Conan O’Brien Teaches Halacha (Jewish Law)

As the founder and director of a kosher certification agency, people often send me anything and everything having anything to do with kosher certification. So last week when the Rabbinical Council of California first certified a sexual lubricant product as kosher and then rescinded the certification, you can imagine I received several articles about the story.

While I wasn’t surprised to see coverage of this story making the rounds on late night TV talk shows, I was taken aback when I saw Conan O’Brien’s uber-esoteric halachic schtick on last night’s episode of “Conan”.

Jewish jokes aren’t anything new for Conan O’Brien, who is Irish Catholic. One of Conan’s long-time writers is Rob Kutner (@ApocalypseHow), who once wrote for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”. Kutner has become something of a maven when it comes to writing funny Purim shpiels and created The Shushan Channel, a mail-order Purim shpiel business.

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Drew Barrymore Plans to Remove Tattoos for Conversion to Judaism

A year ago I wrote about Drew Barrymore’s journey toward conversion to Judaism and how she was turning to her friend Adam Sandler for assistance.  At the time she was engaged to marry Will Kopelman, an art consultant who is Jewish. The couple married on June 2, 2012 in Montecito, California and welcomed their child, a daughter named Olive Barrymore Kopelman, on September 26, 2012.

Some were surprised that Drew didn’t convert to the Jewish faith before getting married (this is her third marriage) or at the least before delivering her first baby. But she reported that it was a long process and she didn’t want to take the plunge before she was ready. About Judaism, Drew has said “It’s a beautiful faith and I’m so honored to be around it. It’s so family-oriented… the stories are so beautiful and it’s incredibly enlightening. I’m really happy.”

Photo: Algemeiner.com

Well, it now appears that Drew is ready for her conversion and she’s taking a rather drastic step. TMZ.com reports that “Former wild child Drew Barrymore has decided to REMOVE her tattoos because she is CONVERTING to Judaism for her husband Will Kopelman! The new mom wishes to be buried in a Jewish cemetery, something that can only happen if she erases all permanent ink from her person.”

Drew has six tattoos according to the post on TMZ and will experience quite a bit of pain as she’s having all six removed in preparation for her conversion. But what I want to know is who is advising Drew that she has to have these tattoos removed before converting to Judaism. As I wrote on this blog almost five years ago, the notion that Jews cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have tattoos is a myth. It’s a bubbe-meise, an old wives’ tale. An article in the NY Times even referred to this supposed prohibition as an “urban legend,” explaining that, “the edict isn’t true. The eight rabbinical scholars interviewed for this article, from institutions like the Jewish Theological Seminary and Yeshiva University, said it’s an urban legend, most likely started because a specific cemetery had a policy against tattoos. Jewish parents and grandparents picked up on it and over time, their distaste for tattoos was presented as scriptural doctrine.”

While I wouldn’t encourage someone who was converting to Judaism to get a tattoo I also wouldn’t make them have any preexisting tattoos removed. There’s just no reason to go through the painful process of tattoo removal before Jewish conversion since the rule forbidding those with tattoos to be buried in a Jewish cemetery is a myth. As I explained in my blog post, Rabbi Alan Lucas, in a 1997 teshuvah (legal response) for the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, raised the question of tattooing in Judaism. Lucas concluded that there are diverse opinions among the rabbis concerning the the prohibition of tattooing based on the Torah’s verse in Leviticus 19:28 stating, “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, nor incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord.”

The mishnah explains that it is the lasting and permanent nature of tattooing which makes it a culpable act, but Rabbi Simeon disagrees and says that it is only the inclusion of God’s name which makes tattooing prohibited. I don’t believe that Drew Barrymore has any tattoos on her body that include God’s name so that shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, there will likely be several important laws of Judaism that Drew will not follow after her conversion. I don’t think that she should somehow raise the importance of a prohibition of tattooing above many important laws that she’ll likely gloss over.

If Drew decides to forgo the tattoo removal, I can promise her that she won’t be the only Jewish person with tattoos. And she certainly won’t be the only Jewish celeb with tattoos either (see Lena Dunham and Adam Levine). Even though Drew wasn’t Jewish at the time, the couple was married by a rabbi, had a ketubah witnessed, and stood under a chuppah. And according to the Algemeiner.com website, Drew and Will Kopelman have promised to raise their daughter Olive in a traditional Jewish manner. I think that’s great, but if I were the one advising her in her conversion to Judaism I would focus less on those tattoos and more on Shabbat observance, keeping kosher, and sending Olive to a Jewish day school. I wish Drew the best of luck in her conversion process.

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

Israel’s The Voice: When Religion Goes Too Far

I always try to be careful to not criticize other’s religious convictions, the way in which they interpret and practice religious law, or the decisions they make about what they cannot do based on their religious practice. I did, however, find it upsetting that a 17-year-old young woman in Israel was suspended from her school for singing on a reality TV show.

At issue was the prohibition on women singing in public that some Jews follow. Kol isha, or “a woman’s voice,” is derived from the Talmud and is one of the laws that fits into the category of ervah (literally “nakedness”). But the issue of a man listening to a woman’s singing voice isn’t so clear cut. While some Jewish legal authorities claim that kol isha applies at all times, others say the prohibition doesn’t apply to a recorded voice. That would be the case on the Israeli version of “The Voice,” a reality TV competition show.

Ophir Ben-Shetreet Israel The Voice
Ophir Ben-Shetreet was being coached by Israeli singer Aviv Geffen

This young Israeli student, Ophir Ben-Shetreet, didn’t seem to have an issue with singing on this TV show and any of the men who felt it posed a threat to their religious convictions had every opportunity to not watch the episode. However, rather than tuning out the rabbis of her religious girls’ high school in Ashdod, Israel, suspended the 12th grader from school for two weeks. Just for singing in public.

An interesting side note in this controversy is that the Israeli Ministry of Education could not allow Ben-Shetreet to officially be punished because there is a rule that says students cannot be punished for performing on a television show. In light of that rule, Ben-Shetreet’s parents had to be the ones initiating the punishment, despite their position that she didn’t do anything wrong.

Again, I do not condone criticizing other’s religious views unless they pose a human rights violation. Certain laws that make women second-class citizens I believe fall into that category. This young woman singing on a television show is her right. The men who feel it is undignified, immodest, or immoral to listen to her beautiful voice have a right to feel that way. And they also have a right to avoid watching or listening to the show. Punishing the young woman for her participation, however, seems wrong and unfair.

The laws of ervah (which include various interpretations of the need for a woman to cover her hair) are not clear cut. There are some religious Jewish communities that would never allow a woman to lead religious services, but wouldn’t object to a woman singing the national anthem or a secular song. In this case, Ben-Shetreet’s participation in the Israeli version of “The Voice” had no effect on her religious day school.

I understand the need for modesty laws in religion and I appreciate any interpretation of any religion that strives for modesty. However, these modesty laws must be kept in check. In Judaism we run the risk of taking these laws too far and then in an effort to be modest, the misinterpretation of the laws cause immoral acts. Banning a female high school student from singing on a reality TV show is certainly an example of this. Ben-Shetreet is a talented young girl with a beautiful voice. Suspending her from school for two weeks in the name of her religion for doing nothing wrong will have negative effects for her and countless other young woman who want to embrace Judaism; not be shunned because of it.

I really liked something that Ben-Shetreet said during an interview on the show. “The Torah wants music to make people happy, and I think it’s possible to do both, which is why I came to the show.”

I couldn’t imagine silencing my daughter from singing in public. I would of course celebrate her solo singing opportunities on stage rather than denigrate her for them. There are many religious laws — not only in Judaism but in other religions as well — that should be respected even if many of us find them problematic. It is when religious laws, like in this case, are used illogically to keep people from attaining their full potential and achieving their goals. No one was going to get hurt by Ophir Ben-Shetreet performing on this reality TV show. But I’m afraid the Jewish religion took a hit because of the decision to punish her.

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

Holocaust Tattoos, Settlers and Quaker State Oil

I’ve written before on this blog about tattoos in the Jewish tradition. In fact, my 2008 blog post explaining that it’s only a bubba meisa (old wives’ tale) that Jewish people can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if they have a tattoo remains one of the most popular posts on this blog.

Well, tattoos on Jews are back in the news (that rhymes). This time the story is about grandchildren of Holocaust survivors getting their grandparent’s Auschwitz inmate numbers tattooed on their arm as a memorial. The article in the NY Times opens with the story of Eli Sagir who had the number 157622 permanently inked on her arm. That same number was forcefully tattooed on her grandfather’s arm by the Nazis at Auschwitz 70 years earlier. Sagir’s mother, brother, and uncle also had the numbers inscribed onto their forearms.

Photo by Uriel Sinai | NY Times

According to the Times article, “tattooing was introduced at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1941, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, and at the adjacent Birkenau the next March. They were the only camps to employ the practice, and it is unclear how many people were branded, briefly on the chest and more commonly on the left forearm.”

This new tradition is shocking, but some find it meaningful as a way to keep the story of the Holocaust alive as survivors are quickly dying off (there are currently 200,000 Holocaust survivors compared with 400,000 a decade ago). Some tattoo artists see the importance of this practice and don’t charge for their services. The descendants of the survivors interviewed for the NY Times story all agreed that they wanted to be “intimately, eternally bonded to their survivor-relative. And they wanted to live the mantra ‘Never forget’ with something that would constantly provoke questions and conversation.”

There is a certain irony in this story because many parents forbid their children from getting tattoos based on the notion that Holocaust victims were forced to be tattooed. But I think tattoos are just a reality in the 21st century and the idea that Jews with tattoos will be refused burial in a Jewish cemetery seems to have been debunked. The practice of wearing a grandparent’s (or great-grandparent’s) numbers from Auschwitz or Birkenau as a tattoo should be embraced as a new ritual for this generation. Just as survivors’ grandchildren asked them what the numbers symbolize, some day the grandchildren of the grandchildren will ask the same question. These tattoos will serve as a tribute to those who survived the Holocaust long after they die, as well as a memorial for those who perished.

Not all use of the Holocaust number tattoos is for good however. Seven years ago during the Israeli army led pullout from Gaza, Israeli settlers compared their plight to that of Holocaust victims. The residents of the Gaza settlement bloc of Gush Katif wrote their identity card numbers on their arms in protest. According to an article in Haaretz, the trend began when a Gush Katif woman refused to show her ID card to security forces at a security crossing and instead “she showed him her arm, on which she had written her identity number, in a simulation of the Nazi practice of branding numbers on the arms of concentration camp inmates. Security forces checked her identity and let her through the checkpoint.”

Ehud Yatom, a Likud member of Knesset at the time, expressed his disdain over this practice. “The use by a few disengagement opponents of Holocaust symbols and implications comparing the horrors of the Third Reich to the government’s disengagement plan, even if it is mistaken, constitutes a sin against the memory of the entire Jewish nation.”

Quaker State commerical

Numbers tattooed on ones forearm will always be a shocking image because of the Holocaust. For that reason a friend of mine was horrified when she saw a commercial on ESPN for Quaker State engine oil. She described the commercial to me in enough detail that I was able to find it on YouTube. The Quaker State commercial shows several drivers who are proud of how many miles their car lasted while using Quaker State oil. One man displays the number of miles his car survived with a tattoo on his arm. While I’m sure the company meant no disrespect to Holocaust survivors with this image (the tattoo is on the upper arm rather than where the Auschwitz numbers are usually found), it does show just how sensitive some people can be to that imagery. Here’s a link to the commercial.

As one daughter of a survivor who got her mother’s Holocaust numbers tattooed on her arm articulated “The fact that young people are choosing to get the tattoos is, in my eyes, a sign that we’re still carrying the scar of the Holocaust.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Passover and Pet Food

As a kosher supervisor (mashgiach) and the owner of a kosher certification agency, I am constantly impressed by the level of attention, respect and genuine care that non-Jewish business owners demonstrate for their kosher observant customers. I once again witnessed this first hand when I met the owner of Premier Pet Supply last week.

Mike Palmer, who is half Chaldean and half Italian, owns the pet food and supply store with his uncle, the store’s founder. Located in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Detroit, the store has received a lot of positive attention of late because of Mike’s knack for publicity and his people skills (he obviously has great pet skills too!). The store is consistently named best pet supply store in the area and Mike was just named one of the Elite 40 Under 40 for Oakland County, Michigan.
Mike called me a few weeks ago and asked if I would come by his store before Passover to answer some questions about kosher for Passover pet food. Since my family doesn’t own any pets and I haven’t certified kosher dog food in over a year (the dog treat company Kosher Michigan certified went out of business in 2010), I decided to brush up on the laws concerning pet food on Passover. And it’s a good thing I did because when I got to the store I was overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge Mike possessed concerning the kosher laws and Passover. He knew more about the intricacies of the holiday than many Jewish people I know.
As we walked the aisles of his store I checked the pet food that he had labeled as being appropriate for Passover and there were no errors. He explained that he had read an article by the Star-K kosher certification agency and felt he had a good understanding of what makes pet food kosher for Passover, but he wanted to run some questions by me. We had a long conversation about kitniyot (legumes, which most Ashkenazi Jews don’t eat on Passover) as well as the custom of feeding the family dog in the garage on Passover, which many families follow. Over and again, I heard Mike express how important he believes it is to provide quality service to his Jewish customers and ensure that they can purchase the best food for their pets on Passover while adhering to the holiday’s regulations.
In terms of what Jewish law says about pet food on Passover, the most important thing to remember is that chametz (leavened products) from the five grains (barley, oats, rye, spelt, or wheat) is forbidden to eat or derive benefit from. Feeding chametz to one’s pet would be deriving benefit from it. Additionally, a Jewish person is not allowed to even possess any chametz on Passover. 
As I explained to Mike, while kitniyot (legumes) are not eaten by most Ashkenazi Jews, they may be fed to pets on Passover. Also, one does not need to change over the dishes for pets, meaning that the usual food bowls for pets can be used on Passover but they should be cleaned out first.
A 2009 article in the NY Times featured a Passover Seder for dogs that took place at a Chicago pet food store to promote Evanger’s Dog and Cat Food Company which sells Kosher for Passover products. (Joshua Lott/Chicago Tribune)

There is a custom of “selling” one’s pet to a non-Jew on Passover. The reason for this has to do with deriving benefit from chametz. Thus, if one leaves a pet with a non-Jew during Passover the pet owner will still derive benefit from chametz when the non-Jewish friend feeds the pet. Therefore, some observant Jews will “sell” the pet to the non-Jewish friend on the condition it is sold back at the conclusion of the holiday in the same fashion as the “legal fiction” sale of chametz.

While many Jews are not familiar with the laws governing pet food on Passover, it is reassuring that there are pet supply store owners like Mike Palmer who are concerned about this. It is admirable that he has taken the time to research this subject and has gone out of his way to help his Jewish customers find the right pet food for Passover.

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

Selling Chametz Online

When I posted a link to my recent NY Jewish Week blog post on Twitter with the question “Can One Sell Chametz Online” I received a response from Rabbi Elli Fischer (@adderabbi) which stated, “Obviously, one CAN sell chametz online” with a link to CookiesDirect.net. Okay, he’s got a point there!

Jokes aside, the selling of chametz has been one of the more prevalent ways the Jewish community has used modern technology to perform Jewish ritual (I don’t recommend selling your chametz on eBay). Here’s my blog post:

Can One Sell Chametz Online
Originally Posted on the Jewish Techs blog (The Jewish Week)

On the Jewish Techs blog we have looked at the way several Jewish rituals are now performed using the Internet. Not every Jewish ritual can be transferred to the medium of the Internet, but even the question raises some interesting points for discussion. With the latest Web technology, we have seen how Jewish life-cycle events can be more inclusive and we have also looked into the legality of convening a minyan (prayer quorum) over the Internet.

With Passover beginning at the end of this week, let us take a look at the question of mechirat chametz (the sale of leavened products) using the Internet. Since the popularity of email messaging began in earnest about twenty years ago, there have been those who have used email to sell their chametz – a legal fiction by which any leavened products that could not be eaten, donated or thrown away are sold by a Jew to a non-Jew (usually through the agency of a rabbi) for the duration of the Passover holiday and then bought back at the holiday’s conclusion.

Like many Jewish rituals, the sale of chametz requires legal documentation to ensure that the transaction is according to Jewish law and custom. In a community without a rabbi or individuals who are knowledgeable about Jewish law, it is difficult to perform such rituals. The advent of the Internet has rendered the physical distance between Jewish communities nonexistent and allowed Jewish people in remote areas to perform Jewish rituals they were once unable to perform. So let us look at the feasibility of using the Internet to sell one’s chametz.

There are several ways to transact the sale of chametz using the Internet. Some may send a signed form attached to an email to an agent (a rabbi or other figure) and others will simply send text in an email message giving permission for the agent to perform the sale. Websites now exist that allow individuals to sell their chametz through an agent without ever seeing or speaking to the agent performing the sale making the seller further removed from the transaction. Does this satisfy the Jewish legal requirements of a valid chametz transaction?

Rabbi Gil Student takes up the question on his Hirhurim Torah Musings blog. He writes:

Technically, one may appoint an agent merely by stating that you are appointing him (Shulchan Arukh, Choshen Mishpat 182:1). However, the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Mekhirah 5:12-13) records a custom to solidify an appointment of an agent by making a kinyan sudar, performing a symbolic act of acquisition which demonstrates the transfer of authority. In this way, the Rambam says, you make clear that you truly want to appoint this agent to act on your behalf.

The custom in most places is to make a kinyan from some of these things or the similar and we say he made a kinyan from this person and appointed him an agent… This kinyan that is the custom does not affect anything except making known that he is not saying it as a joke but made a firm decision and afterward said [that he appoints someone as an agent]. Therefore, if he says “I wholeheartedly said and decided this” he does not need anything else.

We normally follow this custom only when appointing a rabbi as an agent to sell chametz, not when otherwise appointing an agent. When the seller signs a document appointing an agent, some consider this kinyan unnecessary (She’arim Metzuyanim Ba-Halakhah 114:8 kuntres acharon), others a stringency (She’eilas Shlomo 4:111), but others — most notably R. Soloveitchik — consider it an established custom (Nefesh Ha-Rav p. 179; see Nitei Gavriel, Hilkhos Pesach, vol. 1 38:1). Presumably, this custom arose because of the danger inherent in the distance of the seller from the actual sale. When it comes to chametz, even if only rabbinically forbidden, we try to strengthen the agency and minimize the risk of the sale becoming a mere ritual.

Since there is no absolute requirement that the appointing of an agent be done through a physical act of kinyan or in the presence of witnesses (private verbal instruction suffices in this case), it is acceptable to perform the sale of chametz through the medium of the Internet. Even a website in which the seller appoints an agent without his knowledge is sufficient. So signing an agreement via the Internet, which is becoming standard practice in many Jewish communities around the world is considered equal to a traditional contract with a signature and is sufficient in the sale of chametz for Passover.

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