Can Ryan Braun Do Teshuvah (Repentance)?

An interview with the Detroit Tigers’ new manager Brad Ausmus about his Jewish heritage spread out over a half page in yesterday’s Detroit Free Press. The interview was an excerpt from the new book by Larry Ruttman, “American Jews and America’s Game: Voices of a Growing Legacy in Baseball”. Ruttman’s interview concludes with a prediction that Ausmus will one day become a manager of a Major League Baseball team and of course that prediction came true earlier this month when the Detroit Tigers announced his hiring.

In the two weeks since that announcement many people in Detroit — and outside of Detroit — have asked my opinion about the Jewishness of Brad Ausmus. That’s an easy answer, I explain, because his mother is Jewish and therefore he’s Jewish. However, that doesn’t seem to be enough for many people. They seem to be troubled by the fact that Ausmus isn’t the ideal Jewish character for Jewish baseball fans to be excited about. Growing up with a Protestant father, having a Christmas tree in the house each year, and never becoming a bar mitzvah bothers many who want to be excited about this new Jewish manager (it should be noted that Ausmus isn’t the only Jewish manager currently in Major League Baseball since Bob Melvin, the manager of the Oakland A’s, also has a Jewish mother and coincidentally was also a catcher at one point for the Detroit Tigers).

Brad Ausmus - Israel

Ausmus has been very candid about his Jewish background and like Ryan Braun he acknowledges that Judaism didn’t feature very prominently in his upbringing. In fact, both Ausmus and Braun fall very neatly into the category of Jewish American that many were surprised about in the recent Pew Research Center study. I have cynically explained to people that having Jewish baseball players in the Major Leagues and Jewish managers are statistical anomalies. After all, make up a very small percent of the U.S. population and when you factor in that many professional baseball players aren’t from the U.S., the chances of a Jewish professional player are very small. Therefore, we don’t have the luxury of choosing the type of Jewish player.

Yes, it would be easier to feel Jewish pride over a Jewish baseball player who plays like Hank Greenberg, refuses to play on Yom Kippur, attends a synagogue, practices a virtuous life off the field, and donates a portion of his salary to Israel and local Jewish causes. However, we have to take what we get. And that is why we should feel proud that Ausmus (and Bob Melvin) is a manager. He’s honest about who he is as it relates to his Jewish heritage, explaining, “I was not brought up in any religion, I wasn’t bar mitzvahed. I married a Catholic girl and have two daughters. Other than the holidays we spent with my grandparents, there really wasn’t much Jewish religion or Catholic-based religion in the household. I think my mom enjoyed Christmas more than anyone, because she didn’t have it as a kid growing up.”

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You Are What You Wear: Modesty of Dress

One of the highlights of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Jewish Camping Conference a year ago was the chance for me to get to know Nancy Lublin. I had learned about Nancy several years earlier after reading an article about her mitzvah project that turned into a successful nonprofit company.

I spoke with Nancy, CEO of Do Something for the past ten years, about her recent book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, encouraging teen philanthropy, and how Jewish summer camp can instill lifelong entrepreneurial skills in young people. But what I found most interesting in our conversation was how Nancy founded Dress for Success in 1996 with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather Poppy Max.

Nancy Lublin speaking to Jewish camping professionals (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Nancy wanted to honor her grandfather’s memory and spirit of philanthropy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. With three nuns from Spanish Harlem, Nancy started Dress for Success in New York. She then moved on to found Dress for Success Worldwide, the national support center for all Dress for Success Affiliates. Dress for Success provides interview suits, confidence boosts and career development for women and has served more than 650,000 women around the world. Women are referred to Dress for Success by not-for-profit and government agencies including homeless and domestic violence shelters, immigration services, and job training programs.

What Dress for Success does for thousands of women is a great act of loving kindness, but what I’ve always loved about her start-up philanthropy is the name: “Dress for Success.” How we dress really does lead to our success. Think about what the image we project based on what we wear. Our clothes communicate a lot about our personality and our interests. The dictum that “you are what you wear” is actually true.

This Shabbat, Erev Purim, we read Parashat Tetzaveh. In the Torah portion, Moses is ordered to appoint his older brother Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, to fill the priestly role. And just as last week’s parsha gave the explicit directions for the building of the tabernacle, this week we learn the precise details of the priestly clothing. Modern biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes that “just as sacred space must be differentiated from profane space, so the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguishable from the laity. Hence, special attire, the insignia of office, is ordained for Aaron, the archetypal High Priest, and for his sons, the priests of lower rank.”

The first part of our parsha is most concerned with the high priest’s unique garb; not only with what Aaron will wear, but also with who will make it. God commands Moses: Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as a priest. It’s not even enough that Aaron will have the most unusual and distinctive garments; God also wants the best designers to fashion his wardrobe — the Ralph Laurens and Donna Karans of the time. And these fashion designers are instructed to use the finest materials to construct this attire — gold, magnificent colorful yarns, and the finest linen around.

Next, God informs Moses of the particular vestments that the priests will wear. The Choshen – the breastplate, the Ephod, a robe, tunic, headdress, and a sash. These garments, as you can imagine, made the priests stand apart from the rest of our ancestors. The Torah goes to great lengths to cross every T and dot every I in describing the priests’ clothing for their distinctive role — colors, lengths, widths, and material were all specified with great care. But this is certainly not the most exciting section of the Torah, so we must ask why all this fashion minutiae? What’s the big deal with the priests’ clothing?

Why is the name of our Moses, the great leader of our people, not mentioned even once in this Torah portion, but instead we know the five materials that went into the production of the yarn to create part of the priest’s garb? The answer I believe is back at the beginning of the parsha when God commands the making of these vestments. What is God’s rationale for these vestments? L’chavod ultif’aret — For dignity and splendor.

L’chavod ultif’aret are two words that are part of the blessings recited after the chanting of the haftarah. The medieval commentator Sforno explains the use of these two words. The vestments, he writes, were for the dignity of God and to lend splendor to the office of the priest so that he would be revered by the people. Elaborating on Sforno’s opinion, the vestments were as much for the dignity of the priests who wore them as they were for God’s dignity. What we wear speaks volumes about us.

The famous computer company IBM had a long-standing dress code in effect at their offices worldwide. Men had to dress in a dark colored suit, could only wear a white dress shirt, and could select a necktie of any conventional color; so long as it was solid – no patterns. For women, it was mostly the same – A dark, solid colored skirt and a white blouse. IBM believed that the way its workforce dressed portrayed the specific image that they wanted associated with their company. Apparently, they held the belief that it’s “the clothing that makes the man.”

And this belief was just as true in the 1990s, as companies like IBM shifted from strict, conservative dress codes to less-formal attire. Casual dress in the workplace became the new trend and “Dress down Fridays” becoming a popular section in most clothing stores. Companies like IBM believe that the way one dresses helps contribute to the way one works, behaves, and acts toward others. It also contributes to the way others view the wearer. When we get dressed in the morning, don’t we think about what type of image we want to portray for that day? Don’t we pick out our clothes for the day based on more than just the weather? What does this t-shirt say about me? Should I wear a traditional tie for that meeting today? What will they think if I wear my expensive shoes to the job interview? Think for a moment about what images the following expressions convey: “Black Tie Required,” “Business Attire,” “Dressy Casual,” “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Indeed, the appropriate clothing is for self-dignity as well as for personal splendor, comfort, and warmth. Throughout the generations, the modesty level of our clothing has been an ongoing conversation, although the standards of modesty have no doubt changed. In Judaism, these issues of modesty fall into the category of tzniut, modesty. Tzniut is the point at which our physical appearance and our behavior intersect.

No one could argue that the terms we speak of today in debating what is modest would be foreign to those even a few generations ago. Bare-midriffs, extra-tight t-shirts, and underwear peeking out from under low-cut jeans weren’t forbidden in schools a generation ago because no child would ever think of wearing that to school. But today, all schools have a dress code of some sort. But what does it say about us as a community? Have we forgotten what is appropriate to wear?

The lesson of the clothing of the priests from this week’s Torah portion is that what we wear is actually an extension of us, whether we want that to be true or not. It is an extension of our family. It is an extension of our community. What we wear is representative of who we are, and indeed, where we come from. It speaks volumes about what we stand for and our own level of self-dignity. Styles do change. And society’s attitudes toward standards of proper attire do too. But let us not discount the importance of tzniut or the conversations that we must continue to have about what is considered modest. Let us dress for success. Let us dress for style. And most important, let us dress l’chavod ultif’aret – for dignity and splendor.

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

Do-overs and Learning From Mistakes

This is my contribution to the HuffPost Religion’s Omer Liveblog, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot:

“The broken tablets were put with the new ones into the Ark.” –Talmud, Menachot 99a

What can we learn from the fact that Moses put the broken tablets into the Ark along with the new tablets? We move on from our mistakes, but we also take the lessons along with us.

In helping to form a new nation, Moses made many mistakes. He overreacted when he saw the people sinning before God by dancing around the Golden Calf, and he threw the tablets to the ground. Forty days of hard work were lost.

As a leader, Moses owned his inability to handle the situation calmly. He did a “do-over” and received new commandments, but the experience of breaking the tablets wouldn’t be erased from memory. It was part of his narrative as a leader and part of the historical record of the Israelites. The broken tablets would endure alongside the new ones.

We all make mistakes on the way toward our goal. As a business owner and entrepreneur, there is a story upon which I often reflect that was shared with me by Josh Linkner. Everyone is familiar with WD-40, the water-displacing spray that was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, but was later found to have numerous household uses. Many people, however, don’t realize that WD-40 stands for “water displacement 40th attempt.” It was the inventor’s 40th attempt at a successful product. Norm Larsen had 39 do-overs before finding success. By naming his product WD-40 he kept the first 39 attempts with him as a lesson, just as Moses preserved the broken tablets as a reminder.

May we all make mistakes and then remember those mistakes as lessons as we achieve our goals.

This is a reflection on the fourth day of the Omer. Join the conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.

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

Must a Rabbi Report Confidential Confessions?

Earlier this week, I received a phone call from Niraj Warikoo, the religion editor of the Detroit Free Press. He told me that he was assisting another reporter on a local news story and had a few questions for me. Niraj described the case to me.

In 2009, a young girl reported to police that two years earlier when she was 9-years-old she was raped by a 15-year-old male cousin at a sleepover at her home. The boy’s pastor was informed of the allegation and he summoned the boy and his mother to the Metro Baptist Church in Belleville, Michigan to be questioned about the incident. The boy confessed to his pastor about the rape and then they prayed. The pastor, Rev. John Vaprezsan, went to the authorities and has since testified about the confession. Is that legal? Is that ethical?

It’s a horrible situation, but it also presents a host of interesting legal and ethical questions about what is known as pastor-penitent privilege. This privilege varies from state to state, but in Michigan it is protected in the same way as attorney-client privilege. In the Detroit Free Press article I explained that I honor the confidentiality of people who confess to me, but “if information that is confided in me would lead to serious harm of another human being, I would feel compelled to tell the authorities. That would include situations of abuse.”

It is important that people have a safe space to speak in confidence with their religious leader in addition to their attorney. Judaism does not place the same emphasis on confession as the Catholic faith does, but we do want people to feel comfortable speaking with their rabbi while they’re in the process of repentance.

Last night I appeared on Detroit’s Fox News affiliate to discuss this topic along with Ray Cassar, the defense attorney for the boy accused of rape. It was a very interesting discussion in which I fully agreed that in this case the pastor’s testimony about the accused’s confession should not be admissible in court. It is very important to protect the confidential discussions between clergy and congregant (or pastor and parishioner in this case). However, if I ever felt that confidential information I was given by a congregant could prevent a tragic act from taking place, I would feel compelled to break that confidentiality. In that case, the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh (saving a life) would dictate my decision.

Here is the video of last night’s episode of “Let It Rip” on Fox2 Detroit:

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

In Response to Rabbi Shmuley and the Tiger Mom

I’m a rabbi and a parent. I try to be successful at both. I like to think that, in both endeavors, I strike a good balance between sticking to my principles and making compromises. When I make compromises, I try not to compromise my beliefs or standards, although it’s necessary to choose battles (in both parenting and rabbi’ing).

Two notable figures have been in the spotlight recently because of the advice they dished out — one to rabbis and the other to parents.

The ever-opinionated Shmuley Boteach, a celebrity rabbi, gave his advice to rabbis in a column originally written in the Jerusalem Post. In t

Dan Hotchkiss, writing for the Alban Institute in an article about authority and leadership, writes, “In olden times, we like to think, society accorded great authority to clergy. Whether or not this rosy generalization stands up to scrutiny (it does not), we mainstream clergy certainly have lost some of the cachet our counterparts enjoyed from 1945 to 1965 or so… I believe our loss of authority presents clergy with a great opportunity. Authority, appealing as it is, can also be confining.”

The opportunity for us lies in developing a new capacity for leadership. Ron Heifetz, in Leadership without Easy Answers, sheds light on the differences between authority and leadership, and suggests how by depending on authority less and learning to lead better, we can redevelop a more varied, robust, and disease-resistant strain of congregations in America.

Tiger Mom
A seminar leader in rabbinical school said something that has remained with me ever since. He said, “It’s important for rabbis to have principles, but it’s more important to know when to not be too principled.”

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

Re’eh – Giving Blessings Not Curses

It has become very common for businesses and organizations to send out weekly email messages to their list of subscribers. There is nothing unusual about that. But I’ve noticed an increasing number of individuals who have begun to share their own wisdom and commentary on the issues of the day with their friends and family.

Each week, I receive many weekly newsletters that arrive in my email inbox from synagogues across the country and Israel, but I’ve also begun to receive weekly email messages from individuals. Like the synagogue newsletters, these weekly missives from individuals include some insights about the weekly Torah portion. These individuals have realized that through email they have developed their own pulpit from which to disseminate information and offer their teaching. Through word-of-mouth, they have amassed a following through their distribution list.

Sometimes these individuals intentionally comment on the weekly Torah portion and other times they do so coincidentally. I noticed that the latter was the case this week when I received Josh Linkner’s weekly message. The serial entrepreneur and motivational business speaker from Detroit titled his weekly email “Caught in the Act”.  The essence of his message is that it’s better to bless someone than to curse them. Linkner might not have realized that this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, is all about blessings and curses. He writes:

Bosses, parents, teachers, clergy and government officials are well trained to catch you doing something wrong. There are elaborate systems for checks and balances, controls and consequences. It’s apparently very important to catch the mischievous child or the wayward employee in the act of disobedience.

With so much effort spent catching people doing something wrong, it’s time to start catching each other doing something right.

In our society, wide spread labeling is an insidious force that robs individuals of achieving their true potential. When a parent tells a child they are average, slow, or stupid, these sharp words become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the erroneous labels are internalized. When a boss repeatedly lashes out at a team member pointing out their every flaw, confidence becomes shattered and performance plummets.

The good news is that labeling can work the other way too. Catch a team member in the act of delivering great work, and you’ll inject her with confidence and energy. Label a colleague a rock-star, and they’ll kick out the work version of a Grammy.

This week, let’s all flip the poison of negative labeling, and catch each other and ourselves in the act – in the act of doing things right. These new, positive labels will tip the scales in favor of results, momentum, and overall achievement.

This week’s Torah portion begins with the words, “Look, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse.” The question is which one we will choose. In the Torah’s case, the contextual understanding of the text is that God sets forth a blessing and a curse in front of us and we are to decide which one we’ll receive. Another way of understanding the text, however, is that we all have the ability to choose to bless others or to curse them.

Tuesday marks the beginning of the new Jewish month of Elul, which is a time of deep reflection and introspection for members of the Jewish faith as we prepare for the Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). I hope we will all take Josh Linkner’s message to heart during this season.

When faced with offering a blessing or a curse to someone I encourage you to remember what my mother taught me from a very young age: “You get more bees with honey.” Blessing others with kind words, motivational encouragement and compliments will lead to you feeling blessed as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

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

Rabbi Approves of Girl Inflicting Wounds for Modesty Reasons

A letter is sent from a college campus midrasha to an Ultra-Orthodox rabbi. The letter writer explains that a young Jewish woman on campus who is a counselor at a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה) is becoming more devout, but her non-observant parents disapprove. She wants to wear long skirts for modesty reasons, but her parents have forbidden her from doing so. Ynetnews.com reports that the letter continued, “The young woman thought that if she inflicted wounds on her legs she could tell her parents that she is wearing a long skirt to cover the wounds.”

According to ynet news, the letter was sent to Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein, the son-in-law of prominent Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, for his opinion. Shockingly, Rabbi Zilberstein approved of the young woman inflicting wounds on her own legs so she could dress modestly, wearing the long skirts her parents have forbidden.

If this story is authentic, it is quite troubling on many levels. The young woman is in college and should be able to determine what she wears on her own, without her parents’ consent. [The ynet News translation was erroneous. It said that she was a college student, but the Hebrew explains that she was a counselor in a midrasha (מרכזת מדרשה), meaning that she is likely a teenager.] It should never have gotten to the point where she feels compelled to do self-harm in order to wear modest clothes.

While the commandment to honor ones parents is competing with the young woman’s belief in modest dress, there is precedent in Judaism for disobeying ones parents if it leads to adherence of the law in other cases. But above all else, it is in violation of Jewish law to inflict harm on oneself. Inflicting wounds on oneself is a transgression of Jewish law. It would be religious malpractice if Rabbi Zilberstein actually condoned this practice.

According to the article in ynet news, the rabbi responded to the questioner writing, “She is allowed to inflict wounds on her legs in order to dress modestly and evade sin.”

There is already documented evidence that young women are self inflicting wounds at a high rate. Reports of intentional cutting and self mutilation among teens, especially young women, is shocking. In a November 2008 article in the Huffington Post, Leslie Goldman wrote about the growing epidemic of troubled Jewish teenage girls who are suffering from eating disorders and body image problems that lead to cutting themselves. I would presume Rabbi Zilberstein was not familiar with this crisis when he penned his response.

Ynet reports, “In his reply, the rabbi commended the student’s initiative, saying ‘the blood from the self-inflicted wound will atone for the people of Israel,’ adding that the coordinator should allow the student to commit the act.” The rabbi’s opinion is odd. In fact, it even calls to mind the sacrificial system of a bygone era in Judaism. When I first read Rabbi Zilberstein’s response I couldn’t help but notice that he seems to draw on Christian symbolism.

If there’s truth to this story and Rabbi Zilberstein in fact opined that this young woman in college should continue to inflict wounds on her body so that she’ll have an excuse to dress modestly in the face of her parents’ disapproval, then he owes an explanation for his warped logic. I understand and respect those who feel strongly about modest dress, but there are boundaries. No person in their right mind would grant approval for such a horrible act.

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

Dr. Jack Kevorkian from a Jewish Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doctoring Photos for Religious Reasons

The whole media storm over the doctored photo of the National Security Team in the Situation Room (being briefed with the president and vice president on the Osama Bin Laden raid) has raised many questions and additional controversy.

Yesterday, I took part in an ad hoc Facebook forum moderated by journalist Steven I. Weiss that centered on the ethics of altering photographs. The interesting discussion touched on several aspects of the story including whether it is ever ethical to alter a photo. In my opinion, this is a “gut decision.” That is to say, touching up a photo to improve the lighting or to remove a few blemishes from a person’s face is acceptable. However, airbrushing an ex-girlfriend out of a group photo might feel good, but it alters the record of reality.

One of the most iconic photos of the 20th century is from the Kent State shootings. The photo was altered by removing a post that otherwise would have seemed to be emanating from the screaming woman’s head. This didn’t change the historical record of the event.

In conversations about the two Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) newspapers that airbrushed Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason from the now famous photo, I tried to shift the focus from the Jewish religious issues of modesty to the question of photographic integrity. Many people thought I was intentionally throwing mud at the ultra-right wing of the Jewish world, when in fact I was drawing attention to the problem of doctored photographs. The two examples I’ve raised have been the doctored photos of Oprah Winfrey on the cover TV Guide and Katie Couric’s magical weight loss thanks to Photoshop. (The photo of Oprah is actually her face on Ann Margaret’s 1979 body.) Both of these photos are misleading to the public.

I fully believe that these ultra-Orthodox newspapers have the right to determine which photographs they use to accompany their articles. I disagree, of course, that photos of women and girls are too immodest to be shown, but these papers do have this right. However, altering photos as they often do is unethical. And it’s not only a policy on photographs. In 2008, when Tzipi Livni was close to becoming Israel’s first female prime minister since Golda Meir, ultra-Orthodox newspapers not only refused to print photos of her, they also wouldn’t print her full name. “We might write ‘Mrs. T. Livni’ or just ‘Mrs. Livni,’ but the name Tzipi is too familiar. It is not acceptable to address a woman using her first name, especially when she goes by a nickname,” a senior editor at Hamodia said.
For many Haredi Jews these newspapers are the only form of news they receive. They don’t have televisions in their homes and Internet use is forbidden. To these communities, the papers become the historical record. The iconic of photo in the Situation Room for the Bin Laden briefing will be around forever in millions of formats. However, photos that are only printed in these Haredi newspapers really will become historical documents and records of past events. Doctoring them will forever change how future generations will recall their community’s history and this misrepresentation of reality is deceitful.
This is a delicate issue and it’s important to know the facts. There have been many examples of misinformation surrounding this story. I’ve received irate phone calls from people who actually think that I was the one who removed Hillary Clinton from the photo. The Jewish Week, where I originally wrote about this, has been accused of being the newspaper that doctored the photo. Some people have even accused me of being a self-hating Jew (I’m not) for breaking the story (I didn’t) simply to criticize the Orthodox. While I don’t agree with the way women are perceived or treated in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish world, I don’t occupy my time criticizing them. However, I also don’t believe that I must remain silent about my feelings based on the principle that any critique of other Jews is damaging to the entire faith.
Here are some other examples of how the ultra-Orthodox have doctored images based on their interpretation of the laws of modesty, including replacing a woman with a gnome in an Independence Day billboard recently. As always, leave a comment to join me in this interesting conversation.

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