Author Archives: Daniel Septimus

About Daniel Septimus

Daniel Septimus is the Editor-in-Chief of MyJewishLearning.com.

Rosh Hashanah Dinner Challenge

This entry was posted in Culture, Holidays on by .

Our friends over at The Jew & the Carrot are holding a contest to see who can create the greenest Rosh Hashanah dinner menu.

Prizes for the winner include some great Jewish cook books. Check it:

The Assignment:Get creative as you green your Rosh Hashanah dinner table!

The Requirements:A description of your sustainable  ideas, tips and techniques, accompanying photo(s), and any/all recipes you make.  Don’t forget to include information about who you are!

The Details:Email your submissions by October 3, 2008 to editor [@] jcarrot.org
First prize winner will receive a copy of Aromas of Aleppoa stunning, hardcover cookbook of Syrian Jewish cuisine by Poopa Dweck.
Second prize winner will receive a copy of The Weekend Baker – a collection of delicious, stress-free baked good recipes.
The top three submissions will be featured (with much fanfare) on The Jew & The Carrot.

Posted on September 18, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hope, Not Fear

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, History on by .

Edgar M. Bronfman is among the Jewish community’s leading philanthropists, and his commitment to this website in particular has been crucial and unmatched.

Hope3.JPGBut Bronfman has always been more than just a “donor.” I’ve had the privilege of attending some of the weekly Talmud classes Bronfman has at his office, and it’s clear that his study of Judaism and the Jewish community is motivated by both his personal desire to be a more knowledgeable Jew and his interest in being a more effective Jewish leader.

Today marks the publication of Bronfman’s new book Hope, Not Fear: A Path to Jewish Renaissance, which he wrote with Beth Zasloff. In anticipation of the book’s release, I asked Beth a few questions about the book and what it was like working on a project with Edgar Bronfman.

Can you start by summarizing the primary message of the book?
Judaism is a joyful culture and religion that offers many paths to improving the life of the individual and the world. To reinvigorate Judaism in North America, we need to foster a community that is united not by fear for survival but by knowledge and celebration of the Jewish tradition.

Historian Jonathan Sarna has said that Hope, Not Fear is, at times, “controversial.” What are the potentially controversial ideas expressed in the book?
I’m sure that some will object to the assertion that fighting anti-Semitism should get off the top of the communal agenda. It’s particularly striking coming from a leader who has spent his life fighting anti-Semitism (getting out Soviet Jews, battling the Swiss banks for Holocaust restitution). The point is not that anti-Semitism isn’t a global threat or that Jews should stop fighting it. It’s that there’s very little of it in North America, and that we need to move beyond an embattled posture and use our strength to rebuild Judaism and do some good in the world.

There’s also the idea that the high rate of intermarriage is not necessarily a disaster, and the hopeful attitude that if Judaism is taught in a positive way it can even be an opportunity to enrich and expand Jewish life. Many synagogues and Jewish institutions have become more welcoming to intermarried couples, but the subject still ignites tensions.

Do you know if there was any particular event or occurrence that inspired Mr. Bronfman to want to write this book? How did the idea for the book develop?
When I asked Mr. Bronfman the same question he described his reaction to the National Jewish Population Survey of 1990, which reported that more than half of Jews were marrying non-Jews and that less than a third of the children of intermarriages would be raised as Jews. Suddenly, he and many others were confronted with data that predicted a vastly diminished Jewish population within a couple of generations. That’s when he decided to get involved with Hillel and work to foster Jewish renaissance on a large scale, and the book is part of this effort.

Continue reading

Posted on September 16, 2008

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Todd & God is Back

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Now it’s for real. We’ve got the new episode of MyJewishLearning’s The Adventures of Todd & God up and ready to help you start thinking about Rosh Hashanah.

(Sorry for the up-down on Friday.)

Once again: Watch, embed, and enjoy.

Thanks to William Levin, the Jewish Robot, for his great work.

You can find Episode 1 here.

Posted on September 15, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Oops…

This entry was posted in General on by .

Sorry. We had to take down that episode of Todd & God.

For those who saw it and want to watch it again, it’ll be back up soon. For those who didn’t see it, it’ll be back up soon.

Posted on September 12, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Sartre, Not Sabras

This entry was posted in History on by .

In her analysis of Charlie Gibson’s interview with Sarah Palin, New York Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley may have been a bit too critical.

About Gibson she wrote: “But his attitude was at times supercilious: He asked if a nuclear Iran posed an ‘existential threat’ to Israel, as if it were the land of Sartre, not Sabras.”

I don’t mean to be supercilious, but this is the problem with a TV critic dabbling in political reporting. Anyone who reads the newspaper — and particularly stories about Israel — knows that there’s nothing hoity-toity about  the way Gibson asked the question. The term “existential threat” could hardly be more commonplace.

But just to be sure, I checked the Jargon Database, which specifically knocks out the Sartre option.

Existential Threat
Surprisingly NOT something one finds covered in a college philosophy textbook, this is regarded as a military or terrorist threat to the existence of something, usually the United States. Usually involves nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons.

Posted on September 12, 2008

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Everyone is Amalek

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Texts on by .

The commandment to wipe out the nation of Amalek is, perhaps, one of the most morally complicated parts of the Torah.

In the Torah, Amalek is as close as it comes to evil manifest. Amalek attacked the Israelites when they were at their weakest; and Haman, the paradigmatic biblical villains, is a descendant of Amalek.

Still, the commandment to kill all the men, women, and children of any group is a bit troubling, which is why we should be relieved that most commentators conclude that there is no longer a commandment to wipe out Amalek — since we don’t who Amalek is.

And yet, it’s been quite common for Jews throughout the centuries to refer to their contemporary enemies as Amalek. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard “the Arabs” referred to in this way. Given the violent ramifications of actually establishing a group as Amalek, casual references like this should terrify us.

Thus, in 2006, when Rabbi Jack Riemer linked Islamic Fundamentalists to Amalek, there was quite the uproar.

Well, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz has just taken irresponsible Amalek-talk to a whole new level.

In an article published on Yeshiva World News, Rabbi Lipschutz basically labels all those concerned about Agriprocessors as Amalek.

A cursory reading of the current events in today’s newspapers will give ample evidence of the damage done by the Amaleiks of our time.

Consider how the media has taken on the cause of the unions in their battle against the Rubashkins of Agriprocessors in Postville, Iowa.

Anyone who takes the trouble to visit the far-off plant, tour it and interview its employees will find a state-of-the art, modern, safe, clean facility we should all be proud of.

You’d think this kind of accusation might be held in check given that just two days ago the company was officially charged with 9,000 child labor violations an event that even inspired the Orthodox Union to threaten pulling its kashrut certification.

Want to argue for “innocent until proven guilty”? Fine. But associating critics of Agriprocessors with Amalek? Please.

But Rabbi Lipschutz is just getting started. Next Amalek? Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (and perhaps their roshei yeshiva, as well).

Amaleik appears in so many different guises. When a Jewish university maintains on its payroll a person who openly lives an immoral lifestyle and the institution’s president tells the New York Post that he is “proud of my university and all my faculty,� is that not an expression of “asher karchah�? Such a person is conferring legitimacy on behavior the Torah considers abhorrent.

When its rabbinic faculty sits on the sidelines and does not act vociferously and publicly to project and protect Torah values, are they not reinforcing the moral decline which is eating away at the fabric of the Am Kadosh?

(He’s referring to this story.)

Luckily, Rabbi Lipschutz’s reckless Amalekizing might be so ridiculous that it stops being scary. And don’t worry, despite his anger at everyone for totally hating Orthodox Jews, he still thinks you should still try to be nice to people.

We need to greet everyone who we meet with kindness and civility. We must display proper patriotic symbols and behave honestly in all our financial interactions. That way, when our neighbors read scandalous charges about us in their local papers and hear ludicrous allegations on the local news, they will know that these charges that tar all Jews with the same brush are far from the truth. They will say, “Well, I have a religious Jewish friend and he’s dignified, upstanding, scrupulous and cordial. These accusations can’t be true.�

Posted on September 11, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Iran, Pakistan, Ki Tetze

This entry was posted in Texts on by .

Last week it was reported that six men were arrested in Pakistan for burying five women alive in a so-called “honor killing.” In this case, it seems, three of the younger women — ages 18, 16, and 14 — had been intent on marrying men of their own choices.

For that, they were tortured and buried alive along with two of their aunts.

We’ve gotten used to reading about these stories, which appear regularly in the American press now that all-things related to fundamentalist Islam are front page news.

So will we be more shocked or less when we read of similar acts in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetze?

Granted, there’s nothing directly analagous to the case in Pakistan in Ki Tetze, but we do have the case of a woman who is engaged to man “x” and sleeps with man “y” — and what happens:

Deut 22:23 If there is a young woman, a virgin, betrothed to a man, and a man finds her in the city, and lies with her;

24 then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them with stones that they die: the woman, because she didn’t cry out, being in the city; and the man, because he has humbled his neighbour’s wife

In addition, there’s the case of “motzi shem ra,” i.e. the man who claims that the woman he married is not a virgin. In this case, the father of the bride brings the “betulim” — the bloodied sheets that would prove her virginity — and the man who made the false claim is fined.

If the claim is true, the woman is stoned to death.

These texts inspire mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, we don’t carry out “justice” this way anymore. On the other hand, these laws are found in our holiest of books.

And, of course, I do wonder about those segments of our community who take the Torah more literally and the possibility of a state run by Jewish law more seriously.

Is killing a woman for her sexual choices that many steps removed from beating up a woman for socializing with men?

Posted on September 11, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Fiction Isn’t About Reasons

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Our friend Joshua Henkin, whose NYTimes notable book Matrimony just came out in paperback, is guest blogging over at The Elegant Variation today and showing that James Wood isn’t the only one who knows how fiction works.

Most interesting so far is a sneak peek at Josh’s novel in progress, which apparently offended some folks at a synagogue recently.

the section I read from was told from the perspective of a woman who, raised in a secular Jewish home in New York City and Westchester and having spent much of her teenage years in serious trouble (drugs, promscuity, bad grades, etc.), finds herself in Jerusalem in her early twenties and ends up becoming an Orthodox Jew. The section I read from, though it posited as its starting point the woman’s religious transformation (she’s now married to another newly religious Jew, and the mother of their four children) focuses in some detail on the character’s travails when she was a teenager. Perhaps because the material I read from was fairly sexually explicit and I was reading at a synagogue, the reading inspired some discomfort among the attendees, particularly from one elderly woman who wanted to know why. Why were my characters the way they were? Why, specifically, was the young woman I was writing about so promiscous, and was the reason she later became an Orthodox Jew because she was tired of being promiscuous?

Though I’m not sure I managed to convince her, I tried to explain to this woman that fiction isn’t about reasons — or, at least, that it’s not about the kinds of reasons that can be reduced to a simple (or even not so simple) answer at a book reading. Fiction is about plausibility, certainly, but to make something plausible (to make your characters and their predicaments come to life, that is), is different from explaining them or giving a reason for who/what they are. Fiction is like love. It just is. As soon as you need to explain it, something has gone wrong.

MORE… 

Posted on September 4, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jewish Magic

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices on by .

A couple of weeks ago, a California man named Naftoli Smolyansky disappeared during a boating trip after jumping in the water to save his daughter.

We’re hoping to launch a new section on “Jewish Magic” on MJL in the next few months, and one aspect of this tragic story emphasized for me that this is — surprisingly perhaps — a still-relevant topic.

Yeshiva World News reports:

Monday morning at approximately 5:30AM, a group of Rabbonim (both Ashkenazim and Persian) departed the command post on a boat. Once out on the Lake, they put a flat bread which was baked specifically for this Segula on the water with a candle on it. As soon as the bread stopped moving, they threw a stone wrapped with some writing on it into the exact spot that the bread stopped. When the flat bread stayed in place for a little bit, Lake Piru Ranger Kurt White placed a buoy on that spot and contacted Captain Giles of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department Dive Team. Captain Giles and a volunteer diver arrived approximately 11:00AM to dive on that spot. In the meantime the Ashkenaz Rabbonim left the area, while the Persian Rabbonim Davened Shacharis. At approximately 11:30AM, as Captain Giles and his dive partner were about to take the first dive of the day, the body surfaced approximately 150 yards SOUTH of the area that the buoy was placed. Captain Giles and the US Coast Guard Auxiliary  spotted it at the same time.

Posted on September 3, 2008

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Judgment Day

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Holidays on by .

It’s the month of Elul, the time when we begin the introspection that culminates with the High Holidays. So I thought I’d share an interesting text I recently came across.

The Talmud (Tractate Rosh Hashanah 16a) reports a four-way dispute about when God judges humans (and the rest of creation, actually).

All are judged on Rosh Hashanah, and the sentence is fixed on Yom Kippur. So says Rabbi Meir.

Rabbi Judah says all are judged on Rosh Hashanah, but the sentence of each is confirmed each at its special time–at Passover for grain, at Shavuot for the fruit of trees, at Sukkot for rain, and man is judged on Rosh Hashanah, and his sentence is confirmed on Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Jose says man is judged every day, as it is written [Job, vii. 18]: “Thou remember him every morning”; and Rabbi Nathan holds man is judged at all times, as it is written [ibid.]: “Thou triest him every moment.”

Rabbi Meir’s position is, of course, the most well-known, and it finds prominent expression in the High Holiday liturgy. Rabbi Meir’s legal positions generally trump those of other tanaim, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that this theological view has gained the acceptance it has.

Nevertheless, the minority opinions here — particularly Rabbi Jose’s and Rabbi Nathan’s — make even Rabbi Meir’s claim that much more interesting.

What are these Rabbis really arguing about? Is this a metaphysical question? i.e. When does God actually judge?

If so, does that mean that Rabbi Meir does not believe that God judges every day?

Is this a hermeneutical question as Rabbi Jose’s and Rabbi Nathan’s prooftexts suggest?

I’m not sure we can know what this argument is really about, but here’s one interesting possibility — albeit with little grounding in the actual text: Perhaps the Rabbis have different positions on what sort of accountability best facilitates moral behavior.

Are we more likely to act “correctly” if we are constantly being judged (as per Rabbi Nathan)? Perhaps those who disagree with Rabbi Nathan would suggest that this Big Brother type oversight makes us more likely to excuse our missteps or makes us into moral robots.

But is once a year (as per Rabbi Meir) enough?

Perhaps once a day strikes a nice balance between constant judgment — which can be oppressive — and a full year of unfettered human freedom.

Either way, I think this bit of Talmud raises interesting questions for us as we go into the High Holiday season. How often do we conduct exercises of introspection?

Do we do it at least once a year? More often? Do we do it too little? Or not enough?

Posted on September 2, 2008

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy