Fes-TAV-al celebrates Uri L’Tzedek’s 100th restaurant

Mazel tov to Uri L’Tzedek, the Orthodox social justice organization that pioneered an fair wage certification, has reached their 100th certification! If I weren’t at a bris this weekend, I’d be there.

Tova Benjamin Bombs

Louder Than a Bomb is Chicago’s High School Poetry competition, though that is not the spirit found among its participants.  Founded by local poet, author and jew Kevin Coval, Louder Than a Bomb is something of a Chicago darling. WBEZ covers the finals event every year (Coval was a contributor to the station’s 848 program).  Now in its 10th year, its is the subject of a new and inspiring documentary film getting rave reviews.

One of the previous winners, and a subject of the film, is one Adam Gottlieb, whose poem Maxwell Street surprised many with its thick references to his Jewish identity.  Coval himself has explored his Jewishness in his work, and this year, another young poet, Tova Benjamin, emerged from the Orthodox stronghold of West Rogers Park.  Her poem, Not an Envelope Opener, is getting a bit of notice for similar reasons.  Benjamin has apparently strayed from the derech, but one hopes that means a deeper exploration of her faith and identity and not a departure from it. Indeed, I would like to hear more from her on the subject.  Check her out below, or listen to this interview on WBEZ.

The “Right” to Play Ball

Over the past week, the Jewish paper of record (The New York Times) has reported a few times on the Shabbatroversy in Houston, TX.

Robert M. Beren Academy joined the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools for sports. Not surprisingly, TAPPS is dominated by Christian schools. It is Texas. When Beren joined, TAPPS told the school that there may be games during the playoffs on Shabbas. There were also no games to be held on Sunday, according to the by-laws.

After a week of pressure and very public backlash on the social medias and in the traditional press, Jewish orgs using very lame puns, and political and basketball stars chiming in, TAPPS has changed the tip off.

But I don’t care. It also seems that Beren didn’t care either. Sure the kids were bummed but the school made a CHOICE to join TAPPS and the school is filled with religious Jews. They clearly are going to pick Shabbat over B-ball any day and that is how it should be. I am lost at the outrage from the liberal movements and the community at large.

Congrats to the kids being taught that in a secular world, they can sue to get what they want religiously. Good luck with that in the real world. But now that they can play, I hope the beat the pants off those anti-Semites.

Chicago Rabbinical Council: Some of our Best Friends are Gay

This is a guest post by The Neo Nazir, a nomadic Jew who spends zes time worrying that the US might actually elect Santorum and that ze and everyone reading this post will be hurled into a den of wild, indigenous mountain lions, only to be devoured limb by limb.

Newsflash! Orthodox Judaism is not the bellwether of queerness. Given Orthodox Judaism’s official position on non-heterosexuality, one hardly expects Orthodox communities to offer a fully understanding dialogue on homosexual identity.  But today, even the orthodox are realizing that they can no longer simply sweep LGBTQ issues under the rug.

Tonight in the Chicago area, a controversial event originally scheduled for early January, will be held at Congregation Or Torah, a large modern-Orthodox community in Skokie, IL.  This event, sponsored by a number of major Chicago-area Orthodox synagogues and a local Chabad community, will attempt to broach the subject of homosexuality in the Orthodox community, featuring two out-of-town speakers, described by the event’s promotional blurb as “two of the world’s leading authorities on the Torah’s perspective on homosexuality,” Rabbi Dr. Barry Freundel and Rabbi Chaim Rapoport. 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 »

An Open Letter to Rabbi Dov Linzer on Modesty and Jewish Law

Shaul Magid responds to Dov Linzer’s op-ed on modesty and the chareidi community. Always interesting, always controversial, always important.

Dear Rabbi Linzer,

I read with great interest your op-ed “Lechery, Modesty, and the Talmud” in the New York Times last week. I commend you for taking such a strong stand on this important issue, especially in the wake of continued violence against women in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. However, I think there is a structural flaw at the core of your argument that I would like you to address. (continues here)

The organizers behind the Beit Shemesh dance protest

This is a guest post by Lillian Cohen-Moore, a freelance writer, editor and stage manager who calls the West Coast home. She often tours and travels to cover assignments; she lives out of a suitcase and on twitter.

Earlier this month in Beit Shemesh, Israel, a group of women did something unthinkable to their critics: they danced.

The population in Beit Shemesh ranges from ultra-Orthodox Jews to socially active long-time residents, as well as recent waves of English speaking immigrants. As Beit Shemesh and Israel at large undergo social change, much of it religious and class based, the clashes between segments of the population happen more often, with an often vociferous intensity from the ultra-Orthodox. As members of many Orthodox families begin university and military service, the extremists in the community lash out, believing their peers should stay as removed from larger society as possible. In this current social climate, women across Israel have been subject to escalating harassment by these members of the ultra-Orthodox. Media outside of Israel began to sit up and take closer notice of the harassment of women in Israel after Naama Margolese, an eight year old resident of Beit Shemesh, was spat upon and had rocks thrown at her by ultra-Orthodox men. Parents escorting their daughters to the same school are subject to similar harassment, being told by grown men that their daughters are ‘whorish’ because their school uniforms are not modest enough.

Women like Brenda Ganot, who works at Partnership 2Gether of the Jewish Agency for Beit Shemesh, and Miri Shalem, director of the Ramat Beit Shemesh community center, wanted to respond to the harassment going on in their community. The negative coverage of the city, which has included media attention on the ultra-Orthodox push for segregated bussing, got to both women. Ganot describes Beit Shemesh possessing a large moderate community with a deep engagement in charity and community events, a community that has been eclipsed in the eye of many media outlets while they cover the actions of the ultra-Orthodox community. More »

Half Shabbos txt

Jewish Week reports on the growing phenomenon of Modern Orthodox teens keeping ‘Half Shabbos’ and texting on Shabbat both in private and also in full view of peers and event adults.

Some observers describe teens as experimenting with the limits of sanctioned and non-sanctioned actions in a Jewish version of the Rumspringa practice in which Amish 16-year-olds are free to engage in banned behavior before formally affiliating with the church and abiding by their community’s norms of behavior.

The article does note that the phase seems to end when many teens return from gap year in Israel when they frum out. I guess between episodes of getting blotto and into trouble, they wander into the wrong neighborhood on Shabbos, texting blithely away and get violently assault. Welcome to Mea Shearim… Frum satire also fisks…

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 »


Let’s legislate non-orthodoxy out of existence. OTOH I’d like to see what the law actually says. Maybe we could add a friendly amendment that since there are no streams of Judaism, therefore the Orthodox have no right to maintain their hegemony, because the Reform and Masorti are not (now, according to this new bill) streams, but exactly as legit as orthodoxy, since it would now all be “just Judaism”? FTW, right? Or we could counter-propose a bill that there is no such thing as Orthodoxy, and the true heir of Jewish practice is [name your favorite non-Orthodox movement].

Or maybe we could get the government out of the religion business, stop allowing the nuttiest of the nuts to determine who is a Jew, while simultaneously preventing people with good intent from converting (contrary to Jewish law, despite the fact that they keep claiming they’re the true inheritors, just like lots of other odd things they do, such as (my fave) prevent Jewish weddings unless their roster of rabbis is involved, despite the fact that one needs no rabbis at all halachicly speaking).
Hey, maybe we should just do that anyway.

Gene Simmons of KISS on Israel. It’s kinda weird, but I love it when Simmons/Witz tells Israelis to toughen up because Americans criticize everyone. So much for the tough-on-the-outside sabra? Maybe the real reason we don’t have peace in the middle east yet is because despite all the machismo of the Israeli image, Israelis aren’t really all that tough? Or maybe even because they are trying to live up to the image that American Jews on the right desperately want them to be? (Hey does that mean we can blame the occupation on all those kids who beat up Jewish kids in elementary school?)

A very neutral explanation of checkpoints

A piece on autism and inclusion by Jacob Artson (Rabbi Brad Artson’s son)

Rabbi Jill Jacobs touting my line on spirituality, social justice, and prayer

HuffPo on the cost of day schools

The Green/Landes Debate Continues

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). This is now Green’s next response. Underlying all of this are some interesting questions about the possibilities and limits of Jewish theology. (One could say “questions about Orthodoxy and Neo-Hasidism,” but perhaps it’s more complicated than that.) We welcome more discussion and debate on these issues, and not only from the two men involved. Green’s next letter is below.

Dear Danny,

Let’ s continue this public conversation, which is not over, in a face-to-face second person form, without the barrier of an intervening magazine. Internet interest will provide more than sufficient readership.

I find your tone, in your latest response as well as the initial review of my Radical Judaism, to be significantly annoying, ranging between dismissive and condescending. This is particularly bothersome because you continue to distort my views, either because you have not read me carefully or because a straw-man Art Green better suits your purpose.

You distinguish my views from earlier Jewish notions of an abstract deity by saying that I “flatly deny” divine transcendence. Nothing could be farther from the truth. More »

Rabbah Redux

http://internationalrabbinicfellowship.org/sites/all/themes/irf/images/irf_logo_home.gif JTA reports that last month, the 140 member International Rabbinic Fellowship narrowly voted down admitting women to its ranks as either full or limited members.

The Dec. 20 vote came after what the president of the organization, Rabbi Barry Gelman of Houston, told The Jewish Week was a “wonderfully healthy and passionate discussion.”

This is the liberal orthodox group co-founded by R. Avi Weiss of Riverdale, where Rabbah Sara Hurwitz gained fame. Glad to hear that there was neither a rubber stamp nor a hasty thumbs down, but a vigorous debate.   Judaism always should be both vigours and a debate, a wrestling with God and the law.  In this respect, IRF demonstrates how it is similar to its Conservative cousins- not in that it would consider women as members, but that it would engage in thoughtful debate of the subject.

Separation between… um… what was it again?

From JTA:

Lawmakers, Jewish leaders and kosher businesses are lobbying New York’s new governor Andrew Cuomo to restore the state’s kosher law-enforcement division.

Budget cuts and retirements over the last year have left the division with one employee, the division’s director, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The cuts in the department, which once employed 11 kosher inspectors, will save up to $1 million a year in salary, benefits and services, according to the newspaper, citing a state Department of Agriculture and Markets spokesperson.

Read more…

So New York can either save $1 million a year, or it can get back into the business of government-sponsored certification of religious claims. Is this a hard choice?

(Re) Reading Radicalism

Shaul Magid has an interesting discussion of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism together with the reviews of the book, asking the question: “What does it all mean?” Here’s the punch-line:

These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.”

But you should read the whole thing here then come back and comment.

The Chief Rabbinate Is Over

This essay by Rabbi Yehuda Gilad one of the ramim or teachers at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa might actually be a significant development in the slow motion and excruciating implosion of the Israeli Rabbinate. Here’s the punch line:

As important as issues such as kashrut, Shabbat and religious services are, there is currently no Jewish communal matter that comes close to approaching the significance of this challenge upon which our future here as a Jewish state rests. We must admit and say honestly, the current Chief Rabbinate (with all due respect to the many fine individuals who make up its ranks), as an institution, has neither the desire nor the ability to cope with this challenge. Unfortunately, it buries its head in the sand, and even kowtows to the Chareidi community, which is ambivalent at best, and antagonistic at worst to the very state the Rabbinate is meant to serve.
Despite the pain and difficulty involved in breaking with this institution that we had great dreams for, I hereby call upon the lay people and the Rabbis of the religious-Zionist community to say openly what many of us have already felt in our hearts for some time. The Chief Rabbinate has run its course.

The whole story is here.
Hebrew here.

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


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.



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.

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.

More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.

The article goes on to say

In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.
More »

Prop 8 overturned, OU gets irrational

Around the country, yesterday, many cheered and many booed as Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, as unconstitutional and in contradiction of the due process clause.

While a seeming majority of US Jews are clearly supportive of overturning the ballot proposition, known in many circles in California as “Prop H8,” the Orthodox Union made this bizarre statement, according to the JTA:

“In addition to our religious values — which we do not seek to impose on anyone — we fear legal recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom.

“Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one,” it added, concluding that the OU looked forward to the appeals process.

In what world does the OU live? Apparently one where they will be forced by US law to officiate at same-sex marriages? Yes, that’s right, here in America practices and beliefs are forced upon religious organizations all the time. That’s why every synagogue has to have a nativity scene or a giant set of Ten Commandment plaques…

The full statement, which can be read here, goes on to say:

Already, in states with same-sex civil unions and similar laws, religious institutions, including churches, social service providers and youth groups have been penalized by authorities for their beliefs. Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one.

We look forward to the appeals process which will bring these critical issues to America’s highest courts.

Oh! Now I get it! They are against being told what to do or believe because it impedes the religious freedoms of a sliver of a tiny minority population in the US (which I really don’t understand how their freedoms are impeded at all)… What they are NOT against is taking away the constitutional rights of at least 10% of the US population who have been relegated to second-class citizen status and forced to stand by as the sacred institution of marriage is maintained for adulterers and wife-beaters… Good ol’ fashioned sense and reasoning from the OU.