The Voice

Modesty, known as tzniut in Hebrew, has always been a central part of Jewish tradition. The rabbis of the Talmud felt that respectful attire and appearance were important values, especially in the context of prayer. One should not lead services in ripped or torn clothes or pray in situations where people might not be fully covered, but the rules of Jewish modesty have often been in dispute, because they are social constructs.

As anyone who has even been a teenage (or parent) knows, what is immodest for one generation is de rigueur for another. Jewish youth groups and summer camps have struggled for years with the question of how to make rules that provide a basic level of modesty without sparking a revolt or unfairly punishing the girls. Generally, these rules target female clothing – may the shoulders be uncovered, how low must shorts and dresses extend, etc.

While modesty is an important Jewish value, it should not be used to control and stifle expression, which has often been the outcome of these rules. Some in the Orthodox world believe there is a prohibition on men hearing the voice of women sing. This ban is based on the interpretation of a statement by one rabbi in the Talmud which for thousands of years was never considered a halakhic (legal) ruling. Only in the 19th century did Orthodox rabbis begin to prohibit women from singing in front of men.

Nevertheless, Orthodox women have stayed true to the rule of “kol isha”, that they can only sing for other women, but what about the members of the community who love music and were given the gift of a beautiful voice? For years they had virtually no opportunity to share their talent. After all, the Orthodox music industry is controlled by men and a female singer’s potential audience is cut in half.

Enter digital and social media, which allows female Orthodox performing artists to create, produce, and distribute their own content. Some of these women perform traditional Jewish music; others explore genres like pop, gospel, and even rap. While in the secular music industry recordings are often labeled explicit because of their content, in the Orthodox female world they are either labeled “kol isha” or “for women and girls only”.

The reaction in the community to this explosion of Orthodox female performers has sometimes been negative. The women are criticized for creating music that can be heard by men, which would be a violation of Jewish law. But as one artist said, “I’m not responsible for how people use it … for me, it’s like allergen information. I’m not going to tell who should and shouldn’t listen to it.” This male reaction is all too common when it comes to modesty. There is an expectation that women must do all the work of protecting themselves from male urges.

Last week the Orthodox world was rocked by the suicide of a popular children’s author who was being investigated for sexual abuse. Subsequently, one of his victims also committed suicide. Some in the Orthodox community defended the author, which sparked even more outrage. Laura Adkins, writing in the Forward, pointed out that the rules of Orthodox modesty do not protect women against sexual assault, despite such claims from religious leaders.

Every culture creates guidelines for modesty, whether they are written explicitly or known implicitly. They help us easily figure out how to navigate social situations, but they can also become stifling. As human beings we have an inherent need to express ourselves, even when it pushes at the boundaries of what is acceptable.

What is a Legacy?

As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, we have to ask, what is the legacy of that day? How will it be remembered and taught in years to come? The answers to these questions are obviously contested and will differ depending on ones politics. The answers also depend on events that took or will take place a long time after the events of January 6. Trials of those arrested are still taking place and the political careers of those involved are undetermined.

How we think about events is often shaped by time and new developments. You may remember that a synagogue in Poway, California was attacked in 2019 by a white supremacist, resulting in the death of one person. The rabbi of the synagogue defended his congregation during the shooting and lost a finger. You may not know, however, that this week he was sentenced to a prison term of 14 years for tax and wire fraud.

Long before the attack, the rabbi had been engaged in several donation schemes to defraud the government. In addition, he received grants from the federal government that were not used properly. In one case, his synagogue was given money to improve security, but the money was never spent on the intended upgrades. The rabbi, who was hailed as a hero in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, displayed personal courage during the attack, but he had also displayed dangerous negligence in failing to improve the safety of his community as he was committing fraud.

How should we think of this rabbi, as a hero or villain? Maybe neither description is accurate because human beings are complicated. The prosecutor in the case was only seeking a sentence of home confinement because of his actions in the shooting and his cooperation in the investigation, but the judge decided on a harsher punishment because of the seriousness of the rabbi’s crimes.

The Poway shooting is often associated with the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that took place almost exactly 6 months earlier and took the lives of 11 people. While thankfully there are no charges of fraud or any other illegality at that synagogue, questions of legacy are still very much on the minds of the community. How should the deadliest act of anti-Semitism in American history be commemorated?

Last month the state of Pennsylvania allocated $6.6 million to the Tree of Life Synagogue to redevelop the site. The building has not been used in the three years since the attack as the community figures out how to rebuild. It has hired renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, who designed the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the master plan for Ground Zero in Manhattan, and many other memorials. His challenging task is to create a space that can act as a memorial, a learning center, and a living community.

I am intrigued to see what Libeskind can come up with. How redeeming it would be if Tree of Life became a place for people of all ages to come and learn about the dangers of anti-Semitism and hatred while also introducing them to a living, breathing, Jewish community. As the author Dara Horn so provocatively puts it in the title of her new book, People Loves Dead Jews, but our job in the Jewish community is to show them how full of life we actually are.

The Code of Life

COVID-19 has forced us to face the limits of science. While we may think that research, data, and experiments should give us definitive answers, the best we can hope for, especially only 2 years after the discovery of a novel virus, are probabilities and educated guesses. Following the science means asking good questions, not expecting easy conclusions. Sometimes the circumstances change; sometimes new discoveries are made that change previous conventional wisdom.

Albert Einstein is reported to have said that “imagination is more important than knowledge”. Facts and information only tell you what exists in the present, but the future presents so many possibilities, and the best scientists are the ones who can dream about what may one day be discovered. But is new information always a positive?

This week Jay M. Ritt wrote a piece in the Forward telling the story of how he discovered, through a DNA test, that his real biological father was in fact the obstetrician who delivered him over 70 years ago. Artificial insemination was new then, and the doctor used his own sperm to help Ritt’s mother conceive. His parents never told him the truth because it was considered better for the child to keep the secret.

In the 1940s very few could have known, or imagine, that one day a little swab of the mouth could unlock our entire genetic code. While DNA was discovered in the 1860s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix. It was another 40 years until the Internet reached everyone’s home and allowed us to link our DNA with millions of others in giant online databases.

The result is an explosion of family secrets revealed. Many have logged on to discover that the person they thought was a parent has no biological relationship to them. Genetic genealogists are using these new tools to help families reunite, but they have also discovered cases of rape and incest. These are secrets that people wanted to remain buried, and which they never thought would be revealed.

Genetic genealogists have also helped catch criminals who left behind DNA at crime scenes, which raises even more ethical issues. Should a database designed for family history, which contains sensitive genetic information, be used by law enforcement? We haven’t fully resolved that question.

A few months ago, I raised the question of how DNA might shape our understanding of Jewish identity. Are you Jewish because of your genetics or because of how you grew up? This question hits home particularly hard for a woman, writing to “A Bintel Brief”, whose husband found out through a test that he has no Jewish DNA. How does this change his relationship with his personal history and the tradition? Jewish identity is a mix of ethnicity, religion, and family that is flexible enough to include someone with no actual genetic link to the Jewish people. Our DNA is important; it can unlock all kinds of secrets, but it is only one part of who we are. The rest we get to create for ourselves.

God in the Net

I recently came upon a disturbing statistic. In 2020, for the first time ever, a majority of Americans do not belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. From 1937 to 2000, the percentage of people who belonged to a religious institution hovered around 70%, but the number today stands at only 47%. For the rabbi of a synagogue, this trend is not good news, but what does it mean? Are people becoming less religious or less tied to organized religion?

I encountered this statistic in an article titled “Is a new kind of religion forming on the internet?” According to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” The rule describes a phenomenon where news organizations try to hedge their bets. If the writer and editor were sure of their assertion, they would be able to state it as fact. In this case, however, it is hard to be definitive about a trend in formation. Maybe a new form of religious expression is taking root on the Internet, but we can’t be sure until it is already fully realized.

The article cites Gallup’s finding that affiliation in religious institutions has fallen 20 percentage points in 20 years, with no signs of abatement. The survey group found that much of the drop was the result of an increase in the number of people who express no religious belief, but there was also an increase in people who do believe in a religion but simply don’t belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque. Perhaps this trend may be tied to the Internet becoming a breeding ground for a new religion. As people abandon religious institutions, they search for spirituality in other places, which then allows those other places to become more attractive spiritually to draw away more religiously affiliated people.

According to the article, this new Internet religion is a mix of Christianity, New Age, non-Western spirituality, and conspiracy theories. As people try to make sense of the immense challenges facing humanity – pandemic disease, climate change, economic instability – they look not to facts, but to cosmic forces beyond human control. One example is the Astroworld concert tragedy that killed 10 people and injured hundreds of others. Rather than blame the organizers of the event, some have looked for satanic imagery at the concert to explain the human crush.

As humans we try to make meaning out of events that are scary and sad. Sometimes it is easier to tell a fanciful story than one based on the facts that might force us to confront uncomfortable truths. There is a fine line between religion, which calls upon us to believe in the unprovable, and conspiracy theories which offer an assurance that an explanation is attainable even if not all the evidence is available.

Sometimes religion is criticized because it offers easy answers. Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”, but I think that religion’s challenge today is that it is actually too hard. Joining a synagogue is expensive and involves a major time commitment. Jewish practice requires knowledge, study, and a willingness to make the effort to do the mitzvot. Finding spirituality through TikTok videos is free and so much easier, but is it as meaningful? For me, it is precisely the investment made in synagogue life that leads to the rewards of spirituality and community.

Schmear Shortage

When you are a rabbi, people like to ask you questions. Sometimes the questions are asked in the search for information, and sometimes they are asked to stump me or to point out contradictions. Someone once asked why, if we can’t mix milk and meat or milk and chicken, we can mix milk and fish. My somewhat snarky answer was, “Because God commanded us to eat bagels, lox, and cream cheese.”

While I may have been sarcastic, there actually is a debate on the question among rabbinic authorities. Some indeed extended the prohibition of mixing flesh and dairy to fish, although some of these rabbis did so for reasons of danger, not kashrut. Nonetheless, there were some Sephardic rabbis who were opposed to the practice, but maybe that’s because they never got to experience the sublime combination of a New York water bagel, salty lox, and a schmear of cream cheese.

While the last sentence may be a joke, it is certainly true that one of the quintessential American Jewish foods has virtually nothing to do with ancient Jewish traditions. Moses of the Bible, not to mention Moses Maimonides or even Moses Mendelssohn, never had the dish in their lives. As Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, in an interview with the Forward explains, a bagel and schmear is “the story of Jews in America”.

The bagel itself did originate in Eastern Europe, and there Jews ate it with smoked fish, but it was herring, not lox. Only when salmon could be shipped from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, did Jews switch to a fancier, more expensive fish. Cream cheese was only invented in the 1870s when a New York cheesemaker trying to up the fat content of French Neufchâtel stumbled on a new, distinctly American variety. The combination reflects the Jewish experience in America with its mix of tradition, affluence, technological change, and innovation.

This year, however, it seems that the bagel and schmear is endangered by a cream cheese shortage. Lots of reasons have been cited: global supply chain disruptions, worker shortages, and my personal favorite: New Yorkers’ desire for what seems like a whole block of cheese on their bagel. When I lived in the city, I always asked the shop to go easy on the cheese (scallion, of course), especially if the bagel was hot. I’m not a big fan of a pound of cream cheese spilling out the back of my bagel.

It turns out, however, that the great cream cheese shortage of 2021 may have more to do with increased demand and the limited availability of water in the upstate New York village that is home to one of Kraft’s production facilities. Cream cheese may be the fuel that runs New York City, but the town, understandably, would like to be able to take showers and flush the toilet.

Things may calm down after the first of the year when demand lightens because cream cheese, like so may other “Jewish” foods in America, has been enthusiastically adopted by non-Jews in this country. While the cheesecake may be associated with Jewish institutions like Juniors, it has become a popular Christmas dessert, and this year Kraft will actually pay customers to not use its cream cheese to make them because of the shortage. Just don’t ask New Yorkers to forgo their bagel and schmear. That would be a shanda.

Final Indignity

What does a country owe its citizens, or former citizens? It’s a tricky question but one that we think about all the time when do our taxes or sign up for benefits. An easy answer is that nations owe their citizens whatever the law demands. Kindness, consideration, and empathy don’t usually factor into the equation.

This week, the child of a survivor was forced to confront this harsh reality when she received a letter from the German government stating that it had overpaid her mother the sum of 72.55 euros (approximately $82) and was claiming the money back. The mother, who during the Holocaust was able to escape transport to Auschwitz, had been receiving a pension from Germany, and died this year from COVID.

The German government calculated that it had overpaid her because she had died before the end of a three-month disbursement period. In an overly bureaucratic letter, the pension authority informed the survivor’s daughter that it expected her to return the 72.55 euros. She called the German consulate for an explanation but received a brusque reply that she was “stealing money from Germany” so she sent them a check for the apparent overpayment.

In the end, after the publication of an article on the incident in the Forward, the German government reversed course, apologized to the woman and told her the money would be returned to her. While this case might have come to a decent conclusion, it does bring up some thorny issues related to reparations. As I wrote in 2019, Holocaust reparations are a model for the push to make amends for other historical injustices.

While I am broadly supportive of reparations, for example in the case of slavery in America, they are a major challenge to implement. Whenever you get into the details of a plan, you run into hard choices centered on who, what, when, and how. In the case of Germany, the government decided that only survivors would receive compensation, not their decedents. In the case of slavery, how will one’s lineage be traced?

What sum of money should one receive? With the Holocaust there have been different methods used to calculate an amount, either a lump sum or a monthly pension. For slavery, some have argued that reparations could be a way for America to help build African American wealth since so much of the historic capital of the country was generated by enslaved people who never benefited themselves.

Perhaps one of the trickiest issues is that of how the reparations are calculated. Germany uses a complex set of criteria to determine eligibility, but that is likely to lead to bewilderment and disappointment. Rules must set some kind of limit, which leads to a survivor getting a letter from a foreign government who killed her grandparents demanding the return of money they had sent to compensate her mother.

The goal of reparations is to do two things: provide monetary support to victims of injustice who need it and make a statement that a nation takes responsibility for that injustice. These are worthy and lofty goals, but they are difficult to achieve. In the case of the Holocaust survivor, the money she received only made a small dent in her medical expenses, and the final indignity of the letter her daughter received after death did little to make up for the way her former country treated her. As the daughter said, “All I wanted was for the Germans to acknowledge my mother as a human being … All they needed to say is ‘We are sorry for your loss.’”

Sacrificial Light

Hanukkah is an unusual holiday for a number of reasons. One, like Purim, it is not mentioned in the Torah, but unlike the former, it is not even mentioned in the Bible at all. Two, its rituals are shrouded in a bit of mystery. The miracle of the oil, which is the origin of our lighting the menorah, is found only in the Babylonian Talmud, written perhaps 700 years after the Hasmonean revolt. The Books of the Maccabees, which were written closer to the events, never mentions the incident.

Not only is the origin of the menorah lighting obscure, the customs surrounding it are too. There was a debate in my house this year about which side to begin lighting the candles. The general custom is to light them left to right, but from which perspective? The menorah can be viewed from either direction. I argued that since we are obligated to publicize the miracle, the lights should be kindled left to right as seen from the street looking into our window, but my son argued it should be left to right from the perspective of those lighting the menorah.

I did a bit of research, and it turns out that I was wrong, and my son was right, although it should be pointed out that the direction of lighting itself is a matter of dispute among the rabbis because … of course it is. Two Jews three opinions and all that.

This question led to another. I had always learned that a menorah should be in a straight line, not a circle, curve, or slant, but a colleague and I searched in vain for a source to back up this assumption. We couldn’t find anything. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch, the most important code of Jewish law, writes that you can make a menorah out of bowl, which we presume would be a circle.

Perhaps this mythical prohibition against a non-linear menorah comes from the statement by the rabbis that the menorah cannot look like a bonfire. That is, each candle must be distinct and visible on its own. The best way to achieve this visual is with all of the candles lined up straight, but that does not mean a clever designer couldn’t find a way to achieve the same effect with a different shape.

From this rule, we can derive one of the values of Hanukkah – that we should be able to appreciate each individual light. David Zvi Kalman, in the Forward, notes that this idea is actually really difficult in the 21st century when electricity is ubiquitous. We don’t think about the cost of the Hanukkah menorah. I bought my box of 44 candles for $3 this year, and those were the semi-fancy kind. Before the advent of electric light, finding fuel to illuminate your home was an expensive proposition.

Hanukkah, Kalman argues, is less about the light of the candles themselves, and more about the sacrifice of light. The menorah must only be used to publicize the miracle of the holiday. It can’t do double duty and help you read a book or warm your cold hands. In that sense the light, and the fuel we burn to produce it (originally that olive oil used in the Temple), become an offering to God.

It’s hard for us moderns to appreciate this aspect of Hanukkah. After all, we wouldn’t even consider using the menorah for any practical purpose. Nonetheless, we could all benefit from the concept of sacrifice, the idea of giving up something precious to us for a higher purpose. What might you offer this holiday as you watch the lights burn and the candles melt?

Grand Old Flag

Recently, our sanctuary was used for a performance by an outside organization. Whenever this occurs, we have to move all of the furniture off of the bima, the raised platform. Because all of this movement can cause some logistical challenges, I was asked if we needed to put the US and Israeli flags back for services, or could they be left off. I immediately said that they needed to be in place. The front of the sanctuary would look bare without them.

Flags in the synagogue is not something I had considered before, but the question made me wonder, how and why is it that we have both the American and Israeli flags in our sanctuary like most Reform and Conservative sanctuaries in this country. It turns out that this is a question that has been researched by Gary Zola, a historian at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He has discovered that the American flag first became a fixture in the patriotic response to the First World War.

While the flag was used in religious, and Jewish, settings before World War I, it didn’t stick. Bimas would be draped for a short period, but then later removed. During the Great War, however, churches and synagogues used to fly service flags, red flags with blue stars representing the men from their communities fighting in the war. While the service flag is not the traditional Stars and Stripes, it helped to make the flag a permanent part of American religious life.

As historian Jenna Weissman Joselit has observed, the flag helped new American Jews express their gratitude for their adopted country. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, that most “Jewish” of American holidays, we are reminded of the uniqueness of our community. Travel around the world and you won’t find a national flag on the bima of the local synagogue. Those Jews may deeply appreciate their home countries too, but not enough to place a national symbol in such a prominent religious place.

Not all American Jewish movements have adopted the flag either. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most important Orthodox authorities of the 20th century, opposed flags as secular symbols on the bima. The creation of the state of Israel actually prompted the almost universal adoption of the US flag in American synagogues because those who wanted to display an Israeli flag felt compelled to pair it with that of the home country. There is also a protocol for the display of flags in the United States. The Stars and Stripes must always be the leftmost banner with other emblems to the right, from the perspective of the audience.

As we continue to appreciate the blessings of America, commemorated on Thanksgiving, let us also take a moment to remember our interesting history in this country. For hundreds of years, we have sought to take our place among our neighbors, secure in our patriotism, proud of our heritage, and ready to combine our religious loyalty with our American loyalty.

The Impossible Dream

In Billy Crystal’s 1992 movie, Mr. Saturday Night, the up-and-coming comic Buddy Young is trying to entice a young woman, who will one day become his wife, to get dinner with him. “These sandwiches are amazing,” he tells her. “Roast pork, yet they’re kosher. I don’t know how they do it!” Buddy may have been baffled, but today we know exactly how they can do it: use Impossible Pork, made by the same company the created the popular Impossible Burgers.

The only problem is, you won’t find a kosher certifying agency’s heksher, or seal of approval, on this new plant-based pork product. It’s not that Impossible Pork cannot be kosher. By definition, something that contains only vegetable matter must be allowed under Jewish law. However, the Orthodox Union, which certifies Impossible products, won’t put their symbol on Impossible Pork for psychological reasons. Unlike the fictional Buddy Young, the OU is not interested in the transgressive allure of kosher pork.

Menachem Genack, the CEO of the OU’s kosher division, explains that their decision stems from the fact that their customer base cannot stomach (pun intended) the idea of a hekshered pig product, particularly one that has the word “pork” in the name. Whenever they do certify products that simulate bacon or crab sticks, they are inundated with letters and complaints from people who “feel” like they are violating kashrut, even when they know intellectually that they aren’t.

I understand the concern. I used to go to a kosher Chinese food restaurant in New York’s Chinatown that only serves plant-based dishes, but the menu makes no mention of that fact. The dishes are listed as “pork fried rice” or “Kung Pao shrimp”, which would make me nervous. I remember asking the waiter, “Are you sure there is no pork or shrimp in this?” We all understand that there is a psychological component to eating. The context is important to our enjoyment.

Not everyone is understanding of the OU’s decision. A Conservative rabbi in Britain, Adam Zagoria-Moffet, uses the case of Impossible Pork to challenge the very notion of kosher certifying agencies, and he has a point. For most of Jewish history, kashrut was a matter of trust and personal responsibility. Much of our food was prepared from scratch by ourselves, or if you were very wealthy, by your servants. We either grew our own food or bought raw ingredients from vendors. There was no outside agency attesting to the kashrut of the store, which meant we had to rely on the honesty of the shopkeeper to let us know what was kosher and what was not.

Today, the kashrut-observant world has outsourced its trust to mostly large bureaucratic certifying agencies who tell us what is OK and what is not, but this has limited the very definition of kosher, as the case of Impossible Pork illustrates. Rabbi Zagoria-Moffet argues that the community should expand the agencies it relies on to include vegan and vegetarian groups that also supervise European products. After all, he points out, someone who is vegan is already keeping kosher.

I do think Rabbi Zagoria-Moffet is a little too harsh in his criticism of the OU for its decision on Impossible Pork. While pig products are no more unkosher than shellfish or regular beef that was not slaughtered properly, there is clearly something visceral and deep-seated in the Jewish aversion to pork. We have always associated the animal with the very idea of treyf (unkosher). That’s the essence of Buddy Young’s joke. So, forgive the OU if they find it impossible to give us those amazing roast pork sandwiches.

Deep Cuts

As my children enter the college years and contemplate questions like big vs. small school, urban vs. small town environment, I have been reminded of my own thought process in making such a big decision. I wanted to be in a northeastern city with an intense intellectual environment, so I chose Columbia University. In the years since I never questioned the decision, but as my children display different preferences, I wonder: What did I miss? 

A few years before I arrived in New York, Columbia had set the record for the longest losing streak in Division I college football at 44 games, so it is obvious that I did not choose a college for the game day, rah-rah, culture. I did attend some football and basketball games when I was in school, but most of my time was spent in the library. What would it have been like to go to a university with thousands of fans in the stands? 

Columbia is more likely to win the College Bowl than the Rose Bowl, and in fact this year they won a revival of the quiz show against USC. I was excited to watch an episode of the program this summer and root for my alma mater. I happen to love trivia. I used to watch Jeopardy! as a kid and in high school I was part of Academic Decathalon, a competition in ten subject areas that culminated in a college bowl-like final round. 

One quiz show I have not competed in, however, is Chidon HaTanakh, the Bible Quiz, which is held every two years with contestants from around the world. There are youth and adult competitions, and each country holds its own contest with the international winners heading to Israel for the final round held on Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, attended by the Prime Minister. The Bible, of course, was central to the new State of Israel, which is why David Ben-Gurion established the quiz. 

Chidon HaTanakh is famous for being incredibly difficult. Recently, a reporter from the Forward attended the American adult competition in New York, moderated by my first-year Bible teacher from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Professor Robert Harris. The reporter notes how obscure the Biblical references are; these are not questions about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  

The quiz exemplifies the idea of the deep cut, that is a track that is buried on an album. The true fan can not only name their favorite artists’ hits, but also the songs that the casual listener is unaware of. True connoisseurs of the Bible know that it is filled with all kinds of interesting deep cuts – stories and characters that don’t often get the love and respect they deserve. 

The Forward also offers a ten-question quiz derived from some real entries from the chidon. You can see how you might stack up against the real contestants, but beware, you might find yourself stumped. I got 6 out of 10 right, which is better than the reporter, but is, nonetheless, a failing grade. Looks like this rabbi might need to go back to Professor Harris’s class for some remediation.