Technology vs. Shabbat: Can We Accommodate Our Electronics Dependency On the Day of Rest?

E-books became the dominant format for adult fiction in 2011 surpassing hardcover books and paperbacks according to the BookStats annual survey. We are increasingly choosing to read our novels, magazine, newspapers and even children’s books on e-readers and tablets. But is it permissible to do this on the one day of the week that Judaism commands us to unplug?

Rabbi Daniel Nevins, a Conservative rabbi who is the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the former rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills, recently published a *teshuva (religious response) regarding the use of electrical and electronic devices on the Shabbat.

In the teshuva, which was passed overwhelmingly by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), Nevins ultimately ruled that while the operation of electrical circuits is not inherently forbidden according to the laws of Shabbat, the use of electricity to power an appliance which performs melacha (the category of forbidden activity on Shabbat) with the same mechanism and intent as the original manual labor is forbidden in the Torah. Nevins answered some questions about his research and how he arrived at his legal decision:


What made you decide to take up this issue now?

I’ve been thinking about electricity and Shabbat for decades actually; since I really began observing Shabbat. I started researching the halachic [Jewish legal] issues involved and I found that there may have been a consensus in the Orthodox world that no electricity was allowed and yet there was no sense about why. It was worth clarifying what the considerations were. In recent years, I’ve come to feel that technology has become integrated in a rapidly accelerating fashion in our personal lives and the lack of clarity about the halachic issues were creating a bit of chaos in people’s understanding of what the laws of Shabbat have to say about electronics, and moreover, what the culture of Shabbat should be.

How do the issues of electronics use on Shabbat affect you personally?

I’m a parent of three teenagers and creating policies for our family that protect the special atmosphere of Shabbat so that we’d have one day to look at each other in the eyes and not constantly be looking down at glowing screens. That was part of the motivation, which I think is shared by many families that are trying to preserve some element of intentional family time which is not distracted by all the other devices that constantly call our thoughts away.

When you started writing this teshuva, which electronic devices did you have in mind?

Certainly computers and cell phones were significant; those are probably the most important ones I was thinking about. The iPad wasn’t out yet. I did begin thinking about the Amazon Kindle fairly early in the process, but I had not yet focused on one specific brand. I tried to focus less on the brand names than on the technology.

What was your intended outcome in writing this? Were you trying to make Shabbat easier for people?

I will say that I’m not looking for stringencies in life. But I do look for integrities and interpretations of practice. So, if my study had led me to the conclusion that there is no issue with use of an e-reader, then I would have been comfortable coming to that conclusion. But, as I say in the paper, I was actually in a way almost looking for such a thing because I’m concerned that, increasingly, digital media may be the only way to access written content. As I said in a CJLS meeting, reading is a significant part of the culture of Shabbat, so if we got to the point where the only way to read new content was by some sort of electronic or digital medium then we would really lose something with Shabbat. So I’m concerned about that and I described these issues a few years ago in an article in The Atlantic titled “People of the E-book.”

So, what happens in the future if the only way to read a book really is electronically?

If the only way to read a book on Shabbat is on the Kindle, then I would say we need to come up with ways for the Kindle to be operated without downloading new content or creating permanent records. If there’s a will there’s a way technologically, not just halachically.

Where there’s a halachic will there’s a halachic way?

I’m not so comfortable with that statement. Where there’s a halachic will, then there’s also a halachic way. If you’re committed to the integrity of religious practice then at some point the answer’s going to be “no.”

Would your teshuva be categorized as meta-halachic since you’re not halachically opposed to electricity on Shabbat? You’re prescribing a break from the workweek, so how is this teshuva different from the various ‘un-plugged’ campaigns and Sabbath Manifesto?

Well, I’ve spent dozens of pages working on halachic sources and making conclusions for halachic reasons. Meta-halacha implies there’s something outside of the halacha; an external body, but that’s the opposite of my belief.

Describe the difference between an electric sink or automatic door and using an Amazon Kindle or an iPad on Shabbat.

Electronic devices are embedded everywhere, making it almost impossible to avoid electronic interaction. That’s the core of my paper. The difference that I see between those two is that motion detectors that open doors and turn off taps and lights do not leave any permanent record. I understand melacha to be about transforming material. A Kindle, which downloads information from the Internet and also tracks usage so that it knows where a reader is and where they left off, seems to be to be more akin to writing and therefore involves a transformation of material of reality. For that reason, I think use of a Kindle and other electronics as being prohibited under the category of kotev, of writing.

Radio, television, and computers have been around for a while. Why now, with the proliferation of Smartphones, tablets, and e-readers are you bringing this up?

Well, already 60 years ago Rabbi Arthur Neulander began talking about the use of electronics and I quote him in the paper and basically agree with him. He discussed TV and radio, not computers at that time in the 1950s. I basically think that turning on a television and turning on a radio do not involve writing and therefore are not prohibited as forms of melacha. However, I question whether they are appropriate to the atmosphere of Shabbat, which we call sh’vut, in terms of resting. Computers I believe do involve downloading content, even without the user being aware of it. Every time you browse to a new web page you’re downloading information, you’re sending cookies, and you’re doing all sorts of processes which you’re not thinking about. Part of Shabbat is getting people to think more about the impact of their behavior. On Shabbat, as I say in the paper, we try to emphasize personal interaction. Our digital technology isolates us from the people around us. And therefore it defeats part of the purpose of Shabbat.

What about some exceptions to the rule?

Let’s say someone is disabled and the only way of reading is through a Kindle that enlarges type, then you might say that their human dignity would supersede the general level to use electronics.

Any thoughts on what’s become known as the “Half-Shabbos” in the Orthodox community, when observant teenagers will text their friends on Shabbat, but otherwise observe the laws?

I address this in the footnotes. The “Half-Shabbos” phenomenon is testimony to the great allure of digital media, but I feel that this makes us realize that it’s distracting. And I would say to teens, davka [precisely] don’t text on Shabbat. Talk to people. Make eye contact.


What about for Jews who are living in isolation who are lonely on Shabbat?

Okay, you’re in Alaska, you’re on an army base, and you’re the only Jew on the base… I can understand the desire to interact with others. But still, texting involves writing so therefore I think it’s forbidden.

What about competing values? For example, a Jewish person in an area with no community wants to watch a live stream of Shabbat services or wants to study Torah with a friend on Skype during Shabbat afternoon.

I also talk about these issues in the paper. Certainly the motivation to participate in a community is very strong, and should be respected. If there’s a way to participate without violating the prohibition on writing, then I would be sympathetic to it. But, it’s a bit of a slippery slope. Once you’re using your computer and using your TV, then you might use it for other things as well.

Aren’t these gadgets just a way of life and Jewish law has to adapt?

Yes, that’s true, but we need vacations from routines now and then and Shabbat is about challenging us to change our routine one day a week and experience life a bit differently.

How does one define “Shomer Shabbat” [Sabbath observant] today?

A person trying to be “Shomer Shabbat” is committed to differentiating Shabbat from the workweek by abstaining from certain activities and engaging in other activities that are specific to Shabbat. As I say in the paper, we desist from melacha and some other activities which detract from the tranquility of the day. We engage in activities like eating, sleeping, praying and studying. That makes the day sort of an image of an ideal world; the experience of an ideal world.

Jewish law evolves and the halachic system progresses, so doesn’t this teshuva keep the system from adapting to technological innovation?

I think it’s the opposite. I think it engages with the reality of digital culture – its attraction, its usefulness, and its negative consequences. This paper tries to take the feel of Shabbat and apply it to the digital age that we’re living in. For good and for bad.

How will you help young people access your teshuva and apply your prescriptions to their technology-dominated lives?

I’m working on a curriculum for Ramah camps, Schechter day schools and USY [Conservative movement’s youth agency]. You don’t do something like this without the intention of teaching it to people who aren’t going to read a 60-page paper.

Finally, would it be ironic if someone read your teshuva on their iPad on Shabbat afternoon?

Yes (laughs). I’ve told people not to read my paper on the Kindle because that would be ironic. I don’t believe that we’ve come to the final chapter in this. In the paper I explained that as technology continues to evolve, we’ll gain new insights. It may be that in the future there may be a way to use e-readers on Shabbat without violating the concerns I raise in this paper, and I would like that.

*The complete teshuva can be accessed at http://jewi.sh/nevins

Originally published in the Detroit Jewish News and cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week.

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

Patrilineal "Dissent": Solving the Jewish Status Problem

My mother isn’t/wasn’t Jewish, my father is. I was raised Reform, had a Bat mitzvah, [was Jewishly educated, celebrated holidays, identify as Jewish, participated in the Jewish community, did not participate in or celebrate any other faith or religion,] etc. If I have children with a man recognized as fully Jewish, how would they be seen in the eyes of Israel and the American Jewish community (particularly the Conservative movement)? How stable are Israel’s laws around this — could they change in 10 years? What about Halachah (Jewish law)? I would really appreciate an answer, even if it’s not what I want to hear. Thank you!

This is the question I was presented with from the website Jewish Values Online. Over the past few years I have answered dozens of values-based questions from this website. I haven’t dodged a single question, and I’ve attempted to respond to each questioner in a timely fashion. Admittedly, I have procrastinated writing a response to this question for several months.

Why? Because I am a Conservative rabbi and this is perhaps the most challenging question that a Conservative rabbi can be asked in the beginning of the 21st century. My Reform and Orthodox colleagues were able to respond to this question in a much more timely fashion. The Reform rabbi is able to cite his movement’s historic 1983 resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames his answer with words like “difficult” and “painful” but ultimately cites Halacha (Jewish law) as unable to recognize the children (or grandchildren) of a Jewish man and non-Jewish woman as Jews without benefit of conversion.

Like many Conservative rabbis this issue hits home with me. I have a first cousin who, by definition, is not considered Jewish according to Halacha. That means that according to the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, of which I’m a member, I am not permitted to officiate at her wedding should she marry an individual deemed Jewish according to Halacha. That marriage would be considered an intermarriage without a formal conversion, and the children of that marriage would not be considered Jewish from a Halachic definition. This cousin has been raised Jewish, attended Hebrew School, became a bat mitzvah in a Reform congregation and considers herself Jewish. To complicate matters, her younger brother underwent a formal conversion in the mikveh after having a bris on the eighth day and is therefore regarded as Jewish according to Halacha. I’m not sure that there could be a more confusing example of the mess that has been created with Jewish identity in the modern American Jewish world.

Before making any recommendations as to how to resolve this issue or how I will respond to the question above, it is important to understand that the Reform Movement’s 1983 resolution allowing patrilineal descent didn’t create this mess, but it did complicate it further. In the almost 30 years since that decision, there has been much crossover between the Conservative and Reform movements in America. Thus, when the Reform movement issued its resolution (which was in the works for more than 35 years), it might have thought the implications would be wholly positive and would really only impact Reform Jews (the resolution specifies “in Reform communities”). However, that resolution has had negative impacts on both the Conservative and Modern Orthodox movements. The question of “Who’s a Jew” has less implications for the Orthodox Jews in America as it is unusual for them to marry outside of their sect. It is when a Modern Orthodox or Conservative young person wants to marry an individual who has been considered Jewish through the Reform movement’s notion of patrilineal descent that we are posed with the problem. Jewish young people in these more liberal denominations interact throughout adolescence and the college years in youth groups, summer camps, Israel trips and college Hillels. Additionally, following college Jewish communal organizations like Federation and B’nai Brith do not distinguish between patrilineal Jews and matrilineal Jews at young adult singles’ events.

We are now facing head on the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and having their own children. In response to the question above from the Jewish Values Online website, I would respond as follows:

There is no question that you have been raised in a family that has embraced Judaism, Jewish culture and Jewish values. You have grown up identifying as a Jewish person and because of your father’s Jewish heritage, you have a claim to the birthright of the Jewish people. The Reform denomination of Judaism, in which you have affiliated, acknowledges you as a full-fledged member of the Jewish people for all purposes. Should you marry a man who is Jewish through matrilineal descent, it would be advisable that you undergo a formal conversion so there would be no Halachic issues concerning your children’s Jewish identity.

Matters surrounding Israel’s legal system as it pertains to Jewish identity should not be an issue for you unless you plan to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Should that be the case, I would advise you to inquire about those issues at that time and not worry about them now. Like all civil laws, they have the ability to change over time based on Israel’s government at the time and the authority and opinion of the Chief Rabbinate.

As you acknowledged, this might not be the answer you want to hear, but at this time it is the reality. A conversion for someone in your situation (raised Jewishly, who identifies as Jewish) is intended to make your Judaism more legitimate from a Halachic perspective. It should not be understood as undermining your religious identity throughout your life. It is a conversion in a different category than an individual becoming Jewish from another religion altogether. Consider it a technicality.

My ultimate goal is to remove such problems in the future so these painful questions don’t arise in the future. It is first important to acknowledge that this is a matter full of nuance and the American Jewish community is made up of very different communities who will never agree on most issues. That being said, this issue must be resolved for Jews from the more liberal movements of modern Judaism (Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) whose followers are marrying each other and raising families together.

Over the years, there have been several recommendations to fix this matter. Some have suggested mass conversions for all Jewish children before bar or bat mitzvah. Others have recommended that all brides and grooms go to the mikveh as a form of conversion before the wedding to assure Halachic Jewish status.

My proposal is to set a time limit on the status quo. Until the year 2020, matrilineal descent is the only accepted form of passing Jewish status genetically. Jewish individuals who are raised Jewish in a home with a Jewish father and identify as Jewish are to be considered Jewish from a cultural perspective, but must undergo a formal conversion for recognition as Jewish from a Halachic understanding.

After the year 2020, it will be understood that because of modern genetic testing (DNA tests) it is now possible to ascertain patrilineality with complete certainty. Therefore, a Jewish individual with at least one Jewish parent will be considered Jewish from a Halachic perspective for all matters. While the Orthodox will not agree to this, it will not have the same negative implications as the fissure between the Reform and Conservative movements that has existed for the past three decades.

The leaders of the American Jewish community should begin collaborating on such a partnership agreement. Only if we are on the same page on the matter of Jewish status will we be able to seek harmony among the disparate denominations of liberal Judaism. We cannot allow the ultra-Orthodox to dictate the definition of a Jewish individual, but we also cannot allow ourselves to be fractured by our own differing definitions of Jewish status. There has been far too much controversy and pain for this situation to continue unresolved.

Cross-Posted to the Huffington Post

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

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.

iStockPhoto

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

Israel’s Conservative Seminary Accepts Gays and Lesbians on Yom Hashoah

The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem is the Israeli affiliate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). It has publicly been holding out on changing its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians into its rabbinical ordination program (the only such program for the Conservative movement in Israel). That policy has caused much tension for rabbinical students from the Jewish Theological Seminary when they spend a year in Israel during the course of their study (gay and lesbian rabbinical students from JTS are allowed to take classes at Schechter). In fact, rabbinical students from the Conservative Movement’s West Coast seminary, the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, study at the Conservative Yeshiva during their year abroad.

The big news coming out of Israel is that the Schechter Institute’s policy has just officially changed. It has been announced that at a board of trustees meeting last night, Schechter’s leaders voted to allow gay and lesbian students into its ordination program. That this policy change occurred on Yom Hashoah, the international day of commemoration for the millions who perished at the hands of the Nazis is especially meaningful as homosexuals were among those targeted by the Nazis in their extermination attempts.

While Israeli society in general is known to be tolerant of gays and lesbians, the Schechter Institute seemed determined to maintain its policy. JTS officially changed its policy concerning the admission of gays and lesbians following a vote in December 2006 by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.

A seminary statement said the decision comes following a “long process”:

The Schechter Rabbinical Seminary views the serious process leading to this decision as an example of confronting social dilemmas within the framework of tradition and halachah, or Jewish law, Hanan Alexander, chair of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, said in the statement. “This decision highlights the institution’s commitment to uphold halachah in a pluralist and changing world.

Students are ordained by a beit din, or rabbinical court, made up of three members of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee of the seminary, all of whom are members of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Masorti/Conservative movement. The beit din members are chosen by the candidate and subject to the approval of the seminary’s dean. They have different opinions regarding the ordination of gay and lesbian students, according to the seminary.

This unique mechanism is an expression of halachic pluralism, one of the founding principles of SRS, the seminary said in its statement. The Seminary is a religious institution of the Masorti/Conservative Movement, bound by Halacha, whose inclusive approach allows for a variety of Halachic opinions.

The Conservative Movement’s Seminario in South America still maintains a policy barring affirmed gays and lesbians from matriculating in its rabbinic ordination program.

While it is odd that it took an additional five years from the time JTS opened its doors, I’m glad to see the Schechter Institute finally following suit.

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

Revised USCJ Luach

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the beginning of the new Jewish month. It is also the seventh day of Hanukkah. That means that the past two mornings have been long, complicated prayer services with Torah readings from two separate Torah scrolls, Hallel (songs of praise for both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh), and a Musaf service for Rosh Chodesh that includes an insertion for Hanukkah. It’s unusual for morning minyan to last for a full hour, but Rosh Chodesh Tevet is always a long service (of course, it’s even longer when it falls on Shabbat).

There are a few days when morning minyan gets complicated and requires a road map (like Hoshanah Rabbah for example). A gabbai (one who runs the synagogue service) often uses a luach (calendar and service guide) for assistance in coordinating the services and making sure that nothing was left out that should have been included or included that should have been omitted. There are several Orthodox versions of a luach and many Conservative Jewish leaders will use those, however, the newly revised official luach of the Conservative Movement is a wonderful resource.

My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen (pictured below) took over the responsibility as editor of the USCJ Luach (or Luah with a dot under the ‘h’ as its rendered therein). Kenneth Goodrich created the first Luach for the Conservative Movement 17 years ago for the Jewish year 5755. Upon Goodrich’s untimely death in 2004, Rabbi Robert Abramson edited and managed the publication of the Luach. This is the first year that Rabbi Cohen has taken on the editorial tasks.

I studied with Rabbi Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary and found him to be an amazing teacher who takes synagogue skills very seriously. He is punctilious when it comes to nusach (Hebrew pronunciation and melody) and is one of the world’s experts in Hebrew grammar pertaining to the Torah text and liturgy. Rabbi Cohen is also a master typesetter, and has created guides and interactive software for learning to read Torah, haftarah, and megillot, as well as guides for nusach skills and Hebrew grammar.

The USCJ Luah can be purchased from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism online book service. It is an indispensable tool for the Conservative synagogue and Rabbi Cohen has superbly improved this important resource.

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

Matisyahu on Contradictions in Religious Observance

As any man with a beard, goatee or mustache will tell you, it is a transformative experience to shave it all off. Something tells me that Matisyahu felt a sense of freedom after he shaved off his iconic beard the other day. There has been a lot of discussion about Matisyahu’s transformation after he came clean [shaven] and claimed he has evolved from a Hasidic reggae star. The opinions have ranged from those who interpreted this as Matisyahu’s having left a religious lifestyle (going “off the derech“) to those who can’t figure out why this story even qualifies as “news.”

While I personally question if shaving off his iconic beard was a wise PR move, what I think is more interesting is how he has made his personal religious journey into a public narrative. His rise to super stardom occurred after he had already adopted a religious lifestyle and his break from Lubavitch a couple years ago wasn’t very well publicized so this is really the first time his observance has been discussed on such a broad scale. And now that he’s gone public with his shifts in observance, Matisyahu has (unintentionally?) brought the conversation of religious shifting and spiritual seeking into a very public sphere.

I listened to Matisyahu’s first interview since his transformative shaving experience and there was an interesting exchange toward the end. Soundcheck host John Schaefer began to ask Matisyahu a question that was sent in to the program by a listener having to do with him living some sort of a contradictory life. Matisyahu quickly cut Schaefer off and said something that I think is of utmost importance in any conversation about religious observance and spiritual seeking.

I’d like to say one thing about contradictions — I don’t mean to cut you off — but the whole thing is contradictions. And that’s what I’ve realized, is that everything has multiple sides to it, you know? We’re so quick to go, to make things black and white and to put things in their box. You know what I mean? But everything is this mixture, and that’s what this world is, is this blend of different things.

Exactly! I hope Matisyahu’s quote goes viral because it is so true. Religion is not black and white although some may claim that it is. I recently had a conversation with a young venture capitalist in Detroit who is a ba’al teshuva, meaning he adopted an observant Jewish lifestyle. As he hammered away at the contradictions of non-Orthodox Jewish religious practice (“they keep strict kosher at home, but eat vegetarian in non-kosher-certified restaurants,” “they don’t drive on Shabbat except to go to the synagogue,” etc.), I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that these contradictions exist across the board. Human beings are inconsistent and religion (including religious law) is fluid so that it breeds inconsistency (across denominations, between communities, and in individuals).

Some observant Jews may find comfort in their own reality distortion field, but I am certain that contradictions exist in their own personal religious practice. As a colleague of mine often says, “Every Jew can find another Jew who isn’t as frum (religious) as he is and look down on him.” There really does not exist any baseline for religious observance because religion has many sides to it and is a mixture, as Matisyahu expressed. Perhaps the end of 2011 marks Matisyahu’s most meaningful religious epiphany yet. Shaving off his beard helped him open his eyes to the sea of grey that is a religiously observant life and a spiritual existence.

Beard or no beard, I’m sure that Matisyahu’s music will continue to resonate with millions. I hope his insight will as well.

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

What is Glatt Kosher

As a panelist for Jewish Values Online, I am asked to weigh in on various values-based questions from the perspective of a Conservative rabbi. A recent question I was asked to respond to was odd in that it wasn’t a question that had to do with values. I was asked to answer the difference between “glatt kosher” and “kosher”. This struck me as having to do less with values and more with a general misunderstanding.

Here is my response from the Jewish Values Online website:

Literally speaking, the term “glatt” is a Yiddish word that means smooth (it is called “chalak” in Hebrew). It is used most commonly as a kosher designation referring to the lungs of an animal. If the animal’s lungs were smooth and free of any adhesion that would render it non-kosher, the animal is designated as “glatt.” The term only applies to kosher animals whose meat can be eaten (not fowl or fish). Therefore, kosher food like chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products can never be “glatt.”

The term has come to mean “kosher to a higher level” leading many people to erroneously think that non-beef food items can be “glatt.” In fact, I have been asked if pizza that I certify as kosher is “glatt” to which I responded that if they’re concerned about the melted cheese atop the pizza being smooth, they should be fine.

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky wrote an insightful explanation of why the “glatt” designation is important. He explains, “In colloquial discourse treif refers to anything that is not kosher. The technical definition of treifa is based on Exodus 22:30 (Do not eat meat from an animal torn [treifa] in the field) and refers to an animal with any of a specific group of physical defects that are detailed in the Talmud. Examples of these “defects,” which often go far beyond the health inspection of the USDA, include certain lesions, lacerations, broken limbs, missing or punctured organs, or the result of an attack by a larger animal. Such defects can occur in and thereby render both animals and fowl treif. Because most of these defects are uncommon, it may be assumed that most animals are healthy and hence there is no requirement to inspect every animal for them. An exception is the lung of an animal, on which adhesions and other problems may develop. While these problems are not common, they do occur more frequently than other treifot. Their relative prevalence led the rabbis to mandate that the lungs of every animal be examined, both manually while still in its natural position in the animal, and visually following its removal from the thoracic cavity.”

Most types of adhesion on the animal would make the animal a treifa and therefore forbidden to be eaten by a Jewish person. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Ramah) allows for a method of peeling and testing many types of adhesions, which results in many more animals being designated as kosher. This leniency allows kosher observant individuals to eat meat that is not from a “glatt” animal, but one whose adhesions had been checked through peeling and testing. Isserles ruled only for Ashkenazi Jews, but Rabbi Yosef Karo did not rule that this was acceptable practice and therefore his Sephardic followers only eat “glatt” kosher meat.

This led to the “glatt” designation being considered a stringency that the pious would uphold. The misconception is that if meat is not “glatt” then it is not kosher. In truth, non-glatt meat that has been thoroughly inspected is considered fully kosher for Ashkenazic Jews.

There are kosher certification agencies that only certify meat that is “glatt”. Those who only eat “glatt” meat are known as mehadrin, meaning “embellished.” Maintaining a kosher diet leaves froom for leniencies and stringencies. One who follows a more stringent level of kosher observance is considered to have embellished God’s commandments and thus is said to be keeping kosher l’mehadrin. The terms “glatt” and “mehadrin” have come to describe a higher level of kosher status, but has also been misapplied to such things as water.

These terms can colloquially mean “extra strict supervision,” but it is important that the actual definition is lost along the way. Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem has written about the fact that this stringency of the pious seems to apply to kosher food, but seldom to matters of ethics. He writes, “If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about Glatt I am reminded of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s comment that we need a mashgiah [kosher supervisor] not just for food for other things such as lashon ha-ra – gossip – as well.

So, the bottom line is that “glatt” means smooth and refers to the lungs of animals like cows. When its applied to other food it is being misapplied, but colloquially means “kosher to a higher standard.”

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

Congregation Beit Kodesh

It’s not uncommon for a rabbi to write a eulogy for a human being, but writing a eulogy for a synagogue is fortunately not very common. Nevertheless, I’d like to express my sincere sadness that a local Conservative congregation is closing its doors today.

Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn’t already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.

At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue’s library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn’t about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.

For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation’s sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.

Finally, this month the congregation’s leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, “The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.'”

These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.

The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn’t had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai… the Jewish people endures.

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

A Look at the Recent Jewish Headlines

This has been anything but a quiet summer for Jewish news. The summer is usually a time when the Jewish world slows down, but not this year. It’s only mid-July and already it seems like there have been a dozen big news stories this summer.

Here’s the list I compiled of news items either about the Jewish community or related to the Jewish community. Feel free to add to the list in the comments section.

Arson Fire at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem – A major forest fire in Jerusalem led to the evacuation of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum. After burning nearly 40 acres of the Jerusalem forest, firefighters and the Israeli military got the blaze under control. Arson is suspected.

Ban on Circumcision in San Francisco – A ballot measure to ban circumcision in San Francisco has given the Jewish ritual national attention. The measure would outlaw circumcisions on males younger than 18, except in cases of medical necessity, within San Francisco city limits. Anyone convicted of performing circumcisions could be sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The shocking part is that no religious exemptions would be permitted according to this measure.

Ban on Kosher and Halal Slaughter – The Dutch initiative against shechitah (Jewish ritual slaughter) was conceived of by the Party for the Animals, which holds just two seats in the 150-seat Dutch House and one in the 75-seat Senate. The ultra-liberal party argues that stunning an animal is more humane than the razor-sharp knife used in kosher slaughter. If the ban passes, Dutch Jewish leaders will challenge it in court, using the guarantee of freedom of religion enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights as their defense.

Anthony Weiner – The summer began with the first sex scandal to be linked to Twitter. Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Jewish congressman from New York, had everything going for him. He was moving up the ranks and had become a media darling. His downfall was caused by hubris and his inability to refrain from sending nude photos of himself to women through his Twitter account. As JTA noted, there was a long list of Jewish congressmen who called for Weiner’s resignation: Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) and Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.). Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was the only Jewish congressman to come to Weiner’s defense. The embarrassed and disgraced congressman lied to the public and then resigned amid pressure from his colleagues.

Liberal Rabbinical Students on Israel – Rabbi Danny Gordis has developed a reputation for saying what’s on his mind. Last summer, Peter Beinart accused the American Jewish community of forsaking its own liberal democratic values in blind support of Israel’s move to the political right, and in the process created a generation of young Jews who feel no attachment to the Jewish state. This summer, Gordis narrowed the focus to American rabbinical students in the Reform and Conservative movements who he claims have alienated Israel in order to maintain their liberal political views. The former dean of Conservative Judaism’s West Coast rabbinical school who has become a neo-Con Israeli cited several examples of young rabbinical students criticizing Israel in ways previous generations of rabbis would never have imagined. Gordis wrote of one rabbinical student studying in Israel who refused to purchase a new tallit (prayer shawl) if it was made in Israel. He told of another rabbinical student who traveled to Ramallah to celebrate his birthday, sitting at a bar  surrounded by posters extolling violence against Israel. The Gordis critique launched a massive back and forth of editorials on both sides of the debate.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn – The former head of the IMF was considered a front-runner for the French presidency. He would have been the first Jew to hold such a position since World War II. Dominique Strauss-Kahn resigned after he was jailed on charges of sexually assaulting a housekeeper in his room at the Sofitel hotel in New York this past spring. He was released from house arrest earlier this month after prosecutors said the hotel maid who accused the former director of the International Monetary Fund of rape lied to a grand jury. Strauss-Kahn still faces charges of rape. While his lawyers don’t deny there was a sexual encounter, they are calling for all charges against their client to be dropped.

Restructuring at USCJ – Perhaps the Conservative Movement’s central agency thought it could clean house in the middle of the summer when no one was paying attention. Think again. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism continues to face a sharp decline in member synagogues as more congregations either refuse to pay dues or leave the movement altogether after merging with Reform congregations. In mid-June, USCJ announced it will undergo a major restructuring that includes the elimination of 27 percent of its 115 full-and part-time staff positions and a reduction in dues for those congregations that stay in the movement. This is all part of USCJ’s new strategic plan that was released in the winter.

Orthodox Teens and the Half Shabbat – The reports of Haredi Jewish teens sitting in a park on Shabbat texting their friends were shocking to the Orthodox world. What might have been even more shocking was that these Orthodox teens had given a name to their observance of Shabbat — “The Half Shabbat.” Several Jewish newspapers reported on this new culture among observant teens who just can’t seem to make it 25 hours without texting on their cellphones. The New York Jewish Week even reported that the practice has become so widespread that perhaps as many as half of Modern Orthodox teens text on Shabbat. Orthodox leaders, from youth group directors to yeshiva principals, are vowing to try to curb this violation among the teens.

Identity Cards – Israel’s Interior Minister Eli Yishai is determined to bring the term “Jew” back into Israeli identity cards under the “nationality” clause that was eradicated a decade ago. Only an Israeli who was either born Jewish or underwent an approved Orthodox conversion would be able to get this designation on the identity card. That means that those who underwent Reform or Conservative conversions would not be identified as Jewish even if they became disabled fighting for the Jewish state.

Gay Marriage in NY – It might not seem like a Jewish issue, but in NY just about everything becomes a Jewish issue. When the Marriage Equality Act in New York State passed in late June, the Jewish groups were divided in the obvious ways. The liberal Jewish organizations celebrated the news while the right leaning groups condemned it. The Anti-Defamation League called it “a significant step forward in the pursuit of individual liberty and freedom from discrimination for New Yorkers” while the Orthodox Union offered that marriage equality for gays and lesbians was “a mistake.” To bring even more debate in the Jewish community, the first gay wedding in New York will be an interfaith one. Rabbi Lev Baesh will officiate at the wedding of two lesbians this Saturday night in Westbury, NY at 11:00 p.m. (well after the end of Shabbat).

H&H Bagel Closes – For some, the closing of H&H Bagel in Manhattan will be just another example of the trying financial times that restaurants and food stores are facing these days. But for those who have ever lived in Manhattan (as I have), H&H Bagel was a staple of the Upper West Side and it was very sad to hear of its demise. The iconic bagel store appeared in “Seinfeld,” “Sex in the City,” and “Entourage.” Personally, I like a Detroit bagel better than New York’s version, but I still recognize that the shuttering of H&H is the end of an era for New York Jews.

Things have been exciting in the Jewish community so far this summer. But, hopefully, the second half of the summer will be quieter than the first half.

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