Category Archives: MUSINGS

Musing: Skin in the Game

My new issue of Reform Judaism magazine just arrived.  Its cover story is “Jews and Tattoos.”  And it asserts that “Jewish tradition is surprisingly nuanced on the practice” of tattooing

That contention, and the arguments in the article to support it, well demonstrate the Reform movement’s attitude toward Torah (“Only one law,” after all, it explains, “in the Book of Leviticus, prohibits a tattoo.”  As if more than one law prohibits murder.)

The article, seemingly seriously, offers “positive examples of tattooing” in the Bible.  Things like Hashem’s placing a “mark” on Kayin (Beraishis 4:15) and His command (Yeshayahu 44:5) that “one shall call himself by the name of Yaakov; and another shall write with his hand to Hashem” (presumably understanding “with his hand” as “on his hand,” and by cutting the skin and applying ink).

It is sad, just so sad.

Musing — Inspector Clouseau, Phone Home

The New York Times today, reporting on a gunman ‘s murder of three people at the Jewish Museum in the center of Brussels, Belgium, notes that:

“…investigators still had to determine the motive for the shooting but added that the fact it took place at the city’s Jewish Museum indicated an ‘anti-Semitic attack’.”

Impressive detective work.

Musing: What Were They Thinking?

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, whose dispatches are widely reproduced both here in the United States and abroad, reported today on British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis having become the first sitting British chief rabbi to address the annual Limmud conference, a gathering of multi-denominational and non-denominational Jewish leaders and laymen.  By attending and being featured as a speaker, the JTA informs us, he was “defying the opposition of prominent haredi Orthodox rabbis in England.”

Fair enough.  Those charedi leaders have a longstanding and principled opposition to Orthodox rabbis participating in “multi-denominational” panels, rosters and such, since doing so perforce promotes the notion that all “rabbis are rabbis,” equals in belief and scholarship, and that all self-defined “Judaisms” are part of the Judaism of our ancestors.

But the JTA report puts it thus:

“The critics had said the conference, which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life, represented a danger to British Jewry by suggesting it was acceptable for observant Jews to associate with less or non-observant Jews.”

How a Jewish news agency can think for even a moment that charedi Jews – with their innumerable and rabbinically-endorsed outreach organizations and efforts, personal friendships and study-partnerships with “less or non-observant Jews” – consider it unacceptable to associate with such Jews is beyond comprehension.

The “T” in “JTA,” here at least, would seem to stand for “tripe.”


To its credit, JTA has changed the wording of its piece and notified its clients of the correction.  The paragraph quoted above now reads:

The critics had said the conference, which draws thousands of participants from all walks of Jewish life, represented a danger to British Jewry because of its inclusion of non-Orthodox religious perspectives.

It’s not a perfect correction, as that would require a more lengthy explanation of the objection to Orthodox rabbis’ participation in Limmud, along the lines of my posting above. But it is a great improvement.  And has moved the “T” much closer to “truthful.”


Musing: Professor Sarna’s Hammer

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of history (and someone whose company I have enjoyed on too-rare occasions) recently penned a piece (“Why is Orthodoxy Packing Up Big Tent”?) for the Forward in which he tries to minimize the import of a letter signed by scores of members of the Rabbinical Council of America saying, in effect, that the “Open Orthodoxy” movement is not only unorthodox but non-Orthodox.  He compares the widespread rejection of the “OO” movement by rabbis across the Orthodox spectrum to earlier rejections of movements within Orthodoxy that came to be included in the Orthodox tent. The RCA itself, he points out, was once condemned by some respected Orthodox religious leaders.

It is to be expected that a professor of history with a conceptual hammer will see every happening as a parallel of some earlier one.  But, with all due respect to Professor Sarna, the issue at present isn’t whether or not the RCA was once itself seen by some as beyond the pale.

The issue is whether the “big tent” has any walls, whether one can jettison essential elements of the theology of what has been called “Orthodoxy” over the past century and a half and still claim the mantle of that name.

Honored members of the “OO” movement have made theological statements and proposed “halachic” actions that are indistinguishable — indistinguishable —  from those of the Conservative movement in the 1950s.

Back then, Conservative leaders had the honesty to distinguish their movement from Orthodoxy, by the very name they adopted.  “Open Orthodoxy,” by striking contrast, is attempting to do just the opposite, claiming to be something it demonstrably is not.

Musing: Alan Dershowitz to the Rescue

Celebrated attorney Alan Dershowitz has petitioned Israeli President Shimon Peres to intervene in what Haaretz characterizes as “the case of the apparent blacklisting of Rabbi Avi Weiss by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.”  That is to say, the conclusion of the Rabbinate that Rabbi Weiss’s conversion standards are markedly beneath their own.

Mr. Dershowitz wrote Mr. Peres that the rabbi at issue is “one of the foremost Modern Open Orthodox rabbis in America” (no argument there, although “Open Orthodoxy,” as has been well revealed, is a misnomer) and – the lawyer’s apparent coup de grâce – “one of the strongest advocates anywhere for the State of Israel.”

The attorney goes on to bemoan the “chasm between the Jews of the United States and the religious institutions in Israel” which he characterizes as “baseless religious tyranny.”

As to Mr. Dershowitz’s authority to pronounce on matters religious, some earlier words of his:

“I am… certain that the miraculous stories that form the basis of most religious beliefs are myths. Yet I respect the Bible and enjoy reading and teaching it. Indeed, I find it even more fascinating as a human creation than as a divine revelation. I consider myself a committed Jew, but I do not believe that being a Jew requires belief in the supernatural… If there is a governing force, He (or She or It) is certainly not in touch with those who purport to be speaking on His behalf.”

Musing: Times Are Strange

A lengthy op-ed in the New York Times by one Susan Katz Miller celebrates intermarriage and the raising of children of intermarrieds in both Jewish and non-Jewish traditions.  Her family “celebrates Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, Sukkot, Simhat Torah, Hanukkah, Passover and many Shabbats…  We also celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls, Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.”

Ms. Katz and her Episcopalian husband want their children “to feel equally connected to both sides of their religious ancestry.”

“Perhaps,” she writes, “having been given a love for Judaism and basic Hebrew literacy in childhood, they will choose at some point in their lives to practice Judaism exclusively. That would be good for the Jews. Or perhaps they will choose to be Christians or Buddhists or secular humanists who happen to have an unusual knowledge of and affinity for Judaism. That would also be good for the Jews.”

Neither, however, would be good for the Jews.  Ms. Katz, “the granddaughter of a New Orleans rabbi,” was “raised Reform Jewish” by her own “Episcopalian mother and… Jewish father.”

Times, indeed, are strange.  Geraldo Rivera and Stella McCartney (Paul’s daughter) are halachically Jewish.  But Susan Katz Miller is not.

Musing: A Premature Obit for Yiddish

A mailing from the Yiddish Book Center, an Amherst, Massachusetts-based cultural nonprofit dedicated to translating and promoting Yiddish books, is sitting on my desk.  The oversized envelope contains  a fundraising letter and various enclosures.

Emblazoned across the front of the envelope is the large word “Yiddish,” followed by the legend, its second word highlighted:

“Our last chance to keep it alive forever!”

Someone really should buy these folks a bus ticket to Williamsburg.

Musing: Whistling Past the Maternity Ward

One of the many post-mortem dissections of the recently released Pew study of American Jews appeared in the Forward last week.  It contended that the Orthodox community “isn’t growing nearly as fast as some of its boosters claim.”  The 10% of the American Jewish population that identify as Orthodox Jews, the piece explains, is “up only 2% from 10 years ago.”

What’s more, the article notes, “only 48% of people who were brought up Orthodox remain Orthodox.”

As it happens, though, the Orthodox “retention rate” has risen considerably in recent decades. Whereas, indeed, only 22% of people now 65 and older raised Orthodox still call themselves that, fully 57% of people aged 30-49 raised Orthodox do.  And for those under 30, the percentage of raised-Orthodox Jews who are still Orthodox is 83%.

As to the “up only 2%” observation, it would seem that some journalists could use a math refresher.  Growth from 8% to 10% represents a rise of fully 25% – a rather impressive figure indeed.

Musing: Waters of Unlife

A lengthy piece at the online magazine Tablet describes “new Jewish rituals” that “offer comfort to women who have had abortions.”  It begins with the story of a woman who, as a young graduate student, terminated two of her pregnancies and years later came to realize that a “spiritual, ritual way” of “marking the decision” to end the lives of her unborn children “would have helped in resolving” uncomfortable feelings she had experienced.

The woman discovered a group, Mayyim Hayyim, that utilizes a mikveh for that express purpose.  A liturgical rite, written by three women – a poet, a psychologist and a rabbi – asks the Creator for help “to begin healing from this difficult decision to interrupt the promise of life.”

According to Mayyim Hayyim’s executive director, Carrie Bornstein, “Oftentimes it’s helpful for people to say, ‘I’m going to move to the next stage of my life, whatever that might bring, and I’m not going to let that experience define me or take me over.’ ”

Another “post-abortion ritual” was devised by a graduate student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.  Yet another is in a book edited by four female Reform rabbis.

Actually, there already is a longstanding ritual for non-required abortions.  It’s called teshuva.

Musing: Two NYT Articles about Israel Say it All

Two recent articles in the New York Times conveyed as informative a picture of Palestinians and Israel as might be imagined.  One, on August 4,  profiled the “culture of conflict” nurtured by West Bank Palestinians, focusing on Arab teenagers’ delight in throwing large stones at Israel soldiers and Jewish residents of nearby communities, and younger boys’ games imitating their elders’ activities.

“Children have hobbies,” one teen, Muhammad, is quoted as explaining, “and my hobby is throwing stones.”

When a 17-year-old, arrested for his stone-throwing, was released in June after 16 months in prison, the article reports, “he was welcomed like a war hero with flags and fireworks, women in wedding finery lining the streets to cheer his motorcade.”

The second Times piece, the next day, described how, in its headline’s words, “Doctors in Israel Quietly Tend to Syria’s Wounded.”

Most Syrian patients “come here unconscious with head injuries,” said Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director general of one of the hospitals, the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya. “They wake up after a few days or whenever and hear a strange language and see strange people,” he continued. “If they can talk, the first question is, ‘Where am I?’ ”

“I am sure,” he added “there is an initial shock when they hear they are in Israel.”

A 13-year-old girl, who had required complex surgery, was interviewed “sitting up in bed in a pink Pooh Bear T-shirt.”  Her aunt, who had managed to locate her and was happy with the treatment her niece had received, told the reporter that they hoped to return to Syria later this week.

“Asked what she will say when she goes back home, the aunt replied: ‘I won’t say that I was in Israel. It is forbidden to be here, and I am afraid of the reactions’.”

The two pieces, taken together, really say it all.