Korach Challenges the Leadership of Moses with a Tallit

This D’var Torah for Parashat Korach was published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The Tallit: A Reminder of Our Relationship With God

Hanging in the back of my closet is a beautiful tallit that was hand-woven in Ethiopia. This colorful prayer shawl was purchased by my grandmother several years ago when the renowned “Mitzvah Man” Danny Siegel visited Adat Shalom Synagogue. The tallit is waiting in my closet until my oldest son becomes a bar mitzvah and, God willing, my grandmother can present it to him as a gift.

The tallit is a fascinating garment. There are many different styles and fashions of the tallit that we see being worn at synagogue during prayer services, but the most important component to the tallit are the fringes that hang from the four corners.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following about the tallit:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute…

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget:
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin Korach mounts a rebellion against him. Korach argues that he has as much right to lead the Israelites as Moses or Aaron, who are in the same generational line on the Levite family tree.

The tallit plays an interesting role in this biblical story of mutiny. The Korach narrative begins with the words Vayikach Korach, which come immediately following God’s instructions regarding the laws of tzitzit, the fringes with a blueish/purpleish cord (a p’til tekhelet) that are commanded to be attached to ones tallit. Each four-cornered garment must have four tzitziyot hanging from each corner. Midrash Tanchuma notices the words Vayikach Korach – “Korach took” and imagines what Korach took by associating that phrase to the section preceding it.

The Midrash imagines that what Korach took were the words from above in the text concerning tzitzit. The Midrash presents a story in which Korach tries to embarrass Moses by challenging him with a difficult question. He says, “You told us to put tekhelet on the tzitzit, tell me if the tallit is entirely made up of tekhelet, would such a tallit still require four tzitzit?” Moses replies that it would still require tzitzit.”

Korach then responds with a challenge, questioning the fact that four strings of tekhelet can allow you to wear a tallit, but a garment made entirely of tekhelet cannot be exempted from this restriction?” Korach isn’t simply challenging Moses’ authority, but also mocking him, and by extension mocking God’s Torah.

Korach uses the tallit, a holy ritual object, for a negative purpose. The tallit is a ritual garb that shows that the Jewish people are a holy nation of priests. Korach uses the tallit to make Moses look silly. He uses the tallit and tzitzit to undermine Moses’ authority.

Whether Korach was correct or not in challenging Moses’ authority, he was wrong for using a holy garment for the purpose of mocking the Israelite leader. The tallit is a reminder for us. It is used during prayer as a sign of our relationship with God through the commandments.

When we wear the tallit, we should look down at its fringes, the tzitzit, and be reminded of God’s love for us and of God’s gift of the Torah. We should also wear it proudly and let it serve as a reminder of how Moses and the Israelites did not allow Korach and his gang to overthrow their leadership.

Each morning when we wrap ourselves in our tallit let it serve to show that Korach was defeated and that the tallit should not be used for such negativity. Let us consider the words of Yehuda Amichai and be ever cognizant of the ritual of tallit – from taking it out, to folding it and putting it back in its bag.

The tallit that I wear on Shabbat has an additional special meaning for me. This white tallit was a gift from the Jewish Theological Seminary upon my ordination as a rabbi. Like any tallit it has stories to tell. It has significant meaning because it reminds me of my experience in rabbinical school. It also brings to mind the many life-cycle events when I was wrapped in its embrace.

The tallit is a beautiful way for us to wrap ourselves in God’s embrace and be reminded of God’s love for us. Korach’s error was in using the tallit to undermine Moses’ authority and publicly humiliate him. Let us use the tallit for good. Let us wrap ourselves in the tallit and give thanks for leadership rather than trying to weaken it.

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

Chuck Schumer Had Leon Panetta Say Shema

All of the speeches at the AIPAC Policy Conference during the past few days went according to script. Every U.S. politician who addressed the 13,000 in attendance weighed in on the threat of a nuclear Iran, enumerated their party’s accomplishments in defending Israel, and reiterated their commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship. But there was one surprise.

On the final morning of the AIPAC conference, the U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta discussed his close personal friendship with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the family dinners they have shared (“We talk, we argue, we eat… we are family”). He also recalled accompanying President Bill Clinton to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Panetta also disclosed that the first congratulations he received after the successful capture of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan were from his buddies in the Israeli Mossad.

And then Secretary Panetta mentioned the little known fact that he and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York were once roommates when they both served in the House during the 1980’s and early 1990’s. That wasn’t the surprise though since Schumer has, on several occasions, reminisced about rooming with Panetta and other congressmen in a shared house. The surprising tidbit came when Panetta shared that he and Schumer bunked together in the living room of the house and before bed each night Schumer would get Panetta to say the Bedtime Shema.

Panetta deadpanned toward the end of his speech, “Each night before we went to bed he made me say the Shema… but I probably just said a Hail Mary!”

I was never aware that there is a custom of Jews getting non-Jews to say the Shema. I wrote about Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun getting him in the habit of reciting the Shema before each concert and now this. I’m curious to know which other non-Jews out there are saying the Shema. This might just become a trend.

Here’s video of Chuck Schumer reminiscing about his former roommate Leon Panetta:

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

Scooter Braun Confirms That Justin Bieber Says the Shema Before Every Show

In October 2010 I used the example of Justin Bieber reciting the “Shema Yisrael” Jewish prayer in a blog post about non-Jews performing Jewish rituals. I explained how there were reports that Justin Bieber’s Jewish manager Scott “Scooter” Braun, who discovered Bieber on YouTube, taught Justin the “Shema Yisrael” prayer and he says it before each concert. In the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronot, Scooter Braun said “Justin prays the Shema before each show. First he says a Christian prayer, then he says the Shema.”

I cynically noted that “Based on the number of concerts at which Justin Bieber performs, I’m guessing that he’s actually said the most important statement of Jewish belief many more times in his life than the average 16-year-old Jewish youth.”

Scenes of Justin Bieber saying the Shema even made it into his “Never Say Never” movie (I haven’t actually seen the movie, but that’s what I’m told).

Last week at the 2012 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, I had a chance to meet Justin Bieber and Scooter Braun. After Justin looked into my camera and said hello to my six-year-old daughter (which made her year!), I asked Scooter Braun to give a “shout out” to her as well. After he mentioned that he has a cousin by the same name as my daughter, he also confirmed that Justin says the Shema before every show. Here’s the video:

Here’s Justin Bieber saying the Shema along with Scooter Braun, Usher, and Jayden Smith:

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

Revised USCJ Luach

Today is the second day of Rosh Chodesh Tevet, the beginning of the new Jewish month. It is also the seventh day of Hanukkah. That means that the past two mornings have been long, complicated prayer services with Torah readings from two separate Torah scrolls, Hallel (songs of praise for both Hanukkah and Rosh Chodesh), and a Musaf service for Rosh Chodesh that includes an insertion for Hanukkah. It’s unusual for morning minyan to last for a full hour, but Rosh Chodesh Tevet is always a long service (of course, it’s even longer when it falls on Shabbat).

There are a few days when morning minyan gets complicated and requires a road map (like Hoshanah Rabbah for example). A gabbai (one who runs the synagogue service) often uses a luach (calendar and service guide) for assistance in coordinating the services and making sure that nothing was left out that should have been included or included that should have been omitted. There are several Orthodox versions of a luach and many Conservative Jewish leaders will use those, however, the newly revised official luach of the Conservative Movement is a wonderful resource.

My teacher Rabbi Miles Cohen (pictured below) took over the responsibility as editor of the USCJ Luach (or Luah with a dot under the ‘h’ as its rendered therein). Kenneth Goodrich created the first Luach for the Conservative Movement 17 years ago for the Jewish year 5755. Upon Goodrich’s untimely death in 2004, Rabbi Robert Abramson edited and managed the publication of the Luach. This is the first year that Rabbi Cohen has taken on the editorial tasks.

I studied with Rabbi Cohen at the Jewish Theological Seminary and found him to be an amazing teacher who takes synagogue skills very seriously. He is punctilious when it comes to nusach (Hebrew pronunciation and melody) and is one of the world’s experts in Hebrew grammar pertaining to the Torah text and liturgy. Rabbi Cohen is also a master typesetter, and has created guides and interactive software for learning to read Torah, haftarah, and megillot, as well as guides for nusach skills and Hebrew grammar.

The USCJ Luah can be purchased from the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism online book service. It is an indispensable tool for the Conservative synagogue and Rabbi Cohen has superbly improved this important resource.

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

Prayer in Sports – Part 2

Last week I blogged about the role of public prayer in sports. What prompted me to blog about the subject was a Detroit Free Press article in which I was quoted that dealt with the trend of major league baseball players praying and performing various religious-related activities on the sports field like drawing crosses in the dirt and blowing kisses to heaven after a home run.

Professional and collegiate players giving thanks to God in the locker room after a game is nothing new and neither is a player crossing himself after a touchdown. Lately however, this has gone to a new level and that is probably thanks in large measure to Tim Tebow, the NFL player who started the “Tebowing” craze. The Denver Broncos quarterback, who stencils biblical verses into his eye black, drops to one knee in silent devotion in the middle of his games. This act of public prayer has led to people everywhere to start “Tebowing.”

As a rabbi, I don’t have a problem with the Tebowing craze but I think it’s funny that it has restarted the debate over public prayer. If a player simply closes his eyes and gives thanks to God no one will notice, but as soon as he drops to one knee it becomes a national obsession.

Today’s college game between Penn State and Nebraska will only add fuel to this debate. Before the game in Beaver Stadium, the crowd watched as both teams joined together in the middle of the field for group prayer. This prayer service was preceded by a moment of silence for the entire stadium asking for healing for those affected by child molestation. The Penn State campus was already emotionally charged following the forced resignation of its long time coach Joe Paterno for not doing more to stop the child molestation that took place at a youth football camp held on campus several years earlier. No doubt, people will be weighing in on whether it was appropriate for both teams to join in public prayer before the game. After all, this is something that is usually done in the privacy of the locker room.

For those who criticize Tim Tebow for praying on the football field for such trivial things as a touchdown pass, perhaps the Penn State-Nebraska prayer service will raise the question of whether its appropriate to pray for serious things on the football field (victims of child molestation, our troops oversees, those battling cancer, etc.). Most likely, athletes are going to continue to publicly pray on the sports field and demonstrate their religious beliefs. And the debate over whether its appropriate or not will continue as well.

(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

Athletes’ Public Displays of Religion

This past Friday evening I sat with my family at Adat Shalom Synagogue as we watched a performance by Storahtelling, which is known for its innovative and arts-focused take on the Torah. The Storahtelling performers interpret the themes from the Torah in new ways, acting out a theatrical midrash. In “Like a Prayer,” Storahtelling veterans Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw presented a creative exploration of the power of prayer by invoking the stories of our biblical ancestors Aaron the High Priest, Hannah, Sarah and Hagar.

Each of these biblical characters prays in a unique way. Jake and Emily got the audience to consider that a synagogue might be the most traditional place for prayer, but our prayer can take place virtually anywhere. I immediately thought of the recent controversy when Israeli Knesset Minister Meshulam Nahari of the Shas party harshly criticized Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat of his freedom from Hamas captivity instead of going to the synagogue for prayer as I had blogged about just a day prior. If Gilad Shalit chose to be thankful to God on a beach instead of a synagogue, then who are we to judge?

Watching the Storahtelling production also led to me to consider athletes’ public displays of prayer on the playing field. There are those who are critical of athletes (from professional on down to the high school level) openly giving thanks to God after a good play or a victory. I’ve also noticed an increase in the public displays of religion among the fans at sporting events as well. Sure, fans holding signs proclaiming the John 3:16 verse from the New Testament is nothing new, but lately the TV cameras at sporting events have caught fans visibly praying for their team. This was certainly the case in the recent Major League Baseball playoffs.

In fact, I was contacted by a reporter from the Detroit Free Press last month during the playoffs as my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. She told me she was writing an article about baseball players and religion. Her first question caught me off guard when she asked me if I thought God was a Tigers fan. We then discussed whether religion should have a role in spectator sports. I explained to the reporter that I appreciate when athletes give it their all and are so intent on winning that they don’t hide their religious convictions.

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.

“In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities.”

Later that night as I sat in the stands at Comerica Park in Detroit watching the Tigers beat the Rangers in Game 3 of the ALCS, I thought more about athletes publicly displaying their gratefulness to God during the game. Watching the players take a moment to pray and thank God was quite meaningful. They are so grateful to be in the position of playing a fun game in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions more on television that they recognize the importance of giving thanks.
We should appreciate when players publicly demonstrate their faith, whether by asking God to help them achieve success and not get injured during the game or by thanking God for their triumph. If we are going to teach our children that God is accessible anywhere and that we don’t have to be in a church or synagogue to pray, then let us embrace the notion that a sports field is an appropriate place for players and fans to welcome in God.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Adon Olam to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here

Adon Olam is the quintessential Jewish prayer in perfect meter, which means it can be set to just about any tune. This strictly metrical hymn is sung to end just about every Shabbat morning service which means it is not only popular, but many know the words by heart.

I’ve heard hundreds of versions of Adon Olam over the years and my favorite has always been the “Centerfold” tune sung to the famous J. Geils Band song. That is, until I heard this version by Pardes set to the tune of “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. Enjoy!

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

Justin Bieber in Israel

It doesn’t matter that I’m blogging from Berlin because they’re talking about teen pop sensation Justin Bieber and his new movie “Never Say Never” here too. It seems that Bieber’s 29-year-old Jewish manager “Scooter” Braun is working hard to promote his talented young client and his new movie in the media. I was contacted the other day by Edmon Rodman of the JTA who was writing a story about the inclusion of Bieber saying the Shema Yisrael in the “Never Say Never” movie.

Last year, I wrote about Justin Bieber’s prayer circle ritual before concerts in which he includes the Jewish “Shema Yisrael” prayer in Hebrew. Rodman quotes “Scooter” Braun who explains, “Originally Justin and the crew just did a prayer circle before the show that ended with Jesus Christ. I wasn’t into that,” so “we started saying the Shema. About the third time, Justin chimed in.” “He had memorized it. Now others say it with us, too.”

Rodman quoted me in the JTA article:

As noted by Rabbi Jason Miller of Michigan, who writes at blog.rabbijason.com, “Based on the number of concerts at which Justin Bieber performs, I’m guessing that he’s actually said the most important statement of Jewish belief many more times in his life than the average 16-year-old Jewish youth.”

What is certain to get people’s attention in Rodman’s article is that “Bieber is scheduled to bring the Shema to Israel” on April 14, just five days before Passover. While some artists, like Elvis Costello, have canceled performances in Israel, Braun stated that there is no question that the concert will happen as scheduled and that Justin Bieber and his mom, Patti, are excited to visit Israel (specifically Bethlehem).

In fact, Bieber will still be in Israel for the first night of Passover and “Scooter” Braun plans on having a seder. There’s no word yet on whether Justin Bieber will lead the Four Questions (traditionally sung by the youngest at the table).

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

Tefillin Bomber Strikes Again

Back in January 2010 a US Airways flight was diverted for the security concerns raised by a Jewish teenage boy putting on tefillin (phylacteries). I blogged about the Kentucky-bound airplane from New York that had to make an emergency landing in Philadelphia because the 17-year-old was wrapping his arm and head with the black leather straps and boxes used by Jews during the morning prayers.

The incident was actually quite humorous once it was determined that it was a misunderstanding and not an actual threat. My Dr. Seuss-inspired poem (“Oh, the Planes Gonna’ Blow”) about the tefillin take down of the plane was circulated widely around the Web during the days following the incident.

Now, it appears that tefillin has the capability to not only divert airplanes but also boats. The JTA.org reports that “an Israeli putting on tefillin set off a bomb scare on a New Zealand ferry. The captain of the inter-island ferry, who believed the boxes and leather straps looked like a bomb, reported his concerns to police during Sunday’s voyage between Wellington and Picton, New Zealand’s two main islands. Police detained the Israeli and his three fellow travelers when the ferry docked in Picton, where they were questioned and released.”

I wonder what the next mode of transportation will be that reports a security threat when a Jewish person starts to pray. Truthfully, this can be avoided with some education. Security personnel should be briefed about tefillin, which have been around for thousands of years, so they are no longer mistaken for bombs.

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