Michigan State hires chair of Israel Studies

When I attended Michigan State University from 1994-98, I certainly would not have believed that the university would soon hire an Israel Studies chair and a Jewish Studies professor who specialized in Jewish studies. In addition to concentrating in International Relations at James Madison College, a liberal arts residential college at MSU, I also specialized in the Jewish Studies Program.

In the past couple weeks the Religious Studies department has announced that Prof. Benjamin Pollock will be the full time assistant professor teaching Modern Jewish Thought and a course on Judaism. (I taught these courses this past year as a visiting professor)

Additionally, Yael Aronoff, a senior associate at Columbia University’s Institute of War and Peace Studies, has been named the first Michael and Elaine Serling and Friends Israel Studies Chair at Michigan State University.

The Serling chair is a core position in MSU’s Jewish Studies Program, which is administered by the College of Arts and Letters. Aronoff will become a faculty member in James Madison College, the university’s prestigious residential college in the area of public affairs.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Matisyahu’s Super Famous but is it Halakhically Permissable?

I just read an interesting article about whether Matisyahu, the Chasidic reggae superstar, is violating Jewish law according to his Chabad Lubavitch community by performing in clubs and bars where activities occur that run contra to the code of morality held firmly by the ultra-Orthodox establishment.

Here’s a clip of the article:

Matisyahu: Rabbi or Rebel?
By Levi Brackman

Matisyahu is now an international phenomenon; he is a reggae singer with a difference. Instead of dreadlocks he sports a trilby. His beard is predicated on the Kabbalists’ theosophy instead of Rastafarian tradition and his clothing places him in an Ultra Orthodox Jewish enclave rather than a black ghetto. This week he released his latest CD entitled YOUTH and it seems that Matisyahu’s tremendous success so far is about to reach unprecedented heights. Predictably, this man’s singing antics are deeply controversial.

Many have asked the following questions. Is it correct for a Chassidic Jew to be singing in clubs and bars? Is Matisyahu using his talent to bring Godliness to the profoundly unGodly and thus sanctifying God’s name or is he achieving the opposite?

Whereas this article is not meant to give a definitive answer to these questions it does, however, endeavor to explain what motivates a Chassidic Jew like Matisyahu to perform in a bar and club.

There is a fundamental difference between the Kabbalistic and the non-Kabbalistic views of Judaism. Up until the French Revolution in 1789, society was divided into three groups: the church, the aristocracy and the peasants. In the terminology of the post-modern French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the landowners and the church were the centre and the peasants were the periphery. The two did not mix. Education, money and power were restricted to the elite; the peasants enjoyed no such privileges. After the French Revolution, the periphery was also given some of the privileges that were previously the exclusive right of the centre. With this came the emancipation of the Jews. Although the landowners and the educated were still regarded as the centre, the difference now was that peasants had the possibility of entering this exclusive domain.

The post-modern era, according to Derrida, was a time of “deconstruction.” All things were seen in pairs, one superior to the other: rich and poor, educated and ignorant, powerful and powerless, etc. The deconstructivist view is that rich is not necessarily superior to poor, in fact, being poor can be more advantageous. Seen from this perspective, poor is the new centre and rich is the periphery. Derrida goes one step further and says that hierarchy should not exist at all; rather, all boundaries between centre and periphery should be deconstructed.

Western society is a deconstructed civilization in many ways. Whereas in the past women were seen as inferior, today they are often regarded as superior to men. Similarly, modern human rights laws have ensured that the views of vulnerable minorities are respected and listened to.

Non-Kabbalistic Judaism, in general, does not deconstruct boundaries. According to this school of thought, the centre should be distinct from the periphery. Here we have the concept of ‘enclave Judaism,’ which clearly marks out the boundaries between the holy and the profane. The fact that this type of Judaism disagrees with Matisyahu’s style of music and choice of audience is no surprise, for it regards the mixing of the centre with the periphery as an obvious desecration of God’s name. [more]

By his own admission, Matisyahu is being guided by the Chabad School of Kabbalistic thought. Thus, as long as he adheres to Jewish law and does not get carried away with stardom and the narcissistic celebrity culture of modern-day America, his music may be considered, in my opinion, a sanctification of God’s name.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

T-shirt for the Rebbetzman

real men marry rabbisWhat do you call a man who is married to a rabbi? Well, this wasn’t really a question until about 30 years ago when women were first allowed to be ordained as rabbis. If you ask my friend Jon Drill, who is married to my classmate Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, he prefers the title “The Rebbetzman” and proudly explains that to anyone who attempts a rebbetzin joke.

Now he can be the Rebbetzman in a t-shirt that proclaims his pride for being married to a female member of the clergy. Rachel Silverman, a rabbinical student at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, saw someone wearing a T-shirt that stated, “Real men marry doctors.” “Wow,” she remembers thinking. “I need to make that for rabbis.” She found an online T-shirt imprinting company, and picked out a clover green shirt, with blue lettering “real men marry rabbis” and trim around the sleeves and neck. Within days, she was selling her creation, all through word of mouth.

To order the “real men marry rabbis” t-shirt just send an e-mail to the creator Rachel Silverman at rachelariel@mac.com or go to this website. By the way, when you order one of these t-shirts Jewish Women International benefits.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Ordering a Pizza in the Future?

Here’s a great ad from the ACLU about what it could be like to order a pizza in the future with a national ID number. Pretty funny… but a bit scary too.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

The Conservative Movement and Homosexuality

The Michigan Daily published an article in today’s edition on the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meeting in which four teshuvot (responsa) were presented regarding Gay commitment ceremonies and the ordination of Gay rabbis and cantors at Conservative seminaries.

I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with the author of the article (Andrew Grossman, a Catholic) but never told him that there were enough votes “to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.” I am not sure how he could have known that information unless it was published elsewhere. I certainly do not know if that is true and I am not sure that anyone knows how the members of the committee will vote in December on any of the teshuvot that have been presented. Some members of CJLS have been public about their viewpoint but most have kept their personal views to themselves.

Jewish group might allow gay rabbis

Conservative Jewish leaders delay vote on gay rabbis, but issue up again in December
By Andrew Grossman (Michigan Daily)

When he was growing up, LSA junior Dan Marcovici struggled to reconcile his homosexuality with his Jewish faith. Religious tradition had always pointed him toward a wife and children.

“It was difficult. My Jewish family was always very family-centered. I was going to marry a woman, carry the family line,” said Marcovici, the chair of Ahava, a group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews at the University.

Now, he has brought his faith and his sexuality together.

“My religion is a part of my life,” Marcovici said. “My sexual orientation is part of my life. One doesn’t preclude the other.”

Marcovici is part of the Conservative Jewish movement, which has recently experienced tension over the status of gays and lesbians in religious life.

Earlier this week, members of the movement’s Committee on Laws and Standards – a group of 25 rabbis who interpret Jewish law for the movement – had enough votes to support the ordination of gay rabbis and the blessing of same-sex union ceremonies.

But while religious organizations across the nation grapple with the issue of faith and homosexuality, the committee did not make a decision, adjourning Wednesday’s meeting without a vote.

The issue is likely to resurface in December at a meeting of the movement’s international association of rabbis.

Conservative Jews fall in the middle of three major Jewish groups in the United States. The more liberal Reform movement passed a resolution in 2000 supporting rabbis who choose to preside over same-sex marriages and commitment ceremonies. The traditional Orthodox movement maintains that the Torah’s prohibitions on homosexuality must be respected.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, 38 percent of Jews affiliated with a temple or synagouge were Reform, 33 percent Conservative and 22 percent Orthodox.

The Conservative movement is “a centrist movement in which there is a tension between Jewish law and modernity,” said Rabbi Jason Miller, a Conservative rabbi and the associate director of the University’s chapter of Hillel. “Living within that tension means trying to strike a balance between the two.”

The Torah, the Jewish holy book, mentions homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22, stating, “You shall not lie with a man as with a woman; it is an abomination.” Leviticus 20:13 states that the punishment for such action should be death.

Openly gay applicants are currently prohibited from enrolling in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical and cantorial schools.

“To some extent, it’s a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell policy,’ ” Miller said.

The debate over the role of gays in Conservative Jewish life has been at the forefront for the movement’s rabbis.

“For rabbis in the Conservative movement, this is the hot issue,” Miller said.

Miller was optimistic about the future of gay and lesbians in Conservative Judaism. He said he is confident the committee will “come to an answer that respects the human dignity of all Jewish people,” including gay rabbis and Jews in a committed homosexual relationship.

He added that he is certain the committee’s decision will reflect a “commitment to Jewish law and tradition.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

MOT Adam Stern helps defeat U.S. in Baseball Classic

Jewish minor leaguer Adam Stern hit a home-run in addition to four RBIs to help Canada defeat the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic. While I hate to see the U.S. lose in our own national pastime, I must say it’s nice to see this Jewish player make headlines.

From the Associated Press

Stern leads Team Canada in Classic upset

PHOENIX, Ariz. – The country where hockey is king stole America’s pastime on a chilly Arizona afternoon.

Adam Stern, a young backup outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, hit an inside-the-park homer, drove in four runs and made two sensational catches in center to lead Canada over the U.S. 8-6 yesterday in the World Baseball Classic.

“We were definitely pumped up to play this team,” Stern said.

Jason Varitek’s 448-foot grand slam helped bring the United States back from an 8-0 deficit, but a Canadian team made up largely of minor leaguers held on.

“It’s a very quiet locker room right now,” U.S. manager Buck Martinez said. “I think everybody is feeling like they got kicked in the stomach.”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

No Vote from the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee on Gay Rabbis or Commitment Ceremonies

Jewish Theological Seminary Homosexuality Rabbi Jason MillerBelow is the “Breaking news” from JTA.org that no vote was made on any of the teshuvot (responsa) presented. This was no surprise for me having sat in on several Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) meetings while a student at The Jewish Theological Seminary. Teshuvot are presented, studied, debated, and then re-written or just tweaked before being voted on. I would have been shocked had they actually voted on any of these four papers during this meeting at an undisclosed location in Baltimore. It shows they are being mindful of how the halakhic (Jewish legal) process works and that this decision cannot be made based on social pressure or politicking from both sides of the debate.

The authors of the four response are our Conservative rabbis and members of the CJLS:
1) Joel Roth;
2) Elliot Dorff, Daniel Nevins, Avi Reisner;
3) Leonard Levy;
4) Benzi Bergman, David Fine, Robert Fine, Myron Geller, Gordon Tucker.

Here’s the breaking news blurb from JTA.org (The full JTA.org article is here and the Forward article is here):

Conservatives delay gay policy decision

The Conservative movement’s policy on homosexuality will remain unchanged until at least December.

During a two-day meeting of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which ended Wednesday, authors of four responsa on the status of homosexuality in the movement were asked to make revisions in advance of a vote on the issue in December.

The decision means that the movement’s 1992 decision barring openly gay and lesbian individuals from its rabbinical schools and forbidding its rabbis to perform same-sex marriages will remain in place for now.

“The pain that so many real people are experiencing because of their love for tradition and their hope for a supportive community clearly hasn’t moved the Rabbinical Assembly as an institution to move more quickly,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor, one of the founders of Keshet Rabbis, a group supporting gay and lesbian rights in the Conservative movement.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the assembly, urged patience. “I am urging my colleagues who promote change to realize that there are an equal number of colleagues who are in favor of welcoming gays and lesbians in the Conservative community but who do not wish to change halachah,” he said.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Conservative Movement and the Law Committee Vote on Homosexuality in the NY Times

March 6, 2006

Conservative Jews to Consider Ending a Ban on Same-Sex Unions and Gay Rabbis

In a closed-door meeting this week in an undisclosed site near Baltimore, a committee of Jewish legal experts who set policy for Conservative Judaism will consider whether to lift their movement’s ban on gay rabbis and same-sex unions.

In 1992, this same group, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, declared that Jewish law clearly prohibited commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples and the admission of openly gay people to rabbinical or cantorial schools. The vote was 19 to 3, with one abstention.

Since then, Conservative Jewish leaders say, they have watched as relatives, congregation members and even fellow rabbis publicly revealed their homosexuality. Students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, the movement’s flagship, began wearing buttons saying “Ordination Regardless of Orientation.” Rabbis performed same-sex commitment ceremonies despite the ban.

The direction taken by Conservative Jews, who occupy the centrist position in Judaism between the more liberal Reform and the more strict Orthodox, will be closely watched at a time when many Christian denominations are torn over the same issue. Conservative Judaism claims to distinguish itself by adhering to Jewish law and tradition, or halacha, while bending to accommodate modern conditions.

“This is a very difficult moment for the movement,” said Rabbi Joel H. Meyers, a nonvoting member of the law committee and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the movement’s 1,600 rabbis worldwide.

“There are those who are saying, don’t change the halacha because the paradigm model of the heterosexual family has to be maintained,” said Rabbi Meyers, a stance he said he shared. “On the other hand is a group within the movement who say, look, we will lose thoughtful younger people if we don’t make this change, and the movement will look stodgy and behind the times.”

Several members of the law committee said in interviews that while anything could happen at their meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday, there were more than enough votes to pass a legal opinion (a teshuvah in Hebrew) that would support opening the door to gay clergy members and same-sex unions. The law committee has 25 members, but only six votes are required to validate a legal opinion. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Laughing is definitely contagious

I love watching my own twins laugh at the same time but this video takes the cake. Quadruplets all laughing together create such beautiful music. But don’t take my word for it. See for yourself here.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

New Chancellor of JTS?

Here’s the purim spoof I created in honor of the new Hebrew month of Adar. Purim is coming up and in that spirit I parodied a “Breaking News Alert” from the Jewish Telegrapic Agency reporting that Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, has accepted the chancellor position at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Apparently, at first, a few people thought it wasn’t a hoax! I guess they didn’t notice the date February 30, 2006 at the top of the page?!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller