JTS Posts Warning in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh, an Israeli neighborhood about 20 miles outside of Jerusalem, has been in the news quite a bit over the past year.

After the opening of the Orot Banot national-religious girls’ school in Beit Shemesh in September 2011, groups of radical Haredim gathered in front of the school, calling the girls names and spitting at them when they headed to and from school in clothing the extremists considered to be immodest by their strict standards. Some Haredi men were arrested on the suspicion of throwing eggs and tomatoes at students.

There was an international outcry at the end of 2011 after Haredim spat on an 8-year-old daughter of American immigrants and called her “a prostitute” for attending the school. After these and other harassment incidents in Beit Shemesh made international headlines, the US State Department updated its Jerusalem travel advisory in January 2012, advising visitors to “dress appropriately” when visiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, or to avoid them entirely.

Throughout ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Beit Shemesh there are pashkvils (advisory posters) admonishing about immodest dress for women and warning women to walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk from men. I never would have expected to see a pashkvil from my own rabbinic institution, but I learned today from the FailedMessiah blog that indeed the Jewish Theological Seminary is posting pashkvils in Beit Shemesh.

JTS Poster in Beit Shemesh
Source: Michael Rose, Judaica Book Centre via Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

According to my colleague Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky,the JTS pashkvil calls upon people not to use the Morasha le-Hanḥil edition of the Shulḥan Arukh as it violates the copyright of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The pashkvil is produced on official JTS letterhead and signed by the Seminary’s Librarian Dr. David Kraemer.

Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary
Dr. David Kraemer, Librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary



The pashkvil refers to the Seminary’s licensed edition of the publication as stolen property because of the copyright violation. As Rabbi Pitkowsky explains on his blog, “apparently, JTS gave permission to Mechon Rosh Pina to publish a manuscript from their collection, Rabbi Shemaryah Brandris’s commentary on the Shulḥan Arukh, Rosh Pina. Morasha le-Hanḥil has apparently published in their edition of the Shulḥan Arukh Brandris’s commentary without JTS’s permission.”

I would like to see posters displayed throughout Beit Shemesh from JTS, or other Conservative or Reform institutions, admonishing the Haredim for their lack of modesty and their bad behavior when they harass young women. However, I must admit that it’s funny to see a JTS pashkvil on the streets of Beit Shemesh. While I have my doubts, I certainly hope the Seminary is able to protect its copyrights in their book publishing endeavors. And I hope these posters remain on display long enough for the citizens of Beit Shemesh to actually read them.

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

The Giving Tree for Tu Bishvat

Ten years ago I was asked by the editor of the journal Conservative Judaism to write about my favorite book from my childhood. There was no question I would write about Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. In honor of the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat — the birthday of the trees — I republish those words on this blog.

The Giving Tree

“And then the tree was happy… But not really.” Ever since I made the decision to become a rabbi several years ago, I have had a recurring vision of my future rabbinate. In this vision, I am sitting in a nursery school classroom at the synagogue reading The Giving Tree, my favorite children’s book, to the class. It is a tender story with many lessons to give about a young boy’s relationship with a tree. Through the years I have discovered many of the metaphors that abound throughout this parable – metaphors about nature, parents, and God.

The tree has a simple goal, and that is to make the little boy happy. When he asks the tree for money, she suggests that he sell her apples. When he asks for a house, she offers her branches as lumber. He keeps asking and she keeps giving, until all that is left of the tree is a stump when the young boy returns as an old man. And he sits on it.

This is a wonderful story for teachers to use when discussing the law of bal tash’chit – the Torah’s ban on wanton destruction of nature. Our role as God’s children is to repair the world (l’taken olam b’malkhut shaddai) and we must be careful not to exploit such precious gifts as trees, and nature’s other resources.

It is telling that as the boy matures into an old man, Silverstein continues to refer to him as the “boy.” This shows that the tree continued to give even as the boy grew, just as this wonderful book continues to give even as the audience of young boys and young girls gets older. People of all ages will appreciate the feelings of both joy and tears that this book elicits. This is why I no longer only envision myself as a rabbi sharing The Giving Tree with nursery school children, but with “children” of all ages as well. Each time I read this story, I am taken away and then I am happy… But not really.

(Originally published in Conservative Judaism, Vol. 53, No. 4, Summer 2001)

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

Curling Up With an E-Book on Shabbat?

Cross-posted to the Jewish Techs blog at The Jewish Week

Tech gadgets have changed our lives. And they will change our lives even more in the future.

For Sabbath observant Jews, tech gadgets pose some lingering questions about their usage on Shabbat. My teacher, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is a member of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards — the body that decides matters of Halakhah (Jewish law) for the Conservative movement. Rabbi Nevins has been working on a teshuvah (legal response) regarding the use of an e-book on Shabbat and was quoted on the matter in Uri Friedman’s recent article in The Atlantic, “People of the E-Book? Observant Jews Struggle With Sabbath in a Digital Age.”

I remember back in the 1990’s when CD-Roms containing entire collections of Jewish texts were first on the market. I saw a cartoon that in the first frame showed a Jewish library with hundreds of sets books — Bibles, Talmuds, rabbinic commentaries, etc. Each shelf was overfilled with Jewish books from the ancient to the modern. In the second frame, labeled modern Jewish library, was an entire library with empty shelves and one CD-Rom sitting on the shelf. At that time, the common response to the Jewish library becoming digital was that while it’s great to have the Talmud or Midrash on the computer six days of the week, on Shabbat we still want our traditional books.

Today, we’ve moved beyond having to load a CD into our computer to read Jewish books, study Torah, or look up reference material. We can now download the entire corpus of Jewish literature onto a mobile device like an e-reader. But the Shabbat issue is still relevant. Will technology trump the culture and experience of curling up with an actual book on Shabbat? As Menachem Wecker asked in his Forward article a few years ago, “Shabbat in the Age of Technology,” “Will Shabbat observance ultimately dwindle as people choose electronic entertainment over media-free rest, or will technology-addicted folks flock to Shabbat to escape their electronics-obsession of the rest of the week?”

Even for Jews who do not hold by the electricity restrictions on Shabbat (namely that electricity is in the category of lighting a fire or building), reading a book or newspaper on an e-reader seems to be the antithesis of the Shabbat experience. As the print media industry continues to move in the digital direction (US News & World Report is adopting a “digital first” strategy), there may have to be some adaption.

Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic, “E-readers are problematic not only because they are electronic but also because some rabbis consider turning pages on the device – which causes words to dissolve and then resurface – an act of writing, also forbidden on the Sabbath.”

Friedman quotes rabbis from all over the denominational spectrum on the use of e-books on Shabbat. Rabbi Jeffrey Fox of Yeshivat Maharat, says, “There’s real value in embracing technology. It’s just about knowing when to turn it off.” And the leader of the Reform Movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, explained that “since the Reform movement doesn’t consider Jewish law binding, ‘The key for us [on the Sabbath] is abstaining from work that we do to earn a living and using the time to reflect and enjoy and sanctify, which is ultimately what the day is about. To the extent to which technology can contribute to that, then by all means make use of it.'”

Rabbi Danny Nevins, who reasons that the use of electricity on Shabbat is not inherently forbidden, as the circuitry connection is neither creating a fire nor building something new, nevertheless regards many types of electrical and electronic appliances as violating either the formal or informal goals of Shabbat. He says, “E-readers like the Kindle are problematic both in that they create a durable image and encourage readers to go online to shop for additional content. It is conceivable that future versions may work better with Shabbat values, but the iPad demonstrates a tendency towards multi-functionality, indicating continued challenges for Shabbat use.” In The Atlantic article, he also explains this theory that using an e-reader may violate the Shabbat laws of t’chum, or boundaries.

The Torah says you shouldn’t leave your place on the seventh day. You can say Judaism is creating a local ideal that you experience Shabbat in a place with people and don’t go out of those boundaries… The problem with virtual experiences is they distract our attention from our local environment and break all boundaries of space and time. Shabbat is about reinforcing boundaries of space and time so we can have a specific experience.

I can understand ruling that reading an e-book on a Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, iPad, etc. is a forbidden act on Shabbat because it is not within the spirit of Shabbat. That is to say, that things not in keeping with the spirit of the Sabbath day can pull us out of that state and back to the realities of the weekday. However, I don’t agree with the rationale that it shouldn’t be allowed based on the principle that we shouldn’t leave our place on Shabbat. Any good book, whether read from traditional paper or on a tech gadget has the potential to transcend us, breaking the boundaries of space and time. Even a good story-tale that I tell my children at bedtime on a Friday night can be a virtual experience that magically takes them away from the boundaries of space and time. In fact, on Shabbat we are even supposed to be virtually transported to get a taste of the World to Come through our prayer and Torah study experiences.

There is an informal litmus test when it comes to Shabbat activity that in Hebrew is known as “ruach shel shabbat” (the spirit of Shabbat). Thus, there are certain activities that may be permitted according to Halakhah, but don’t pass the test when it comes to the spirit of Shabbat. So, it may very well be that using an e-reader on Shabbat isn’t in the category of “Shabbosdik activities” simply because it doesn’t feel like an appropriate Sabbath activity. Or, perhaps because it can lead to activities that are forbidden like accidentally ordering a new book on the device during Shabbat.

No matter how one ultimately rules about the use of an e-reader to read e-books on Shabbat, one thing is certainly clear: Technology is here to stay and we have to figure out how to “make Shabbos” in this new and emergent Digital World.

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

Out of the Mouths of Babes

I just finished reading a wonderful book to my three-year-old son. “Much, Much Better” (by Chaim Kosofsky) was sent to us from Leslie and Abigail Wexner as part of the PJ Library in Columbus, Ohio. The book is based on a fable where Elijah the Prophet is the guest at a couple’s Shabbat table (disguised as a poor beggar) and offers them a blessing.

Weekly, the couple invites a stranger without a meal to eat to be their Sabbath guest. One Friday evening, Shlomo and Miriam were distraught because they didn’t have any guests with whom to share their meal. In the middle of the story my son asked me why the couple didn’t just go from house to house looking for a guest to invite. I explained that they were hoping to invite someone who didn’t have a home because that person certainly would not be able to prepare their own meal. He innocently asked me, “Well, do people without a home have a shul (synagogue) to go to?”

It would be equally as beautiful a question if a Christian three-year-old child asked his father if homeless people have a church to go to… or if a Muslim child asked if homeless people have a mosque… or a Buddhist child asked if homeless people have a temple.

I immediately thought of the many houses of worship that double as soup kitchens and homeless shelters. The couple in the story (Shlomo and Miriam) receive the wonderful blessing of a baby after opening their home to this “stranger.” Think of how many blessings synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples would receive if they all opened their doors to feed the homeless.

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