The Crime of Wearing a Tallit

Empathy is never easy. As a man, I confess that I have struggled to be empathetic to the cause of the Women of the Wall (Nashot HaKotel). This group of women has been coming to the Kotel Hama’arivi (Western Wall) in the Old City of Jerusalem for close to a quarter century to pray in protest of the religious freedom they lack.

From thousands of miles away I have followed their plight after each Rosh Chodesh (new month) prayer service they conduct in the relatively small women’s section of the Kotel. In the past year or so I’ve read about the women who are detained or arrested for having the nerve to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel, which according to Israel law is to be treated as an Orthodox synagogue. While I took interest in their civil disobedience and was supportive of their efforts, I felt they were too focused on the Western Wall when in fact they were being allowed to hold their prayer services (women only or mixed) at the Southern Wall (Robinson’s Arch) which was historically more significant anyway.

Our group of male rabbis before heading down to the Kotel plaza

And then all that changed this morning. Together with about a dozen of my male rabbinic colleagues we woke up well before dawn and walked from our Jerusalem hotel to the Old City. I wrapped myself in my tallit, wound my tefillin (phylacteries) around my left arm and on my head, and joined my colleagues at the mechitza (dividing wall) next to the women’s section. Rather than holding our own separate service we joined the women in their prayers. Several of the women proudly wore tallitot and I even saw one woman wearing tefillin. It was exhilarating to watch the women begin to spontaneously dance during Hallel, the joyous, musical psalms for Rosh Chodesh.

Conservative Rabbis Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Debra Cantor at the Kotel 

Israeli police — both men and women — patrolled the women’s section. At first I thought this was to ensure their safety as angry protesters have thrown chairs at them in the past, but as I watched I could tell that one of the police officers was warning some of the women wearing tallitot. One female police officer videotaped the entire service, likely to prove that it was handled accordingly. A young man who works at the Kotel began moving shtenders (lecturns) and tables to separate us men from the rest of the men’s section, in effect creating three prayer areas.

At the conclusion of the Hallel service, I saw some people begin to exit toward the plaza behind the women’s section. I headed over there and saw two of the Israeli paratroopers who were in that iconic photograph at the newly reclaimed Kotel in 1967 after the Six Day War. The men were being interviewed by Israeli media and talking openly about how they liberated the Old City of Jerusalem so that all people would be free to pray there, not only the ultra-Orthodox. It was remarkable to see these paratroopers at the Kotel after seeing that powerful photo since I was a young boy. The Kotel immediately came to take on a whole new meaning for me. And a moment later I developed a much stronger connection to the plight of the Women at the Wall.

An ad hoc partition is created to separate our group in the Men’s Section

I turned around and saw two of my friends and fellow rabbis were being escorted away from the Kotel Plaza by a police officer. Rabbi Robyn Fryer Bodzin and Rabbi Debra Cantor called me over as they were walking behind a female police officer. They told me that she had taken their passports and was going to detain them at the police station. Robyn asked if I would stay with them for as long as I could because they didn’t know what was going to happen. Immediately I began to feel concern for them. The officer wasn’t saying anything and wouldn’t explain where they were going. I was still wearing my tallit and tefillin and feeling guilty that my colleagues were getting in trouble for something that I take for granted.

Israeli paratroopers who liberated the Old City in 1967 with Anat Hoffman

Before coming to Israel, I traveled through Kiev, Ukraine with several rabbis including Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor. We spoke to Jewish people there who were forbidden from practicing their Judaism freely in the Former Soviet Union. They would have been arrested for being seen in public wearing a tallit during the Communist era. In Jerusalem this past Friday night we ate dinner with Joseph Begun, who was a Prisoner of Zion in the Former Soviet Union. He shared his amazing story with us, telling us of the years he spent in a Russian jail for the “crime” of being Jewish. This morning we met with former Refusenik Natan Sharansky on the 27th anniversary of his arrival to Israel. He has been charged by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with coming up with a solution to this problem at the Kotel. Israel was intended to be a place of salvation for the Jewish people. It is the Jewish capital and no Jew should be refused her right to religious practice as our fellow Jews were in the FSU.

Rabbis Fryer Bodzin and Cantor have provided an important example of civil disobedience. To young girls about to become bat mitzvah, these rabbis have articulated why they shouldn’t take their Jewish identity for granted. They have demonstrated to me why it is so critical that women feel comfortable acting as Jews in Israel. I have tremendous respect for both of them and they should be applauded for their courage. After this morning, the Women of the Wall have my respect and my support. Religious freedom must be a priority for Israel. The alternative will have horrific repercussions for the Jewish people.

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

Israel’s The Voice: When Religion Goes Too Far

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

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

Jesus, We Can Finally Talk About Jesus

I’ve always said that the only times Jewish people mention Jesus are when they stub their toe, miss the bus, or tell you about their theater tickets to a certain Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Two new books will change that. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s Kosher Jesus and The Jewish Annotated New Testament (edited by Marc Z. Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine). The former discusses the Jewish life of Jesus of Nazareth and the latter is a newly revised edition of the Christian Scriptures with notes and essays from Jewish scholars in the hope of making the “New Testament” accessible to Jews.

In my final years of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, I was living and working in Caldwell, New Jersey as a rabbinic intern. One of the congregants at the synagogue, Agudath Israel, was a professor at the College of St. Elizabeth in Morristown, New Jersey. She asked me to give a presentation about Judaism to the women in her undergraduate class. In preparation for my visit she asked the students to submit a list of five questions each that they would like me to consider. Without any exaggeration, a full 90% of the students included at least one question about Jesus Christ in their list.

I had received questions from Christians in the past concerning the Jewish view of Jesus, but that experience confirmed for me just how curious Christians are about how Jews understand Jesus in both historical and theological perspectives. Many of the women in that class at the College of St. Elizabeth were surprised to learn that Jews do not consider Jesus to be the messiah and the entire class was shocked to discover that Jesus’ teachings were not part of the required coursework I was doing in my rabbinical school studies. By far, to this day the most frequent questions I receive from Christians all have to do with the Jewish understanding of Jesus.

The topic of the contemporary view of Jesus among Jews has long been stuck somewhere between taboo and “we just don’t talk about it”. But now, thanks to two new books it is front and center. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who refers to himself as “America’s Rabbi” has written a new controversial book that will be released next week. For those who thought Boteach’s Kosher Sex was too radical, his new Kosher Jesus is sure to ruffle feathers. With Boteach, it is difficult to know if he writes these provocative books and articles because he’s genuinely passionate about the scholarly discussion it will generate or if he just lusts after the spotlight. Still playing up his friendship with the late Michael Jackson and very passively campaigning to be the next Chief Rabbi of the British Commonwealth, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach has been busy publicly questioning what all this fuss is about with his new book. In truth, Boteach knows that every Orthodox rabbi and scholar — from Chabad Lubavitch to the Haredim — who attack Kosher Jesus as blasphemous and its author as a heretic are only helping his book sales.

Boteach loves the attention he’s getting and in the weeks leading up to its release has been penning article after article fighting back against his naysayers. In a recent Jerusalem Post article, Boteach wrote, “Unless you’ve been a space-tourist with Virgin Galactic the past few weeks you will know that on [sic] February my new book will be published.” (There’s no doubt in my mind he received a generous kickback from Virgin’s Richard Branson for mentioning Galactic.) Media attention aside, I think Boteach’s book is important and will finally make it “kosher” for Jews to learn about and discuss Jesus as the historical figure.

Boteach’s book portrays the actual story of Jesus’ Jewish life as told in both early Christian and Jewish sources. If you ask most Jews to tell you about the historical figure of Jesus, their response often turns fuzzy after a quick introduction that he was Jewish. Kosher Jesus explains how Jesus was a Torah-observant teacher who instructed his followers to observe the Torah. Jesus’ teachings were quoted extensively from the Torah. And before being murdered by Pontius Pilate, Jesus fought Roman paganism and persecution of the Jewish people. His death was retribution for his rebellion against Rome.

No matter what one believes Boteach’s intentions were in writing this book (more fame, more money, a Chief Rabbi position, setting the academic record straight, or a combination thereof), he clearly did his research on the subject and has taken away the taboo of Jews discussing Jesus of Nazareth. Hopefully, Boteach’s book will give Jews the ability to go a little deeper in their understanding of Jesus. This will be helpful for rabbis like me who often field questions about Jesus from Christians, but it will also prove useful for Jews living in predominantly Christian areas as well as for the Jewish college student with a Christian roommate or agressive missionaries on campus.

Rembrandt’s portrayal of Jesus is more apparently Jewish than other artistic renderings

As I have been reading the many criticisms of Rabbi Shmuley Boteach and his Kosher Jesus, one thing that I’ve noticed is the strong discomfort his attackers have with even mentioning Jesus. As Josh Fleet mentioned in his Huffington Post article, some of Boteach’s critics refuse to even type out the name Jesus. Instead they refer to Boteach’s book as Kosher J. abbreviating the name of Jesus in a way that is reminiscent of how they refuse to spell out the word “God” or “Lord” choosing instead to use “G-d” or “L-rd”. This struck me as odd as it seems to put Jesus in the same category as God whose name must not be rendered in print (even though the English words “God” and “Lord” are not actual names for the Jewish deity and I’ve never understood a ban on spelling out God’s name in Latin characters). In any event, it is similarly odd that many of Boteach’s critics who are eager to put him in herem (excommunication) for having the chutzpah to publish a book about Jesus of Nazareth are the same Chabad Lubavitch members who seem to be placing their bets that the late Lubavitch rebbe is the messiah. One man’s false messiah is another man’s god. One man’s spiritual leader is another man’s messiah.

I especially like the way Josh Fleet concludes his article about the sharp criticism of Kosher Jesus. Fleet writes, “In 2012, the topic of Jesus should not be a Jewish taboo. If we believe so much that our relationship with Christianity is based on deceit, tragedy and senseless hatred — that it has broken us — then we are obligated to believe it can be based on trust, opportunity and boundless love — that it can be fixed.” Well stated, and I believe that what will equally help fix the way Jews deal with the topic of the historical Jesus will be the new contribution by Brandeis Professor Marc. Z. Brettler and Vanderbilt Prof. Amy-Jill Levine. Their new version of the New Testament is revolutionary in that it has been published for Jews.

I am always surprised when Christians are surprised that New Testament studies was not part of my academic courses in rabbinical school. No matter how many times I explain that Jews do not believe our Torah has been superseded by the “New Testament”, Christians still don’t understand this concept. It’s as if they think that we’re big fans of the first Godfather movie and yet refuse to watch the sequel. In truth, most Jews who are knowledgeable about the Jewish Bible have little clue about the narrative of the “New Testament”. One of the primary reasons for this has been the Jewish ban on studying Christian religious texts for theologically dogmatic reasons. However, the new version that Brettler and Levine have put forth seems to make this scholarship safe for Jewish students.

An article in the USA Today explains Prof. Levine’s intentions in completing this project:

The project, published in November by Oxford University Press, is the latest effort in Levine’s lifelong quest to help Jews and Christians understand each other better. 

That quest started when she was growing up among Portuguese Roman Catholics in North Dartmouth, Mass. She was fascinated by her schoolmates’ faith and horrified when one of them told her that the Jews had killed God by crucifying Jesus. 

She made it her life’s work to prevent Christians from spreading that kind of anti-Semitic claim and to help build a bridge between the two faiths. 

After all, she said, Jesus and his early followers were Jews. So the two faiths have much in common. 

The Annotated New Testament points out places where Christians get Judaism wrong.
“The volume flags common anti-Jewish stereotypes, shows why they are wrong and provides readings so that the Gospel is not heard as a message of hate,” Levine wrote in an email. “These stereotypes include the Old Testament/Jewish God of wrath vs. the New Testament God of love and the view that Judaism epitomized misogyny and xenophobia.”

When you consider how little most Jews know about Jesus from a historical perspective, it is actually an exciting time when this discussion will no longer be taboo. While some religious Jews will claim it is dangerous to read books like Kosher Jesus or to have Brettler and Levine’s commentary of the “New Testament” on your bookshelf for reference, I actually think that this will lead to better Jewish-Christian dialogue. It will also alleviate so much of the misinformation and ignorance that many Jews have about Christianity and its roots. I’m eager to see where this leads and I’m grateful to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach for having the conviction to publish Kosher Jesus, and to Profs. Brettler and Levine for using their scholarship to educate us on a religion about which we have been hesitant to learn more.

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

Sitting Shiva for Traditional Shiva

I’ve been thinking about death and mourning quite a bit lately. To begin with, the first week of the new year brought with it a rash of deaths here in the Detroit Jewish community. There were a fair share of elderly grandparents who died in their 80s and 90s during the first week of 2012, but that isn’t all that uncommon. Within a one-week period, however, there were tragic and untimely deaths in every age demographic ranging from a drug overdose to horrific traffic accidents to sudden massive heart attacks to the succumbing of long illnesses. There was a lot of mourning and a lot of grieving here in the Detroit Jewish community.

I’ve also been thinking about death and mourning because I’ve been working on an article for The Detroit Jewish News about the Shiva Connect website which helps mourners coordinate shiva following the death of a loved one. The research I’ve done on this website has pushed me to look closer at how Jews are observing shiva in the 21st century.

Author Bruce Feiler’s article in today’s  NY Times was difficult to read because it makes me think that we should perhaps sit shiva for the traditional expression of Judaism’s mourning rituals which have been around for thousands of years. Feiler, the author of Walking the Bible, writes about observing a “secular shiva” for his friends who have died recently (or for his friends’ relatives). Rather than paying a condolence call to the home of the mourners, Feiler’s friends have gathered elsewhere and ordered pizza and a fruit salad and listened to eulogies by the grieving family. Bereft of prayers or the obligatory rites of Jewish mourning, Feiler finds this “secular shiva” to be a natural outgrowth of our busy, complicated lives without religion in the Digital Age.

There is already a trend among non-Orthodox Jews to minimize the length of shiva. The Hebrew word “shiva” means seven and refers to the number of days the mourners are required to stay at home receiving visitors to pay their condolences. Traditionally, the only time that shiva isn’t the full seven days is when it is interrupted by a significant Jewish holiday during which time formal morning is prohibited. When I first became a rabbi eight years ago I would listen to families explain why sitting shiva for the full seven days seemed too arduous. I would then be able to convince them to do it even it meant a little bargaining such as keeping the final few days private without opening their home to everyone. These days, it has become commonplace for families to only “hold shiva” for a few days or at the very least a few hours following the funeral.

Feiler’s NY Times article is titled “Mourning in the Age of Facebook”, but it focuses less on social media sympathies and more on this New Age observance of shiva. (I wrote about mourning and the effect of social networking sites like Facebook in a blog post for The Jewish Week’s Jewish Techs blog in May 2010.) Feiler’s argument is that shiva is too difficult to take place at the home of the mourners. I’ve heard this argument before and agree with it on some levels. The last thing that many mourners want to think about after their loved one has died is opening their home to an unknown number of people including many strangers who are connected to the deceased through other mourners. Of course, the idea of shiva is that the mourners shouldn’t have to worry about making sure their house is clean for shiva or if there will be enough food or ample parking. That should be taken care of by their community of friends. But truthfully, it is still stressful time for mourners and is likely the leading cause of the desire to shorten the length of the traditional shiva period.

I recently spoke with the leader of a local Reform congregation who shared his vision of creating a physical space (not in the synagogue or funeral home) for mourners to gather for shiva. It would be designed to feel like a living room and friends would visit with the mourners there so no one had to open their home to countless people during the immediate week of grief. On the one hand this idea makes sense, but there’s a certain warmth that I believe would be missing. There’s a certain unique feeling about shiva in a mourner’s home. Traditionally the mourner shouldn’t have to leave home during shiva. That is why people come to the shiva house and daily prayer services are held there rather than in the synagogue.

The part of Feiler’s article I found most troubling was the notion that we’re just too busy these days to fully respond to death. Feiler quotes a hospice nurse who explains, “We’re just too busy in this world to deal with losing people.” I certainly hope that’s not the case. There is a reason that seven days of mourning were instituted. While death is never convenient, we are obligated to respond to it by taking time out of our busy, overextended schedules and comfort the mourners in their time of grief.

It is certainly more convenient to post a quick sentence or two of condolence on the mourner’s Facebook Wall, but that shouldn’t preclude us from performing the tradition acts of comforting the mourners as instituted by our faith. Judaism is fluid and progresses through the generations in response to the changing culture of the times and the needs of its practitioners, but we should be cautious in how much we change certain aspects of our tradition. Formal shiva serves a purpose and while it is not a convenient situation it guarantees the comfort of the community.

As Feiler notes, “Especially in a world in which so much communication happens online, the balming effect of a face-to-face gathering can feel even more magnified. The Jewish tradition of sitting shiva offers an appealing template.” Rather than seeing social media promote the loss of traditional shiva observance, I hope it is used to strengthen it. We are all busy with many distractions, but hopefully we’ll find ways to use modern technology to help our friends who are grieving. We should recognize the inherent value of traditional shiva rather than trying to reinvent it. I’m glad that Bruce Feiler found meaning in the “secular shivas” he observed for his friends, but I pray that we’ll return religion to its proper place in Jewish mourning ritual.

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

Jews for Tebow

The Tim Tebow craze is now hotter than ever as the Denver Broncos’ quarterback is shepherding (sorry!) his team into the playoffs. In November I wrote about about how Tim Tebow and his kneeling in public prayer (“Tebowing”) was heating up the discussion of prayer in sports. I had no idea that the Tebowing craze would continue to be such a hot topic this late into the NFL season. Whether God is on his side or he’s just a phenomenal athlete in crunch situations, Tebow has certainly become the topic on everyone’s mind.

The most popular article written about the Jewish perspective on Tim Tebow was by my colleague Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Connecticut. When I first read his article on The Jewish Week’s website, I had to continuously go back and re-read each sentence because I couldn’t believe what Hammerman was arguing. Apparently, neither did most people including Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week who had the article taken down from the website (but not before it was published in the print edition).

Out of respect for Hammerman I decided not to comment on his article at the time. He was receiving a heavy amount of criticism from Tebow fans who took exception with his overly harsh critique of the quarterback. Hammerman’s article read more like a satirical piece that was printed a few months before Purim, the Jewish holiday on which such satire is commonplace. Hammerman wrote, “If Tebow wins the Super Bowl, against all odds, it will buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.” After The Jewish Week took down the article, Hammerman issued an apology to Tim Tebow, his fans and his family. The Jewish Week also issued an apology explaining that the article “violated our own standards calling for civility in posting comments on our website.”

Rabbi Hammerman ate some crow and issued the following statement:

I have spent my entire career engaged in dialogue with people of all faiths while speaking out passionately against intolerance and extremism. I have the deepest respect for those who are committed to their faith, including Mr. Tebow. I realize the way in which I attempted to make my points was clumsy and inappropriate, calling to mind the kind of intolerance and extremism my article was intended to disparage. I sincerely apologize to Mr. Tebow, his family, the Broncos and Patriots and all those whom I may have offended.

The tide, however, seems to have shifted. Jews went from either not knowing what to make of Tim Tebow and his public displays of his Evangelical Christian faith to criticizing his fanaticism as Rabbi Hammerman regretfully wrote. Now, groups called “Jews for Tebow” are sprouting up everywhere. A “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page has close to 500 Likes. Jewish fans are showing up to Tebow’s games wearing “Jews for Tebow” shirts and rabbis are speaking positively about Tebow from the pulpit.

The “Jews for Tebow” Facebook page was created by a self-described non-observant Israeli named Ike Thaler, who is not from Denver (he lives in South Florida). What prompted him to create the Tebow Facebook group on behalf of Jewish fans? He explains, “I have been a Tebow fan since his first year in College, but I decided to look for a forum to express my support for Tim Tebow as well as find a way to provide a different Tim Tebow fan page which includes more humor and the lighter side of the subject. I wanted to create a fan page like no other Tim Tebow fan page. Our page is ‘not your parent’s Tim Tebow fan page’.”

Thaler’s own faith has strengthened since becoming a Tebow fan. He claims that his loyalty and admiration have grown tenfold since seeing Tebow getting battered for expressing his religious beliefs. “I obviously disagree with his religious views, but I admire him for being so positive and sticking to his morals by expressing his priorities in serving God over the temptations that fame and the superstar status bring into his life. What a positive role model.”

Thaler tells me that he is currently working on releasing a unique video related to Tim Tebow that is going to be a video like no other one on the Web. It is going to mix humor and football clips with a unique Jewish twist. “It is sure to get bring out Jewish emotions,” he claims.

I’m noticing more Jewish people talking about Tebow and I get a lot of questions about my opinion on Tebowing. I think it’s great that he has strong beliefs and isn’t embarrassed to express those beliefs in public through his comments or his actions. Tebow is not forcing anyone else to believe what he does, but he is proud of his core beliefs.

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

Is Matisyahu Still Chasidic?

“All my life I’ve been waiting for… I’ve been praying for… The chance to shave off all this scraggly facial hair.”

Those aren’t the lyrics to a Matisyahu song, but they could be. Only a few hours after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) published my story about Matisyahu’s unimpressive appearance on a reality TV cooking show, they issued a breaking news alert. As Daniel Sieradski commented in Heeb, it was the type of breaking news alert that is usually reserved for a terrorist attack. Only this was no terrorist attack. It was just Matisyahu shaving off his signature Chasidic-looking beard and transitioning from his Hasidic lifestyle as a religious Jew.

Has Matisyahu Gone “Off the Derech” by Shaving Away His Hasidic Identity?

I don’t think his decision to put his wife and mother-in-law in front of the camera with him on the “Chef Roble and Co” TV show was a very wise PR decision for Matisyahu and I think his current decision to shave the beard and drop his Chasidic identity could be the result of mismanagement.

In a blog post, Matisyahu wrote:

This morning I posted a photo of myself on Twitter. No more Chassidic reggae superstar. Sorry folks, all you get is me…no alias. When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process. It was my choice. My journey to discover my roots and explore Jewish spirituality—not through books but through real life. At a certain point I felt the need to submit to a higher level of religiosity…to move away from my intuition and to accept an ultimate truth. I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself. Trusting my goodness and my divine mission.  

Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth. And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry…you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.

I met Matisyahu for the first time at the Hillel International Staff Conference in a hotel in Connecticut back in December 2004. I remembered watching him perform on “Jimmy Kimmel Live” earlier that August. For most of the Jewish professional leaders gathered in that hotel ballroom, the show was more about a Hasidic reggae singer than it was about the music. It was a novelty. He certainly wouldn’t have gotten that gig had he not been an overtly Jewish performer.

So now the question is what does Matisyahu become without the Hasidic identity? Will he return to Matthew Miller? It sounds like he will, but that can’t be a very wise decision since his name has become his brand. But what does this mean for the Jewish community? Matthew Miller is a ba’al teshuva meaning he came to religious Judaism as an adult. Will this call the long-term devotion of other ba’alei teshuva into question? What will this mean for Matisyahu’s wife Tahlia and their children? Will they remain as Orthodox Jews, committed to the Hasidic lifestyle?

Many musicians are secular but spiritual. It looks to me as if Matthew Miller doesn’t realize that his cache is in his Hasidic identity more than in his music. He will quickly become just another performer. Matisyahu will certainly not be the first frum (religious) Jew to “go off the derech” (journey from a religious life to a secular one), but he might be the most famous to so this publicly.

As Sieradski writes in Heeb, “One can’t but help but wonder if this is a bellwether for the rest of the ba’al teshuvah community. Few people have benefitted so richly from their Orthodox identity than Matisyahu, whose iconic hasidically-garbed appearance was oft stated to have had more to do with his rise to stardom than his talent alone. If Miller, whose feverish religiosity inspired so many others on the road to Jewish observance, couldn’t hack it as a frum yid, how can others be expected to maintain the illusion when the benefits are far less tangible?

I’m hoping Matisyah (or Matthew Miller) will find future success in his endeavors, but I’m pessimistic that his music alone will keep him at the top of the charts. He got famous by being “that Hasidic reggae singer,” but he will likely fade from fame as “that Hasidic reggae singer who shaved his beard and disappeared into secular life.”

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

Response to Rick Perry’s Campaign Ad

Like many millions of people, when I watched Texas Governor Rick Perry’s “Strong” Campaign ad for the first time on YouTube I was deeply troubled. “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian,” Perry begins. “But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.”

My first thought was of the gay men and women currently serving in uniform who are risking their lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe to protect our country. I immediately decided to film a parody of Rick Perry’s video. I wanted it to be a spoof of his video in order to show the ridiculousness of his message.

The response to my video has been great so far. After only 15 hours there have been about 800 likes and only 10 dislikes with almost 5,000 views. The most meaningful aspect has been the comments on the YouTube video. One viewer wrote, “i’m an atheist but i would sure would vote for rabbi jason over any of the idiots that are postulating themselves if i could.” Another wrote, “As a non religious person raised as a christian in the church, i strongly support this, I have friends of all religions and believe our differences is what makes this country great! THANK YOU FOR YOUR EDUCATED WELL THOUGHT OUT OPINION.”

I have been pleasantly surprised that there have not been more negative, hate-filled comments in response to my video. I will not censor any comments because I believe it’s important that everyone sees the hate that exists in some people’s hearts and the ignorance that exists in their minds. Here’s a comment that made me feel very good this morning: “Bless you, Rabbi! Thanks for retaliating in such an intelligent, focused, and humorous video! Every time I’m reminded that there are people like you in this country, I have hope for it again… Hope you and your family have a bright and beautiful Hannukah! Cheers! -from Agnostic, Gay, Christopher :)”

Here is the video, which was filmed and edited by Adam Luger:


Text:
I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a Jew — Heck, I’m even a Rabbi… but you don’t need to be in shul on every Shabbos to know there’s something wrong in our country when gays can serve openly in the military and yet they still can’t get married legally in most U.S. States.

Our Jewish kids in public school have to watch as their peers celebrate Christmas — a holiday they don’t observe. They have to sit quietly as the Christian students pray in school. That just seems uncomfortable.

As President, I will fight to end this crazy talk that there’s a war on religion. And I will fight anyone who discriminates against others simply because of their sexual orientation.

Intelligence made America strong. It can make her strong again.

I’m Rabbi Jason Miller and I think it’s too cold to film a video outside in Michigan in the winter. Who approved this?

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

Mitt Romney’s Magic Mormon Underwear and Beating Willows

I know I’m not the only rabbi who watches Bill Maher’s HBO show “Real Time” religiously. I say “religiously” with tongue-in-cheek because I’ve never missed a show and the comedian has become increasingly anti-religion in recent years. Like many religious leaders I tune in to Bill Maher’s show (actually I DVR it and watch it mid-week whenever I have a chance) for his political commentary, but I lose him when he gets into his rants about religion and God.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Maureen Dowd wrote about Bill Maher’s recent appearance at George Washington University when the creator of the documentary “Religulous” went off on an anti-Mormon rant when talking about Mitt Romney, the Mormon candidate for president. “Bill Maher bounded into territory that the news media have been gingerly tiptoeing around. Magic underwear. Baptizing dead people. Celestial marriages. Private planets. Racism. Polygamy.”

Bill Maher is a staunch atheist who attacks all religions. He was raised Roman Catholic and now refers to the Roman Catholic Church as “an international child sex ring.” But he seems to be the most critical on the Mormon faith. “By any standard, Mormonism is more ridiculous than any other religion,” Maher said. This could be because of Romney’s recent popularity in the 2012 presidential race.

I spent some time this morning thinking about Maureen Dowd’s column and Bill Maher’s vicious attack on Mormonism during his recent stand-up comedy appearance. It could very well be that Mormonism gets a lot of attention for some of its odd beliefs and rituals because it is a 19th century religion that was founded in America. Its former views on polygamy and belief in magical undergarments make for good comedy material when the creators of South Park want to write a Broadway show.

But as I marched around the small chapel in synagogue this morning holding my etrog (citron fruit) and lulav (palm fronds bounded together with myrtle and willow branches) and wearing my long multi-colored prayer shawl with four braided fringes dangling from each corner as I chanted Hosannas, I realized that it’s not fair to lampoon any religion for its silly ways. Today, Jews all over the world observe Hoshanah Rabbah when we beat willow branches as a way of ridding ourselves of our sins. A couple weeks earlier on Rosh Hashanah we threw bread crumbs into moving streams of water. Sound weird? It is. But it’s deeply rooted in religious tradition making it an accepted ritual. All religions have these odd customs that appear strange to an outsider.

If temple-going Mormons choose to wear special undergarments because they believe it sets them apart from the world and signifies a covenant between them and God, then great. One person’s special religious underwear is another’s yarmulke or burqa or gold cross around the neck. The Mormon underwear is sacred to the wearer for what it represents, but silly to the non-believer because it is rooted in a religious belief not their own.

I may not like when Mormon’s posthumously baptize deceased Jews (the other focus of Maureen Dowd’s editorial and Bill Maher’s attack), but who am I to laugh at their sacred rituals and religious garb. I find Bill Maher to be a funny comedian, but I wish he’d give up on his unrelenting religious scrutiny. He’s certainly entitled to his opinions about matters of faith and theology, but his aggressiveness has become offensive.

Mitt Romney will continue wearing his special underpants. I’ll continue wearing a yarmulke and waving the lulav. And Bill Maher will continue his crusade against the religious groups in our country. But I hope he remembers that he’s a comedian and gets paid to be funny, not disrespectful.

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

Sheldon Yellen – CEO and Mensch

Yesterday morning, we heard the words from the Torah portion Ki Tavo, which included the blessing that God shall make us the head and not the tail. This blessing is often repeated on Rosh Hashanah Eve and some even have the head of a fish on their holiday dinner table as a reminder of this blessing. According to the Torah, it is good to be the head.

That’s not always the case in the business world however. CEOs may have been blessed to be the “head” and not the “tail,” but it oftentimes seems like more of a curse. Over the past decade we’ve seen many disgraced CEOs who are not good examples of doing what’s right. We certainly wouldn’t consider the corporate heads of Enron, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom to be role models for our children.

There are exceptions. There are CEOs who demonstrate strong leadership skills along with ethical behavior. Several years ago I gave a sermon about Aaron Feuerstein, the CEO of Maden Mills, who after his entire plant burned down spent millions of his own money to keep all of his 3,000 employees on the payroll with full benefits for 6 months. Feuerstein consistently did the right thing even when it was difficult and he was faced with significant challenges. He claimed his strong ethical behavior and sense of justice as a corporate head were due to his faith and Talmud education.

Photo courtesy of Belfor

There is another CEO, who like Feuerstein, is striving to be a mensch and give back to his community. Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of Belfor is not your typical CEO. Tonight he’ll be at the Emmy Awards, where his episode of “Undercover Boss” is nominated for an Emmy. Sheldon went undercover in the CBS reality show “Undercover Boss” and received an education about how hard his employees work and how difficult it is for them to make ends meet. Yellen was so moved by all the lower-level employees he met that he eventually broke down and revealed himself as the CEO of the international disaster restoration company that is based in Michigan. The episode is up for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Reality Program.

Yellen’s episode of “Undercover Boss” is a long shot to win an Emmy tonight against the other nominees including “Hoarders,” “Antiques Roadshow,” “Deadliest Catch,” Kathy Griffin’s show, and an episode of “MythBusters” guest starring President Obama. But while Yellen may not win an Emmy tonight, he is quite deserving of a mensch award.

In the episode of “Undercover Boss,” Sheldon demonstrated strong moral character and was able to show his emotions on national TV. Sheldon learned a great deal about his employees, their passion for the job, and how hard they work to support their families. He came off as an inspirational leader and the episode proved to be an important lesson for the upcoming Jewish holidays. I’m not the only rabbi who noticed that Sheldon’s experience of going undercover is a lesson for all of us as we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sheldon recently received a phone call from a Connecticut rabbi asking him to be the guest speaker at the community’s Selichot services this year. In his typical humble fashion, Sheldon couldn’t understand why the rabbi would want him to speak. However, he agreed and will be the featured speaker at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport this Saturday night. He’ll speak about his journey from a challenging childhood in Detroit to becoming a wealthy businessman and philanthropist. He’ll also talk about system of values he draws on as a CEO.

Yellen and his three brothers were raised on Welfare by their mother in Detroit during the 1950s. Their father was a great person, but became sick and eventually developed an addiction to methadone after having nine stomach operations in the course of only two years. Growing up in an affluent Jewish community in which he and his brothers had to work from a very young age and with a father who was in prison (for dealing drugs) was difficult for Yellen. He told me that his mother didn’t have enough money to belong to a synagogue or send Sheldon to Hebrew School, but right before he turned thirteen she decided that it was important for him to have a bar mitzvah. An Orthodox synagogue agreed to let him have a bar mitzvah, but he didn’t have the Hebrew background. He was called to the Torah for his aliyah with the blessings transliterated in English on a piece of paper. The Orthodox men were expecting him to actually read from the Torah. It is a memory that has lasted with Yellen to this day.

In the past year Sheldon Yellen has made lasting contributions to his community. He bought a financially distressed private Jewish country club in order to keep its Jewish roots alive. He also funded a Toledo, Ohio-based yeshiva that had run out of living space for its young students. He was able to donate enough money so that the yeshiva could move into a new facility in suburban Detroit with enough room for both study and living quarters for its students. Yellen has also committed himself to Torah study at the local Detroit Kollel. The Jewish education he missed out on as a child is now one of his top priorities.

In addition to his philanthropy, Yellen has proved himself to be a very generous individual on a personal level. Recently, Michael Kenwood, a 39-year-old New Jersey volunteer EMT, was killed during Hurricane Irene while trying to save others’ lives. That hero’s sister-in-law is Amy Margolis of Birmingham, Michigan. When Amy and her family were unable to get a flight to New Jersey for her relative’s funeral because of the hurricane, they had no choice but to get in the car and drive. She was already on the road making the Michigan-New Jersey trek when she received a call from Sheldon Yellen who offered to meet them on the road and escort them to the airport where they would board one of his two private jets.

Margolis was quoted in the Detroit Jewish News saying that Yellen’s act of kindness makes him a mensch and an angel. “I didn’t do anything anybody else wouldn’t have done,” Sheldon Yellen said.

In an era when CEOs don’t always do the right thing and often act immorally, it is refreshing to see Sheldon Yellen demonstrate that a CEO can also be a mensch and a role model. While he might not win an Emmy Award tonight, he certainly has made a positive difference in his own company and in his community. He’s made a fortune restoring properties, but Sheldon Yellen might just have enough integrity and generosity to restore the reputation of our nation’s disgraced CEOs.

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