Wednesday, August 16, 2017


I began my rabbinical career in Charlottesville, Virginia. From 1988 to 1991 I was the director of the Hillel Jewish Student Center (today called the Brody Jewish Center) at the University of Virginia. The Charlottesville and U.Va. Jewish communities were a lot smaller than they are now. Besides Hillel there was one other Jewish organization, Congregation Beth Israel, and until shortly before I arrived it did not have a rabbi. My Hillel predecessor, Rabbi Dan Alexander, left Hillel to become the rabbi of Beth Israel and served there for 28 years until he retired last year. Although Beth Israel is Reform, it has Conservative services on Shabbat morning and I attended those on Saturdays when there were no services at Hillel. I also played on the Beth Israel softball team.

When rioting broke out in Charlottesville and then three people died as a result, Keleigh and I were out of the country. But as I read and learn about what happened, and as I listen to the President’s remarks, I grow more and more concerned.

Let’s be very clear here. On Friday night Nazis marched through the U.Va. “Grounds” (U.Va. uses its own terminology and has “Grounds” rather than a “Campus”) carrying torches, chanting the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

On Saturday, three Nazi militiamen dressed in fatigues stood across from the synagogue carrying AR-15 rifles. The leadership of the synagogue, fearing trouble, asked the city for police protection which was denied. (In fairness, it should be noted that the whole City of Charlottesville has only 127 police officers and they were understandably stretched thin.) So the synagogue hired an armed security guard and removed the Torah scrolls for safekeeping. On Saturday morning, after services, congregants left the building through the back door so they wouldn’t be seen by the Nazi protestors.

Let’s be very clear about what happened. There can be no moral equivalency and no equivocation. The President said that what happened was the fault of both sides. Were there anti-Nazi protesters who acted violently? Yes, there were. But the overwhelming majority were there to silently oppose racism and support equal rights for those of all races, religions, orientations, etc. Clergy from all over the country, including a very close friend who is a Methodist minister from Richmond, locked arms to keep the Nazis away from the counter-protesters. And yet, they were met with violence, and one person was killed -- as were two state police officers in a helicopter crash nearby.

The President said on Tuesday that while there were bad people on both sides, there were also some “very fine people” on both sides. No. Very fine people do not march with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. This was not a rally about a statue, although the argument over the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of Lee Park to Emancipation Park was the cause celebre to which the Nazis and Klansmen hitched themselves. I absolutely agree that good and decent people were on both sides of the November election and that good and decent people can disagree about whether Confederate monuments should be allowed to remain or not.

But this rally wasn’t called “Save the Statue.” It was called “Unite the Right” and the posters and advertisements for the rally had Nazi, KKK, and anti-Jewish imagery. If you march in a Nazi - KKK rally, you are not a “fine person.” I often get invited to sign a statement or participate in activities initiated by the National Action Network. Very often I agree with the letter or activity but I will not participate in anything that the National Action Network does because it is headed by Rev. Al Sharpton, and as far as I’m concerned that makes it a treif organization. If Sharpton is treif, how much more so the Klan and the Nazis?

This really isn’t about politics. Condemnation of Nazis and the Klan shouldn’t be a political issue and it shouldn’t be difficult. As I was writing this, I received a press release from the Republican Jewish Coalition which I think sums things up very nicely:

The Nazis, the KKK, and white supremacists are dangerous anti-Semites. There are no good Nazis and no good members of the Klan. Thankfully, in modern America, the KKK and Nazis are small fringe groups that have never been welcome in the GOP. We join with our political and religious brethren in calling upon President Trump to provide greater moral clarity in rejecting racism, bigotry, and antisemitism. As representatives of the Party whose founder, Abraham Lincoln, broke the shackles of slavery, and of an organization with many members who experienced firsthand the inhumanity of the Nazi Holocaust, we state unequivocally our rejection of these hatemongers - you can expect no less from the Republican Jewish Coalition.

Monday, May 22, 2017

A Rabbinic Dispensation to Fly in Air Force One on Shabbat?

Air Force One left Andrews Air Force Base on Friday afternoon for Saudi Arabia, and among those onboard were Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. The family belongs to an Orthodox synagogue and Ivanka was converted to Judaism by a well-respected Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. White House spokespeople apparently told the press that they had received a “rabbinic dispensation” to fly on Shabbat, something Orthodox Jews are normally not permitted to do. Rabbi Lookstein has denied giving the couple permission to fly on Shabbat, according to the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot, but the fact of the matter is that he was never identified as the rabbi who supposedly gave this permission.

Is there such a thing as a “rabbinic dispensation”? Did Jared and Ivanka violate halacha by flying in Air Force One on Shabbat? My answer to both questions is “no.”

First of all, there is no such thing as a “rabbinic dispensation.” In the Catholic church, the pope or a local bishop can grant a “dispensation” when in their opinion, following a specific law would create an undue hardship. The most famous recent dispensation came earlier this year when St. Patrick’s Day fell on a Friday during Lent, and many bishops relaxed the prohibition on eating meat on Friday in Lent so that Catholics could eat the traditional corned beef and cabbage. Rabbis have no such power; no rabbi can release a Jew from following Jewish law due to severe hardship.

Since we don’t know who the rabbi was that allegedly gave this “dispensation,” we can’t know the reasoning behind it. However, Rabbi Jeffrey Woolf, a professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, with a Ph.D. from Harvard and ordination from Yeshiva University, wrote that in his opinion Jared and Ivanka’s plane flight was perfectly permissible. He writes: “there are times when the conflict between observance and public responsibility cannot be avoided. In cases of life or death, the Torah commands that Shabbat be set aside to the degree necessary to save lives. This is the guiding principle of the Israel Defense Forces, and the reason that ministers in the Israeli government sometimes violate Shabbat in an emergency. Most such cases, though, are far less dramatic and occur when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew. The individual is then allowed to violate rabbinically legislated restrictions. This is not because a ‘dispensation’ is given (a Catholic term that has no place in Judaism). Rather, Jewish Law maintains that when these rules were enacted, very limited exceptions were built in for extraordinary circumstances and/or persons.”

To understand Rabbi Woolf’s argument, it’s necessary to know that in halacha there are two types of laws: biblical and rabbinic. Biblical laws cannot be suspended except in cases of life and death, but rabbinical laws can be suspended “when pressing demands of the public welfare require the attention of the public servant who is also an Orthodox Jew,” in Rabbi Woolf’s words.

Without getting too technical, it seems to me that flying in Air Force One on Shabbat involves violation of rabbinic but not biblical laws. While operating a car or other conveyance such as an airplane would be a biblical violation, riding in one is only a rabbinic violation at best. The main violation of riding in a conveyance on Shabbat would be amira la-akum, asking a Gentile on Shabbat to perform forbidden labor on your behalf. If the conveyance is operating regardless of whether you are on it or not, technically there is no violation at all. (The main problem with riding the Metro on Shabbat would be carrying the Smartrip card and operating the fare gates.)
Air Force One took off before Shabbat, so getting to Andrews wouldn’t have involved any prohibitions, and it would have flown the same route regardless of whether or not they were on board.  Of course, they landed in Saudi Arabia on Shabbat and then were driven in a car, but again the car wasn’t provided exclusively for them and at any rate they didn’t direct the driver, so I see no issue of amira la-akum here either.

It’s important to remember that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner didn’t go to Saudi Arabia on vacation or a private business trip. They both hold official, though unpaid, appointments as advisors to the President and as such are government officials. While I’ve seen suggestions that they should have flown a day earlier or a day later, I’m certain that meetings were held and speeches rewritten in the plane on the way over, and thus being on the flight was part of their governmental responsibilities.

They aren’t the first observant Jews to have to deal with tensions between Shabbat observance and their official duties. While Senator Joe Lieberman usually walked to the Capitol when important Senate business was conducted on Shabbat, there were times when he allowed himself to be driven there in an emergency or when the weather didn’t allow him to walk. He did this only for Senatorial duties, not for politics. He never campaigned on Shabbat and never attended the Connecticut State Democratic Conventions which nominated him, because they were held on Shabbat. Jack Lew -- someone I know personally and in whose house I have had Shabbat meals -- served in both the Clinton and Obama administrations as budget director and also served as both Chief of Staff and Treasury Secretary under President Obama. During both administrations, it was reported that he had a telephone number which was known only to the Oval Office, and which was used only in cases of emergency -- and when it rang, he picked it up.

During the course of my career I’ve met many Jews in government service who have had to make decisions about what they will or won’t do on Shabbat. I’ve spoken with career military officers who have seen their careers suffer because, while they will perform mission-sensitive work on Shabbat, they won’t attend purely social events. Unless we want to maintain that observant Jews can’t serve in crucial government or public safety roles, we ought to respect the decisions about Shabbat observance that others make in good faith, even if we think that in their place we would have decided differently. We also need to make sure that our evaluation of a decision another Jew makes about their observance isn’t clouded by our disapproval of the administration in which that person serves.

I don’t have any problem with the decision that Jared and Ivanka made. I am concerned about the way it was presented. There are valid worries that presenting this as a “rabbinic dispensation” rather than a legitimate setting aside of rabbinic prohibitions for public necessity may make it harder for other observant Jews in the future. “Jared and Ivanka got permission from their rabbi to fly on Air Force One, why can’t you get permission from your rabbi to make this presentation on Saturday?” We may need to explain the difference between government officials fulfilling their public responsibility on Shabbat on the one hand, and making a sales pitch or finishing an audit or a legal brief on the other It’s always an issue when observant Jews are perceived to be acting contrary to Jewish law, even when in fact they are not. It would be a public service for the rabbi who supposedly gave permission to step forward and explain his reasoning. I’m not an Orthodox rabbi, and there is no reason that the Kushner family would turn to me, but had they done so I would have advised them that it was proper for them to accompany the President in Air Force One on Shabbat. But I would have insisted that my reason for doing so be made public as well.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Thoughts After A Civil Rights Tour of Atlanta

I returned very late last night from Atlanta where I attended a conference for “Jewish innovators” called The Collaboratory. As part of the conference, yesterday morning I participated in a Civil Rights tour of Atlanta lead by Billy Planer, a Jewish educator who runs tours of the South for Jewish student and adult groups looking at the history of the Civil Rights movement, including the involvement of Jews in the movement.

Our first visit was to the Pencil Factory. This apartment and retail complex in a gentrifying neighborhood was the site of the National Pencil Factory managed by Leo Frank, a Jewish man originally from New York. In 1913, a 13-year-old female employee of the factory was murdered, Frank was falsely accused and convicted of the murder in a trial replete marked by vicious antisemitism. The governor of Georgia, John Slaton, towards the end of his term in office, concluded the trial was unfair, commuted Frank’s sentence from death to life in prison, and then himself fled the state with his family for ten years. The prison where Frank was held was stormed by a mob and Frank was lynched, the only white person ever lynched in the South. Frank was posthumously pardoned by the Georgia Parole Board in 1986. The Leo Frank lynching was the catalyst for the formation both of the Anti-Defamation League and the modern Ku Klux Klan.

From there we went to the Martin Luther King, Jr., historical site and visited both the Ebenezer Baptist Church where he preached, and the gravesite of Dr. King and his wife Coretta next door. After that, we went to the headquarters of the NAMES Project, aka the “AIDS Quilt.” We heard from the project’s executive director Julie Rhoad about the history of the Quilt and how our society did very little to find a cure or treatment for AIDS/HIV as long as it was thought to be a disease which mainly afflicted the LGBT community.

The unspoken but very real question: what if anything is the connection between antisemitism, racism, and prejudice against the LGBT community? What is the role of religion in both creating and fighting prejudice?

And then we returned to our hotel only to learn that a suspect has been arrested in connection with the spate of telephoned bomb threats to Jewish institutions. As we all know by now, the suspect is a Jewish teenager who lives in Israel and has both Israeli and American citizenship. From news reports, we learn that he was rejected by the Israel Defense Forces under circumstances which lead pretty clearly to the conclusion that he suffers from mental illness.

Before we breathe a sigh of relief that the hoaxer has been caught, let’s remember that it hasn’t only been bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated and swastikas have been painted on Jewish institutions, and it’s not likely that these crimes, too, were perpetrated by a teenager living in Israel. Even if the JCC threats were a hoax, antisemitism remains real.

This arrest also brings up another question for me. Yesterday I studied antisemitism, racism, and homophobia. What of prejudice towards those who are mentally ill? What if Congress repeals laws which require that insurance companies cover mental illness treatments the same way they cover treatments for other kinds of illness?

Lots of things to ponder.