New Kosher Guidelines (New York Times)

From the NY Times

State Offers Details Online to Help Determine if Food Is Truly Kosher

Four and a half years ago, a federal judge declared unconstitutional New York State inspection laws that intended to ensure that kosher-labeled food was kosher. Now the state has begun carrying out a new law that gives consumers information online about the rabbinical authorities that certify products as kosher.

Under the old laws, state inspectors visited stores and sometimes production plants to determine if kosher-labeled products sold or made at the sites were produced under kosher standards. Now, in place of the inspections, the state is creating an Internet database, which went online Thursday. The database provides information to help consumers find out a product’s kosher certification.

The new law, enacted in July, requires producers, distributors and retailers of food sold as kosher in the state to submit information – including the identities of the organizations or individuals certifying their products as kosher – for inclusion on the Internet registry. The statute also requires that many of those who do the certifying provide their qualifications, including their education, training and experience. The Internet registry is available at

The new law is intended to avoid the legal pitfalls of the earlier laws, which originated in the late 19th century and were declared unconstitutional in 2000 by Judge Nina Gershon of Federal District Court in Brooklyn. She ruled that those laws had fostered “excessive entanglement” between religion and the state by authorizing kosher to be defined as prepared “in accordance with Hebrew Orthodox religious requirements.” She said this standard impermissibly required the state “to rely on religious authority and interpretation” for enforcement.

Her ruling, upheld on appeal, came after a Long Island kosher meat business had been cited for violations under the old laws. The owners of the business, Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats, argued that the statutes had infringed on the rights of Jews who were not Orthodox and who often had different standards of kosher.

Commack’s owners were ordered to pay fines after inspectors said they had found improperly soaked and salted meats for sale. Under Jewish dietary laws, animal products must be free of blood to qualify as kosher; a soaking and salting process is mandated to drain the blood. The owners said their procedures had been approved by a Conservative rabbi who supervised their operations. Conservative Jews are generally more flexible than Orthodox Jews on points of dietary law, though the Conservatives say their standards are as valid as Orthodox criteria.

The new law “provides information so consumers of kosher foods can decide themselves if the kosher certification for any product or establishment is one they wish to rely on,” said Jessica A. Chittenden, a spokeswoman for the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, which administers the statute.

Even though the law requires some certifiers to state their qualifications, “it does not establish any certifier qualifications nor allow the department to evaluate certifier qualifications,” Ms. Chittenden said.

Instead, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, it aids consumers by giving them “specific information about the level of kosher supervision of the products” while satisfying “the constitutional concerns of the courts.” Mr. Silver, who strongly backed the new legislation, is an Orthodox Jew.

Several merchants interviewed in Borough Park, Brooklyn, said the registry would have greater value to consumers outside areas like Borough Park, an Orthodox stronghold.

“In this neighborhood, they know,” said Simon Benatar, manager of Boro Park Foodmart on 13th Avenue, referring to people’s familiarity with the intricacies of kosher law certification.

Ms. Chittenden said that about 2,200 businesses had so far registered more than 160,000 items. But a glance at the registry shows that products are sometimes entered more than once because different sizes of products are individually listed, obscuring how many products are in the registry.

In any case, the registry is expected to grow.

When the old laws were declared unconstitutional in 2000, the agriculture and markets agency said its inspectors had been annually visiting about 4,000 businesses that dealt in kosher products in the state. Under the new law, companies located outside New York that produce kosher-labeled food sold in the state are also obligated to provide the required information.

Penalties for not complying are up to $1,000 for a company’s first violation, up to $5,000 for a company’s second and up to $10,000 for any additional violation.

A visitor to the Web site can find that Glenview Farms heavy whipping cream, for example, is certified by the Orthodox Union, a group internationally known to kosher food buyers; that Joyce Chen hoisin sauce is approved by KOF-K, another well-known group; and that Great Value frozen concentrated orange juice is certified by Chabad Lubavitch of Southwest Florida.

Some products bear the endorsement of rabbis for whom no group affiliation or qualifications are given. The law requires that only certifiers of “non prepackaged food” submit their qualifications.

How is the average kosher-minded consumer to assess such certifiers?

“For those willing to invest the time to do the research,” the registry is “a starting point,” said Rabbi David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization. He was part of a group representing Jewish organizations that Mr. Silver and Attorney General Eliot Spitzer formed to help draft the new law.

Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, executive vice present of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said people could also seek guidance from their own rabbis. He called the new approach preferable to having the state “say what is kosher and what isn’t.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

Young Adult Division (Detroit) Presents:

Upcoming Events

“Two Rabbis, Three Opinions”
Thursdays, February 24 through March 17

Reform Rabbi Jennifer T. Kroll (Temple Israel) and Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller (University of Michigan, Hillel)
discuss the future of Judaism for our generation.

  • What role will we play in years to come?
  • How are we affected by society, Israel, charity, and other topics of relevence?

    Find out and discuss with these two young, engaging Rabbis.
    $25 for JCC Members; $30 for non-members

    For more information,
    contact Edie Simons

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
  • Categories
    Conservative Judaism Jewish Orthodox Judaism Reform Judaism

    Conservative Judaism – The Muddle in the Middle (Article by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman)

    My colleague Rabbi Joshua Hammerman published this article in The NY Jewish Week. He is spot on with his analysis of the Conservative Movement.

    Lately the Conservative movement has seemed less than concerned about conserving itself. The bad news has come in droves: budget woes at the Jewish Theological Seminary; the flap over gay marriage and ordination, highlighted by the unnecessary confrontation with Rabbi Ayelet Cohen of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah; all this topped off by declining demographics in the National Jewish Population Survey suggesting that nearly half of all those who grew up as Conservative Jews no longer identify as such.

    These storm clouds have hidden from view significant events that could help return the movement to its historical centrality among American Jews. Over the past several weeks, the Rabbinical Assembly has for the first time made public on-line many of the key rulings of the fabled Law Committee. (You can find these responsa at

    This landmark move coincides with the publication of a new book, “A Place in the Tent,” by a small group of rabbis and educators on the West Coast who call themselves “The Tiferet Project.” The book posits a bold, more inclusive approach toward intermarried families, bypassing the normal channels of rabbinic debate and placing the subject squarely on the table to stimulate grassroots discussion.

    The strength of Conservative Judaism lies in the creative tension that is at the core of its ideology. Given the choice, some people might prefer the “moral clarity” so in vogue, but like most of us, Conservative Judaism lives in a real world of tough questions. It thrives on the unresolved conflicts that force us to confront imperfection: Judaism’s, society’s and our own.

    This muddle in the middle is an uncomfortable place to reside, but it is equally a dynamic one. So while other movements offer easy responses (which for Reform often is “Why not?” and for Orthodoxy, “No way!”), Conservatives look for the kind of dialectic that has been central to rabbinic Judaism since Talmudic times.

    Synthesis doesn’t always mean compromise, but it always forces us to hear all views. There is no such thing as a knee-jerk Conservative response to anything. For those up to the intellectual challenge, it can be spiritually invigorating to wrestle with our traditions and texts rather than simply submitting to their authority or tossing them aside.

    Amazingly, until very recently this enriching journey was not made easily available to most Conservative Jews. Clergy and educators had it, naturally, as did many attending Camp Ramah. But the text in the pews was the Hertz Chumash, which is about as reflective of the movement’s ideology as “Das Capital” is to the GOP. When the new Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, appeared in 2001, for the first time the laity began to “get it” and to engage en masse in that liberating grappling with Torah.

    People suddenly felt free to ask when and how Exodus really happened. That produced oodles of bad press because the religious right was poised to attack and Conservative leaders weren’t prepared to fend it off. After all, grappling with the Exodus was nothing new to the movement’s elite; it’s something that had been done at the seminary for generations. But someone forgot to tell those outside the ivory tower who were busy swallowing Hertz’s spoon-fed apologetic in the pews.

    And now, the next steps: the responsa Web site, public conversations about inclusivity and the demystification of the halachic process. At this site people will be fascinated to read about everything from the permissibility of stem cell research to the inclusion of the matriarchs in the Amidah prayer. They will become less intimidated by their rabbis, who no longer will be the sole possessors of these secrets — and rabbis will have less need to give dummied-down sermons. The focus will be less on ritual correctness and more on intense philosophical debate.

    Readers might be surprised to discover that even minority opinions can be valid. There is a built-in elasticity to Conservative halacha, taking into account factors unique to each community and to every generation. This will be especially important as the Law Committee revisits the issues of gay and lesbian marriage and ordination. When that passionate dialogue becomes public, the media again will miss the point and harp on whether the center will hold. The center will hold precisely because it will shift, as it always does — most notably 20 years ago with the ordination of women. But with the leadership so concerned about unity and PR, the movement will miss yet another opportunity to revel in the creative tension that has spun off dynamic offspring for generations — everything from Kaplan’s Reconstructionism, Heschel’s activism and the Chavurah movement of the past century to the neo-Chasidic revivalism of today.

    It is not surprising that Conservative Jews are the first to shun institutional labels, including their own. Labels are often prime indicators of stagnation, and there is nothing stagnant about those who routinely struggle with life’s most gripping questions. But the movement’s leadership too often finds itself preoccupied with putting out the fires rather than fanning these passionate flames that are its very soul.

    Americans are craving an authentic spiritual alternative to “moral clarity.” It’s not just blue-staters who desire a few questions to go with all the pat answers.

    Natan Sharansky, whom I deeply admire, has become the administration’s standard-bearer for clarity. What we now need is a poster child for nuance. We need someone like the sage Hillel, a leader humble enough to give credence to opposing views, one who can seek truth somewhere in the give-and-take, in the muddle of the middle. If and when Conservative Judaism realizes that there is passion in that delicious ambiguity and that most Jews want to live there, it will regain its institutional mojo. It may or may not be called Conservative when it does, but it will most certainly be Judaism. n

    Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    My mentor, my teacher, my friend – DICK LOBENTHAL

    Lobenthal offers insight on prejudice”

    By Tom Szczesny
    Michigan Daily
    February 23, 2005

    “Traveling home from Ku Klux Klan rallies in cars loaded with dynamite, standing in churches as they were firebombed and waiting for a sheriff to arrive at his burning house to save him from gun-toting KKK members has provided former director of the Michigan Anti-Defamation League, Richard Lobenthal, with a unique perspective on prejudice.

    Throughout his 36-year career at the ADL, Lobenthal was on the front lines of the battle against hate.

    Last night at the University’s chapter of Hillel, Lobenthal shared some of his compelling stories with a gathering of students and local residents. Lobenthal’s hope was to convey the relevance of these experiences to the current struggle against intolerance.

    Lobenthal said there is still an undercurrent of prejudice continuing to threaten individuals and infringing on their ability to live a secure life. “As we go from the ‘50s and ‘60s to 2005, we’re still dealing with this issue,” he said.

    Citing recent events around the country and at the University, including the drawing of swastikas in Mary Markley Residence Hall, Lobenthal expressed anxiety over manifestations of hate in the United States today.

    “One thing I’ve become increasingly concerned about is that Americans are losing their ability to be tolerant,” he said. “It’s our inability to recognize our differences and coexist that makes me nervous,” he added.

    Lobenthal also explained how such intolerance will impact the country in coming decades. In particular, Lobenthal conveyed his doubt that democracy can survive in a climate of prejudice. “The ability for us to get along together is the most fundamental concept of American democracy,” he said.

    Lobenthal said he is disturbed by the fact that individuals have become increasingly incapable of speaking openly about issues of race and tolerance. Even worse, he said the result has been a gradual muting of voices that fight for equal rights.

    “When you begin to have a country move to apathy about harassing people … and you don’t have a sense of indignation, … that is very dangerous,” he said. “Until we have a collective sense of outrage, then the world’s going to deteriorate.”

    It was this sense that first inspired Lobenthal to become a civil rights activist over four decades ago. He wanted to be heard in firm opposition to the many prejudiced movements — including the Dixiecrats and a resurgent KKK — spreading around the country.

    As a result, he joined the ADL, which Lobenthal called the oldest and largest private civil rights organization in the world, and while serving in its Virginia office, he took steps to combat hate by infiltrating the KKK and observing the group’s activities firsthand.

    In 1964, Lobenthal became the Michigan director of the ADL. He served in this capacity until 1996, when he stepped down to engage in other forms of civil rights activism, including acting as interim director of the Michigan American Civil Liberties Union.

    With his decades-long work as a fighter of prejudice, Lobenthal left a mark on many lives. Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director of Michigan Hillel, worked as an intern with Lobenthal one summer and called him as a “public defender and unifier.”

    Lobenthal’s story resonated with RC sophomore Monica Woll, chair of Hillel’s governing board. “It was inspiring to hear someone so dedicated and passionate about a cause living his life attempting to end racism and segregation,” she said.

    Miller said this energy and determination allowed Lobenthal to create a climate of tolerance for disparaged groups. “All these minority groups owe so much to this man who has dedicated his life to fighting hate and building bridges,” he said.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Rabbi Gellman pimps his faith

    Think TV is a wasteland? Here are two reality shows that are hip and healing

    By Rabbi Marc Gellman
    From Newsweek

    Feb. 16 – After seeing a television picture for the first time some 60 years ago, the writer E.B. White said, “This will either be a grave disturbance or a saving radiant light.” In retrospect, the grave-disturbance theory has basically trounced the saving-radiant-light theory—except for any episode of “I love Lucy,” the coverage of the first lunar landing and a few nature programs most of which begin with the somnolescent preface, “The platypus is a very interesting animal.” Look, if you can find some saving spiritual lesson in “Jackass” please enlighten me immediately.

    However, I feel the stirrings of the saving radiant pixels of a new age. Who would have thought that the prophets for this generation of spiritually acceptable television would be a hip-hop rapper named Xzibit and an ex-J Crew model named Ty Pennington. I hereby proclaim the Gospel of “Pimp My Ride” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” What I see in these two shows is a saving radiant glimmer of how television married to compassion (and a blown 450cc short block engine) can produce programs that are both hip and healing, both popular and profound.

    For those of you who have only just returned from Alpha Centauri and have not yet seen these shows, “Pimp” is on MTV. That in and of itself is astounding because MTV is the Mt. Sinai of the grave-disturbance theory. “Makeover” is on ABC, which in its own act of moral blindness brings us “Desperate Housewives” immediately following “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” Anyway, both shows select poor, needy and worthy people, some of whom are also courageous and sick. On “Pimp My Ride,” a hunk of steaming junk from a hysterically grateful recipient is driven by Xzibit to West Coast Custom body shop in L.A. to be stripped and rebuilt from the metal up by a team of charismatic car trolls who delight in going to any lengths to make the new car a thing of beauty and fantasy for its needy owner. In “Extreme Makeover,” the run-down house of hysterically grateful recipients is demolished and then a new house is built in one week, usually on a new and vastly enlarged foundation by Ty and his team of design and production hotties.

    The convulsive gratitude of the recipients upon first seeing their new ride or new home far exceeds anything I have ever witnessed among the grateful people I know (both of them). And let me tell you I have seen the transfixed ecstasy of Pentecostal snake handlers and it is nothing compared to the joy of a guy learning that he now has a bowling ball washer in the trunk of his car.

    What makes these two shows not just kind and weepy but actually luminous is the way they unselfconsciously obliterate the traditional ways we often treat the poor. First, both shows treat the needy without a hint of condescension or pity. They respect these people completely. It is that respect, more than the pimped-out ride or the new house, that is the real gift. Also the workers on both shows work with real joy. Charity is often seen as a dutiful burden, but in these cases it is a labor of love. Psalm 100 says, “Serve the Lord in joy.” I checked in vain the ancient commentaries for a reference to the joy produced by trunk-mounted bowling ball washers, but who knows what King David had in mind 3,000 years ago when he wrote that psalm?

    What touches me most is that when we give to the poor and needy, we almost always give them just a taste of what they need while these shows give them a taste of what they dream. In both shows the hysterically grateful recipients of automotive and appliance largesse are given not just a redone car or house, but a fabulously redone car or house. The cars are painted in iridescent colors with leather upholstery to match and come with zillion-watt sound systems and blinged-out rims with phat flat tires. Even wild fantasy is given its due with tv monitors installed under the car, and let us not forget the ubiquitous bowling ball washer.

    In “Extreme Makeover” the houses are often doubled in size with two-story gyms and central HEPA air cleaners imported from Switzerland and covered outdoor pools with waterfalls and disco illuminated floors and wine cellars filled with wine or hay barns filled to the brim with hay to sell. This gift of a new house, let us be honest, far exceeds both in monetary and moral value the gift of a hot car for even a needy twenty-something, but all the people chosen on both shows are needy mensches and in the end that is all that really matters.

    To give the poor a gift that far exceeds their wildest imagination and to give that gift with respect and joy is not just a good thing; it is a new and saving thing whose radiance, I feel certain in my soul, will let ol’ E.B. rest in peace, assuming of course he can’t tune in to see the new season of “The Bachelorette.”

    © 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Chewing gum ruled the practice of lower life forms!

    From the Scotsman

    Rabbi Rules on Sticky Problem

    Your chewing gum has just lost its flavour, but there is no rubbish bin in sight. What do you do?

    According to Jewish law, get ready to swallow it.

    A prominent Israeli rabbi has ruled that spitting gum on a pavement or hiding it under a desk is a violation of Halacha or Jewish law.

    “Gum cannot be thrown where others are liable to be disgusted by it,” said Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, the rabbi of the holy city of Safed.

    Improperly discarded gum may appear to be hidden, but ”God knows” where it is, Eliyahu said.

    Swallowing the gum is a better solution, the rabbi said, though he criticised the use of chewing gum in general.

    “Chewing gum is the practice of lower forms of life. It expresses inner tension and lack of control. People with self-respect do not chew gum except on special occasions because of special circumstances,” he said.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Spelling Guiliani wouldn’t be any easier in Israel!

    JERUSALEM – Israelis honored legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, revered by many in the country for his strong Zionist sympathies, by naming a Tel Aviv street after him. The problem is, they can’t seem to spell it right.

    Eager to correct a long-standing mistake in the Hebrew spelling of the street, Tel Aviv municipal officials consulted the highest authorities before rendering the verdict on a new spelling – only to get it wrong again.

    Many foreign names on Israeli street signs are misspelled, reflecting the fundamental incompatibility of Hebrew’s 22 letters with the Latin alphabet. Lincoln, for example, usually comes out as “Linkolin.”

    LaGuardia Street, a major thoroughfare in south Tel Aviv named for the man who led New York from 1933 to 1945, has been known to generations of Israelis as “LaGardia Street” because the original misspelling – reflecting the lack of a “u” in Hebrew – was never corrected.

    The offending signs mark the off-ramp from a major highway into LaGuardia Street.

    After getting letters and phone calls pointing out the error, Aviva Avigail, chairwoman of the Tel Aviv Municipal Street Sign Committee, sought the advice of the American Embassy and the prestigious Academy of the Hebrew Language to come up with a proper spelling.

    The new signs produced by the commission still got it wrong – rendering the street “LaGvardia.”

    “I contacted them and asked how this could have happened,” Avigail told Israel Army Radio on Monday.

    Her interviewer, Yaakov Elon, seemed impressed by her forcefulness.

    “So in any event, starting today, it will be LaGuardia, as we always should have said it, after Fiorello LaGuardia,” he said.

    “Right,” Avigail said. “Fiorello LaGardia.”

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    Death of a playwright

    Michigan alum’s passing seen as end of an era
    Saturday, February 12, 2005
    News Arts Writer

    The death of Arthur Miller, University of Michigan Class of ’38 and the man long considered the country’s most important playwright, marks a milestone for American theater – and U-M.[…]

    Growing up in New York, Miller worked between 1932 and 1934 at various jobs, including truck driver, radio singer and clerk in his father’s warehouse, to earn money for college. According to a U-M biography, he came to Ann Arbor by bus with the $500 he had saved to attend college.

    During a 2004 campus appearance he recalled that he was attracted to U-M because “this place seemed to me, because of the Hopwood Award, to take writing seriously. I wanted to be a writer in a vague way and thought this was the place to go.”

    As an undergraduate, Miller stayed in a rooming house at 411 N. State St., and wrote for the Michigan Daily. Another outlet for his writing was the student humor magazine, Gargoyle, where he used the name Art Miller.

    Miller won two of U-M’s prestigious Hopwood Awards for play writing. His first was for “No Villain,” written in 1936 during a week’s spring vacation from classes and produced in 1937 by the Hillel Players at U-M under the title “They Too Arise.”[…]

    Last November, a full house of 1,300 University of Michigan alumni and friends gathered at New York City’s Richard Rodgers Theatre to honor Miller at “Michigan on Broadway: A Tribute to Arthur Miller,” a revue-style homage by School of Music faculty and U-M alumni.

    Planning continues on the long-planned Arthur Miller Theater, to be built on the University of Michigan campus (see related story).Meanwhile, Brater said Miller’s legacy is secure.

    “Plays like ‘A View from a Bridge,’ ‘The Crucible,’ ‘All My Sons’ and ‘After the Fall’ … works like this will be done as long as theaters are functioning anywhere in the world. These plays are done regularly not only in the English-speaking world but they are done in Japan and China and Israel and all over South America and Europe.[…]
    © 2005 Ann Arbor News

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |

    D’var Torah for Parshat Terumah

    “Show Me the Bread”
    by Rabbi Jason Miller

    This week’s Torah portion opens with the repeated instructions for building the Tabernacle, God’s physical dwelling place among the Israelite nation. The detailed narrative calls for the creation of the contents of the Tabernacle (k’lei hamishkan), including the table that would stand across from the menorah in the inner court. Upon this table would be the lechem panim, the “showbread,” or better defined as “the bread of display” that was to be before God at all times (Exodus 25:30).

    According to Bible scholar Nahum Sarna in the JPS Torah Commentary, the Hebrew lechem panim has been variously translated, depending on the understanding of panim, which usually means “face, presence or interior.” Commentator Ibn Ezra understood it literally that the bread was to be perpetually set out before the Lord. Rashi took the phrase figuratively as “bread fit for dignitaries.”

    There were to be 12 loaves (two rows of six) on the table at all times, perhaps symbolic of the 12 tribes of Israel. The Levitical clan of Kohathites were the ones to bake the bread and then arrange the loaves on the table, where they remained untouched for the entire week. On Shabbat the loaves were replaced by freshly baked ones and the old loaves were eaten by the kohanim (priests) in the holy precincts.

    Even if you are on a low-carb diet and not eating bread, there are still several lessons for all of us to learn today from the ancient ritual of the lechem panim practiced in the Tabernacle and then later in the Temple. Everett Fox, in his commentary on the Torah, explains that the “table and its implements, like some of the other features of the Tabernacle, are holdovers from a more blatantly pagan model, where the gods were seen to be in need of nourishment.” While our ancestors employed some of the conventions common throughout the ancient Near East, the fact that the lechem panim in the Tabernacle was eaten by the kohanim was a clear way of differentiating Israelite worship from pagan worship.

    This is one unambiguous way for us to understand that God does not desire nor need our gifts of food. Rather, we can nourish God with our acts of lovingkindness, performance of mitzvot, tzedakah and prayer.

    In Second Temple times, the baking of the lechem panim became the job of Beit Garmu. The Garmu family members were experts in baking this bread in such a manner that it did not become moldy, even after sitting out for six days. They were an interesting group who maintained a family policy to never eat fancy bread, so that no one would accuse Beit Garmu of feasting on the lechem panim that they made (Tosefta Yoma 2:5).

    The Garmu family understood and was skilled at this tradition. However, they kept their expertise secretive, refusing to teach others how to properly prepare the lechem panim. The rabbis of the Mishnah include Beit Garmu among others who refused to pass along the instructions of Jewish ritual to future generations. The memory of these people was to be recalled for disgrace according to the Mishnah (Yoma 3:11).

    The lesson for us is that no one person or group of people should hold a monopoly on Jewish tradition or the intricacies of Jewish rituals. We must keep our rich traditions from dying out by practicing “open source” Judaism, providing future generations with the recipe for Jewish living. If you know a great trick to blowing shofar, you should share that trick with a few other people. You should encourage your Bubbie to pass along her delicious gefilte fish recipe. Perhaps your family has some nice Pesach Seder innovations that you could teach to other families.

    We are not a secretive religion, nor have we ever been. So when you look at the two loaves of challah sitting on your table this Shabbat, serving as memories not only of the double-portion of manna delivered on Shabbat in the desert, but also of the lechem panim, consider the importance of bequeathing your family’s customs and traditions to the next generation.

  • What are ways that you and members of your family provide “nourishment” to God?
  • Are the rabbis of the Mishnah too tough on Beit Garmu and others for holding a monopoly on information?
  • What are customs (religious or secular) that you feel are important to pass on to your children and students?

    Prepared by Rabbi Jason Miller, assistant director, University of Michigan Hillel

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
  • Categories

    Rabbi Ayelet Cohen speaks out on the Conservative Movement and Homosexuality

    The Conservative Movement’s Double Standard



    February 11, 2005

    For more than a decade, the Conservative movement has proclaimed its welcoming attitudes toward gay and lesbian Jews. As evidence, Conservative leaders have often cited the movement’s 1992 “Consensus Statement,” which affirms that “gays and lesbians are welcome in our congregations, youth groups, camps and schools.”

    They neglect to mention the other, less-than-inclusive portions of the statement – the portions of the policy that actually characterize the treatment of gays and lesbians within the Conservative movement:

    “We will not perform commitment ceremonies for gays or lesbians. We will not knowingly admit avowed homosexuals to our rabbinical or cantorial schools or to the Rabbinical Assembly or the Cantors Assembly.. Whether homosexuals may function as teachers or youth leaders in our congregations and schools will be left to the rabbi authorized to make halachic decisions for a given institution within the Conservative movement.. Similarly, the rabbi of each Conservative institution, in consultation with its lay leaders, will be entrusted to formulate policies regarding the eligibility of homosexuals for honors within worship and for lay leadership positions.”

    These injustices and other halachic issues concerning gay and lesbian people, the leadership of Conservative Judaism has promised, will be addressed when the movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, convenes in April. But the committee is composed of Conservative rabbis, and gay people are prohibited from becoming Conservative rabbis. They are kept outside of the synagogues and other institutions of the movement, except at the discretion of individual rabbis.

    The onus, then, is on heterosexual rabbis and laypeople who have full access to Conservative movement institutions to remind the movement that full equality for gay and lesbian people matters to us, too. The onus is on us to make clear to the movement’s leadership that a double standard toward gay and lesbian people is unworthy of the professed ideals of a religious Jewish movement committed to the study of Torah and the relevance of rabbinic law.

    I am proud that despite my recent struggle with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, I can continue serving Congregation Beth Simchat Torah – the world’s largest synagogue serving gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Jews – as a member of the Rabbinical Assembly. But let us not forget that the privilege of membership was only available to me at the outset because I am heterosexual.

    Children who grow up to be gay and lesbian Jews are born into Conservative communities and named on the pulpits of Conservative synagogues. The movement educates gay and lesbian Jews in its Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps, sends them to Israel with United Synagogue Youth, encourages them to spend a year of serious study at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

    And then, when they are open about being gay or lesbian, the movement tells them they are welcome – sort of. They can be members of Conservative synagogues, but cannot celebrate their marriage to another Jew of the same gender. They can pay membership dues at those synagogues, but not as a family, because their families are not recognized. They can study to be Jewish educators, but the movement allows its schools the freedom not to hire them because of their sexual orientation. They can continue to study Jewish text, but they cannot be ordained as rabbis or cantors. They can be active laypeople in Conservative synagogues, but the rabbis of those synagogues can prohibit them from leading services, being called to the Torah or serving on the board.

    All this is prescribed by the Conservative movement’s 1992 policy statement.

    I have heard many times the claim that full inclusion of gay people in the Conservative movement and in Judaism in general is of concern only to a small number of “activist rabbis” and outsiders. These critics forget that the movement has made gay and lesbian people outsiders by closing them out of its institutions while offering them an empty welcome.

    It is time for the “insiders,” the heterosexual Jews whose participation in Jewish life is not called into question by the movement’s policies, to raise our voices to call the Conservative movement toward justice. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements have moved more swiftly to embrace the diversity of our Jewish families and call for civil and religious equality for gay and lesbian people. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has the opportunity to do so this spring in a way consistent with the process of the Conservative movement. It is time for the Conservative movement to stand behind its promises of welcome within the movement’s institutions and support for civil equality of gay and lesbian people in this country.

    This week the parsha teaches that the mishkan was built using the gifts of each member of the community. The holiness of a community is determined by its capacity to recognize and celebrate those gifts. Twenty years ago the Conservative movement chose to strengthen itself by deciding to ordain women as rabbis. This year the movement has the opportunity again, to continue diminishing itself through the exclusion of gay and lesbian Jews, or to increase in holiness and celebrate and include gay and lesbian Jews in our sacred community.


    Ayelet Cohen is a rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City.

    (c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |