Warren Buffett Invests in Chametz

Usually when Warren Buffett makes a deal it is the big news of the day on CNBC and in the Wall Street Journal. But the Oracle of Omaha’s recent deal probably won’t get much attention and it certainly won’t have to be reported to the Security and Exchange Committee.

The Omaha World-Herald reported today that Rabbi Jonathan Gross of the Orthodox Beth Israel Synagogue in West Omaha chose Warren Buffett to be the non-Jewish buyer of the congregant’s chametz (leavened food products that are forbidden on Passover). Buffett, at 81-years-old, is the third-richest man in the world with a $44 billion net worth according to the recent Forbes list of billionaires.

Warren Buffett accepts the four 50-cent pieces from Rabbi Jon Gross during the chametz sale.

While Jews are required to rid their homes, offices and automobiles of all chametz products, there is a “legal fiction” that allows Jews to “sell” leavened goods that can’t be thrown away to a non-Jew who then sells the goods back following the holiday. A rabbi usually serves as the agent who transacts the deal on behalf of the congregation or community.

Before transacting the chametz deal with Buffett, Rabbi Gross explained the custom to the famous investor and head of Berkshire Hathaway Holdings. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Gross said, “Price is low before Passover. Price is high afterward. It’s a great short-term investment. So who would really appreciate this better than Warren Buffett?”

“The beauty of being an agnostic is that you are in no position to make any judgment about anything,” Buffett said in an interview. “You can join in on anything.”

Buffett said he decided to participate because the annual pre-Passover chametz sale is “a ceremony of enormous importance to Jews.” The only problem with Rabbi Gross’ planned arrangement with Buffett was that Passover begins this year at sunset on April 6 and due to his busy schedule, Buffett wanted to meet in late February (six weeks before Passover). Gross decided to keep the meeting with Buffett, because he wanted to raise awareness about the need for donations to the Food Bank for the Heartland.

To complete the ceremonial chametz sale Rabbi Gross gave Warren Buffett four 50-cent pieces along with a bottle of single-malt Scotch, a loaf of home-baked challah bread, and Buffett’s favorite snack, a bag of Cheetos (which incidentally aren’t kosher, but Gross wrote on his blog: “Cheetos are not kosher, but there is no problem buying a bag of them for someone who is not Jewish.”). Gross also handed Buffett two sets of keys — one to Beth Israel Synagogue and one to Gross’ west Omaha home, where the box and drums of food are kept. (Buffett agreed to donate the food to the food bank.)

The Oracle of Omaha and the west Omaha rabbi shook hands to complete the deal and Buffett even returned the 50-cent coins to the rabbi. He joked that now that he knows the asking price — four coins — he’ll bargain down to two coins next year. “Why didn’t anyone tell me about this earlier? This is a great investment,” Buffett said. “I could have been doing this for years.”

Rabbi Myer Kripke with Rabbi Jonathan Gross in Omaha, Nebraska

Gross, an Orthodox rabbi, also included Rabbi Myer Kripke in the purchase agreement with Buffett and brought the 98-year-old rabbi along with him to Buffett’s office. Rabbi Kripke is a retired Conservative rabbi who has been friends with Buffett for over 50 years, since the time they were were neighbors in Dundee. Rabbi Kripke’s late wife, Dorothy, wrote a children’s book series entitled “Let’s Talk About…” and Warren Buffett’s wife loved to read those books to her children. When she learned the author lived close by in Dundee she wanted to meet her. That is how the Kripkes and Buffets became dear friends. In the 1960s Buffett had the Kripke’s invest a small inheritance they had received from a relative in Berkshire Hathaway and from that investment they became millionaires many times over. That fortune allowed Myer and Dorothy Kripke to donate $10 million to the Jewish Theological Seminary to rebuild the tower under which the couple had been married decades earlier. That tower, which originally housed the Seminary’s library was severely damaged in a fire in 1966. Today it is known as the Kripke Tower.

On a personal note, Rabbi Kripke was very helpful in connecting me with Warren Buffett in 2009 when my uncle was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live. I called Rabbi Kripke and told him how wonderful it would be if my uncle could play a round of golf at Augusta National where Mr. Buffett is a member. Within ten minutes I received a call from Mr. Buffett’s secretary Debbie Bosanek, who told me that she just asked Mr. Buffett (who was on a trans-Atlantic flight at the time) and he explained that Augusta National members were no longer allowed to grant such requests. Well, at least I tried and I’ll always be grateful to Rabbi Kripke for his assistance.

Back to Rabbi Gross and his chametz sale to Warren Buffett. I think this was an absolutely brilliant idea that Rabbi Gross had because it will make the sale of chametz more widely known. Perhaps because of Warren Buffett’s connection with this story, more Jews will make the effort to rid their homes of chametz before the Passover holiday and ensure that they include their name in their synagogue’s chametz sale.

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

Beren Academy Will Play After All

Beren Academy is not the first Jewish day school to find itself in a Shabbat-related predicament at the end of the season. Many Jewish day schools are part of sports leagues with other private schools that are willing to accommodate the Jewish school’s commitment to observing the Jewish Sabbath during the regular season and not scheduling competition during those 25 hours of rest. The problem often occurs during post-season tournament play when a lot of games need to be scheduled in a short period of time.

On Thursday, the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) backed down and agreed to allow Beren Academy’s semifinal basketball game to be rescheduled rather than face a legal battle. Several of the Orthodox players and their parents filed suit Thursday morning against the Mansfield Independent School District, the host of the state championship, and TAPPS in U.S. District Court alleging a violation of religious freedoms. Instead of contesting the matter in court, TAPPS gave in and amended the schedule to accommodate the yeshiva.

Coach Chris Cole and his Beren Academy players. (Photo: Samantha Steinberg/JTA)

Earlier this week at the Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat, several of us discussed the Beren Academy case. There are certainly two sides to the case. While I believe in religious tolerance and am always grateful when institutions seek to accommodate individuals observing their religion, I also believe that there are consequences that must be accepted when upholding ones religious beliefs.

In the case of Beren Academy, the school was made aware that the yeshiva’s games would not be rescheduled in tournament play if they fell during Shabbat. This was articulated by the tournament organizers to the school before Beren Academy agreed to register. Furthermore, the Shomer Shabbos (Sabbath observant) boys should understand that when you keep the laws of Shabbat there will be opportunities that will be missed. One would imagine this would be something that their parents and teachers would explain to them. Those of us who observe Shabbat can list the many sporting events, concerts, parties, graduations and other events we have missed as a result of adhering to the sanctity of Shabbat.

I think that it is wonderful that TAPPS and the tournament host agreed to reschedule Beren Academy’s game, but had they held their ground this should have been something the players accepted. There is a common phrase in Yiddish — S’iz shver tzu zein a yid — that means it’s tough to be a Jew. We can’t expect the secular world to always accommodate us when our religious values come into conflict with regularly scheduled events. It is true that this wasn’t such a clear cut case in that there had been other accommodations for Seventh Day Adventists that amounted to precedent, but ultimately what makes being Shomer Shabbat so special is the knowledge that certain things are sacrificed to uphold the sacredness and sanctity of the Sabbath.

One of the truly amazing aspects of being part of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship (which is run by Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) is the dialogue with colleagues from different denominations. I offered to include the viewpoints of my colleagues in this blog post and below are three opinions from members of my Rabbis Without Borders cohort.

Rabbi Jason Herman, an Orthodox rabbi in New York explains:

There is a Hasidic legend of a man who was offered a large sum of money by a king in exchange for a favor that would involve violating the Sabbath. The man declines but then presents the king with a gift thanking him for helping him realize that there was something in his life more valuable than the king’s treasure. The students of the Beren Academy in Houston faced the unfortunate circumstance where their request to have a high school basketball tournament postponed to avoid playing on the sabbath was denied. While these boys may be extremely disappointed and might even think the decision was unfair, they have the privilege of joining many generations of earlier American Jews who made tremendous sacrifices to observe the Sabbath. In doing so, we can hope that like the man in the story, they recognize that they have something in their lives that they value more than winning basketball tournaments. Yet, at the same time, while the league was in the right having told the school before they joined that they would face this issue, the league should reconsider its schedule for future years. The religious observance of student players is one that should be honored and for the sake of competition — the league and all schools involved should want to see the best team win.

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a Conservative rabbi in Atlanta, argues:

Would you change the date if it conflicted with Christmas? I think the obvious answer is, yes. The proof is that the tournament is not scheduled during church hours. The only arguments for not accommodating many different schedules and priorities is that the majority should dictate the results, and that if we accommodate shomer Shabbat Jews, then we will have to accommodate all scheduling needs. Unless you want a monolithic tournament that only includes the majority group and does not reflect the actual diversity of the community then the first argument fails on its face. And, yes I think we should accommodate many different needs – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and many more. The basketball game is not more important than the creation of a large enough court to include all the players.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, a Reform rabbi in San Francisco, believes:

I am less concerned with what decision was made but with how the children will understand and interpret what they are seeing happen around them. It seems to me that the children who are going to play are learning that exclusion is more important than accommodation and full competition. To me this goes counter to the religious and athletic values being promoted by playing in this league in the first place. The children who are staying home are learning that the religious values that they are learning in school are worth sacrificing for.

The controversy seems to have been averted and Beren Academy will now be able to compete in the tournament. I wish them luck in their game and hope they emerge champions of the tournament. They won their case and managed to keep the Sabbath and keep their spot in the tournament. But I hope the lesson isn’t lost on them. In life, we often have to give something up to really appreciate the value that we hold dear. Shabbat it is a special gift that we Jewish people have, but sometimes it comes with a cost.

UPDATE: Beren Academy won their game today 58-46.

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

Jack Lew, Obama’s New Chief of Staff is Shomer Shabbat

Will President Barack Obama’s new Chief of Staff answer the President’s phone call on Shabbat? It would appear that the answer to that question will be yes (even though he’s Shomer Shabbos).

Obama’s pick to succeed William Daley as his Chief of Staff is Jack Lew. Lew is currently a senior administration official who has served as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Jack Lew is a practicing Orthodox Jew who observes Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest. He has been an active member of both Congregation Beth Sholom of Potomac, Maryland and the Riverdale Jewish Center the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (HIR) in New York.

Jack Lew, a Sabbath Observant Jew, will become Obama’s third Chief of Staff
While serving as Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bill Clinton administration, Lew received a phone call from the president. He decided to take it and later consulted with his rabbi, who said that taking an important phone call from the President of the United States would be permissible on the Sabbath under the Talmudic teaching that work on the Sabbath is allowed in order to save a life.

President Obama’s first Chief of Staff was Rahm Emanuel who now serves as Mayor of Chicago. Rahm Emanuel considers himself to be a Conservative Jew and is not Shomer Shabbat — Sabbath observant. (Emanuel attends both the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Synagogue and the Conservative-affiliated Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.) That makes Jack Lew the first Sabbath observant holder of the Chief of Staff office (Reagan’s former Chief of Staff Ken Duberstein was an observant Jew but was not Shomer Shabbat).

The transition from Daley to Lew is set to take place at the end of this month.

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

Vayechi: The Gift of An Ethical Will

In 1997, when Mitch Albom published his now famous Tuesdays with Morrie, he essentially presented three gifts. The first, of course, was his gift to society. Albom, a Detroit sportswriter who I’ve grown up reading, shared the inspiring wisdom of his college professor Morrie Schwartz. Publishing this book was also a gift to himself as he now has a memoir of his mentor’s lessons.

The third gift that Albom gave through writing this book was the gift of an ethical will for his beloved professor. Albom penned his old professor’s legacy of words. He served as a trusted biographer, an inquisitive interviewer, listening intently to Morrie’s story so that it will not soon be forgotten. Through Albom, Morrie Schwartz was able to leave his family and friends with a vivid image of him. I never met the man, but after reading the book (twice!), I have images of him laughing, dancing, and philosophizing in my head. Imagine how reading this book brings him back to life for those who knew him intimately.

For Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom did not merely write a “book.” He penned his ethical will on his behalf. Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the first ethical will when our patriarch Jacob called his sons together and said to them, Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father. He then spoke his ethical will to each of his sons, one at a time. He told them what he expected of them, what he learned in his own life, and what his blessing was for them.

There are three types of wills. The first is the most common one called a “Last Will and Testament.” In this legal type of will, usually drawn up by an attorney, the estate distributes material possessions after the individual’s death. It is in this will that you state to whom you would leave custody of your children, where your money will go, who gets the rare stamp collection, the bowling trophies, the Bob Dylan records, and so on.

Another type of will that is also of great importance is a living will. In a living will, one makes advance decisions about medical care in the event they should become incapacitated. With advances in medicine, it is crucial that we spend some time considering what our wishes would be should we find ourselves debilitated with an incurable illness. A wonderful source for guiding us through this complicated and challenging matter is Clal’s guide to palliative care entitled Embracing Life & Facing Death.

Ethical wills are not legal documents as compared to living wills and your last will and testament. In your ethical will, you decide how you want to be remembered. Rather than bequeathing material possessions to your survivors, you bestow to them the deeds and ideals by which you want others to remember you. Mitch Albom gave his friend an enormous gift by essentially publishing Morrie’s ethical will on his behalf, but the rest of us will not have a talented writer like Mitch Albom to do this for us. And so, we must take on the responsibility of writing our own ethical will — our legacy for our progeny.

A famous ethical will was composed by Nachmanides, a 13th century Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who lived in Spain. Late in his life he composed an ethical will to his son, writing, “Accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men, at all times. Thus will you be saved from anger, the fertile cause of sin… Remove anger from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh.” He concludes with, “Read this Letter once a week, and be as regular in carrying out its injunctions, by its aid walking forever after the Lord, blessed be He; that thou mayest prosper in all thy ways, and be held worthy of all the good which is treasured up for the righteous.” Nahmanides’ ethical will to his son is so moving that it is actually included in many editions of the prayer book.

Some might wish to include practical advice in their ethical wills. Moses Sofer, known as the Hatam Sofer, included the following in his ethical will to his children, “Be strong and courageous in diligent and penetrating study of God’s law. Establish groups for the dissemination of Torah, and promote activities for Torah among the populace. If you can do only a little, then do that little with utmost devotion.” In our ethical will, we might explain why we were philanthropic with certain causes in the hope that our children will continue that pattern of giving tzedakah. Perhaps there were certain life lessons we learned, mistakes we don’t want our children to repeat, and secrets we want to share.

In our day and age, we simply pick up the phone to communicate with friends and family or send simple text messages and chats. Pen and paper letter writing is a thing of the past today. Therefore, composing an ethical will can be a very challenging task. And yet, it can be a cathartic endeavor as well. It can be an opportunity to sit down and explore those lessons you wished you had taught during your life, but did not have the time. You might think you are going to be disappointed discovering all the things you wished you did in your life, only to realize how much you actually accomplished.

Take the example of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion and give the gift of an ethical will to your loved ones long after you’re gone. They’ll be thankful for the gift.

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

Tamir Goodman’s Sports Tzitzit

Tamir Goodman, known as “The Jewish Jordan,” made national headlines in the late 1990s when he decided not to play for the University of Maryland because they wouldn’t adjust their schedule to meet his Sabbath observance. Sports Illustrated even reported on Tamir’s decision to play for Towson State in 1999. However, a few years later SI reported:

In retrospect, maybe we went a little too far with the whole ‘Jewish Jordan’ thing. Three years ago (SI, Feb. 1, 1999) this magazine put that label on Tamir Goodman, described his game as ‘enthralling’ and reported breathlessly how he played ‘a foot over the rim when rebounding or dunking.’ The Orthodox Jew who starred for Talmudical Academy in suburban Baltimore was, we wrote, ‘built for basketball.’
Only, as it turned out, Goodman wasn’t built for college basketball. In September 1999 he reneged on an oral commitment to Maryland when he felt the school was lukewarm about his playing ability. He ended up at Towson, where any doubts the Terps might have had about him were borne out As a freshman Goodman scored 6.0 points a game, and last year he played in just seven games, averaging 1.9 points and 2.3 turnovers. His playing days at Towson ended after he accused his coach, Michael Hunt, of brandishing a chair at him in the locker room.

After staging a return to the spotlight in 2007 to capitalize on his high school and college fame, Tamir Goodman has been running basketball camps, putting on clinics, and doing speaking engagements. Now he is turning into a businessman as well.

As any Orthodox Jewish basketball player will tell you, it’s not easy running up and down the court with four woven sets of strings dangling from the four corners of your undergarment. The photos of Tamir hooping it up with a yarmulke on his head and his tzitzit flying through the air as he leaped for a layup became famous and were sources of pride in the observant Jewish community. However, it was not comfortable for ballers like Tamir to wear mesh tzitzit under his jersey.

Now Tamir Goodman is releasing his own brand of sports shirts that come with tzitzit attached. ColLive.com reported on Tamir’s invention which he unveiled at the recent OK Kosher conference:

At OK Kosher Certification’s 13th annual international Mashgiach Conference held Monday, Tamir introduced the “Sport Strings Tzitzit.”
He described it as revolutionary tzitzis garment that features hi-performance properties and a compression fit – offering the wearer ultimate comfort and style for sports and everyday wear.
Tamir was joined at the conference in Chovevei Torah in Crown Heights by a friend who also embodies the notion that being religious does not interfere with his career: boxing champion Dmitriy Salita.
While Salita did not say if he wears the “Sport String Tzitzit” himself, Tamir made it clear that anyone would enjoy wearing them for their UV protection, moisture wicking and anti-odor features.

Goodman’s tzitzit are certified kosher by the OK Kosher certification agency. No word yet on whether NBA star Amare Stoudemire will be wearing the Sport Strings Tzitzit.

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

Yes, An Orthodox Rabbi Can "Do" a Commitment Ceremony

Co-written by Rabbi Jason Miller and Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Our colleague and teacher, Rabbi Steve Greenberg, is an Orthodox rabbi who will go down in history as being the first Orthodox rabbi to officiate a Jewish commitment ceremony and civil marriage for two men. In a recent article in The Jewish Week, Rabbi Greenberg explained that this ceremony which took place in Washington D.C. was not a “gay Orthodox wedding” as was sensationally reported. He wrote, “I officiated at a ceremony that celebrated the decision of two men to commit to each other in love and to do so in binding fashion before family and friends. Though it was a legal marriage according to the laws of the District of Columbia, as far as Orthodox Jewish law (halacha) is concerned, there was no kiddushin (Jewish wedding ceremony) performed.”

Rabbi Reuven Spolter responded to Rabbi Greenberg’s actions in a blog post “Why Has My Yeshiva Not Revoked Steven Greenberg’s Semichah?” We write this as a response to Rabbi Spolter.

As two Conservative rabbis who were both ordained at the same rabbinical seminary, we also regard our semicha (rabbinical ordination) as a special honor whose legitimacy must be preserved. Like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Bernard Revel before him, we would hope that our rabbinical seminary would take back the semicha of a colleague who grossly violated either Torah law or civil law. However, Rabbi Spolter is mistaken in his characterization of Rabbi Steve Greenberg’s writings and actions.

Rabbi Greenberg has neither violated Torah law or civil law. He has used his rabbinate to help right a wrong. In officiating at a same-sex commitment ceremony between two men, Rabbi Greenberg may not have acted in a way that fits Rabbi Spolter’s belief structure, but he also did not violated any laws. The “to’eva” (abomination) in Leviticus speaks to a sexual act. No where does it discuss a life-cycle ceremony drawing upon the language of our sacred tradition to bless a relationship between two souls.

As to Rabbi Spolter’s concern with Rabbi Greenberg using the title “Orthodox Rabbi” (or more specifically: “Modern Orthodox Rabbi”), he should know that “Orthodox Rabbi” is not a halachic (Jewish legal) term. Rabbi Spolter would be hard pressed to point to any text in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) in which the term “Orthodox Rabbi” is used. We are certain that rabbis in Agudath Israel of American (Haredi) do not consider Chovevei Torah (Open Orthodox) musmachim (ordainees) to be legitimate “Orthodox Rabbis”. I’m sure that any graduate of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS), like Rabbi Spolter and Rabbi Greenberg, wouldn’t want to be lumped together with the “Orthodox Rabbis” of Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist Haredi). These are political distinctions with religious implications, but they are not halachic categories.

Rabbi Greenberg IS an Orthodox Rabbi in the sense that he received his semicha from RIETS. The way he uses his semicha is not “vulgar,” as you put it. To the contrary. Standing under the chuppah (wedding canopy) with two men who have committed to spend their lives together, raise a family and grow old with each other in a loving way does not negate a person’s ability to call himself an “Orthodox Rabbi.” Yeshiva University or RIETS could certainly yank Rabbi Greenberg’s semicha, but it wouldn’t be for a violation of halacha. Rather, it would be for his violating a social norm that makes some Jews like Rabbi Spolter uncomfortable.

The role of Judaism has always been to raise the mundane to touch the sacred. God’s world is full of opportunities for holiness. When two Jews find each other, and are prepared to enter into covenantal relationship, there is more than enough guidance that halacha provides to frame the moment. Furthermore, it is a responsibility we each carry as rabbis to stand with our People, person by person.

We hope that Rabbi Spolter and others will read these words from Rabbi Greenberg and try to understand why this Orthodox rabbi chose to courageously do what no other Orthodox rabbi before him had done:

Last December my partner and I returned from India with our newly born daughter. During the year of planning for her birth, I began to feel that I was failing as a rabbi to give young gay people hope in a religiously coherent future. As friends and students found spouses and decided to make families, it felt increasingly wrong to provide no context for commitment and celebration. Naming our daughter in an Orthodox synagogue and celebrating her birth there sealed my resolve.

While the condemnation of many is strong, I have received the quiet encouragement (if not always agreement) of a number of my Orthodox colleagues. While I do not expect other Orthodox rabbis to perform a ceremony of this sort any time soon, I do expect that we come to earn their understanding and respect as we take the frames of halacha seriously in the constructing of our committed relationships. In my view, the ceremony was beautiful, halachically informed and religiously meaningful, and I do hope that through consideration of it, the Orthodox community (and perhaps beyond) will come to recognize the human issues at stake.

We offer our congratulations to the two men whose relationship Rabbi Greenberg has helped to make sacred in our Tradition. We also offer our highest praise to Rabbi Greenberg and pray that he will serve as a beacon of hope to those in the Orthodox gay community who never thought they could be in a committed, blessed partnership.

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

Join the Minyan with Skype

It was 1998 and I was in my first semester of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My Talmud professor, Rabbi Avram Israel Reisner, approached me after class one day to discuss a project he was working on. As a member of the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS), he was examining the legal permissibility of a virtual minyan (prayer quorum). Knowing my interest in technology, my teacher picked my brain about some of the technical implications of video-conferencing. He sought to answer the halakhic (Jewish legal) question of whether a minyan could be convened using non-traditional, electronic means. Some of the sources he was considering were drawn from the same pages we were then studying in his class from Tractate Rosh Hashanah as it deals with hearing the sound of the shofar to fulfill the obligation.

Rabbi Reisner’s project resulted in a teshuva (legal position paper) titled “Wired to the Kadosh Baruch Hu,” in which he ruled that a virtual minyan conducted via video-conferencing was not “kosher.”

Now, one of my colleagues has opened his daily minyan through Skype access which brings this halakhic question back into discussion. Skype had yet to be invented back in 1998 when Rabbi Reisner considered the issues surrounding virtual minyan participation. In a bulletin article for his synagogue (reposted by the Rabbinical Assembly), Temple Emunah in Lexington, Massachusetts, Rabbi David Lerner refers to Rabbi Reisner’s published teshuva noting that he reasoned that should the technology come available the virtual minyan would be permissible.

Rabbi Lerner had good reason to open his daily minyan via Skype to those who couldn’t attend in person. One of his congregants, Maxine Marcus, lives in Amsterdam and works in The Hague, where she serves as a prosecutor of war criminals from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Her mother recently lost her fight against cancer. After returning to Amsterdam following the funeral last fall in New York, Maxine how difficult it was to say Kaddish in Amsterdam. Rabbi Lerner made the decision to allow Maxine to participate in the Temple Emunah minyan through Skype.

Based on my reading of Rabbi Reisner’s teshuva, the issue of reciting kaddish as part of an already constituted real-time minyan was a separate issue from constituting a minyan via the Internet through video conferencing. Thus, so long as a minyan is already in place in Lexington, Massachusetts at Rabbi Lerner’s congregation, there was never a question about a “virtual participant” reciting Kaddish in that minyan.

Based on Rabbi Reisner’s conclusions, however, it would seem that even with Skype a minyan could not be constituted virtually meaning eight people gathered together could not be joined virtually by two others using Skype to count as a minyan. He writes that “a minyan may not be constituted over the Internet, through an audio- or video-conference or any other medium of long distance communication. Only physical proximity, defined as being in the same room with the shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader), allows a quorum to be constituted.” He goes on to explain, “Once a quorum has been duly constituted, those who hear the prayers being offered in that minyan may respond and fulfill their obligations thereby, even long distance.

With regard to the Mourner’s Kaddish, Rabbi Reisner concluded in the 2001 teshuva that “a mourner at a distance may recite it, but must be accompanied by a physical participant (a member who is physically present) in the minyan. This preserves the reason behind requiring a minyan for the recitation of Mourner’s Kaddish. It establishes community. Without this concluding statement, individuals might take it a step further and recite Mourner’s Kaddish on their own.” Therefore, as far back as a decade ago Rabbi Lerner was on firm halakhic standing to allow his congregant in Amsterdam to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish via Skype so long as at least one minyan member in Massachusetts accompanies her.

Rabbi Lerner reports that introducing Skype into his daily minyan has strengthened the minyan and has proven to be a very powerful experience. “Members of the minyan have gotten to know Maxine, schmoozing with her for a minute or two after minyan over Skype.” He also has found that opening his minyan virtually has impacted the general community. He wrote in his bulletin article, “This project enabled someone on the other side of the Atlantic to come and experience the power of God, the power of prayer, the power of community, and the power and support of a nurturing community around sacred occasions and after times of loss. His biggest challenge has been trying to encourage other congregations to invite remote minyan-goers to their minyan without letting it adversely impact on our minyan or attendance.

Kol Hakavod (kudos) to Rabbi Lerner for making good use of technology like Skype to allow a mourner in Amsterdam to find comfort with her community in Massachusetts. While Skype might still not be the technology that allows ten people to come together virtually in Cyberspace to form a minyan, it is certainly a great way to allow outsiders to join an existing minyan with a Web cam and Internet connection.

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

The Ryan Braun Yom Kippur Debate

When Hank Greenberg walked down the long aisle of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Detroit on September 20, 1934 on Yom Kippur, he received a standing ovation. That day, the Detroit Tigers faced the New York Yankees in a key game late in the season. Despite the pennant race, Greenberg sat out the game and went to synagogue instead. The Tigers lost.

Greenberg had played ten days earlier on Rosh Hashanah leading the Tigers to victory with his two home runs, although in his autobiography he describes how he sat out batting practice to mull over the decision. A rabbi gave him the go-ahead leading the Detroit News to run the headline: “Talmud Clears Greenberg for Holiday Play.”

After the Rosh Hashanah victory, the Detroit Free Press ran a banner headline that read “Happy New Year, Hank.”

While the Milwaukee Brewers star player Ryan Braun is sometimes referred to as “The Hebrew Hammer” just like Greenberg was and he even lived in a house once inhabited by Hank Greenberg, Braun is going to play in today’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Or to use the language of Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: Ryan Braun will not Koufax his teammates today. The game starts at 4:00 PM Central Time, which theoretically would give him a couple hours of playing time before the commencement of Yom Kippur at sunset. However, that is a moot point because Braun was never a synagogue-going guy. His father is Jewish, but Braun wasn’t raised Jewish (his mother is Catholic).

So what’s the debate about? In truth, there are three debates here. The first debate is about Braun playing on Yom Kippur. The second debate is about Braun’s Judaism. And the third debate is about why people care and have made this into a debate.

When I was contacted by NY Times sports reporter Richard Sandomir yesterday on this matter, I explained that the real issue is why Jewish people are so infatuated with Jewish baseball players and Yom Kippur. Professional Jewish athletes in other sports play on Yom Kippur without any fanfare. There’s something inherent in major league baseball that makes this an issue.

Second, I explained that the authenticity of Braun’s Jewishness doesn’t seem to matter to many Jewish people who otherwise wouldn’t consider him Jewish. I agree with that. It shouldn’t matter if only Braun’s father is Jewish or if he wasn’t raised Jewish. What should matter is if Braun considers himself to be Jewish today. No one is saying that he should be counted in a synagogue minyan (prayer quorum), but there is no reason not to feel Jewish pride that the “Hebrew Hammer” has taken his team to the post-season and is a candidate for National League MVP (Braun was NL Rookie of the Year in 2007).

It comes down to the difference between Judaism as a culture and Judaism as a religion. From a religious viewpoint, Ryan Braun is not Jewish. From a cultural viewpoint, he should be considered a Jewish ballplayer, included in sets of Jewish baseball cards, and eligible for induction in the Jewish Baseball Hall of Fame.

Here is the article from today’s NY Times:

For Braun, Stadiums Remain His Temple
By Richard Sandomir

If a player with Jewish heritage reaches baseball’s postseason, the inevitable question is: will he play on Yom Kippur or go to synagogue? It is not a query on the level of the Four Questions that are asked during the Passover seder. But it is one of those curious baseball inquiries — maybe on par with, Does a rising fastball really rise? — that pop up sometimes.

Why such interest in whether a ballplayer plays a game or worships on a High Holy Day? Call it the Greenberg-Koufax Yom Kippur Precedent: In 1934, Hank Greenberg went to temple rather than play a game against the Yankees during a pennant race. In 1965, Sandy Koufax declined to pitch Game 1 of the World Series out of respect for his religion.

They are still heroes to their faith. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Shawn Green sat out a critical game in 2001 to observe Yom Kippur.

This year, the question has been put to Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, who play the Arizona Diamondbacks on Friday afternoon in the decisive Game 5 of their National League division series. The game begins just after 4 p.m. Central, and Yom Kippur starts at sunset at 6:23 p.m. In theory, Braun could put in five or six innings, then scoot to temple.

During Rosh Hashana last week, Michael S. asked on Twitter, with some ire: “Why did Ryan Braun even play last night?!?! He better not play on Yom Kippur!”

Except that Braun is not religious. Although his father is Jewish, his mother is Catholic, so he is not a Jew according to religious law. Braun played on Rosh Hashana and will play Friday. Perhaps it should not be an issue, but it has become one in some quarters, particularly on the Internet.

“The Jewish community is always looking for Jewish baseball heroes,” said Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, Mich., who blogs about Jews and sports. “Braun is not considered a Jewish player, yet Orthodox Jews would cite him as their Jewish hero.”

Ian Kinsler of the Texas Rangers also has a Catholic mother but celebrated Jewish and Christian holidays as a child, according to Sports Illustrated. If he felt qualms about playing Saturday, he need not fret. Game 1 of the A.L.C.S. between Texas and the Tigers will not begin until after Yom Kippur ends at sundown.

Anticipating what Braun and Kinsler would do, The Tablet, a Jewish publication, said on its Web site recently, “Millions of Jewish boys and their mothers are watching.”

Ron Kaplan, the sports and features editor of New Jersey Jewish News, said he gets requests from readers wondering if a player is Jewish or if he will play on Yom Kippur. One letter he received this week advocated that Kinsler sit out Yom Kippur.

Kaplan said that Jews are excited to see Jewish ballplayers because there are not many of them. “Jews are so underrepresented,” he said, “so whenever there’s somebody who has any tangential relationship to their religion, we claim them as our own.”

(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

Statement from Haredi Newspaper Regarding Hillary Clinton’s Photoshop Job

The Haredi Jewish newspaper Der Zeitung (sometimes spelled Der Tzitung) has issued a statement about its alteration of the official White House photograph that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason, the director for counter-terrorism.

I’m glad that Der Zeitung has issued a statement, but I’m STILL cancelling my subscription (I will keep the lovely tote bag though).

The White House released a picture showing the President following “live” the events in the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden, last week Sunday. Also present in the Situation Room were various high-ranking government and military officials. Our photo editor realized the significance of this historic moment, and published the picture, but in his haste he did not read the “fine print” that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes. We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.

The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel. The current Secretary of State, the Honorable Hillary R. Clinton, was a Senator representing New York State with great distinction 8 years. She won overwhelming majorities in the Orthodox Jewish communities in her initial campaign in ‘00, and when she was re-elected in ‘06, because the religious community appreciated her unique capabilities and compassion to all communities. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.

We respect all government officials. We even have special prayers for the welfare of our Government and the government leaders, and there is no mention of gender in such prayers.

All Government employees are sworn into office, promising adherence to the Constitution, and our Constitution attests to our greatness as a nation that is a light beacon to the entire world. The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. That has precedence even to our cherished freedom of the press! In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

We are proud Americans of the Jewish faith, and there is no conflict in that, and we will with the help of the Almighty continue as law-abiding citizens, in this great country of our’s, until the ultimate redemption.

This story (Hillary Clinton’s HarediGate?) has been the hot topic of the day. I have to agree with Shmarya Rosenberg of FailedMessiah who wrote, “there is no Jewish law mandating the removal of normally clothed women from pictures like this.” Refusing to publish photos of women in a newspaper is but one more example of extremist Jews being so scared of modernity that they erect high fences around Jewish laws to keep their adherents from from “harm.” Is it really better to misrepresent the truth and deceive people than to see a photo of a modestly clothed Secretary of State?

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