Jewish Law Kosher Orthodox Judaism

Haredi Driver’s Licenses

There is a concept in Jewish Law that can have both positive and negative outcomes. Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Sages) opens with the idea to “erect a fence around the Torah” (“asu s’yag laTorah“). This metaphorical fence is intended to protect the Jewish people from even coming close to sin or violating a commandment.

Oftentimes, however, this fence can be “erected” too far from the original intent of the law. I see this all the time in matters of Kosher certification. One of my rabbinic colleagues tells the story of a Haredi man in Jerusalem who claims there are only three Kosher restaurants in Jerusalem. In actuality there are hundreds, however, this man’s fence is so far from the actual laws of Kashrut that he has self-limited himself to only a few establishments that meet his rigorous standards.

A couple years ago it was announced that the Ultra-Orthodox were forbidden from using the Internet – a fence erected to ensure they don’t deter into some unacceptable sites. An article in New Jersey Star Ledger referred to a man who relied on the Internet from his business, yet was still going to pull the plug because if he didn’t his children faced suspension or expulsion from their yeshivah.

In today’s Ynet News, we now learn that it is not just the Internet that is banned in the Orthodox community. Driving cars or even getting a driver’s license are now outlawed as well! Yeshivah students will be expelled if they get a driver’s license. Fortunately, one of the expelled students was later readmitted after the rabbis at the yeshivah learned that he got the license to help his crippled father.

Uri Gilhar writes:

Four students were expelled from the Tiferet Israel yeshiva in Jerusalem last week after it became known that they had obtained driver’s licenses in violation of the yeshiva’s rules.

After learning that some of their students might have taken driving lessons, the yeshiva heads conducted a thorough investigation and even contacted the Transportation Ministry on the matter.

“Anyone can call the Transportation Ministry, give an ID number and inquire whether that person owns a driver’s license,” one of the students explained.

Following the inquiry, the yeshiva heads convened to discuss the “problematic phenomenon” and eventually decided to immediately expel any student who is in possession of a license. The rabbis told the students that they could be readmitted once they have their license revoked.

Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis oppose the notion of a haredi person getting a license. “It’s inappropriate for a person who defines himself learned in the Torah to have a driver’s license,” a prominent rabbi told the yeshiva director when the latter came to consult him on the issue.

The Tiferet Israel yeshivah may not allow their students to drive cars, but they do have a nice website. Too bad no potential students will be allowed Internet access to see it!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Jewish Law Politics

Politicians and Kippahs

Using web applications like Google Analytics and sitemeter, I can track the web searches that have referred visitors to my blog.

Ever since the ’08 presidential election and President-Elect Obama’s nomination of Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, there have been hundreds of searches for “Rahm Emanuel Kippah” that have landed web surfers to my blog. Apparently, a few mentions of the word kippah (or yarmulke) throughout my blog and a blog post about Rahm Emanuel are enough for search engines to put my blog in their search results listing. This tells me that there are many people out there interested in seeing a photo of Rahm Emanuel wearing a kippah. Well, sorry to disappoint but I haven’t seen one either!

Bill Clinton KippahPutin KippahHowever, I have seen many pictures on the Web of other politicians wearing kippahs (yarmulkes). There are photos of Jewish and non-Jewish politicians donning the Jewish headcovering — from Rudy Guiliani to Bill Clinton (left) and George Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (left). But alas, no picture of a Rahm Emanuel under a kippah.

I asked my friend who attends Rahm Emanuel’s modern-Orthodox synagogue in Chicago who told me that when Emanuel shows up (not so often) he wears a black suede kippah.

But what’s interesting to me is not that so many people are jonesing for the pic of Emanuel wearing a kippah in the same skeptical way people reacted to Joe Lieberman’s claims of being an Orthodox Jew in the 2000 campaign, but rather that there’s an expectation to see politicians wearing Jewish religious attire.

I think politicians should wear a kippah if they are speaking in a synagogue, especially in the sanctuary. And maybe they should be expected to cover their head when they do the required photo op at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem. However, the kippah photo op at Yad Vashem for politicians has always struck me as odd. I know I’m not the only one. In 2005, blogger Jonathan Rosenblum wrote:

I have always found something faintly ridiculous about the perennial photos of gentile politicians donning yarmulkes to wolf down lox and bagels in Jewish neighborhoods. And I would be hard-pressed not to vote for any gentile politician who refused a proferred yarmulke on the sensible grounds that he is not Jewish. Apparently my view is not universally shared, however. When the Turkish Prime Minister visited Israel last week, he was told Israel would take a dim view of his failure to wear a kippah on a visit to Yad Vashem. He didn’t anyway, apparently on the grounds that many of the voters of his Islamic party would take an even dimmer view of his being seen wearing a Jewish religious symbol.Isn’t this nutso? Some noted that Yad Vashem is not a synagogue, but even if [it] were what disrespect would he have been showing by not wearing a yarmulke? Is he expected to daven? Would a Jew be disrespectful if he declined to take communion in a Catholic Church? (Assuming he did not know it was asur (prohibited by Jewish law) to be there in the first place.)

Blogger Dov Bear essentially made the same argument earlier this year in a post about Barack Obama’s visit to Yad Vashem where he wore a white yarmulke (right). Adam Dickter, in a New York Jewish Week blog post in March, wrote about Republican nominee John McCain’s odd choice for a kippah during his visit to the Kotel. Rather than going for the cheap black kippah (favored by Bill Clinton), he sported an elaborately emroidered white kippah that cutely matched his traveling buddy Joe Lieberman’s kippah.

Perhaps one of President Obama’s first acts in office will be to set some clear rules on the kippah wearing expectations of politicians. Synagogues-yes. Holocaust memorial centers-no. Funerals-yes. Jewish or Israel organization fundraising events at hotels-no. Kotel-optional. Maybe congress could even pass legislation on a standard political kippah. Something like a navy leather yarmulke with a tactful embroidered American flag would be nice!

In the meantime, if anyone has found a picture of Rahm Emanuel in a kippah, please leave the link in the comments section. Emanuel wearing a tallit? Even better!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Holidays Jewish Jewish Law

New Fruits

It has long been a pet peeve of mine that most Reform congregations only observe one day of Rosh Hashanah. According to the Torah, Rosh Hashanah is just one day, but it has been celebrated for two days for over a 1,000 years. With the exception of Yom Kippur an extra day was added to all Torah-mandated holidays.

What differs about the extra day added to Rosh Hashanah is that it is observed in Israel (whereas the extra day of the other holidays is not observed). Truth is, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are not really even seen as two separate days, but rather as “one long day” (yoma arichta in the Aramaic of the Talmud). It is because of this that there is question as to whether Jews should recite the Shehecheyanu blessing on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. Thus the custom of having a new fruit (one that hasn’t been eaten yet this season) on the table when lighting the candles and reciting Kiddush on the second night of the holiday. The new fruit gives us a reason to make a Shehecheyanu blessing.

I’ve always liked this custom since eating new fruits is both delicious and adventurous. There’s also no shortage of exotic fruits, especially with new fruit breeding taking place as in the case of Apriums and Pluots.

Last year I posted something about William (the Jewish Robot) Levin’s viral marketing animations called “The Adventures of Todd and God”. Well, another episode of Todd and God has just been released and it focuses on the custom of eating a new fruit on the second night of Rosh Hashanah!

Here’s the new Todd and God video:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Camp Jewish Law Philosophy

Elliot Dorff

The other day I had the chance to listen to Senator Barack Obama on a conference call for American rabbis. The most impressive part of the phone call was not the Democratic Presidential nominee’s ten minute talk. Rather, it was a rabbi who spoke on the call before Obama. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (right) of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles spoke beautifully and powerfully about his political views.

Rabbi Dorff’s latest book has just been published by the Jewish Publication Society. (It seems that he has been publishing books at the rate of Jacob Neusner lately.) This book, For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy of Jewish Law, presents an intelligent and accessible guide to the philosophy that shapes Halakha (Jewish law). While the book is about the Jewish legal system, Dorff also answers the difficult theological questions concerning the relationship of belief in God and the revelation of Torah with observance of Halakha.

Jay Michaelson wrote a praiseworthy review of Dorff’s latest book for the Forward. In his review, Michaelson laments the fact that no such book was available to him while he was growing up in the Conservative Movement. In his closing paragraph, Michaelson asks whether this book would have satisfied his philosophical questions when he was a young camper at the Conservative Movement’s Camp Ramah. Michaelson dismisses the question because he was more of a rationalist back then anyway. Regardless, I appreciated what Michaelson had to say about Jewish summer camp and how the feelings that occur at camp might just be enough of a reason to subscribe to the system of mitzvot (commandments). Michaelson writes:

“…one of the great successes of Jewish summer camp is how it provides an immersion experience: The love is felt, obviating the need for explanation. Who knows? Maybe I could have been told, ‘You know that feeling you get, when the davening is beautiful and the weather is fair; when your friends put their arms around you and sing ‘Lecha Dodi’? That is the reason we do this — because what you feel inside is love, and God is the name we give it.”

Amen to that. And to Rabbi Elliot Dorff for writing a book that will help so many work through their difficult questions concerning belief and the observance of Jewish law in our modern times.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Art Jewish Jewish Law

Tattoo Jew

The five week hiatus since my last blog post might be the longest dry spot I’ve had since starting this blog almost five years ago.

But I have a good excuse — I’ve been working at Camp Tamarack all summer. As the camp rabbi I’ve fielded many questions, but by far the most common question I’ve received from counselors has been “the tattoo question.”

Everyone wants to know if they will still be buried in a Jewish cemetery even though they have a tattoo. It’s remarkable how concerned twenty-year-olds are about an event far into the future that they won’t even be around to witness.

The sentiment that Jews with body art are barred from Jewish cemeteries has also been mentioned recently in a movie, a TV show, and in the mainstream media.

In the wonderful film “The Bucket List,” two cancer-stricken men, Carter (Morgan Freeman) and Edward (Jack Nicholson), plan to do some outrageous things before they “kick the bucket.” When Morgan Freeman’s character is somewhat hesitant about getting a tattoo, Jack Nicholson as Edward says to him: “What, are you afraid of not being able to be buried in a Jewish Cemetery?”

In an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David pays off a gravedigger to have his mother reburied in a Jewish cemetery despite a small tattoo on her rear end.

And in the July 17th New York Times, the article titled “Hey Mom, the Rabbi Approved my Tattoo” (subtitled “Skin Deep: For Some Jews, It Only Sounds Like ‘Taboo’) also takes on the belief that Tattooed Jews can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

By the time [Roberta] Kaplan’s daughter Liz Carnes, 49, had teenage daughters who wanted body art, Ms. Carnes knew how to dissuade them. “I’d say, ‘If you get a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery,’ ” said Ms. Carnes, the owner of a video equipment company in Carlsbad, Calif. “For no real reason, just that’s what my parents told me.”

Nearly every Jew, from those who go to synagogue only on holidays to those who dutifully follow Jewish law, has heard that adage. It has deterred many from being inked, even as tattoos have become widespread among N.B.A. players and housewives alike.

It seems that most young people are familiar with this warning about getting a tattoo. The only problem is that it is a myth! Thankfully, the NY Times article calls it an “urban legend.”

But 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.

Rabbi Alan Lucas, in a 1997 teshuvah for the Conservative Movement’s Law Committee, took up the issue of body piercing and tattooing in Jewish law. The question he posed was: “Is body piercing (nose, navel, etc.) and tattooing permitted? Does it preclude taking part in synagogue rituals or being buried in a Jewish cemetery?”

He explains that the prohibition of tattooing is found in the Torah in Leviticus 19:28 where it states: 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. Maimonides felt that tattooing should be prohibited because it was a form of idolatry since the pagans would tattoo themselves.

Rabbi Lucas maintains that:

Regardless of the exact limits of this prohibition, over time, the Rabbis clearly extended the prohibition to include all tattooing… In our day, the prohibition against all forms of tattooing regardless of their intent should be maintained. In addition to the fact that Judaism has a long history of distaste for tattoos, tattooing becomes even more distasteful when confronted with a contemporary secular society that is constantly challenging the Jewish concept that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, “In the Image of God,” and that our bodies are to be viewed as a precious gift on loan from God, to be entrusted into our care and not our personal property to do with as we choose. Voluntary tattooing even if not done for idolatrous purposes expresses a negation of this fundamental Jewish perspective.

Rabbi Lucas concludes that Tattooing is an explicit prohibition from the Torah, however, those who violate this may still be buried in a Jewish cemetery and participate fully in all synagogue ritual.

It seems to me that if a Jewish person chooses to get a tattoo that is in good taste and does not violate the Torah prohibitions of idol worship, then this act would not violate Jewish law since in our modern age tattoos can be removed (even if removal is a painful process and one that might need to be repeated several times). A tattoo that expresses ones Jewish pride is certainly not what the Rabbis of the Talmud had in mind when they discussed the tattooing practices of the pagans. And with regard to the “Auschwitz argument” against tattoos: body art in the 21st century certainly does not resemble the forced tattooing of Jewish men and women during the Holocaust.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Conservative Judaism Detroit Jewish Law JTS Rabbi

Rabbi Danny Nevins in the Detroit Jewish News

From the Detroit Jewish News
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman

Rabbi Daniel Nevins sees his new job as dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York as “both an honor and a challenge.”

The rabbi has served Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills for 13 years. He will begin his new post on July 1, moving to New York with his wife, Lynn, and their three children. The move also will take him nearer to his family in New Jersey.

“As dean, I will recruit and direct hundreds of new rabbis as they begin their journey of serving God and the Jewish people,” wrote Rabbi Nevins, 40, in a Jan. 29 letter to congregants of the 1,050-family synagogue. “Without doubt, it is the great reputation of Adat Shalom that inspired the JTS search committee to ask me to serve as dean of our movement’s oldest and largest rabbinical school.”

Of becoming the dean of the school from which he received rabbinic ordination in 1994, he said, “I am honored and excited by the opportunity to serve as Pearl Resnick dean,” Rabbi Nevins said. “I have had an extraordinary experience as rabbi of Adat Shalom Synagogue. I have experimented in the ultimate laboratory of Jewish life, learning what works through the prism of countless pastoral, intellectual and spiritual interactions with my congregation. I will miss my community, but I will take what I have learned from them to benefit the next generation of rabbis.” […]

Communal reaction to Rabbi Nevins’ new post is bittersweet.

Rabbi Jason Miller, who grew up at Adat Shalom and now serves Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio, said, “Danny is a rabbi’s rabbi and always seems to just ‘get it.’ When I was in rabbinical school at JTS, my classmates would ask me to call Danny when they had questions.

“He is an academic and a spiritual guide. He is progressive and yet always guarding the tradition. This is a wonderful choice for JTS and for our movement. Together with Chancellor Arnie Eisen, Dean Danny Nevins will help get us to where we need to be.”

Rabbi Nevins succeeds Rabbi William Lebeau, who twice served as dean of the rabbinic school.

In a letter to his congregation, Adat Shalom President David Schostak wrote: “We are very sorry to see him go, but we take pride in the fact that he has excelled to the point that he has been asked to be dean of the rabbinical school, one of the highest and most important positions in our movement.”

In his congregational letter, Rabbi Nevins wrote: “As I reflect upon these years, I am filled with gratitude to God for allowing me to work with such an extraordinary community. These years have been ones of deep satisfaction. I feel truly blessed and cannot imagine being happier as a congregational rabbi.”

Praising his rabbinic colleagues, professional staff and lay leadership, he said, “I am confident that our congregation will continue to flourish.”

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