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Happy Birthday Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan celebrated his 70th birthday yesterday. That number has great significance in Judaism. King David lived to be 70 and it is thought that 70 is the lifespan of man. This is the reason that a second bar mitzvah is observed at age 83 (70+13).

Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman, is the only songwriter I know to have made reference to Akeidat Yitzchak (the biblical story of the binding of Isaac) in a song. In “Highway 61 Revisited,” Dylan sings:

Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

I remember listening to this song in a wonderful course I took in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The course, taught by Prof. Rabbi Neil Gillman, looked at different artistic representations of the binding of Isaac. I’m sure Dylan would get a kick out of the fact that his song was being studied by future rabbis at the Seminary. By the way, it’s interesting to note that Dylan’s father’s name was Abraham so perhaps the song had personal meaning for him as well.

Bob Dylan was born Jewish, became a bar mitzvah, and then converted to Christianity in the 1970s. In recent years, Dylan has embraced his Jewish roots. Michael Billig wrote an informative article for about Bob Dylan’s views on religion.

Happy Birthday Bob Dylan!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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In Desire of a Less Political 9/11 Anniversary

Last week, I was asked by the Detroit Free Press to submit three paragraphs reflecting on where I was on September 11, 2001 and how my life changed as a result of that day. The irony for my wife and for me is that we made the conscious decision to go ahead with our plans of moving to Israel for the year even though there was violence in Jerusalem throughout the summer of 2001. It wasn’t until the terrorist attacks of 9/11 occurred here in the U.S. that we made the difficult decision to alter our plans and not move to Israel.

This year, the anniversary of 9/11 was a collision of religious events as it fell on the Sabbath following Rosh Hashanah — a fast day were it not the Sabbath — and on the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Fitr — a holiday marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. 9/11 was turned into a political storm as a result of the explosive debate surrounding the planned Islamic cultural center and mosque just blocks from Ground Zero.

There are some similarities between the planned building of Park51 (formerly known as Cordoba House) two blocks from the Ground Zero site and the potential building of a convent near the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1989. However, Anthony Stevens-Arroyo, writing in the Washington Post, explains that the lesson taught by Pope John Paul II in not allowing the nuns to move their convent to that site is not necessarily what the “‘move the mosque’ spokespersons would want to hear.”

More than the debate on whether to allow the Islamic cultural center and mosque to be built so close to Ground Zero, what has surprised me is that the family members of the victims from the Twin Towers have not voiced loud opposition to the fact that their loved ones’ graves will become a shopping mall. The lower floors of the rebuilt World Trade Center will be stores. Some will argue that this displays our resolve to rebuild that site as a place of commerce. Others will recall the debate, again at Auschwitz, of constructing a shopping mall in a building once used for storing hair and possessions from murdered prisoners of the camp. A mile from the Auschwitz camp, the site of the proposed shopping mall had been a disco until it was forced to close.

All of this controversy comes down to the issue of space and how we seek to sanctify it. Ultimately those who argue that a mosque would desecrate the hollowed ground of Ground Zero, the burial spots of thousands, and attempt to prove their point by burning copies of the Koran are just as guilty of desecration. I’m hopeful that in the end, calmer heads will prevail, and the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks will be a more civil display of remembrance rather than a petty political debate. I’m nostalgic for the passionate displays of patriotism that prevailed in the weeks following the attacks in our country.

Here is the unedited reflection I submitted to the Detroit Free Press last week:

My life was in limbo on September 11, 2001. My wife and I had spent our first two years of marriage living in a small apartment in Manhattan, just twelve blocks from the Jewish Theological Seminary where I was studying to become a rabbi. We planned to relocate to Jerusalem after the Jewish holidays where we would experience life in Israel for the year and I would continue my rabbinic studies. In the week prior to Rosh Hashanah, I traveled by plane to Chicago to visit my friend who had just moved there. Little did I know I would be stranded in Chicago and our plans to move to Israel would be canceled.

I woke up on the morning of 9/11 in my friend’s Chicago apartment. Jeremy told me to turn the television on to the Today Show on NBC because a plane had just flown into one of the World Trade Center towers. I couldn’t believe my eyes and then we saw another plane fly into the other tower. The world would change forever, and so would the way people talk about that date in history. My flight was canceled, but I was able to take a train back to Michigan a couple days later. Air France, with whom we had booked our flights to Israel, decided they would no longer fly to Israel and immediately refunded our money. We made the difficult decision, along with many of my classmates and their spouses, to stay in the U.S. for the year rather than spend it in Israel. Ironically, it was a choice we made because of the terrorism in America and not because of the scary terrorist acts that had plagued Israel all summer long.

My wife and I had already rented out our New York City apartment so returning there wasn’t an option. Instead, we took our possessions out of storage and moved to Caldwell, NJ – close enough to commute into Manhattan and live in a vibrant Jewish community where I would intern at the local synagogue. For us, 9/11 altered our plans. We never had the chance to live in Jerusalem for a year (at least not before children), but that is certainly no comparison to the way so many lives changed dreadfully as a result of the horrific events of that day. We made the best of a change of plans, while so many families will never be the same. Our country will never be the same after being shaken from the acts of 9/11 – as much as we came together as an American people in the weeks that followed, the events of that day have also torn us apart.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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An Orrin Hatch Hanukkah

At the end of the video, writer Jeffrey Goldberg nonchalantly says: “So it’s just… all it is is a Hip Hop Hanukkah song written by the senior senator from Utah. That’s all it is.”

Well, even more than that, it’s a funky Hanukkah song written by a 75-year-old Mormon senator who wrote the song as a gift to the Jews.

Senator Orrin Hatch Hanukah HanukkahSo, how did Orrin Hatch come to write a Hanukkah song anyway? The story goes that Jeffrey Goldberg (national correspondent for The Atlantic) “felt that the song canon for Hanukkah is sparse and uninspiring, in part because Jewish songwriters spend so much time writing Christmas music.” He explains how Senator Orrin Hatch came to write a Hanukkah song for Tablet Magazine:

Ten years ago, I visited Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah and a prominent member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on Capitol Hill. I was writing for The New York Times Magazine and Hatch was thinking of running for president. We talked about politics for a few minutes, and then he said, “Have you heard my love songs?”

No senator had asked me that question before. It turned out that Hatch was a prolific songwriter, not only of love songs, but of Christian spirituals as well. We spent an hour in his office listening to some of his music, a regular Mormon platter party. After five or six Christmas songs, I asked, him, “What about Hanukkah songs? You have any of those?”

The article in Tablet got picked up this morning by the New York Times, which recognized just how many borders were being transcended with this story. “Adding to the project’s only-in-America mishmash is that the song is performed by Rasheeda Azar, a Syrian-American vocalist from Indiana. But Mr. Hatch is the song’s unquestioned prime mover, or macher. He is featured in the video, sitting stoic in the studio, head bobbing slightly, donning earphones and contributing backup vocals.”

At the end of the video, the senator unbuttons his dress shirt to expose the golden mezuzah necklace dangling from his neck. The Times article also notes that “Mezuzahs also adorn the doorways of his homes in Washington and Utah” and that he keeps a Torah in his Senate office.

“Not a real Torah, but sort of a mock Torah,” Senator Hatch said. “I feel sorry I’m not Jewish sometimes.”

Here’s the video of Senator Orrin Hatch’s Hanukkah song being performed:

The man who normally writes Christian music was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “This song means more to me than most of the songs I have ever written. People need to know the story of Hanukkah. It was a miracle.”

Senator Hatch said his ultimate goal would be for Barbra Streisand to perform one of his songs. Well, I’m sure seventy years ago many Christians weren’t really sure what to feel when the Jewish songwriter Irving Berlin released “White Christmas.” That’s sort of how I feel now. But, a nice Hanukkah song is still a nice Hanukkah song. So, on behalf of Jewish people all over the world: “Thanks for the song Senator Hatch!”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Pope in Israel

My first exposure to Catholicism was as a teenager. I was the assistant to a photographer who photographed several Catholic weddings. I found it fascinating to be in these beautiful churches and watch the religious rites of the Catholic tradition. I joked that, at the time, I had been to more Catholic weddings than Jewish weddings. That quickly changed.

My next experience with anything Catholic was in rabbinical school when I was selected to participate in an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. The now defunct program brought Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theological students (future priests, rabbis, and imams) together in a setting of mutual engagement and exchange. It was sponsored by the National Conference for Community and Justice (formerly known as the National Conference for Christians and Jews). The program was hosted at a large, beautiful Catholic seminary in Baltimore. Again, I learned a great deal about Catholics and noted several similarities between their religion and Judaism.

The summer following Seminarians Interacting, I served a chaplaincy internship at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan. The Clinical Pastoral Education program was made up of two rabbinical students, three future Catholic priests, and about a half-dozen other future religious leaders. My interactions with the three Catholic seminary students led to wonderful friendships. The program was geared toward pastoral education, but our informal conversations during lunch and in the hospital corridors were about our respective religious tradition. We spoke of personal faith, our families, and the stress of our future positions. These coreligionists responded candidly to me about their individual decisions to join the priesthood and live a life of chastity. They explained the hierarchy of the priesthood to me, helped me understand the importance of Vatican II (Pope Paul’s 1965 proclamation of Nostar Aetate), and taught me the symbolism behind the Eucharist (Holy Communion). Of course, their curiosity about Judaism led to many enjoyable Q&A sessions as well. I remember driving to the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit with one of the future priests to play racquetball (racquetball courts in the Seminary dorms — I was jealous!). On the way, he played a CD for me with the most beautiful Mass service.

Recently, with the Pope’s visit to Israel, I have been thinking much about Catholic-Jewish relations and my own interfaith relationships. This past March, as news of the Israel visit by Pope Benedict XVI was growing, an article in the Jerusalem Post explained that the rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinovitch, said that it is not proper for him to come to the Kotel wearing a cross. He said, “My position is that it is not fitting to enter the Western Wall area with religious symbols, including a cross.” He said he feels the same way about a Jewish man walking into a church wearing a tallit and t’fillin. Not that it matters since he would never set foot in a church. It’s also a silly analogy because tallit and t’fillin are religious articles used during prayer. Wearing a cross around ones neck is akin to wearing a Star of David or a Chai. While several rabbis responded to Rabbi Rabinovitch, I thought my colleague Rabbi Andrew Sacks put it best. In the JPost blog, he told the following story:

It seems that back in the 18th century, a Christian asked Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn “how can your religion be correct if my religion is correct?” His response was that there is one pasture, but many gates. Or as your scripture puts it, “In my father’s house there are many rooms.” Let the many “gates” to the Kotel, the “gates of righteousness,” be open to all.

This week’s Time Magazine has an interesting article on Catholic-Jewish relations, “Pope Benedict and the Question of Judaism”. It addresses the Pope’s first visit to Israel, but underscores the tension he has caused due to several missteps in his relationship with the Jewish community. In reversing the 1988 excommunication of four bishops of an ultra-traditionalist Catholic group called the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), he included the Holocaust denying Bishop Richard Williamson who believes the Nazi gas chambers never existed. Further, in a 2006 speech at Auschwitz, he failed to mention anti-Semitism, instead contending that “ultimately the Nazis’ motive in killing Jews was to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith.” He also reintroduced a prayer in the Mass calling for Jews to convert.

Last month, I joined several local Detroit-area rabbis for a luncheon with the new Archbishop of Detroit, the Most Reverend Allen Vigneron (right). He spoke openly about which aspects of Judaism have influenced his Catholic beliefs. Perhaps, most impressive, he did not hesitate to speak about the recent controversies of the pope with regard to the Jewish people. Rather than seek to defend the pontiff, Archbishop Vigneron, who is likely to named a Cardinal, expressed his deep desire to further dialogue with the Jewish community. I was very impressed of his knowledge of Judaism and his making Catholic-Jewish relations a priority.

It should be no surprise that the Pope’s arrival in Jerusalem yesterday has already caused a fuss. News is circulating around the Web that Pope Benedict walked out on a sheikh delivering an anti-Israel diatribe yesterday in a meeting of interfaith leaders. Rabbi Barry Leff was there and wrote on his blog about his take on what happened. He wrote:

Sheikh Taysir al-Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, delivered a rant at the gathering at the Notre Dame center in Jerusalem. I don’t speak Arabic — and I presume the Pope doesn’t either — so at the time all I could tell was that the Sheikh was very animated. At one point whatever he said received some modest applause from the Arabic-speaking crowd. According to the Jerusalem Post report, here’s what he was saying: ‘In an impromptu speech, delivered in Arabic at the Notre Dame Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, chief Islamic judge in the Palestinian Authority, launched a 10-minute tirade against the State of Israel for confiscating Palestinians’ land and carrying out war crimes against the residents of Gaza.” He also called for the immediate return of all Palestinian refugees, and called on Christians and Muslims to unite against Israel.

The entire text of the Pope’s speech is available here.

Rabbi Leff adds that the Pope quoted from the Torah portion Lech Lecha, saying: “God said to Abram, ‘Go from your country, your kindred and your father’s house for a land I shall show you.”

No matter what the current Pope does or says, the relationship between Catholics and Jews is an important one. All interfaith relations are fragile in nature. I believe we should look positively on the Pope’s visit to Israel and use it as a springboard toward making dialogue between Jewish leaders and Catholic leaders a priority.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Intermarried Rabbinical Students

The student-run journal New Voices has published some thought-provoking and quite provocative articles in recent issues. Their current issue takes on a theme I don’t think has been discussed much. Is it acceptable for rabbinical students to intermarry? This is certainly not an issue in the Orthodox world and I don’t remember it ever really being discussed at JTS (Conservative). However, in the more liberal rabbinical schools (namely the Reform’s Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the new non-denominational Hebrew College), I guess this has been an issue.

One of my classmates at JTS was dating a non-Jewish woman, but she converted to Judaism early on in our six-year course of study and it was a non-issue.

The New Voices article, “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi”, by Jeremy Gillick opens with the story of David Curiel (right), who decided to become a rabbi in the summer of 2008. Curiel was shocked when Hebrew College told him he would not be welcome at its seminary because his wife was not Jewish. In the “it’s a small world” category, Curiel is from Metro Detroit and is the brother of a Hebrew High School classmate of mine from Adat Shalom Synagogue.

The author explains that the “Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) all refuse to admit or ordain students in relationships with non-Jews”.

The policy at the Reform Movement’s seminaries reads: “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program”.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philly said “The bedrock of what it means to be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people. Leaders of the Jewish community, who model to others what Jewish life can be, should themselves be in homes that are fully Jewish”.

There are some intermarried rabbis out there. “In 1992, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the neo-Kabbalistic Jewish Renewal movement, ordained Tirzah Firestone, making her the first intermarried rabbi on record. In her memoir With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Firestone recounts how her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith.”

According to Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of ordination programs at ALEPH (Renewal), Firestone’s experience informed the school’s approximately 10-year-old policy to evaluate students with non-Jewish partners on a case-by-case basis. When ALEPH does admit such students, it does so with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will one day “join the tribe”.

What do you think? Leave your comment about whether it is appropriate for rabbinical schools to refuse to admit intermarried candidates into their ordination program.

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

“I had them at Shalom.”

These words are attributed to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein as he was on his way back to Chicago in a rented compact Chevy with author Zev Chafets after Eckstein addressed a group of Christian Zionists at the Family Christian Center in Munster, Indiana.

Zev ChafetsI’ve read every book that Zev Chafets has written. Zev’s books are hard to put down — they are witty, provocative, and informative. I’ve known Zev Chafets my whole life. He is a family friend who was once married to my mother’s best friend. His most recent book, however, I read not because of the author but rather because of the subject matter that intrigued me.

A couple years ago when I was directing the monthly Synaplex program for Adat Shalom Synagogue in suburban Detroit I needed to find an interesting speaker to follow Shabbat dinner. I put in a phone call to Zev in New York who graciously accepted my invitation to come to Adat Shalom (he is a native Detroiter who grew up in Pontiac). He told me he would talk about his current project — Christian Zionists and the Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. It was December 2005 and Zev was about to travel to Israel with a group of Evangelicals as part of his research for A Match Made in Heaven, his new book (a chapter in the book is Zev’s travelogue from his Christian pilgrimage).

Zev ChafetsZev spoke brilliantly at Adat Shalom about the phenomenon that is the passionate love that Evangelical Christians feel for the State of Israel (and how they back this up with their charitable commitments to Israel). I hadn’t previously given much thought to Christian Zionism, but like most Jews at the time I was fairly skeptical about the motivations behind Christian support of Israel. Following Zev’s talk, my interest was piqued. Over the course of the ensuing two years, I read as much as I could about Christian Zionism, I invited Pastor Glenn Plummer (Fellowship of Israel and Black America) to address my synagogue in Ohio, I was captivated by an emotionally charged speech by Pastor John Hagee at the AIPAC Policy Conference, I dialogued with Israeli tour guides Linda Olmert and Danny Ehrlich of Keshet Israel about their experiences guiding Christians through Israel, and most recently I completed Zev’s book.

Zev devotes an entire chapter to an individual who has committed his life to reaching out to Christian Zionists for the sake of Israel and Israelis. He characterizes Yechiel Eckstein as an Orthodox rabbi who “had become a televangelist.” Eckstein, who runs the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, has raised millions of dollars from evangelical Christians and given that money away to Jewish charities. Zev spends much time with Eckstein — both on the road and at his headquarters in Chicago — and provides the reader with an in-depth perspective about Eckstein’s background and the motivation for his work.

Rabbi Yechiel EcksteinOne thing is clear in Zev’s evaluation of Eckstein (right), his popularity among Christians is unmatched among Jews. Eckstein has long had detractors in the major American Jewish organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League where Eckstein got his professional start. In Zev’s book, he quotes ADL executive director Abe Foxman “as accusing Eckstein of selling the dignity of the Jewish people by pandering to Christians.”

Israel’s political leaders have long appreciated and recognized the importance of Christian tourism in Israel (a point made several times by Zev in his book). Further, following John Hagee’s well received AIPAC speech in March, strong supporters of Israel among the Jewish community have learned how vital and reassuring the genuine Christian support of Israel is. And a major development this week may change the way the Jewish community views Christian Zionism.

The JTA reports that “thousands of evangelical Christian donors now have a powerful seat at the table of the Jewish Agency for Israel, the vanguard of the Zionist movement. The Jewish Agency announced last week it has forged a ‘strategic partnership’ with the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, an organization that depends primarily on conservative Christian donors to raise tens of millions of dollars per year to help Israel and impoverished Jews in the Diaspora.”

In exchange for an annual $15 million contribution to the Jewish Agency, Yechiel Eckstein will be given a seat on the Jewish Agency’s highest governing committee. The article addresses the Jewish community’s ambivalence about financial support from evangelical Christians, stating, “the fear being that some might be motivated at least in part by the belief that the Apocalypse and the return of Jesus can take place only once Jews move back to the Holy Land.” [complete JTA article]

Perhaps this news will give Zev Chafets cause to pen a new epilogue to the paperback edition of A Match Made in Heaven: American Jews, Christian Zionists, and One Man’s Exploration of the Weird and Wonderful Judeo-Evangelical Alliance. It is a wonderful book and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Israel and the Christian support of the Jewish state. Hopefully, Zev Chafets will alleviate the concerns and cynicism the American Jewish community has about Christian support of Israel. As Zev eloquently puts it, the evangelical Christian Zionists in America are “not the enemy. They are the enemy of the enemy, and they want to be accepted and appreciated. In return they are offering a wartime alliance and full partnership in a Judeo-Christian America. It is an offer the Jews of America should consider while it is still on the table.” Well said.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Christianity Jewish

Mohelim for the Goyim

The Forward reports that there are a growing number of gentiles who are hiring mohelim (Jewish ritual circumcisors) to circumcize their sons.

“When [a circumcision] is done by a mohel, you appreciate the gravity, the
beauty of the religious connotations,” Reverend Louis DeCaro Jr. said in an
interview with the Forward.

My feeling has always been that I am a rabbi who performs Jewish rituals for Jewish people. For instance, I am entitled to officiate at wedding ceremonies according to civil law because I am an ordained religious leader. This means that technically I can officiate at the wedding of two gentiles, however, I wouldn’t do this because I believe that my purpose is to serve as an officiant for members of my own religious tradition. The same could be said about the role of the mohel. Any physician can perform a circumcision procedure, but it is the task of the mohel to perform the religious ritual of circumcision (bris) — and that should be reserved for Jewish baby boys (but that’s just my opinion).

According to [two mohelim in Manhattan], non-Jews make up between 2%
and 5% of their clientele. Some are motivated initially by practical
circumstances, but others seem drawn to the mohels for spiritual
reasons, if not explicitly religious ones.

View the entire Forward article here.

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

Mike Huckabee - Jewish CommunityMany Jews have made it a family tradition to eat Chinese food on Christmas. Of course, this is the case because there aren’t any other restaurants open on Christmas except for Chinese and Japanese restaurants. Well, according to the JTA Blog it turns out that presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee shares this Christmas tradition with the Jews. And this might just be the only tradition that Huckabee shares with Jewish people. JTA picked up on the story from the end of a MSNBC report about Huckabee and religion:

“The only thing that I know that for sure we’re going to do that we have always done is we’ll go to our church Christmas Eve service,” Huckabee said. “It’s a huge community-wide celebration, and we do that every year. And then we have an unusual tradition that after the Christmas Eve service we go out and eat Chinese food. Don’t ask me why.”

Asked if the tradition is intended to help him better relate to the Jewish community, Huckabee said, “No, it’s Chinese food.”

He was unaware of the Jewish Christmas tradition.

Well, if you were also unaware of this widespread Jewish Christmas tradition, you should check out Brandon Harris Walker’s hillarious music video “Chinese Food on Christmas” (below).

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Jews and Trees

The title of this blog post might lead you to believe that I am jumping the gun on the Tu Bishvat (Jewish Arbor Day) holiday. But actually I have been thinking a lot about Jews and trees after reading Gil Mann‘s wonderful article about Jewish people putting up Christmas trees. Gil’s article has been republished in several Jewish publications, but I read it first in the Ohio Jewish Chronicle today. Gil opens his response to “Should Jews Have Christmas Trees?” as follows:

Should Jews have a Christmas tree in their home? One thing is clear, quite a few do!

How many? In a list of 35 cities in the North American Jewish Data Bank, in most cities, 20% to 30% of the Jewish households say that they “always, usually or sometimes” have a Christmas tree. Here are a few examples: Washington D.C. 27%, Philadelphia, 23%, St. Louis 22%, Los Angeles 20%, and Detroit 15%.

A Christmas tree in a Jewish home has been one of the hottest topics in emails people have sent me over the years as a Jewish advice columnist on AOL and now on my own website,

Why so much interest in this topic? Jewish demographers ask because they want to know, in a Christian society where Christmas is pervasive, how Jews react to and assimilate into the larger culture. For these researchers, having a Christmas tree is something of a barometer of Jewish identity, assimilation and the impact of intermarriage.

The many people who have emailed to me asking about the appropriateness of having a Christmas tree are also essentially grappling with questions of assimilation and Jewish identity. Specifically, they are asking whether and how Jews should celebrate Christmas?

Gil MannI agree with Gil (right) that this is a hot topic for interfaith families. The litmus test interfaith couples seem to use in establishing whether their family has a “Jewish home” is whether they put up a Christmas tree. For Jewish people who have converted to Judaism from Christianity (or are in the process of converting), this is also a very delicate subject. While many converts are able to bid farewell to their Christian past and all Christian theology, it is often the Christmas tree that is the hardest tradition to forgo.

The statistics are revealing. Almost 30% of Jews have a Christmas tree? So many people see the Christmas tree as an innocuous, innocent holiday ritual with no religious significance. However, as Gil Mann points out in his article, “the star that adorns the top of these trees is meant to symbolize the Star of Bethlehem which marked the birth of the messiah Jesus. I see this as a very religious [symbol].” I have also heard that the actual tree is symbolic of the wooden cross.

Gil doesn’t address the issue of Santa Claus, but I think this is a separate matter. The Christmas tree is brought into the home and makes a statement about the religious values of the home during the holiday season, whereas getting your children’s photo taken on Santa’s lap is closer to being photographed with Mickey Mouse at Disney World. True, Santa represents Saint Nick, but he has come to be more of a cartoon figure in our modern society.

When I asked my son if he knew that his buddy and classmate at the Jewish Community Center Preschool was not Jewish, he responded that he did. I asked him how he knew that. He responded that his friend’s father had picked him up one day from school and told him to hurry because they were going to see Santa Claus at the mall. I didn’t have the heart to tell my son that his dad, the rabbi, sat on Santa’s lap too when he was a kid!

I like the way Gil Mann closes his article with advice from Joel Grishaver:

What Jews should accept and adopt from the dominant culture is at the root of the Christmas tree question. My personal response for myself and my children is advice I heed from Jewish educator Joel Grishaver. We have gone to Christian friends and celebrated their holiday with them in their home. In turn, they have come to our home to celebrate Passover and other Jewish holidays.

Going to a friend’s home for their holiday is similar to attending a friend’s birthday party. I can enjoy their celebration even though I know it is not my birthday party. In this case, they are celebrating Jesus’ birthday. My children understand this and respect our friends’ celebration of his birth.

We happily wish our Christian friends and neighbors a Merry Christmas in their celebration. In fact, I love Christmas, Christmas music and the holiday spirit. Still in our home, we do not celebrate this birthday or have a tree because this is not our party. That’s OK with me because as a Jew, I have plenty of Jewish holidays to celebrate and I am delighted to share our parties with my non-Jewish friends and neighbors.

Gil Mann has a lot of great advice about these thorny issues (he first tackled the Christmas tree issue five years ago). He has really made a name for himself on the Web with his candid responses to thousands of “Ask the Rabbi” questions (even though Gil is not a rabbi). His recent book, “Sex, God, Christmas and Jews: Intimate Emails about Faith and Life Challenges”, has proven to be a great resource for Jewish educators and rabbis like me. My review of his book can be found on my website.
Bottom line on the trees? No, Jewish homes should not have Christmas trees. Seems pretty simple, but nothing is simple anymore.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Ann Coulter and Alan Colmes Square Off

I had to laugh today when an article on the Media Matters website was sent to me by way of my Google Alert for the term “Conservative Rabbi.” This has been an effective Google Alert that sends me any articles or websites that mention a rabbinic colleague of mine from the Conservative Movement. However, the reason the Media Matters article was included in the Google Alert today was the mention of the Orthodox rabbi and TV personality Shmuley Boteach. The Media Matters article contains the transcripts of the October 30 edition of Fox News’ Hannity & Colmes, when co-host Alan Colmes interviewed Ann Coulter. Colmes quotes his “good friend, the conservative rabbi Shmuley Boteach.”

Yes, Shmuley Boteach is conservative (with a lower-case “c”) and also a rabbi, but he is most certainly not a Conservative Rabbi!

I thought Colmes did a good job of questioning Ann Coulter about her controversial comments about Jews and Christians from her “Danny Deutsch Show” interview last month. Never one to miss an opportunity to say something outlandish, Coulter explained that she wears the criticism from Jewish groups like the ADL and the American Jewish Congress “as a badge of honor.”

Rabbi Yehuda Levin, a spokesman for the Rabbinical Alliance for America and the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, came to Coulter’s defense explaining that “She said nothing that in any way indicates anti-Semitism.” Rabbi Levin’s defense of Coulter was enough for her to claim the support of 1000 orthodox rabbis. Rabbi Yehuda Levin is the ultra-Orthodox rabbi who tried to ban the Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem. Rabbi Levin also has a website, Jews for Morality, that includes essays claiming that hurricane Katrina was God’s Judgment on a sin-loving America.

Perhaps the only thing funnier that the phrase “conservative rabbi Shmuley Boteach” is the final exchange in the Coulter-Colmes interview. Even after watching the video of the interview (see below) it makes no sense. Just more ridiculousness from Ann Coulter. Oy!

ANN COULTER: How about eating soup? Is that a classic food of anti-Semites?

ALAN COLMES: Yeah, that’s lovely, Ann. I’m going to move on in spite of yourself, and maybe save you from saying something else that’s ridiculous.

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