Thursday, December 30, 2010

Hammerman on Ethics: Does MIchael Vick Deserve a Second Chance?

Michael Vick and Forgiveness - Jewish Week - Hammerman on Ethics

Q - Does Michael Vick deserve the accolades he is getting? Or does he deserve to die, as Tucker Carlson said last week on Fox News in response to President Obama's congratulating the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Vick a second chance? Carlson said: "I'm a Christian, I've made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances. But Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did in a heartless and cruel way. And I think, personally, he should've been executed for that. He wasn't, but the idea that the President of the United States would be getting behind someone who murdered dogs? Kind of beyond the pale."

Is it ethical to forgive Vick so soon?

A - Really, Tucker! Is it ethical to listen to Fox News when they allow someone to incite a lynch mob simply as means of taking yet another cheap shot at the President? Even when he is doing the most Christian thing imaginable, forgiving a repentant sinner, Obama can't buy a break from the Foxxies.

But the question here is not whether the President deserves a break, but does Vick - or, more precisely, does any ex prisoner? To that the answer is a resounding yes. Successful re-entry of those who have served their time is a major concern in our society. Nearly 650,000 prisoners are released from state and federal prisons each year, the vast majority of whom face legal and social obstacles that go far beyond the notion of punishment fitting the crime.

As for Vick, ESPN's Rick Reilly says it's time to forgive, that Vick has paid his debt. Torturing animals flies against everything Judaism believes in - hence the laws of Kashrut, which inculcate kindness to animals and sensitivity to all life. As a vegetarian and dog owner, I take those laws even further in my own personal practice, and every fiber of my body abhors what Vick did. But Jewish law mandates that the death penalty is meant to be utilized only in the case of the murder of a human being, and even then only in extraordinary circumstances.

Vick deserves a chance to play again, and he's making the most of it. I would not rush to anoint him Mr. Role Model, though, as many have. Americans love a comeback story, but don't confuse Vick with Michael Oher, a real hero, who was last year's NFL comeback cover boy. Last week, Vick said he would vote for himself for MVP, a disturbing sign that he may not have learned much about humility in prison. But fortunately he played himself out of the running against the Vikings, and Tom Brady, who does not profess to care about individual honors, will win it going away.

For Vick, the biggest prize is yet to be won, and I'm not talking about the Super Bowl. It's the prize of being able to go to bed peacefully every night, feeling fully content at having done more good than Ill for the world. For as long as those 47 rescued pit bulls are still alive, shaking, cowering and unable to bark, those peaceful nights should remain as elusive as ever.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter.

Monday, December 27, 2010

A Blanket of Peace

Perfect storms are hard to appreciate when you are living through them. Taking the dogs out last night in blinding blizzard conditions, I thought all three of us would blow away. Even when I promised an extra treat, they were not intent on making that trip a productive one. But how could I blame them; I was asking them to do something perfectly normal at a time when we felt like we were aboard the Andrea Gail.

But in its wake the storm, like life, left a blanket of peace. I just spent a few moments of solitude at the cemetery next door, until the wind chased me out, reminding me of the fine line that exists between a bucolic New England scene and a forbidding Arctic tundra.

Our cemetery is always beautiful, but it never looks more beautiful than when it is covered by a foot and a half of fresh, blowing snow, and then add to that skies as blue as they became this afternoon. The blowing snow almost seemed playful, sifting spiritlike between and among the gravestones, and then churning up a whirlwind in the distance. The snow's surface is smooth and velvety, but with ripples looking somewhat like rings on a tree trunk or the grain of rounded olive wood. Some of the graves are nearly completely covered by the blanket of snow. Everything, everywhere is touched by its frosting.

See the pictures below and click to enlarge. May all who lie beneath that white blanket rest in peace.

(And note that this is not one of those photo essays where I would use the heading "Wish you were here." :))

Sunday, December 26, 2010

From Moshe to Moo Shoo

We had a nice turnout yesterday for our service and Chinese food Kiddush lunch. Yesterday's portion contained the birth and naming of Moses. And it occurred to me that in fact he was named in anticipation of the Jewish obsession for Chinese food. From MOSHE to MOO SHOO. Exodus 2:10 - "And she called him Moses, because from Column A of the menu she drew him."

Friday, December 24, 2010

E-books and Shabbat - from the Atlantic

See People of the E-Book

People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age
By Uri Friedman

The migration of print media to the web and digital devices has stirred society to ponder many Big Questions: Is Google making us stupid? Has technology short-circuited our children's attention spans? Are we frittering away our lives gaping at smartphone screens? All this while the most obvious question goes unanswered: what will Jews read on the Sabbath?

Many observant Jews do not operate lights, computers, mobile phones, or other electrical appliances from sundown on Friday until three stars appear in the night sky on Saturday. They abstain from these activities because, over the last century, rabbinic authorities have compared electricity use to various forms of work prohibited on the Sabbath by the Bible and post-biblical rabbinic literature, including lighting a fire and building. The difficulty of interpreting the Bible's original intent and applying it to modern technology has rendered electricity use on the Sabbath one of the more contentious topics in Jewish law.

E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.

When they're not praying, studying, eating, socializing, or sleeping, observant Jews often devote a substantial portion of the Sabbath's 25 hours to reading - in print. As former New York Times religion reporter Ari Goldman explains in his book Being Jewish, it's thanks to the Sabbath that the "simple pleasure of reading is alive at least one night a week in our house." He recounts how "children who find every excuse all week not to read happily pick up a book on Friday night" and how he and his wife clip newspaper articles during the week to share with their children at the Sabbath table.

E-readers are problematic because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device - which causes words to dissolve and then resurface - an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.
Yet industry trends suggest digital media will eclipse print in a matter of decades. U.S. News & World Report is printing its last issue for subscribers this month, adopting a "digital-first" strategy already embraced by news outlets like the Christian Science Monitor. A Forrester Research analyst argued last month that book publishers must prepare "for a day in which physical book publishing is an adjunct activity that supports the digital publishing business."
So how are Jews responding? Some are thinking of ways to accommodate emerging technology within the structure of traditional Sabbath observance while others wrestle with the implications of the shifting media landscape for Jewish law and observance. A number stress that, regardless of legal considerations, the Sabbath's rules and spirit have never been more important they are today, when technology saturates our lives.

The discussion arises at a moment when all religions are exploring what the digital revolution means for their communities, whether it's the Amish deciding which devices to adopt, Muslims experimenting with online worship, or Roman Catholic clergy wondering whether social networks represent a new form of pastoral ministry.

Perhaps the simplest way to engage with digital media on the Sabbath is to plan ahead and print reading materials out during the week. But others are floating more high-tech solutions. The blogger Morris Rosenthal, for example, imagines a special Kindle that can bypass Sabbath prohibitions by disabling its buttons, turning itself on at a preset time, and flipping through a book at a predetermined clip.

Jeffrey Fox, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and the head of Yeshivat Maharat, an institution in Riverdale, NY that trains women to be religious leaders, doubts this type of device will catch on. Unlike popular Sabbath-compliant electronic appliances such as the Shabbat Elevator or the Shabbat Amigo scooter, he explains, there is no burning need to read a Kindle on the Sabbath, absent print materials vanishing entirely.

Fox believes that e-readers - like other electrical appliances that don't generate light and heat - are technically permissible on the Sabbath but should not be used because they are a step away from forbidden activity and because, in epitomizing our weekday existence, aren't appropriate for the Sabbath.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative Movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, says that even if an e-reader is invented that adheres to Jewish law, he worries such a device could undermine the Sabbath's values.

"The Torah says you shouldn't leave your place on the seventh day," Nevins explains. "You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don't go out of those boundaries ... The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience."

Nevins is writing a legal opinion on using electronic devices on the Sabbath in which he supports the use of appliances like electrical wheelchairs that help disabled individuals participate in communal life but not devices like e-readers that could disturb the Sabbath's tranquility. He plans to submit the opinion for discussion and eventually a vote to the Conservative movement's law-making body in May.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism in New York, explains that since the Reform movement doesn't consider Jewish law binding, "The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it."

Fox thinks that if the Orthodox community comes to reevaluate its stance on electricity use on the Sabbath, it won't be a reaction to e-readers alone but rather a result of our homes, in the next 50 to 75 years, becoming so thoroughly wired that Jews will be left with no choice but to use electronic devices.

Nevins sees parallels between contemporary discussions about electronic devices and the Conservative movement's decision in the 1950s (when the automobile and television were the new technologies) to permit driving to synagogue on the Sabbath.

"As Jews were moving to the suburbs ... we said we're going to lose everyone if we don't let them drive to synagogue," he says. "To some extent it was true because people would drive one way or the other but, on the other hand, making peace with [driving to synagogue] formally undermined an ideal we have, which was the neighborhood community. There is a similar danger here. If we become too relaxed about this we could lose the distinctive flavor of Shabbat."
Nevins' message about shielding the Sabbath's spirit against the gale of digital transformation echoes among Jews of different levels of observance.

In a trend that probably hasn't dealt too severe a blow to the e-reader market, some observant Jews are refraining from buying e-readers altogether, reasoning that they do the majority of their reading on the Sabbath (see here, here, and here). One such e-reader holdout, an Orthodox Jew named Renee Beyda, explained in the Forward that she wouldn't want it any other way:
There is a saying in Judaism that one should be flexible like a reed, but that doesn't mean that my family will be buying e-readers anytime soon. After dinner [on the Sabbath], all five of us crawl under the fluffy down comforter of my king-size bed, each holding a book, vying for a spot close enough to the sole lit lamp in the room. These are the times I marvel at how only something as bizarre as keeping Shabbat could create this scene, which holding a screen could never replicate.

This past March, Reboot, a New York-based nonprofit led by Jewish artistic types, launched its first annual National Day of Unplugging to underscore the group's "Sabbath Manifesto," an attempt to recast the ancient Jewish day of rest for the modern age. Jews of various backgrounds joined non-Jews in experimenting with the Manifesto's principles, the first of which declared, "Avoid Technology."

The blogger Menachem Wecker framed the digital dilemma confronting Jews succinctly in an article in the Forward back in 2007: "Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?"

Wecker could, of course, be presenting a false choice, since observant Jews may eventually be able to Kindle on the Sabbath without violating injunctions against kindling a fire or engaging in other types of work. Yet the possibility, as of now, appears remote.

Outside the realm of the Sabbath, meanwhile, the Jewish community is, in many instances, making the most of emerging technology, be it through Jewish prayer book apps, Chabad-Lubavitch rabbis adopting Twitter and Facebook for communal outreach, or Rabbi Yoffie, at a Union for Reform Judaism convention in 2009, urging the Reform Movement to launch congregational blogs as one way to engage young Jews and "create an online, Oral Torah of ongoing Jewish discourse."

Expressing a sentiment many religious communities and, more generally, many of us can identify with, Rabbi Fox explained, "There's real value in embracing technology. It's just about knowing when to turn it off."

Christmas and Shabbat: A Messianic Moment

Who needs Hanukkah, when this year, Christmas coincides with an even more important Jewish holiday: Shabbat!

Everyone's anticipating the coming of the Messiah this week - even some traditional Jews, citing an oft quoted Talmudic aphorism that the Messiah will come when all Jews observe two Shabbats in a row. The way I see it, the rabbis then knew what rabbis now know - that there's as much likelihood of that happening as for all Jews to agree about which synagogue to join or whether fluffy matzah balls taste better than chewy ones. The sages' goal was both to encourage greater Sabbath observance AND to help people understand that the advent of the messianic era is likely a long way off. That paradoxical blend of urgent action and profound patience has fueled the Jewish Way for two thousand years. But no one is patient these days, particularly Jewish messianists who think that the advent of the End of Days is at hand.

Well, for our Christian neighbors, Advent is now approaching its zenith, and for them Christmas is a time to proclaim the Good News of a Messianic arrival. So what does this have to do with Jews? Well, because everything will be closed tonight and tomorrow - on Shabbat - Jews, like Christians will not be working. No one will be working (except for those who own Chinese restaurants). Like it or not, most Jews will ll be observing Shabbat! Now, if we simply get all of them to light candles, make kiddush and come to services, this week AND next week, we'll be home free.

Of course, by this logic, if we succeed in bringing the Jewish Messiah, will have Jesus to thank! Jeez, this is confusing. And whose Messiah would come in that case, theirs or ours? That's why they call it the Messiah - it's so darn MESSY.

Messianism is messy, but it's also alluring and, in my mind, necessary. We'll be discussing that tomorrow morning at services and at our Kosher Chinese Kiddush lunch. Join us - and preview the discussion materials by clicking here. And just think: if every Jew were to come to services tomorrow....

Join us tonight too, at 7:30 PM in the chapel. A note of thanks to those who will be volunteering today at local homeless shelters. Once the sun goes down and Shabbat begins, the official TBE involvement in the program will end (we value volunteering and helping the homeless tremendously, but Christmas can't trump Shabbat - it's a legal fiction we've used whenever the 24th falls on a Friday), but I know many individuals will still be volunteering and I appreciate their dedication. I also invite all of them to join us for services after your stint at Pacific House or St Lukes shelters. What a perfect way to make a meaningful evening even more meaningful.

I invite the rest of you too. We'll have a relatively small crowd tonight and could use some warm bodies. The cantorial B-team will be featured (me), but don't let that dissuade you! I can't promise any egg nog, but maybe a little Manischewitz?

Meanwhile, as many head off to warmer and colder climes for the remainder of 2010, we can take stock this week and realize that we have much to be thankful for. Here at Beth El, these are very exciting times, and, as I step back and breathe deeply following five especially frenetic months, I'm especially grateful for the spiritual renaissance that is taking place here, thanks in large part to Cantor Mordecai and our revitalized Shabbat services. I'm grateful for all my other dedicated co-workers too, and our lay leadership - and all of you - for the support you continually provide. We've gotten some very nice end-of-year donations in for our challenge grant. Your help is always appreciated.

We may not be heading into a Messianic era (my guess is that we are not), but some believe that the Messiah is actually already here. Sublime perfection is right in front of our noses. We just need to notice it. And appreciate it.

Merry Shabbos to all...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Photos at a Bris? (Hammerman on Ethics)

Q - My son's bris is in a couple of days and lots of family and friends will be attending. I'm OK with people taking pictures but I really don't want photos of my son all over the Internet. What can I do?

See the response at Photos at a Bris?

Friday, December 17, 2010

TBE on Facebook


Now Temple Beth El has its own page. We're still at the beta stage but you can look for us (and like us - we love to be liked). Having our own Facebook page will help us to get the word out about programs in a more efficient (and less obtrusive) way, plus it will facilitate some nice dialogue within our TBE family. Of course you can also friend me any time - I'll always say "yes" (I'm easy).

Chow Down on the 25th!


Chow MEIN, that is. When Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was asked what she was doing last Dec. 25, she said that she was probably having Chinese food like most other Jews. Well, this year, you can have your fortune cookie and eat it too! Join us next week for services followed by a hot, kosher Chinese lunch and some Kiddush Konversation on, appropriately, "The Messiah: A Jewish View." You can preview the discussion materials by clicking here.

If you are interested in learning the background as to why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas, see this interesting article from Tablet.

Is it permissible to sell or rent an apartment to a non-Jew in the Land of Israel?

I've collected some articles relevant to the current controversy in Israel where a group of ultra-Orthodox rabbis signed a letter indicating that it is prohibited by Jewish law to sell or rent property to non-Jews in Israel. The New Israel Fund initiated a petition protesting that ruling (which Prime Minister Netanyahu also opposes) and it has thus far been signed by over 1100 rabbis. To find a link to that petition as well as other articles and a halachic responsum on the issue by a Masorti (Conservative) authority that runs counter to that offered by the Ultra-Orthodox sources, click here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Do The Right Thing (Jewish Week)

Do The Right Thing

Staff Report

Randy Cohen, above left, who has been writing “The Ethicist” column for The New York Times for 11 years, asserted that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange should win the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-secrecy campaign.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, above right, who writes about ethics for The Jewish Week, described a tough call he had to make as a fledgling rabbi when he learned of two synagogue board members carrying on an affair. He forced them to resign.

There was no shortage of what to talk about at “Ask The Ethicists,” The Jewish Week Forum held at Temple Emanu-el last Tuesday evening, including scenarios posed by some of the estimated 350 people in attendance.

The conversation, moderated by The Jewish Week’s editor and publisher, Gary Rosenblatt, above center, ranged from privacy in an increasingly open society, to what to do when houseguests apparently steal a knick-knack from your house. (Steal it back, was what the audience member did.)

Cohen, an Emmy Award-winning writer for “Late Night With David Letterman” in the 1980s, brought a mix of humor, thoughtfulness and instinctive ethics to the discussion, noting that he sometimes finds it disturbing when his mother usually agrees with his advice.

By far the most controversial column he wrote, he said, was eight years ago when he advised a woman not to deal with an Orthodox Jewish real estate agent who would not shake her hand for religious reasons.

That’s no excuse, Cohen said at the time and still maintains. He said he lost count after receiving more than 4,000 letters, most of them angrily disagreeing with him.

Rabbi Hammerman said he relies on Jewish texts and values, and the teachings of his late father, a cantor, who always told him to “be a mentsch.” The rabbi recounted how just a few days earlier he discovered an unpaid-for yahrtzeit candle in his shopping cart after shopping at a local supermarket in Stamford, Conn., where he leads Temple Beth El, a Conservative congregation. He said he went back in to the store, waited in line again and paid the 94 cents, feeling good that his dad, whose yahrtzeit he was about to observe, would be proud.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: William Bralower on Hanukkah

Shabbat Shalom and happy Hanukkah!

This time of year can bring out differences and tensions among people of different backgrounds. Yes it’s true that our holidays might be different, but beneath it all these is so much that we share.

The Joseph story, which includes my portion, is a perfect example of that. Joseph and his brothers never got along, but by the end of the story --- and even in the middle section that we read this week – Joseph recognizes that he still loves his brothers and that they are really not all that different from him.
For most of the story, Joseph is pretending to be different, putting on Egyptian clothes and taking an Egyptian name. The brothers don’t recognize him. But when Joseph meets them, he can’t help but cry eventually. He hides those tears for a while, but in the end, he reveals himself to them, and the differences are wiped away.

In my home we’ve learned that not only are differences among people overrated, but also differences among animals. By the way, in case you don’t know, my house has lots of pets. It all began when I took home the 5th grade class pets, two guinea pigs. They messed my room, so I gave them back; but then on a vacation, we met two insect experts who convinced me that tarantulas are great pets. I asked my mom if we could get them and she said “sure,” so now I have two of them. Then came three leopard geckos, now two. They get along really well. I also have 2 fire toads and, last but not least, two standard poodles, one cockapoo and possibly a fish. Long story.

What has having all these creatures taught me? That despite all the differences, all of us eat, all of us need our space, all of us have times when we want to be together and other times when we prefer to be alone.
As for my dogs, let’s just say that they sometimes act like Joseph and his brothers. If I pet one more than the others, the others might feel jealous and attack the one who’s getting the attention.

How do I try to handle the situation? It’s hard to know when to step between them and when to let them fight it out. I’ve learned the hard way that it’s usually best to let them work it out on their own. Eventually they come to realize that it is better to get along than to fight, and that they share so much in common. Like their doggy bed.

At my school, I recently learned how nice it is to be able to share things during this holiday season. In band class, we heard we’ll be doing a Christmas song, and so I said, “maybe we should have a Hanukkah song.” Sure enough, they put one in!
This is the time of year when we should celebrate our differences but also appreciate how in the end, we’re all very similar and that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Ethics of WikiLeaks (Hammerman on Ethics

The Ethics of Wikileaks (Jewish Week) -

Was the leaking of a trove of private diplomatic communications ethical? And once leaked, is it ethical for news organizations to publish them?

It’s rarely ethical to intercept private communications and make them public. But are official state communications ever really private? In the 11th century, Rabbenu Gershom issued a ban of excommunication to those who opened other people’s mail. But he also stated that it was OK to open mail that had been discarded, i.e. placed into the public domain. After a certain time, most government material finds its way into those very same places, whether the trash bin or some presidential library. I can’t wait to see the Wikileaks exhibit at the Obama Library someday – or maybe at the Julian Assange / Daniel Ellsberg/ Joe Wilson Whistle Blower Museum.

Once the quarter million cables were made available to the public, newspapers like the NY Times were on solid ethical ground in publishing those materials that do not put lives at risk or directly harm the national interest. But freedom of the press carries a moral cost. As quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Anthony E. Varona, professor and associate dean at American University-Washington College of Law, said the line is still unclear between "giving the public the news it has a First Amendment right to receive and serving as instruments of lawlessness."
Ethics is often situational, and in this case, while the cables have revealed nothing terribly startling, it has exposed the alarm felt within among Arab leaders regarding Iran, which should make it easier for Israel and America to pursue a harder line in responding to the threat.

Weren’t you just shocked, shocked to hear that Saudi King Abdullah urged the US to attack Iran and that the Chinese had hacked into Google? Assange has not upended the world order; he’s simply removed the emperor’s clothes.

I am troubled, however, that we’ve crossed a perilous line; there is no such thing as confidentiality anymore. Transparency in government is a good thing, but privacy and trust are also vital. We read in Proverbs (11:13) "A base fellow gives away secrets, but a trustworthy soul keeps a confidence.” The Talmud (Yoma 4b) adds that even trivial details of casual communications should not be disclosed without permission. Jewish sources also indicate that in this case individual needs could be trumped by overriding communal concerns.

It seems that the State Department now needs to learn what the rest of us knew long ago. Every time you click and send, expect that message to eventually be out there for the entire world to see.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Another Rabbinic Abomination: Jews Only in Safed

The ruling by fifty rabbis in Israel forbidding the sale of homes to non-Jews is an embarrassment almost more shocking, if that is possible, than the acts of religious fanaticism that have preceded it. I almost feel like I need to add it to the sordid list included in my current Jewish Week article, "Optimism Now, Apocalypse later," which has been making the rounds in progressive Jewish circles. The frustration continues to build. Prime Minister Netanyahu has correctly come out opposing this rabbinic ruling. But he has the power to fire them, and to expunge this strain of hatred from his government.

I'm not holding my breath on that one.

Judaism teaches that every human being is created in God's image, every person is imbued with dignity and worth, and that the stranger is to be welcomed in our midst.

Here are some articles from the Israeli media:

Bibi Slams Rabbis' Ban on Renting to Non-Jews
Ha'aretz - Rabbis Forbidding Renting Homes to Arabs Say Racism Originated in Torah
JPost: The Fire is Still Burning - Racism is Spreading
Survivors to rabbis: Nazis wouldn't rent to Jews
Arabs on rabbis' letter: We are losing our humanity
An unholy battle in a holy city
Safed chief rabbi defends ban on renting homes to Arabs‎ - Jerusalem Post
Ketzaleh Supports Rabbi Eliyahu's Efforts to Keep Tzfat Jewish‎ - Arutz Sheva
Chief rabbi starts racism debate in Israel‎ BBC

There is simply no way to put a good spin on this one.

Below is a statement just released by rabbis representing J-Street:

This week’s ruling by rabbis in Israel that forbids the renting or selling of homes to non-Jews is deeply disturbing and represents a cynical and offensive use of Torah and Jewish values to promote a discriminatory, fundamentalist ideology.

As rabbis, we join with Prime Minister Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders in condemning this racist decision and standing up for the democratic principles on which Israel was founded.

Rulings such as this that pervert Jewish teachings are inimical to what it truly means to be a democratic homeland of the Jewish people – and undermines the commitment to human rights and justice commanded by the Torah and expressed in Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

The rabbis’ decision also violates the basic ideas of tolerance and understanding we expect any religious leader to uphold. To attempt to connect this intolerant agenda to our values and history as a people is both irresponsible and unacceptable.

We hope Prime Minster Netanyahu will move quickly to suspend these municipal state-funded rabbis from their posts.

"Ask the Ethicists" Video Highlights

My "Ask the Ethicists" conversation with the New York Times' ethicist Randy Cohen was most enjoyable - for me and the 300 or so that attended. For those who couldn't be there, below is a small sampling of the event, which was covered by The Jewish Channel. The Jewish Week will be posting a video of the entire event shortly.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The 94-Cent Yahrzeit Candle

We are constantly being tested, and with each test we pass, our character becomes more refined and pure. Most of the tests are small, but from small things come much larger ones. The rabbis taught, "Mitzvah goreret mitzvah" one mitzvah leads to another... and the same goes for sin.

My father, a renowned cantor, was a moral mentor to me, although he died very young. Perhaps in part it was because he died at the most vulnerable time for me, just as I was starting rabbinical school, that his imprint has been so lasting. Click here to see what I wrote about him on his tenth yahrzeit, way back in 1988. He was the consummate mensch.

So last week I went to Fairway (the new one in Stamford) and bought a cartload of items, including a small candle for my father's yahrzeit, which falls Thursday night. After unloading my bags into my car, I handed the shopping cart to a parking lot attendant. A moment later, I heard him shout, "Hey you forgot this."

He was holding up the candle. Immediately I realized that I had forgotten to pay for it and had left it in the cart. I took the candle and, for an instant, my mind went through all the machinations that you go through when you are trying to figure out the consequences of the moral decision you are about to make. Yes, it was a bother to go back into the store - and I was i a hurry. Yes, I could "get away with it" by simply leaving, and no one would ever know. And how much was this little candle worth to Fairway, after all? What difference would it make?

But when I thought about what this candle is for, it really was no contest. How could I even think of lighting a stolen yahrzeit candle to honor Mr. Mensch? Or anyone?

I ran into the store as if I were holding hot coals. No, I hadn't stolen intentionally, but until it was back inside the store, the candle was contraband. I ran to the nearest cashier. The value of this near grand-theft: 94 cents.

Some mitzvot come cheap.

A few weeks ago a significant percentage of our seventh graders told me they've at times lied when going into the movies, in order to get the under-12 discount. Most were prompted by their parents to do that. At the local Majestic Theater, it costs $8.50 for a matinee showing of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." The cost of a child's ticket?


If your child has just turned twelve, think of how much value you will get by instructing him to walk up to the window and tell the truth. Talk about getting bang for the buck!

A moment of honesty could buy a lifetime of integrity. That's the gift that will keep on giving.

And it's the gift my dad gave me once again last week, in the parking lot at Fairway.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Civility as a Political Virtue

Civility as a Political Virtue (from
by Peter Wehner

The aftermath of President Obama’s meeting yesterday with the GOP leadership sparked a discussion that recurs with some regularity within conservative circles. (President Obama pronounced the meeting “extremely civil,” and Republicans concurred.)

The argument is sometimes made, directly or obliquely, that civility is merely a guise, the first step toward bipartisan compromises that betray conservative principles. And at times there is something to this critique. Civility has been used as a cover for hollowed-out principles, for lukewarm philosophical commitments, and for those who believe in nothing and are willing to fight for nothing. I get all that.

But civility need not be any of this, and it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves why it’s quite important to our political and civic life. It’s therefore worth correcting some interpretations that, like barnacles that attach themselves to the hull of a ship, associate themselves with the concept of civility.

Civility is not a synonym for lack of principles or lack of passion. They are entirely separate categories. Civility has to do with basic good manners and courtesy, the respect we owe others as fellow citizens and fellow human beings. It is both an animating spirit and a mode of discourse. It establishes limits so we don’t treat opponents as enemies. And it helps inoculate us against one of the unrelenting temptations in politics (and in life more broadly), which is to demonize and dehumanize those who hold views different from our own.

We can possess civility while at the same time holding (and championing) deep moral and philosophical commitments. In fact civility, properly understood, advances rigorous arguments, for a simple reason: it forecloses ad hominem attacks, which is the refuge of sloppy, undisciplined minds. “Before impugning an opponent’s motives,” the philosopher Sidney Hook once said, “even when they may rightly be impugned, answer his arguments.”

Here a few caveats are in order. Civility does not preclude spirited debate or confrontation. Clashing arguments are often clarifying arguments. Civility does not mean we do not call things by their rightful name. Evil is sometimes evil; and wicked men are sometimes wicked men. Nor does civility mean splitting the difference on every issue under the sun. (Who was right — eight clergymen in Alabama who said civil rights activism was “unwise and untimely” or the young minister sitting in a Birmingham city jail who told these “white moderates” that they preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace with is the presence of justice”?) I would add that the most important debates and many of the most important figures in American history were polarizing. They stirred deep passions in people, which is precisely when civility and even a measure of grace are most needed, to keep democratic discourse from jumping the rails.

In all this, Abraham Lincoln is, as he almost always is, a model. Lincoln is the finest political writer and, with James Madison, the finest political thinker in American history. He set a standard for meticulous, sophisticated arguments that had never been seen and has never been matched. As a young man, it is said, his satirical inclination and self-confident polemical power provided him with the “power to hurt.” But as he matured, William Lee Miller has written, “one can almost observe him curbing that inclination and becoming scrupulous and respectful.” His personal and professional dealings — with clients, editors, supporters, and opponents — had a “distinctive quality of tact, generosity, and civility.”

In response to a visit by citizens after the 1864 election, Lincoln said, “So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom.”

None of us possesses Lincoln’s virtues. But all of us should aspire to cultivate them.

Friday, December 3, 2010


And check out this Hanukkah song, the best ever written by a Mormon!

Joseph and Wikileaks, Transparency, Government and the Press

See this week's Parsha Packet, to be used during our discussion at services. The topic is WikiLeaks, government and the press, with a focus on the ethics of transparency and privacy. Joseph does some pretty underhanded things in the portion, framing his brothers for spying. What would have happened if WikiLeaks had exposed this corruption? Were his actions justified? Check out our discussion guide here.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Month-Long Hanukkah (Stamford Advocate)

A Month-Long Hanukkah

by Joshua Hammerman

from the Stamford Advocate

Welcome to December, which for many Jews, especially children, heralds the so-called "December Dilemma," that annual uphill battle against the pervasive, domineering cultural crescendo of all things Christmas. Typically, the greatest ally in this fight has been that once-minor but now trendy festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the triumph of the Jewish spirit against the forces of assimilation. Jews have been able to match those Twelve Days of Christmas with our Eight Crazy Nights, pit menorah against mistletoe, watch dreidels twirl against the tinsel, our lights against their lights, the blue and white against the green and red.

It's not a fair fight, especially with regard to the songs, although if you disqualify those Christmas classics written by Jews, things get interesting.

This year presents an unusual complication. Hanukkah began on the evening of Dec. 1, far closer to Thanksgiving than Christmas. By the time Santa starts his Elijah-like jaunt from house to house, Hanukkah will have been over for more than two weeks, the last bits of wax will have long disappeared from menorahs in Jewish homes and even that pervasive smell of sizzling potato batter will be long gone.

What gives?

The lunar Hebrew calendar is 354 days long, so, given the 11-day difference between 354 and 365, Jewish holidays typically occur 11 days "earlier" each Gregorian year. The ancient rabbis were also brilliant mathematicians, and in their desire to keep festivals seasonal, they devised a scheme whereby an entire leap month is added seven times during each 19-year cycle. This way, Passover can't occur in the summer, Rosh Hashanah in the winter -- and Hanukkah will almost never occur before Dec. 1.

Since 1950, the first day of Hanukkah has fallen in November exactly five times, most recently in 2002. Two other times (1972 and 1983), the holiday has begun on Dec. 1. The next time it begins this early will be in 2013, when Hanukkah will coincide with Thanksgiving, thereby creating a "November Dilemma" for Jews pondering whether to stuff the turkey with potato latkes and replace cranberry sauce with apple.

By contrast, Hanukkah has coincided with Christmas four times during the past decade alone, most recently in 2008. Incidentally, the holiday's forays into January are just as rare as those extending back into November, just five times since 1950.

My interest in this is very personal. My father was born on the first day of Hanukkah in 1918, a rare year when the first night of Hanukkah coincided with Thanksgiving, and he died on the last day of Hanukkah in 1979, which just happens to be the most recent time the holiday ended on New Year's Day. Plus, our last name, in rough translation, means Maccabee.

But this dilemma raises questions that go far beyond my own family. What should Jews say when well-intended shopkeepers wish us a "Happy Hanukkah" on Christmas Eve, weeks after our holiday has ended? Do we return those unwanted Wiis and Barbie dolls during those non-existent "after Hanukkah sales," or do we dare hold onto them until Dec. 26, when the prices really go down? Without Hanukkah to fall back on, how do we resist the Yuletide onslaught on television and in our schools? Is it possible to add a few weeks onto Hanukkah on a one-time-only basis?

I suppose that with the Christmas season now beginning sometime in October, there's nothing so wrong about letting Hanukkah be extended a few weeks in the other direction, especially since that will enable Jews and their neighbors to share this season of good will in a manner that respects diversity rather than demanding homogeneity.

So by all means, wish me a Happy Hanukkah all month long. If that legendary oil could miraculously burn for eight whole days, what's another sixteen? The ancient rabbis instructed Jews to increase the light each night in order to spread the joy and publicize the miracle. No one ever said that we have to stop at eight. In fact, Jewish law states that the Sabbath can be extended far beyond its natural conclusion on Saturday night, even until Tuesday. So let Hanukkah linger as well, even if only in the well wishes of neighbors.

In the spirit of Jerry Herman's song from "Mame," "We Need a Little Christmas," another Yuletide classic with a Yiddish soul, maybe this year we should sing, "We a Little MORE Hanukkah," enough to last clear to the end of the month.

Let's keep those flames burning, all December long -- and even beyond. During these trying times, we all could use a little more light.

Joshua Hammerman is rabbi at Temple Beth El in Stamford

Jewish Views on Messiah

This week I had the honor of leading sessions on Messiah and Messianism at, of all things, an Advent retreat for Christian clergy. It took place in a beautiful setting, at a convent situated right on the water in Rowayton. It was a wonderful opportunity to share and learn. Advent, after all, is their time of anticipation for the onset of redemption. Jewish messianism has its parallels but is far more, well, messy.

Here is the packet of materials I put together for the retreat. I plan to utilize them here for a discussion at Shabbat services on Dec. 25. Save the date. Maybe we'll even serve Chinese food.