Being Honest About Ritual Circumcision

I don’t get squeamish watching a bris take place. And I’ve seen my fair share. However, I have been getting squeamish lately over the many news items concerning the legality and morality of ritual circumcision, a required Jewish life-cycle event for thousands of years.

When discussing brit milah (Jewish ritual circumcision), I believe it is important to be open and honest. I firmly believe that this mitzvah (commandment) is of paramount importance to the Jewish people and that we must ensure that it is done safely throughout the world to ensure that it continues for generations to come.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published a report revealing that a total of 11 newborn males were infected by the herpes simplex virus in New York City between November 2000 and December 2011. Of these 11 cases, the parents of 6 of the newborns acknowledged that the mohel (ritual circumcisor) had performed metzitza b’peh during the bris.  Metzitza b’peh is when the mohel places his mouth directly on the newly circumcised penis and sucks blood away from the wound. The vast majority of physicians have ruled that this aspect of the brit milah ritual must be forbidden for the obvious health risks involved.

Many people presume that only the most ultra-Orthodox communities still include metzitza b’peh in the bris ceremony. However, this month I heard of a bris that took place at Keter Torah Synagogue, a local Sephardic congregation in West Bloomfield, Michigan in which the mohel in fact performed metzitza b’peh. It is imperative that Jewish physicians and other Jewish professionals in the health care industry as well as rabbis insist that metzitza b’peh is no longer practiced. The health risks are evident and with Jewish ritual circumcision under attack, it is unwise to allow an unhealthy and dangerous aspect of the ritual to persist.

Just one year ago, there was a ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco. That measure would have outlawed circumcision on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity. No religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure. While that measure was shot down, a German court this week banned the circumcision of young boys for religious reasons. This ban on ritual circumcision applies to the Cologne region of Germany. According to MSNBC:

The court in the western city of Cologne handed down the decision on Tuesday in the case of a doctor who was prosecuted for circumcising a four-year-old Muslim boy. The doctor circumcised the boy in November 2010 and gave him four stitches, the Guardian reported. When the boy started bleeding two days later, his parents took him to Cologne’s University hospital, where officials called police. The doctor was ultimately acquitted on the grounds that he had not broken a law. The court ruled that involuntary religious circumcision should be made illegal because it could inflict serious bodily harm on people who had not consented to it. The ruling said boys who consciously decided to be circumcised could have the operation. No age restriction was given, or any more specific details.

The Central Council of Jews in Germany called the ruling an “unprecedented and dramatic intrusion” of the right to religious freedom and an “outrageous and insensitive” act.

Several Conservative Jewish groups including Masorti Olami, Masorti Europe and the Rabbinical Assembly of Europe have joined with the Central Council of Jews in Germany in condemning the decision of the district Court in Cologne. In a joint statement, they explained:

The circumcision of 8 day old male babies remains an important and meaningful rite in the lives of Jews all over the world. No other country has outlawed circumcision and this new legal decision impinges upon the religious freedom of Germany’s citizens be they Jewish or Muslim and the rights of other parents who wish to circumcise their sons.

A brit milah, as the circumcision ceremony is called in Hebrew, is one of the first mitzvot (or commandments) that God asks of Abraham. Just as Abraham observed the commandment, so too have his Jewish descendants over 1000s of years. While the Masorti movement consistently balances the needs of modernity against the needs of halacha or Jewish Law, there is no overwhelming proof that the circumcision of newborn boys causes any “irreversible damage against the body” as stated in the German court’s decision. On the contrary, medical research has shown that circumcision can reduce the risk of HIV infection, penile cancer and other urinary tract diseases.

The over 1.7 Million people in the 900 congregations and organizations in 45 countries represented by the Masorti (Conservative) Worldwide Movement call upon the Government of Germany to quickly work to reverse this grievous course of curtailing religious freedoms and dictating fundamental actions of faith communities.

Source: etsy.com

It is my belief that a war is being waged on ritual circumcision. In order for it to be preserved for future generations there must be compromise. We must be honest that it is an odd religious ritual in the 21st century, but it is a core part of both the Jewish and Muslim religions. In order to try to curtail some of the controversy surrounding brit milah, I propose the following:

1) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must have a signed certificate that they went through a course of training in which health and safety guidelines were learned.

2) Any individual who will perform a brit milah must sign an agreement that metzitza b’peh will not be performed under any circumstances as it endangers the livelihood of the infant boy.

It must also be acknowledged that ritual circumcision is a medical procedure and it is unique in that it is most often performed in a living room or synagogue. I would love it if there were some certification program in which mohalim had to be re-certified every ten years to ensure compliance. Brit milah is often learned through an apprenticeship and there’s nothing to ensure that an elderly mohel is still physically able to perform the ritual adequately.

Finally, we must acknowledge that the idea of friends and family gathered in a living room watching a newborn baby undergo a medical procedure is not for everyone. Conceding that brit milah should be performed in a hospital would only encourage parents to have the circumcision performed before the required eighth day and that is not advisable. Rather, mohalim should give the option of performing the brit milah in a more private setting and then the religious ceremony can take place for the larger assembly. While this would alter the traditional nature of the brit milah ceremony, it would also guarantee that there’s an understanding that the ritual is also a medical procedure that deserves both privacy and a safe and sanitary environment.

By continuing to pretend that there’s nothing odd about a newborn baby boy having a surgical procedure in a living room in front of dozens who eagerly wait for the bagel and lox spread to open is a mistake. We must acknowledge that this is a unique religious ritual in the 21st century. We must admit that there is some pain for the infant, but that it is not long lasting (an anesthetic should be encouraged but not required). We must ensure that there is some uniform compliance on the part of the practitioner (mohel) for the sake of the health and safety of the baby. And we must insist on a complete ban on metzitza b’peh with no exceptions.

With these guidelines in place, we will be better positioned to counter any legislation — whether in San Francisco or in Germany — that could put Jewish ritual circumcision in jeopardy.

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

Domestic Violence is Real (Chukat)

In this week’s parsha, Chukat, Moses is once again feeling the stress of leadership. Tired and quickly losing hope following the death of his sister Miriam, the Israelites complain to Moses that they would have rather died in Egypt. They go so far as to wish they had died a horrible death along with those punished for joining Korach’s rebellion. They grumble that they were happier during their slave years in Egypt, where at least they had certain assurances compared to their current nomadic experience. They protest that they have been brought to a wretched place with no good food to eat or water to drink.

To produce water for the people the Lord commands Moses and his brother Aaron to assemble the community and order a rock to yield its water for the Israelites to drink. Rather than obeying God’s order verbatim, Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock twice producing drinking water. Immediately, Moses is condemned by God to die in the wilderness rather than being allowed to marshal his troops all the way to the Promised Land “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people.”

This certainly seems a harsh punishment for Moses’s actions, but upon deeper examination there is much to learn from both the mistake and the punishment. Rashi comments that the double striking of the rock was unnecessary and proved insulting to the sanctity of God by diminishing the greatness of the miracle. A midrash explains that the sin of Moses was not merely the physical act of striking the rock, but also that he lost control of his temper during Israel’s rebellion. The commentaries of Maimonides and Samson Raphael Hirsch concur that the severe punishment was for losing patience with the Israelites and striking the rock twice in frustration. In the Talmud we find the lesson that “When a prophet (like Moses) loses his temper, his gift of prophecy abandons him.”

Several excuses can be made in defense of Moses’ action. Clearly the leadership of such a complaining nation in the hot desert grew taxing on Moses, raising his stress level and making it more difficult to reason with the Israelites. Further, he did have the best interest of the people in mind when answering their call for more drinking water. However, he allowed his emotions to get the better of him and resorted to hitting rather than speaking. While Moses hit an inanimate object rather than speaking to it, his action should alert us to a serious problem today.

Domestic violence occurs in Jewish families at about the same rate of 15% as in the general community. However, studies demonstrate that Jewish women tend to stay in abusive relationships two or three times longer than those in the general population. The misnomer that domestic abuse is not a Jewish concern further exacerbates the problem by discouraging abused women from reporting the abuse to others.

Rather than speaking to each other about difficult issues within the relationship, many partners (mostly men according to statistics) resort to violence. Oftentimes, men blame their abusive actions on stress from work and they allow their emotions to impair their better judgment. Regardless of how demanding one’s life may seem with weighty responsibilities at home and at work, resorting to abuse is never acceptable. The lesson of Moses aptly demonstrates this for us. His punishment was indeed severe, but so is the message it sends to our community. It is always better to use words than to hit.

For more information on domestic abuse in the Jewish community, visit www.jcada.org.

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

JTS Posts Warning in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, an Israeli neighborhood about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, has been in the news quite a bit over the past year.

After the opening of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh in September 2011, groups of radical Haredim gathered in front of the school, calling the girls names and spitting at them when they headed to and from school in clothing the extremists considered to be immodest by their strict standards. Some Haredi men were arrested on the suspicion of throwing eggs and tomatoes at students.

There was an international outcry at the end of 2011 after Haredim spat on an 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants and called her “a prostitute” for attending the school. After these and other harassment incidents in Beit Shemesh made international headlines, the US State Department updated its Jerusalem travel advisory in January 2012, advising visitors to “dress appropriately” when visiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, or to avoid them entirely.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Beit Shemesh there are pashkvils (advisory posters) admonishing about immodest dress for women and warning women to walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk from men. I never would have expected to see a pashkvil from my own rabbinic institution, but I learned today from the FailedMessiah blog that indeed the Jewish Theological Seminary is posting pashkvils in Beit Shemesh.

JTS Poster in Beit Shemesh
Source: Michael Rose, Judaica Book Centre via Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

According to my colleague Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky,the JTS pashkvil calls upon people not to use the Morasha le-Hanḥil edition of the Shulḥan Arukh as it violates the copyright of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pashkvil is produced on official JTS letterhead and signed by the Seminary’s Librarian Dr. David Kraemer.

Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary



The pashkvil refers to the Seminary’s licensed edition of the publication as stolen property because of the copyright violation. As Rabbi Pitkowsky explains on his blog, “apparently, JTS gave permission to Mechon Rosh Pina to publish a manuscript from their collection, Rabbi Shemaryah Brandris’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, Rosh Pina. Morasha le-Hanḥil has apparently published in their edition of the Shulḥan Arukh Brandris’s commentary without JTS’s permission.”

I would like to see posters displayed throughout Beit Shemesh from JTS, or other Conservative or Reform institutions, admonishing the Haredim for their lack of modesty and their bad behavior when they harass young women. However, I must admit that it’s funny to see a JTS pashkvil on the streets of Beit Shemesh. While I have my doubts, I certainly hope the Seminary is able to protect its copyrights in their book publishing endeavors. And I hope these posters remain on display long enough for the citizens of Beit Shemesh to actually read them.

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

Korach Challenges the Leadership of Moses with a Tallit

This D’var Torah for Parashat Korach was published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The Tallit: A Reminder of Our Relationship With God

Hanging in the back of my closet is a beautiful tallit that was hand-woven in Ethiopia. This colorful prayer shawl was purchased by my grandmother several years ago when the renowned “Mitzvah Man” Danny Siegel visited Adat Shalom Synagogue. The tallit is waiting in my closet until my oldest son becomes a bar mitzvah and, God willing, my grandmother can present it to him as a gift.

The tallit is a fascinating garment. There are many different styles and fashions of the tallit that we see being worn at synagogue during prayer services, but the most important component to the tallit are the fringes that hang from the four corners.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following about the tallit:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute…

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget:
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin Korach mounts a rebellion against him. Korach argues that he has as much right to lead the Israelites as Moses or Aaron, who are in the same generational line on the Levite family tree.

The tallit plays an interesting role in this biblical story of mutiny. The Korach narrative begins with the words Vayikach Korach, which come immediately following God’s instructions regarding the laws of tzitzit, the fringes with a blueish/purpleish cord (a p’til tekhelet) that are commanded to be attached to ones tallit. Each four-cornered garment must have four tzitziyot hanging from each corner. Midrash Tanchuma notices the words Vayikach Korach – “Korach took” and imagines what Korach took by associating that phrase to the section preceding it.

The Midrash imagines that what Korach took were the words from above in the text concerning tzitzit. The Midrash presents a story in which Korach tries to embarrass Moses by challenging him with a difficult question. He says, “You told us to put tekhelet on the tzitzit, tell me if the tallit is entirely made up of tekhelet, would such a tallit still require four tzitzit?” Moses replies that it would still require tzitzit.”

Korach then responds with a challenge, questioning the fact that four strings of tekhelet can allow you to wear a tallit, but a garment made entirely of tekhelet cannot be exempted from this restriction?” Korach isn’t simply challenging Moses’ authority, but also mocking him, and by extension mocking God’s Torah.

Korach uses the tallit, a holy ritual object, for a negative purpose. The tallit is a ritual garb that shows that the Jewish people are a holy nation of priests. Korach uses the tallit to make Moses look silly. He uses the tallit and tzitzit to undermine Moses’ authority.

Whether Korach was correct or not in challenging Moses’ authority, he was wrong for using a holy garment for the purpose of mocking the Israelite leader. The tallit is a reminder for us. It is used during prayer as a sign of our relationship with God through the commandments.

When we wear the tallit, we should look down at its fringes, the tzitzit, and be reminded of God’s love for us and of God’s gift of the Torah. We should also wear it proudly and let it serve as a reminder of how Moses and the Israelites did not allow Korach and his gang to overthrow their leadership.

Each morning when we wrap ourselves in our tallit let it serve to show that Korach was defeated and that the tallit should not be used for such negativity. Let us consider the words of Yehuda Amichai and be ever cognizant of the ritual of tallit – from taking it out, to folding it and putting it back in its bag.

The tallit that I wear on Shabbat has an additional special meaning for me. This white tallit was a gift from the Jewish Theological Seminary upon my ordination as a rabbi. Like any tallit it has stories to tell. It has significant meaning because it reminds me of my experience in rabbinical school. It also brings to mind the many life-cycle events when I was wrapped in its embrace.

The tallit is a beautiful way for us to wrap ourselves in God’s embrace and be reminded of God’s love for us. Korach’s error was in using the tallit to undermine Moses’ authority and publicly humiliate him. Let us use the tallit for good. Let us wrap ourselves in the tallit and give thanks for leadership rather than trying to weaken it.

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

Are Hebrew National Hot Dogs Kosher?

When I awoke this morning to find a few news articles in my “Kosher” Google News Alerts regarding a lawsuit against ConAgra claiming Hebrew National hot dogs aren’t kosher, I didn’t give it much thought. That’s because a large segment of the kosher observant population hasn’t considered Hebrew National hot dogs to be kosher for many years.

Much of the criticism against Hebrew National in the past has more to do with “kosher politics” than it does with actual kosher standards. In fact, the reason why many don’t consider Hebrew National meat (most notably their hot dogs) to be kosher is because they are not glatt. Several months ago, I wrote on this blog about what “glatt kosher” means and why there is such a misunderstanding about it.

A leading Orthodox rabbi (Rabbi Yitzhak Abadi of New Jersey) and also the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (including kosher experts Rabbi Joel Roth, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz and Rabbi Paul Plotkin) have publicly stated that Hebrew National is truly kosher for those who do not eat only glatt meat. The three Conservative rabbis traveled to Hebrew National’s headquarters to inspect the facilities.

However, this class action lawsuit argues that ConAgra, the parent company behind Hebrew National, cut corners in the slaughtering process and that the head of Triangle-K, the certifying agency, did little to correct the transgressions.

According to the American Jewish World News, the complaint runs approximately 65 pages and notes that employees “who made the complaints were terminated or otherwise threatened with adverse retaliation, such as job transfers to other facilities or states. In turn, non-kosher meat was delivered to ConAgra and packaged, labeled and sold to the public [including the plaintiffs in the lawsuit] as strictly 100% kosher.”

The lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Hart Robinovitch, told the American Jewish World, “Don’t get me wrong here: We’re not saying that they’re passing off pork as kosher products… but in the complaint, as you can see, we went through the different elements and the different requirements for meat to be considered kosher, in terms of the way the cows are slaughtered, and the meat is prepared; and based on our investigation, there were certain things that weren’t conducted properly, in a systematic way, from the way cows were slaughtered, to the way the lungs were inspected or not inspected for imperfections, as is required to meet the standard that the meat is 100 percent kosher.”

According to the lawsuit, the plaintiffs thought they were buying products that were 100 percent kosher. If that means the plaintiffs thought they were buying glatt kosher meat and surprised that it wasn’t, I don’t think that’s cause for a lawsuit. Hebrew National and the Ralbag family rabbis who run Triangle-K have been clear that Hebrew National is not glatt. Therefore it isn’t deception.

However, if Hebrew National has been using non-kosher meat (non-glatt does not mean non-kosher or treif) then the class-action lawsuit has merit.

There are many different levels of kosher observance. Thus, it is difficult to have a secular court rule on whether a company is claiming its meat to be 100% kosher but it actually is not 100% kosher for some consumers.

I am irritated when I hear the Hebrew National hot dogs being marketed as “kosher hot dogs” at Detroit Tigers baseball games when in fact they are cooked on the same grill as the non-kosher hot dogs and sausages. Further, the buns they are wrapped in are dairy thus violating the kosher law against mixing dairy and meat. However, I also recognize that for some fans at the baseball stadium the fact that the hot dogs are kosher is satisfactory enough for them.

Whenever a food is advertised as kosher, it is caveat emptor – buyer beware. It is important to do a little research before eating the product. In the case of Hebrew National, it is well documented that their meat isn’t glatt which means not 100% kosher for some people. If that is the rationale for the class action lawsuit, I say it’s frivolous. If, however, Hebrew National and its parent company ConAgra, is guilty of cutting corners and passing off treif meat as kosher, then I think this lawsuit is legitimate and Hebrew National will have to answer to an even higher authority.

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

Uncle As Father Figure

The past three Father’s Days have been difficult days for me. I’ve spent each of them with my dad, but I missed my beloved uncle in a real and painful way. My Uncle Jerry died after a very brief battle with Pancreatic cancer in February 2009.

As this year’s Father’s Day approached I thought about the father figure role that many uncles play in their nephew’s life. I have a wonderful relationship with my own dad, but my relationship with my uncle was different. He served as a different type of role model for me than my father. My uncle was the one to take me to hockey games and for a ride on the back of a motorcycle. We went on day-long excursions by snowmobile or by boat. It was my uncle who taught me to appreciate an ice cold beer on a hot summer day and a fine glass of wine with good friends as the sun was setting.

While my father taught me to drive, it was my uncle who taught me to drive aggressively and strategically and how to appreciate a luxury automobile. Uncle Jerry showed me by example that hard work pays off. He also demonstrated the value of a good vacation away from the office and the importance of enjoying time with the family.

My uncle had his own children, but he still made time for me and his other nephews and nieces. Just as there is a significant role for a Savvy Auntie to play in one’s life, there is a significant role for a devoted uncle too. The uncle is an unsung hero in society.

As the fond memories of my Uncle Jerry were floating in my head and I was considering the ways he served as a complementary (not surrogate) father figure in my life I was called upon to officiate at a funeral. On the phone, the local funeral director explained that the family was not affiliated with any congregation. He also told me that the contact person would be the deceased’s niece, but that she and her siblings should be treated as the grieving children.

When I arrived at the house to meet with the family in preparation for the funeral the following day, I learned that the man I was to eulogize played a substantial role in the lives of his nieces and nephew. While his own father died when he was just a young boy and he grew up without a father figure in his life, he filled that role outstandingly for his own two children as well as for his three nieces and nephew.

I listened to the stories flying at me from all directions about a man who shed the “Uncle” title and became “Dad” to four children when their own parents were no longer available. I considered how many uncles fill this role for their nieces and nephews. Some uncles, like the man who just departed this earth, step up and take on a father figure role when the need arises, and do so with love and affection. Others, like my own uncle, serve as a father figure in ways that complement the role of a biological father.

Father’s Day was one of my uncle’s favorite days of the year. He loved to open his house to the family and barbeque for us. As everyone was finishing dessert he’d motion to me to go outside and we’d play catch until it was too dark to see the ball. Sometimes I would just watch him hit tennis balls with a golf driver to his eager Golden Retriever. Growing up, I now realize that Father’s Day for me was also a day to honor my uncle and the impact he had on my development.

Just as Melanie Notkin has reframed our understanding of aunthood, I encourage everyone to take into account the special role that uncle’s play in the lives of their nieces and nephews. On this Father’s Day, I will once again pay tribute to the memory of my uncle. Through his actions he was influential in the way I now serve as a father to my own children. While I am not yet an uncle, I know that when the time comes I will look to Uncle Jerry as a role model. His legacy will inspire me to take a father figure approach to being an uncle. In a big way.

Cross-posted to SavvyAuntie.com

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

Michigan Rep. Lisa Brown Talks About Her Kosher Kitchen and Her Vagina on House Floor

The title of this blog post would seem odd unless you are familiar with Lisa Brown’s speech on the floor of the Michigan House of Representatives yesterday. Somehow Brown, a State Representative from West Bloomfield, Michigan, managed to segue from a personal account of her kosher observance at home to mention that her vagina was not to be a topic discussed by her congressional colleagues.

For mentioning the word “vagina,” Brown was blocked from speaking on the state House floor today as punishment. Her speech yesterday was addressing a controversial bill that would have further regulated abortions in Michigan. At the end of her speech, Brown said, “Finally Mr. Speaker, I’m flattered that you’re all so interested in my vagina, but ‘no’ means ‘no.'”

So today, the Speaker of House censured Brown, refusing her to participate in a discussion of a school employee retirement bill. The Speaker’s argument was that Brown’s use of the word “vagina,” which is the technical, medical term for a part of the woman’s anatomy was a violation of the Michigan State House’s policy on decorum.

What I found more interesting than Brown’s rejoinder to her Republican colleagues across the aisle that her vagina was off limits was Brown’s description of her kosher observance and a cogent explanation for Judaism’s treatment of abortion.

Rep. Lisa Brown referenced the talk by her colleague from Holland, Michigan who spoke about religious freedom. She then went on to speak personally about her own faith.

I’m Jewish. I keep kosher in my home. I have two sets of dishes. One for meat and one for dairy, and another two sets of dishes on top of that for Passover. Judaism believes that therapeutic abortions, namely abortions performed in order to preserve the life of the mother are not only permissable but mandatory. The stage of pregnancy does not matter. Wherever there is a question of the life of the mother or that of the unborn child, Jewish law rules in favor of preserving the life of the mother. The status of the fetus as human life does not equal that of the mother. I have not asked you to adopt and adhere to my religious beliefs. Why are you asking me to adopt yours?

Here is the video clip of Rep. Lisa Brown’s talk on the House floor yesterday.

Rep. Lisa Brown (a fellow Bloomfield Hills Andover High School and Michigan State University alum) gave a press conference today in Lansing following the House of Representative’s decision to ban her from speaking in today’s session. The video of her press conference is available here.

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

Ultra-Orthodox Correct About Internet Dangers

When I first heard that a rally was planned for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews to protest the Internet, I didn’t think it would attract much attention. After all, the Internet has long been under attack in Haredi communities and their rabbinic leaders have forbidden it in the past.

The event on May 20 at Citi Field in New York (home of the Mets) drew a massive audience of more than 40,000 men, with an overflow crowd tuning in to a live video feed at the neighboring Arthur Ashe tennis stadium. Women were not allowed entry to the event, but many viewed it, ironically enough, on the Internet through a live stream broadcast.

The speeches, mostly made in Yiddish with English subtitles on the stadium’s large video screen, condemned the Internet and warned that its impure content poses a serious threat to the Haredi lifestyle and the modesty that the Torah demands.

The day after the rally I was contacted by Ben Sales, a reporter for JTA. He wanted my opinion of the event and a quote about how I understand the role of the Internet in Jewish life. My sense is that he presumed I would criticize the rally’s organizing group for not realizing the gift of the Internet or how it has improved our lives.

Rather than disapproving of the rally or criticizing the speakers for a shortsighted understanding of technology, I explained that these Haredi leaders are correct. And they are. The Internet most certainly jeopardizes their way of life. The Internet will cause Haredi Jews to sin and will tear away at the fabric of their modest lives.

The way the Haredi communities have maintained such strict adherence to their understanding of religious life is by erecting borders to protect themselves from outside influences. Within a controlled, ghettoized environment self-control is not required as much as it is in a free and open society. The Internet virtually removes the ghetto walls and nullifies the borders of the Haredi neighborhoods void. Thus, the perils of the Internet are real to this community.

Many assume that when Haredi leaders speak of the threat of the Internet to their adherents they are referring to pornographic content. I don’t believe this is the case. The Haredi community is well versed on the availability of content filters that will sift out such immodest material. In fact, most of the speakers at the rally forbid their followers from browsing the Web without a filter for inappropriate sites.

Filters take care of removing indecent photos of a sexual nature and images of immodestly dressed women. What an Internet filter will not remove for the Haredi Web surfers however is other material their leaders consider to be explicit. Content that challenges their core beliefs and structured way of life are of most concern to the rally’s organizers. If Haredi Jews cannot exert the self-control needed to avoid content of an immodest nature, they can rely on the filters. However, they will still be subjected to “intellectual porn” – the thoughts and opinions of Jewish scholars that will challenge their thinking.

Scantily clad women can be seen by Haredi Jewish men on their way to Queens when they look at billboards on the side of the highway or magazine covers on sidewalk newsstands. However, Torah commentary written by modern Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis is only accessible to them through an unfiltered and unmonitored Internet. Blog posts, op-eds and doctoral theses are the pernicious enemies that scare Haredi leaders most about the Internet. Viewing pornographic imagery may lead Haredi disciples to sin, but unfiltered use of the Internet leads them to virtually leave their isolated community and could cause them to go off the path, venturing outside of their real life community as well.

Most of the Haredi critics of the Internet recognize that the Internet is necessary in today’s world and cannot be banned entirely. The speakers at the Citi Field rally readily admitted that both men and women in their communities rely on the Internet and other forms of modern technology for business as well as for personal use (banking, shopping and as a medical resource).

The real threat of the Internet to the insular Haredi communities is that the Internet quashes the walls to the outside world that they have so steadfastly erected over the generations. The free flow of information that could undermine the Haredi way of life is the real concern. In that sense, the Internet certainly poses an ever present danger. It will be interesting to see the effects of the Internet on this community in the coming years.

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

David Arquette’s Bar Mitzvah Was a Scream

Jewish celebs having bar mitzvah celebrations seems to be a trend in Hollywood these days. Most recently, Drake celebrated a second bar mitzvah during the filming of a music video in Miami. Actor Kirk Douglas famously celebrated his second bar mitzvah in December 1999 at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles on the occasion of his 83rd birthday (it’s a tradition to have a second bar mitzvah at 83).

Of course there have also been famous fictional bar mitzvah celebrations like “Krusty the Klown’s Wet ‘n’ Wild Bar Mitzvah” on “The Simpsons” and Ari Gold’s daughter’s bat mitzvah on “Entourage”.

Today it was announced that actor David Arquette had a bar mitzvah at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. The last newsworthy bar mitzvah at the Kotel was in May 2010 when Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (then Obama’s Chief of Staff) brought his family to the Old City of Jerusalem to have his son’s bar mitzvah.

David Arquette is currently in Jerusalem shooting an episode of his “Mile High” show, which airs on the Travel Channel. While in Jerusalem, Arquette attended a bar mitzvah ceremony and was asked if he would like to have one as well. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, officiated at the ceremony in which Arquette wore a tallit (Jewish prayer shawl) and tefillin (prayer phylacteries). Two years ago, Arquette told the Jewish Journal, “I wanted a bar mitzvah but didn’t have one as a kid… maybe for my 40th birthday.”

According to the Jewish Or Not blog, David Arquette is Jewish. His mother was born Jewish and is the daughter of a Polish Holocaust survivor. Arquette’s father converted to Islam. Arquette has been married to actress Courtney Cox, who starred in “Friends” television sitcom and co-starred with Arquette in the “Scream” films.

On his personal Twitter account, Arquette posted: “I had my bar mitzvah today at the wall. Finally I’m a man.”

If anyone would like to plant a tree in honor of David Arquette’s bar mitzvah, simply click this link.

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

Muhammad Ali Attends Grandson’s Bar Mitzvah

Jacob Wertheimer becoming a bar mitzvah this past April at Philly’s Congregation Rodeph Shalom synagogue doesn’t sound like a newsworthy story. It does make news when the proud grandfather is The Champ.

Muhammad Ali’s grandson Jacob Wertheimer was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah at a small service of only about 150 people. Jacob is the son of Ali’s daughter Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer and Spencer Wertheimer, an attorney. Ali was in the congregation watching with pride according to the Sweet Science boxing website in an article written by Muhammad Ali’s personal biographer Thomas Hauser, as reported by JTA. There was no mention of whether the bar mitzvah boy floated like a butterfly or stung like a bee on the bimah.

Jacob Wertheimer, Muhammad Ali’s grandson on vacation with his parents

Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Clay and raised as a Baptist, but famously converted to Islam in the 60s. Ali’s daughter Khaliah was raised as a Muslim. According to her, the young Jacob was given a choice and without pressure from his parents, “he chose this on his own because he felt a kinship with Judaism and Jewish culture.” It sounds like Judaism won by a decision!

Khaliah Ali-Wertheimer also mentioned that it “meant a lot to Jacob” that his grandfather Muhammad Ali was in attendance. According to JTA, the theme of the bar mitzvah party was diversity and inclusiveness.

On the occasion of The Champ’s 70th birthday, JTA’s archivist Adam Soclof compiled a list of articles chronicling Ali’s bouts and bonding moments with the Jewish community dating back to 1970. Ali has made some critical comments about Israel over the years, but is still widely respected in the Jewish community. Perhaps Ali’s Jewish grandson will travel to Israel and change his grandfather’s sentiments.

While Billy Crystal has always amused me with his dead-on impersonation of Muhammad Ali, this scene from Eddie Murphy’s “Coming to America” is a personal favorite:

Mazel Tov to Muhammad Ali and his entire family on Jacob’s bar mitzvah!

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