Jewish Media Politics Social Justice Television Torah Tzedakah

Glenn Beck Vs. Social Justice

Reform Judaism might have been the first Jewish movement to embrace social justice in the 20th century, but the first decade of our current century has seen a vast increase in the importance of Tikkun Olam in the global Jewish community.  There are few Jewish congregations in North America that have yet to embrace a coordinated social action initiative.

While there may be some rabbis who would prioritize the adherence to Jewish law, prayer, ritual, study, and worship above social justice work, there are not many rabbis who have the chutzpah to actually criticize synagogues or individuals for participating in such noble endeavors.

But that’s where Glenn Beck comes in. Back in March, the Fox News personality told his audience to leave churches and synagogues that pursue social justice as a value. I am not a regular viewer of Beck’s show, so when I heard this sound bite I thought I misheard him. But, no, he really said it.

Many church groups and Christian leaders fought back, but there was not a strong rebuttal from Jewish groups. Simon Greer, the President & CEO of Jewish Funds for Justice, wrote in the “On Faith” column on Newsweek’s website that Glenn Beck is “a con man and America is not buying it. I exhort you to stop bottling your ideological agenda and labeling it ‘theology.’ Americans deserve and demand better.”

Greer went on to tell Beck, “You’ve told us what not to look for in a house of worship. But now I ask you, sincerely, what kind of house of worship do you desire? On March 23, you said, ‘Make sure your church puts God first and politics and government last.’ The question then is, how do we put God first?”

In response to Greer’s column Beck retorted: “This is exactly the kind of talk that led to the death camps in Germany” and that Greer, “a Jew, of all people, should know that.”

Here’s my simple take on this: Social Justice is an essential component of any Jewish theology. As Jews, we should use our hearts to pursue prayer, our heads to pursue the study of Torah and to seek to understand God’s Law, and our hands to assist God in the repair of this broken world in which we share responsibility. The same holds true for all people of faith. Caring about our fellow human and seeking to help them is at the core of being part of a just society.

Glenn Beck? He’s just a crazy man saying ridiculous things to anyone who will tune in and listen. Part of our job in pursuing peace and justice is to publicize just how incredibly wrong and hurtful Glenn Beck’s words are to humanity.

We should be grateful not only for the sacred work that Jewish Funds for Justice is doing, but also for the mitzvah of tochecha (reproachment) that its leader Simon Greer has demonstrated.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Apple Jewish Judaism and Technology Synagogues Technology Torah

Trope Tools – Learn to Read Torah on the iPad

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

Rabbi Eli Garfinkel, rabbi of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey and the techie behind the award-winning RabbiPod, has created his first app for the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad family of Apple devices.

Garfinkel’s new app is called Trope Tools. It allows users to learn, teach, and review ta’amei hamiqra for Torah and Haftarah reading. As he advertises: “Do you want to know how to leyn the “yerach ben yomo” that appears in Parashat Masei? There’s an app for that!”

You can find Trope Tools in iTunes on a computer or in the App Store on your device. It costs only 99 cents. The website for the app states that it’s a perfect gift for anyone who wants to learn how to chant from our sacred texts and has an iPhone or iPad.

The app teaches the ta’amei hamiqra (Torah cantillation trope) and is recommended for bar/bat mitzvah and adult education students who are learning how to read from the Torah or haftarah.

What prompted the “RabbiPod” to create this app? He says he did it because his students all have these Apple devices. “I teach them trope, and in the beginning, they all need help remembering the melodies of the various notes. Now they have that information in their pockets.”

It took Rabbi Garfinkel (pictured) about a month to learn enough Objective-C programming and then another month to actually create the app.

This won’t be his last app either. He’s already completed a second app that will appear soon called Politicometer (rhymes with thermometer). A lot of people don’t really know why they vote the way they do. The Politicometer asks a series of 50 questions in ten categories. Based on the user’s answers to those questions, the app then advises how they should vote. The most conservative users receive a rating of “Tea Party or Reagan Conservative,” while the most liberal users receive a rating of “Progressive Liberal.” In between, there are ratings of moderate, mainstream Republican, mainstream Democrat, etc.

He also plans to write a basic Jewish knowledge quiz. It will have a hundred questions that cover material he thinks every Jew should know.

Finally, he’s also in the planning stages of what could be a controversial app. It’s called “Should I Marry Her?” and it will help guys figure out whether they should marry their girlfriend of the moment or move on. For instance, the app will ask “Are you and your girlfriend of the same religion?” If the answer is no, it will discourage the marriage. It will also ask, “Do you love her?” “Do you enjoy spending time together?” etc.

Back to Trope Tools. How does the rabbi plan to use the Apple app in his own synagogue? Every one of Garfinkel’s students who has a compatible device will buy the 99 cent app. (“If their parents can afford the device, they can afford a 99 cent app!” he adds.) They can use it to review the notes, and I can use it to quiz them.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Apple Jewish Judaism and Technology Technology Torah

Torah Scroll? Yes, There’s an App for That!

Cross-posted at Jewish Techs

There will no doubt be many times when a new app is released for Apple’s iPad and people exclaim something to the effect of “Well, it was only a matter of time until someone created that!”

This was certainly the case yesterday, when RustyBrick, a New York Web service firm specializing in customized online technology, released its first iPad app. Approved by Apple, it is named the iPad Torah, and is essentially a scan of the Torah scroll on the iPad screen.

The iPad Torah scroll boasts a 248 columns (amudim) view, that allows the user to scroll or navigate through the various Torah portions (parshot). One can easily jump to any Torah portion (parsha) via the navigation and create bookmarks with the interactive pointer (yad).

The actual Torah is believed to have been revealed to the Jewish people on the festival of Shavuot, but RustyBrick has made its iPad Torah available before Shavuot, and with a 50% discount to boot. And it’s downloadable from Apple’s app store, so you won’t have to travel to Mt. Sinai to receive it!

Here is a video demonstration of RustyBrick’s iPad Torah:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Caption Contest Humor Jewish Theology Torah

Moment Magazine Caption Contest

I am a finalist in the January/February 2010 Moment Magazine caption contest. Please vote for me by clicking here.

This is the cartoon (by Bob Mankoff) and the caption I wrote:

Thanks, Mr. Gates, but I think I’ll just wait for Apple to release its version.

My other submissions for a caption to this cartoon were:

“Is there a charge to download with that? Because I don’t think this people will go for it.”

“Here’s version 2.0, but please don’t throw this one, it’s not under warranty?”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Sports Torah World Events

Torah Bright Gets Gold

In synagogues, Jewish people put bright gold on the Torah (gold breastplate and crown). As we saw tonight in Vancouver: In the Olympics they put GOLD on Torah Bright (a gold medal).

Torah Bright has to be the best name for an Olympian who just won a gold medal. As she ascended the highest part of the podium to receive her gold medal during the ceremony, I’m sure many Jewish people noticed the symbolism of someone named “Torah” being displayed to the people atop the heights, as it is reminiscent of the Torah being displayed atop Mt. Sinai.

The Australian Torah Bright, a devout Mormon, was surprised before her snowboarding competition (half pipe) that her parents drove six hours, flew 20 more, then hid in a closet at her home in Vancouver so they could celebrate her gold medal with her.

I’m sure that after the Olympics, back home in  Australia they will have a parade for their Gold Medal snowboarder. No doubt, the Jewish community in Australia will refer to the day as Simchat Torah!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Celebrities Environmentalism God Hebrew Hollywood Jewish Movies Theology Torah

How Jewish is Avatar?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed James Cameron’s film “Avatar.” It is unusual for me to enjoy a fantasy movie so much that I have to see it a second time in the theater, but this was the case with this 3-D film about a futuristic planet (Pandora), inhabited by an indigenous population that is destroyed by a human army in its effort to mine a precious mineral called “unobtanium.”

Knowing that the local tribe on Pandora is called the Na’vi, the Hebrew word for prophet, I went into the theater listening closely for other Jewish references or connections. And I found several.

There have been some very interesting articles about the Jewish connections in Avatar. Never one to disappoint with his scholarly understanding of theology and theodicy, Jay Michaelson penned two separate articles about Cameron’s Avatar. In his Huffington Post essay, the author of “Everything is God” explains the theological underpinnings in the film. He writes, “Avatar’s Na’vi subscribe to a combination of pantheism and theism, a view scholars today call “panentheism.” As scholar of religion Gershom Scholem observed, panentheism is usually rooted less in faith, as the New York Times’s Ross Douthat said, than in experience. Like mystics here on Earth, the Na’vi have an experience of unity of consciousness with other beings, all of which (themselves included) are really just manifestations of one Being, which they call Ai’wa.”

In his article in The Forward, Michaelson focuses on the environmentalism theme of the film. He explains that the philosophy of Avatar “is a bit of pantheism, a bit of nature mysticism and a surprising dash of monotheism, as well. In other words, it’s Kabbalah, as filtered through the Hasidism of the 19th century and the neo-Hasidism of the 20th and 21st. “Avatar” tells the story of Pandora – the world of the Na’vi – threatened by human ore mining. Where “Avatar” departs from classical Kabbalah and Hasidism is in its environmentalism. Classical Kabbalah and Hasidism do not speak in “Avatar’s” environmental terms, because “environmentalism” would have made no sense to people living before the Industrial Revolution.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, on the website, covers many of the obvious Jewish themes in Avatar (Na’vi, man versus God, shomrei adama/protectors of the earth, etc.), but adds some fresh ideas as well. I especially like his theory that the mountains that hung over the heads of the Na’vi population are reminiscent of the midrash explaining that God held Mt. Sinai over the heads of the Israelites like an inverted cask (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 88a).

Sergey Kadinsky, writing on Heshy Fried’s “Frum Satire” blog, connects the outsider’s experience of Avatar protagonist Jake Sully trying to fit into the Na’vi community with a convert to Judaism.  He also notes the similarities between the Na’vi method of slaughter and that of the shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer).

I found several other Jewish connections in Avatar; whether Cameron intended them or not, I don’t know. There are also a lot of connections to other religions including Christianity. In fact, I read an interview with James Cameron in which he said he wanted to have as many different faith traditions represented in the film as possible. Supposedly, the scene in which Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) carries the dead Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) at the end of the film is supposed to be a reversal of Mary carrying Jesus. And I’m sure the name “Grace” is intentional.

Perhaps the main character’s name “Jake” is intended to be like “Jesus” or maybe even the biblical patriarch Jacob. Since Jake Sully is transformed, his character could indeed be a link to Jacob who has to endure a wrestling match with God’s angel (Genesis 32:4-36:43) before his name is changed and he becomes the leader of the people. Jake Sully had to wrestle the toruk to be transformed and accepted by the people. After wrestling the toruk, he is able to connect to the being in a very powerful way. Jacob’s connection with God was bolstered following his transformative wrestling experience.  Additionally, Jake Sully had to go to a holy place (The Tree of Voices) before being accepted and it is in this holy place where he goes to sleep and dreams (When Jake sleeps as the Avatar, he wakes up as his human body). Jacob renamed the place in which he dreamed Beit El (House of God). Both Jake Sully and the Patriarch Jacob didn’t realize the places they were in were holy until they fell asleep there.

The “J” name for Avatar’s protagonist could also be symbolic of other nevi’im (prophets) in the Jewish Tradition, like Jeremiah, Joel, Job, etc. or even biblical kings like Josiah.

In Avatar, a Navi became close to another Na’vi by saying “I See You” or “Oel ngati kameie.” Each time I heard this, I focused on the word n’gati, which could come from the Hebrew nogeah, to touch or become attached. Variations on this word include the Hebrew term “nogeah badavar” (to be involved with) or n’giah (to touch someone).

Blech might be on to something when he reminds his reader that “the root word navi really means seer, someone with the capacity to see more than others. And that is exactly the point of the story.” That is, the Na’vi in Avatar couldn’t predict the future (or they would have seen the impending doom of the human army), but they did understand the power in seeing the “other.”

I’m not sure if the name Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana) has any connection to the Hebrew word neturei, as in Neturei Karta (Guardians of the City), but she certainly saw herself as a guardian of Pandora. I know that James Cameron was advised by many linguists, so any of these connections are possible.

Kadinsky’s comparison of the attack on the Tree of Voices to the Romans breaching the walls of Jerusalem and the ultimate destruction of the holy Temple in 70 CE is apt. There might be some connections as well between Pandora and Eden, with the Tree of Knowledge considered to be off limits and then “attacked” for gain (knowledge of self in the Torah and unobtanium in Avatar). Lastly, I think there is a connection between the name of the Na’vi spirit Eywa and the Tetragrammaton name for God (YHWH).

Sure, it’s possible to just watch Avatar as another Hollywood blockbuster/Oscar nominee and enjoy the beautiful CGI scenery, a simple plot, and a politically charged clarion call to conserve our natural resources, respect indigenous peoples, and protect our environment against big corporations that can afford their own army. But, I think it’s more fun to look for the connections with different faith traditions. Some, like the Pope, will find the religious messages of Avatar problematic. Others, will find deep spiritual meaning in these metaphors.

I ultimately choose to pay homage to the brilliant work of James Cameron. Not only did he create an entertaining epic, he also gave us some challenging topics on which to meditate.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Basketball Sports Torah

Name Changes

Cross posted at Kaplan’s Korner (New Jersey Jewish News)

Some sports teams have Native American nicknames that many find to be offensive. Teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, Cleveland Indians, Cincinnati Reds, and Golden State Warriors have chosen to keep their names despite protests from the Native American community.

Some teams have changed their team nicknames to be more politically correct. I remember the debates that surrounded the decision of Eastern Michigan University to change its name from the Hurons to the Eagles. More recently, Syracuse University changed its name from the Orangemen to simply the Orange.

The recent suspension of two Washington Wizards players brings to mind the changing of sports teams’ nicknames. Wizards’ guard Gilbert Arenas and his teammate Javaris Crittenton were suspended for the remainder of the season by NBA commissioner David Stern after Arenas admitted that he brought four guns into the locker room following a heated argument with Crittenton during a card game on the team plane.

The owner of the Washington Wizards, the late Abe Pollin, changed the name of his NBA franchise from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1995 after flying back to the Washington D.C. area following the funeral of his friend, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Israel.

In the November 12, 2005 edition of the New York Times, columnist George Vecsey wrote:

Abe Pollin decided months ago that it was wrong to call his Washington basketball team the Bullets. He pushed up the announcement the other day after flying back from the funeral of a friend, a hero, who had been killed by bullets.

“I stood in the spot when Rabin was killed,” Pollin said the other day.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated a week ago Saturday in Tel Aviv. His life was no more precious than the lives of children killed by flying bullets as they cower in apartments in the District of Columbia, or teen-agers gunned down in the heat of an argument. Yitzhak Rabin’s death reinforced Abe Pollin’s belief that something must be done about the nickname.

“I’ve thought about it for 31 years,” Pollin said the other day, after announcing that a new nickname will be chosen by the fall of 1997, when the team moves to a new arena in the national capital.

“Bullets connote killing, violence, death,” Pollin said. “Our slogan used to be, ‘Faster than a speeding bullet.’ That is no longer appropriate.”

So, it is ironic that fourteen years after Pollin decided to change the name of his basketball team because it connoted killing and violence, the team’s star player is arrested for bringing four guns into the locker room.

Charles Krauthammer discussed the issue at length on This Week in Washington. He said:

“In a sense, you’re almost grateful that he died before he could see this. He’s a man who changed the name of the team, the Bullets, which had a long and distinguished history, simply because it gave the wrong message. And he did it, and he probably lost a lot of money doing it, but it meant a lot to him. And to have a member of his team in a gun issue in the Verizon Center, which he built, would have broken his heart.”

Dan Steinberg, in his D.C. Sports Blog, explains that, following Abe Pollin’s death and “Gilbert’s Great Gun Goof,” there have been several explanations for why Pollin changed the name of the team from the Bullets.

The Wizards referenced the name change in their press release about the Arenas suspension, saying: “It is widely known that Mr. Pollin took the extraordinary step of changing the team name from ‘Bullets’ to ‘Wizards’ in 1997 precisely to express his abhorrence of gun violence in our community” Most likely, it was the rampant gun violence in D.C. that convinced Pollin to change the name, but then Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination that gave a greater sense of urgency to the decision.

I don’t believe that changing a sports team’s name will have an effect on how successfully the team performs in the future. However, there is a tradition in Judaism that name changes have the ability to transform. When a Jewish person is on their deathbed, there is a custom of changing their Hebrew name to ward off (and confuse) the angel of death.

In the Torah, several characters have their names changed by God. The first Hebrews Abram and Sarai become “Abraham” and “Sarah” as they progress into the first parents of the Jewish people. Joshua was known as “Hoshea the son of Nun,” but then Moses changed his name to Joshua. The greatest transformation resulting from a name change in the Torah was following Jacob’s struggle with an angel of God when it was declared that he would henceforth be known as “Israel.”

Abe Pollin’s decision to change his pro basketball team’s name from the Bullets was a wise one. Bullets do connote violence and killing, and no sports team (especially one in a town known for gun violence) wants that association. It would be wise for the teams that use American Indian nicknames or mascots to change their names as well. If a pro sports team or a university team has a nickname that offends such a large community of people, why continue that tradition?

Sports teams should use nicknames for which their fans can be proud. In Detroit, our basketball team has been called the Pistons because of the pride the Motor City feels for the auto industry. But now that the auto industry in Detroit has fallen on hard times and there are rumors that the team may soon be for sale, a new name may be in order.

It might be a good idea for Gilbert Arenas to take after the biblical Jacob and select a new name for himself. Just as Abe Pollin honored the memory of his friend Yitzhak Rabin by changing his team’s name, Arenas would be honoring Abe Pollin’s memory by his own transformation.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
History Holidays Israel Torah

Introducing Shek 2

2Shekel JohnHyrcanusIt is appropriate that Israel unveiled its new two shekel coin last Tuesday on the first night of Hanukkah. As reported on The New Jew blog, “The new two shekel coin features a pomegranate and horn of plenty symbol, modeled after an ancient insignia by Johanan Horcanus. Horcanus (also known by the Greek name John Hyrcanus) was the Jewish high priest from 135 to 105 BCE. He was the son of Simeon Maccabaeus, one of the original Maccabees from the Hanukkah story.”

Two Israeli shekels are currently worth fifty cents.

Interestingly, the the new two shekel coins are not made in Israel. Rather, like all Israeli currency they are produced in South Korea and shipped to Israel for circulation since Israel has no mint in operation.

Unfortunately, Israel will now be phasing out the five-shek coin, which next to the ten-shek is my favorite shekel coin.

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

Senior Sermon

This Shabbat I delivered my Senior Sermon at The Jewish Theological Seminary. In the final year of Rabbinical School, each senior rabbinical student is given the opportunity to teach the Seminary community. This is considered to be one of the major milestones on the journey toward rabbinic ordination. On either a Friday evening or Saturday morning, the student presents a sermon based on that week’s Torah portion in the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue.

My sermon on Parshat Vayishlach entitled “Ya’akov Is Left Alone: Wrestling From Darkness to Hope” can be accessed here.

I hope that others will be inspired by my personal message and my Torah.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
Jewish Jewish; Gender; Torah

Men and Judaism

I facilitated a “Torah on Tap” session tonight for Agudath Israel. Over 20 guys came out to discuss men’s roles in the synagogue today. “Where Have All the Men Gone” was the topic and we discussed how the feminist movement and egalitarianism, while positive, have contributed to men turning away from synagogue activities.

The evening was sponsored by the Sloppy Joe group, which was an interesting side note. The Sloppy Joe group, a men’s poker and dinner club, began a number of years ago when a women’s Rosh Chodesh group started at the synagogue. A photographer was there to take pictures for an upcoming article on Torah on Tap (Jewish) and Theology on Tap (Christian) to be published in New Jersey Monthly Magazine.

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