Monthly Archives: June 2012

Judaism Goes Green

by Kara A. Kaufman

Throughout the past several decades, organizations like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, Teva Learning Center and Hazon—as well as many others—have sprung up seemingly out of thin air. Their major goal? To couple religious teachings and belief with environmental stewardship. Their actions have the potential to enrich what it means to be part of the environmental movement today.

To many of us, environmental challenges may seem beyond our control, and outside the scope of our religious beliefs. But in many ways our faith-based texts, customs, holidays and laws can guide us as we attempt to live harmoniously with the other species—and other people—who share our planet. For instance, several biblical and rabbinic laws encourage humans to use natural resources, yet limit our consumption in key ways. To give two examples: The Bible allows us to farm the land, yet instructs us to leave the lands fallow every seven years; and we may destroy things in order to build new ones, yet the rabbinic principle of bal tashchit forbids us from wanton destruction or wastefulness.

In a manner reminiscent of biblical and rabbinic mandates to constrain our resource consumption, today’s leading scientists are beginning to calculate these very limitations of our planet. In a 2009 article published in Nature, 28 of the international community’s most renowned scientists called biodiversity, climate change and ocean acidification three of nine “planetary boundaries” critical to our own survival. It seems that ancient laws, customs, and holidays are increasingly relevant given modern environmental crises.

This post is the first in a series about the intersections between faith and the environment. The series will explore a number of related questions and issues. Topics include the shape of a Jewish environmental ethic, differences between Israeli and American viewpoints and examples of environmental action from within the Jewish and other faith communities. It will feature written articles as well as video and audio podcasts, broad discussion as well as individual profiles.

I invite you to engage with this topic with the question: What do you think of when you hear the words “Jewish environmental ethic?” Please post your comments below or email them to kkaufmanATmomentmag.com. Through all of our participation, this series aims to foster a rich dialogue about faith, our interactions with each other and our relationship to the natural world.

The Haredi PR Problem: Bad For (All) The Jews

by Ezer Smith

There has been some outrage recently over an Orthodox custom known as metzitzah b’peh, and justifiably so: The custom, during which the mohel sucks blood out of the circumcision wound with his mouth, has caused 11 cases of genital herpes in newborn boys since 2005. Two have died, and according to the New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene, some “became seriously ill” and others “developed brain damage.” This has prompted reactions from all areas of the journalistic and intellectual spectrum: Publications such as The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast have carried articles; Cantor Philip L. Sherman (a mohel) has included a short F.A.Q. about it on his website; Christopher Hitchens condemned it with his usual brand of anti-religion vitriol; and Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organization in Brooklyn has defended it, staunchly and vigorously.

What has been left out of the discussion is the effect this sort of thing has on the Jewish community, particularly in New York City, but elsewhere as well. And by “this sort of thing,” I mean, in addition to this most recent episode of bad press, the now well-publicized tendency of Haredim in New York City to underreport (if at all) accounts of child molestation and sexual assault within their community. I mean the anti-Internet protests held by this same group of Haredim that filled a baseball stadium.

I realize that there are two sides to every debate: the Internet really can be corrosive and disgusting; metzitzah b’peh is a 5,000-year-old tradition; and the molestation issue can be satisfied with Jewish law and custom. These arguments, particularly the latter two, may sound hollow and even morally repugnant, but they are arguments nonetheless. They are a necessary part of any conversation about the issue; self-righteousness and ethical bombast, from either side, won’t solve anything. But many Haredim don’t seem to be concerned with ‘debate,’ much less respecting anyone else’s opinion. They believe that they are a sacred community, bound together by God’s sacred word, and that this entitles them to whatever societal system they want to use. I think the logic goes: “American society and the American political system cannot exist forever, but God, and God’s commandments, will.”

My usual response to opinions like these is to throw my hands up and walk away. If people hold to their views that relentlessly, there can be no hope for reconciliation. This case is an exception, however. The ultra-Orthodox are no isolated group: they are Jews, and Jews come in all shapes, sizes, colors, personalities and ideologies. Whether they like it or not, at some level, these Haredim are lumped together with all the Reform, Conservative, Recontructionist, Sephardic, Humanistic and secular Jews the world over. This is what worries me: anything the Haredim do is tossed into the general category of ‘Jewish.’

At first blush, this may seem a bit selfish, and it is true that this problem does hold personal implications for me. At some level, as someone who defines “Jew” as “anyone who defines themselves as a Jew,” I really care for the Haredim. They are, for better or for worse, my brethren, my family. More than that, I think that they provide a unique perspective on Judaism and on life in general, one that must be considered. To marginalize or dismiss Haredi Jews is to do the same to their outlook, outdated and irrelevant as it may seem. I am for a Jewish tradition that welcomes all opinions, so as to let its members decide, after careful consideration, which one(s) suit them best.

This brings me to the problem of image as it relates to the broader Jewish community. Serious Orthodox Jews have never attempted to market themselves, and why should they? They have no dearth of new members: the birth rate per woman for Haredi Jews is around 6.5, comparable to that of Afghanistan. (The U.S. national rate, meanwhile, is about 2.1.) But a new report from the UJA-New York shows an interesting and perhaps troubling trend: Like the American political system, the Jewish population is expanding at its ideological edges. Secular and highly Orthodox Jews were the only groups that grew in population; all others declined.

The risk in these new numbers is clear: an increase in population in the two groups most at odds with each other means a growing split within the larger Jewish community. I have watched with growing consternation as the New York City Haredi community has blundered its way through these most recent incidents, and I’m sure many of my Jewish friends feel the same way. Most of the Jews I know would say they identify more with the principles of liberalism and fairness than those of Talmudic law; in fact, the two are not so different. It’s time for both groups, the secular Jews and the Haredim, to open lines of dialogue with each other about contemporary Jewish issues, because if they do not, we, as a Jewish community, risk a complete split. That would not be good for the Haredim, and that would not be good for the Jews.

Miss Holocaust 2012?

by Rebecca Borison

As the number of remaining Holocaust survivors inevitably diminishes, many have attempted to record the survivors’ stories, through books, videos or other means. Taking a new—and somewhat bizarre—approach to commemorating the survivors, Israeli aid organization Yad Ezer L’Haver has announced that they will be hosting a beauty pageant for female Holocaust survivors. The 65 original contestants, ages 78-92, have been narrowed down to the top 14, and they will now compete for the titles of Pageant Winner, Miss Congeniality and Audience Favorite.

The pageant is set to take place tomorrow. Not surprisingly, it has drawn much criticism and questioning.

In my middle school Hebrew class we were each paired up with a Holocaust survivor to interview. I sat in awe as I listened to this strong woman recall her life story. She looked like your typical bubbie, but she had gone through travails that few others could understand.

To this day, that is the picture I have in my mind: sitting in her living room, listening to her stories. And that, in my opinion, is the most appropriate way to honor Holocaust survivors.

Having Holocaust survivors strut down a runway just seems incredibly inappropriate. How is that honoring their heroic lives? How is that remembering the atrocities they went through? It seems like the beginning of a crude joke.

And to make things even worse, people have been writing the most distasteful comments on the Facebook event for the pageant. Nir Gilboa commented (in Hebrew), “And the 2012 beauty queen of the camp is… number 2434326523.” Alex Polonsky followed in suit with, “They’re always so thin in these competitions.” Others commented that the refreshments would be potato peels and that the winner would be called “Miss Block 6.”

I know that many argue that humor is the only way to deal with such horrifying issues, but I can’t help but feel disheartened by the whole conversation. This is no way to honor our predecessors.

And yet the event director seems unaffected by the responses. He told the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot that they decided to have the pageant “to show that the Holocaust survivors, with all the history they have experienced, are still women who want to celebrate themselves, have fun, and live…If someone raises an eyebrow, let them. We are doing this with a good attitude and pride.”

It just doesn’t feel right to me. If you wanted to celebrate these Holocaust survivors, why not honor them all with a banquet and give them each an award? A beauty pageant though…?

It’s Complicated with Judaism

by Kara A. Kaufman

A rabbi once told me that Judaism is not a religion.

I was confused.

Ethnicity? Nope. Culture? Wrong again. After pausing just long enough, the rabbi spilled his secret. Judaism is not a religion, he told me. It’s a relationship.

In the rabbi’s opinion, the primary purpose of every element of Judaism is to strengthen our relationship with God. We pray to verbally connect to God; we obey mitzvot even if we do not fully understand them (just as we would—or should—if a loved one asks for a favor without providing a full explanation). On Friday nights, we rise to greet the Sabbath bride. Judaism is a labor of love.

In his new book, In the Whirlwind: God and Humanity in Conflict, Yale Law School Professor Robert A. Burt analyzes the Bible through the framework of its relationships. As Burt noted during a recent talk in Washington, DC, he is not a theologian or a biblical scholar. Yet, after teaching an annual seminar entitled “The Book of Job and Injustice,” he became fascinated with the Bible’s deep insights into the human condition. Burt applies a psychoanalytic approach to biblical texts, relying on religious scholars for added insights into the nuances of Hebrew words and phrases. He studies what is written in ink and what is unstated between the lines in order to better understand—for himself and his students—the motivations behind the actions of the many figures in the Bible. It is as if he zooms in on these biblical narratives and asks, “What’s in it for humanity?” and then, “What’s in it for God?” Burt concludes that, at a fundamental level, both humanity and God seek love. “In God’s last appearance in the Hebrew Bible, in the Book of Job,” Burt writes, “his command for unconditional love seems to explode with primal force.”

As with the relationships between parent and child or teacher and student, the connection between God and humanity hinges on authority, argues Burt. At first, God insists on “unconditional obedience.” But once humans break God’s initial trust during their brief stay in the Garden of Eden, God reverts to other tactics. He makes promises, first to Noah, and then to Abraham and his descendants, then invitations (with the Israelites at Sinai) and then again makes commands and doles out punishment (with Moses’ declamation in Deuteronomy, as well as Kings Saul and David), changing tones and varying his offers each time in an attempt to craft the ideal roadmap for connection. His motive? Love and intimacy, which, as Burt argues, is embedded in his covenant at Sinai and in the first commandment—that the Jewish people should have “no other gods beside Me.”

However, humanity does not always take the bait. One of In the Whirlwind’s most intriguing arguments is that God’s authority and control is not perfect. Rather, it is rife with trials and mistrials, steps forward and steps back. “God persistently attempts to exert control over the humans he created, if not over the entire universe,” Burt writes, “and he repeatedly fails.” Humans frequently resist God’s authority. Moses and Job openly argue with God. The Jewish people grumble through the desert, fashion a golden calf, and go through spiritual “fallings out.”

As Burt’s title, God and Humanity in Conflict, aptly illustrates, love requires conflict if it is to succeed. I grew up thinking that Judaism was a religion, culture, ethnicity, way of life—yet never once would I have described it as a relationship. But maybe this new classification is merited. Perhaps biblical narratives give us a model of an interaction with God and authority that is not perfect, but instead grows through struggle, questions, and conflict. Perhaps our spiritual and emotional connection to God is more “human” than we may think.

And perhaps that is also what makes it so divine.

How Do You Say “Fail” in Hebrew?

by Rebecca Borison

With technology comes the chance of errors, some more public than others…

Ruta Kupfer of Haaretz recently revealed one such technology-related error on the television show “Episodes.” The British-American sitcom starring Matt Leblanc (a.k.a. Joey Tribbiani) embraced the modern age by apparently using Google Translate in order to translate an English epitaph into Hebrew. The English version simply reads “Beloved husband and father, dearly missed.” Above that, however, the Hebrew goes awry. While they clearly used Hebrew letters, they initially don’t seem to contain any actual meaning. That is, until blogger Shahar Golan realized that the Hebrew writing was backwards.

When read from right to left, the Hebrew actually says:

בעל ואב אהוב, החמיץ ביוקר

Which, unfortunately, translates to “Beloved husband and father, pickled at great expense.”

This is the translation you’ll get if you go to Google Translate, which it seems the forces behind the show did. You can easily see how such a mistake could happen: While the word החמיץ can be translated to mean “missed,” it would be used in the context of “he missed the opportunity” or “he missed the goal.” A second meaning of the Hebrew word–to which Golan refers–is “pickled.” This same root is used for pickle, as in a pickled cucumber (חָמוּץ מְלָפְפוֹן), as well as in the context of “I was pickled at the party.”  Suffice it to say, Google Translate was confused.

As Golan points out in his blog, did nobody at Showtime know a Hebrew-speaker who could translate a few words for them?

Yes, Google Translate is easy and available, but maybe it’s worth the effort to find a real translator in these scenarios.

In honor of Google Translate slipups, I decided to try translating the first lines of this post into Hebrew and then back into English to see what happens. Enjoy:

“With technology comes the chance of errors, some more than others … public. Ruta Kupfer Haaretz recently discovered one such mistake on the technology associated with the television program “chapters.” American British sitcom starring Matt Blanc (aka Joey Tribbiani) have adopted the modern age by using Google Translate to translate English into Hebrew inscription. English version simply calls “beloved husband and father, sorely lacking.” above it, however, Hebrew goes wrong. while they are clearly using Hebrew letters, they initially did not seem to contain any actual meaning. meaning to blogger Shahar Golan understood the Hebrew text was reversed.”

Pretty close, although I don’t know what would be worse on an epitaph, “pickled at great expense” or “sorely lacking.”

A New Jew?

by Kara A. Kaufman

A landmark study of Jewish life released today reveals the deep and sometimes surprising changes the Jewish community has undergone over the past decade.  The study, conducted by the UJA-Federation of New York and based on nearly 6,000 interviews in eight counties in New York, is the largest North American Jewish community study to date. The data help us better understand the contours of who we are as modern Jews in America, challenging popular stereotypes and pointing out the connections between trends within the Jewish world and those within broader American life.

The report illustrates several clear developments over the past decade. First, the size of the New York Jewish population has been growing over the past nine years, reaching 1.5 million in 2011. The study’s authors ascribe this rise to three primary factors: A rise in birth rates; increasing longevity (two factors that contribute to a ballooning of both young and old populations); and more fluid boundaries within the Jewish community. The number of people identifying as “Jewish” includes people of a wide spectrum of beliefs and backgrounds, including 12 percent of participants who self-identified as “partially Jewish.” Immigration, a driving force in population increases in the past, was not a prominent factor in the observed rise of the past decade.

Second, the report illustrates that New York’s Jewish community is increasingly diverse. People vary in their self-reported religious affinity, Jewish engagement, gender, race, ethnicity, language, socioeconomic status and sexual orientation. Five percent of study respondents live in an LGBT household (one in which at least one member identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender). Twelve percent of Jewish households surveyed are biracial or non-white. Fourteen percent of households in the study are Russian-speaking (most of whom live in city centers rather than the suburbs). These statistics paint the picture of an increasingly diverse Jewish family, in which parents may marry interracially, adopt non-white children and/or convert to Judaism from other religions.

Within New York’s Jewish world, nuanced sub-populations are growing. For instance, the Orthodox population, which some may consider homogeneous, is far from monolithic. Respondents self-identified with sub-groups such as Modern, Hasidic, Yeshivish, Haredi, Chabad and Lubavitch. While the striking diversity of New York is not representative of the entire United States, these statistics nonetheless suggest that Jews in America are individualizing the Jewish experience.

A third major trend is that, consistent with national figures, Jewish poverty is on the rise. Using 150% of the federal poverty guideline as the definition of “poor,” the study found that a striking 1 in 5 Jewish households in the sample area is poor, stating that “by all measures, the levels of Jewish poverty grew considerably since 2002.” Each year over the past decade, an average of 12,000 Jewish people were added to the numbers of those living in poor households. This rise in poverty is not limited to urban centers; in fact, the number of poor people in Jewish suburban homes has grown by 56% since 2002. This rise in overall and suburban poverty is consistent with larger regional and national trends, as illustrated by U.S. Census reports from the past decade.

Before reading this study, if someone had asked me to draw the picture of “a Jewish person in America” in 10 seconds or less, I would likely have sketched one of several people: a middle-aged Orthodox male bent over his siddur; a Conservative woman donning a tallit and ascending to the bimah; a Reform student on a Birthright trip to Israel. If that person had given me more time, I might have drawn dozens of figures, including a secular person who does not believe in God. But all would have shared certain things in common: All of my subjects would have been white; I would have assumed that they were middle- to upper-class, with the choice of sending their children to Jewish day school; and they may have spoken with a recognizable New York accent.

This study changes the portraits we would instinctively draw. It implores us to consider that one in five Jews in New York lives close to the federal poverty line; that 12 percent are black, Hispanic, Asian, biracial or multiracial; and that the language New York Jews speak at home may not be English. It begs us to question our assumptions about Jews in the United States, and consider what programs may be most needed to remediate increasingly important issues, like poverty, that affect us all. Although this study is at its core bound to the New York community and cannot be extrapolated infinitely, it nonetheless points to the fact that the Jewish community is diversifying, that people are individualizing their Jewish experience, and that—in the cases of socioeconomic status and age—the population is shifting more rapidly to the poles than the middle. Hopefully, policymakers will use this report to meet the needs of the present, not the past.

The full report, as well as an executive summary, are available online.

A Green Light on Kosher Slaughtering in the Land of the Red Light District

by Rebecca Borison

Who doesn’t love a kosher deli? Well, apparently not the Dutch Animal Rights Party. Last December, the Dutch party, “whose highest priority is animal welfare and the respectful treatment of animals,” set out to enhance Dutch slaughtering laws to protect the welfare of animals. For them, this translated into forcing slaughtering houses to stun every animal before slaughter, a practice that is banned in both Muslim and Jewish slaughtering.

Coming to the rescue of kosher- and halal-observant residents of Holland, Dutch Agriculture Minister Hans Bleker signed an agreement last week with Jewish and Muslim leaders that will make an exception for ritual slaughtering, which does not require pre-slaughter stunning provided the animal is unconscious within 40 seconds of the start of the slaughtering.

Let’s take a step back for a minute.  Since when is shechita, kosher slaughtering, bad for animals? Maybe it’s just me, but I remember learning that it was actually the opposite and that shechita was extremely careful in terms of the welfare of animals. Why was this even an issue to begin with?

And it’s not just the Netherlands we’re dealing with. Shechita is outright banned in Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Why the uproar?

According to Shechita UK, it comes down to misperception and lack of understanding. Yes, shechita is different than typical slaughtering, but in reality it is even more humane.

Warning: Those who get queasy at the mention of blood might want to skip this next paragraph.

The idea behind stunning an animal is to render it unconscious before the slaughtering, ensuring that the animal feels no pain. In conventional slaughtering, the animal is shot in the head, rendering it unconscious; the throat is then cut and the animal bleeds out. In actuality, the animal sometimes regains consciousness between the stunning and the slaughtering, totally defeating the purpose of stunning. In shechita, on the other hand, the incision itself renders the animal unconscious, allowing the stunning and slaughtering to occur at the same time, and preventing the animal from regaining consciousness. So in reality, shechita is more humane than conventional slaughtering.

For those who skipped the last paragraph, all you need to know is that you can continue to eat your kosher meat worry-free. And if any of the members of the Dutch Animal Rights Party happen to be reading this, listen up: shechita is actually better for the welfare of animals.

Nobody’s perfect, of course–the AgriProcessors scandal taught us that much–but if kosher slaughterhouses actually stick to the rules of kashrut, there’s no reason to be worried about animal welfare. Dr. Stuart Rosen of Imperial College, London, wrote in his paper “Physiological Instincts Into Shechita” that “shechita is a painless and humane method of animal slaughter.”

So if you are one of us remaining few non-vegetarians, rest assured that, if all is as it should be, your kosher meat was acquired in an entirely humane process.