Rosh Hashanah 2013 – 5 Things You Should Know

Here is my “5 Things You Should Know About Rosh Hashanah” article, originally published in the AOL/HuffingtonPost Patch.com in 2011:

The Jewish New Year celebration, Rosh Hashanah (Hebrew, meaning “the head of the year”) begins this week on Wednesday evening and lasts until Friday. Here are five things that everyone should know about the holiday.

Rabbi Jason Miller blows the shofar (ram’s horn) which is used on Rosh Hashanah

Popularity
On the Jewish calendar, this holiday is one of the big ones. Even members of the Jewish faith who aren’t regular synagogue attendees make a point of attending services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which occurs 10 days later. You’ll notice local synagogue parking lots are overflowing on these days. For some, Rosh Hashanah services are an opportunity for spiritual renewal and introspection. For others, this is a time to visit with friends and enjoy time with family

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Early Hanukkah in 2013: Jewish Calendar Fun

Whenever I’m asked if the Jewish holidays are coming early or late this year, I promptly answer that they’ll be coming on time. And that’s partially true. Rosh Hashanah will always arrive on the first day of the Jewish month of Tishrei just as Hanukkah will always begin on the 25th of Kislev. But the Jewish holidays will be coming early this year and already people are realizing that the first night of Hanukkah 2013 takes place on Wednesday, November 27, 2013, which will actually be the night before Thanksgiving. And that’s unusual.

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar situation this year is unique. In fact, it has not occurred since 1899 and will only occur once more. Ever. And that won’t be until the year 2089.

The Jewish holidays must occur in their appointed season according to the Torah. To ensure this, there is a leap year that adds an extra month (Adar II) to the Jewish calendar to adjust for the differential between the Jewish calendar’s lunar cycle and the Gregorian (secular) calendar’s 365 day solar cycle. This year, we will see the earliest that Jewish holidays can fall beginning with Purim on Feb 24, 2013 (a Jewish holiday that usually occurs in March). Later on this year, just as students are returning to school following Labor Day we will observe Rosh Hashanah starting on the evening of September 4. We’ll also celebrate the majority of the festival of Sukkot before the Fall equinox even takes place even though Sukkot is an autumnal holiday (the law states this is acceptable so long as the final day of the holiday, Hoshanah Rabbah, occurs after the Fall equinox). Of course, what most people are talking about is the idea of lighting the first candle of Hanukkah the day before we put the Thanksgiving turkeys in the oven.

I find this whole thing fascinating. Especially as this might be the only time in my life that I see the holidays falling this extremely early. I’ve always been intrigued with the Jewish calendar. My first real introduction to the intricacies of the “luach hashanah” was in 1996 when Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer was serving as an interim rabbi in Metro Detroit. In his small office at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan he had dozens of instant lessons posted to the wall. As a seasoned interim rabbi these instant lessons came in handy.

Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer

When I went to Rabbi Tutnauer’s office one day ready to learn whatever he would teach me, he suggested we study the Jewish calendar. His lesson included the four different new years in the Jewish tradition as spelled out in the mishna as well as the way the calendar was fixed so that festivals like Passover occurred only in their appointed season. He also taught me the helpful mnemonic of lo adu rosh, which reminds us that Rosh Hashanah can never fall on a Sunday, Wednesday or Friday. The reason the calendar is fixed that way is so that Yom Kippur can never be on a Friday, Sunday or Tuesday. (A full-day fast that close to Shabbat would be too big of a challenge and if Yom Kippur fell on a Tuesday, then Hoshanah Rabbah would be on Shabbat, and we could not beat the willow branches.) Rabbi Tutnauer’s lesson proved helpful a few years later when I found myself already versed in the logistical ins and outs of the Jewish calendar when studying Tractate Rosh Hashanah in a Talmud class in rabbinical school.

Several years ago David Letterman quipped in a Late Show monologue, “Happy Rosh Hashanah, it’s the Jewish new year and the year is 5768. I, uh, it’s funny I’m still writing 5767 on my checks.” Well, unlike Dave, most of us use the Gregorian calendar in our everyday lives, but as Jews we must be attuned to the Jewish calendar as well. It is the rhythm of our Jewish lives. Perhaps this year’s anomaly in the Jewish calendar will cause people to learn more about the lunar calendar that governs the Jewish year.

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

Texting Teshuva in Shul: Tech Savvy or Tacky?

There was undoubtedly more texting in shul this Rosh Hashanah than in past years. In most liberal congregations texting was likely done as discreetly as possible; often with a cellphone hidden low in one’s lap. In some congregations the texting may have been done more overtly outside in the synagogue lobby or perhaps outside the synagogue building. The younger generation is much more cavalier about using cellphones in the service on one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar.

But as NY Times Miami bureau chief Lizette Alvarez wrote in a recent article (For Young Jews, a Service Says, ‘Please, Do Text’), in some congregations texting was a rabbinically sanctioned activity on Rosh Hashanah. Some rabbis, as Alvarez reports, integrated texting into the service. In many congregations this new form of interaction during services was a first.

Alvarez explains that in a Miami Beach Reform congregation, congregants looked up at a big white screen and read the directions: “Pray. Write. Text.” For 90 minutes the participants in the pews used their texting thumbs to send out regrets, goals, musings and blissful thoughts for the rest of the congregation to see.

The rabbi, Amy Morrison, encouraged her parishioners rather than scolding them for texting. She said, “Take those phones out” and asked them what they needed to let go of to be “fully present?”

“For young Jews in America, we are a demographic different from our parents and our grandparents,” said Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman, the director of congregational engagement for Synagogue 3000, an organization that seeks to re-energize synagogue life and re-engage young professionals. “We’re more educated, we move many more times and live further away from our family of origin, and we are single much longer, for years after college, which was never the case before.”

Rabbi Morrison explained the idea to encourage texting during the High Holy Day services at her shul: “For my generation, the generation that the service is for, prayer is not something you can find in your own life until someone helps you wrestle with it… So, I recommended texting.”

The young rabbi grew up in a Conservative synagogue, where the rabbi would have scoffed at the notion of a texting during Rosh Hashanah service. “Services there aren’t as thought-provoking or honest or sharing, which is what I liked here,” she explained about the synagogue of her childhood.

While progressive congregations like Morrison’s will continue to experiment with pushing the envelope and using new technology like texting and tweeting during the services, many other congregation will continue to lean toward formal decorum arguing that sending text messages on one’s phone for the congregation to see detracts from the respect the synagogue, Torah and services demand.

One congregant at Morrison’s Reform temple enjoyed the texting aspect of the services. She recalled, “I paid attention the whole time; that’s a problem with me, tuning it out.”

We shall see if the communal texting culture catches on in more synagogues or if rabbis will continue to ask congregants to remember to turn off their cellphones. As text messaging becomes even more popular and and a reflexive act for the younger generation, it is possible that a texting congregation during High Holy Day services will become less of an oddity.

Tech savvy or tacky? Which will win out?

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

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

Officer Patrick O’Rourke – Who Shall Live? Who Shall Die?

Wow! It’s been 11 years since that horrific, horrific day. On that early Tuesday morning in September 2001, cantors around the world were already rehearsing their rendition of the U’netane Tokef prayer in preparation for the upcoming High Holy Days.

All shall pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all the living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict. On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire…

“Who shall live and who shall die? Who before his time?” Those words were echoing in my head yesterday morning as I read the news alert that West Bloomfield Police Officer Patrick O’Rourke had been shot dead by Ricky Coley, a man who barricaded himself in his West Bloomfield home (and later committed suicide). Officer O’Rourke was only 39-years-old and left behind his wife and four young children. His colleagues in the West Bloomfield Police called him “the most-liked person in this building.”

I’m aware that police officers get shot and killed in the line of duty and they go into the force knowing that is a reality. But it’s never happened here in West Bloomfield. I grew up here. I work here. This occurred less than four miles from my home. Tragic just doesn’t seem like a strong enough word for this.

To honor the memory of Officer O’Rourke and to remember those who perished on 9/11 in New York City, Washington D.C., and on United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania I offer this beautiful and moving U’netane Tokef inspired poem written by my late teacher Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer, of blessed memory:

I used to think that the U’netaneh Tokef was written
either by someone old, pondering imminent death,
or by someone who had endured plagues and earthquakes.

And then I watched a plane carrying human beings
Being crashed into a building full of other human beings
And as I saw the ball of fire, and the people jumping, and the smoke,
I began to ponder those awesome words:
         Who will live and who will die
         Who in due time and who all too suddenly
         Who by fire, and who by water
         Who by the sword, and who by wild beasts (humans!)
         Who by starvation, and who by dehydration
         Who by suffocation, and by hurtling objects

I knew that even the angels were confounded
No still small voice could be heard
Only the deafening sound
of fuel exploding,
of buildings imploding,
of humans screaming

So scholars may argue whether U’netaneh Tokef
Was written in the 5th or 10th century
But I know that it was really written last week.

Now the original author had faith –
Perhaps the decree’s bitterness
May be sweetened
By turning into oneself and examining one’s deeds
By turning to God and seeking Divine inspiration
By turning to others and acting justly toward them.

May each of us
Find the way
To cleanse our souls of bitterness
To raise our spirits to Godliness
To open our hands to righteousness

Touch the ones you love
Hear the Shofar’s voice
Taste the apples and honey
And try to make this a sweeter year.

May the memory of Officer Peter O’Rourke be a blessing to his family and may we continue to pray for the souls of the 2,977 victims of the 9/11 attack.

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

We All Try to Beat Time – Mitch Albom’s "The Time Keeper" (Review)

“Tuedays With Morrie” Author Reminds Us To Live Life and Worry Less About Keeping Time

I have a feeling that author Mitch Albom timed the release of his new book, “The Time Keeper,” to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days. This work of fiction forces us to consider the meaning of time and why it is not good for humans to try to control it. Albom’s message, interwoven in a beautiful story, will likely bring much food for thought to Jewish worshipers during this contemplative season, known as the Days of Awe.

Albom is a self-proclaimed secular Jew, as he articulated in both “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “Have a Little Faith”; however, he cannot hide the godliness that permeates this novel. In the acknowledgement section of his latest work Albom writes, “First, thanks to God. I do nothing without His grace.” There can be no question that “The Time Keeper” comes from a place of deep spirituality, if not an overt association with institutional religion. Issues of free will, reward and punishment, divine intervention and profound prayer inform Albom’s characters throughout.

“The Time Keeper” opens by looking at the difference between humans and animals. While animals seem to just live their lives without considering or even knowing about the concept of time, we humans are always thinking about time. From generation to generation, we count the seconds, minutes, hours, days and years of our lives. While we have no control over time, we still wish to either speed it up or slow it down. (Spoiler alert…)

During the Days of Awe, Mitch Albom will talk about “The Time Keeper” at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles where his childhood Jewish day school classmate and friend David Wolpe serves as rabbi.

Albom has brilliantly constructed three characters who demonstrate how humans seek to control time. Creatively named Dor (Hebrew for “generation”), Albom’s first character lives 5,000 years ago and was the first human to measure time. Counting months and hours and breaths, Dor neurotically seeks to keep time while all those around him try to conquer God. It was during his generation that the Tower of Babel is constructed, a project conceived of by Dor’s best friend Nim. Dor tries to convince his childhood friend that conquering time was a more noble effort than building a corporeal structure to the sky to overtake the incorporeal, but Nim couldn’t understand that and banishes Dor to a life of exile.

When Dor’s wife falls deathly ill he runs rather than returning her from exile to get help. In his deep regret he wishes he could have stopped time. As a punishment for trying to gain human control over time he is sentenced to eternal life as Father Time in a cave where he hears the cries of all humanity throughout the generations. Their cries are about time and their desire to dominate it.

Dor wants to stop time, while Albom’s other two protagonists want it to either speed up or slow down time based on life’s circumstances. Sarah Lemon is an overweight, high school senior with low self-esteem, anxiety issues and a crush on an out-of-her-league boy. She is a bright student who gets perfect grades and has a promising future, but her teenage social struggles make her want time to end by committing suicide.

On the other side of the spectrum is billionaire hedge fund tycoon Victor Delamonte, who after a successful life and a long marriage is on dialysis to help him live but a few more months. Victor, however, will do anything to extend his life and buy himself more time on earth. He’s even willing to stop dialysis if it means having his lifeless body frozen in a Cryonics lab to return generations later when there’s a cure for his cancer and he can return to the life of wealth and luxury he has come to know. Sarah wants less time. Victor wants more time. And Dor is charged with the mission of helping them both realize that control over time is more of a curse than a blessing. As Dor himself learned, controlling time is no gift.

Rather than preach to us that we should end our futile preoccupation with time, Albom constructs a wonderful fantasy with characters both human and mythical to drive that point home. It is a skill that Albom has demonstrated before by offering wisdom through his dying professor (“Tuesdays With Morrie”) and his dying childhood rabbi (“Have a Little Faith”).

Dor delivers wise counsel after spending thousands of years in a “purgatory” of eternal life. “Everything man does today to be efficient, to fill the hour? It does not satisfy. It only makes him hungry to do more. Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time,” Dor counsels Victor.

Albom’s Victor shows us that no matter how much money one has, it is impossible to beat time. After all, billionaires have the same 24 hours in a day that the homeless have. Victor has more wealth than he could ever spend, but he craves for an eternity. Again, the author has fun with his character’s names. Even the “Victors” have to play the cards they’re dealt and Sarah Lemon shows us that no matter how challenging life gets, you need to use the time you have to make lemonade from those “lemons.” [Note: Albom told me that he didn’t make these character associations intentionally.]

What is important is for us to make the best use of the time that we have. We are unable to stop time and we are unable to speed it up. However, we can seek to do the best we can in the amount of time we are given by God. All of us are time keepers. All around us, we have clocks and watches and calendars. Six millennia ago, Dor sought the key to keep track of time. Today, we are slaves to it. Time is kept on our wrists and computer screens, on our cell phones and on the walls of our home, but Mitch Albom teaches us that being a time keeper is not the way to live. Through Dor’s wisdom he warns, “There is a reason God limits our days … To make each one precious.” Perhaps that is the best message for the Jewish season of introspection.

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

Craig Taubman’s Jewels of Elul

My friend Craig Taubman, a very talented musician in California, asked me to “make something funny” to promote his 8th annual “Jewels of Elul” project.

For the past eight years Craig has been collecting short stories, anecdotes and introspections from fascinating people and publishing them on his Let My People Sing website during the Jewish month of Elul. As he writes, “There is a great Jewish tradition to dedicate the 29 days in the month of Elul to study and prepare for the coming high holy days. The time is supposed to challenge us to use each day as an opportunity for growth and discovery.”

Apparently, I misunderstood Craig when he asked me because I could have sworn he said “Drools of Elul.” Kol Hakavod on this awesome project Craig! Shabbat Shalom!

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

Brett Cohen’s Not Famous (Or Is He?)

Who is Brett Cohen? He’s just a regular person who has become famous for pretending to be famous while not being famous. Did you follow that?

Brett Cohen was curious to see what would happen if he walked around Times Square looking like he was famous, complete with bodyguards, Paparazzi and a film crew. Guess what? It worked. Tourists posed for photos with him. Kids clamored to get his autograph. And when Times Square pedestrians were asked what they thought of Brett Cohen by the film crew, they acted like they were his biggest fans, raving about his work as an actor in a recent Spiderman movie and praising his latest song.

Regular guy Brett Cohen posing as a celeb in New York City’s Times Square

So this 21-year-old Jewish SUNY at New Paltz college student proved that anyone can pretend to be a celeb as long as you can play the part. The YouTube video (below) of Brett’s shenanigans is already going viral and his “experiment” has been covered by Mashable, the Washington Post, Reddit, and The Daily What. So, not only did Brett Cohen prove that he could fake fame, but he managed to get his 15 minutes of it along the way.


But Brett Cohen isn’t the only one parading around Times Square pretending to be someone he’s not. I was duped earlier this month when I thought I caught a glimpse of Snoop Dogg in Times Square. A man who is a spitting image of the rapper (now called “Snoop Lion”) was walking at a celeb pace with a large entourage. After taking a photo with the lookalike (below) I still wasn’t sure he was the real deal so I posted the photo on Facebook asking my friends if they thought this was actually Snoop Dogg or an impostor. Turned out that the majority thought it was really him.

With a guy who looks an awful lot like Snoop Dogg

It was when I overheard a member of his entourage ask for a small donation from a group of teens who wanted a photo with the supposed celeb that I realized it wasn’t the real Snoop Dogg. This apparently wasn’t his only night pretending to be Snoop Dogg. My cousin’s wife, Ashley Broad of “Hardcore Pawn,” had been similarly duped the week before in Times Square by the same Snoop Dogg lookalike.

So what does this say about celebrity and how we respond to it? Many Times Square tourists pay a good deal of money to visit Madame Tussauds New York and get their photo taken with wax models of their favorite celebs. Is that any different than getting a photo standing next to “Nobody Brett Cohen” or “Not Snoop Dogg”?

In the Jewish calendar we’re now in a period of personal introspection as we approach the High Holy Day season. What does Brett Cohen’s foray into faux stardom teach us? I wonder if Brett Cohen felt differently about himself during his hour of celeb status. Perhaps he got a taste of what it feels like to be a celebrity who can’t walk a few feet without being hounded for photographs and autographs. Perhaps he felt larger than life and enjoyed the feeling. Perhaps he was just trying to prove a point that we’re all too star struck to even realize that we don’t really care if the celeb is even a legitimate celeb.

One thing is for sure — our society continues to go ga-ga over the wrong celebs. The young entrepreneur, Nancy Lublin, who took her inheritance and started a non-profit for homeless women to get free business suits for job interviews will go unnoticed walking through Times Square and yet thousands will flock to catch a glimpse of a Kardashian sister. I’m glad Brett Cohen’s experiment worked because it will give us all something to think about. We’re all mega-celebrities in our own way. Thank you Brett Cohen!

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

Honey for Rosh Hashanah

The following was published on the HuffingtonPost and on several Patch.com sites before the Rosh Hashanah holiday:

At no time during my experience in a New York City rabbinical school did I think I would ever be donning full beekeeper regalia and watching as thousands of bees made honey on a farm in Michigan’s Amish country. But that is precisely what I found myself doing for the first time this past spring.

In addition to learning about the honey-making process, I’ve also learned about colony collapse disorder, the unexplained phenomenon of worker bees disappearing from hives causing a shortage of bee honey in recent years. I learned this from Don and Carol Ragan, a lovely couple who own the Windmill Hill Farm in Croswell (located in the “thumb” of Michigan). Carol first contacted me in February immediately after reading an article in the Detroit Free Press about Kosher Michigan, the kosher certification agency I started. She wanted to know what was involved in obtaining certification for her bee honey.

I told her that I would have to get back to her because I really wasn’t sure what it took to certify bee honey as kosher. The mere fact that bee honey is kosher is itself odd. After all, it is a product of the non-kosher bee (no insects except for certain locust species are deemed kosher by the Torah). So, how can a product of a non-kosher animal be kosher? It is believed that honey is kosher since it is produced outside of the body of the bee. But that isn’t totally true. In actuality, bees suck nectar from flowers with their proboscis (mouth) and this nectar mixes with saliva and is swallowed into the honey sac, where enzymes from the saliva break down the nectar into honey. The nectar is never digested, but rather transformed into honey by the saliva. The honey is regurgitated when the bee returns to the hive and the water is evaporated, thereby thickening it into honey which is then sealed in the honeycomb. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that bee honey is kosher since it is not an actual secretion of the bee, but rather the bee functions as a carrier and facilitator of the honey-making process.

All of this is interesting because honey is a staple food of the Jewish New Year’s holiday of Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Wednesday, Sept. 28. Honey sales increase in heavily populated Jewish areas thanks to this seasonal honey custom. Among the familiar traditions of Rosh Hashanah are the dipping of apple slices in honey and eating honey cake.

The Ragans knew that that adding kosher certification to their jars of honey would make their products more popular before Rosh Hashanah. Their Windmill Hill Farm produces 30,000 pounds of honey annually from more than 500 hives. All of their products are now certified kosher through my Kosher Michigan agency. Like many beekeepers around the country, the Ragans’ operation has grown from a hobby to a successful business. They began with only four hives that they discovered when they purchased the Croswell farm, but they quickly recognized how their passion could turn into profits.

“We’re passionate about making honey,” said Carol Ragan. “When we first discovered hives on our Croswell farm we were excited to experiment with making honey. We never realized how much we would come to enjoy it or how much of a market there is for honey products.”

Even with colony collapse disorder, beekeeping is on the rise throughout the country. New York City legalized recreational beekeeping last year, and even Michelle Obama had a beehive installed outside the White House.

Many members of the Jewish faith prepare dishes and baked goods with honey in time for Rosh Hashanah. Dan Sonenberg, owner of Johnny Pomodoro’s Fresh Market in Farmington Hills, Michigan, explained, “My honey sales increase ten-fold during the holiday season and we build honey displays next to our apple offerings in the store. This cross-merchandising makes it easier for our Jewish customers to purchase both during this time of year. Honey products are also featured in our kosher baked goods department where our most popular items are the apple fritter challah (Jewish egg bread) and the honey apple cake.”

While the Bible describes Israel as “the land flowing with milk and honey,” it was more than likely referring to date honey. Bees were not common in Israel thousands of years ago, but today Israel has about 500 beekeepers with approximately 90,000 beehives that produce more than 3,500 tons of honey annually.

The basis of using honey in baked goods and dipping apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah is to have a sweet year. While the secular New Year is kicked off with toasts of champagne, the Jewish New Year is launched with the sweet taste of honey. And maybe a little sugar high too.

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

Gefilte Fish Gets Video Game

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

I thought something smelled fishy when I received an email from fellow blogger Esther Kustanowitz today. Indeed it was. I was hopeful that the skilled writer had sent me a well-crafted sermon that I could simply deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning, but instead it was only an email to inform me that her friend Asael Kahana of K/Logic had created an interactive Rosh Hashanah card that is a mashup between Gefilte fish and Space Invaders.

Yep, a mashup of Gefilte fish and the video game Space Invaders. I know, I know. You’re thinking the same thing I was thinking when I received Esther’s email. “How has it taken this long to create an interactive game that so seemlessly integrates the odd poached fish mince staple food of Jewish holidays with the Japanese arcade game created in 1978?”

As Esther explains:

Gefilte fish gets a bad rap, but is considered integral to many Ashkenazi Jewish holiday celebrations. If you’ve always hated this particular format of pureed and cooked fish, now a leading creative online marketing agency in Israel brings you your chance to shoot it down from the skies in an engaging, interactive card/video game – a mashup of the traditional mashed-up fish and the classic video game Space Invaders. Presenting…Gefilte Invaders! (You can play on the K/Logic site or below!).

“I have always had a Gefilte Fetish,” Asael Kahana, K/Logic’s creative director said. “There is something so iconic about this dish’s presentation and look. Same with the classic Space Invaders game that is a cult classic still today. I combined both because I thought that Gefilte fish may have a long tradition, yet people would really rather shoot it than eat it. The result was a great reminder of tradition and classics in an engaging interactive card for our customers.”

I admit it was fun playing this Gefilte fish version of Space Invaders and it was a wonderful procrastination from preparing for the holiday. Not to mention, I got all nostalgic as I thought back to my childhood in the early 80s popping quarters into the Space Invaders arcade game. Nevertheless, I’m still not convinced Esther sent me that email to publicize her friend’s creative Rosh Hashanah card or even to simply wish me a “Shanah Tovah!” I really think she just wanted me to visit her blog where she used the opportunity of her friend’s Geflte Invaders to tell the following joke:

When contemplating the fish populations of the ocean, how can one identify the Gefilte fish? [pause for effect]

-It’s the one with the carrot on its head”

On second thought, maybe it was Esther’s joke that smelled fishy.

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

Do Politics Belong in Sermons?

Like every other rabbi around the world I am currently hard at work on my sermons for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I’ve always enjoyed writing and public speaking, so this exercise is enjoyable rather than stressful for me. However, finding the right words to inspire the congregation during this time of year can be challenging. The basic themes of the holiday haven’t changed in thousands of years: forgiveness, relationships, being charitable, and trying to become better people.

To what extent should sermons draw on the issues of the day? I’ve always tried to bring references to pop culture into my sermons, but I have traditionally shied away from getting into politics. Dennis Prager, a political pundit who moonlights as a High Holiday sermonizer, recently published an Op-Ed in the Jewish Journal of LA in which he rails against rabbis who preach about politics on the High Holy Days. Prager claims that every year around this time listeners of his show write him to complain that their rabbis delivered sermons which included political messages. As a conservative pundit, Prager is certain to include that “Invariably, there are two constants: The rabbi is non-Orthodox, and the sermons are left wing.”

What Prager doesn’t like is when liberal rabbis include their opinion about social issues such as the recent health-care bill, for example, and frame it in the context of social justice and tikkun olam. It’s not that rabbis aren’t entitled to their opinions on these significant issues, but Prager takes exception when the rabbis use the pulpit to frame these political issues as Jewish imperatives. I happen to agree. Let me explain.

I believe that rabbis should use the pulpit to teach Torah. Teaching that we have an ethical responsibility to care for the health of all human beings is an important message and one that is appropriate to be included in a sermon. However, moving that conversation into the realm of politics by endorsing a bill under discussion in Congress is not appropriate.

Personally, I steer away from politics when I deliver sermons. I remember as a rabbinical student I was heading to Houston as a guest speaker at a large synagogue. The Torah portion for that Shabbat was Yitro, the narrative of Moses’ father-in-law offering good counsel to him and thereby improving his leadership. I had the idea to talk about other political consultants and “right-hand-men” who weren’t the leader, but made themselves indispensable to the leader because of their trustworthy advice. I planned to talk about the importance of the Cabinet to presidents and focus on two figures who were known for their good counsel, Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell. One of my teachers at the Seminary convinced me to not focus on these individuals because it could be too politically divisive to the congregation. The Democrats in the synagogue would focus on the Republican credentials of these two presidential advisers and not on my message, he reasoned. Reluctantly, I agreed to leave out these famous Secretaries of State lest my sermon be perceived as having a political message.

There are times when my own congregants will encourage me to speak about a political issue they endorse, but I respectfully decline. I’m not a politician and I’m not a political commentator. My role is use the words of the Torah and the Jewish Tradition to teach and to inspire. I remember a story my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky told my class at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The late NY Times columnist William Safire’s rabbi asked him why he didn’t come to shul anymore to which Safire explained, “I don’t need to come to shul to hear what Bill Safire wrote in the Times.” In other words, we rabbis should allow the political pundits to be pundits and we should use the High Holidays to inspire and encourage repentance.

Prager isn’t the only one publicly railing against rabbis using their High Holiday pulpits to push a political agenda. In the Wall Street Journal, Tevi Troy explained that each year leading up to Rosh Hashanah the Obama Administration feeds political talking points to rabbis through its annual conference call. I’ve participated in these conference calls in the past and it is true that their purpose it to provide the Administration’s position on various issues in case rabbis choose to address them in sermons. Troy points out that in 2009, President Obama “invited a group of 1,000 rabbis to discuss his health-care plan and then preach about it afterward.” I was a participant on that call and the President did in fact encourage us to speak about his health-care plan. I chose not to call in this year because I knew I wouldn’t be talking about President Obama’s jobs bill or the declaration of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Neither of those topics will inspire my congregants on Rosh Hashanah. If anyone wants my opinion, I’m happy to discuss it privately in the form of a discussion. However, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to use the holiday or my pulpit to endorse or reject the President’s jobs bill. I do think it’s important to get the unemployed back to work and to help find better jobs for the underemployed. As a rabbi I try to do both.

One of my colleagues who disagrees with both Prager and Troy is Rabbi Jill Jacobs. I have tremendous respect for Rabbi Jacobs and have learned much from her over the years. She has contributed greatly to the field of social justice in general and workers’ rights in particular. Writing in the Huffington Post, Jacobs, who is now the executive director of Rabbis For Human Rights-North America, titled her response to Troy “The Torah Is Political. Rabbis Can Be, Too.” Jacobs writes:

As one of the rabbis whom Troy criticizes (albeit anonymously), I want to respond to his charges.

Troy references a recent phone call for rabbis, organized by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and sponsored by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the professional organization of Reform Rabbis, on which he and I were two of the five speakers. The call featured three experts on the current economic situation — Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Ellen Nissenbaum of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and Troy himself. Rabbi David Saperstein, the Director of the RAC, offered homiletic advice for speaking about contentious issues, and I presented texts that might guide sermons and teaching sessions about the economy. (Troy and I have this in common: He was the political conservative on the call, and I was the Conservative rabbi.)

Troy writes, “When I suggested that we separate politics from spirituality, a third participant pushed back, saying ‘the Torah is a political document.’ A curious assertion in a crowd that would quickly denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.”

I was this third participant. I do believe that the Torah is a political document. And I would not, as Troy assumes, “denounce any invocation of the Bible in political discussions.” In fact, I passionately invoke the Bible in political discussions.

I’m not sure I’d agree with Jacobs that the Torah is a political document per se. It has a vast amount to teach us about political issues. In fact, I can’t imagine a political issue that is not treated in the text of the Torah or Talmud. However, that doesn’t mean that rabbis should be speaking about divisive political issues in High Holiday sermons. Talking about how the economy has caused more middle-class families to struggle to make ends meet let alone pay for the Jewish day schools and Jewish summer camps is appropriate in a sermon, but dissecting the President’s jobs bill should be off limits. Encouraging congregants to travel to Israel, send their teens on Israel trips, and buy Israeli art is wonderful. However, getting into the political areas of Palestinian statehood at the U.N. and the policies of the Israeli government won’t make for inspirational sermons during the Days of Awe.

The bottom line is that we are spiritual leaders and not political pundits. I heard Dennis Prager speak on Saturday night before Selichot services. Recognizing he was there in a synagogue to address the congregation before the preliminary High Holiday prayers, he steered clear of any political messages. He is a political pundit in his day job, but he didn’t take use the pulpit to push a political agenda when it wouldn’t have been the right time.

And now it’s back to sermon writing.

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