Jesus, We Can Finally Talk About Jesus

I’ve always said that the only times Jewish people mention Jesus are when they stub their toe, miss the bus, or tell you about their theater tickets to a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Two new books will change that. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (edited by Marc Z. Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine). The former discusses the Jewish life of Jesus of Nazareth and the latter is a newly revised edition of the Christian Scriptures with notes and essays from Jewish scholars in the hope of making the “New Testament” accessible to Jews.

In my final years of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was living and working in Caldwell, New Jersey as a rabbinic intern. One of the congregants at the synagogue, Agudath Israel, was a professor at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. She asked me to give a presentation about Judaism to the women in her undergraduate class. In preparation for my visit she asked the students to submit a list of five questions each that they would like me to consider. Without any exaggeration, a full 90% of the students included at least one question about Jesus Christ in their list.

I had received questions from Christians in the past concerning the Jewish view of Jesus, but that experience confirmed for me just how curious Christians are about how Jews understand Jesus in both historical and theological perspectives. Many of the women in that class at the College of St. Elizabeth were surprised to learn that Jews do not consider Jesus to be the messiah and the entire class was shocked to discover that Jesus’ teachings were not part of the required coursework I was doing in my rabbinical school studies. By far, to this day the most frequent questions I receive from Christians all have to do with the Jewish understanding of Jesus.

The topic of the contemporary view of Jesus among Jews has long been stuck somewhere between taboo and “we just don’t talk about it”. But now, thanks to two new books it is front and center. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who refers to himself as “America’s Rabbi” has written a new controversial book that will be released next week. For those who thought Boteach’s Kosher Sex was too radical, his new Kosher Jesus is sure to ruffle feathers. With Boteach, it is difficult to know if he writes these provocative books and articles because he’s genuinely passionate about the scholarly discussion it will generate or if he just lusts after the spotlight. Still playing up his friendship with the late Michael Jackson and very passively campaigning to be the next Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been busy publicly questioning what all this fuss is about with his new book. In truth, Boteach knows that every Orthodox rabbi and scholar — from Chabad Lubavitch to the Haredim — who attack Kosher Jesus as blasphemous and its author as a heretic are only helping his book sales.

Boteach loves the attention he’s getting and in the weeks leading up to its release has been penning article after article fighting back against his naysayers. In a recent Jerusalem Post article, Boteach wrote, “Unless you’ve been a space-tourist with Virgin Galactic the past few weeks you will know that on [sic] February my new book will be published.” (There’s no doubt in my mind he received a generous kickback from Virgin’s Richard Branson for mentioning Galactic.) Media attention aside, I think Boteach’s book is important and will finally make it “kosher” for Jews to learn about and discuss Jesus as the historical figure.

Boteach’s book portrays the actual story of Jesus’ Jewish life as told in both early Christian and Jewish sources. If you ask most Jews to tell you about the historical figure of Jesus, their response often turns fuzzy after a quick introduction that he was Jewish. Kosher Jesus explains how Jesus was a Torah-observant teacher who instructed his followers to observe the Torah. Jesus’ teachings were quoted extensively from the Torah. And before being murdered by Pontius Pilate, Jesus fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people. His death was retribution for his rebellion against Rome.

No matter what one believes Boteach’s intentions were in writing this book (more fame, more money, a Chief Rabbi position, setting the academic record straight, or a combination thereof), he clearly did his research on the subject and has taken away the taboo of Jews discussing Jesus of Nazareth. Hopefully, Boteach’s book will give Jews the ability to go a little deeper in their understanding of Jesus. This will be helpful for rabbis like me who often field questions about Jesus from Christians, but it will also prove useful for Jews living in predominantly Christian areas as well as for the Jewish college student with a Christian roommate or agressive missionaries on campus.

Rembrandt’s portrayal of Jesus is more apparently Jewish than other artistic renderings

As I have been reading the many criticisms of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his Kosher Jesus, one thing that I’ve noticed is the strong discomfort his attackers have with even mentioning Jesus. As Josh Fleet mentioned in his Huffington Post article, some of Boteach’s critics refuse to even type out the name Jesus. Instead they refer to Boteach’s book as Kosher J. abbreviating the name of Jesus in a way that is reminiscent of how they refuse to spell out the word “God” or “Lord” choosing instead to use “G-d” or “L-rd”. This struck me as odd as it seems to put Jesus in the same category as God whose name must not be rendered in print (even though the English words “God” and “Lord” are not actual names for the Jewish deity and I’ve never understood a ban on spelling out God’s name in Latin characters). In any event, it is similarly odd that many of Boteach’s critics who are eager to put him in herem (excommunication) for having the chutzpah to publish a book about Jesus of Nazareth are the same Chabad Lubavitch members who seem to be placing their bets that the late Lubavitch rebbe is the messiah. One man’s false messiah is another man’s god. One man’s spiritual leader is another man’s messiah.

I especially like the way Josh Fleet concludes his article about the sharp criticism of Kosher Jesus. Fleet writes, “In 2012, the topic of Jesus should not be a Jewish taboo. If we believe so much that our relationship with Christianity is based on deceit, tragedy and senseless hatred — that it has broken us — then we are obligated to believe it can be based on trust, opportunity and boundless love — that it can be fixed.” Well stated, and I believe that what will equally help fix the way Jews deal with the topic of the historical Jesus will be the new contribution by Brandeis Professor Marc. Z. Brettler and Vanderbilt Prof. Amy-Jill Levine. Their new version of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it has been published for Jews.

I am always surprised when Christians are surprised that New Testament studies was not part of my academic courses in rabbinical school. No matter how many times I explain that Jews do not believe our Torah has been superseded by the “New Testament”, Christians still don’t understand this concept. It’s as if they think that we’re big fans of the first Godfather movie and yet refuse to watch the sequel. In truth, most Jews who are knowledgeable about the Jewish Bible have little clue about the narrative of the “New Testament”. One of the primary reasons for this has been the Jewish ban on studying Christian religious texts for theologically dogmatic reasons. However, the new version that Brettler and Levine have put forth seems to make this scholarship safe for Jewish students.

An article in the USA Today explains Prof. Levine’s intentions in completing this project:

The project, published in November by Oxford University Press, is the latest effort in Levine’s lifelong quest to help Jews and Christians understand each other better. 

That quest started when she was growing up among Portuguese Roman Catholics in North Dartmouth, Mass. She was fascinated by her schoolmates’ faith and horrified when one of them told her that the Jews had killed God by crucifying Jesus. 

She made it her life’s work to prevent Christians from spreading that kind of anti-Semitic claim and to help build a bridge between the two faiths. 

After all, she said, Jesus and his early followers were Jews. So the two faiths have much in common. 

The Annotated New Testament points out places where Christians get Judaism wrong.
“The volume flags common anti-Jewish stereotypes, shows why they are wrong and provides readings so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate,” Levine wrote in an email. “These stereotypes include the Old Testament/Jewish God of wrath vs. the New Testament God of love and the view that Judaism epitomized misogyny and xenophobia.”

When you consider how little most Jews know about Jesus from a historical perspective, it is actually an exciting time when this discussion will no longer be taboo. While some religious Jews will claim it is dangerous to read books like Kosher Jesus or to have Brettler and Levine’s commentary of the “New Testament” on your bookshelf for reference, I actually think that this will lead to better Jewish-Christian dialogue. It will also alleviate so much of the misinformation and ignorance that many Jews have about Christianity and its roots. I’m eager to see where this leads and I’m grateful to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for having the conviction to publish Kosher Jesus, and to Profs. Brettler and Levine for using their scholarship to educate us on a religion about which we have been hesitant to learn more.

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

iPads in Jewish Day Schools

A version of this appeared on the JTA.org website

Bill Gates paid a visit to Steve Jobs toward to the end of the Apple visionary’s life. The two technology giants talked about the future of education. According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, both men agreed that computers had made surprisingly little impact on schools. Gates said, “Computers and mobile devices would have to focus on delivering more personalized lessons and providing motivational feedback.” One of the many projects Jobs had hoped to develop before his life was cut short, Isaacson explained, was “to disrupt the textbook industry and save the spines of spavined students by creating electronic texts and curriculum material for the iPad.”

High School students using their iPads at
the Frankel Jewish Academy in Metro Detroit

Rabbi Joshua Spodek regularly studies the Talmud at home with his son, but when he began using an iPad and the iTalmud app, he noticed how his son responded to the “fusion of modern technology with ancient text.” Spodek, who works at the Scheck Hillel Community Day School in North Miami Beach, thought of a way to bring that technology to the classroom. The school is now offering an entirely paperless Talmud course.

“The increased levels of engagement, portability, and space and cost saving have been enormous,” said Seth Dimbert, the school’s director of learning technologies. “Normally, when you study the Talmud, each page is covered with cross-references and tertiary commentaries, and you have bookshelves filled with dozens or even hundreds of secondary reference texts. Using an iPad application puts all of that reference material in hypertext. It’s an ideal way to study the Talmud, which is in some sense the original hypertext.”

At the Frankel Jewish Academy (FJA) in suburban Detroit, students began this school year with a nice surprise. Each student in the high school received a new 16GB WiFi iPad2. The school-wide distribution of the iPad to each student is the result of both a generous gift from an angel donor and the advantageous timing in the school’s computer lease agreement with Apple. Patti Shayne, the school’s director of technology, believes the iPad project is in line with FJA’s reputation as a cutting-edge institution, especially in the area of technology.

“The move to this incredible new technology gives teachers access to so many more sources and enables students to leverage their learning. With the iPad, students have one central place for assignments, communications and in many cases, text books and reading material. They will be able to access sources not available before,” explained Shayne. “Our job is to make that learning as inspiring and exciting as possible and prepare FJA students for a future where competency with all web-based devices is the norm.”

Kindergarten students at the Bohrer-Kaufman Hebrew Academy
of Morris County, New Jersey (Photo by Johanna Ginsberg)

The students aren’t the only ones in the school who have embraced the iPads. The teachers had a chance to play with them before the students even returned from summer break. One teacher at FJA was already an iPad pro. Robert Walker, a government teacher, has had an iPad since 2009 when they were released to the public. “Where I see the iPad really impacting learning is that it appeals to so many different learning styles. Students will have more freedom in choosing the direction they want to go to master their coursework,” Walker said. “While meeting the requirements, students will also have the ability to go above and beyond what they are required to do. It’s a powerful tool that will support learning in any number of ways.”

One way the iPad will help students learn is by giving them the opportunity to review a lecture they might not have fully understood the first time. FJA’s chemistry teacher videotaped himself going through a problem and then uploaded the informational video onto the students’ iPads. “Students now have the opportunity to watch his demonstration several times,” explained Shayne. “Sometimes you don’t catch it all and some students are hesitant to speak up. With the iPad they can listen to the explanation as many times as they need at home or at school.”

That same chemistry teacher uses a free app called Mahjong Chem, which his students use to practice matching elemental names to symbols, naming polyatomic ions, assigning oxidation numbers, earning electronic configurations and understanding metric prefixes. Other apps that are being used include Pages (for word processing), Keynote (for presentations) and Numbers (an app similar to Microsoft Excel). Students are allowed to purchase their own apps, as long as the apps meet the standards of the school’s Acceptable Use Policy. Teachers may even require students to purchase apps; a requirement explained to parents in a document from Shayne as the equivalent to asking students to purchase a calculator, notebook or other necessary school supplies.

Are the students using the iPads for serious academic work or are they just expensive video game consoles with a pretty screen? According to 12th grader Shira Wolf of West Bloomfield, it’s a mix. “In Jewish Leadership, our teacher, Mr. [Marc] Silberstein, is trying to be completely paperless so we went over the syllabus on our iPads and got to play around with the neuAnnotate app to annotate it.” She also noted that it’s common to see her peers playing the popular game “Words with Friends” on their iPads during study hall or even in class, which is frowned upon.

Other Jewish day schools across the country are incorporating iPads into the schools as well. While it’s mostly middle schools and high schools, there are also some elementary schools that have made iPads part of the learning process. At the Modern Orthodox Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, all fourth-through-sixth graders have an iPad. As Julie Wiener, educational writer at The Jewish Week points out, the iPads “bring challenges as well: they are fragile, expensive, awkward to type on and chock full of distractions, especially when connected to the Internet. And it is unclear whether — once its novelty wears off and if it becomes as commonplace as pencils and notebooks — the toy-like iPad will retain its magical power over children.”

Some educators are quick to point out that if teachers use the new technology to teach the same way they always have then the technology is not being used correctly. “To let students simply listen to lectures on their own time – that doesn’t require an iPad. It requires a tape player. Or to study Talmud in the same way, just with a different visual – again, we’re not revolutionizing education,” argues Dr. Erica Rothblum, the Head of School at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, California. “At our school, we have a 1:1 iPad program for all students in grades 4-6, but we are very aware that this is a tool. There are times that a pen and paper are better tools, and students will use those. The iPad does allow us, however, to encourage discovery, play and research.

At Rothblum’s school, the students are creating a “visual tefillah” by finding visuals that represent their prayers and using keynote, including animation, to illustrate what the prayer means. Students there are also creating “voicethreads” in Hebrew in which they record themselves telling a story or a conversation in Hebrew and then parents, teachers and their peers can listen to the recording and leave comments.

So, what’s next? Mobile device learning is certainly the wave of the future and school administrators are predicting innovations that never would have been believed a decade ago. When cell phone technology became inexpensive enough for high school and middle school students to be able to bring their phones to school, policies were quickly implemented to first ban the communication devices and then eventually place restrictions on their use.

One thing that has changed with this younger generation is the innate comfort level they have with technology. After all, this is the generation that has grown up with iPods, digital cameras and smartphones. Shaindle Braunstein-Cohen, former director of the Hermelin ORT Resource Center, underscored this when she said, “We used to teach technology as a subject. We would teach how to use a device. It’s no longer the ‘something’ that we teach; it’s the platform on which we deliver information.”

When asked how long Shayne expects FJA will keep the current crop of iPads until they become stale or even obsolete as Apple continues to release more powerful versions each year, she responded, “We are looking at a three-year refresh rate. As to what the future holds, maybe one of our students will invent it.”

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

Ben Stein Sues Kyocera for Religious Discrimination

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

With today’s 10-second tease video with Matthew Broderick hinting at a “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” sequel, it is only fitting to take a close look at Ben Stein’s ongoing legal battle with Kyocera. Stein, who played the memorable high school teacher in the 1986 movie (“Bueller? Bueller?”) was set to film a commercial for Kyocera, the producer of cameras, copiers, printers, mobile phones, and the like.

Even though Ben Stein’s lawyer “considered the deal done” according to the lawsuit, it appears there never was a signed contract between Kyocera and Stein. The company is very environmentally conscious and ultimately decided not to use Stein, who is a practicing Jew, upon learning of his anti-science views on global warming. Stein shot back against Kyocera claiming the company is infringing on his religious freedom since he maintains that as a Jewish man he believes that God and not man controlls the weather. Formally, Stein is claiming that Kyocera’s refusal to let him pitch their products constitutes “wrongful discharge in violation of fundamental public policy.”

Ben Stein claims that he is by no means certain that global warming was man-made, a position held by many scientists and political conservatives (Stein was a speechwriter in the Nixon Administration). His argument is that the opinion of whether man makes the weather or God makes the weather is a matter of religious belief and Kyocera has fired him based on that which is a violation of state and federal law.

Ben Stein’s arguments that his religious beliefs were being called into question and his rights were violated did not hold up very well. He then made a different complaint arguing that an actor who looks like him, Peter Morici, ultimately was featured in the Kyocera commercial and he is “an explicit misappropriation of Ben Stein’s likeness and persona, which is an explicit violation of Ben Stein’s rights of privacy and of publicity, barred by California law.”

If anything came out of this lawsuit it is that we now know that name Peter Morici. And if Ben Stein can’t agree to a contract to reprise his role as the boring econ teacher in the “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” sequel, Peter Morici will get another gig.

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

Is Drew Barrymore Jewish? No, But She’s Converting to Judaism with Adam Sandler’s Help

Cross-posted to the Community Next blog

Is Drew Barrymore Jewish? The answer is that she currently is not, but she appears to be interested in converting to the Jewish faith. She is engaged to marry Will Kopelman this year.

While many non-Jews preparing for conversion to Judaism reach out to rabbis or Jewish friends for guidance, Drew Barrymore has sought out a colleague who has been an Israeli hair stylist, a water boy, a hockey player/golfer, and a surrogate father. Yep, Adam Sandler is reportedly offering guidance to Barrymore during the transition to the Jewish people.

Perhaps Drew Barrymore will hear her name in the next version of Adam Sandler’s Hanukkah Song, which would be the fourth installment in Sandler’s humorous song that lists Hollywood’s Jews who celebrate Hanukkah.

The celebrity gossip magazine In Touch Weekly reported that Sandler might even play a major role at Drew Barrymore’s wedding:

According to insiders, Drew Barrymore wants her favorite co-star Adam Sandler to be her best man when she marries fiancé Will Kopelman in a traditional Jewish ceremony later this year.

In fact, Adam and 36-year-old Drew have grown so close while working on several movies together that “he’s even helping her with the process of converting to Judaism,” a source tells In Touch.

“Those two absolutely adore each other, so it only made sense to Drew that he will be right by her side playing an important role at her wedding.”

Although her rep denies the story, Drew, who has gotten very close to Will’s family, has told them she will raise their children Jewish, says the friend.

Unlike her experience with Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore probably didn’t have to go through 50 First Dates before becoming engaged to Kopelman. But there is a good chance that her best man will also be the Wedding Singer on her big day!

For now, she’ll likely be studying in anticipation of her conversion. When Drew Barrymore makes it official and converts to Judaism, coming up with fun headlines will not be a challenge. “Barrymore Becomes Drewish” or “Drew A Jew” are two of my favorites.

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

Action More Than Words

In this week’s Torah portion called Vaera, the Lord speaks to Moses, saying, “Go and tell Pharaoh King of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” However, Moses protests. He raises doubts that the people will listen to him. He uses a kal vachomer – the hermeneutical device often used by the rabbis in midrashic literature. Applying the outcome from a minor case to a major case, the formula is “If X, then all the more so Y.” Moses says to God, “The Israelites [my own people] would not listen to me; how then should Pharaoh heed me, a man of impeded speech?” If his own people will not listen to him because of an inability to speak well, then how can God expect Pharaoh to listen to Moses’ demands?

This is not the first time that Moses appeals to God using his speech impediment as an excuse. In last week’s parsha, Moses claims Lo ish d’varim anokhi – “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant.” Ki khvad peh u’khvad lashon anokhi – “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”

God negotiates with Moses finally offering his brother Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece to convey the message to the people. Yet Moses remains the central guiding figure standing at the helm of the Israelite nation. One not familiar with the rest of the Biblical Narrative might presume that Moses’ incompetence in public speaking would immediately disqualify him for the role of leader of the Israelites. Thus, regardless of how we understand Moses’ speech impediment or its negative effect on his self-confidence, we should consider the fact that the Jewish people’s leader par excellence was not an effective speaker. And it did not matter.

Moses says, “I am not a man of words.” So, how is he such a successful leader? He is a man of action. Moses says, “I am slow of speech.” What does he mean by this? He is a man of justice. He might have physical disabilities or limitations precluding him from eloquently conveying a message, but it does not deter him from demonstrating strong and charismatic leadership abilities in other ways. What Moses lacks in oratorical skill, he makes up for in his action, and in his pursuit of justice.

This past week our nation commemorated the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the anniversary of his birthday. Dr. King was one of humanity’s greatest orators. He could steer an audience’s emotions with his booming voice, with his carefully crafted words, with his memorable sound bites. And yet, it was his acts of social justice that ultimately made him the great leader that he was. Many of us have seen the famous photographs of Dr. King walking arm-in-arm with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the march in Selma Alabama. Heschel famously commented that on that day, he was “praying with his feet.”

Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rabbi Seymour Siegel thanking
him for his honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary on July 3, 1968

Equally moving was the time King and Heschel, two modern masters of words, walked together in silence to Arlington’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in protest of the war in Vietnam. They laid a wreath in pledge to lo yilmedu od milchama – that humankind would “no longer know war.” They certainly could have movingly expressed their feelings with words, but it was more powerful to resort to action. They let their actions do the speaking.

We should be curious as to why God does not perform a miracle and correct Moses’ speech impediment. After all, this is a God who only moments later causes miraculous plagues to triumph the Egyptians and opens the sea for our ancestors to cross. The answer must be that actions speak louder than words. Moses leads by example. He leads by doing.

This should become a powerful message of American Judaism. We have the moral imperative to strengthen our social action initiatives. We must apply Jewish ethics to contemporary issues pursuing social justice. From the words in our Tradition, tzedek tzedek tirdof (only justice shall you pursue), we must make it our ethical responsibility to make social action one of our highest priorities. Rabbi Shammai teaches in Pirkei Avot, “Say Little Do Much.” Not everyone is a great speaker. But that should not be a hindrance. Be a “doer.” You can change the world.

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

Scooter Braun Confirms That Justin Bieber Says the Shema Before Every Show

In October 2010 I used the example of Justin Bieber reciting the “Shema Yisrael” Jewish prayer in a blog post about non-Jews performing Jewish rituals. I explained how there were reports that Justin Bieber’s Jewish manager Scott “Scooter” Braun, who discovered Bieber on YouTube, taught Justin the “Shema Yisrael” prayer and he says it before each concert. In the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, Scooter Braun said “Justin prays the Shema before each show. First he says a Christian prayer, then he says the Shema.”

I cynically noted that “Based on the number of concerts at which Justin Bieber performs, I’m guessing that he’s actually said the most important statement of Jewish belief many more times in his life than the average 16-year-old Jewish youth.”

Scenes of Justin Bieber saying the Shema even made it into his “Never Say Never” movie (I haven’t actually seen the movie, but that’s what I’m told).

Last week at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I had a chance to meet Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun. After Justin looked into my camera and said hello to my six-year-old daughter (which made her year!), I asked Scooter Braun to give a “shout out” to her as well. After he mentioned that he has a cousin by the same name as my daughter, he also confirmed that Justin says the Shema before every show. Here’s the video:

Here’s Justin Bieber saying the Shema along with Scooter Braun, Usher, and Jayden Smith:

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

Sitting Shiva for Traditional Shiva

I’ve been thinking about death and mourning quite a bit lately. To begin with, the first week of the new year brought with it a rash of deaths here in the Detroit Jewish community. There were a fair share of elderly grandparents who died in their 80s and 90s during the first week of 2012, but that isn’t all that uncommon. Within a one-week period, however, there were tragic and untimely deaths in every age demographic ranging from a drug overdose to horrific traffic accidents to sudden massive heart attacks to the succumbing of long illnesses. There was a lot of mourning and a lot of grieving here in the Detroit Jewish community.

I’ve also been thinking about death and mourning because I’ve been working on an article for The Detroit Jewish News about the Shiva Connect website which helps mourners coordinate shiva following the death of a loved one. The research I’ve done on this website has pushed me to look closer at how Jews are observing shiva in the 21st century.

Author Bruce Feiler’s article in today’s  NY Times was difficult to read because it makes me think that we should perhaps sit shiva for the traditional expression of Judaism’s mourning rituals which have been around for thousands of years. Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible, writes about observing a “secular shiva” for his friends who have died recently (or for his friends’ relatives). Rather than paying a condolence call to the home of the mourners, Feiler’s friends have gathered elsewhere and ordered pizza and a fruit salad and listened to eulogies by the grieving family. Bereft of prayers or the obligatory rites of Jewish mourning, Feiler finds this “secular shiva” to be a natural outgrowth of our busy, complicated lives without religion in the Digital Age.

There is already a trend among non-Orthodox Jews to minimize the length of shiva. The Hebrew word “shiva” means seven and refers to the number of days the mourners are required to stay at home receiving visitors to pay their condolences. Traditionally, the only time that shiva isn’t the full seven days is when it is interrupted by a significant Jewish holiday during which time formal morning is prohibited. When I first became a rabbi eight years ago I would listen to families explain why sitting shiva for the full seven days seemed too arduous. I would then be able to convince them to do it even it meant a little bargaining such as keeping the final few days private without opening their home to everyone. These days, it has become commonplace for families to only “hold shiva” for a few days or at the very least a few hours following the funeral.

Feiler’s NY Times article is titled “Mourning in the Age of Facebook”, but it focuses less on social media sympathies and more on this New Age observance of shiva. (I wrote about mourning and the effect of social networking sites like Facebook in a blog post for The Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog in May 2010.) Feiler’s argument is that shiva is too difficult to take place at the home of the mourners. I’ve heard this argument before and agree with it on some levels. The last thing that many mourners want to think about after their loved one has died is opening their home to an unknown number of people including many strangers who are connected to the deceased through other mourners. Of course, the idea of shiva is that the mourners shouldn’t have to worry about making sure their house is clean for shiva or if there will be enough food or ample parking. That should be taken care of by their community of friends. But truthfully, it is still stressful time for mourners and is likely the leading cause of the desire to shorten the length of the traditional shiva period.

I recently spoke with the leader of a local Reform congregation who shared his vision of creating a physical space (not in the synagogue or funeral home) for mourners to gather for shiva. It would be designed to feel like a living room and friends would visit with the mourners there so no one had to open their home to countless people during the immediate week of grief. On the one hand this idea makes sense, but there’s a certain warmth that I believe would be missing. There’s a certain unique feeling about shiva in a mourner’s home. Traditionally the mourner shouldn’t have to leave home during shiva. That is why people come to the shiva house and daily prayer services are held there rather than in the synagogue.

The part of Feiler’s article I found most troubling was the notion that we’re just too busy these days to fully respond to death. Feiler quotes a hospice nurse who explains, “We’re just too busy in this world to deal with losing people.” I certainly hope that’s not the case. There is a reason that seven days of mourning were instituted. While death is never convenient, we are obligated to respond to it by taking time out of our busy, overextended schedules and comfort the mourners in their time of grief.

It is certainly more convenient to post a quick sentence or two of condolence on the mourner’s Facebook Wall, but that shouldn’t preclude us from performing the tradition acts of comforting the mourners as instituted by our faith. Judaism is fluid and progresses through the generations in response to the changing culture of the times and the needs of its practitioners, but we should be cautious in how much we change certain aspects of our tradition. Formal shiva serves a purpose and while it is not a convenient situation it guarantees the comfort of the community.

As Feiler notes, “Especially in a world in which so much communication happens online, the balming effect of a face-to-face gathering can feel even more magnified. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva offers an appealing template.” Rather than seeing social media promote the loss of traditional shiva observance, I hope it is used to strengthen it. We are all busy with many distractions, but hopefully we’ll find ways to use modern technology to help our friends who are grieving. We should recognize the inherent value of traditional shiva rather than trying to reinvent it. I’m glad that Bruce Feiler found meaning in the “secular shivas” he observed for his friends, but I pray that we’ll return religion to its proper place in Jewish mourning ritual.

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

Jews for Tebow

The Tim Tebow craze is now hotter than ever as the Denver Broncos’ quarterback is shepherding (sorry!) his team into the playoffs. In November I wrote about about how Tim Tebow and his kneeling in public prayer (“Tebowing”) was heating up the discussion of prayer in sports. I had no idea that the Tebowing craze would continue to be such a hot topic this late into the NFL season. Whether God is on his side or he’s just a phenomenal athlete in crunch situations, Tebow has certainly become the topic on everyone’s mind.

The most popular article written about the Jewish perspective on Tim Tebow was by my colleague Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Connecticut. When I first read his article on The Jewish Week’s website, I had to continuously go back and re-read each sentence because I couldn’t believe what Hammerman was arguing. Apparently, neither did most people including Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week who had the article taken down from the website (but not before it was published in the print edition).

Out of respect for Hammerman I decided not to comment on his article at the time. He was receiving a heavy amount of criticism from Tebow fans who took exception with his overly harsh critique of the quarterback. Hammerman’s article read more like a satirical piece that was printed a few months before Purim, the Jewish holiday on which such satire is commonplace. Hammerman wrote, “If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.” After The Jewish Week took down the article, Hammerman issued an apology to Tim Tebow, his fans and his family. The Jewish Week also issued an apology explaining that the article “violated our own standards calling for civility in posting comments on our website.”

Rabbi Hammerman ate some crow and issued the following statement:

I have spent my entire career engaged in dialogue with people of all faiths while speaking out passionately against intolerance and extremism. I have the deepest respect for those who are committed to their faith, including Mr. Tebow. I realize the way in which I attempted to make my points was clumsy and inappropriate, calling to mind the kind of intolerance and extremism my article was intended to disparage. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Tebow, his family, the Broncos and Patriots and all those whom I may have offended.

The tide, however, seems to have shifted. Jews went from either not knowing what to make of Tim Tebow and his public displays of his Evangelical Christian faith to criticizing his fanaticism as Rabbi Hammerman regretfully wrote. Now, groups called “Jews for Tebow” are sprouting up everywhere. A “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page has close to 500 Likes. Jewish fans are showing up to Tebow’s games wearing “Jews for Tebow” shirts and rabbis are speaking positively about Tebow from the pulpit.

The “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page was created by a self-described non-observant Israeli named Ike Thaler, who is not from Denver (he lives in South Florida). What prompted him to create the Tebow Facebook group on behalf of Jewish fans? He explains, “I have been a Tebow fan since his first year in College, but I decided to look for a forum to express my support for Tim Tebow as well as find a way to provide a different Tim Tebow fan page which includes more humor and the lighter side of the subject. I wanted to create a fan page like no other Tim Tebow fan page. Our page is ‘not your parent’s Tim Tebow fan page’.”

Thaler’s own faith has strengthened since becoming a Tebow fan. He claims that his loyalty and admiration have grown tenfold since seeing Tebow getting battered for expressing his religious beliefs. “I obviously disagree with his religious views, but I admire him for being so positive and sticking to his morals by expressing his priorities in serving God over the temptations that fame and the superstar status bring into his life. What a positive role model.”

Thaler tells me that he is currently working on releasing a unique video related to Tim Tebow that is going to be a video like no other one on the Web. It is going to mix humor and football clips with a unique Jewish twist. “It is sure to get bring out Jewish emotions,” he claims.

I’m noticing more Jewish people talking about Tebow and I get a lot of questions about my opinion on Tebowing. I think it’s great that he has strong beliefs and isn’t embarrassed to express those beliefs in public through his comments or his actions. Tebow is not forcing anyone else to believe what he does, but he is proud of his core beliefs.

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

Jack Lew, Obama’s New Chief of Staff is Shomer Shabbat

Will President Barack Obama’s new Chief of Staff answer the President’s phone call on Shabbat? It would appear that the answer to that question will be yes (even though he’s Shomer Shabbos).

Obama’s pick to succeed William Daley as his Chief of Staff is Jack Lew. Lew is currently a senior administration official who has served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Jack Lew is a practicing Orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. He has been an active member of both Congregation Beth Sholom of Potomac, Maryland and the Riverdale Jewish Center the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) in New York.

Jack Lew, a Sabbath Observant Jew, will become Obama’s third Chief of Staff
While serving as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bill Clinton administration, Lew received a phone call from the president. He decided to take it and later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

President Obama’s first Chief of Staff was Rahm Emanuel who now serves as Mayor of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel considers himself to be a Conservative Jew and is not Shomer Shabbat — Sabbath observant. (Emanuel attends both the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Synagogue and the Conservative-affiliated Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.) That makes Jack Lew the first Sabbath observant holder of the Chief of Staff office (Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein was an observant Jew but was not Shomer Shabbat).

The transition from Daley to Lew is set to take place at the end of this month.

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

Vayechi: The Gift of An Ethical Will

In 1997, when Mitch Albom published his now famous Tuesdays with Morrie, he essentially presented three gifts. The first, of course, was his gift to society. Albom, a Detroit sportswriter who I’ve grown up reading, shared the inspiring wisdom of his college professor Morrie Schwartz. Publishing this book was also a gift to himself as he now has a memoir of his mentor’s lessons.

The third gift that Albom gave through writing this book was the gift of an ethical will for his beloved professor. Albom penned his old professor’s legacy of words. He served as a trusted biographer, an inquisitive interviewer, listening intently to Morrie’s story so that it will not soon be forgotten. Through Albom, Morrie Schwartz was able to leave his family and friends with a vivid image of him. I never met the man, but after reading the book (twice!), I have images of him laughing, dancing, and philosophizing in my head. Imagine how reading this book brings him back to life for those who knew him intimately.

For Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom did not merely write a “book.” He penned his ethical will on his behalf. Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the first ethical will when our patriarch Jacob called his sons together and said to them, Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father. He then spoke his ethical will to each of his sons, one at a time. He told them what he expected of them, what he learned in his own life, and what his blessing was for them.

There are three types of wills. The first is the most common one called a “Last Will and Testament.” In this legal type of will, usually drawn up by an attorney, the estate distributes material possessions after the individual’s death. It is in this will that you state to whom you would leave custody of your children, where your money will go, who gets the rare stamp collection, the bowling trophies, the Bob Dylan records, and so on.

Another type of will that is also of great importance is a living will. In a living will, one makes advance decisions about medical care in the event they should become incapacitated. With advances in medicine, it is crucial that we spend some time considering what our wishes would be should we find ourselves debilitated with an incurable illness. A wonderful source for guiding us through this complicated and challenging matter is Clal’s guide to palliative care entitled Embracing Life & Facing Death.

Ethical wills are not legal documents as compared to living wills and your last will and testament. In your ethical will, you decide how you want to be remembered. Rather than bequeathing material possessions to your survivors, you bestow to them the deeds and ideals by which you want others to remember you. Mitch Albom gave his friend an enormous gift by essentially publishing Morrie’s ethical will on his behalf, but the rest of us will not have a talented writer like Mitch Albom to do this for us. And so, we must take on the responsibility of writing our own ethical will — our legacy for our progeny.

A famous ethical will was composed by Nachmanides, a 13th century Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who lived in Spain. Late in his life he composed an ethical will to his son, writing, “Accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men, at all times. Thus will you be saved from anger, the fertile cause of sin… Remove anger from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh.” He concludes with, “Read this Letter once a week, and be as regular in carrying out its injunctions, by its aid walking forever after the Lord, blessed be He; that thou mayest prosper in all thy ways, and be held worthy of all the good which is treasured up for the righteous.” Nahmanides’ ethical will to his son is so moving that it is actually included in many editions of the prayer book.

Some might wish to include practical advice in their ethical wills. Moses Sofer, known as the Hatam Sofer, included the following in his ethical will to his children, “Be strong and courageous in diligent and penetrating study of God’s law. Establish groups for the dissemination of Torah, and promote activities for Torah among the populace. If you can do only a little, then do that little with utmost devotion.” In our ethical will, we might explain why we were philanthropic with certain causes in the hope that our children will continue that pattern of giving tzedakah. Perhaps there were certain life lessons we learned, mistakes we don’t want our children to repeat, and secrets we want to share.

In our day and age, we simply pick up the phone to communicate with friends and family or send simple text messages and chats. Pen and paper letter writing is a thing of the past today. Therefore, composing an ethical will can be a very challenging task. And yet, it can be a cathartic endeavor as well. It can be an opportunity to sit down and explore those lessons you wished you had taught during your life, but did not have the time. You might think you are going to be disappointed discovering all the things you wished you did in your life, only to realize how much you actually accomplished.

Take the example of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion and give the gift of an ethical will to your loved ones long after you’re gone. They’ll be thankful for the gift.

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