Rabbi David Lerner on Conservative Judaism

From the NY Jewish Week

Toward A Passionate Conservative Judaism
By Rabbi David Lerner

In case you’ve missed the newsflashes, the Conservative movement is in trouble. The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 has sounded the alarm of the impending demise of what once was the largest religious movement in American Judaism.

These days it is in vogue to bash Conservative Judaism’s focus on halacha, Jewish law. Law is passe, so 20th century. Apparently no one believes in law anymore. At the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Houston last March, speakers lined up to take potshots at the movement calling itself “a halachic movement.”

The noted author Rabbi Harold Kushner stated, “When I was a rabbinical student, the chancellor of the seminary was a Talmudist and we advertised ourselves as a historical movement. Two generations later, the chancellor of the seminary is a historian and we define ourselves as a halachic movement. I am not sure how that changed.”

Is this correct? The movement always espoused halacha, utilizing Jewish law to guide its religious decisions, even if the members of Conservative synagogues did not always observe all of its mitzvoth, commandments.

A few weeks ago, at the United Synagogue biennial convention in Boston, the attack on halacha continued full force. Professor Neil Gillman spoke at length about how Conservative Judaism is not a halachic movement. He claimed that given that most Conservative Jews do not keep halacha strictly, this phrase “halachic movement” is a mere slogan “by rabbis for rabbis to make them feel more authentic.” [more…]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Israel Jewish Politics

Stuart Rabner to become "Ethical Bodyguard" to Governor Jon Corzine

Rabbi Jason Miller and Senator Jon CorzineA couple weeks ago, my friend Stuart Rabner was tapped by New Jersey Governor-elect Jon Corzine (that’s him with me in the photo on the right) to serve as his chief counsel. I didn’t realize what this meant until I read in the New Jersey Star Ledger article that “One source close to the governor-elect’s decision said Rabner would act as Corzine’s ‘ethical bodyguard,’ helping him navigate the dirty waters of New Jersey politics.”

Well, if the new Governor of New Jersey (who by the way used to be the Senator of New Jersey) is in need of an ethical bodyguard, I can tell you from experience that Stu Rabner is your man! Stu is a friend from my days in Caldwell, New Jersey where we lived for three years and I served as Rabbinic Intern at the Conservative synagogue Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex. Stu was a great shul President at Agudath who took the job very seriously.

In the same article, William Megary, former special agent in charge of the FBI in Newark, said Rabner often soothed natural tensions between the agencies.

“He’s got a very calm demeanor and he’s just a very gracious person,” Megary said. “He is as effective as any mad dog prosecutor, but he does it as a gentleman.”
Rabner drives a five-year-old Dodge Intrepid, sings at his synagogue and enjoys doing yard work in Caldwell, where he lives with his wife, Deborah, a dermatologist, and their three children. He doesn’t dispute his low-key image.

“I don’t think raising the volume is going to get you to a better result. My approach is to get more bees with honey,” he said.
Rabner first met Corzine when they both volunteered at a Newark soup kitchen four years ago. They didn’t meet again until Corzine addressed Rabner’s synagogue earlier this year about his efforts in the U.S. Senate to end the genocide in Darfur.
“That resonated with me,” Rabner said. Months later, when Corzine offered him a job, Rabner said, “I knew that I would be very comfortable working with somebody of his character.”

In the New Jersey Jewish News article, the columnist noted that in the NJ section of the Dec. 18 New York Times, columnist David Kocieniewski described Rabner’s credentials as “downright fearsome” because of his lengthy experience prosecuting purveyors of political corruption.

“You’ll have to ask him what he meant,” said Rabner. “My children certainly don’t think of me as fearsome.”

Stuart Rabner and Rabbi Jason MillerStu Rabner is certainly not a fearful guy outside of the courtroom, but he is a mentsch. If anyone can bring some mentschlichkeit to New Jersey politics, it’s Stu. So, mazel tov to him and Debbie, and to their great kids.

[Photo: Congregation Agudath Israel President Stuart Rabner presents Rabbi Jason Miller with the State of Israel Bonds’ Lion of Judah award, 2004]

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

MITCH ALBOM: On religious day, a nod to leaders

From the Detroit Free Press
By Mitch Albom
Rabbi Jason Miller - Mitch AlbomWriting a column for Christmas Day, on a Sunday, can be intimidating. After all, you’d think people would have better things to do than read the newspaper.

But if today is a time to ponder religion, then I’d like to give a nod to the earthly people who facilitate that. They are often overworked. They are constantly overlooked. And they have taken some bad publicity lately.

I’m talking about clerics.

I’m talking about priests, rabbis, pastors, ministers, imams, bishops and preachers.

For the overwhelming majority of these, every day is a humbling challenge. They must try to convince followers that life is more than money and pleasure.

They must try, in a world that tells people to stay beautiful, rich, young and powerful, to persuade followers that none of these things matter.

In short, they are faced with an almost impossible task. No wonder when God came to Moses and asked him to lead his people, Moses suggested God choose his brother instead.

I mean, who would want the job?

Following their faith

The answer, it seems, is that the job wants you. Most clerics I speak to feel they were called to the role. Not in some flashy, Cecil B. DeMille way. Not a bolt of lighting or a burning bush. Just a small voice inside them that said, “This is your path.”

Of course, small voices don’t make headlines. And in recent years, we’ve seen too many loud and frightening “men of God” acting like anything but.

We’ve seen Catholic priests do unspeakable things to children. We’ve seen Muslim clerics calling for mass murder. We’ve seen Pat Robertson tell the world who should be assassinated. We’ve seen a rabbi convicted of arranging his wife’s death. We’ve seen TV evangelists showering themselves in money.

Headlines like these make you think religious leaders are little more than power mongers with fancy garments.

But that’s wrong.

For the hundreds of thousands of small-town pastors, synagogue rabbis, monastery ministers or mosque clerics, the job involves no TV cameras and no newspaper reporters. In fact, it’s the opposite. Most of the time is spent trying to get someone to listen.

A rabbi I know, Albert Lewis, one of the wisest men I’ve ever met, once told me this story. I’m going to paraphrase it here:

There’s a door-to-door salesman. And he had one customer who never wanted to buy anything. “Maybe tomorrow,” the salesman would politely say.

But every day he came back, the customer got angrier and angrier. “I don’t want anything. Don’t come back!” But the salesman always smiled and said, “Maybe tomorrow.”

Finally, one day, the customer got so mad, he spit in the face of the salesman.

The salesman wiped the spit from his cheek, looked up in the sky and said, “Hmm. It must be raining.”

That, the rabbi said, is what the job is really like.

Living life the right way

I think of some of the clerics I’ve had a chance to meet or work with. Many have been at weddings and funerals. But some have been at shelters, dishing out food. Some have swung hammers, building homes for the less fortunate. Some have counseled young soldiers off to war.

If I had to pick one trait that was present in all of these men and women, it would be calmness. A certain serenity that they were doing something that mattered. That can’t be easy when people so often, metaphysically, spit in your face, ignore God, ignore ritual.

So on this nontraditional column day, I’d like to thank the group that serves between God and man. Perhaps for a few hours today, they can feel what the world might be like if we paid more attention to the good lessons they try to share.

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

Danny Gordis on Chrismukkah, Falwell, and Zionism

Rabbi Danny Gordis, in his latest e-mail message, argues that the Right’s recent push to bring Christmas back to a religious Christian holiday and to make the U.S. realize that it really is a Christian nation (no kidding?) is actually great for the Jews and even better for the State of Israel. Here’s a snippet, but the full text is available at

Which is why, I submit, Jerry Falwell has unintentionally done the Jews an enormous favor. If Gibson and Falwell accidentally remind Jews that America is, without question, a Christian nation, they might prompt Jews to reflect and to ask, “What do our children need to know, and what do they need to think about as they’re growing up, if they’re to survive in this environment?” It’s a set of questions that might, if we’re fortunate, lead to the desperately needed revitalization of American
Jewish education and the questions at its core.

Seen that way, a bit of Christmas could do American Jews some good.

And Christmas could help Zionism, too, by helping American Jews see what is truly important about Israel.

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

Bat "Mitzvahpalooza"

Exclusive photos of Mitzvahpalooza are online here. This is the bat mitzvah spectacular put on by Long Island defense contractor David H. Brooks for his daughter’s entry into Jewish responsibility. Here’s a link to the original NY Daily News article. At the simcha, performances were by everyone from 50 Cent to Don Henley to Stevie Nicks to Aerosmith. As Blogger Tabloid Baby pointed out, “Brooks got better talent than the NBC Katrina relief benefit.”

While 50 Cent didn’t play at my Bar Mitzvah (October 1989 for those wondering), The People’s Choice band did and they were, well exactly what you’d expect from a Bar Mitzvah band in the late 80s. The truth is that Sam Thomas was an amazing DJ who traveled with The People’s Choice to play Run DMC and Beastie Boys music while the adults ate and the kids danced.

And if you want to learn more about the Bar and Bat Mitzvah culture of the 70s and 80s, I recommend the new book Bar Mitzvah Disco. You can check out their very funny promotional video here.

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

New Israeli Plan Unveiled – Get Arik down to 167

Rabbi Jason MillerBreaking News

Ariel Sharon reportedly weighs 312 pounds.

Ma’ariv published the statistic Thursday following speculation over whether the portly Israeli prime minister was dangerously heavy.

Sharon was briefly hospitalized for a stroke earlier this week, drawing dieting advice from the likes of President Bush. Ma’ariv quoted Sharon’s doctors as saying he should shed 145 pounds.

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

Wolpe officially out of running for JTS Chancellorship

While I suspected this from a personal e-mail I received from Rabbi David Wolpe a few days after his speech at the Seminary and then heard through rumors, it is now official that Rabbi Wolpe will not be considered for the Chancellor position at the Jewish Theological Seminary by his own choice.
Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Based on what I believe and what I hear, this leaves Rabbi Gordon Tucker and Rabbi Alan Silverstein on the short list. I’ve heard that Jack Wertheimer will not be considered. The other possibilities would be current Vice Chancellor Rabbi Michael Greenbaum and Federation Exec and former Vice Chancellor John Ruskay. Knowing Alan Silverstein as I do, I think he would make a fine choice for this position and I wouldn’t be surprised if he were seriously considered.

Here’s the article from the LA Jewish Times:

Wolpe Out of the Running for JTS Head

y David Finnigan and Amy Klein

Rabbi David Wolpe has removed himself from consideration for the job of leading the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York. Wolpe, of Sinai Temple in Westwood, had been widely considered a front-runner for chancellor at JTS, the central institution in Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi David WolpeBut last week, Wolpe told Sinai’s board of directors that he would remain with the temple, effectively shortening the rumored short list of JTS finalists.

Although there have been no official interviews of candidates for chancellor, Wolpe’s speech last month at the seminary and meetings with officials there had insiders and media reports speculating that he had to viewed among the front-runners.

Rabbi Ismar Shorsh, the chancellor for 20 years, will retire in June. A search committee is quietly and secretly feeling out potential replacements. The JTS chancellor is generally regarded as the leader of the Conservative movement and the next one must confront the challenge of dwindling membership and divisive issues, such as the movement’s policy on not ordaining openly gay or lesbian rabbis.

Wolpe, 47, told The Journal that he made his announcement because he didn’t want to create unease among his congregants.

“This is our centennial year and we have tremendous plans for the future to see through what we’ve started together,” Wolpe said.

Wolpe has been leader of the synagogue for the last eight and a half years. With another one and a half years on his contract, he has already begun negotiating his next term.

“To be the chancellor of the seminary is a tremendous opportunity, but it’s not the right opportunity for me and my family at this time of my life,” he said. As for the next chancellor of JTS, Wolpe said, “I hope they will find someone who represents the movement as well as the institutions.” -Amy Klein, Religion Editor

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

It’s Chrismukkah all over TV Land

Okay, so while I am a fan of Seinfeld and I thought the Festivus idea (the December 23 holiday for the “rest of us”) was funny, it seems that this whole “Chrismukkah” thing is getting out of hand.

This new-age creation that intertwines Christmas and Hanukkah began a couple of years ago with an episode of Fox’s teen soap opera “The O.C.” I don’t watch the show but my wife explained that the character Seth Cohen (played by real Jew Adam Brody) created the faux holiday for his interfaith (Protestant-Jewish) family. Now the show has its annual “Chrismukkah” episode. This year (again second-hand info from the wife), they even went so far as to create a “The Chrismukkah Bar Mitz-vahkkah” so a youngster will rake in some Bar Mitzvah gift money for the family. Nice!

Rabbi Jason MillerThe Chrismukkah idea has been turned into a major moneymaking operation on its own. The O.C. producer Warner Bros. is now selling Chrismukkah greeting cards, T-shirts, photo albums, and more online.

And the O.C. isn’t the only show on TV capitalizing off the Chrismukkah idea. “Girlfriends” is another show I have never watched (or even heard of before). I’m told from an e-mail sent out over the Conservative Rabbi listserv that it “is a popular series on UPN about four young Black women, their lives, loves, and lamentations.” Rabbi Elliot Gertel, a colleague from Chicago, writes in an article published on the Jewish World Review website that [“Girlfriends”] is the last place that most TV viewers would have looked for a Chanukah and Christmas episode, yet it is a very worthwhile place for such a theme. The show’s energy, wit and pathos serve it well in exploring any serious theme, with appropriate humor.”

He goes on to write “The episode, “All G-d’s Children,” begins with Toni (Jill Marie Jones) showing her friends a power point presentation she has prepared in video to impress the judge presiding over her custody battle for baby daughter Morgan with her ex husband, Todd (Jason Pace). She has decided that her willingness to expose the baby both to her Black heritage and to Todd’s Jewish heritage will win her points in court. She highlights both Christmas and Chanukah and even throws in a “mazal tov” for good measure. She has even agreed to invite Todd and his mother, along with her family and friends, in order to celebrate Christmas and Chanukah together, since the first candle falls on Christmas Day. The combined celebration is a disaster from the start.”

Really? I’m shocked! I’m all for holidays and ritual. I just think these holidays should be kept separate. If someone chooses to celebrate another faith’s holiday, Ge Gesundt! But there is no getting away from this silly notion of trying to weave two very different religious tradition’s holy days together. So while I was delighted to see my 2-year-old’s favorite TV show “Blue’s Clues” include Hanukkah in a recent episode, I was less than thrilled when the song they taught my son went something like this:

Deck the halls with a Menorah, falalalalalalalala!

Although I must admit it was cute when he surprised me with his cute rendition of “Jingle Bells” which of course he learned from Blue’s Clues.

So, it is the festive holiday season and there’s no getting away from it. What else can I do but wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Kwanzaa, Season’s Greetings, or just “enjoy the winter and try to stay warm.”

If you want to get me a gift, you missed your chance because all I really wanted this holiday season was for someone to come to my home and pull out the plugs on all my TVs so I wouldn’t have wasted that half hour on the hour-long VH1 special “So Jewtastic.”

If this time of year (“The December Dilemma”) really gets to you, don’t worry… Spring is almost here. And that means it will soon be time for more holidays! Eastover (Easter+Passover) anyone?

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

Palestinians Celebrate Ariel Sharon’s Stroke


[After Ariel Sharon’s stroke put him in the hospital, he was heard] making jokes, replete with double entendres.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Apparently I should have taken a few days off for vacation. But we’re continuing to move forward.” [This is] a play on the name of his new party, Kadima, which means “forward.” Some other people seemingly with a sense of humor are the people at Reuters:

A Palestinian youth celebrates in Gaza after hearing that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was moved into hospital December 18, 2005. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Youth? Seems to me like another attempt to mitigate the potential damage to the neo-Palestinian cause (which these pictures might bring), by portraying the celebrants as merely misguided youth. Either that, or the neo-Palestinians age really quickly.

Here are some more pictures of the celebrations, with captions I imagine AP and Reuters would have preferred to have used:

Palestinians pray for the speedy recovery of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a street of downtown Gaza City after hearing news of Sharon’s health condition. (AP Photo)

A Palestinian man does the dance of joy, despite the risk of impaling his groin on the edge of the car window, when hearingthat Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was making a recovery afterhaving suffered a minor stroke. (REUTERS)

A Palestinian squeegieman hands out sweets to a customer after hearing that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was making a recovery after having suffered a minor stroke. (AP)

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

From the Bush League

Rabbi Jason Miller“I can’t imagine someone like Saddam Hussein understanding the meaning of Hanukkah.”
-President George W. Bush

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