An Analysis of the Delta Airlines Controversy

After writing about the news that Delta Airlines was supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines’ partnership in the SkyTeam Alliance, I have been flooded with email messages — both in support of what I wrote and criticizing me for starting a false rumor.

I have been contacted directly by Delta Airlines and the Saudi Embassy in Washington. I have received messages from individuals wishing to petition or boycott Delta Airlines. I have also been scolded for picking on one airline when many airlines are part of similar agreements with discriminatory countries. This story certainly played to people’s emotions and it went viral quickly. In only a couple days my Huffington Post article has been “liked” over 7,500 times, I’ve been quoted in USA Today, and interviewed by CNN. I believe there is still a lot of misinformation going around concerning this partnership, but there have also been some clarifications since I posted my article. Rather than retracting what I wrote or removing that post entirely, I will attempt to clarify my views based upon all the information I currently have.

I first got wind of this story when a friend posted a link to the World Net Daily article titled “Delta adopts Saudi ‘no-Jew’ fly policy.” The article explained that Delta was adding Saudi Arabian Airlines to the SkyTeam Alliance and this would require the American carrier to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights from New York or Washington bound for Jeddah. It also said that former U.S. Representative Fred Grandy (also formerly known as “Gopher” on “The Love Boat”) was presenting this matter to Congress.

Now, I am well aware that World Net Daily is a far-right, Conservative news website and I take its content with a grain of salt. However, it did publish two letters from Delta’s customer service coordinator which explained the company’s position. Further, I did my own research and read through Delta’s press release dated January 10, 2011, in which Delta offers its support of Saudi Arabian Airlines joining the SkyTeam Alliance. I also spoke with individuals who understand the function of the SkyTeam Alliance and they told me that Delta would be “code sharing” with Saudi Arabian Airlines. I was also curious about who owns Saudi Arabian Airlines so I contacted an authority in the airline industry who told me that it was owned and operated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Based on this information I posted the story to this blog and to the Huffington Post.

What follows are some corrections and explanations based on statements made by Delta Airlines and the Saudi Arabian Embassy after I posted my article:

1) TITLE: I based the title of my blog post on the World Net Daily’s article title (“Delta adopts Saudi ‘no-Jew’ fly policy”). This was a sensational title and was misleading. Delta did not adopt Saudi Arabia’s policy and Delta does not discriminate. In my article I clearly stated that Delta does not discriminate, but that my concern was that Delta was supporting membership in the SkyTeam Alliance by an airline run by a discriminatory country.

2) DOES IT MATTER?: I’ve had numerous people ask me if this even matters since most Jews are not planning on traveling to Saudi Arabia anyway. “I guess we’re not flying Delta to Riyadh for Passover” was a common cynical comment I received. While it is certainly true that Jewish men and women tend to fly to Miami, Aspen, Palm Springs or Israel for Hajj and not to Mecca and Medina, it’s still the principle that Saudi Arabia does not issue visas to Jews, Israelis or individuals with an Israeli stamp on their passport. Again, like other Muslim countries that do not issue visas to Jews, there are exceptions and I stated that clearly. I also understand that King Abdullah is working to reform his country and make good on his public commitment to interreligious dialogue in Madrid, but that he’s having a difficult time in doing so.

3) WELL, OTHERS DO IT TOO!: I’ve never liked this defense. It sounds like something a fifth grader would claim when he gets into trouble. Even if other airlines and other airline alliances code-share and do business with Saudi Arabian Airlines, it doesn’t make it right that Delta is. I recognize that American businesses and the American government have alliances with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I know that we have military bases there. I know that we get a lot of our oil from them. I have seen the video of our last American president walking hand-in-hand with their king and I have seen the video of our current American president bowing down in front of their king. The fact remains that the majority of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia and it is a nation that discriminates against women and non-Muslims.

4) SO WHY PICK ON DELTA?: I don’t have anything personal against Delta Airlines. However, it was Delta that was singled out in the World Net Daily article and Delta’s press release supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines joining the SkyTeam Alliance that I read. Further, as I mentioned in my post, I live in Detroit which has been a Delta hub ever since Delta bought Northwest Airlines. I fly Delta often because most of the flights in and out of Detroit are operated by Delta. So, it was disconcerting to me that the airline I use the most is welcoming Saudi Arabia’s national airline into the alliance it founded.

5) CODE-SHARING: When I wrote the original article, I was informed that Delta’s alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines would include a code-sharing agreement. It was explained to me by those in the industry that this would mean that a traveler could book a flight to Saudi Arabia on a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight through Delta. I even surmised that this could also mean that travelers would be awarded SkyMiles from Delta for their travel to Saudi Arabia. I never suspected that Delta would refuse travel to a Jewish person or an Israeli national. However, this alliance did not sit well with me because it was Delta getting too close to the airline of a discriminatory country. Based on Delta’s most recent press release about this matter, it appears that there is no code-sharing agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

6) DELTA’S RESPONSE: Delta seemed to backpedal on this alliance after the public outcry. Delta’s customer service coordinator Kathy Johnston’s response seemed to pass the buck: “While we fully understand and sympathize with your concerns, Delta has no control over the actions of the United States or any foreign country. If the government of Saudi Arabia engages in discriminatory practices in the issuance of travel documents to U.S. citizens, this is a matter which must be addressed with a local embassy as appropriate or with the U.S. State Department.” Only after this controversy went viral did Delta issue a stronger statement fully explaining the nature of its partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines via the SkyTeam Alliance.

7) SAUDI ARABIAN EMBASSY RESPONSE: In short, I don’t buy it. The Saudi embassy claims that the “Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false.” It is well known that one cannot get a visa to Saudi Arabia with a point of entry stamp from Tel Aviv on ones passport. This is discriminatory. If other countries have the same policy, that makes them wrong too, but it is not an excuse for Saudi Arabia to follow this practice. Saudi Arabia also does not allow non-Muslim religious articles in its country. They have discriminatory practices when it comes to women’s rights. All of these issues should have raised a red flag when Delta considered supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines admission to the SkyTeam Alliance (even if other airlines had followed suit with SkyTeam Alliance or any of the other airline alliances).

8) JUST GET A NEW PASSPORT: Many individuals have simply said that it’s not a big deal if Saudi Arabia refuses entry to its country with a passport showing a previous trip to Israel. “Just get a new passport,” they say. It’s the principle here. And if Israel is denying entry to those who’ve visited the Palestinian Authority (in violation of the 1995 Oslo II accord), then they should correct that policy as well).

The bottom line is that I didn’t pick on Delta maliciously. I am not happy that other airlines have partnership agreements with Saudi Arabian Airlines either. I wrote about Delta because they were the focus of an article I read and they were the Airline that posted a press release on the Web supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines’s admission to the SkyTeam Alliance (which Delta founded). While the title of my post was misleading and inaccurate, I still believe that Delta (and any other airline in the SkyTeam alliance) is making a mistake by becoming a partner with an airline run by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman’s letter to Delta sums it up best:

We understand that Delta, as any airline, is required to comply with the visa requirements of the destination country,” wrote Foxman in a letter to Delta CEO Richard H. Anderson. “However, Saudi Arabia’s past practice of banning travelers with an ‘Israel’ stamp in their passport from gaining entry into the country runs contrary to the spirit and intent of Delta’s non-discrimination policy.

While this practice affects all travelers who previously visited Israel, it has a disproportionate impact on Jewish passengers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia also bars anyone from bringing into Saudi Arabia religious ritual objects, including religious texts, from any faith other than Islam, effectively banning religiously observant Jews from entering the country.

We expect Delta, and any other American airline which flies to Riyadh or partners with an airline that flies there, to ensure that its passengers — whatever their faith — not be discriminated against, and that no American airline in any way enable, or facilitate this discrimination, whatever the regulations of Saudi Arabia.

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

Can You Twitter Judaism?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The New York Jewish Week

Is Twitter a good medium for Judaism? Two articles were recently posted on the Web that took opposing viewpoints on this question.

Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the Engaging Israel Project, penned a critique titled “Judaism is not a Twitter-able Religion” in which he explained that the ideas of Judaism cannot be tweeted using the social networking site Twitter. Hartman argues that “in the past, we could always count on a regular stream of anti-Semitic events to maintain Jewish affiliation and identity. Today, ‘they’ aren’t hating us enough, or at least consistently enough, to generate on their own a Jewish identity and sense of belonging.”

Today, he writes, we are looking for the “something” and “anything” to put out there as the message of Judaism. This method has the potential to create entry and access points, which will eventually lead to the beginning of new Jewish journeys, but this is not enough. While Hartman explains that he applauds these efforts, they are also of a great concern to him.
Hartman goes on to state his case:

The Jewish people have, since our inception, been the carriers of ideas. We changed history, not as a result of our economic or military power, nor by the enormity of our numbers. It was by the depth and significance of what we stood for – a way of life permeated by important ideas and values held together and conveyed through powerful and meaningful experiences – which placed Jews and Judaism as a transformational force in human culture.

This content is not Twitter-able. The journey of a meaningful Jewish life needs a wide bandwidth. It requires knowledge, time, and commitment. If we want Judaism to have a great future, and not merely a great past, we need to set our sights higher and deeper.

How do we solve the Jewish Catch-22? Part of it is not solvable, and we have to recognize that Jewish life was not in the past, and will not be in the future only a numbers game. However, there need not be a zero-sum game between short-term programs aimed at teaching “something,” and those that give content and meaning to a more extensive Jewish journey. The problem we face is conceptual. Too many of us, in particular those in leadership positions, have stopped thinking about the requirements of a deep and meaningful journey, relegating it to the domain of a luxury item to be nurtured when the crisis of Jewish continuity is resolved. While catering to the unaffiliated and communicating a message which they are capable of hearing, we need also to work to increase their capability. We need to continuously increase our demands, so that Jews will increase their demands from themselves and what they demand from their tradition. We need to ensure that there is no corner of Jewish life in which an individual, regardless of their denomination, is not able to engage a Judaism of depth and experience its vitality. In short, if we want Jews to embark on a meaningful Jewish journey, we need to ensure that such a journey is possible.[…]

We yearned for an era in which Jews would be accepted as equals; we now need to learn not to fear it. We can compete in an open marketplace of ideas. We can survive in an era of choice and develop and provide a tradition which can inspire that choice. It is dependent now on the choices we make as a community and the level of aspirations to which we strive.

An opposing viewpoint was blogged by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder in a post for Hebrew Union College’s Tze U’lemad blog for continuing alumni education. She writes that “18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold.” She begins her revelation about Twitter’s benefits to Judaism:

At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

Abusch-Magder cites several examples of how Twitter has been successfully used in various Jewish educational initiatives. Among others, Abusch-Magder mentions Tweeting during high holiday services, retelling the exodus narrative on Twitter, and the publicizing the Jewish Women’s Archive through Twitter. She also refers the reader to the highly popular Unitarian-Universalist minister on Twitter Rev. Naomi King who uses Twitter for what she’s termed “Digital Faith Formation” using the application TweetChat. TweetChat helps put your blinders on to the Twitter-sphere while you monitor and chat about one topic.

Both Rabbis Hartman and Abusch-Magder make valid points regarding Judaism in the 21st century. Hartman is correct that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to water down Judaism into soundbites (or tweets). Our millenia-old Tradition should not be squeezed into 140-character messages. However, there are important opportunities to utilize Twitter (and other social networking sites) for the promotion of Judaism in positive ways. This medium shouldn’t be quickly rejected as useless when it comes to bolstering Judaism and having our religion compete in an open marketplace of ideas.

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

Delta Adopts Saudi Arabian Airlines No Jew Policy

For a long time in Michigan, Northwest Airlines had its hub at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. That meant an essential monopoly on domestic flights in and out of Detroit. A few years ago Delta Airlines took over Northwest Airlines and now the vast majority of domestic flights at Detroit Metro are operated by Delta. That fact makes it especially troubling to learn that Delta will add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of partnering companies and would require the Delta to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights to Saudi Arabia. The partnership was originally announced by Delta Airlines in a press release on January 10, 2011.

World Net Daily reported that this issue was “first was presented to Congress, the public and others by talk radio host and former U.S. Rep. Fred Grandy, whose own battle against discrimination was documented when his former radio station demanded he tone down criticism of Islam on his program. He then left the station.”

The article included correspondence from Kathy M. Johnston, Delta’s coordinator of Customer Care, explaining that Delta does not discriminate nor condone discrimination against any protected class of passenger in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender. However, she stated , Delta must comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves. That means that if the Saudi government denies Jews from entering its country and Delta brings them there on its flight they can be fined.

The issue here is one of principle. Delta isn’t being forced to include Saudi Arabian Airlines into its Sky Team Alliance. In fact, Delta could stand on principle and refuse to include Saudi Arabian Airlines based on its discriminatory policy. No, it’s not Delta’s fault that the Saudi government is anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t have to go along with it. It’s as if the Saudis are telling Delta that when it comes to Jewish passengers its name should become an acronym: “Don’t Even Let Them Aboard.”

I know I’m not the only one who finds it troubling that Delta would go along with Saudi Arabia’s policy of not allowing Jews on their flights. While I’m not planning a vacation to Riyadh any time soon, I would have a hard time flying with Delta knowing they are collaborating with the discriminatory government of Saudi Arabia.

The American Center for Law and Justice has already taken up this issue and I have no doubt that organizations like the Anti-Defamation League will not be far behind. I fly Delta a lot, both domestically and internationally. In fact, I’ve flown Delta flights to and from Israel twice in the past four years. Each time I arrive to my destination with Delta, I hear a flight attendant thank the passengers by saying, “We know you have a choice when you fly so thank you for choosing Delta.” However, that’s not entirely true. Here in Michigan, we often don’t have much of a choice when we fly. It’s usually Delta or nothing.

I have no doubt that this matter will not quietly go away. The Jewish community will not feel comfortable flying Delta knowing about its new association with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

Clarification: Delta Airlines is not changing any policies. Delta claims they do not discriminate and I concur. The issue here is that they have welcomed an airline (Saudi Arabian Airlines) that does discriminate into their global partnership (SkyTeam). Finally, Delta does not own the Sky Team alliance. SkyTeam is a global airline alliance (founded by Delta Airlines and a few other airlines) that provides customers from member airlines access to an extensive global network with more destinations, more frequencies and more connectivity.

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

No Dog Got Stoned in Jerusalem

There are certain things that we all read on the Web that we find unbelievable. Not “unbelievable” as in “amazing,” but events that simply cannot be believed. Some of these crazy things have actually occurred as reported, but many are simply hoaxes. Thank God for websites like Snopes.com to debunk these myths.

Last week, my hoax detector was going off at full speed when I read on Yahoo! News that a stray dog was condemned to death, or stoned, by a rabbinical court in Jerusalem. The report in Yahoo! News was reprinted from the Israeli newspaper Maariv which reported that a stray dog wandered into a Beit Din (religious court) in the strictly Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and refused to be moved. A judge on the Beit Din determined the dog was a reincarnation of a secular lawyer who died 20 years ago. The article claimed that the judges on the Beit Din then “decreed” that local children stone the dog to death. Once the story hit Yahoo! News it got picked up by the BBC where it was the most read story of the day.

Of course none of this actually happened. It was a joke. That’s right, a joke. However, with news items traveling the globe at lightning speed thanks to the Internet, this story was everywhere within an hour. The damage was done even though Maariv issued a correction and apology on its website, JTA released an article explaining that there was no stoning of a dog, and Yahoo! News took the story down. It was already re-posted on hundreds of websites around the world.

The religious court issued the following statement:

There is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham… The female dog found a seat in the corner of the court. And the children were delighted by it; there were hundreds outside the court. They are used to seeing stray cats but most have never seen a dog before. The only action we took was to dial the number of the Jerusalem Municipality to get the people in charge to take it away.

There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer has never been mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning. Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah.

The story, when circulated on Yahoo! News, attracted more than 1,800 comments, most expressing violent anger. Just another example of people believing the truly unbelievable on the Web. Maybe it’s time for the large news agencies to actually fact check before publishing on the Web.

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

Adon Olam to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here

Adon Olam is the quintessential Jewish prayer in perfect meter, which means it can be set to just about any tune. This strictly metrical hymn is sung to end just about every Shabbat morning service which means it is not only popular, but many know the words by heart.

I’ve heard hundreds of versions of Adon Olam over the years and my favorite has always been the “Centerfold” tune sung to the famous J. Geils Band song. That is, until I heard this version by Pardes set to the tune of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. Enjoy!

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

JTS Chef Joe Landa Wins on Food Network’s "Chopped!"

I learned a lot in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I also managed to eat pretty well too. Right before I began my six-year tenure at the Seminary, a new company took over the food management operations in the cafeteria. From what I understand, Flik Independent Schools Dining took it up a notch. Rich Costas and his team had never run a kosher kitchen before, but they learned quickly how to serve three delicious meals a day and cater fancy events while adhering to the kosher laws.

The scrumptious food served at JTS might have been a well kept secret until last night. The Seminary’s executive chef Joe Landa was a big winner on the Food Network’s cooking competition show “Chopped!” Chef Joe’s been establishing his reputation as a creative culinary innovator for almost a quarter century.

Before becoming a champion on “Chopped!”, Chef Joe won the 2010 “Whole Grains Council” national recipe contest. He’s a certified personal fitness instructor with a passion for healthy living, physical endurance, and balanced nutrition. Chef Joe came to JTS in 2003 after many years as a chef at various restaurants in New York City.

As executive chef at JTS, Chef Joe helps serve about 600 customers per day. He’s responsible for the creative choices in the cafeteria line for three meals a day, plus all the catering requests. In addition to preparing meals for Seminary functions, Chef Joe will also cater weddings, conventions, Shabbat and holiday meals, and other events at the Seminary.

On last night’s episode of “Chopped!”, host Ted Allen challenged Chef Joe and three other chefs to create a three-course meal by using flour tortillas, English cucumbers, fresh fava beans and pickled beef tongue for the Appetizer round; pork rinds, galangal, purple kohlrabi and rabbit legs and thighs for the Entrée round; and lambe, chickpea flour, Asian pears, rose water syrup for the Dessert round. These were clearly not the typical kosher meals that Chef Joe is used to cooking up at the Seminary. That could be the reason he didn’t identify where he works; only stating that he’s an executive chef in Manhattan.

Chef Joe took home the $10,000 prize beating out the stiff competition made up of a sous chef at NYU Medical Center, a restaurateur in Brooklyn, and a restaurateur from Gramercy Park. While I’m not a foodie or a regular Food Network viewer (this was actually my first time watching anything on the Food Network), I found this show to be exhilarating. I can’t wait for the next time I’m in NYC to stop by the Seminary and sample some delicious offerings from Champion Chef Joe Landa. Congratulations Joe… even if it was far from kosher, you made the Seminary proud!

UPDATE: For those concerned about the overtly non-kosher fare that Chef Joe had to cook on the TV show, don’t worry because he was able to recreate a kosher version of that meal for cafeteria patrons of the Jewish Theological Seminary this past Wednesday. Here’s the announcement that went out to the Seminary community:

“Join our own “Chopped” champion, Chef Joe Landa, for his award winning menu selection as featured on his recent TV appearance on the Food Network. Chef Joe will be making a kosher version of his Chipotle and balsamic glazed pickled beef tongue tostada with ginger fava bean mash and English cucumber salsa. Come down to the JTS Dining Hall on Wednesday, June 29th at lunchtime!”

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

Natalie Portman Gives Birth to a Baby Boy

Since I launched this blog in March 2003, no post has attracted as much attention as the one I titled simply: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” That post has received dozens more comments than this blog normally receives. And that simple question: “Is Benjamin Millepied Jewish?” has driven traffic to this blog in record numbers.

So, now that Natalie Portman has given birth to a baby boy I’m sure there will be new questions that arise in the public’s mind. As Benjamin Millepied and Natalie Portman welcome their son into this world, will they choose to have a brit milah (bris, ritual circumcision) for their baby son? What will his name be? Will Natalie Portman choose a Hebrew name for her son? Since she is of Israeli descent, will her son’s name be a common Israeli name?

When Natalie Portman releases the name of her baby, I’m sure people will still want more information. Since Ashkenazi Jewish custom dictates that babies are named after deceased relatives, the public will want to know who Natalie Portman’s son is named for. Also, there is no question that this baby was born Jewish because Natalie Portman is Jewish, so there will likely be an international discussion about whether Portman and Millepied will have a traditional bris ceremony on this new baby’s eighth day of life. With the debate over a ban on ritual circumcision currently taking place in San Francisco, I’m certain this celebrity birth will add fuel to that fire.

Finally, Natalie Portman has stated publicly that she plans to raise her child Jewish. Another high profile Jewish celebrity who is intermarried to a non-Jew but raising her child Jewish will add to the discussion about interfaith families. Benjamin Millepied could choose to convert to Judaism in the future, but if he doesn’t he will be in good company with other non-Jewish parents helping to raise Jewish children. In fact, organizations like the Jewish Outreach Institute and InterfaithFamily.com exist to help interfaith families who are giving their children a Jewish upbringing.

Mazel Tov to Natalie Portman and Benjamin Millepied on the birth of their son. For years we’ve watched Natalie Portman as she’s starred in movies and received award after award. Now, she’ll have a chance to shine as a Jewish mother. I’m betting that thirteen years from now, there will be a headline somewhere that reads “Natalie Portman’s son becomes a Bar Mitzvah.”

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

Kevin Youkilis adds L’chaim to His Red Sox Shirt

Kevin Youkilis, a Jewish player on the Boston Red Sox, designed his own Major League Baseball t-shirt. While Youkilis wasn’t the only player to design his own t-shirt, he was the only one to include a Hebrew word on the front of the shirt.

The main design highlights his nickname “Dirt Dog” and the bottom part of the shirt says “L’Chaim,” the Jewish term meaning “To Life” which is used as “Cheers” before drinks.

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

Dr. Jack Kevorkian from a Jewish Perspective

It’s been a week since “Dr. Death,” Jack Kevorkian, died of natural causes. A local celebrity in Michigan, Kevorkian became synonymous with physician-assisted suicide in the 1990s. He also made his long-time attorney, Geoffrey Feiger, into a local celebrity. Growing up in Metro Detroit with Kevorkian’s antics on the television news each day meant that “euthanasia” was a well-known term to my peers and me.

Kevorkian’s death has once again revived the ethical conversation surrounding physician-assisted suicide. My friend and classmate, Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, MD, was recently interviewed by The Jewish Week about the Jewish perspective of Physician-Assisted Suicide. The interview was published just days before Kevorkian’s death.

Rabbi Sharzer, a retired plastic surgeon in New York, was interviewed because a new documentary is airing on HBO. “How to Die in Oregon” takes a powerful look at Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act, a 1994 measure allowing physician-assisted suicide and the first law of its kind, by telling the stories of several people who died under the act. Rabbi Sharzer writes and lectures on bio-medical ethics at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies. The following are questions he answered on the subject of physician assisted suicide:

Q: What, if anything, do Jewish texts and modern-day responsa say about physician-assisted suicide?

A: Normative Judaism, as a general matter, is opposed to suicide, although there have been exceptions, as in the case of matrydom. Jewish legal writing about physician-assisted suicide is quite new, as discussion of the phenomenon itself is recent. The predominant opinion is negative. There’s the notion that human life is a gift from God, and it’s up to God to decide when it ends, not human beings. … Judaism sees no intrinsic value to suffering at the end of life and encourages physicians to use all means at their disposal to relieve suffering — but not to actually end a life.

Do the Torah and other Jewish texts include examples of people choosing to end their lives rather experiencing an agonizing or painful death?

The classic example in the Bible is the case of King Saul, who found himself wounded in battle and surrounded by the enemy. Fearing torture and degradation, he took his own life. The rabbis go to some length to justify Saul’s action while saying it’s an exception that shouldn’t be considered the rule.

Did seeing the documentary influence your own views on the subject?

I’d say that seeing the movie gave me a much better understanding of the human condition in which this develops. It gives a human face to the issue. It’s not my position to be judgmental of anyone who makes that decision, even if I wouldn’t make that decision for myself and wouldn’t counsel it.

What’s the role of spiritual leaders, such as rabbis, in such decisions? Is it the cleric’s place to veto a decision like this and, if so, under what circumstances?

Spiritual leaders, clergy and pastoral caregivers have in role in help both patients and their families deal with these very difficult questions. I don’t think it’s about a veto. Rather, it’s about helping people who are seeking guidance from within a religious tradition. … It’s clearly a feature of our times that people want to control all aspects of their life and health. The spiritual position is that sometimes you can’t. The contribution of spiritual and religious leaders is to help them deal with areas over which they aren’t able to exert control.

In a statement released by the filmmaker, he says that, surprisingly, the lessons he learned from making the documentary have more to do with living than with dying. What does an issue like this — and, more generally, the idea of death — teach us about life?

One of the lessons is that we don’t live this life as isolated individuals. We live this life as part of a family, as part of a community. We want to live out a sense of values not only for ourselves, but for our families and communities, and impart [our values] to the ones who come after us.

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

The Food Truck that Drove Right Over Kosher Politics

Article first published as The Food Truck That Drove Right Over Kosher Politics on Technorati.

Kosher certification in the nation’s capital has become much like everything else in D.C. – political and divisive. The Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington has long had a monopoly on kosher certification and it doesn’t want to give up its stronghold anytime soon.

Over the past several decades, reports have surfaced of the Vaad refusing to certify sit-down restaurants as kosher because it will lead to socializing between single Jewish men and women (which could in turn violate strict Jewish law). The Vaad even insists on charging for its own certification on top of already established certifications. As Jay Lehman recently wrote to the editor of the Washington Post, “The Vaad has made it clear that other kosher-certifying authorities are not welcome in the area to supervise these establishments. In addition, all kosher meat and poultry wholesale suppliers who wish to sell to kosher establishments are expected to submit to Vaad supervision, even if they are already certified by another nationally recognized kosher certifier.”

These tactics, which seem to violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, have come to light as a result of the local D.C. Vaad refusing to grant a kosher certificate to Sixth and Rye, the new food truck run by the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue. Last year, the non-denominational congregation offered an iPad as a prize to the individual who came up with the synagogue’s next big idea. The winning submission was a kosher deli restaurant housed in a truck to jump on the country’s trend of food trucks that roll out at certain times as announced via a Twitter feed.

The main reason the synagogue leaders launched the Sixth and Rye food truck wasn’t because they thought D.C. needed another kosher restaurant (though it does), but rather to increase its out-of-the-building engagement with local Jews in the District. The plan was to run the food truck at lunch each Friday afternoon. Everything seemed to be in place after they found a truck to rent, arranged for it to be made strictly kosher, purchased the signage, and contracted with celeb “Top Chef” contestant Spike Mendelsohn. The only thing that kept Sixth and Rye from opening as planned was the local Vaad’s refusal to certify the truck.

The popular synagogue, which functions more like a Jewish center with no membership, only had the best of intentions. In creating Sixth and Rye, they were planning to reach out to young Jews and provide a delicious, kosher deli lunch to workers in downtown Washington. The Vaad, in refusing to certify the food truck as kosher, missed a great opportunity. Thankfully, along came a rabbi from Baltimore who agreed to give Sixth and Rye his hekhsher (kosher seal of approval).

Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss, the Baltimore kosher certifier, essentially broke the Vaad’s monopoly when he gave the food truck his okay. Hopefully, this will demonstrate to Washington’s kosher observant community that alternative options to the Vaad exist. With more than one kosher certifying agency in our nation’s capital there will be more kosher restaurants and a price decrease on kosher food. The Washington Post article about Sixth and Rye painted a clear picture of the misperceptions in the kosher marketplace. It reported that a young Washington local called the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington and was told that they were not certifying the truck, sohe didn’t bother getting in line to order his deli lunch. If the Vaad doesn’t certify it, he was certain it couldn’t be kosher. Alternatively, he could have inquired about the food truck’s certification and then learned from Baltimore’s Rabbi Weiss about his supervision and standards thereby making an informed decision.

Unfortunately, the local Vaad in D.C. (and in many other communities around the country) has convinced people that only they have the power to pronounce what is kosher. This only leads to ignorance and knee jerk reactions. When I spoke to Esther Safran Foer, the director of Sixth and I, she told me that another Orthodox rabbi in town sent a letter of support to her. Not only that, but he promoted the kosher food truck on his Facebook page and then bought over a dozen sandwiches for the Torah class he teaches on Capitol Hill.

Kudos to Sixth and I Historic Synagogue for putting this innovative idea in motion. In addition to the convenience of kosher deli lunches once a week in downtown Washington, perhaps this food truck will jumpstart a national conversation to curtail the political nature of kosher certification. While these local Orthodox kosher certification agencies may enjoy their monopoly, some competition will be best for the consumers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in the future the only thing Sixth and I had to worry about with their food truck was whether they had enough challah on hand to serve the hundreds in line?

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