You Are What You Wear: Modesty of Dress

One of the highlights of the Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Jewish Camping Conference a year ago was the chance for me to get to know Nancy Lublin. I had learned about Nancy several years earlier after reading an article about her mitzvah project that turned into a successful nonprofit company.

I spoke with Nancy, CEO of Do Something for the past ten years, about her recent book Zilch: The Power of Zero in Business, encouraging teen philanthropy, and how Jewish summer camp can instill lifelong entrepreneurial skills in young people. But what I found most interesting in our conversation was how Nancy founded Dress for Success in 1996 with a $5,000 inheritance from her great-grandfather Poppy Max.

Nancy Lublin speaking to Jewish camping professionals (Foundation for Jewish Camp)

Nancy wanted to honor her grandfather’s memory and spirit of philanthropy by using his hard-earned money to help other people blaze new beginnings. With three nuns from Spanish Harlem, Nancy started Dress for Success in New York. She then moved on to found Dress for Success Worldwide, the national support center for all Dress for Success Affiliates. Dress for Success provides interview suits, confidence boosts and career development for women and has served more than 650,000 women around the world. Women are referred to Dress for Success by not-for-profit and government agencies including homeless and domestic violence shelters, immigration services, and job training programs.

What Dress for Success does for thousands of women is a great act of loving kindness, but what I’ve always loved about her start-up philanthropy is the name: “Dress for Success.” How we dress really does lead to our success. Think about what the image we project based on what we wear. Our clothes communicate a lot about our personality and our interests. The dictum that “you are what you wear” is actually true.

This Shabbat, Erev Purim, we read Parashat Tetzaveh. In the Torah portion, Moses is ordered to appoint his older brother Aaron, and Aaron’s sons, to fill the priestly role. And just as last week’s parsha gave the explicit directions for the building of the tabernacle, this week we learn the precise details of the priestly clothing. Modern biblical scholar Nahum Sarna writes that “just as sacred space must be differentiated from profane space, so the occupants of the sacred office must be distinguishable from the laity. Hence, special attire, the insignia of office, is ordained for Aaron, the archetypal High Priest, and for his sons, the priests of lower rank.”

The first part of our parsha is most concerned with the high priest’s unique garb; not only with what Aaron will wear, but also with who will make it. God commands Moses: Next, you shall instruct all who are skillful, whom I have endowed with the gift of skill, to make Aaron’s vestments for consecrating him to serve Me as a priest. It’s not even enough that Aaron will have the most unusual and distinctive garments; God also wants the best designers to fashion his wardrobe — the Ralph Laurens and Donna Karans of the time. And these fashion designers are instructed to use the finest materials to construct this attire — gold, magnificent colorful yarns, and the finest linen around.

Next, God informs Moses of the particular vestments that the priests will wear. The Choshen – the breastplate, the Ephod, a robe, tunic, headdress, and a sash. These garments, as you can imagine, made the priests stand apart from the rest of our ancestors. The Torah goes to great lengths to cross every T and dot every I in describing the priests’ clothing for their distinctive role — colors, lengths, widths, and material were all specified with great care. But this is certainly not the most exciting section of the Torah, so we must ask why all this fashion minutiae? What’s the big deal with the priests’ clothing?

Why is the name of our Moses, the great leader of our people, not mentioned even once in this Torah portion, but instead we know the five materials that went into the production of the yarn to create part of the priest’s garb? The answer I believe is back at the beginning of the parsha when God commands the making of these vestments. What is God’s rationale for these vestments? L’chavod ultif’aret — For dignity and splendor.

L’chavod ultif’aret are two words that are part of the blessings recited after the chanting of the haftarah. The medieval commentator Sforno explains the use of these two words. The vestments, he writes, were for the dignity of God and to lend splendor to the office of the priest so that he would be revered by the people. Elaborating on Sforno’s opinion, the vestments were as much for the dignity of the priests who wore them as they were for God’s dignity. What we wear speaks volumes about us.

The famous computer company IBM had a long-standing dress code in effect at their offices worldwide. Men had to dress in a dark colored suit, could only wear a white dress shirt, and could select a necktie of any conventional color; so long as it was solid – no patterns. For women, it was mostly the same – A dark, solid colored skirt and a white blouse. IBM believed that the way its workforce dressed portrayed the specific image that they wanted associated with their company. Apparently, they held the belief that it’s “the clothing that makes the man.”

And this belief was just as true in the 1990s, as companies like IBM shifted from strict, conservative dress codes to less-formal attire. Casual dress in the workplace became the new trend and “Dress down Fridays” becoming a popular section in most clothing stores. Companies like IBM believe that the way one dresses helps contribute to the way one works, behaves, and acts toward others. It also contributes to the way others view the wearer. When we get dressed in the morning, don’t we think about what type of image we want to portray for that day? Don’t we pick out our clothes for the day based on more than just the weather? What does this t-shirt say about me? Should I wear a traditional tie for that meeting today? What will they think if I wear my expensive shoes to the job interview? Think for a moment about what images the following expressions convey: “Black Tie Required,” “Business Attire,” “Dressy Casual,” “No shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Indeed, the appropriate clothing is for self-dignity as well as for personal splendor, comfort, and warmth. Throughout the generations, the modesty level of our clothing has been an ongoing conversation, although the standards of modesty have no doubt changed. In Judaism, these issues of modesty fall into the category of tzniut, modesty. Tzniut is the point at which our physical appearance and our behavior intersect.

No one could argue that the terms we speak of today in debating what is modest would be foreign to those even a few generations ago. Bare-midriffs, extra-tight t-shirts, and underwear peeking out from under low-cut jeans weren’t forbidden in schools a generation ago because no child would ever think of wearing that to school. But today, all schools have a dress code of some sort. But what does it say about us as a community? Have we forgotten what is appropriate to wear?

The lesson of the clothing of the priests from this week’s Torah portion is that what we wear is actually an extension of us, whether we want that to be true or not. It is an extension of our family. It is an extension of our community. What we wear is representative of who we are, and indeed, where we come from. It speaks volumes about what we stand for and our own level of self-dignity. Styles do change. And society’s attitudes toward standards of proper attire do too. But let us not discount the importance of tzniut or the conversations that we must continue to have about what is considered modest. Let us dress for success. Let us dress for style. And most important, let us dress l’chavod ultif’aret – for dignity and splendor.

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

Delmon Young’s Anti-Semitic Slur and the Problem With Athletes As Role Models

I already had a blog post planned for today. I was going to write an open letter to David Stern, the commissioner of the National Basketball League (NBA) in which I was going to publicly criticize him for allowing the NBA to only give Ron Artest (er, sorry Metta World Peace) a slap on the wrist with a seven game suspension. Artest blatantly elbowed James Harden on the back of his head after Artest’s slam dunk the other night. It was a vicious blow to Harden’s head that left him with a concussion. With Artest’s history as a trouble maker Stern should have banned him from the league.

My open letter to the Commissioner was going to ask him how I’m supposed to let my children watch NBA games if this is the type of behavior they will see. I don’t need Ron Artest to be a role model for my children; they have enough positive role models in their lives already. However, I cannot in good conscience allow my children to watch a professional basketball game (or even the highlights on ESPN) if such cheap shots are going to become commonplace in the NBA without serious repercussions.

And then I saw the news today. Detroit Tigers outfielder Delmon Young was arrested outside of the hotel where the team was staying in New York City. Young was “highly intoxicated” according to a police source and he was arrested after allegedly shoving a man to the ground and making anti-Semitic remarks. The Detroit Free Press reports that Young faces an “aggravated harassment hate crime charge” for the anti-Semitic remarks he made during the incident.

When I read the news about Young, my heart sank to the floor. My oldest son is 8. In the past year he has become a die hard Detroit Tigers fan. He knows all the players by name. He knows their uniform number and their statistics (just like I did when I was a Tigers fan at that age). How am I supposed to explain to my son that Delmon Young was drunk, got into a street fight, yelled an anti-Semitic slur and got arrested? To my son, Delmon Young is a hero. He cheers for him. He prays that Young will hit a home run when he comes up to bat. I don’t think that it ever occurred to my son (or to me for that matter) that Delmon Young hates Jews in an inebriated, full-of-rage Mel Gibson sort of way.

Thanks to the Detroit Tigers organization and specifically owner Mike Illitch and Dave Dombrowski, the teams President/CEO/General Manager, baseball has become exciting again here in Detroit. The team has really made a concerted effort to reach out to children. That is great, but it also means that the organization has a responsibility to handle this matter quickly and appropriately. Delmon Young needs to be treated for his alcohol problem and a response to Tigers fans must be made soon concerning his anti-Semitic slur.

For me, I still don’t know how I will explain this to my son or if I will at all. The bottom line is that no one is asking professional athletes to raise our children. They are great athletes and not always shining examples of virtuous human beings. However, they need to know that children are watching. Impressionable children are watching how athletes behave on the field or on the court, as well as outside of their hotels. The NBA and Major League Baseball are both doing great things to help their athletes give back to the community and be good citizens. But they have to take care of the bad apples as well. I don’t know what the appropriate punishment for Delmon Young should be, either within the Tigers organization or in Major League Baseball, but I know that a strong message has to be sent to the young fans so they know this behavior is not tolerated.

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

Vayechi: The Gift of An Ethical Will

In 1997, when Mitch Albom published his now famous Tuesdays with Morrie, he essentially presented three gifts. The first, of course, was his gift to society. Albom, a Detroit sportswriter who I’ve grown up reading, shared the inspiring wisdom of his college professor Morrie Schwartz. Publishing this book was also a gift to himself as he now has a memoir of his mentor’s lessons.

The third gift that Albom gave through writing this book was the gift of an ethical will for his beloved professor. Albom penned his old professor’s legacy of words. He served as a trusted biographer, an inquisitive interviewer, listening intently to Morrie’s story so that it will not soon be forgotten. Through Albom, Morrie Schwartz was able to leave his family and friends with a vivid image of him. I never met the man, but after reading the book (twice!), I have images of him laughing, dancing, and philosophizing in my head. Imagine how reading this book brings him back to life for those who knew him intimately.

For Morrie Schwartz, Mitch Albom did not merely write a “book.” He penned his ethical will on his behalf. Writing an ethical will is not a new idea. In this week’s Torah reading, we learn of the first ethical will when our patriarch Jacob called his sons together and said to them, Come together that I may tell you what is to befall you in days to come. Assemble and hearken, O sons of Jacob; Hearken to Israel your father. He then spoke his ethical will to each of his sons, one at a time. He told them what he expected of them, what he learned in his own life, and what his blessing was for them.

There are three types of wills. The first is the most common one called a “Last Will and Testament.” In this legal type of will, usually drawn up by an attorney, the estate distributes material possessions after the individual’s death. It is in this will that you state to whom you would leave custody of your children, where your money will go, who gets the rare stamp collection, the bowling trophies, the Bob Dylan records, and so on.

Another type of will that is also of great importance is a living will. In a living will, one makes advance decisions about medical care in the event they should become incapacitated. With advances in medicine, it is crucial that we spend some time considering what our wishes would be should we find ourselves debilitated with an incurable illness. A wonderful source for guiding us through this complicated and challenging matter is Clal’s guide to palliative care entitled Embracing Life & Facing Death.

Ethical wills are not legal documents as compared to living wills and your last will and testament. In your ethical will, you decide how you want to be remembered. Rather than bequeathing material possessions to your survivors, you bestow to them the deeds and ideals by which you want others to remember you. Mitch Albom gave his friend an enormous gift by essentially publishing Morrie’s ethical will on his behalf, but the rest of us will not have a talented writer like Mitch Albom to do this for us. And so, we must take on the responsibility of writing our own ethical will — our legacy for our progeny.

A famous ethical will was composed by Nachmanides, a 13th century Jewish scholar and biblical commentator who lived in Spain. Late in his life he composed an ethical will to his son, writing, “Accustom yourself to speak in gentleness to all men, at all times. Thus will you be saved from anger, the fertile cause of sin… Remove anger from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh.” He concludes with, “Read this Letter once a week, and be as regular in carrying out its injunctions, by its aid walking forever after the Lord, blessed be He; that thou mayest prosper in all thy ways, and be held worthy of all the good which is treasured up for the righteous.” Nahmanides’ ethical will to his son is so moving that it is actually included in many editions of the prayer book.

Some might wish to include practical advice in their ethical wills. Moses Sofer, known as the Hatam Sofer, included the following in his ethical will to his children, “Be strong and courageous in diligent and penetrating study of God’s law. Establish groups for the dissemination of Torah, and promote activities for Torah among the populace. If you can do only a little, then do that little with utmost devotion.” In our ethical will, we might explain why we were philanthropic with certain causes in the hope that our children will continue that pattern of giving tzedakah. Perhaps there were certain life lessons we learned, mistakes we don’t want our children to repeat, and secrets we want to share.

In our day and age, we simply pick up the phone to communicate with friends and family or send simple text messages and chats. Pen and paper letter writing is a thing of the past today. Therefore, composing an ethical will can be a very challenging task. And yet, it can be a cathartic endeavor as well. It can be an opportunity to sit down and explore those lessons you wished you had taught during your life, but did not have the time. You might think you are going to be disappointed discovering all the things you wished you did in your life, only to realize how much you actually accomplished.

Take the example of Jacob in this week’s Torah portion and give the gift of an ethical will to your loved ones long after you’re gone. They’ll be thankful for the gift.

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

Mitch Albom’s Having a Very Jewish Year

Last month when I encouraged my friends to attend the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s annual induction dinner I made certain to tell them that local Detroit sportswriter Mitch Albom was being inducted. I figured that would be a draw. I was surprised by the response that many of them had — “Mitch Albom’s Jewish?” they asked.

Mitch Albom’s Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame plaque that will hang
in the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit.

Apparently they hadn’t read his most recent book “Have a Little Faith,” in which Mitch Albom’s childhood rabbi asks him to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. The book has been turned into a made-for-TV movie and will be broadcast tonight at 9:00 PM on ABC. Some of the movie was filmed at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield with many members of the local Jewish community in the seats as extras. The movie stars Laurence Fishburne (as the late Pastor Henry Covington), Martin Landau (as Rabbi Albert Lewis) and Bradley Whitford (as Mitch Albom).

Growing up in Detroit and reading Mitch Albom’s sports columns since he arrived here in 1985, I have always known he was Jewish. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t something Albom discussed. I first met Albom in 1996 when he was honored by the Anti-Defamation League when I was serving a college internship there. I already owned all of his books which included several volumes of “The Live Albom” (collections of his sports columns) and his books about University of Michigan football coach Bo Shembechler and U-M basketball’s Fab Five dream team.

Meeting Mitch Albom for the first time in 1996.

Albom was already well known on the national scene as a sportswriter through his frequent appearances on ESPN, but it wasn’t until his autobiographical book “Tuesdays with Morrie” came out in 1997 that he gained international attention and local fame. There were only a few references to Albom’s Jewishness in the book and even when he spoke about the book at Jewish book fairs around the country Albom didn’t say much about his own faith. When I first met Rabbi David Wolpe in 1996 he told me that he had been a Jewish day school classmate of Mitch Albom’s at Akiba Hebrew Academy in Lower Merion, Pennsylvania (and that he was currently reading the galleys of a book Albom was writing about his college professor who had died).

His “Have a Little Faith” book was Albom’s first time publicly writing about his childhood in a Jewish day school and his relationship with his beloved rabbi, the late Rabbi Albert Lewis. While he doesn’t belong to any local congregation, Albom developed a nice relationship with Rabbi Harold Loss of Temple Israel, a very large Reform congregation in suburban Detroit.

With Mitch Albom and Dave Barry at an event in 2009 to raise funds
for Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation.

Perhaps due to the publication of “Have a Little Faith,” Mitch Albom is now more amenable to be honored by Jewish organizations. The ADL event where I first met him was much less a Jewish cause at the time and seen more as a humanitarian organization whose main project was the “A World of Difference” institute in which anti-bias education and diversity training were at the core of its mission. This past May, Albom received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, the same institution where his beloved Rabbi Albert Lewis had been ordained some fifty years prior.

Earlier this month Albom was inducted into the Michigan Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. His speech (video below) began with an apology that he had not been more involved in the Michigan Jewish Sports Foundation during his long career in Detroit. He then used the rest of his time to speak about his college professor, Morrie Schwartz, and the lessons he learned while caring for him as he lay dying in bed.

Albom has become very generous in his philanthropic causes relating to homelessness in the City of Detroit (a main theme of “Have a Little Faith”) and a mission/orphanage in Haiti. Albom’s Hole in the Roof Foundation helped raise and distribute funds to fix the roof of a church/homeless shelter in Detroit (I Am My Brother’s Keeper) and also rebuilt the Caring and Sharing Mission and Orphanage in Port-au-Prince, Haiti (where he has taken his childhood friend Rabbi David Wolpe).

The work he has done with his Hole in the Roof Foundation is certainly in line with Judaism’s value of Tikkun Olam (helping to repair the world). Perhaps Mitch Albom will also become more involved in local and national Jewish causes as he lives out the lessons he’s learned in life. He has certainly done a good job sharing the wisdom of his own teachers like Morrie Schwartz and Rabbi Albert Lewis.

Here is the trailer for tonight’s premier of “Have a Little Faith”:

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

Finding Values in Detroit Sports: Tigers Fans, Lions Fans and Ndamukong Suh

As a rabbi blogger who writes about sports, I’m always interested in the values that can be learned from watching sports. There are many situations in which the players, coaches, management or fans will do something that leads us to discuss how the situation was values driven.

In Detroit, there are three situations that occurred here recently that I believe speak loudly about our values. One of these events makes Detroit look good. The other two? Well, not so much. The first occurred in mid-August at Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers. It was an event that had little to do with Detroit’s baseball team and much more to do with the Detroit fans. It was a scene that made me proud to live in Detroit.

When opposing player Jim Thome hit his 600th career home run against the Tigers, fans at Comerica Park gave Thome a thunderous ovation. The Detroit Tigers’ faithful didn’t simply stand and applaud as their team’s opponent circled the bases. They maintained a long and lasting cheer for the future Hall of Famer who has had a career of hurting the Tigers. Thome has hit over 65 home runs against the Tigers (more than against any other club) and no matter which team Thome has played for (Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox or Minnesota Twins) he has always found success against the Tigers.

This strong demonstration of commendation for an opposing player led sportswriter Pat Caputo, writing in the Oakland Press, to ask if it was appropriate for Detroit fans to give Jim Thome such a thunderous standing ovation. He argues that while “on the surface, that’s the way it should be, considering the magnitude of the moment. I mean only eight players in major league history have hit 600 or more career home runs… But it was a 3-run shot and turned a close 6-5 game into a bit of a rout. It was one of two home runs Thome hit Tuesday. The other was a 2-run blast that broke a 3-3 tie. The Tigers are in a pennant race. Those home runs were extremely damaging to their cause. Should fans really have been cheering Thome so lustily under the circumstances?” Caputo had no problem with the enduring standing ovation because he believes that “baseball lore trumps all,” but many fans who called into his radio show and his co-host Dennis Fithian were really upset by the response of the fans inside Comerica Park and called them “dupes.”

For me, I thought this was one of the highlights of the Tigers’ memorable season. It was an emotional sight to see Detroit’s hometown fans showing so much respect for an opposing player who accomplished such a momentous feat. Despite Jim Thome’s 2-run home run that broke a 3-3 tie in that regular season game, the Tigers still won the division and made it to the American League Championship Series. That home run didn’t change that, but it did make Thome feel good to have received such a rousing ovation in an opponent’s ballpark. And it made me proud to be a Detroiter.

The other two events did not make me feel proud to be a Detroiter. And they both occurred yesterday on Thanksgiving day at the Detroit Lions game. The first has nothing to do with sports, but a lot to do with respect. The halftime show at the Lions Thanksgiving Day Classic always attracts big name recording artists like Kid Rock, the Allman Brothers Band, and Mariah Carey. This year Canadian rockers Nickelback was invited to perform at halftime. Some Detroiters disagreed with the decision to have a Canadian band perform on Thanksgiving Day. Others disagreed with the choice because they don’t find Nickelback to be talented musicians and they don’t care for their music. Thus, a petition was circulated on the Web by a University of Michigan student at change.com that ultimately had over 10,000 signatures urging that Nickelback be banned from performing in Detroit. The irony of this is that Detroit is one of the band’s strongest markets.

Ultimately, the petition didn’t do anything other than stir up some controversy, lead to Nickelback having some fun with the situation and making a FunnyOrDie parody video, and launch an alternative half-time show by Jewish musician Mayer Hawthorne (né Andrew Cohen) outside of his parents’ home in Ann Arbor. When Nickelback took the stage at Ford Field, the Detroit fans should have applauded them. Even if they don’t care for their music and even if they would have preferred American performers, it only makes Detroit look bad when the hometown fans booed the band. Detroit is working hard to improve its image and booing the halftime show performers on national TV is not a step in the right direction.

The third situation occurred not long after the Nickelback halftime show when Detroit defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was ejected from the Lions-Green Bay Packers game. Suh stomped on an opposing offensive lineman after pushing the player’s head onto the turf twice. Suh was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and ejected from the game. This stuff happens on occasion in the rough and tumble game of football, but it happens when Suh is around much more often.

What actually occurred on the field is not what I look at for a lesson in values. Rather, it is Ndamukong Suh’s post-game explanation that makes him look bad (and by extension his team and Detroit). In a press conference following the game (he probably shouldn’t have participated in any interviews), Suh said, “I want to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game… What I did was remove myself from the situation the best way I felt, with me being held down.” Suh then went on to try to defend himself, saying he was trying to keep his balance while freeing himself from the brief scuffle. His fabricated story went like this: “My intention was not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself. I was on top of a guy, being pulled down, and trying to get up off the ground — and why you see me pushing his helmet down, because I’m trying to remove myself from the situation, and as I’m getting up, I’m getting pushed, so I’m getting myself on balance.”

Suh is a professional athlete and represents his team. He is an adult. The story he tells to defend his unsportsmanlike antics sounds more like a defense that a child would concoct to prove his innocence. Suh shouldn’t have pushed his opponent’s head into the turf and he shouldn’t have stepped on him while he was down. But what he should have down afterward was own up to his actions and apologize. That is not the image that Detroit wants to convey. Especially not on national television.

I’m a proud Detroiter and a proud Detroit sports fan. It’s moments like the one in Comerica Park this past August when Jim Thome made history and the fans recognized that beautifully that make me even prouder to be a Detroiter. It’s moments like the two that happened in Ford Field yesterday that should remind us that we can do better.

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

What is Glatt Kosher

As a panelist for Jewish Values Online, I am asked to weigh in on various values-based questions from the perspective of a Conservative rabbi. A recent question I was asked to respond to was odd in that it wasn’t a question that had to do with values. I was asked to answer the difference between “glatt kosher” and “kosher”. This struck me as having to do less with values and more with a general misunderstanding.

Here is my response from the Jewish Values Online website:

Literally speaking, the term “glatt” is a Yiddish word that means smooth (it is called “chalak” in Hebrew). It is used most commonly as a kosher designation referring to the lungs of an animal. If the animal’s lungs were smooth and free of any adhesion that would render it non-kosher, the animal is designated as “glatt.” The term only applies to kosher animals whose meat can be eaten (not fowl or fish). Therefore, kosher food like chicken, fish, lamb, or dairy products can never be “glatt.”

The term has come to mean “kosher to a higher level” leading many people to erroneously think that non-beef food items can be “glatt.” In fact, I have been asked if pizza that I certify as kosher is “glatt” to which I responded that if they’re concerned about the melted cheese atop the pizza being smooth, they should be fine.

Rabbi Ari Z. Zivotofsky wrote an insightful explanation of why the “glatt” designation is important. He explains, “In colloquial discourse treif refers to anything that is not kosher. The technical definition of treifa is based on Exodus 22:30 (Do not eat meat from an animal torn [treifa] in the field) and refers to an animal with any of a specific group of physical defects that are detailed in the Talmud. Examples of these “defects,” which often go far beyond the health inspection of the USDA, include certain lesions, lacerations, broken limbs, missing or punctured organs, or the result of an attack by a larger animal. Such defects can occur in and thereby render both animals and fowl treif. Because most of these defects are uncommon, it may be assumed that most animals are healthy and hence there is no requirement to inspect every animal for them. An exception is the lung of an animal, on which adhesions and other problems may develop. While these problems are not common, they do occur more frequently than other treifot. Their relative prevalence led the rabbis to mandate that the lungs of every animal be examined, both manually while still in its natural position in the animal, and visually following its removal from the thoracic cavity.”

Most types of adhesion on the animal would make the animal a treifa and therefore forbidden to be eaten by a Jewish person. Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Ramah) allows for a method of peeling and testing many types of adhesions, which results in many more animals being designated as kosher. This leniency allows kosher observant individuals to eat meat that is not from a “glatt” animal, but one whose adhesions had been checked through peeling and testing. Isserles ruled only for Ashkenazi Jews, but Rabbi Yosef Karo did not rule that this was acceptable practice and therefore his Sephardic followers only eat “glatt” kosher meat.

This led to the “glatt” designation being considered a stringency that the pious would uphold. The misconception is that if meat is not “glatt” then it is not kosher. In truth, non-glatt meat that has been thoroughly inspected is considered fully kosher for Ashkenazic Jews.

There are kosher certification agencies that only certify meat that is “glatt”. Those who only eat “glatt” meat are known as mehadrin, meaning “embellished.” Maintaining a kosher diet leaves froom for leniencies and stringencies. One who follows a more stringent level of kosher observance is considered to have embellished God’s commandments and thus is said to be keeping kosher l’mehadrin. The terms “glatt” and “mehadrin” have come to describe a higher level of kosher status, but has also been misapplied to such things as water.

These terms can colloquially mean “extra strict supervision,” but it is important that the actual definition is lost along the way. Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem has written about the fact that this stringency of the pious seems to apply to kosher food, but seldom to matters of ethics. He writes, “If people want to be extra strict with themselves, that is their right, but I often wonder why this extra strictness seems to be confined to ritual mitzvot rather than to ethical ones. Whenever I hear about Glatt I am reminded of [Rabbi Abraham Joshua] Heschel’s comment that we need a mashgiah [kosher supervisor] not just for food for other things such as lashon ha-ra – gossip – as well.

So, the bottom line is that “glatt” means smooth and refers to the lungs of animals like cows. When its applied to other food it is being misapplied, but colloquially means “kosher to a higher standard.”

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

Is the Death Penalty an Ethical Option According to Jewish Values?

In the past couple weeks there have been a couple of high profile death penalty decisions in our country. These rulings were not handed down by a judge or jury, but by a former presidential candidate and a cable news talking head.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was caught on video at a book signing in California earlier this month saying that the person that leaked the documents to WikiLeaks should be executed. “Whoever in our government leaked that information is guilty of treason,” Huckabee said. “I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty.” Newt Gingrich even suggested that WikiLeak’s founder Julian Assange deserves to be hunted and executed Sunday by calling him an “enemy combatant.”

Political commentator Tucker Carlson, filling in for Fox News host Sean Hannity this past Tuesday, told a news panel that he believes football player Michael Vick, who was given a second chance after being convicted on dog fighting charges, deserves to die for his crimes. The panel had been discussing President Barack Obama’s praise of the Philadelphia Eagles for giving Vick a second chance to start at quarterback. Apparently, Tucker Carlson disagrees with Obama because not only does he disagree with giving Vick a second chance, he believes he deserves the death penalty. He said, “Michael Vick killed dogs… And I think, personally, he should’ve been executed for that.”

Admittedly, for many years I never gave much thought to the death penalty. Yes, it is a very serious and divisive topic, but it was not one of the hot button issues of most concern to me. The first time I researched the topic was in 2003 when I took a group of Jewish teens to Washington D.C. for the Panim program and I had to prepare them to debate the moral issues of capital punishment.

I had a cursory understanding of the basic ethical issues and knew the textual sources from the Torah about capital punishment, but it was not a core issue for me. In 2007, I led a family mission to Israel and the abolishment of capital punishment was the bailiwick of one of the adult participants. Before we left for Israel, someone told me that Abe Bonowitz was an abolishionist. I thought, “He’s against slavery? Aren’t we all?” But it turns out that there is a vast and strong death penalty abolishionist movement in this country. And as you can imagine, they weren’t very fond of President George W. Bush’s views on capital punishment.

The more I listened to Bonowitz’s views on capital punishment, the more I was convinced that it cannot possibly be an ethical option for punishment in the 21st century. I’m not sure if Huckabee or Carlson were really serious about executing the Wikileaks source or Michael Vick or if they were speaking in hyperbole like most politicians and political commentators do today. However, it piqued my interest in the ethical issues of capital punishment and my teacher’s thoughtful commentary on the subject came at the perfect time.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of Clal published “The Jewish Precedent for a Moral Death Penalty” on his Beliefnet blog and on The Huffington Post. He wrote,

The rabbis teach that a unanimous court cannot impose the death penalty. Contrary to the law in Illinois and the safety we seek in unanimity, Jewish tradition teaches that the only court absolutely prohibited from carrying out a death sentence is the one most of us assume should — i.e., one in which all judges agree that it’s the right thing to do.

The rabbis accept that there may be times when it has to happen, but they cannot accept that any decision so momentous and complex should be seen the same way by everybody. If that happens, the rabbis tell us, we must be missing something and therefore cannot execute the offender.

Some of that thinking is what created the lengthy and hugely expensive process demanded by a system which still entertains the death penalty even if it rarely imposes it. That system would end with passage of SB 3539, making the world a better place by redirecting funds earmarked for death penalty litigation to murder victims’ families and enhanced law enforcement.

Ultimately, Jewish tradition values the idea of the death penalty as a moral statement, but hates its imposition on ethical grounds. Interestingly, that is where it seems many Americans stand when it comes to the issue as well. Perhaps now is the time to go back to the future when it comes to thinking about the death penalty.

The past president of my synagogue, Harold Gurewitz, is an experienced and well respected criminal defense attorney here in Michigan. This summer in a highly publicized federal death penalty case he successfully kept his client, Timothy O’Reilly, from being executed (Michigan banned capital punishment in the 1800s, but a death sentence is still possible for certain federal crimes.). Gurewitz spoke to our congregation about his experiences in the months-long trial. He explained that capital punishment in Jewish law requires the prosecutors to advocate for the taking of another life. The evidence offered to support the penalty – as distinguished from the decision of guilt– proved lingering or residual doubts about the defendant’s personal role in the specific acts causing death. It required the judge and/or jury to engage in a very personal decision-making process and to individually agree that another human being should be put to death.

When considering capital punishment in the Torah, it must be viewed in its historical context, Gurewitz explained. There are fundamental values in Jewish sources, the Bible and commentaries that provide meaningful references for how we should view capital punishment today.

While the Torah lists numerous transgressions for which the death penalty is prescribed, Hirschfield points out that there is only actually “one instance in the Five Books of Moses in which someone is executed by the court. In fact, later rabbinic tradition teaches that if the death penalty is imposed once in 70 years, the court which imposes it is called a terrorist court. While having the death penalty on the books has merit as a moral statement, actually imposing it seems to be quite to the contrary.”

Stoning, pushing the convict off a ledge to a stone floor, burning, strangulation, and decapitation are all forms of capital punishment in the Torah and Talmud. However, these were intended to represent an advancement over the cruelty and lack of restraint in earlier times and by other cultures. Gurewitz said that, “According to an Amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States by a prominent lawyer, Nathan Lewin, supporting an argument against the use of electrocution as capital punishment in Florida should be banned as a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, these practices exemplified respect for ‘human dignity’ in the means by which the penalty was to be carried out and restraint in its use.”
Judge Jack B. Weinstein, a United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of New York, spoke at Temple Emanuel of Great Neck in New York. He noted that “Conditions change. Our view of what is required of a humane and caring people should change with the times. What was required and permitted in biblical times is not necessarily what decent people should approve of today. The argument that “ the Torah says it, therefore its is right for us: is no excuse for unnecessary cruelty and inhumanity. We can and should reject capital punishment.”

Gurewitz quoted Judge Weinstein, but explained that what the judge did not explicitly mention was that when we focus on the “values” that obviously informed the “humane practices” of capital punishment, they support the view that it should not be practiced at all.

In Israel, capital punishment is only used for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people and treason in wartime. The only execution in Israel has been Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann by hanging.

Capital punishment is as nuanced and complex as an ethical issue can be. Perhaps that is why Mike Huckabee’s and Tucker Carlson’s rhetoric calling for execution makes headlines. There might have been a time generations ago when capital punishment was accepted, however, in today’s world it is clearly not an ethical option for punishment.

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