our actions today will affect generations to come. We have to think long term. We need to build a solid foundation of trust and credibility, of honesty and responsibility. We need to be consistent to our values. We need to create something so lasting that it will last for generations to come.

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi. He is rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in Manhattan. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Clint Eastwood's Invisible Seat for Rosh Hashana

TO ME IT WAS CLEAR that Clint Eastwood was unprepared to give a speech at the Republican National Convention. Yet his idea of the invisible Obama chair was absolutely brilliant!  I actually did prepare my sermon for Rosh Hashana and I decided to steal Clint's idea!  So in a way I feel like he was sitting in a seat at my shul for Rosh Hashana.  Can I send him a bill?

Why are we here? What is our purpose in the world? A big question, but one that we all know the answer to. Our purpose in this world is to do good.

The real question is what is "good?" That question has many answers, and it is different for every person, for every time, and for every situation.

But we can all agree that our purpose is to do good. And most of the time, if not all of the time, it is clear what good is.

So do good.

Life would be that easy, if not for one thing - the yetzer harah. God created something called the yetzer Harah whose only job is to prevent us from doing good and entice us to do bad.

Every minute of every day is a battle that we all fight against the yetzer harah in our quest to do good.

And the yetzer harah is always with us, every minute of our lives, from the time that we are first cognisant of the difference between good and bad all the way until we die.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sara Bareilles, Amanda Palmer and the Rabbis

Warning: This post includes strong language and refers to graphic images

SARA BAREILLES AND AMANDA PALMER HAVE A FEW things in common. Aside from their instruments, their sex, their talents, and their records produced by Ben Folds, both have recently released some provocative works about their less pleasant sides.

In “Sweet As Whole,” from Bareilles’ recent Once Upon Another Time EP, the singer puts it this way:

Sometimes I can be perfectly sweet,
Got this sugary me stuffed up in my sleeve…

But, like most creatures down here on the ground,
I’m composed of the elements moving around,
And I grow and change, and I shift, and I switch,
And it turns out I’m actually kind of a bitch.

What ensues is Sara then cussing out everyone around her over an oom-pa-pa dainty ditty. Just a few days ago, Amanda Palmer released the bloody violent music video to “The Killing Type.” Her song is mostly a stream of consciousness about how she really is ”not the killing type,” and she lists scenarios where she would dare not kill a person (in war, to restore a relationship, to save a life).

Friday, September 14, 2012

David Gregory's Jewish Life

David Gregory interviewed Jake Gyllenhall (who's mother is Jewish) on this morning's episode of The Today Show. During the interview, Gregory, who serves as the host of NBC's "Meet the Press", made a comment that he hadn't had that much fun since his bar mitzvah.  I had no idea that Gregory was Jewish so I did some research.

Sure enough, Gregory did have a bar mitzvah at thirteen and lives a proud Jewish life. While only Gregory's father is Jewish, he was raised in the Jewish faith and takes it seriously as an adult.

In an interview with the Washington Jewish Week, Gregory talked to Eric Fingerhut about how he discovered the importance of Judaism in his life. He talked about studying Jewish texts with Dr. Erica Brown, scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and saying the bedtime Sh'ma with his children (a son and son-daughter twins) as a way to model Judaism for them and "create a Jewish narrative in their lives that's not just obligatory."

Gregory become a well known journalist in Washington when he was assigned by NBC to the press corps covering George W. Bush when he ran for president in 2000. During the campaign, Bush threw a party for Gregory's 30th birthday on the campaign plane. President Bush nicknamed Gregory "Stretch" because of his height (6'5") and also "Dancing Man," for his dance moves.

In the Washington Jewish Week article, Gregory explained that while he was raised in a Jewish home despite his non-Jewish mother, there wasn't much emphasis on theology or spirituality. But, with the encouragement of his non-Jewish wife (Beth Wilkinson), it was "enough to carry me to a sense of identity" and give him a desire to "probe further" the question of "Why be Jewish?"

He said, "What I decided was [that] what mattered was not just a sense of actual knowledge" or attending High Holiday services, "it was to understand how to live Jewishly ... [and] find daily meaning in Judaism. So now "Shabbat has become a lot more important to me" as a way to "stop and think about what matters most to me ... what kind of father and husband I want to be. I was born into a tradition," he said. "Who am I to let it slip through my fingers?"

In a post last year on the TVNEWSER blog, Gregory said about his Passover tradition, “I prepare a big seder where we do the costumes and a script and basically tell the story of the Exodus."

Perhaps as a way to share their common Jewish heritage, at the end of the Today Show interview Gyllenhaal let Gregory know that he was "shvitzing."

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Lucrative Lashon Harah of Taylor Swift

TAYLOR SWIFT HAS BECOME famous (or infamous) for airing her grievances against the men in her life that she feels have wronged her in her music. One of her first big hits, “Teardrops on My Guitar”, is about a guy she had a crush on, but who did not return her feelings. After Joe Jonas purportedly dumped her on the phone in a 27 second conversation, she penned “Forever and Always” where she refers to him as a “scared little boy.”

John Mayer was the next to feel her wrath after their relationship went south, as she composed “Dear John”, which led her target to complain, “I was really caught off-guard, and it really humiliated me.” And now comes her latest smash hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” in which she derides her former boyfriend’s attempts to win her back. The smart money is that it is none other than Jake Gyllenhaal that is the focus of this latest lyrical tongue lashing.

Although she has seemed to corner the market, Taylor Swift is hardly the first musician to use her romantic missteps as the basis for a song. Who can forget Justin Timberlake completely eviscerating Britney Spears with “Cry Me a River”, a song so devastating that I contend it was the first step on Britney’s path of mental instability. Others might prefer the example of Alanis Morissette, who shot to fame with her single, “You Oughta Know”, ripping her ex-boyfriend to shreds, and, if rumors are true, completely ruining re-runs of “Full House” for me. I can never look at Uncle Joey Gladstone the same way.

Getting back to Ms. Swift, I just wonder where is the line between creative expression and lashon ha-rah, evil speech? Clearly, Taylor Swift hasn’t exactly been lucky in love and she is entitled to her pain and disappointment at her failed relationships. With that said, is there something unseemly about her desire to publicly mock, even vilify, her past romantic dalliances? As an artist, I understand her need to express herself through her music, but is there a point where her tattling tunes become hurtful, mean-spirited? Shouldn’t the gentlemen in her life, even those who were supposedly less than chivalrous, be afforded some degree of privacy and discretion?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Taylor Swift's High Holiday Sermon

EVERY NOW AND THEN, a song is released that resonates and speaks to you. Even if it doesn't necessarily address your particular feeling or unique predicament, you connect with it emotionally. And if the song's debut coincides with an important, significant, or auspicious event, that gives it even more meaning since Jews don't believe in coincidence.

That is how I felt when Taylor Swift released her new song, “Never Ever Getting Back Together” on a YouTube special presentation a few weeks back. As my High Holiday preparations were in full swing, Swift's song instilled within me a greater and heightened sense of God's presence, justice, and mercy. In some odd way, I believe that Swift wrote that song for me, not Jake Gyllenhaal.

I know what you must be thinking: what does this song have to do with God? Technically, you're right. The song details her repeated frustrations with a former boyfriend who let her down over and over again. He says, "Baby, I miss you and I swear I'm gonna change, trust me." And she notes, “Remember how that lasted for a day? I say, "I hate you," we break up, you call me, "I love you." He continues pledging to change and then reverts back to his unreliable and erratic self. Finally, Swift becomes fed up with his immature behavior and screams at the top of her lungs, “we are never ever ever getting back together.”

Here's how God comes into the picture: This song spoke to me in anthropomorphic terms. I imagined that the conversation related in the song was not between Swift and her boyfriend but rather, between me and God as I faced Him on Rosh Hashanah. Then, I thought to myself: every year I pledge to Him that I'm going to change. Unfortunately, after a few days, I often revert back to my old self. What if, after so many years of pledging change, this year's offer is turned down? What if God says to me, “Josh, we are never ever ever getting back together?”

Maybe I'm overreacting. Surely, God is more compassionate than Taylor Swift. After worshiping the Golden Calf, the Jews undoubtedly knew the seriousness of their sin and the punishment for their egregious transgression. Luckily, Moshe interceded on their behalf and evoked God's mercy and compassion to forgive the Jewish people for their actions. So why should I be so concerned? If I failed to make good on my pledges for the last 5 years and God didn't punish me for my inaction, than why might this year be any different? God will give me another chance.

Such a nonchalant attitude is definitely inappropriate. God doesn't hand out an endless supply of “get out of jail free cards” for our bad behavior. In fact, the opposite is true, as is apparent from a shocking verse in the second chapter of Samuel I, discussing the depths of corruption and immorality perpetrated by Chofni and Pinchas, the two sons of Eli the Kohen. When Eli urged his children to repent for their evil ways, the verse states that God did not want want them to change. Why would God prevent someone from changing? How could the “Av Harachaman,” the father of compassion exhibit such callousness? One of the answers given is that when a person's life has already been sealed in the book of death, nothing, at that point, can be done to change it.

That's a pretty scary thought. All along we have assumed that God was going to give us an unlimited amount of do-overs. The reality is that we have no idea how many chances we will get or when God’s patience with us will run out. All we know is that we have this chance, now, and it's within our power and control to make it count.

I don't have any desire to get together with Taylor Swift, but I really do want to continue living a happy and meaningful life with my wife, children, family, community, and the Jewish people. I'm guessing that all of you reading this probably feel the same way (except for the few out there who would like to get together with Ms. Swift). Either way, let's treat these next couple of weeks with utmost seriousness by pledging to change, improving in our relationships, and then acting on it. Otherwise, God may say those frightening words, “We are never ever ever getting back together. Like, ever."

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a dynamic Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is co-founder of PopJewish.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess.