Sunday, July 22, 2012

David Guetta's Titanium Armor

KING SOLOMON FAMOUSLY WROTE in Ecclesiastes that even the most righteous of people succumb to sin. Hard as we may try, remaining perfectly righteous eludes us time after time. So whether you are one of the select few that rarely sins, or one, who like most of us fails with regularity, it is important not only to engage in self-reflection in order to develop better character traits and habits, but also to seek out advice, guidance, and constructive criticism.

If we witness our friends making mistakes or acting inappropriately, we are required by force of Biblical law, (Hocheiach Tochiach Et Amitecha) to rebuke them. If our concerns are shrugged off or ignored, it speaks volumes about their flawed personalities, that they are too proud or arrogant to believe that there are people in this world that may know better.

It is for this reason that I have serious reservations about David Guetta's hit song Titanium (parenthetically, Edon Pinchot advanced to the semi finals of America's Got Talent singing this song). Listen to the words, "You shout it loud, but I can't hear a word you say', I'm criticized, but all your bullets ricochet," and "I'm bulletproof, nothing to lose fire away, fire away." Without equivocating, Guetta seems to indicate that we only need to rely on our own talents without opening ourselves up to any sort of criticism or advice. Simply tune out everyone around us and let their words ricochet off our titanium armor.

I'm well aware of the fact that there are some spiteful people who would like nothing more than to 'cut others down' and wish for their failure. This is particularly true for people in the public arena. It goes without saying that these individuals should be ignored. To them I say, 'ricochet, fire away, fire away. You shoot me down but I won't fall. I am titanium.'

I bet Guetta agrees with me on this point, but his words are misleading. Unfortunately, I have seen so many people refuse help and assistance -- even from their own family. Admittedly, this topic strikes a particularly deeper chord with me because, when I was younger, I was one of those people who ignored the advice and guidance from those closest to me. Perhaps this is why, I am more sensitive and critical of the lyrics than others.

It is always prudent to use a discerning ear when criticized. Open yourself up to those who truly want to help and allow them entry into your life. It will be the greatest decision you will ever make. If you can learn to accept and heed the constructive criticism that you receive from those who care, you hopefully will be able to develop into a person whose behavior is beyond reproach and therefore worthy of Guetta's titanium armor.

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

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Hockey is the Oneg Shabbat

I GREW UP IN DETROIT, MICHIGAN and we are really big hockey fans there. We love our hockey more than we love many other things. I have often joke that I have two religions: Judaism and Hockey.

Since moving to Syosset, New York to serve as an assistant rabbi, I've learned that New Yorkers are big hockey fans too. We can cheer on either the Rangers or the Islanders. We enjoy their incredible legacies of success. We also have an incredible group of Jews who truly revel in being Jewish and connecting with other Jews. I saw a natural entry to bring people together.

Early on I began to hear from countless people that we should play some hockey, but we all know how the time gets away from us and we fail to put these projects together. This year however I said it was now or never, and so we have created the MHL, Midway Hockey League. Each Shabbat we gather in our parking lot and turn some tables on their sides to create a street hockey rink. We have had as many as 10 people (a minyan!) playing at once. Ranging from teens to parents of college-age kids, we have begun to attract a fan base and they are becoming loyal enough to show up in the heat.

Sex, Violence, and Shades of Grey

THE FIFTY SHADES OF GREY trilogy is everywhere. I saw a woman reading it the subway last week and another at the pool. This book, which started as an e-book and gained a following because women could read it in secret, has come out of the closet. Women are reading it out in the open everywhere. Magazine articles and blog posts are calling it the “Summer of Grey.”

I like that the book is helping some women get in touch with their sexuality. Judaism has always seen sex with in a committed relationship as a positive act. The Talmud dictates how often a man is to please his wife by having relations with her: for men of independent means, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for donkey-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months. Having sex on Friday night during the Sabbath is even referred to as a “double mitzvah.” If this book is helping some couples come together then that is a good thing.

However, I find the threat of violence which hangs over the entire story to be chilling and dangerous. The book hooks readers by keeping them wondering if Ana the female character will submit to Christian’s “Red Room of Pain” and allow him to dominate her. This commingling of sex and violence is abhorrent to me as a woman and a Jew.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown Creator Donald Sobel - A Tribute

LONG BEFORE STEVE JOBS, Encyclopedia Brown proved that being smart and working out of your garage could be very cool.

Donald Sobel, who died on July 16, was most famous for the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series. He never got rich but his works were translated into 12 languages, read by millions. Though stricken with cancer, he continued to write until the very last weeks of his life.

Like Jobs’ vision for apple, the premise of the Encyclopedia Brown books was simple but successful. In each chapter, boy genius Leroy Brown, known for his encyclopedic knowledge would be faced with a puzzle which he would inevitably solve. The clues to the solution came from clues embedded in the story and readers were invited to try their hand and see if they too could figure it out. The answers followed.

Sobol’s simple paradigm set up a vision of a world that was not often seen in the 1960s when he started writing or in the 1970s when I was reading them as a child. In popular culture, the athletes and beautiful girls ruled the roost; adults were in charge and underestimated children. But the world of Encyclopedia Brown invited children into an alternative universe.

Penn State, Joe Paterno and Communal Responsibility

There has been no bigger story in sports this year than the Penn State scandal involving Jerry Sandusky’s repeated sexual abuse of young boys for the past two decades.

With Sandusky behind bars for the rest of his life, the eyes of the nation continued to look to Penn State, as the question still remains – how could this happen? Tasked with finding the answer, Louis Freeh, the former federal judge and director of the F.B.I. spent the last seven months interviewing hundreds of people at the university and, this past week, released his findings. According to the report, Penn State officials, including legendary coach Joe Paterno, the former president of Penn State, Graham B. Spanier, Senior Vice President-Finance and Business Gary C. Schultz, Athletic Director Timothy M. Curley and others, “repeatedly concealed critical facts" about Jerry Sandusky’s crimes from authorities and failed to act in a responsible manner that may have spared additional children from his monstrous assaults.

In addition, and perhaps most damningly, the report claims that the individuals who knew about Sandusky’s abuse of children showed no empathy for the victims, but rather, were concerned about how devastating the revelations would be to university, and, more importantly, the football program.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Friday the Rabbi Made Challah

A COUPLE YEARS AGO, I attended a young adult challah-baking event here in Austin. Some of the young women who were there that evening turned to me, a female rabbi, and wanted to know my challah-baking secrets.

“The truth is” I confessed, “I never bake challah.”

“REALLY?” They said with great surprise.

It occurred to me that we would never presume that male rabbis were baking challah, but somehow as a female rabbi, people had the expectation that I at least had some experience with this craft. But when would I find time for such things? Thursday and Friday are consumed with meetings and preparation for Shabbat at the synagogue. Where could I find time – and energy — for challah baking?

I often joke with my husband, who is also a rabbi, that the old adage – “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes”– rings true in our household. We have two children, and although both of them claim to love to bake challah (they’ve had such experiences with their grandmothers and at school) they have never baked challah with their mom. One thoughtful stay-at-home mom in my congregation recently offered to have my kids over for a challah baking party with her family, since clearly I didn’t have the time to create such opportunities for my own children.

Justin Bieber's Young Love and Judaism's View of Relationships

JUSTIN BIEBER CHURNS OUT top hits on what feels like a daily basis. "Boyfriend", his most recent chart topper, explains why he would be a great, well......boyfriend. Aside from the fact that he's 'got money to blow', he pledges to never let this girl go and keep her on his arms for ever and ever.

While I find the latter gestures to be charming and chivalrous, the reality is that staying in a long term relationship- for Bieber and the rest of American society- is hard to do.

These days most people seem to only be loyal to themselves. With divorce rates higher than they have ever been, it seems laughable for anyone, let alone a pop-star, to sing about commitment in relationships. I often wonder why they and their song writers broach this delicate topic.

But let's be honest: doesn't Judaism take a fairly liberal view on commitment? Was it not the great sage, Rabbi Akiva, who ruled that a man may divorce his wife on the grounds that he finds a more attractive woman? The rabbis of the Talmud took it even one step further and ruled that a man can divorce his wife for absolutely no reason. Indeed, Judaism views marriage as a contract that can be easily voided as opposed to Catholicism, for example, that sees it as an eternal covenant. When husband and wife marry under the chuppah (wedding canopy), we hope and pray their relationship will have that enduring quality. Unfortunately, it doesn't always turn out that way.

Moment of Silence at 2012 Olympics: Honoring the Munich Victims

THE INTERNATIONAL OLYMPIC COMMITTEE hasn't changed in the last 40 years. And
that is a sad fact.

In 1972, terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage in the Olympic village; two were murdered on the spot, and eventually all of the athletes were massacred. While the world looked on in horror, the IOC shamelessly decided that the Games must go on; and after a short 24 hour hiatus, the Olympics resumed. As Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray said at the time “Incredibly, they're going on with it; It's almost like having a dance at Dachau.” Adding insult to injury, Avery Brundage, the President of the IOC, gave a shocking  speech at the memorial ceremony; Brundage stated that “the Games of the 20th Olympiad have been subjected to two savage attacks”

What were those two attacks? One was the attack on the Israeli athletes; the second attack was the “savage” international pressure that forced the IOC to remove the racist country of Rhodesia from the Olympics! This exceptionally offensive comparison shocked many around the world, and showed the IOC’s complete lack of concern about the plight of the Israeli athletes. The 1972 Munich Olympics have been an ugly blemish on the reputation of the IOC ever since.

Fast forward 40 years. You would think the IOC would be eager to somehow atone for its' offensive behaviour in 1972; but sadly, that’s not the case. When Ankie Spitzer, the widow of one of the victims of the Munich Massacre requested a minute of silence at the opening ceremonies to commemorate the 11 athletes, she was rejected.  It’s not that a moment of silence is unprecedented; it was done in 2010 for a luger who died in a practice run, and in 2002 for the victims of 9-11. As Ankie Spitzer puts it: “I have to call the baby by its name; the IOC’s refusal is pure discrimination.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prince Fielder, Pinchas and Patrimony

I WAS EMOTIONALLY MOVED as I watched Detroit Tigers' slugger Prince Fielder accept the 2012 Home Run Derby award on Monday night in Kansas City with his two adorable sons proudly standing next to him. But it also struck me as sad that Prince's father Cecil Fielder wasn't in that photo op as well.

I still remember back in 1990 when Cecil Fielder (a Detroit Tigers All-Star 1st baseman like his son is today) was the favorite to win the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Competing against the likes of Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and Ken Griffey, Jr., Cecil failed to hit even one homer in the contest that night. This week, Prince Fielder became the first player ever to win the Home Run Derby in both leagues (he won in 2009 as a Milwaukee Brewer too).

There's no question that Prince Fielder inherited the gift of hitting the long ball from his father. This week's Torah Portion, Parshat Pinchas, is all about inheritance and succession. Moses was an impressive leader of the Jewish people in the desert as they made their journey to Israel. This week, however, we learn that Moses will not lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Although he has worked tirelessly to be a great leader and inspirational figure, his career will end before the reward of entering the land with his people.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Katie Holmes, Scientology and Parshat Pinchas

KATIE IS DIVORCING TOM. In a sudden but unsurprising move, Katie Holmes has filed for divorce from Tom Cruise and they have quickly agreed to a divorce settlement in which she has primary custody of their daughter Suri. She is being celebrated by many for her bravery and courage to “break free” from Tom's clutches and regain her independence. Is there really something here to celebrate?

In this week's Parsha, Parshat Pinchas, Pinchas is rewarded by Hashem for his bravery and courage. At the end of last week's Parsha (Balak) Jewish men were seduced by Moabite women in large numbers (Numbers 25:1). These illicit relationships then led to the Moabite women coercing the Jewish men to worship their idols (25:2, with Rashi). This became a large scale epidemic with no end in sight. Hashem instructs Moshe to inform the Jewish legislature to begin trying and convicting those worshiping idols to end this widespread idol worship in a civilized way.

Suddenly, a leader of the tribe of Shimon, Zimri, took his Moabite temptress and sinned at Moshe's feet, in front of the entirety of the Jewish people. There was widespread panic, and the people began to sob at the hopelessness and licentiousness before them. Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, quickly grabbed a spike and killed them both on the spot. This zealous act sent a message to the entirety of the Jewish people, and their behavior and the plague that had begun wiping them out stopped dead in its tracks.

2nd Avenue Deli's Cholesterol Victory

PASS THE TUMS! Get the angioplasty balloons ready! In what could have been called the "Heart-Attack Smack Down," the 2nd Avenue Deli has thwarted an attempt by the Heart Attack Grill in Las Vegas to get the name of their beloved "Instant Heart Attack" sandwich changed on the grounds of trademark infringement.

The "Instant Heart Attack" sandwich is a choice of corned beef, pastrami, or turkey served between two fried latkes. The Heart Attack Grill, famous for its gigantic “triple bypass” and “quadruple bypass” bacon cheeseburgers, and french fries cooked in pure lard, claimed that the 2nd Avenue Deli crossed a line by introducing cardiac-themed items to its renowned deli menu.

However, Judge Paul Engelmayer decreed that there was no possible way that the supersized sammies in question could be confused for each other. One is a kosher deli staple with a twist, the other a treyf-a-licious abomination, breaking two Jewish dietary laws at once – all it is lacking is a couple of fried shrimp on the side to complete the trifecta. Not much chance that the average Jew is going to have trouble differentiating between the two of them.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Theology of Rick Ross - God Forgives, I Don't

In both rap music and in theology we learn that "God Forgives, I Don’t." Fans have been eagerly awaiting artist Rick Ross’s 5th solo album and it now looks like it will finally arrive on July 30.

Ross has assembled the best of contemporary rap to join him including Dr. Dre, Jay-Z Andre 3000 and Drake. Musically, I’m sure the move makes sense but I’m wondering if as a good Jewish boy Drake buys into the message of the album title.

Any Jew who has ever attended High Holiday services knows that forgiveness is a central focus in Judaism. Having attended Hebrew School, Drake likely knows that divine forgiveness is essential for moving forward after transgressions against God, but when we hurt others we must seek their forgiveness. Forgiveness is not really an option.

If their repentance is sincere then those aggrieved have an obligation to forgive. So maybe he ought to have suggested an alternative title, God Forgives and So Do I?

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder is Rabbi-in-Residence for Be'chol Lashon & Editor of Tzeh U'llimad. She is an alum of Clal's Rabbis Without Borders fellowship. Follow her on Twitter at @RabbiRuth.

Jewish Phish Food for the Soul

THE BAND PHISH COMPLETED two sold out performances on July 3rd and 4th at Jones Beach NY. To be clear, I am not a “Phish-Head” (a serious fan/follower of the band) but I do enjoy their concerts and Vermont vibe.

For those who don’t know, Phish is a rock-jam band from Vermont, in the spirit of the Grateful Dead. They have inspired thousands of, dare I say it, religious followers who travel great distances to see them and keep track of how many concerts they have attended. I know people who have attended hundreds.

It is a well known fact that Mike Gordon, the bass player for Phish, is Jewish, grew up in Newton MA and attended the Solomon-Schechter Day School of Greater Boston. A certain subtle Yiddishkeit is known to waft throughout the band’s vibe, and indeed, at any given Phish concert, among the dreadlocks and crunchy granola 100% organic types, one is also sure to find any number of kippah wearing dudes with titzits flapping in the wind, and their girlfriends, wives or sisters with long flowing skirts.

In exploring the way concerts may function as spiritual/religious experiences for the attendees, the Phish concert at Jones Beach on July 4th, for sure crossed that wavering, amorphous line. At the 6th song of the evening’s first set, the band launched into Avinu Malkeinu. Allow me to repeat, in front of a sold-out crowd (their concerts are almost always sold out) of 15,000 (or more), a contemporary, popular rock/jam band launched into an ancient Jewish prayer, possibly dating back to the first century of the common era-, a fixed, central piece of our High Holiday liturgy. Avinu Malkeinu literally translates to “our father, our king.” It is a supplication to G-d.
Call me “late to the party,” but while Avinu Malkeinu at a Phish concert was new for me, apparently this is not a new experience for Phish. The Wikipedia entry for Avinu Malkeinu notes that Phish plays this piece in a 5/4 time signature. Phish-Heads confirm, the band has played this song from time to time at their concerts over the years.
It is amazing to think of how many non-Jews are exposed to Avinu Malkeinu in this deep and prayerful way. How many people might cite Avinu Malkeinu as their “favorite Phish tune,” without ever knowing its broader context? Does it matter?
A religious prayer, performed at a “rock” concert? What is going on? Are the attendees praying? Are some of them praying? Has the prayer been diluted somehow by its introduction into a ‘secular’ environment? Is a Phish concert a secular environment or a religious one? Is prayer turned into art? Is art turned into prayer?
Thanks to the internet I found this quote attributed to Mike Gordon from 2007:
Music, fills many of the holes that religion leaves open. The philosophical feeling behind religion, a religious upbringing, and even the notion of praying to God is very abstract. This transfers directly to my relationship with music. While you cannot necessarily touch music, you can feel it and it is something to believe in. I've always compared my movements on stage to davening [praying]. To me, music has always served as that type of religious release.
For many Phish-Heads, a Phish concert is an intensely spiritual (religious) experience. The band’s songs (not only Avinu Malkeinu) are their liturgy, and these words help them to express the most profound parts of their experience, and their deepest longings. These songs and the sense of community created at the concert environment transport some individuals to a place deep inside themselves, so far beyond their waking consciousness that they feel intimately connected to something greater, which of course they are. Many of them move continuously, dancing in place, they don’t sit down for hours. In fact, it all looks suspiciously a whole lot like shuckling. (swaying the body while praying, a way many observant/religious Jews pray) On the other hand, some are just really, really high.

It is clear to me that a concert can absolutely function as a spiritual/religious experience. The real question is, how do the concert attendees live the next day? From a Jewish perspective, there is an inherent risk and danger in transcendent experiences, which is one reason why the rabbis eschewed the Nazirite (a Biblical solitary spiritual seeker) and Jewish Mysticism. The danger is that the experience will become the end in itself rather than information that positively informs one’s life choices. The danger is that the spiritual (or physical) high of the Phish concert will become the goal of the attendees, rather than a tool to help them live more righteously in the days, weeks, months and years following the concert/transcendent experience.
While a Phish concert certainly can be a religious experience, if it is only a personal, self-serving, “feel good” experience, then it is not necessarily a useful spiritual/religious experience, and in fact has the potential to be a dangerous one. If a Phish concert helps one to “recharge” their spiritual batteries, and therefore go out into the world to live more righteously, performing more acts of kindness, and mitzvot, then it can certainly be a valuable and valid religious experience to pursue.
Thank you, Trey, Page, Mike & Fish. I look forward to seeing you again soon, somewhere around the bend.
Rabbi Darby Leigh is a rabbi in Montclair, New Jersey and in NYC. He is an alum of the Rabbi Without Borders fellowship and tweets at @RabbiDarby.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Jewish Olympic Gymnast Aly Raisman

LAST SUNDAY, WHEN THE USA gymnastic team for the Olympics was announced, Aly Raisman, 18, became a member of that team.  Having just moved to Massachusetts, my ears perked up when I heard that she was a native of Needham, MA.

Interviewed on local TV, Aly Raisman shared the moment when they announced the team members:

“I was really, really emotional, way more than I thought I would be,” said Raisman after being named to the Olympic squad. “I thought I would maybe tear up a little bit but I didn’t think I’d hyperventilate like that. I couldn’t even breathe. It was such a special moment and I’m so honoured and so excited.”

Prior to this week, she was perhaps best known for performing a routine at the 2011 World Gymnastics Championships in Tokyo, Japan, for which she won a bronze medal.  And the music that her moves were choreographed to? Hava Nagila.  In the film of that performance, below, you can hear the commentators adding their thoughts about the music, and the way it energizes both the athlete and the audience supporting her.

As reported by the JTA back in 2011, Aly also explained that she was proud of the inclusion of this music in her repertoire “because there aren’t too many Jewish elites out there.”

Wikipedia hosts a page of Jews who have made it in sports - I don't know how accurate it is, but its a good source to get a sense of the scope and nationalities of those who fit that bill.  Among them is Kerri Strug, who is a bronze medal winner in the Olympics.

For the past six years, as part of the closing ritual with my Eighth grade class at Religious School, we have read some excerpts from the book dedicated to the memory of Daniel Pearl, 'I am Jewish.'  Following these readings from a broad range of voices, each student writes their own brief paragraph to express their own sense of Jewish identity, and we close the year by listening to each other around a circle as we share these expressions. I always include Kerri Strug among them.

The overall theme of our year has been looking at the many ways to express our Jewishness, and the many faces of Judaism.  In a field like gymnastics, Kerri expresses her awareness of how unusual it appears to be Jewish, and how surprised people are when they learn this about her.  It is something, therefore, that she is proud to share; a way to break peoples' stereotypes. Now I can add Aly Raisman to that ritual.

Good luck in this year's Olympics Aly!

Rabbi Rachel Gurewitz is a rabbi in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter at @RabbiGurevitz

Rock Music on Shabbat

AS THE ONCE DUBBED "HEAVY METAL RABBI" I’ve recently been exploring the question of whether Rock and Roll music can support a deep spiritual/Shabbat experience. Given a rather conventional and full life as a congregational rabbi with two amazing children and a partner who is an OB/GYN resident, the truth is I don’t really get to rock on a daily basis- even though I need it man, oh how I need it!

Sure, I infuse my daily routine with rock when I can. Lately, I listen to Anthrax’s Worship Music on my commute to work and I write sermons while listening to Perry Farrell and Jane’s Addiction. Rock lyrics find their way into my teaching and preaching, but nonetheless, my relationship to rock is not what it once was. It’s not the same as being in the mosh pit. It’s not the same as being pressed up against the barricade in front of the stage. It’s not the same as watching the house lights grow dim, waiting for the band to emerge and feeling the collective roar as the stage lights go up and the first notes wail. In the crowd you melt into an enormous community, when your voice merges with thousands of others, your individualism and ego are dimmed. For a brief moment, you can lose yourself to a collective consciousness and experience being part of something much greater than your individual self.

Over the years I have been paying close attention to the experiences people have and cultivate that they consider to be “spiritual.” Spirituality today is so often characterized as meditation, yoga, chanting, or sitting in a circle contemplating unity, oneness, and the truth of our interconnectedness. In other words, for many of us, cultivating spiritual experiences is about trying to turn down the volume and pace of our daily lives. In the Jewish tradition, the spirituality of Shabbat often receives the same monochromatic treatment.
It is not a new or radical statement to suggest that the concept of Shabbat, -and the experience of Shabbat is one of the greatest gifts the Jewish tradition offers its followers. We are commanded to “take a break” every week, to not permit our lives to be solely about work and the mundane. Indeed we engage in the unique joy and pleasure of being in the company of family and friends sharing meals and thoughts about deeper matters, and about Truth. This core Jewish tradition and observance is a profound teaching in and of itself.

There are different spiritual personalities in our world and for some spiritual types, increasing the volume and speed is an equally powerful way to access an authentic Shabbat experience. In fact, while turning the volume down and becoming more still can support our experience of the spirituality of Shabbat, so too, turning the volume up on the Marshall Amp stacks can do the same thing. Rock & Roll can generate for me, joy, delight, rest, and a break from work and the mundane. Since I can’t rock out everyday, when would I rock, if not on Shabbat?

Not only is my spiritual personality occasionally better served on Shabbat with a dose of Rock & Roll, but it is an authentic Jewish experience to do so. Every Shabbat we symbolically reenact the moment of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Biblical account of revelation at Sinai seems to be more like a Rock concert than a silent meditation. “There was thunder and lightning, a dense fog covered the mountain, there was a loud horn and everyone shook. Mount Sinai was smoking, and trembling violently, the horn grew louder…all the people saw the sounds of the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and of the mountain smoking.” (Ex. 20) One might argue that attending a rock concert, with a laser light show, fog and smoke machines, booms of horns and thunder, pyrotechnics perhaps, and a crowd of thousands all listening for Truth, would be the most accurate way to symbolically recreate revelation.

There is also an implicit sensuality that runs through Rock and Roll, ever since Elvis’ hips first gyrated. While some might argue that rock and roll with its sensuality, passion, and intensity is counter to the religious spirit of Shabbat, I would argue that on the contrary, Shabbat is an extremely physical, as well as a spiritual time, when we are meant to take delight in sensual experiences of touch, taste, and smells. There is a long standing Rabbinic tradition, both in mystical Judaism and in the Talmud, that erev Shabbat, the evening of Shabbat, is a particularly auspicious time for sexual relations. Sexual relations on erev Shabbat are viewed in these texts as acts of joy with spiritual and potentially profound mystical ramifications. Sexual activity is viewed in this context as a sacred spiritual act with purpose that goes far beyond a simplistic notion of sex as an act of procreation.

In honoring the part of myself, and of many members of our community that crave the spiritual experience of “rocking out,” I worked with lay leaders to create Bnai Keshet’s first ever, “Rock On Shabbat!” At this service we moved our way through the matbeah, the traditional structure of a Friday night service by setting some liturgical pieces to rock and roll or more upbeat tunes. We also inserted rock songs into certain ‘thematic’ prayers at key moments in the service. Of course, the service was followed by a concert and party. For some, it was the most powerful Shabbat experience they have ever had.

Rabbi Darby Leigh is a rabbi in Montclair, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiDarby.

One Direction and the Talmud: What Makes You Beautiful

THE GROUP "ONE DIRECTION", put together by Simon Cowell on X-factor, is a throwback to the good old days of the Backstreet Boys and N*Sync: young, handsome boys with nice voices. The “teeny boppers” can't get enough of them or their new hit song, “What Makes You Beautiful,” which is arguably more shallow than Jepsen's song “Call Me Maybe.”

One may think that culling a worthwhile lesson from this song is virtually impossible. But the wonderful thing about Judaism is that you can always find meaning in the sacred as well as in the supremely mundane. Indeed, this song contains a critical message about the self.

In this piece, the boys address a girl they find attractive; in fact her beauty mesmerizes everyone whenever she “walks through the door.” She doesn't even need to wear makeup “to cover up”. Moreover, the way she “flips her hair” simply overwhelms them (yes, very shallow indeed). But though she dazzles them with her looks, they are surprised to find that she is “insecure” and “shy”. They try picking up her spirits, but she continues to “smile at the ground” without acknowledging her worth.

One should not diagnose this girl's behavior as a bad case of humility, for the humblest of people do not lack self-esteem. Could Moses have possibly led the Jewish people out of the pangs of Egypt and through the desert if he didn't believe in his abilities? Would young David have been able to slay Goliath if he didn't believe in himself? Of course not! Leaders of their caliber are capable of remaining down to earth while recognizing that their qualities and strengths are unmatched and unrivaled.

This girl is sorely lacking self-confidence, an essential trait for vibrant and healthy living that on the outside is often masked as humility, but on the inside is as different as night and day. Indeed, the rabbis of the Talmud maintain that confidence and belief in the self is a necessary component of Judaism. “Each person” they explain, “is required to believe that the world was created just for me.” I understand that to convey the idea that each person was placed on earth for a divine purpose and with unique qualities. While we mustn't brag or flaunt our God given talents and attributes, we must nevertheless live confidently and pridefully.

It is for this reason that I have difficulty with a well known teaching of the great Rabbi Bunim of P'shischa, who asked his students to always carry two pieces of paper with them, one in each pocket. The first paper contained the statement of Abraham, “I am but dust and ash,” a reminder to always be humble, while the second paper had the rabbinic teaching that “the world was created for me.” The challenge, he explained, was knowing when to utilize one over the other. To me, self-confidence and humility are not competing forces, they are complementary values that when used properly are the tools to living wholesome and fulfilling lives.

For most of us, remaining sure of ourselves while being modest is a difficult balancing act, but one that we can navigate on our own with moderate success. However, there are those individuals, such as this girl, that are not endowed with a healthy dose self-esteem; who are insecure and often struggle with depression. It is my fervent hope and prayer that they find the strength to overcome their weakness by turning to God for divine assistance and through supportive friends and family that can lift up their spirits and raise their morale. 'If you could only see what I could see,' you would know what makes you beautiful, inside and out.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is a rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He blogs for the Huffington Post. Follow him on Twitter @rabbihess.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Steve Jobs, Brave, and the New Feminist Agenda

BRAVE, PIXAR'S LATEST ANIMATED FILM, has an overt feminist agenda. Concept films created with the intention of indoctrinating young children with progressive ideas are nothing new, but over the years, the ideas that kids are indoctrinated have changed dramatically. This is particularly apparent when you compare "Brave" to Atalanta, a short film from the 1974 classic Free to be You and Me.

The hero of "Brave" is a spoiled rebellious princess named Mereda (Mered is Hebrew for rebellion). According to tradition, Mereda is expected to offer her hand in marriage to the winner of a tournament of strength - a gesture of good will that traditionally has brought peace between her clan and the neighboring clans. To get out of this arrangement Mereda purchases a poison cake from a witch in the forest and feeds it to her mother. To Mereda's delight, her mother gets violently ill from the poison.

The poison's final effects leave her mother transformed into a bear. Mereda and her mother/bear are then sent on a journey to find the antidote before the spell becomes permanent. As a bear Mereda's mother is unable to talk ("giggle giggle I don't speak bear mom!") granting Mereda her wish that her mother has to listen to her. At the end, Mereda's bear/mother learns her lesson and gestures to Mereda in sign language that she should break tradition and do whatever she feels is right.

In a tearful final scene, right before the magic spell becomes permanent ***SPOILER ALERT*** Mereda's mother turns back into a person.

Atalanta is a clever young princess whose father, the king, wants her to get married. Atalanta, however, does not want to get married. To settle their dispute the king arranges a foot race and the fastest runner wins Atalanta's hand in marriage. Atalanta agrees, so long as she is allowed to compete, and if she wins she can choose not to marry. The king agrees to her terms.

In preparation of the race, Atalanta secretly practices every night until she feels that she can run the track faster than anyone has ever done before. Unbeknown to Atalanta, every morning a determined young boy named John does the same thing.

Their hard work pays off and on the day of the race Atalanta and John tie for first place. The king is pleased, but both John and Atlanta say that they are not sure if they are ready for marriage. They go on a pleasant date together and part as friends. They go off separately to see the world leaving the ending open to the possibility that one day they may get together and marry.

Brave is a shameless rip off of Atalanta.

Both Brave and Atalanta seem to have anti marriage agendas but there are striking differences that demonstrate how warped the feminist agenda has become since the 1970s when Atalanta was made.
  • In Atalanta, while the king is overweight, he comes across as a reasonable person, albeit with some outmoded views. In Brave, every male character without exception is an ugly, toothless, clumsy, and grotesque caricature. All the men are foolish, arrogant, drunken, prone to violence, and easily manipulated by women.
  • Atalanta has a reasoned and respectable disagreement with her father that is settled by a fair compromise. Mereda is a spoiled brat who is disrespectful of her parents. She is determined to get her way through temper tantrums, screaming arguments, running away, and ultimately hurting her mother. 
  • Although Atalanta's father is humbled at the end, Atalanta is also humbled by John. Mereda is never humbled in any way. Nobody in the film is as wise or as talented as Mereda. She never takes responsibility for her actions and there are never any consequences to her reckless behavior.
  • Atalanta leaves to see the world and presumably goes on to accomplish great things on her own. The end of Brave shows Mereda moving back into her parents home and going back to carefree princes life of eating junk food and playing with her toys. Mereda's future seems to be a perpetual childhood.
  • Atalanta goes off to see the world, but not before she learns that the possibility of love for her exists. She enjoyed her time with John, and perhaps one day she will marry him, or another guy like him. The worst part about Brave is that there is no possibility for love for Mereda. Her world does not contain a single character, male or female, that Mereda can actually learn to love. There is no compelling reason that Mereda should ever want to grow up and marry.
My wife and I saw Brave and as parents we were outraged by the way that Brave elevated mischief and disrespect to adults. Mereda and her comic relief baby brothers torment the adults, particularly the hapless pathetic maid who is charged with pampering them. It seems like there is nothing wrong with taunting the maid because she is fat and mute and not a real person.

But we were also profoundly saddened that this movie, with spectacular animation and with millions of dollars of marketing behind it, is going to be seen by millions of impressionable children in this country.

Perhaps in the 1970s we needed Atalanta to teach us that not every woman is ready for marriage at 19 or 20. Take some time first to get educated before you build a family.

But in 2012 with divorce rates climbing ever higher and an increasing amount of kids growing up to be adult children who refuse to leave their parents' nest - do we really need a film that romanticizes selfishness, perpetual childhood, and a world without marriage? 

Right before Brave's closing credits we learn that the movie was dedicated to Steve Jobs. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs courageously challenged the values of the Steve Jobs i-culture. Films like Brave are initiating kids into that culture at the youngest and most impressionable ages.

When my wife and I left the movie we passed a long line of young girls on line at the adjacent theatre. They were waiting for the midnight opening of the new film, "Magic Mike", a movie about a male stripper who teaches a younger performer how to party, pick up women, and make easy money..
"Thank Goodness" we thought. "At least they are not going to see Brave."

Rabbi Jonathan Gross is a rabbi in Omaha, Nebraska. His blog is Rabbi in the Middle of America and he is on Twitter at @jon_gross.

Edon Pinchot, 4th of July, and the Jewish American Dream

EDON PINCHOT, A 14 year old singing sensation from Chicago has been winning on ABC’s hit show “America’s Got Talent”. I’m proud of Edon’s march to victory, not just because he’s Jewish, but because he wore a kippah.

Of course, Jews have always felt proud when their co-religionists have “made it”.  Whether it be Louis Brandeis being nominated to the Supreme Court or Bess Myerson winning the Miss America contest, there’s a sense of belonging Jews feel when one of their own wins. Each achievement is a further reminder that the United States has fulfilled George Washington’s promise to be a place “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance”. The U.S. has been a country where Jews can take their place as equals.

But it’s Edon’s kippah that gives me true pride. Many Jews have been able to achieve prominence in Europe and the U.S. for the last 200 years.  But have they been able to do so as Jews?

Many of the Jewish successes during the last 200 years have been Faustian bargains. Jews could attain prominence, provided that they left their Judaism behind. This pressure to assimilate into the local culture in order to succeed has a long history; even in the Bible, Joseph hides his origins in order to succeed in Pharoah’s court, and Esther conceals her identity in order to become the Queen on Persia. But even then, there were a courageous few who were able to achieve success without sacrificing their Judaism; Daniel and Mordechai cling to their Jewish heritage, and after enduring danger, are elevated to high positions while proudly asserting their Jewish identity.

Since Jews were granted equal rights in Europe 200 years ago,  the question they have confronted is whether they will act like Esther or like Daniel; will they keep their Judaism in the background while climbing the ladder to success, or will they be proudly Jewish no matter what the consequences?

This dilemma still affects every observant man interviewing for a job in North America; does he wear the kippah for the interview, or does he take it off?

There was a time and place that even the very observant wouldn’t imagine wearing a kippah in public.  In German Jewry, many Orthodox Jews followed contemporary custom and removed their head covering while indoors.  Sometime in the late 1860’s, Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman went to visit the famed Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the dean of German Orthodoxy, at Hirsch’s school, and he was rebuked by Hirsch for not removing his kippah upon entering his office. Hoffman wrote in a responsa (Melamed L’Hoil 2:56):

The first time I came to meet with Rabbi Hirsch with my hat on my head, Rabbi Hirsch said to me that it is proper respect to remove one’s hat when visiting an important personage. [Rabbi Hirsch] explained that if one of the non-Jewish teachers would see me [Rabbi Hoffmann] with my hat on while speaking with the director of the school, they would assume I am lacking the proper respect.

It is hard not to imagine that for Hirsch, wearing a kippah outside of prayers and Torah study would be too overtly Jewish. Napoleon had made it clear that Jews could be equals, provided that they do so as Frenchman, not as Jews. And Jews more or less accepted this as a given. Western European Jews, even Orthodox ones, tried to fit in.

And that’s why I’m proud of Edon. Aspiring lawyers still deliberate whether or not a kippah will get in the way of their career, yet this 14 year old charged ahead with his kippah on. And he's winning! Perhaps tomorrow a few more job applicants will show up with their kippahs on, hoping to win like Edon.

But I’m not only proud of Edon; I’m proud of the United States, as she celebrates her 236th birthday. A kippah wearing man could not compete in a similar contest in Europe; frankly, he couldn’t have won a similar contest in the U.S. 40 years ago. But the United States, which has been a haven for Jews throughout its’ history, is now a place where Jews are fully accepted. It’s a place where a national show can have three judges, all of whom are Jewish, and have a contestant who wears a kippah.

It’s a place Jews can call home.

Happy Independence Day!

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is a rabbi in Montreal. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiChaim.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Retro Pop: The Batphone

WHEN YOU ARE ORDAINED A rabbi or cantor, you get to pick one super power. Some of my classmates chose invisibility, some chose being able to fly. I chose, the Red Phone to God. Modeled after the Batphone from the 70s tv show version of Batman, the Red Phone to God lets you call on God at any time.

I have not used it yet but I have been thinking about it.

In the TV show, Commissioner Gordon reaches for the Batphone kept safe under a glass dome. “I don’t know who it is behind that mask but I know when we need him and we need him now!” and with the touch of a button, the Batphone rings straight through to Batman. Alfred, his concierge/butler/protector answers and passes the call along.

The fantasy is compelling. Whatever our problems are, there is a being out there with the skills, power, desire and capacity to fix them for us. And all we have to do is call.

After two years of ordination, I have yet to use the Red Phone to God. A dear, long-time friend of mine is sick, dying actually, from a particularly nasty and aggressive ovarian cancer. I’m thinking this might be the time to call….

Italian Jews Represent in Soccer and Tennis

THIS IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE scenes from the classic 1980 movie "Airplane" (and a I have a lot of favorite scenes):
Elaine Dickinson: Would you like something to read?

Hanging Lady: Do you have anything light?

Elaine Dickinson: How about this leaflet, "Famous Jewish Sports Legends?"
Okay, so maybe there aren't many Jewish sports legends, but this week has been a great one for professional Jewish athletes with Italian roots.

Italy will be playing in the Euro 12 soccer championship game this week and they got there being led by Mario Balotelli, who grew up as the foster son of a Jewish mother.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that "Balotelli dedicated the two goals he scored in Italy's 2-1 semifinals victory over Germany on June 28 to his foster mother, Silvia, who raised him in northern Italy. Newspapers and websites ran a dramatic photo of Balotelli tearfully embracing his mother after the match."

Moked, the website of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called the Balotelli's emotional embrace with his mother "an emotion for all Italians and a special emotion for Italian Jews."

Monday, July 2, 2012

Howie Mandel on Edon Pinchot - America's Got Talent

WATCHING EDON PINCHOT "America's Got Talent" tonight I found myself praying. Not praying that the adorable 14-year-old Jewish boy wearing a kippah would win. I was praying that Howie Mandel and Howard Stern wouldn't make any stupid jokes.

Kudos to Howard Stern for holding back and focusing on young Edon's singing ability rather than his obvious religion and religious garb.

I guess the other Jewish judge named Howard couldn't resist. Howie Mandel praised Edon and then asked him if he got a standing ovation at his bar mitzvah too. Not a horrible remark. But then Howie Mandel went the silly pun route and actually said to the young boy, "I said it before and I'll say it again: From one to another, Jew are terrific!"

Howard Stern came off looking much better by first suggesting he doesn't use a fog machine and then explaining how impressed he was with Edon's performance. After an earlier performance Howard Stern criticized Edon for having a whiny voice, but this time around he said the young boy is humble and nice and that "America's going to fall in love with you."

Jewish People are the Real "Modern Family"

THE SITCOM "MODERN FAMILY" HAS become one of the most popular shows on TV, a ratings and critical success. With its unique blend of quirky characters, sharp wit and heart, the show has become a cultural phenomenon.

Based in Southern California, the show centers around the Pritchett family. The patriarch, Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill), is wealthy and successful. His wife left him and he has remarried a Colombian bombshell, Gloria (Sofia Vergava), close to half his age. Consequently, he is now the stepfather of her pre-teen son, Manny. Jay has two children. His daughter Claire (Julie Bowen) and her husband Phil (Ty Burrell) are the anchor nuclear family, with two teenage daughters and a pre-teen son. Her brother Mitch (Jesse Tyler Furgeson) is gay and lives with his partner Cam (Eric Stonestreet) and their adopted Asian daughter, Lily.

These relationships can be as confusing as they sound. Claire and Mitch's new stepmother is close to their age, and Gloria's son Manny is in the same class as his “nephew”, Claire and Phil's son Luke. Jay is a classic man's man who is not fully comfortable with his son being gay. The relationships are complicated and ever changing.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe

IT'S BEEN DUBBED, “the song of the summer.” And, like it or not, Carly Rae Jepsen's song, “Call Me Maybe” is pretty catchy. Once Justin Bieber and his friends posted a spoof of her song on YouTube, you just knew that it would be a smashing success. But who knew that the Bie's liked it so much that he would sign her to his new label? Either way, I hope that this song catapults her career to stardom and that she doesn't suffer the fate of so many who came before her that produced one-hit wonders and floundered.

In this song a girl tempts fate by “putting a wish in a well”, and before you know it she encounters the handsome man that must have emerged from it. (Most pop songs interpret beauty as something that is skin deep, so get used to it; but I digress.) She believes that this guy is everything she could have ever hoped for. He makes her dizzy, he “keeps getting in her way,” and she can't stop thinking of him. So she does what every 21st century girl would do: walks up to the guy and asks him out!

Okay, that's not how it usually works. Yes, it's rare for a woman to do the asking. She may strike up a conversation with him in the hope that he takes the initiative, or maybe she asks someone to make the “shidduch” (Jewish for matchmaking) for her. But to take action on her own? That's the exception, not the rule. Nevertheless, we should applaud her; not because what she did was right or wrong, but because she was willing to be bold and take a risk.