Dr. Spitzer admitted he was wrong and apologized. How about Rabbis Levy, Mackler, Wise, Weiss, Frydman-Kohl, and Roth?

The NY Times recently published an article about an unusual public apology by Dr. Robert L. Spitzer, a prominent psychiatrist. In the early 1970’s, Dr. Spitzer was instrumental in the American Psychological Association’s decision to stop classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder. Much later in his career, he interviewed individuals who were undergoing reparative therapy intended to change their sexual orientation, and published a 2003 article concluding that reparative therapy could change sexual attraction in individuals who were highly motivated to change. Although this article was published in a peer reviewed journal, due to his prestige, instead of actually undergoing peer review, the article was published without review alongside commentaries critical of his methodology and his interpretation of the evidence presented. Spitzer has come to agree with the critics of this work, publicly declared that his conclusions were wrong–giving detailed explanations of why these conclusions were wrong, and apologized to those who underwent reparative therapy based on the prestige and credibility he lent to such treatments. You can read more about this in The NY Times article.

So what does this have to do with Judaism? In 2006, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement voted on several respona regarding homosexuality and Judaism. Much was written at the time about the fact that conflicting respona each received sufficient votes to be considered acceptable interpretations of halacha. The Dorff, Nevins, and Reisner Responum narrowed prohibited behaviors sufficiently to open a path to homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination. Two others, the Roth Responsum, and the Levy Responsum, concluded instead that homosexual Jewish marriage and ordination were not compatible with halacha. The Levy Responsum uniquely claimed that reparative therapy to change sexual orientation could be effective, explicitly suggested such therapy as an option for adults unable to have opposite-sex relationships, and also implied that such therapy should be suggested to teenagers.
More »

The “Jewish” Vote

(x-posted to Justice in the City)

Now that the election season is heating up, once again the question will be asked, what does the Jewish community want? How will they vote? What will they base their choice on? If you listen to the polls, the pundits and the politicians (and many of the putative spokespeople for the Jewish community) the answer is simple: Israel. However, the question needs to be asked: is this the right answer? What should Jews care about, as Jews?

If by being Jewish one means connecting oneself to the wisdom of the Jewish tradition one would find that Jews who put social and economic justice at the heart of their concerns are tapping a deep vein. When God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom, Abraham challenges God: “Will the judge of all the world not do justice?” Speaking of Sodom, the prophet Ezekiel understood their sin as “She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy.” Jeremiah channels God saying: “but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight,” from which Maimonides, the great 12th century Spanish Jewish philosopher and jurist, understood that the true goal of the religious and philosophical path—beyond even knowing whatever it is that one can know about God—is to practice love and righteousness and justice in the world.  More »

Read this Book

I could probably just about build a raft and sail around the world with all the books advocating for Jewish Social Justice that have come out in the last couple of years. Several of them are very good. I particularly like Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ first book, which is both thorough and excellent.
But I want to recommend a book that’s a little bit different.

Rabbi Shmuly Yankelowitz, the founder of the Orthodox social justice movement Uri L’Tzedek, has just come out with a book very simply titled Jewish Ethics and Social Justice (Derusha Publishing). Unlike most of the the other books in this burgeoning genre, Rabbi Y’s book is a collection of essays previously published in newspapers journals and blogs. This is both a strength and a weakness, which I will touch on later. More »

A vote for reason

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation, this last Shabbat, on the published remarks in the Atlanta Jewish Times by Andrew Adler calling for a US President to be assassinated by Mossad agents.

Parashat Bo – 5772

As Napoleon waged war and sent French troops into Russia in 1812, the rabbis of the shtetlakh were faced with a serious political dilemma – who should receive the support of the Jewish community; Napoleon or Czar Alexander I? On the one hand, the experience of the Jews of Russia and Poland had been incredibly challenging, to say the least. Starting in 1791with Catherine the Great, the Jews of Russia were relegated to what was known as the Pale of Settlement, a swath of land comprising of modern-day Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and parts of Western Russia. Jews in the Pale were very poor and the Cossack cavalries made life generally dangerous for them. Life for Jews under Napoleon was very different. Once Napoleon took the helm in France in 1804, Jews were given full and equal rights under the spirit of the French Revolution. However, this came at a cost – part of Napoleon’s grand plan was to allow for the recognition of the Jewish religion while working hard at eliminating its practices. Once the Jews received full rights in France, anti-Semitism grew in French cities. Napoleon is quoted as responding to the rise in anti-Semitism by saying:

This is not the way to solve the Jewish question. I will never accept any proposals that will obligate the Jewish people to leave France, because to me the Jews are the same as any other citizen in our country. It takes weakness to chase them out of the country, but it takes strength to assimilate them. More »

The legacies we leave

The following is a sermon I delivered to my congregation last week for Parashat Vay’ḥi on the travesties in Beit Shemesh and Mea She’arim — a little late, but still important.

The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines legacy as: a gift by will or something which is transmitted by or received from an ancestor. It is especially interesting to me that the word choice of the Mirriam-Webster dictionary is to use the language of transmission because the Hebrew word we use for tradition, מסורה, literally means ‘transmission.’ This idea, of something which is transmitted by an ancestor, is incredibly significant to the Jewish tradition. It is significant, mainly, because we take immense pride in our tradition and we take immense pride in the success we have had in passing down our traditions from generation to generation. This pride we take in transmitting our traditions is not new, quite the contrary, it goes back to our very foundation and to our very origins. Sure enough, when we received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai we were instructed, as we read daily in the words of the first paragraph of the Shema, וְשִׁנַּנְתָּם לְבָנֶיךָ, וְדִבַּרְתָּ בָּם – and you shall teach these words to your children and you shall speak about them. Now, that is truly significant, but it goes even deeper into our origins than our covenant with God at Mount Sinai, rather it goes to our very first foundations, to Avraham Avinu, to Abraham our Forefather, of whom the Torah tells us לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה – such that Avraham commands his children and his household after him and they will guard the way of God. What we impart to our children, what we transmit to them, the legacy which we leave them, is a huge part of the Jewish tradition. More »

The “Citizens United” decision and the Image of God

x-posted to Justice in the City


There was once a healthy and interesting conversation in this country about the relationship between religion and democracy. Not the specious bombast of the Rick Perryesque “America is a Christian country so we should be able to hate anybody we want and celebrate Christmas” kind of conversation. Rather a conversation about the roots of democracy and the relationship of democracy to the authoritarian reigns—political or religious, monarchic or ecclesiastic, and usually an admixture of the two—which preceded democracy. The move to democratic politics, according to many thinkers, retained the theological structures, if not the faith of their predecessors. In a way, democracy is a kind of secular mysticism. It is grounded in the belief that, according to the ancient maxim, vox populi vox dei, “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” That is, authority is grounded in the decisions of the people as a whole, which carries an authority beyond that of any individual, and does not rest in any token, singular, individual whether king or cleric. More »

On the Culture of Greed

cross posted to Justice in the City

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting discussing an upcoming ballot initiative which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was opposed to the death penalty. The discussion was about the strategy that should be employed to convince voters to make the proposition law. The campaign’s tactic was to argue that the death penalty was more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This is, of course, true. As the LA Times reported:

[An] examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

However, sitting in that room, engaging in that conversation, I suddenly got very depressed. I realized how we had all been impacted by the culture of greed that has overwhelmed our country.

I want to make clear that I think that we urgently need to stop our country’s machinery of death and to begin the hard work of justice—reforming our prisons, making victims and/or their families whole, allowing for transgressors to repent and atone (as I argue here). I think that replacing the death penalty with LWOP is a good and important step on the way to accomplishing this. I was reacting to the fact that the parameters of the debate (cheaper is better) are not ones that I agree with and are destructive to the moral fabric of our country and society. Let me explain. More »

Occupy the language

Photo credit: Jeffrey H. Campagna

x-posted to Justice in the City

One young man in Zuccoti Park in New York, part of the Occupy Wall Street encampment, holds up a sign which boldly declares: “We’re here, we’re unclear, get used to it.” This tongue in cheek message gets to the heart of what is uncomfortable for many in the media and the chattering class about the Occupy movement (OWS and its many many offshoots in all major American cities and many cities around the world). There is an expected, almost ritual nature to American political discourse. There are critiques, followed by demands, supported by emotional anecdotes and statistics, followed by the suggestion of legislative remedies. The chattering class then gets to work vetting these remedies on two levels. First, and most important, is the “horse race” analysis. The political climate will not allow this or the votes are there but only if the opposing party will compromise on this. And so on and so forth. Somewhere farther down, or on the inside pages, the wonks get to work dissecting the numbers. Within a week at most (usually a news cycle), its all old news. Nothing has changed. Perhaps a catch phrase has been added to the stump speech of this or that candidate.

It is very frustrating when a large group of Americans peacefully assemble to air their grievances without participating in these tried and true rituals. When they do not attempt to position themselves behind a candidate or leverage a powerful constituency, but, rather display their disaffection without feeling the need to issue bullet points which any politician or pundit could easily digest and regurgitate. And then they stick around. For a long time. And they do not feel the pressure of the news cycle to make decisions or appoint telegenic spokespeople. They just put up tents, hold long meetings which need to reach a consensus for a decision, put themselves in danger by reclaiming public space and using non-violence as a trigger and a weapon to reveal the repressive reflexes of the financial and political elites. It is maddening. More »

Occupy Kol Nidrei NY: “The fallacy that gold is God!”

(Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

My friend Getzel Davis, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a tremendous sermon at the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei here in New York.

All English during the service had to be shouted in short phrases, then shouted back by the crowd. (This is in keeping with the protesters who also use this method because they have no sound permit.) I vote that all sermons should be delivered in this fashion from here on out. I’ve never been among a congregation paying such rapt attention to a sermon.

Anyway, presented here in its entirety is Getzel’s sermon. Just imagine what it sounded like broken into short bits, shouted out in a call and shouted back in a response.

Getzel Davis about an hour before Occupy Kol Nidrei (Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

Friends – we are here tonight to celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has been misunderstood to be a sad day. But really, an early rabbinic texts calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days of the year. What makes this day happy? It is the day of forgiveness. This is what Yom Kippor means “The Day of Forgiveness.”

According to our myth, Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?

I believe that G!d is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?

Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew.

This is what Kol Nidreh is about. It is releasing ourselves from the oaths that we mistakenly took.

When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot .

The problem with this is that while chazakas are easy, they are often not skillful. It is easier to not make waves. It is easier to not make eye contact with those suffering. It is easier to trust others to run society. It is easier to sit on our butts.

Tonight, you are offered all the internal freedom that you can imagine. How do you want to live the next moments of
your life? Do you want to love more? Do you want to be more joyous? Do you want to speak your truth? What does
your truth say?

Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because it gives us the radical option of being here now. We don’t work. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex. We dress in white robes.

We do these things because Yom Kippur is a ritual death. It is the way that we allow our old selves to die.

Tomorrow, when we break our fasts, we step into newness. We step into being the people we want to be and not just the people we have been.

You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.

Us.

In the first chapter of Genesis the first human was created in the image of G!d If we need something to serve here on earth, we are given humanity. Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of G!d.

Halakha and Beyond: A Response to Rabbi Gil Student

This is a guest post by Rabbi Shai Held, who is Co-Founder, Rosh Yeshiva, and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Here, he responds to a post on Hirhurim that reviewed the anthology Jewish Theology in Our Time, including R. Held’s essay “Living and Dreaming with God”. Jewschool is proud to host this conversation, as we hosted parts of the Green/Landes debate a few months ago.

In dismissing the essays collected in Elliot Cosgrove’s Jewish Theology in Our Time, Gil Student attacks my essay in particular, “Living and Dreaming with God,” as purportedly lacking in traditional content. He implies that I am at once ignorant of, and indifferent to, traditional Jewish theological sources. But his treatment of my essay only reveals his own confusions and his indulgence in ungenerous, caricatured readings.
More »

The Last of the Landes/Green Debate (Perhaps)

As we’ve posted before, R. Art Green and R. Danny Landes have been having quite an intense back-and-forth debate about theology and other things over the last few months.

To recap: Last year, R. Art Green published a book, and R. Daniel Landes wrote a critical review of it in the Jewish Review of books. Green then responded to the review, and Landes responded to the response (on the same link). Green’s next response appeared here in Jewschool, and Landes responded on his own blog.

This is rumored to be the last installment, by Green:

Dear Danny,

I think we are still far from understanding each other. You just don’t get me. Identifying me with Mordecai Kaplan and Richard Rubenstein is way off the mark in terms of how I see myself or self-identify, whom I read, or my relationship with either God or tradition. Kaplan was never an influence on me; I came to JTS the year after he retired and never had the privilege of studying with him. I read Heschel’s God in Search of Man for the first time when I was fifteen, and fell in love. I tried Kaplan a bit later, but found him dry and boring, too prosaic, too American and pragmatist, not the soaring spirit I needed. I did indeed try to align my neo-Heschelian mysticism with aspects of Kaplan’s legacy during my RRC years. That attempt did not succeed very well; just ask the Kaplanians. Yes, of course I share some concerns with Kaplan and greatly respect his honesty in raising them, but our framework for responding to them is quite different. We both want to respond out of the most contemporary and profound understanding of religion. But for him that is the rationalism of Dewey and Durkheim. For me it is the phenomenology and post-critical religiosity of Otto, Eliade, and Peter Berger.

Along with most of the intellectually-oriented JTS students at the time, I was excited when Rubenstein published After Auschwitz in 1966. He had dared to say what many of us were thinking. But I soon realized that his net result was the demise of traditional Judaism, reducing it to nothing more than a psychological tool. My move toward a neo-Hasidic reading of tradition was precisely a response to Rubenstein, not an alliance with him. I needed a Judaism that expressed a spiritual truth, not just religion serving as a crutch with which to get through this absurd life.

It took me many years to say out loud that I am a mystic. In Jewish circles it sounds a bit like proclaiming oneself a tsaddik, which is the farthest thing from my mind. But it is true that as a thinker and as a religious personality, it is only the mystical tradition that has saved Judaism for me. Scholem quotes R. Pinhas of Korzec as thanking God that He created him after the Zohar was revealed, “because the Zohar kept me a Jew.” That is true for me too, regarding both the Zohar and the teachings of the Hasidic masters themselves.

I would love to be able to explain this to you, but find it subtle and difficult. More »

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed.

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say — I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »

American rabbis to Israeli counterparts: stand against discrimination (UPDATED x 2)

At first it was a letter signed by 30 Israeli rabbis, primarily haredi and many in public positions, supporting a religious injunction against renting or selling property to non-Jews. The outrage perhaps was unnotable towards typical haredi extremism. Then the signatories to the letter reached 300 signers, including many more municipal rabbis on the public payroll. This has prompted calls for their resignation or firing them, and even Netanyahu to reject their call.

Now, Israeli rabbis rejecting this ruling have called on their Diaspora counterparts to support them in rejecting this abuse of Jewish texts. The New Israel Fund, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbis for Human Rights, and J Street‘s Rabbinical Cabinet have all circulated a joint letter that’s reached 165 signatures since Friday afternoon. Hundreds more are needed by the end of Monday, December 13 in order to present the letter Tuesday morning during the Knesset hearing on the issue.

Full text below, sign here.

UPDATED 12/14/10: The letter achieved 752 signers at press time. See Haaretz, Ynet, JTA. More signatures will be accepted through the end of the week.

UPDATED 12/15/10: The letter passed 900 signers and saw coverage in The Guardian and the Washington Post online.  The RCA Orthodox rabbinical association now also calls for the “reconsideration” of the original letter.

More »

Rabbi to the Palestinians

A short article in the Independent talks about the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director and Co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights. The organization is perhaps one of a very few which represents rabbis of all branches of Judaism, who together stand up for Human Rights in Israel.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
The organization has three main focii: “human rights education, including courses in pre-army colleges; social and economic justice in Israel, which has seen it, with other Israeli groups, win a signal victory in halting the country’s draconian welfare-to-work project; and Palestinian human rights. This last includes a legal initiative which has reversed the takeover of hundreds of acres of Palestinian land by the settlements.”

Of the three, the project which RHR is perhaps most famous for is the protection of the olive harvest in Israel. Despite ostensible legal protection for olive trees in Israel – not to mention the law of the Torah which forbids attacking trees and cutting them down wantonly, even at a time of war, olive trees have been a target of settlers who also may attack Palestinians, settle illegally on Palestinian land or engage in other un-Torah-like behavior.

The inspiration came in 2002, when Noaf abu Ghabia, a Palestinian deeply committed even at the peak of the intifada to co-existence and non-violence, and with whom RHR had joined in various symbolic Jewish-Arab tree plantings, appealed for help against settlers attacking harvesters in the village of Yanoun. RHR began bringing volunteers, and three years later won a crucial High Court ruling ordering the army to protect the harvest.

While it was, as he puts it, a “high maintenance victory”, requiring a constant presence of the volunteers, Ascherman says that this year the army has – despite some exceptions – largely fulfilled the first two requirements of the ruling: protection of access to the land and of Palestinian farmers as they pick the olives. “There are farmers reaching olive trees they haven’t been able to reach for 10 and 15 years,” he says. What the army has been much less good at – so much so that RHR is close to returning to the High Court for a new order – is preventing the destruction of trees and theft of olives by the settlers.

Ascherman has a theory that the settlers’ actions are a response to the nascent peace process, which they see as an “existential threat” to their way of life. He reels off a list of villages where olives have been stolen – sometimes before the harvest – or trees poisoned or cut down. Then he takes us to perhaps the saddest sight of this year’s harvest, the scorched fields within sight of the notably hard-line settlement outpost of Havat Gilad.

Here, between 1,500 and 2,000 trees were burned two weeks ago by settlers – according to some witnesses, with troops looking on – as the “price” for the destruction by the army of two illegal buildings in the outpost earlier in the day

To learn more about RHR in North America and about Jewish values and human rights come to the RHR-NA conference on human rights this weekend Dec. 5-7th.

Yehi zichram baruch


War is evil. It is incumbent upon us always to remember the victims of the institution of war and our culpability in the very fact that wars are still fought.
These are the American soldiers who died since the beginning of the month. Their average age is 24 and a half years old. They are not heroes. They are dead. Today we should remember them-they fought and died because we sent them to fight.

Spc. Jonathan M. Curtis, 24, of Belmont, Mass. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanista. 
Pfc. Andrew N. Meari, 21, of Plainfield, Ill. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. 1st Class Todd M. Harris, 37, of Tucson, Ariz., died Nov. 3 in Badghis province, Afghanistan.  
Spc. James C. Young, 25, of Rochester, Ill., died Nov. 3 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman, 25, of Aroostook, Maine, died Nov. 2 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Blake D. Whipple, 21, of Williamsville, N.Y., died Nov. 5 in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
Sgt. Michael F. Paranzino, 22, of Middletown, R.I., died Nov. 5 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Brandon W. Pearson, 21, of Arvada, Colo. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Matthew J. Broehm, 22, of Flagstaff, Ariz. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Pfc. Shane M. Reifert, 23, of Cottrellville, Mich., died Nov. 6 in Kunar province, Afghanistan. 
Staff Sgt. Jordan B. Emrick, 26, of Hoyleton, Ill., died Nov. 5 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Randy R. Braggs, 21, of Sierra Vista, Ariz., died Nov. 6 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  
Sgt. Aaron B. Cruttenden, 25, of Mesa, Ariz. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Dale J. Kridlo, 33, Hughestown, Pa. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Andrew L. Hutchins, 20, of New Portland, Maine, died Nov. 8 at Khost province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Anthony Vargas, 27, of Reading, Pa., died Nov. 8 in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. 
2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, of Tallahassee, Fla., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. Jason J. McCluskey, 26, of McAlester, Okla., died Nov. 4 at  Zarghun Shahr, Mohammad Agha district, Afghanistan. 
Lance Cpl. Dakota R. Huse, 19, of Greenwood, La., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

A Question of G-D (And no, we’re not talking theology. We’re talking Bra Sizes)

petrackesther

Fashion designer Zac Posen adjusts orthodox teen contestant Esther Petrack before one of the final runway competitions on ANTM

If you’re anything like me, you’re just dying to hear  impassioned opinions on ANTM (that’s America’s Next Top Model, for the non-cognoscenti among you) from someone who has never once watched the show.

What follows is based on a controversial clip featuring an Orthodox–or more specifically, a Modern Orthodox–Jewish contestant from the recent cycle of the CW reality show and the virtual ruckus it caused among the online community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

In case you have not seen this yet, here are some…visuals:

18-year-old Maimonides alum Esther Petrack was recently eliminated from the popular CW reality television show and has finally spoken out to dispel the rumors about her and  to address the damning insinuations circulating among the blogosphere and beyond. In a Nov. 3 article in the Jerusalem Post, for example, the Orthodox Jewish reality TV star responded to a rumor that she had lived in Mea She’arim and was excommunicated by explaining that she had never lived there, and adding: ““How did they even find out about me? The video was on the Internet, which they’re not fans of, anyway.”

Indeed in that same interview, Petrack explained that she is not, nor has she ever been  haredi. Yet despite this, the media persists in sensationalizing her story by describing her as haredi or ultra-orthodox.

 Example:

 

Amusingly, the Israeli news reporter here also describes the school she attended in Boston (Maimonides–one of the bastions of so-called Centrist/Modern Orthodox Jewish education in the U.S.) as “haredi.”   Haredi or not, Petrack’s appearance on the show created a stir among many in both the US and Israel who self-identify as “frum.”  The infamous clip of the show went viral in the Orthodox community over a month ago, causing outrage and declamatory, self-righteous tongue wagging wherever it raised its scandalous head.  One can understand why such provocative television might elicit a  raised eyebrow or two but, in all honesty, I think such righteous indignation is misplaced.  In all of the online discussion of this admittedly rather ridiculous episode, search though I might, nowhere could I find condemnation of what seemed to me to be the most shocking moment of all: an instance of blatant religious discrimination. In the video clip above, Tyra Banks makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that all  contestants, irrespective of their beliefs or practices, are expected to conform to the show’s 24/7 work schedule, religious observance be damned.

America's Next Top Model

While the norms and mores of civilized life are often suspended  in ironically titled “‘reality” TV moments like these make me squirm more than scenes of so-called survivors consuming their own feces in order to prolong, for just another glorious week, their “15 minutes of fame.”
 
If an employer in the US today  denied work to a prospective employee based on her/his religious practice, the almost automatic result would be a job discrimination lawsuit with an expectedly grim outcome for the employer .   While, just  under a century ago,  pious  Jewish immigrants, fresh-off-the-boat from Europe would routinely lose their jobs and face poverty and even starvation if they did not work on Saturday, thankfully times have changed dramatically, and now religious tolerance is a blessed norm in the US: no longer does a Jew have to choose between starvation for him/herself and his/her family and Sabbath observance. (Thanks is of course also due to courageous labor unions for more humane work hours and weekends off.)   The apparent demand of the show’s creator and hostess, Banks, that Petrack chose between “honoring the Sabbath” and being part of the show, would seem to be a throwback to “bad old times” before anti-discrimination laws established norms of fairness and equality in hiring.

As to the “case” itself, we can hardly blame an 18 year old for the offenses of a crassly sensationalistic, heavily edited, celebrity-powered televised competition.  While the wisdom of entering such a competition might be questioned at the outset, what Petrack does is her personal choice; she is not forcing anyone – Orthodox or not — to watch or to sanction or imitate her actions. 

Much of the online uproar surrounding Petrack’s supposedly hypocritical activity as an Orthodox Jewish young woman is actually misinformed.  We later learn, via a blog comment posting by Petrack’s mother (or someone posing as Petrack’s mother. However you please), that her daughter’s statement, “I will do it,” (viz., desecrate the Sabbath by working) was actually edited out of context. Upon re-watching the clip, you can see the response, indeed, was edited. Despite the remaining tsniut (modesty) issue, Esther’s Shabbat observance may very well have been ‘technically kosher’—contrary to the way several articles (even some sympathetic) suggest.

 petrack-esther2
A good part of me empathizes with Petrack.  How many of us can readily recall certain decisions and activities undertaken at the tender age of 18 that  we would not exactly wish to immortalize on video? Especially for those of us raised in Modern Orthodox milieus, the eternal saga of rationally reconciling the two (modern and orthodox) is a plight that strongly resonates. Granted, at least in my line of work, this doesn’t generally involve lifting one’s shirt on television…..at least not as far as I can remember, anyway.

One day, when I host a Jewishly-observant-themed talk-show entitled Halakhically Incorrect, I think Petrack should be a guest.

Anyone who has, at some point, lived a genuinely modern and Orthodox existence knows that certain actions, on paper, (or, in this case, video edited out of context) could easily baffle others. Or, as one of my good friends from college whom I recently visited remarked while laughing with a glint in his eye, “Remember when I used to sin for you on Saturdays?” referring to my Shabbat observance in which several of my more keyed-in non-Jewish friends and living-mates knew to flip the bathroom switch on before I ducked in on the seventh day of the week.

In short, the real judgment in this case should be against Banks for issuing such a shockingly intolerant ultimatum, not against an 18 year old struggling to reconcile  traditional religious observance and modernity. But Banks is “nit fun unzere”  (translation: not one of the “tribe”).  So why attack her, right?

Naches all around.

Dramatic reading of JNF’s CEO response to Bedouin demolitions

In response to a petition launched by the Jewish Alliance for Change calling on the Jewish National Fund to immediately halt their participation in the dispossension of Bedouin unrecognized villages in Israel’s economically impoverished Negev region, JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson responded with fiery indignation (full text below).

Jewschool founder Mobius juxaposes the statement over video of the recent demolition of Bedouin village al Araqib for a JNF forest. As aluminum huts crumble, Robinson claims JNF’s Blueprint Negev benefits some tens of thousands of Bedouin in and around select recognized towns. And as phalanxes of policemen shove the poorest of Israeli families from their homes (read: tents), Robinson charges further, “The NGOs and individuals who signed onto this petition did not contribute to the advancement of the quality of life of these residents; rather they seem to spend their time petitioning against those who are.” A heavy charge indeed if the leading signatories are the NGOs providing services to Bedouin that the government does not.

It takes a concerted stretch of humanitarian values to displace people for plants. Or perhaps more correctly, it’s painful rending of the Jewish people’s historical experience to prioritize Jews over non-Jews in a state claiming to be a Western democracy of the highest ethical standard. The JNF has seen only a few small donations by yours truly — which long ago stopped for this very reason. The welfare of Bedouin is important to me after my short time teaching in a Bedouin summer school in 2004.

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Murder near Rebbe Nachman’s Grave

A Jewish visitor to Rebbe Nachman’s grave has been murdered by a local Ukrainian. The murder culminates a series of tense incidents between Jewish participants in the Rosh Hashana Kibbutz and ethnic Ukrainians in the city of Uman, in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine.

Here’s the sad course of events.

1. Jewish pilgrims to Uman riot after catching a Ukrainian local stealing from them.
2. A few nights later, a drunk Jewish man stabs a Ukrainian in the stomach who he accuses of stealing. The Israeli is arrested.
3. A few nights later, two drunk Ukrainian men leave a bar in Uman and proceed to murder a Jewish man by stabbing him in the heart.
4. The Israeli government convinces the Ukrainian government to send his body home without an autopsy.

So apparently Rebbe Nachman, that holy, wild, achdus and hisboydedus-baal khesed rogue, stopped dancing in his grave. The realization in the English-language press that the annual pilgrimage to the grave of the Breslover Rebbe is also a site of enormous historical, moral and ethnic weight. The relationship between the local Ukrainians and the Jews, on whose money the Ukrainians depend, is fraught with all sorts of muck. Another day in the life of the land that all but Rebbe Nachman’s followers left behind.