Friday, August 27, 2010

Character Development - The Jewish Way and Maimonides Laws of Teshuvah

At this time of year, as we write ourselves into the Book of Life, our attention turns to heshbon hanefesh - soul searching. And for that we look to our old friend Moses Maiminides.

Click here to find a complete version of Maimonides' Laws of Teshuvah (Repentance) online.

I've collected some materials on character development - the Jewish way, from a few sources, most notably Maimonides' "Laws of Personality and Character Development." You'll find some very interesting things here, including his focus on moderation in all things and especially in the care of the body - Maimonides WAS a physician after all.

See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4 and part 5 (these are not divided up by chapter).

Note especially

2:3 - There are times when one shouldn't be moderate - there is no middle road with regard to arrogance and humility; we should all aim for Moses-esque super-humility.
2:4 - Cultivate silence.
2:5 - Enough with the kvetching already!
2:6 - Don't be a phony.
2:7 - Find middle ground between moroseness and being giddy
4:1 - Dr. Rambam's diet - only eat when you are hungry!
2:4 - Get 8 hours sleep
2:7 - Eat poultry first
2:11 - Avoid fruits (!)
2:15 - Exercise (and move those bowels, too!)
4:23 - A Torah sage needs to have these things in his community (includes a blood letter and a latrine)
5:7 - No Yelling!!
5:13 - Be honest!
6:3 - Love everyone

"A Grim Teaching" - And We Complain About Sharia?

From Jewish Ideas Daily - A disturbing essay from Jewish Ideas Daily about a particularly malignant, hateful strain of halachic thought - thankfully far, far from the mainstream - that dehumanizes non-Jews and renders moot all of the discussion about the supposed violent tendencies of Islamic Sharia law. Fortunately it is not normative, but it gives us pause as we hear the uninformed critiques of Islam's dark side. Israel is right now facing the prospect of whether to deport children of foreign workers, so this issue of how to treat the Other is on the top of people's minds there. See today's Jerusalem Post Editorial: Foreign children, flawed comparisons.

A Grim Teaching (Read our daily feature at

Every first-year law student knows that hard cases make bad law. In Israel, a particularly hard case lies in the ongoing controversy around an inflammatory Hebrew-language volume of Jewish religious law (halakhah) that offers justifications for violent treatment of non-Jews in general and of Israel's foes in particular. The debate has highlighted longstanding divisions within Israeli society; now that the courts and the police have gotten into the act, it has also highlighted the difficulties of drawing meaningful lines between free speech and incitement.

The volume in question, Torat Hamelekh ("The King's Torah"), was published last fall. Its authors, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, teach at a yeshiva in a settlement in Samaria known for its hard-line ideology and its tense relations with both local Arabs and Israeli authorities. Like all treatises of Jewish law, their book buttresses its arguments with citations of Talmudic texts and the interpretations and decisions of later rabbinic authorities.

The subject is the rules governing violent conflicts—i.e., wars—with non-Jews. Some of the legal conclusions drawn by the authors are simply outrageous; others treat the grimmest choices that have to be made in wartime as matters of affirmative religious obligation. Among their conclusions are these: "In any situation where a Gentile's presence endangers Jewish life, one may kill him—even if he is a righteous Gentile and not at all responsible for the situation in question." "There is reason to attack children if it is clear that they will grow up to assail us, and in that situation they may be directly targeted." And: "Every citizen of our kingdom who opposes us and who encourages [our enemies'] fighters or expresses satisfaction with their deeds is considered an assailant and may be killed. Similarly, one who weakens our kingdom, by speech and the like, is also considered an assailant."

In other words, one need not distinguish in wartime between hostile and friendly non-combatants; one may freely kill children suspected of one day becoming enemies; and one may kill Israeli Arabs who voice sympathy with Israel's enemies, and for that matter domestic Israeli critics as well. The book does not explicitly mention Arabs or Palestinians. Rather, it uses throughout the seemingly neutral but deeply laden term "Gentiles," with all its connotations of second-class citizens and second-class souls.

Continue reading "A Grim Teaching."

What is a Congregation?

What is a Congregation?

A congregation is a harbor into which an anchor is castAt a moment of inevitable silence
Before or after a storm.
A congregation is a seashell
Where one can hide
When the soul sinks down into the depths of the ocean.
A congregation is a song, a prayer, a dream
Where the spirit can sail forth, heavenward bound.
A congregation is a voice that calls out,
To reach up to the heavens
It tries again and again to cause us to make the decision
Between indifference and activity.
Between spiritual improvement and oblivion.
Between kindness and sinfulness.
A congregation is togetherness from within.
A congregation is the place from where we are commanded to enact the most simple
and most difficult of all things — loving the other.

By Annabelle Hertziger-Tanzer, Kehillat Har-ElP
ublished in the Har-El Bulletin July-August 2004

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Interfaith Vigil Coverage

See other coverage at the Greenwich Time blog

Kate King, Staff Writer

STAMFORD -- Dozens of people from all religious backgrounds gathered outside the First Congregational Church of Stamford Tuesday night to express support for the local Muslim community.

"I don't like, as a religious person, as a person of faith, seeing a religion condemned," said the event's organizer, Rev. Kate Heichler, president of the InterFaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut. "In the America I grew up in, when someone's getting picked on you go stand with them."

Heichler planned the vigil in reaction to recent instances of "Muslim bashing," which she said are occurring on national and local levels. The controversy over "Park51," an Islamic Community Center slated for construction two blocks from ground zero, and an Aug. 6 demonstration by members of the Christian group Operation Save America outside a Bridgeport mosque were two incidents that inspired Tuesday's vigil, Heichler said.

Mongi Dhaouadi, a representative from the Council on American Islamic Relations, drove down from Hartford to attend the event. He said he had been inside the Bridgeport mosque when Operation Save America members yelled that Muslims should give up the Koran for a month. The remark, made on the first night of the holy month of Ramadan, was "very hurtful," Dhaouadi said.

"We need to use this occasion to turn things around," he said. "Let us walk away tonight with a commitment. We have so much in common. There are so many problems out there and we can face them all together."

Religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths read prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic in front of the crowd. Naveed Khan, a representative from the Stamford Islamic Center, said that acts of hatred and bigotry risk isolating Muslims from their own communities.
"Events such as this today help bridge the gap of our misunderstood religion," Khan said. "We ask for your support in any times of darkness we may have. And we will, in turn, be in lockstep with our community."

Several elected officials attended the vigil, including state Rep. William Tong, D-Stamford, and state Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, who drove down to Stamford from New Haven for the demonstration.

Suhail Kadri, a Muslim from Norwalk, said he was "elated" with the outcome of the vigil.
Kadri said he has heard "pointed remarks against Islam," which he attributes to a lack of understanding regarding the religion.

"And that's where the most hurtful comments come from," he said. "Ignorance."
"When I came down here this evening, it meant to love isn't to just sit in New Haven and say, 'well that's a good thing they're doing in Stamford,' " he said.

Stamford resident Andrea Stokes, 23, said the controversies in New York City and Bridgeport inspired her to attend Tuesday's vigil.

"I was so upset about what I heard in the news," Stokes said. "I like that tonight there were so many different people, ages and races and that we could all come together and pray together."
Jackie Carlsen, who attended the event with her pug Olga, said she was also upset about what she has been hearing about Islam in the media.

"I'm becoming increasingly disturbed with the mood in the country," Carlsen, 53, said. "We are supposed to tolerate all religions. You can't just pick and choose."

"I was happy with the fact that so many individuals acknowledged that one of the purposes the country was founded on was freedom of religion," he said.

See also Interfaith vigil urges religious tolerance
By TOM EVANS StamfordTimes Staff Writer

STAMFORD -- In the wake of recent protests against Muslim worshippers by fanatical Christians in Bridgeport, an interfaith prayer vigil drew together more than 200 religiously diverse people on Tuesday evening outside First Congregational Church to urge tolerance of all faiths.

Those protests had apparently been inspired by the proposed construction of a mosque at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan -- the site of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

And while Sept. 11 was only anecdotally mentioned on Tuesday, it was clear that the Aug. 6 protest at Masjid An-Noor mosque -- in which protesters yelled "Islam is a lie" and called children leaving the mosque "murderers" -- was the impetus for the event organized by the Interfaith Council of Southwestern Connecticut."

Sisters and brothers, look around and see the many faces of God," said Rev. Cari Jackson, senior pastor at First Congregational. "Look around and see the many faces of God. It's amazing how beautiful God is."Jackson then led a breathing exercise, where all in attendance were urged to breathe in, hold for a count of three, then exhale with an emphatic "ahh."

"The way we breathe in and breathe out tells us God is our breath," Jackson said. "Thank you for your courage and boldness and love. We are all one, and we experience that oneness. Let the world hear us breathing out with one breath."

Rev. Kate Heichler, president of the Interfaith Council, said we all must defend someone -- in this case Muslims - who become the subject of bullying."I don't like to see a whole religion condemned," Heichler said. "In America, when someone gets picked on, you stand with them. As a Christian, I know we all value Jesus in different ways. We value him as Lord, and Jesus said love your enemies. We, in America, have very few enemies among our Muslim brothers and sisters. That doesn't mean we can't talk about violence and oppression, but we can do that with conversation."

For Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations in Connecticut, the vigil was an opportunity to encourage people of all different faiths to find fertile common ground."

We need to use this occasion to turn things around and make something good happen," Dhaouadi said. "We must reach those that we never spoke to before, and sit down and talk. We have so much in common, and there are so many problems we can face together."

State Rep. William Tong, D-147, said a gathering such as Tuesday's was an example of why he decided to raise a family in Stamford."I've been thinking a lot about this situation, and it's moved off of Constitutional and property rights to a question of what's right and what's wrong," Tong said. "A lot of people who have been 'the other' -- not normal, not understood, not welcome -- know how hurtful and wrong (this type of protest) is. A protest like this doesn't represent the best of who we are."

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of the city's Temple Beth El, read from Psalm 133, which includes the passage "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!"

"This community, this city, is God's house, where we support each other in times of trial and pain," Hammerman said. "We, as Jews, have seen hatred run amok. Instead of fanning the flames of hatred, let us instead fan the flames of love."

Standing on the steps of Stamford's oldest house of worship was not lost on Rev. Ron Sala, minister with the Unitarian Universalist Society of Stamford."We're at the original congregation of Stamford, founded 375 years ago, and I'm grateful that we can gather here today in one purpose," Sala said. "We worship a God of love, a God of life, a God of liberty. Today people from many different religious traditions -- many different flavors of faith -- are gathering to create a more compassionate world. We need to step from ignorance to knowledge, from fear to faith. This gathering will help us to get to know one another better as Americans and as people of faith."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Collapse of Israel's Political Firewall (Re'ut Institute)

A Collapse of Israel's Political Firewall

The Reut Institute recently completed the English-language version of its case study on the Gaza Flotilla, a political strategic strike that caused tangible and significant damage to Israel.
The Gaza Flotilla was planned over the internet and in public conferences by NGOs primarily operating from major cities of countries friendly to Israel, including London, Dublin, and San Francisco. Yet in the broader context, the Gaza Flotilla was just the tip of the iceberg. It is one incident out of many in a campaign entitled 'Lifeline to Gaza' designed to break the 'siege' of Gaza. The campaign itself is one of several being waged against Israel. Others include the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) Movement, the 'lawfare' strategy, and the Durban conferences.

Together, these campaigns and others form a global systematic and systemic attack against Israel and its political-economic model. Their form continually shifts and adapts and their momentum is gaining. Their ultimate aim is to delegitimize Israel in order to precipitate its implosion, inspired by the collapses of countries such as the Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa.

Israel has demonstrated strategic inferiority in facing this threat, experiencing recurring fundamental surprises and setbacks. While the challenge is global, systemic, systematic, and predominantly political, Israel's response has been remarkably local, situational, reactive, and often dominated by military thinking and practices.

It is indeed possible that the change in Israel's policy towards Gaza regarding the movement of civilian goods has taken the sting out of the 'Lifeline to Gaza' Campaign and, therefore, the flotilla strategy may have run its course. Focus on preventing the next flotilla may thus be tantamount to preparing for yesterday's wars.

Meanwhile, the delegitimization offensive against Israel is constantly adapting, and the network that produced the flotillas will find a new logic and battle cry. Thus, Israel's response to future flotillas, as well as to the entire campaign being waged against it, requires a comprehensive systemic treatment of the delegitimization challenge.
Click here for the full document.

Monday, August 23, 2010

What is Islamophobia?

Here are some definitions of Islamophobia, taken from the islamophobia-watch website, based in England.

Islamophobia: A Definition

Runnymede Trust:

The Runnymede Trust has identified eight components that they say define Islamophobia.

This definition, from the 1997 document 'Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All' is widely accepted, including by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. The eight components are:

1) Islam is seen as a monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to change.
2) Islam is seen as separate and 'other'. It does not have values in common with other cultures, is not affected by them and does not influence them.
3) Islam is seen as inferior to the West. It is seen as barbaric, irrational, primitive and sexist.
4) Islam is seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism and engaged in a 'clash of civilisations'.
5) Islam is seen as a political ideology and is used for political or military advantage.
6) Criticisms made of the West by Islam are rejected out of hand.
7) Hostility towards Islam is used to justify discriminatory practices towards Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society.
8) Anti-Muslim hostility is seen as natural or normal.

For a summary of the 1997 report, see here

For the follow-up report from 2004, 'Islamophobia: Issues, Challenges, and Action', see here

Religious Coalition to Protest Muslim Bashing (Stamford Advocate)

See this article in today's Stamford Advocate. I am proudly participating in Tuesday evening's vigil, responding to the islamophobia that is becoming all too pervasive in our society, even locally here in Fairfield county.

Your People, My People

See this article in the current Jerusalem Report for an excellent summary of the conversion issue that threatens to drive a wedge between American Jews and Israeli leadership - Your People, My People

Friday, August 20, 2010

Cordoba Initiative - FAQs on Lower Manhattan Project

FAQs from the Cordoba Initiatice Web Site

Who is organizing this project? What is the relationship of the Cordoba Initiative to this project?
The Cordoba Initiative, of which Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is founder and chairman, is a multi-faith non-profit organization whose aim is to improve relations between different communities, and in particular between the Muslim world and the United States of America.
The proposed community center in Lower Manhattan will serve as a platform for multi-faith dialogue. It will strive to promote inter-community peace, tolerance and understanding locally in New York City, nationally in America, and globally.

Daisy Khan is a board member of Cordoba Initiative and also the Executive Director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA). ASMA is committed to helping Muslim women and youth to improving their lives within their communities through projects on contemporary issues.
Both Imam Feisal and Ms. Khan are strong advocates for multi-faith collaboration. They share a vision of a community center in which various religious leaders and civil society will work closely together to foster community cohesion and advance the shared goals of moderation, peace and understanding. Through programs offered by the Cordoba Initiative and ASMA, the community center will crystallize this shared vision of peace into bricks and mortar.

Why are you building a mosque at Ground zero?
The community center is not located at Ground Zero.
It will be a multi-floor community center open to all New Yorkers, much like a YMCA or Jewish Community Center (JCC) with a designated prayer space (mosque) in one area to serve the needs of the large existing community of American Muslims in the neighborhood.
The community center will provide a place where individuals, regardless of their culture or background, will find a place of learning, arts and culture, and, most importantly, a community center guided by the universal values of all religions in their truest form – peace, compassion, generosity, and respect for all.

Why did you choose this site so close to Ground Zero?
We were always close to the World Trade Center. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf has been the Imam of a mosque twelve blocks from the Twin Towers for the last 27 years.

Who is funding the community center?
No funds for this project have been raised to date. A project of this scale will require very diverse fundraising sources, including individuals from all faiths and beliefs –who are committed to peace and understanding. We expect that our sources of funding will include individuals of different religions, charitable organizations, public funds, institutional and corporate sponsors.

You will need a lot of contributors. Who will review your donor list?
The New York Charities Bureau and the US Treasury Department will review the donor list to assure that all funding sources are vetted to their satisfaction and approved. In addition, our Trustees and Advisory Board will be comprised of a multi-faith group of distinguished individuals who will ensure that the community center stays true to its objectives of peace, tolerance and understanding between all.

How did you purchase the building?
SoHo Properties, a New York real estate development firm based in lower Manhattan, acquired the property a couple of years ago. Sharif El Gamal, owner of SoHo Properties, is a member of Imam Feisal’s lower Manhattan congregation that has been in the neighborhood for a number of years.

Why so close to Ground Zero?
We have been residents and neighbors who are deeply committed to the neighborhood for the last 27 years. American Muslims have been peacefully living, working and worshipping in this neighborhood and were also terribly affected by the horrific events of 9/11.
As Muslim New Yorkers and Americans we want to help and be part of rebuilding our neighborhood in lower Manhattan. It is important for all of us to show the world that Americans will not be frightened or deterred by the extremist forces of hatred.

Isn’t this insensitive given that the 9/11 attackers were Muslims?
The events of 9/11 were horrific. What happened that day was terrorism, and it shames us that it was cloaked in the guise of Islam. It was inhumane, un-Islamic and is indefensible regardless of one’s religious persuasion. Not only Americans but also all Muslims are threatened by the lies and actions being perpetrated by these self-serving extremists and their perverted view of Islam.
The community center will be a platform to amplify the voices of the overwhelming majority of Muslims whose love for America and commitment to peace gets drowned out by the actions of a few extremists. It will become a platform where the voices of those who resist religious extremism and terrorism can be amplified and celebrated.

But, why not build it a little bit farther away? Let’s say a mile away?
No one should be driven out of his or her own neighborhood – especially for religious reasons. It is unconstitutional and un-American. Our congregation has been peacefully worshipping in this area for almost three decades. Our neighbors have encouraged us to remain here and the City and the Community Board have encouraged our continued presence here. The community has backed up their support by approving every resolution and challenge in the community center’s favor.

What about the 9/11 families? Don’t you see their pain?
Like all New Yorkers and Americans we were too devastated by 9/11. We share and respect the incredible pain and loss suffered by the victims of 9/11. We fully recognize their legitimate concerns and sensitivity to the community center. It shames us that extremists who profess to be Muslim perpetrated murder on such a horrific scale for political and financial gain in the name of Islam.
We look forward to actively engaging with leaders of the victims of 9/11 to respond to their concerns and obtain their support for our efforts.

Will the extremists take over the Community Center once it’s built?
Extremism on both sides is the danger – it’s what we’re working against. A community center that celebrates diversity and multi-faith collaboration is antithetical to the extremists’ worldview. This center will be a blow to all extremists.
In addition, the multi-faith Trustees and Board of Advisors will also help assure that our good intentions are not hijacked by extremist elements who are against our vision of peace, tolerance and understanding.

Are you not building a project that will be one of conquest? Isn’t this a victory for the extremists?
The community center is opposed to religious extremists of all faiths. It demonstrates that Americans cannot be intimidated and will join together to promote moderation, peace and understanding when challenged.
The extremists will not find victory or comfort in a community center whose sole purpose is to bring peace through multi-faith collaboration and celebrate the diversity of views in our world.
This center is an important step towards building understanding and peace. Just as we strive to understand the faith and traditions of our neighbors, this center will invite others to learn about the true nature of Islam. A religion of peace, tolerance, and understanding.

So what will happen at this community center?
The community center will meet the needs of all New Yorkers with six programmatic areas: 1. Culture and Arts - 500-seat auditorium, exhibition) 2. Education - Lecture hall, conference rooms, library, classrooms,) 3. Social Cohesion,(cooking classes, senior citizens space, child care, banquet hall)4. Religion + Healing - Muslim prayer space, Contemplation and reflection area, 9/11 victims memorial5. Global Engagement - Mapping studies on trends in the Muslim world, resources on good governance and principles of liberal democracy, women’s empowerment issues, youth development, countering religious extremism.6. Recreation - pool, gym, medical education and wellness programs
Clearing up false charges made against Imam Feisal:

“On 60 Minutes, the Imam said that American Foreign policy is an accessory to terrorism”

The ‘60 Minutes’ piece was completely incorrect as the statement was edited out of context. In the full interview, Imam Feisal describes the mistake the CIA made in the 1980s by financing Osama Bin Laden and strengthening the Taliban. This view is widely shared within the US and the US Government today, and Imam Feisal underlines the importance of not supporting “friends of convenience” who may in the future become our enemies. This is common sense.
Imam Feisal is an American who takes his role as a citizen-ambassador very seriously. He is frequently requested by the US State Department to tour Muslim majority and western countries to speak about the merits of American ideals and Muslim integration into Western society. At the request of the FBI after 9/11, he provided cultural training to hundreds of FBI agents.

“Imam Feisal has not condemned Hamas
Imam Feisal has always condemned terrorism (see his 1995 book “What’s Right With Islam is What’s Right with America” and his hundreds of speeches). Hamas is both a political movement and a terrorist organization. Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror. Imam Feisal has forcefully and consistently condemned all forms of terrorism, including those committed by Hamas, as un-Islamic. In his book, he even went so far as to include a copy of the Fatwa issued after 9/11 by the most respected clerics of Egypt defining the 9/11 attack as an un-Islamic act of terror and giving permission to Muslims in the U.S. armed forces to fight against those who committed this act of terror. Imam Feisal included this in his book to prove that terrorism must be fought even if Muslims have to fight fellow Muslims to stop it.

“Imam Feisal is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood because his book was translated into Arabic by a publisher with ties to the Brotherhood.”
Both charges are false. Imam Feisal has no connection whatsoever to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Arabic translation rights to his book were arranged by the Arabic book program at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, United States of America.“Imam Feisal is a member of the Perdana Global Peace Organization, which is a funder of the flotilla that attempted to deliver aid to residents of Gaza.”
Imam Feisal has never been a member of this group. Several years ago, Imam Feisal was invited to Malaysia, the most moderate Islamic country in the world, to participate in a Peace Conference sponsored by the Perdana Peace Group. He was one of the hundreds of speakers present. He has no political, advisory or business affiliation of any nature with the Perdana group. A photo of Imam Feisal was taken at the conference, and this has been used to “prove” his membership in the Perdana Global Peace Organization, but the allegation is false. Because of the controversy surrounding Perdana, we have requested the Perdana Group to remove the photo of him from their publicity.

Imam Feisal wants to establish a ‘shariah state’ in America.”
Actually, quite the contrary. Imam Feisal believes that all Muslims must adhere to the laws of the land in which they reside, including in America. This is a basic tenet of Islam. He has repeatedly stated that America is already one of the most Shariah compliant countries in the world because of America’s adherence to our Bill of Rights and because it allows members of all religions, including Muslims, to practice their faith freely. In other words, Imam Feisal believes that Muslims practice Shariah when they fast, pray, give to charity and uphold the commandments of protecting life, liberty, dignity, the pursuit of happiness and the right to freedom of worship.

“Why isn’t Imam Feisal currently in New York? Isn’t he supporting this?”
Imam Feisal travels the world in his life-long endeavor to bring the message of moderation, peace and understanding to both Western and Islamic countries.
Currently, he is in Malaysia working on projects designed to counter radical Islamist ideology within the region and the world. As the leading moderate Muslim country in the world, Malaysia is strongly interested in developing such initiatives and has requested Imam Feisal's assistance in their formulation.
Following this, Imam Feisal has been requested by the US State Department to make an extended tour, sponsored by the US Government, of Islamic countries throughout the Middle East to further his moderate Islamic message of peace and understanding with scholars, religious leaders and political leaders in the region.
His absence should not be construed in any way as a diminution of his deep commitment and concern regarding the issues surrounding the community center.
It is unfortunate that some events related to the center transpired during his extended travels but he has full confidence in his staff and and partners, including the team at SoHo Properties, and Daisy Khan, Executive Director of ASMA and one of the founders of Park51 – to carry on in his absence.++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++Thank You!

We wish to thank the following organizations for their support:

September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, J Street, The Arab American Family Support Center, CLAL–The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Auburn Seminary, American Jewish Committee, Cause New York, Chautauqua Institute, Congregation B'nai Jeshurun, Faith House Manhattan, Friends of the Arava Institute, Interfaith Youth Core, Intersections, Interfaith Center of New York, The Interfaith Alliance, Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, Lutheran Seafarers and International House, New York Buddhist Church, Odyssey Networks, New Seminary, Out of Cordoba, Averros and Miamonides, NY interfaith Disaster, One Voice, One Spirit, St. Bartholomew's Church, Same Difference Interfaith Alliance, The Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew, Tanenbaum Center, The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, Trinity Wall Church, The Healing of the Nations Foundation, The Migration Policy Institute, Union Theological Seminary, St. Peters Church, UN Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific,

For more information, contact

G-dcast for Ki Tetze

Parshat Ki Teitzei from

More Torah cartoons at

Elul: Daily Inspiration for a Month of Turning

See this site for Rabbi Judith Abrams' wisdom-filled quote-of-the-day on the intricacies of the process of Teshuvah (return /repentance). One example:

What Are the Criteria by Which God Will Judge Your Life?

Raba said, When one is led in for Judgment he is asked,
1. Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity]?
2. Did you fix times for learning?
3. Did you engage in procreation?
4. Did you hope for salvation?
5. Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom?
6. Did you understand one thing from another?(B. Shabbat 30b-31a).

Another good site for Elul is Jewels of Elul - a daily dose of inspiration, with this year's theme: Starting Over. Even Lady Gaga chimes in.

Today's quote (for Elul 10) comes from boxer Yuri Foreman:

Elul 10
In The Ring
Yuri Foreman

No matter how many fights I have under my belt, each and every fight is a new challenge and a new beginning.

Before each fight, I go through the same fears and emotions in the dressing room. What if I lose? What if I didn't train hard enough? Why do I have to go through this again?

12 rounds, 3 minutes each round.

I try to conquer my opponent and myself. Round after round I hope that I move forward, closer to my goal.

Victory it is! I realize that G-d blessed me again with success and inner strength.

Win or lose the fight never ends. In the ring or outside the ring. Sometimes we find ourselves in tough situations. Sometimes life hits us so hard that we find ourselves lying on our backs.
In those moments we must find every bit of our energy to get back on our feet and continue the “fight,” and turn around what seems to be an end, into a new beginning.

Yuri Foreman, born in Belarus, is a an Israeli professional boxer.

On Teshuvah

“Know that it is necessary to judge each person favorably, and even someone who is completely evil, one needs to search for and to find in him some little bit of goodness, that in that little bit, he is not evil. By means of this, that one finds in him a little goodness, and judges him favorably, by this, one elevates him actually into favorable judgment and returns him in teshuvah... for how is it possible that there is within him no little bit of goodness at all – that he never did any mitzvah or good thing in his whole life? By means of this, you can find within him another small bit of good, a place within him that is not evil, and judge him favorably... until he returns in teshuvah...

... So too a person needs to find (a point of goodness) also within himself... even when he begins to look into himself and he sees that there is within him no goodness at all, and he is full of sins... even so it is not permitted to despair because of this, rather he needs to search and to find within himself some small point of goodness... and even if he begins to look at this good thing and he finds that it is full of flaws... despite all of this, he can extract from it some point of goodness, and continue to search for and collect other points of goodness and by means of this they will be made into niggunim ("melodies")... and then he will be able to pray and to sing and to give thanks to God...”

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, on Teshuvah

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: File Sharing: Kosher or Not?

My latest "Hammerman on Ethics" discusses the controversial notion of file sharing, See File Sharing: Kosher or Not?

Q - Is it ethical to download and share current movies, songs and articles without paying for them?

It's hard to find a justification for the free use of video or music that people should be paying for. There's a reason they call it "piracy." But it all comes down to drawing the line between sharing and stealing. see the rest of my response here.

I tried to present a fairly balanced view, given that these are to a degree uncharted waters. A friend who has been in the music industry responded and made some important points. I share them below:

Hi Rabbi,

I have to comment on your file sharing article.

To start, although "file sharing" is the term used to describe this practice, files are not shared. They are copied and distributed to persons who have not paid for them. And the majority of these files are for entertainment, not to sustain life. We are not speaking about food or clothing or shelter. We are talking about people who choose not to pay for something others do pay for, to save their discretionary income for something they are not able to steal for free.

Fair use, which you mention, only applies to activities that do not harm the copyright owner's market for their work. Thus, use for educational/teaching purposes would be covered, but not allowing the taking of or giving away a work to some one who would otherwise have to pay for it.

Also, the analogy of trading cassettes with friends is flawed in a couple of ways. This activity was always illegal, but not criminal, and not enforced by rights owners as it created a small amount of harm when weighed against the negative pr of enforcing these rights. More importantly, how many cassettes could any one student in a dorm make and give away? A dozen, a hundred even a thousand? That doesn't compare to the literally hundreds of millions of copies made on P2P file sharing sites.

In addition, to question the economics of whether a "mogul" or a company or artist has already made enough is surprising in a free market, even if they were the only ones being harmed, which they are not. Who decides when enough money has been made from a product? The seller, the buying public or someone who doesn't have a stake in the matter and doesn't recognize the value of intangible property or the free market?
Doesn't supply and demand and price elasticity control when enough is enough? Why should BMW, and why can BMW, charge more for a car than Hyundai if they cost the same amount to manufacture? Because enough buyers are willing to pay for the BMW at that price, is why.

File sharing is theft. There is no doubt in any of the court decisions or among any of the rights holders who spend time and money to create a work, decide to sell it and are then deprived of some portion of their potential upside by a person or persons who share it with millions of others (when at least a portion of those other people would pay for the song or movie if they could not get/steal it for free).

If you were a full time free lance author of articles, and that was how you made your living, would you still think "the jury is out" if you could not sell or syndicate the article because it is on a file sharing site available for free?

File sharing is not a romantic Robin Hood activity. It has cost the entertainment industry billions of dollars and resulted in tens of thousands of people (not moguls or stars) losing their jobs as those industries have contracted. Many of my friends and colleagues have lost their jobs as a result of this so it is not an abstract discussion to me. It is a clear and unambiguous violation of the 8th Commandment and children should be taught that.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Must Reading: Zero Hour Approaches With Iran?

Must reading: the Atlantic's long cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg, The Point of No Return. Goldberg has extensive understanding of Iranian nuclear situation and of how the Obama and Netanyahu governments are likely to respond. His portrayal of Netanyahu is especially interesting - and relevant. See also the follow-up stories,
What the White House Really Thinks About Bombing Iran,
Attacking Iran: The Last Thing the U.S. Administration Wants to Do and Obama Bombing Iran? Don't Be Surprised. It's all summarized in Monday Round-Up: How Fast Is This Clock Ticking?

Goldberg surmises that the odds are greater than 50-50 that Iran's nuclear centers will be attacked before next Spring.

Also see the Jewish Week's response, On Iran, Five Minutes To Midnight

Despite today's reports that the Americans have convinced the Israelis that Iran's nuclear threat is not imminent, I'm not convinced that these prouncements are any more accurate than prior proclamations. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Ground Zero Mosque and the Convent at Auschwitz

See a discussion packet from my discussion at services related to the question of collective guilt, Jewish tradition and the Cordoba center - here.

This coming Tuesday, August 24th, at 6:30 p.m., there will be an Interfaith Prayer Vigil in support of Muslim communities in Fairfield County, on the grounds of First Congregational Church, 1 Walton Place, Bedford Street, Stamford. All are welcome to gather peacefully with members of our Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh communities - and people of other religions who choose to join in - to lift voices in prayer for peace and mutual respect. The need for this vigil arises out of the Lower Manhattan mosque controversy, as well as one involving a group of Evangelical Christians protesting outside a Bridgeport mosque. I plan to attend this vigil because promoting mutual respect is aways a good thing.

After much consideration, I also support the decision to allow the Islamic Center to be built a short distance from Ground Zero.

Some relevant articles on the subject:

Why Jews Should Support Mosque near Ground Zero, by Robert Levine and David Ellenson, and from Newsweek and Rabbi Mark R. Cohen, Americans Must Transcend Ignorance on Mosque at Ground Zero. Also see - Bret Stephens: The Mosque at Ground Zero -
and, since I've long been a Bret Stephens fan, see this week's Our 'Moderate Muslim' Problem -

See also: Jewish Groups Support Cordoba Project

And by all means look at the Cordoba Initiative - FAQs on Lower Manhattan Project .


I've been struggling mightily with this issue, especially in light of the ADL's decision to recommend moving the proposed mosque to a less sensitive site. My instinct is always to support freedom of religious expression, especially when moderate Muslim leaders step to the fore, as has happened here. But I was so shocked at the response by the very organization devoted to teaching tolerance that I took a second look.

Second look taken, and, while I am supportive of the organization's call for transparency in the funding of the new center, it still looks like the ADL made a big mistake, albeit one that is almost understandable, in part because this situation seems analogous to the case of the Convent at Auschwitz. Charles Krauthammer recently made that comparison (see Sacrilege at Ground Zero), which seems to me to be an unspoken assumption of the ADL position.

The New York Sun website was more specific in connecting the two in an editorial:

“We don’t want to make any inappropriate comparisons in respect of the Holocaust, which is unique in history. But what settled that crisis with the Carmelites was the grit of a few courageous protesters, like Rabbi Avi Weiss, and the seichel of John Paul II, who grasped that the demand for forbearance was not hostility toward his religion and that understanding was not weakness.”

By picking another site, the editorial said, The Cordoba Initiative can “show its capacity for respect, understanding, and forbearance.”

The analogy, however, falls apart for several important reasons.

Carmelite nuns opened a convent in 1984, at a site near where Pope John Paul had conducted a mass in 1979 and where a cross had been erected. The cross may well have offended Jews even more than the convent itself. The cross has been for Jews a symbol of persecution, and one cannot ignore the long history of Christian anti-Semitism that, one can easily argue, culminated in the Holocaust. There are also significant questions as to the activities of Pope Pius XII during the period of World War II. Plus, there was a great concern that the Poles were trying to downplay the Jewish nature of the mass murder that took place there. (See more background on the "War of the Crosses.")

In the late '80s, after much controversy, the convent was eventually moved to a less offensive location - and productive dialogue resumed between Jews and Catholics, over the meaning - and in particular the uniquely Jewish nature - of the Holocaust. The convent is now across the street from the barbed wire fence of Birkenau. I saw it last Spring, and I sensed no encroachment or intrusiveness. If there is a cross on the building, it was not easily noticeable. Although there have been flareups, the controversy is now behind us. And, at its current location, this convent is closer to Birkenau than the proposed mosque would be to Ground Zero.

Having seen the many Christian groups that reached out to Jews on the March of the Living - and the Polish (Catholic) school groups who left lovely notes and flowers on the Auschwitz ovens themselves, I find myself actually being glad that a convent is there now. Pope John Paul showed his love for the Jewish people by visiting Israel and Yad Vashem and recognizing the Jewish state at long last, so maybe now there is room for a Christian expression of solidarity and love for Jews, even near the hallowed ground of Auschwitz. It seems that the goal of minimizing Jewish victimhood has been abandoned by a very different Polish government than the one that existed in 1984. The cross still brings pain, but maybe this pit of death is precisely the place from where understanding and mutual respect might, pardon the pun, germinate.

Maybe that can happen at Ground Zero too.

In 1984, there was a strong consensus among Jews, even those who normally promote dialogue, opposing the convent. This is what I think Abe Foxman is recalling. But this was at a time when the communist government of Poland was using the church to downplay the victimization of the Jews. This is hardly the case in Manhattan, where no one is attempting to distort the immensity of the crime.

Also, downtown Manhattan is nothing like the countryside near the Auschwitz. Aside from the death camp and a few gift shops and fast food places, and the town of Oswiecim down the road, there's nothing else there. In Manhattan, where the proposed center and Ground Zero are not even in the same zip code, a block or two of distance can be enormous. Just saunter from Ground Zero to the Lower East Side, as I recall doing pre 9.11 while in rabbinical school, and a short walk can take you from the 21st century to the 19th, and from ultra-modern U.S. to the Polish shtetl, by way of Chinatown.

But most of all, while the perpetrators of 9/11 claimed to be Muslim, they did not speak in the name of all Muslims. The Pope speaks for Catholicism, so if the construction of a convent were somehow offensive, the buck stops in Rome. The Pope also must deal with historical stains like the Inquisition and Crusades, as well as anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust. But to cast aspersions on a group of moderate Muslims because of the deeds of their radical co-religionists is patently unfair, unless they endorsed those acts. Rauf is no more representative of Bin Laden for Muslims as Bob Dylan is representative of Meir Kahane for Jews.


To lump all Muslims together, or people of any background, is an affront to the values espoused by Judaism. It is to turn them into Amalek, a subject of this week's Torah portion, Ki Tetze.

The portion calls upon us to destroy Amalek, which I take as a commandment to destroy evil. But even if that mitzvah is calling for the destruction of a particular nation, Maimonides reminds us that Amalek no longer exists. The Torah also mentions other nations to be dispossessed, the Canaanites, Jebusites, etc., none of whom exists anymore. So the implication is that we should no longer be in the business of destroying entire nations, or, by extension, painting each member of a given nation or group with the same broad brush. Further, this week's portion tells us that children should not be punished for the sins of their parents and vice versa. Each individual should be judged on his own merits.

Let moderate Muslims not be punished for the sins of people whom they have themselves condemned. Imam Rauf said in an interview, "Fanaticism and terrorism have no place in Islam." That's pretty clear and unequivocal. Read a profile of him, and his even more interesting wife, here. I may not agree with every ounce of his politics, including support of Hamas, but he is not a terrorist. I know a lot of Presbyterians who sympathize with Hamas, and I wouldn't call them terrorists either, nor would I deny them a chance to build a church in Lower Manhattan. Plus...
  • The Cordoba Initiative, which Rauf espouses, is a most worthy gateway to interfaith dialogue.
  • He is a Sufi. Sufis are among the Islamic groups with closest ties to the Western religious (and especially mystical) traditions. Read about sufism here. Rumi's love poetry is some of the finest ever written.
  • His wife (Indian born) is a recipient of the Interfaith Center Award for Promoting Peace and Interfaith Understanding. (Can Sufism defuse terrorism?) In an interview with the Wall Street Journal his wife, Daisy Khan, said the facility would include a memorial to the 9/11 victims, and declared that “Hamas commits atrocious acts of terror.” Khan, executive director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement, added that her husband “has outright condemned all forms of terrorism.”

Perhaps not every mosque would belong in Lower Manhattan. But that one does.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anguish, Amichai and Warfare

This week’s portion, Shoftim, contains the basis for the value system behind Jewish warfare. Judaism is not pacifist – hardly – but it does very much believe in war as a last resort and as viable only when it is moral. Am excellent and comprehensive summary of the halachic position can be found here, at the site of Jlaw. It’s entitled "Fighting the War and the Peace: Battlefield Ethics, Peace Talks, Treaties, and Pacifism in the Jewish Tradition," by Michael J. Broyde. Also see this article for related information on this subject.

Maimonides included several laws of warfare in his listing of the 613 commandments in the Torah, and he placed them “last but not least.” To see them, scroll down to the bottom of

It’s a complicated topic, one that I have spoken about frequently. We need to understand it, but understanding, alas, will not help us to overcome the helplessness we all feel in a world where the ethics of warfare have become so murky.

The great poet Yehuda Amichai probably expresses that frustration better than anyone. See his poem, "I Want to Die in My Own Bed," as one example, as well as "Temporary Poem of My Time". Check out the home page of this site. It’s very moving.

Amichai ironically died just days before the second intifada erupted. Despite his death, his quintessentially human voice became the “voice of Jacob” as the fires raged, however, even in translation.

Perhaps his most oft-cited poem with regard to warfare is “The Diameter of the Bomb.”

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle of pain and time,
two hospitals are scattered and one graveyard.
But the young woman who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death at the distant shores
of a country far across the sea includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans that reaches up to the throne of God and beyond,
making a circle with no end
and no God.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

365 for Kabbalat Shabbat! Photos Below...

Over 365 people turned out for last Friday evening's cookout and Kabbalat Shabbat service, featuring the TBE Shabbat debut of Cantor George Mordecai. The weather was perfect - and the company even better. Join us every week for our very special outdoor Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Read the CT Jewish Ledger's article about our new cantor here).

Photos courtesy of Ariela Pelaia. Click to enlarge. More photos can be found at

Questioning My New Degree (Jewish Week)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010
Joshua Hammerman
Special To The Jewish Week

I received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary this spring. I appreciate the recognition, but it has prompted some disquieting questions.

Reform and Conservative rabbis often get these diplomas, usually after about 25 years of service. So the honor has more to do with survival than accomplishment. I suppose it could be said that enduring 25 years in the rabbinate, particularly in the pulpit, is deserving of special recognition. There have been times when I wondered whether a Purple Heart might be more appropriate, or maybe a Nobel Peace Prize.

But why a doctorate? Why measure success in a spiritual profession on purely intellectual terms? Once upon a time, rabbinical seminaries were bastions of cold-fish, Litvak elitism, often then wedded to its secular, German sister, the venerable “Wissenschaft des Judentums (the science of Judaism).” But these same schools are now committed to taking Judaism out of the ivory tower, promoting, as JTS put it in its new strategic plan, “Scholarship in Service to the Jewish Community.” So shouldn’t the rabbi of the 21st century be recognized as a person of the people, not some highfalutin D.D.?

And what, really, is a Doctor of Divinity? I hear that in the United Kingdom, a D.D. is the highest honor a university can give, higher than Doctorates in law, medicine, science, letters or music. But American universities have no such hierarchy, and here it almost sounds like a degree they might confer at Hogwarts for having mastered potions and the dark arts.

How should people address me? Debretts, a website that calls itself “the modern authority on all matters etiquette, taste and achievement” favors “Dr. Cohen” over “Rabbi Cohen” for invitations and salutations. With the Jewish establishment subtly agreeing that “My kid the doctor” trumps “rabbi” on the parental aspiration scale, that trampling sound you hear is another generation of our best and brightest running away from the rabbinate.

And why should I need an honorary title at all? Shouldn’t my life-work of facilitating Jewish journeys be sufficient? Plus, my wife, who is a psychologist, worked long and hard to earn her doctorate. It makes me feel a bit uneasy about accepting one simply because I’ve survived.

The title “rabbi” signifies a mastery of knowledge, but it means much more. In fact, maybe my original diploma, which described the calling as “rabbi, teacher and preacher,” should be updated to include more contemporary aspects of the job description, including rabble rouser, healer, marketing expert, surrogate mommy, divine exemplar, standup comic, youthful elder, dispassionate zealot and guy-who-can-unjam-the-Xerox-machine.

That’s not to say I didn’t accept this honor. For one thing, it came with lunch. And it was a deep privilege to share this moment with my family and leadership of my congregation, as well as a few dozen colleagues who were similarly honored. Many of them have become major figures on the Jewish scene and all have dedicated their life’s work to the service of the Jewish people and God. I am proud of them and want to see their achievements recognized.

We’ve been rabbis at a time when the profession has changed dramatically, and we’ve been the agents of that change. The paradigm of rabbi as aloof scholar, shepherd and diplomat has been replaced, to a large degree, by other models. The rabbi has become more of a guide, a teacher who leads by example and can point people toward resources that will enable them to find their own solutions to life’s dilemmas.

In what Rabbi Elie Kaunfer has aptly called an era of empowerment, Jews are not looking for simple answers, but engagement, direction, inspiration and the kind of encouragement that can propel a lifelong quest. They are looking less for a rabbi and more for a rebbe, in the original chasidic sense, a mentor who can take Judaism out of stuffy academies and let holiness breathe, sing and dance through the lives of real people.

Maybe the new title should reflect other honorifics given rabbis over the centuries, like “Mar” (Master)” or “Rav” (“The Great One” — I like that, but I am not worthy). There’s always “Shlita,” an acronym for “May he live a long and good life, Amen” and “Nasi” (Prince or President).

Throughout the Middle Ages, you had really made it as a rabbi when you became known by your initials. Rambam (the acronym for the Hebrew letters reysh, mem, bet, mem) and Rashi (reysh, shin, yud) were the FDR and LBJ of their day. Maybe each of us should be given an official nickname, whether it be our initials (mine would be “the RaYaMM — Rabbi Yehoshua ben Micha’el V’Miryam), or maybe something more folksy. The Talmud uses nicknames like “Honi the Circle Drawer.” Some of my classmates were also superb circle drawers as well, especially during Talmud class. How about “Reb Danny the Doodler?”

Finally, here’s an opportunity to introduce new fields of rabbinic specialization. As The Jewish Week’s new online Ethicist [1], maybe I should ask that my honorary doctorate be in the field of Menschology. Many of us could also claim expertise in Jewish Geography, Kiddush Gastronomy, Guilt Management and Mass Miscommunication.

So I gratefully accept my new title and will work hard to truly earn it. But the only degree I am really seeking is a degree of difficulty. With the month of Shavuot now in our rear-view mirror, mountainous challenges still await us, and even loftier opportunities. To scale those, American Jews don’t need doctors.

We need rabbis.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Jerusalem, July 2010

Here are two photos I took last month in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem. I believe they are a true indication of the possibility for reconciliation among the faiths - as well as the sense of security that is pervasive throughout the Old City these days. Tourism is thriving, and no one wants to see that stop. Behind the headlines, there is a sense that the Jerusalem of Dreams could still become reality. Reconciliation, to some degree, is still possible. Which is why I am glad that many Jews here in the New York area spoke out in support of the construction of a mosque in downtown New York. A mosque that promotes an undistorted Islam could be helpful in promoting interfaith reconciliation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Is it Ethical to Boycott BP? (Jewish Week)

Q- Do you think it's right for people to boycott BP and get their gas elsewhere, as punishment for the oil spill?

There is definitely a "punish at the pumps" mentality afloat with regard to BP and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and I must admit, I haven't stopped at a BP since it happened. Gassing up at BP in this hostile climate would be like wearing a mink at PETA convention.
We all have the freedom to boycott companies that displease us. But as negligent as BP has been in this case, I agree with those who state that boycotting BP is both futile and unethical. To put it more cynically, as Newsweek did, "Boycott BP! Because it's much better to give your money to Exxon."

Click here for the full response