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Too Jewey – Purim 2010

For some reason, whenever the Jewish holiday of Purim rolls around, my brain uncontrollably starts coming up with parodies, satires, spoofs, and just plain silliness.  Here’s a collection of the news items circulating in my head. Happy Purim!


By Rabbi Jason, the Official Rabbi of the 2010 Olympic Games
Sponsored by Toyota: “Toyota… We’re Unstoppable!”

Jewish Music at the Olympics: From Reggae to OyVey

VANCOUVER – With the decision to use Matisyahu’s song “One Day” as the official Winter Olympics theme, Jewish people around the globe undoubtedly celebrated that Jewish music was now cool. I mean, it’s the Olympics! Jews are used to “members of the tribe” creating hit music for the masses, but it usually comes in the form of Christmas music (see Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, etc.). Well, it appears there wasn’t much time for rejoicing because just as millions of people were getting Matisyahu’s upbeat song stuck in their heads, along came a brother and sister duo to set Jewish music back a couple hundred years.

As soon as they learned they had to prepare a folk music tribute to their native Israel, the Zaretsky figure skating team of Sasha and Roman apparently ran to Wikipedia and searched for “Stereotypical Jewish Music.”  Their “Hava Nagila” rendition was apparently the Zaretsky’s best guess at what the shtetl of Eastern Europe would have looked like at weddings if only they had ice rinks. And as if their first attempt at skating to “The Music of the Yid” wasn’t schmaltzy enough, they came back the next night and gave a performance that only Mel Brooks could love. While the Israeli skaters’ tribute to the Holocaust was rather quite moving, I can’t imagine that Steven Spielberg watched it thinking, “Gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t go with the ice dancing motif for Schindler’s List.”

For those Jewish people who didn’t feel like the ice dancing competition at this year’s Winter Olympics touched on enough Jewish stereotypes, get excited for the next Olympic games when all Jewish figure skaters will be required to have their mother on the ice during performances yelling at them to put on a jacket or they’ll freeze!

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Rabbi Avi Weiss Chains Himself to Female Rabbi

The Orthodox Rabbi best known for chaining himself to buildings in protest and leading rallies for Jewish causes is now in big trouble.  Riverdale NY-based Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained a female rabbi over a year ago. However, instead of calling her anything close to “Rabbi,” he sneakily chose to give her an acronym as a title: “AWSHIT,” which apparently stands for Avi Weiss Says He Is Tenacious. No doubt, the name was Weiss’s way to let the Ultra Orthodox know how he felt. But they didn’t seem to really mind the title he granted to Sara Horwitz, until he updated it to “Rabba.”

Now, the Orthodox are calling for Avi Weiss to be excommunicated and banished to Siberia. The irony, of course, is that this is a man who fought so hard to get Jews out of Siberia in the first place. In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss has chained himself to Rabba Sara Horwitz in an act of solidarity. The Ultra-Orthodox have claimed that this is fine with them, so long as Avi Weiss doesn’t dance with the woman.  In other news, the Conservative Movement now claims that Rabba Sara Horwitz is an aguna (a “Chained Woman”) and has granted her an immediate get (bill of divorce) from Rabbi Weiss.

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HamanTosh.0 – New Comedy Central Series

Currently, Comedy Central has a weekly series (“Tosh.0”) that shows all those funny videos from the Web that have gone viral. Well now, Comedy Central is proud to introduce a new series that replays all the videos from the Web that are virulent.  Any video starring an Iranian in a “Members Only” jacket will be shown on “HamanTosh.0,” beginning on February 31.  Check local listings for airtimes.

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Conservative Movement Goes for Trifecta

With its numbers in sharp decline, the Conservative Movement of Judaism is deeply invested in change. In an effort to grab media attention, the centrist movement of modern Judaism is now looking to go for the Trifecta. In a press release prepared by, Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen explained, “First we shocked the world by allowing gays and lesbians into our esteemed institution to become rabbis.  Next week, we will quickly make the move to grant admission to intermarried men and women.  And, I’m pleased to announce that beginning on April 1st, we will unveil a new program designed to ordain disgraced celebrities as rabbis and cantors at JTS. 

We have already invited some big-name, dishonored celebrities to apply to our program. Rabbi Danny Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School, said, “Don’t be surprised to see Rabbi Tiger Woods by the end of the year.”  Also expected to be studying at the Conservative Movement’s flagship institution will be Mark McGwire, who also plans to pursue a master’s degree in pharmacology at JTS, and the gun-toting NBA star Gilbert Arenas. Classes in “Anger Management” and “Press Conference Contrition” will be added to the curriculum.

In what is perhaps the most shocking news to come from the Conservative Movement is that the new United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick has been replaced by former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who took the job with the stipulation that a day care center be opened at the USCJ headquarters.

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First Ever NASCAR Bris

Following the news that a Bar Mitzvah will take place this June at Yankee Stadium before a championship boxing match, NASCAR has announced that it will hold a Bris (ritual circumcision ceremony) at its next championship race at Talladega SuperSpeedway.  The Bris will be sponsored by Fast Eddie’s Chop Shop (“You Steal ‘Em, We Deal ‘Em”). Due to the fact that 100,000 fans will be waiting for the Formula One race to begin, there will only be 2 minutes allotted to the ritual Jewish ceremony, but that’s no problem as NYC circumcisor Phil “Sling Blade” Sherman ( has promised to race his way through the procedure in chop-chop fashion. However, if the race is about to begin, Sherman said he’ll just have to cut it short.

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Rabbi Condemns Bud Selig Statue

Bud Selig, the Jewish Commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), is being honored with a statue outside of Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers (which Selig owns – Yes, a Jewish owner of a sports franchise… shocking, I know!). Unfortunately, the statue may never be erected because Selig’s own rabbi is standing in the way. Rabbi Ann Heiser-Busch of Congregation Beth Ale in Milwaukee (on the Miller Brewing Company Campus) explained that most people think that she is against the erection of the statue honoring her famous congregant on the grounds that the Torah clearly prohibits the creation of a graven image of a human being because it is idol worship. However, Rabbi Heiser-Busch cited as her objection the fact that the construction workers would have to inject themselves with steroids to build up the necessary strength in order to lift the Bud Selig statue. When asked to comment, Commissioner Selig asked, “What are steroids?”

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New Personal Mechitzas Not Good Enough

What’s a Haredi Jew to do when he travels on a plane? It seems like the whole aviation industry is against him. First, the kosher meals are served cold and soggy. Then, there’s not enough space in the overhead compartment for his hat box. And the latest attack is that the flight attendants are convinced he’s strapping bombs to his head and arm in the form of tefillin.  The worst part about air travel for the Ultra Orthodox is that a member of the opposite sex (e.g., a woman) might occupy the next seat.  However, a new product on the market solves that problem.  The Personal Mechitza is just what the Rebbe ordered.  This barrier not only separates the sexes and keeps the immodest neighbors on the plane from view, but it also guards against the scandalous in-flight movies.

However, now rabbis are complaining that these personal mechitzas aren’t good enough. Rabbi Haskel Lookoutstein, an advisor to the FAA, explains that it’s possible a Reform Jew worked in the factory where the Personal Mechitza was made and came in contact with the apparatus. Or, he went on, what if one is using a Personal Mechitza and the person in the seat next to you sneezes and some of the treif they’re eating flies over the top of your Personal Mechitza and gets on your Extra-Glatt Kosher meal? That is why Rabbi Lookoutstein recommends putting up an extra mechitza around the Personal Mechitza.  In fact, he says that the most pious will simply purchase every seat in the row and put up the new Glatt Mechitzah L’Mehadrin.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Israel Obituary Rabbi

In Memory of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer

It’s only February and already two of the influential teachers in my life have passed away. In January, my childhood rabbi (Rabbi Efry Spectre) passed away, and yesterday I learned that Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer died.

I first met “King Tut,” as he was known, in 1996 when I was working at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan. Rabbi Tutnauer was serving as the interim rabbi. It was a role he filled often in many synagogues around the country. When a synagogue needed a rabbi for a year or two while they readied themselves to conduct a search for a permanent rabbi, he would “hold down the fort.” It might not have been a requirement for an interim post, but no matter where his travels took him, he always seemed to create lifelong friendships and have meaningful impacts on so many.

He told me that he and his wife Marjorie live in the Jerusalem neighborhood of French Hill, which is where my mother’s close friend lives. It so happened that my mom’s friend was in town visiting and so I asked her if she knew a rabbi from her neighborhood by the name of “Tutnauer.” She replied that of course she knew him and that her son (who’s my age) played basketball with Rabbi Tutnauer whenever he was home from the Navy on the weekends (he served on a submarine). Her son was a 6-foot 4-inches, 20-year-old who played for his high school basketball team. I told her that it couldn’t be the same rabbi who plays basketball because this rabbi is in his late 60’s and I couldn’t imagine him playing basketball with a bunch of young, tough Israeli soldiers. Boy, was I wrong!

It wasn’t long after King Tut arrived in Detroit that he asked me to “shoot hoop” with him.  He arranged for the synagogue’s maintenance workers to erect a basketball hoop behind the synagogue. Every day, he’d go out back and shoot baskets with the maintenance guys.  We played games of “HORSE” and 2-on-2, and sometimes we just shot baskets and talked.  He was a great player (and not just for someone his age). He was also a huge fan of professional basketball. To this day, I’m convinced he took the interim job here in Detroit because the owner of the Detroit Pistons was a member of the synagogue and King Tut knew he could get tickets to any game he wanted — and he did.

What amazed me about Rabbi Tutnauer was how many lessons he had prepared on various subjects. He created these 4-page source sheets, placed each one in a plastic folder, and had each folder attached to his office wall with Velcro. His temporary office was decorated with his files. He taught from these source sheets in each synagogue he served in as an interim rabbi. To this day, I still use his 4-page handout on the intricacies of the Jewish calendar.

I spent a lot of time learning from Rabbi Tutnauer when he was in Detroit.  A few years before his stint as Interim Rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, he had been a scholar-in-residence for the Detroit area’s Conservative Jewish community. I didn’t meet him during that month, but I do recall my late grandfather mentioning how much he enjoyed studying with him. One fond memory I have of him is the weekend he spent in East Lansing as a scholar-in-residence at the Michigan State University Hillel center, where I was active.  I took every opportunity I could during that weekend to talk with him and learn from him. During his stay in Detroit, he prepared me for my rabbinical school interview and was extremely helpful in providing assistance with my admissions essays.

There’s a policy that interim rabbis are not allowed to be offered full-time positions at synagogues. I wouldn’t be surprised if this rule was established because of Moshe Tutnauer, not that he would ever leave his beloved Jerusalem.  Of course, each synagogue that he served convinced him to stay for a second year as interim rabbi.

For many years after his time in Detroit, I stayed in contact with the Tutnauers via email. Moshe would send out various updates on his growing family (In addition to his biological children, he and Marjorie adopted several Ethiopian children over the years).  The last time I saw him was in December 2002 at the Conservative synagogue in his French Hill neighborhood in Jerusalem.  When he spotted me in the synagogue, he motioned for me to meet him outside. He greeted me with a bear hug and inquired about dozens of Detroit families (he stayed in touch with everyone). I mentioned that I had just read the book “The New Rabbi,” about the search for a new senior rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Philly, in which an entire chapter of the book is dedicated to “King Tut,” who had served as the interim rabbi there following Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s retirement. He gave me the inside scoop on the latest shenanigans at Har Zion and told me some of his experiences that didn’t make it into the book.

At the time, I was in rabbinical school and serving an internship at a large synagogue in New Jersey. I was in Israel on vacation with my wife and had planned to take the time on this Sabbath morning to actually sit in synagogue and pray (something I didn’t have the chance to do on an average Saturday morning, as I was normally teaching or giving sermons). But I didn’t mind that I spent the bulk of that morning standing outside in beautiful Jerusalem shmoozing and learning from one of the greatest rabbis of our time. I am such a better person, and certainly a better rabbi, for having known him.

May the memory of Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, a scholar, Zionist, mensch, and basketball star, endure for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Israel Jewish Olympics Ritual Sports

Fiddler on the Ice

To paraphrase an old joke: Are the Ultra Orthodox now going to forbid figure skating because it can lead to mixed dancing?

Uriel Heilman writes on the JTA Blog, “It was probably the first time in Olympics history that a kippah was an integral part of an athlete’s uniform. When the Israeli brother-sister ice dancing team Roman and Alexandra Zaretsky took to the ice in Vancouver on Sunday night, the pair chose a ‘traditional Israeli’ folk dance.”

The couple danced to the Jewish folk song “Hava Nagilla,” often sung at Jewish weddings. Heilman notes that the appearance of the yarmulke on Roman Zaretsky’s head makes him look like a nice Orthodox Jewish boy, but his “earring was a bit incongruous.”

While it was great to see an Israeli wearing a kippah while figure skating in the Olympics, I thought the costumes were a little over the top in the “stereotype department.” Not to mention that Alexandra Zaretsky’s skirt would not have gone over well in the Fiddler on the Roof shtetl. And yet, the performance by the Zaretsky brother-sister duo wasn’t the one deemed the most controversial in the Olympic competition. This year, the theme for the ice dancing original dance was folk dancing, which was supposed to represent the “flavor” of one country or another.

Some pairs, like the Israelis, chose folk dances that represented their own country (although I’m not sure all Israelis identify with a 19th century Eastern European shtetl dance). Other couples honored cultures other than their own. The Russian pair of Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin did an Australian Aboriginal dance that drew criticism from Aboriginal leaders who found the dance and costumes offensive.

I’m sure the Israelis could have skated to an Israeli folk song without dressing up in the most stereotypical Jewish costumes. After all, if they wanted to represent Israel they should remember there are other populations in Israel, such as the Sephardic Jews, who don’t feel a connection to the Jews represented in The Fiddler on the Roof. As for the Russians, they should have learned their lesson from their last performance when they dressed up in Aboriginal costume and set off a firestorm of criticism.

Here is the video of Israeli Ice Capades

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Detroit Food Humor Jewish Kosher Michigan

Kosher Chicken at Costco

Costco has been working hard to appeal to the Kosher consumer. A few Costco locations in Michigan have begun selling refrigerated kosher beef produced by Colorado Kosher.

I was at one Costco location today in Michigan and was surprised to see free samples of Kosher chicken being offered. Of course, the chicken was being cooked on the same grill that had been used for non-kosher food samples on a previous day (and is therefore no longer kosher), but it’s the thought that counts.

I love that the woman distributing the samples (her name is Penny) told me that this kosher chicken is an excellent way to keep my family kosher during this Lenten season. Here’s the video of Penny, Costco’s Kosher Chicken “Spokesperson”:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Sports Torah World Events

Torah Bright Gets Gold

In synagogues, Jewish people put bright gold on the Torah (gold breastplate and crown). As we saw tonight in Vancouver: In the Olympics they put GOLD on Torah Bright (a gold medal).

Torah Bright has to be the best name for an Olympian who just won a gold medal. As she ascended the highest part of the podium to receive her gold medal during the ceremony, I’m sure many Jewish people noticed the symbolism of someone named “Torah” being displayed to the people atop the heights, as it is reminiscent of the Torah being displayed atop Mt. Sinai.

The Australian Torah Bright, a devout Mormon, was surprised before her snowboarding competition (half pipe) that her parents drove six hours, flew 20 more, then hid in a closet at her home in Vancouver so they could celebrate her gold medal with her.

I’m sure that after the Olympics, back home in  Australia they will have a parade for their Gold Medal snowboarder. No doubt, the Jewish community in Australia will refer to the day as Simchat Torah!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Baseball Jewish Jewish Law Shabbat Sports

Negotiating With a Bar Mitzvah Boy

Like many rabbis, when I encounter an article about “Jewish life” in the mainstream press, I ask myself the age-old question: Is this good or bad for the Jews?

And that is precisely what I did yesterday when I read about the bar mitzvah party that is to take place at Yankee Stadium this June 5th and is now holding up the possibility of the stadium’s first boxing event that same night.

I’ve written about over-the-top bar mitzvah parties on this blog in the past, including the the $10 million Bat Mitzvahpalooza in 2005 featuring 50-Cent and Aerosmith. Now, Jonathan Ballan, the lead bond lawyer for the financing of Yankee Stadium, has reserved the stadium for his son’s bar mitzvah this June. The NY Times reports that “In addition to providing lounges, the Yankees promised to give the Ballan party access to the stadium’s giant scoreboard in center field for 30 minutes.”

Now, the Yankees are negotiating with the bar mitzvah family and the boxing promoter so everyone will be happy. They’ve promised seats at the boxing event to all the bar mitzvah guests, a private meeting for the bar mitzvah boy with the boxing champ, and autographed baseballs for all the bar mitzvah boy’s friends.

But here’s the best part of the story: The boxing champ is none other than Yuri Foreman, an Orthodox Jewish fighter who is studying on the side to become a rabbi. In an ironic twist, there was no question of hosting a lavish bar mitzvah party at Yankee Stadium in the middle of the Sabbath day where all sorts of activities that are antithetical to Sabbath observance will be taking place. However, the boxing match was scheduled for after sundown to accommodate Yuri Foreman’s many Sabbath-observant fans in the New York area who couldn’t get to Yankee Stadium during the Jewish Sabbath out of respect for Jewish law and tradition.

So, in essence what we have here is a Sabbath-observant championship boxing match that will be trumped by the Main Event, a mega-party for a 13-year-old Jewish kid that is throwing a sharp uppercut to the concept of Jewish values.

So, the headline could very well be: “Jewish Boxing Champion Knocked Out By Bar Mitzvah Kid.”  And that just can’t be good for the Jews.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Jewish Prayer World Events

Minyans That Don’t Meet & Toyotas That Don’t Stop

Rabbi Gerry Skolnik taught my senior seminar in rabbinical school and I’ve continued to learn from him since graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) through his weekly column for The New York Jewish Week and now his blog called “A Rabbi’s World.”.

After hearing that an 86-year-old man crashed his Toyota into the front steps of Rabbi Skolnik’s synagogue, the Forest Hills Jewish Center, last week after the car’s accelerator stuck, I went to his blog hoping to get the rabbi’s first-hand account of how the Toyota gas pedal recall was affecting his synagogue in a very real way. But, instead of blogging about how this elderly man mistook the Queens synagogue for a drive-thru, Rabbi Skolnik wrote about another interesting topic: What happens to the daily minyan when there’s a blizzard? (He would have generated more traffic to his blog had he written about the Toyota recall instead of the minyan. I’m just saying.)

In his post titled Balancing Obligation and Common Sense, Rabbi Skolnik discusses the dilemma he faced after last week’s East Coast Blizzard (termed “Snowmageddon” by President Obama) when the treacherous driving conditions made it dangerous to hold the morning minyan (prayer services) at his Forest Hills congregation. He had to balance the obligation of saying the Mourner’s Kaddish (his mother passed away recently) and the obligation to not put one’s life (or his congregants’ lives) in unnecessary danger.

He writes, “Actually, there are discussions in the Talmud around the idea of ‘mitigating circumstances’ as they relate to prayer, but I don’t know of any that relate to blizzards.”

The need for a quorum of ten Jewish individuals (only Jewish men in Orthodox synagogues) in order for mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer is taken very seriously, and so the decision to cancel the minyan is a difficult one. Rabbi Skolnik explained his decision in his blog:

I decided that the obligation to safeguard one’s health under any and all circumstances can, in a situation like a blizzard, mean that one might not only be allowed to, but actually be required to stay inside, and not walk or ride to a synagogue during potentially dangerous weather – even if saying kaddish for a parent.  There are other ways to honor the soul of the departed, most significantly, to study Torah.  Kaddish is universally recognized as “what one does,” but there are other gestures of respect that elevate the soul of the departed closer to God.

While the snowfall in Michigan last week couldn’t rival the East Coast’s blizzard, the morning driving conditions were treacherous here too. But when I received an early morning text message from Rabbi Aaron Bergman of Adat Shalom Synagogue letting me know that I would be the tenth at the morning minyan, I jumped in the car and headed over. There’s something exhilarating about being #10 in a minyan and knowing that the mourners wouldn’t be able to fulfill their obligation without you. Driving down the snowy streets, I felt I was on an important mission (a police escort would have been helpful).

Traditionally, the daily minyan has been a very important part of Jewish life.  But I also think my teacher, Rabbi Skolnik, made the right decision. While it is commendable that he wanted to honor his late mother with the words of the Kaddish prayer, I’m sure that she wouldn’t have wanted him to risk driving in those conditions. And so, by calling off the minyan he honored his beloved mother too.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Environmentalism God Hebrew Hollywood Jewish Movies Theology Torah

How Jewish is Avatar?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” It is unusual for me to enjoy a fantasy movie so much that I have to see it a second time in the theater, but this was the case with this 3-D film about a futuristic planet (Pandora), inhabited by an indigenous population that is destroyed by a human army in its effort to mine a precious mineral called “unobtanium.”

Knowing that the local tribe on Pandora is called the Na’vi, the Hebrew word for prophet, I went into the theater listening closely for other Jewish references or connections. And I found several.

There have been some very interesting articles about the Jewish connections in Avatar. Never one to disappoint with his scholarly understanding of theology and theodicy, Jay Michaelson penned two separate articles about Cameron’s Avatar. In his Huffington Post essay, the author of “Everything is God” explains the theological underpinnings in the film. He writes, “Avatar’s Na’vi subscribe to a combination of pantheism and theism, a view scholars today call “panentheism.” As scholar of religion Gershom Scholem observed, panentheism is usually rooted less in faith, as the New York Times’s Ross Douthat said, than in experience. Like mystics here on Earth, the Na’vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai’wa.”

In his article in The Forward, Michaelson focuses on the environmentalism theme of the film. He explains that the philosophy of Avatar “is a bit of pantheism, a bit of nature mysticism and a surprising dash of monotheism, as well. In other words, it’s Kabbalah, as filtered through the Hasidism of the 19th century and the neo-Hasidism of the 20th and 21st. “Avatar” tells the story of Pandora – the world of the Na’vi – threatened by human ore mining. Where “Avatar” departs from classical Kabbalah and Hasidism is in its environmentalism. Classical Kabbalah and Hasidism do not speak in “Avatar’s” environmental terms, because “environmentalism” would have made no sense to people living before the Industrial Revolution.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, on the website, covers many of the obvious Jewish themes in Avatar (Na’vi, man versus God, shomrei adama/protectors of the earth, etc.), but adds some fresh ideas as well. I especially like his theory that the mountains that hung over the heads of the Na’vi population are reminiscent of the midrash explaining that God held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites like an inverted cask (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a).

Sergey Kadinsky, writing on Heshy Fried’s “Frum Satire” blog, connects the outsider’s experience of Avatar protagonist Jake Sully trying to fit into the Na’vi community with a convert to Judaism.  He also notes the similarities between the Na’vi method of slaughter and that of the shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer).

I found several other Jewish connections in Avatar; whether Cameron intended them or not, I don’t know. There are also a lot of connections to other religions including Christianity. In fact, I read an interview with James Cameron in which he said he wanted to have as many different faith traditions represented in the film as possible. Supposedly, the scene in which Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) carries the dead Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) at the end of the film is supposed to be a reversal of Mary carrying Jesus. And I’m sure the name “Grace” is intentional.

Perhaps the main character’s name “Jake” is intended to be like “Jesus” or maybe even the biblical patriarch Jacob. Since Jake Sully is transformed, his character could indeed be a link to Jacob who has to endure a wrestling match with God’s angel (Genesis 32:4-36:43) before his name is changed and he becomes the leader of the people. Jake Sully had to wrestle the toruk to be transformed and accepted by the people. After wrestling the toruk, he is able to connect to the being in a very powerful way. Jacob’s connection with God was bolstered following his transformative wrestling experience.  Additionally, Jake Sully had to go to a holy place (The Tree of Voices) before being accepted and it is in this holy place where he goes to sleep and dreams (When Jake sleeps as the Avatar, he wakes up as his human body). Jacob renamed the place in which he dreamed Beit El (House of God). Both Jake Sully and the Patriarch Jacob didn’t realize the places they were in were holy until they fell asleep there.

The “J” name for Avatar’s protagonist could also be symbolic of other nevi’im (prophets) in the Jewish Tradition, like Jeremiah, Joel, Job, etc. or even biblical kings like Josiah.

In Avatar, a Navi became close to another Na’vi by saying “I See You” or “Oel ngati kameie.” Each time I heard this, I focused on the word n’gati, which could come from the Hebrew nogeah, to touch or become attached. Variations on this word include the Hebrew term “nogeah badavar” (to be involved with) or n’giah (to touch someone).

Blech might be on to something when he reminds his reader that “the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.” That is, the Na’vi in Avatar couldn’t predict the future (or they would have seen the impending doom of the human army), but they did understand the power in seeing the “other.”

I’m not sure if the name Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) has any connection to the Hebrew word neturei, as in Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City), but she certainly saw herself as a guardian of Pandora. I know that James Cameron was advised by many linguists, so any of these connections are possible.

Kadinsky’s comparison of the attack on the Tree of Voices to the Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of the holy Temple in 70 CE is apt. There might be some connections as well between Pandora and Eden, with the Tree of Knowledge considered to be off limits and then “attacked” for gain (knowledge of self in the Torah and unobtanium in Avatar). Lastly, I think there is a connection between the name of the Na’vi spirit Eywa and the Tetragrammaton name for God (YHWH).

Sure, it’s possible to just watch Avatar as another Hollywood blockbuster/Oscar nominee and enjoy the beautiful CGI scenery, a simple plot, and a politically charged clarion call to conserve our natural resources, respect indigenous peoples, and protect our environment against big corporations that can afford their own army. But, I think it’s more fun to look for the connections with different faith traditions. Some, like the Pope, will find the religious messages of Avatar problematic. Others, will find deep spiritual meaning in these metaphors.

I ultimately choose to pay homage to the brilliant work of James Cameron. Not only did he create an entertaining epic, he also gave us some challenging topics on which to meditate.

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

Barack Obama at University of Michigan Commencement

It was recently announced that President Barack Obama will speak at the University of Michigan  commencement this Spring in Ann Arbor. As a Michigan State alum, I hope Obama’s theme is environmentalism and that he finishes his graduation speech with the words: “In conclusion, GO GREEN!!!”

When I graduated MSU in 1998, the commencement speaker was former NBA basketball player Greg Kelser (in photo), who now is a TV commentator alongside George Blaha for the Detroit Pistons. As a senior at Michigan State, Kelser along with Ervin “Magic” Johnson led the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA tournament championship, the first in the school’s history. The year after I graduated, Elie Wiesel addressed Michigan State’s graduating class.

Two years earlier, in 1996, I heard a wonderful commencement address at my wife’s graduation from MSU when White House press correspondent Helen Thomas spoke. The best commencement speech I ever heard at MSU was in the Spring following my freshman year in 1995 when President Bill Clinton delivered the address. I also enjoyed listening to the late NY Times columnist William Safire at my Jewish Theological Seminary commencement in 2004, a memory I blogged about following Mr. Safire’s death this past September.

Perhaps no commencement address, however, compares to Conan O’Brien’s commencement speech to the Havard Class of 2000.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Israel Politics Sports World Events

From Gilad Shalit to Omri Casspi

Evangelical Pastor John Hagee’s organization Christians United for Israel holds huge pro-Israel events in cities across the United States called “A Night to Honor Israel.” The other night was a busy one for me, and I feel like it was my own little “Night to Honor Israel.”

My evening began at a screening of the documentary film “Family in Captivity” about the Shalit family’s campaign to pressure the Israeli government to be more aggressive in demanding their son’s release from Hamas terrorists. Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit has been held in captivity for over three years after being abducted through the Kerem Shalom crossing in Israel.

The film is a gripping tale of a very low-key family, that runs a bed and breakfast in the beautiful Western Galilee settlement of Mitzpe Hila. I found the hour-long film difficult to watch at times. Even before becoming a father I struggled to watch movies in which children are kidnapped (e.g. Ransom). Now that I’m a father, I make it a point to avoid such movies. I made an exception for this documentary because the issue is so dire. Watching the film, I realized how important it is that people all over the world unite in demanding Gilad Shalit’s return from captivity.

The most distressing part of the film for me was the scene in which Gilad Shalit’s father, Noam, met with former United States President Jimmy Carter. I don’t often criticize U.S. presidents. In fact, I believe in the importance of showing respect to our nation’s presidents and yet I cannot refrain from expressing the angst I felt watching the way Jimmy Carter communicated with Noam Shalit. And I wasn’t alone. The entire theater booed after listening to Jimmy Carter speak with utter disrespect to a man fighting for his kidnapped son’s safe release.

Noam Shalit asks Carter if he was able to deliver his letter to his son’s captors. Chewing gum throughout the entire conversation, Carter doesn’t seem to have any empathy for Mr. Shalit. Carter can only describe the devastation he saw in Gaza. In a very self-aggrandizing way, he tells Gilad’s father that Hamas would only accept the letter from him. The former president comes off horribly in the film. Before seeing the film, I read an article in which Noam Shalit says that the fact that Carter is not considered pro-Israel could be beneficial in securing his son’s release.

I’m wondering how many Jewish people who accepted Carter’s recent apology for his anti-Israel rhetoric will see this film and have second thoughts about how genuine Carter’s apology was. In fact, many believe that the apology only came about because his grandson, Jason Carter, is considering a run for state senate, although Carter has denied a hidden agenda.

From the film, I headed over to a synagogue for the annual inter-congregational Men’s Club dinner. The speaker was Oakland County’s sheriff, Michael Bouchard. I thought the fact that Bouchard, a republican, recently declared himself a candidate for Michigan governor made him an odd choice for this non-political event. The sheriff spoke about his recent trip to Israel and the lessons he learned from the Israeli police. His speech centered on how Islamic terrorism must be curtailed. It was a speech one would expect a candidate for governor to deliver to a couple hundred Jewish men in an area that has the largest Arab population outside the Middle East.

I left the Men’s Club dinner and headed out to The Palace of Auburn Hills to watch the Detroit Pistons host the NBA’s first Israeli player. I actually cannot think of another major professional sport that has had an Israeli player. Omri Casspi came to Detroit for the first time and, like other NBA cities with Jewish communities, there was a large contingent of Israelis and Jewish fans in the audience to welcome him.  Casspi is having a great rookie season for the Sacramento Kings.  It was fun watching the fans waving large Israeli flags, which made it on to the jumbo video screens (“Palace Vision”) often throughout the game. I don’t remember the last time so many local fans cheered when an opposing player scored.  The only downside was that the Pistons lost a hard fought game. I must admit that it was odd to watch an opposing player hit a three pointer over my favorite player (Rodney Stuckey) and I actually cheered (see photo).

A few days before his Detroit visit, Casspi scored 18 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden’s Jewish Heritage Night.  His welcome to NBA cities by Jewish fans has been great and that energy and excitement has been covered throughout the media including in the NY Times.

Here’s hoping Gilad Shalit will be released from captivity soon and be able to watch his fellow Israeli, Omri Casspi, play in an NBA game.

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