Friday, August 23, 2019

Disloyal Jews

          The great Israeli novelist Amos Oz, who died this past December, was born and grew up in Jerusalem but his parents had fled from Germany to what was then Palestine. As Oz showed in his memoir “A Tale of Love and Darkness” (made into a Hebrew-language movie by Natalie Portman), his parents never really adjusted to life in Palestine and continued to feel nostalgic for the life they left behind in Germany.

            Recalling what his father had told him about life in Germany before the Shoah, Oz wrote: “Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: 'Yids, go back to Palestine,' so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: 'Yids, get out of Palestine.’”

            I had actually heard Oz tell this story in speeches even before he published his memoir, but this week it resonated with me more deeply than ever before. In pre-war Europe, Jews were condemned for not living in “Palestine” and today we are condemned for doing so. Here in the United States, we have a Member of Congress, Ilhan Omar, who said in a speech in March: “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK to push for allegiance to a foreign country [Israel].”  And then of course earlier this week the President said that Jews who vote for Democrats are either “disloyal” or “ignorant”.

            This type of language, whether from a first-term Representative or from the President, needs to concern us. The point is not whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, whether you generally support the President or oppose him. Everyone in the United States has a right to support the party and candidate of their choice without being called "disloyal" or conversely being accused of dual loyalty. This kind of statement is antithetical to American values.

            In the wake of these comments, as well as last week’s controversy where the President successfully pressured Israel to deny entry to Representative Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin phoned Speaker Nancy Pelosi. After their conversation he tweeted: "I spoke today with@SpeakerPelosi about the importance of strong US-Israel relations and I thanked her for her commitment," Rivlin tweeted Wednesday. "The link between us is between peoples, based on historical ties, deep, strong friendships and shared values, not dependent on the links with either party."

            President Rivlin is absolutely correct. A number of years ago in a previous congregation I served, I organized a discussion between two congregants who explained why they were members of the particular political party they supported. The Republican presenter, one of my closest friends in the congregation, said that one of the reasons he was a Republican is that he recognized that the majority of Jews were Democrats and that it was important that there be Jews in both parties. If not, this would be detrimental to Jewish interests because Republicans could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews won’t vote for them anyway, whereas Democrats could ignore Jewish concerns on the theory that Jews will vote for them anyway. With Jews in both parties, neither party could ignore our concerns or take our vote for granted. I found, and still find, his point to be very convincing.

            Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or an independent, if you consider yourself pro-Israel you should not want Israel to be just another partisan issue. The political pendulum in the United States swings back and forth, and at some point there will once again be a Democratic President guiding foreign policy and a Democratic Congress determining the amount of military assistance Israel receives from the United States. Support of Israel is widespread today among both parties, even if there may be disagreements with specific policies of the Israeli government. Last week 41 Democratic representatives and 31 Republican representatives traveled to Israel with AIPAC. It is not in Israel’s best interests to become too closely identified with one side of the American political divide.

            The injection of the “loyalty” of American Jews into public discussion is simply toxic and should be out of bounds, whether it comes from the left side of the spectrum or the right. Many Americans have roots in other countries, celebrate those roots, and support policies favorable to their ancestral homes, and American Jews are no different in this regard. We love and support Israel but our loyalty, which is a legal and political concept, is to the United States.

            By all means advocate for the policies you consider to be in the best interests of the United States and in the best interests of Israel. But let’s do so with love and respect and a recognition that despite whatever differences we have, we are one community and one nation.

Friday, August 16, 2019

A Couple of Current TV Shows Worth Watching

           Every now and then I recommend television which I think is worth watching, and I’m going to do so again today.

            The first program is the movie “Red Sea Diving Resort” on Netflix. It tells the true story of how a small group of Israeli undercover agents worked to bring approximately 8000 Ethiopian Jews through Sudan to Israel. Recall that Sudan is an Arab country, but it borders Ethiopia and is on the Red Sea and thus accessible to the Israeli port of Eilat via ship. In order to cloak their efforts, the Israelis actually rented an unused dive resort from the Sudanese government and used it to stage their efforts and house the refugees who had walked hundreds of miles from Ethiopia to Sudan. When the effort was threatened with discovery, the United States stepped in and President Reagan authorized several military airlifts to get the remaining refugees from Sudan to Israel.

            The movie has received some criticism for focusing on the Israeli rescuers and not the Ethiopian Jews themselves, but for whatever reason this is the story the filmmakers (led by Israeli director Gideon Raff, creator of Homeland), chose to tell. But the film reminds us why Israel exists and how American administrations of both parties have worked closely with Israel to ensure its security and its status as a haven for those who need it.

            The second is a much less happy story and that is the ten part series “Our Boys” on HBO. First of all, in watching this I was reminded how accustomed I have become to watching streaming on-demand television and being able to binge watch all or most of a series. But “Our Boys” is being shown by HBO one episode at a time, with a new episode each week, and so I have only been able to see the first two episodes.

            “Our Boys” is based on the events of the summer of 2014 in and around Jerusalem. As you recall, three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frankel, were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas. Shortly after their bodies were discovered, some extremist Israeli settlers kidnapped a Palestinian teen, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, and killed him by setting him on fire while he was still alive.

            The first two episodes focused mostly on the family of the Palestinian teen, their anguish while he was missing, and the Israeli Security Services’ attempt to find him. At the point where the second episode stops, the body of Mohammed Abu Khdeir has been found but his parents have not been notified. The police say that it’s unthinkable to them that any Jew would have done such a thing, but the Shin Bet officer assigned to the case knows differently (as, of course, do we).

            Some of this is painful to watch. The treatment of the Abu Khdeir family by the police was not always courteous or respectful. The series shows documentary footage of angry Israeli mobs rampaging through Jerusalem shouting “Death To Arabs.” I was not in Israel when these particular events happened. (I did go, as you may remember, a few weeks later when the war to which the events of earlier that summer led broke out.) But I was in Israel after a major terror attack in 1994 and witnessed at that time the same type of mobs and the same chants.

            But we also know that Israel did find, prosecute, and convict the three men who murdered Mohammed Abu Khdeir. Beyond that, as I was watching the show, which was written and produced by both Jewish and Arab Israelis and is in Hebrew and Arabic with subtitles, I was reminded of the fact that for all its flaws, Israel is a democracy with freedom of expression and a thriving creative community which by and large leans to the left politically.

            It’s hard for me to imagine that any Arab country would have permitted the creation of a television series that humanizes Israeli Jews the way that “Our Boys” humanizes Palestinian Arabs. Israeli movies and television are great in part because they tend to show the full truth of Israel, warts and all; the good parts and the not-so-good parts, the parts which fill us with pride (a la “Red Sea Diving Resort”) and the parts which are troubling. A true democracy has nothing to hide.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Judaism and the Abortion Debate


          With so many states having recently passed or considering legislation which purports to eliminate or severely restrict abortion, I want to take a look at what Judaism says about this issue.

            Before I do that, I want to talk about “framing”, in other words, how an issue is presented and perceived in the public square. To a large extent, the debate over abortion is framed as religious people who are “pro-life” vs. secular people who are “pro-choice.” In point of fact, as a Conservative rabbi I am pro-choice precisely because of our religious teachings, and this is why the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism issued this statement this week after the Alabama legislature passed a law which, if allowed to go into effect, would ban virtually all abortions.

            The most recent spate of legislation is rooted in the Catholic and Evangelical Christian belief that we become full human beings with full human rights at the moment of conception. Catholics and Evangelicals have every right to believe this but it is a belief, it is not a scientifically provable fact. The normative Jewish teaching codified in the Talmud and Codes is that a fetus becomes a full human being at the moment of birth -- when its head or in the case of a breach birth the majority of its body has emerged from the womb.

            The halachic position that a fetus is not a full human being is rooted in Exodus 21:22-23. These verses describe a situation where two men are fighting with each other and as a result of their fight, a pregnant woman is injured. If the woman herself dies as a result, the death penalty is incurred. If the fetus dies but not the mother, the perpetrator is fined. The inescapable conclusion from these verses is that a fetus is not a full human being and causing its death is not murder, because in the Pentateuch there is no such thing as a fine for murder. There is only the death penalty.

            The fact that we do not consider a fetus a full human being does not mean that a fetus has no value. The Talmud says in a number of places that “a fetus is a limb of its mother” rather than an independent being itself, but just as we would need a compelling reason to amputate a limb, we need a compelling reason to “amputate,” so to speak, a fetus. But regardless of whether the halacha would or wouldn’t countenance any particular abortion, the assertion that abortion is “murder” is contrary to Jewish teachings, full stop.

            Halacha going back as far as the Mishnah (codified in 200 CE) actually requires abortion if carrying the pregnancy to term endangers the life of the mother. This is based on the law of the rodef, the “pursuer.” In a case where the fetus endangers its mother’s life, it is considered a “pursuer” and we are obligated to put the welfare of the mother first -- up until the point where the head or the majority of the body has emerged, at which point we don’t kill one human being to protect another.

            The point of this admittedly cursory survey of halacha regarding abortion is simply to help you understand what Jewish religious teaching on the subject is and why Jews do not share the belief of many Catholics and Evangelicals that abortion is murder and that all abortions should be banned. While in point of fact Judaism might disapprove of some of the reasons some women choose to have abortions, Judaism disapproves of lots of things which people do which nevertheless are and should remain perfectly legal. I’m not aware, for example, of any move anywhere in the United States to ban the sale of pork or of clothing made from a mixture of linen and wool (Lev. 19:19, Deut. 22:11).

            Having counseled women who were unsure about having an abortion, and even having accompanied women to the abortion clinic, I know that this is a serious decision that is not made lightly. I deeply respect those who have a religious-based opposition to abortion but there is no reason for any state or the Federal government to decide that the Catholic/Evangelical belief is correct and the Jewish and liberal Protestant belief is wrong. I hope and pray that these clearly unconstitutional laws will not survive the judicial scrutiny they will surely receive.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Kosher for Passover Made Intelligible -- 5779/2019

“Kosher for Passover” Made Intelligible

The following is intended as general guidance for observing Passover according to normative Conservative guidelines. Different families have different traditions and if you have a family tradition that may be more stringent on a particular question, it is always permissible to be strict. It is not a violation of Jewish law to avoid taking leniencies even if they are legally permitted.

Observing the dietary restrictions of Passover is not always easy, but it is made even more complicated by misunderstandings and misinformation, both of which are rampant. To help you in your observance, I have prepared this Pesach Guide, trying to be as straightforward as possible. In doing so, I have consulted the Rabbinical Assembly Pesach Guide, but I alone am responsible for the rulings and conclusions contained herein. This guide was revised in the spring of 2016 to reflect the recent decision of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative Movement to permit the consumption of kitniyot. It was further revised for clarity and style in 2018 and again in 2019
 The full CJLS Passover Guide can ge found online at

I. What is Chametz?
Chametz (“leaven”) is the product of five specific grains: wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye. Once these grains come into contact with water for eighteen minutes they are considered chametz. These are the same five grains which can be made either into bread which requires the hamotzi blessing or into matzah. We are forbidden not only to consume these products during Pesach, but even to own them or derive benefit from them in any way. Obvious examples of chametz include bread, cakes, cereals, pasta, and most alcoholic beverages other than wine. Only products made from these five grains can become actual chametz. However, once these grains have been made into matzah they are no longer subject to becoming chametz, and thus we can use matzah meal or crumbled matzah for all kinds of different Pesach products.
Note that the issue of chametz, despite popular misconceptions, has nothing to do with the presence or absence of yeast. Crackers, pasta, pita, and flour tortillas contain no yeast, yet they are still chametz and forbidden for Passover use.
II. What are Kitniyot? 
Another category of products which Ashkenazi Jews historically did not use for Pesach is kitniyot (“legumes.”) This category in essence consists of things which can be ground into flour. The most common forms of kitniyot are corn, rice, and beans. Ashkenazi authorities, fearing that people might accidentally use wheat flour while thinking it was corn or rice flour, banned the use of these products on Pesach as well. Sephardic communities never accepted this prohibition and thus Sephardic Jews have always been free to eat these products on Pesach to their heart’s content.

In December 2015 the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement passed two responsa permitting the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews. Of course, just because consumption of kitniyot is permissible does not mean it is obligatory and if changing your family custom makes you uncomfortable you are free to continue to observe it.
A couple of things are worth noting here:
a.) There was never a prohibition for Ashkenazi Jews of owning kitniyot on Pesach or having them in your home. While actual chametz needs to be disposed of or sold through the agency of the rabbi and locked away, this is not necessary with kitniyot for those who continue to refrain from them during Pesach.
b.) Different communities in Europe followed different practices with regard to what was or was not considered kitniyot. Some products which have different status in different communities are garlic, mustard, and string beans. If you maintain the practice of avoiding kitniyot during Pesach, you should follow your family’s tradition as to whether or not a particular food is to be avoided.

III. What Products Require Kosher for Passover Certification?
Another area of confusion is what products require certification, and why some products may be purchased without certification before but not during Pesach.
During the year, an accidental admixture of forbidden foods which is less than 1/60th of the total is considered nullified. This would also apply to any accidental addition of chametz in an otherwise Kosher-for-Passover product. That is the reason why we formally nullify any overlooked chametz both the evening and the morning before Pesach. But during Pesach, even the tiniest amount of chametz cannot be nullified.
An example of this type of product is orange juice. Orange juice is a product which in the normal course of things is chametz-free. But suppose it is produced in a factory which also produces chametz-containing products. There is a remote possibility that some small amount of chametz might accidentally wind up in our orange juice, but if we bought the juice before Pesach, this would be nullified. If we buy it during Pesach, the miniscule amount of chametz is not nullified, and thus juice bought during Pesach needs certification.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if purchased before or during Pesach, i.e. they are always acceptable without special Passover certification:
Fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, fresh kosher meat, fish.
The following foods do not require Kosher for Passover certification if bought before Pesach but require certification if bought during Pesach:
Unflavored caffeinated coffee (flavored, instant and decaffeinated coffees require certification), sugar, pure tea (not herbal or decaf), salt, pepper, natural spices, pure fruit juices, frozen uncooked vegetables, milk, Grade A butter, hard cheeses, frozen uncooked fruit (with fruit as the only ingredient), and baking soda.
The following foods  require Kosher for Passover certification whether purchased before or during Pesach:
All baked products (matzah, matzah meal, cakes, cookies, etc.), processed foods, wine, vinegar, liquor, oils, dried fruits, candy, flavored milk, ice cream, yogurt, soda, decaffeinated coffee or tea, herbal or flavored tea, and canned tuna fish.
Rice and dried beans should either have Passover certification “for those who eat kitniyot” or else they must be sifted through before Pesach to find and dispose of any possible grains of chametz which might have become mixed in. Processed kitniyot (such as canned beans) require Passover certification as does any other processed food because of the complexity of the manufacturing process. It is never a good idea to simply rely on the ingredients listing to determine if a product is kosher for Pesach.

IV. Pets and Pesach:
The problem with pets and Pesach is not a question of animals eating chametz or non-Kosher food. Animals are not subject to the mitzvot and there is no problem with them eating anything. The issue is that Jews are forbidden to own or benefit from chametz during Pesach.
The problem can be dealt with in one of three ways:
1. Feed your pets Kosher for Passover table scraps during Pesach if that is possible.
2. Scrutinize pet food labels to make sure they contain no chametz (kitniyot and non-kosher meats such as pork or shrimp are not a problem).
3. Include your pet and its food in the sale of chametz authorization.

V. Conservative Jews and Kitniyot
The 2015 decision of the Conservative Movement’s CJLS to permit the consumption of kitniyot by all Jews during Passover has had a mixed reception. Some follow it, some reject it, and some follow a middle ground approach.
Because we want everyone to be comfortable eating at our synagogue at all times, I have decided not to permit consumption of kitniyot or kitniyot-containing products at Kehilat Shalom during Passover.
For those of you who may wonder about my personal practice: as noted above, rice and beans to be consumed during Pesach need to be sifted through before Pesach to make sure that no grains of actual chametz have become mixed in (unless the rice or beans have reliable Kosher for Passover certification). Because I view it as unlikely that people will really do this, I do not recommend consumption of actual beans or rice during Pesach and I do not consume them myself.
However, on occasion one finds products with reliable certifications “for those who eat kitniyot” coming from Israel, France, Mexico, or other countries. I recommend these products if you are comfortable eating kitniyot, but I reiterate that you are perfectly free to continue avoiding kitniyot if that is what makes sense to you.

VI. Kosher for Passover Certification:
When looking for products which require Kosher for Passover certification, it is important to make sure that the certification is actually printed on the label or bottle cap and not just a sticker which is handled at the retail level. There is no guarantee that the sticker was applied to the proper product.
Similarly, do not assume that just because a store stocks something in the Passover section that it is actually kosher for Passover. Neither the supermarket clerks nor their managers are experts in Jewish religious practices, and it is not uncommon for “Jewish” foods which are not kosher-for-Passover to be placed in or near the Passover section. It is your responsibility to check for appropriate Passover certification. Earlier this week in the Goshen Plaza Giant, I found Kosher-for-Passover chicken stock right next to chicken stock which is kosher but not for Passover, and both were stocked in the store’s Passover section along with hamantashen left over from Purim. I am sure that the stores are acting in good faith but you must exercise reasonable vigilance.
It is not uncommon to find matzah which is not Kosher for Passover -- it will state “Not For Passover Use” on the label but you must look for it. Some people eat matzah year-round and these products are not produced using the special Passover stringencies.

VII. Some Final Thoughts:
We are fortunate to live in an age when many kosher products, both for Pesach and year-round, are available even to Jews who live in areas with relatively small Jewish communities. Gone are the days when kosher-observant Jews subsisted on matzah, potatoes, cheese and eggs during Pesach. I hope that this guide makes your Passover observance more meaningful and less stressful. Please feel free to contact me with any questions.