Tag Archives: Politics

Shabbat’s Gray Area

by Rebecca Borison

Israeli President Shimon Peres recently announced that he has cancelled his trip to London for the Olympics’ opening ceremony. Why? When he discovered that the ceremony would be taking place on a Friday night, Peres, unable to find a hotel within walking distance of the Olympic grounds, decided to cancel the trip.

For most of the Shabbat-observant—those of us whose daily work doesn’t have an imminent impact on world matters—taking a break from technology for 25 hours is more of a personal challenge than a matter of political import. But what about those for whom it is? What if resting on Shabbat impacts a country or even the world? What happens when a Shabbat-observer enters into the realm of politics?

Judaism has a principle called pikuach nefesh, which means that in life-threatening situations, Jewish law can be somewhat altered. Many translate this into allowing doctors to work on Shabbat, for example. Their ability to save a life trumps the laws of Shabbat and the necessity to rest. The principle becomes a little murkier when applied to other realms of life, such as political issues, which may not be seen as equally life-threatening on an individual basis.

Can a politician employ pikuach nefesh to enable him to work on shabbat?

In his recent book, The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, Senator Joe Lieberman discusses the conflicts that arise as an observant Jew in Congress. In 1988, when Lieberman was nominated for Senate, he decided to pre-tape his acceptance speech rather than travel to the ceremony on Shabbat. In 2010, however, Lieberman decided to answer the phone on Shabbat in order to convince Senator Lindsey Graham not to withdraw his support for the American Energy Act.

For Lieberman, that was a case where he had to prioritize global climate change over the laws of Shabbat. Lieberman writes, “I understand that the privileges I’ve been given to be in public office also involve responsibilities that also sometimes conflict with Shabbat, so I’ve got to do the best I can to reconcile those conflicts.” In order to make the best decisions, Lieberman consults with Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel congregation on the guidelines he should keep in mind. One of the guidelines is a “hierarchy of ways” to get to Capitol Hill on Shabbat depending on the level of urgency.

Following in Lieberman’s footsteps, Jack Lew has returned Shabbat to the forefront of America’s political sphere. As the White House Chief of Staff, Lew is forced to balance the Jewish six-day work week with the White House seven-day work week.

JTA notes one particular intersection of the two worlds. Some years ago, Lew returned home from synagogue on Shabbat to hear his phone ringing. As he always did, he waited to hear the call on the answering machine to determine if it was urgent enough to pick up. It was someone from the White House calling to tell Lew to ignore a previous message from Bill Clinton. Clinton had been overseas and forgot that it was still Shabbat in Washington. The message was not urgent.

The fact that President Clinton now has Shabbat on his radar is a success in and of itself. Because Lew has made Shabbat a priority, the White House respects his decision and works with him to create the best possible balance. By bringing Jewish values into the public eye, Lew is epitomizing the value of Kiddush Hashem.

In Peres’s case, we can probably agree that going to the Olympics can in no way be considered a life-threatening situation. It probably falls pretty low on the hierarchy. While the Olympics are a big deal, Peres decided to choose Shabbat, making an even bigger statement. Peres upholding the importance of Shabbat is not only good PR for the Jews, but also a good lesson to the world about where we place our priorities. Yes, it would be great to go to the Olympics opening ceremony, but not at the cost of Jewish principles.

As Rabbi Ethan Tucker wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward, “The Torah intends for Jews–especially observant ones–to be visible, engaged in society and capable of taking on responsibility for others as opposed to just looking out for their parochial interests.” When that value conflicts with our other Torah obligations, we are forced into a gray area. But that should never stop us from being visible and engaged. It’s all about living in the gray.

 

Election News Roundup

By Monika Wysocki

Here’s a look at a few religion and politics highlights from this week…

The newest front-runner in the wildly unpredictable GOP primary, former Senator Rick Santorum, has dominated the media cycle with his provocative remarks about President Obama—accusing the President of governing based on “a phony theology, not a theology based on the Bible,” and accusing him of orchestrating an “assault on all religion in America.” On Monday, Santorum’s spokeswoman mentioned President Obama’s “radical Islamic policies” in an interview on MSNBC—only to call the show after the interview to say she misspoke.

In the midst of the religious attacks, Santorum is surging in national polls and attracting larger crowds at public events, putting him on the stage as a serious contender for the nomination. Despite widespread disapproval and calls from 15 religious organizations for presidential candidates to refrain from using religion as a “political wedge issue,” Santorum’s remarks are likely to raise his profile and appeal to the surprising number of Americans who are unsure about President Obama’s faith. Which is no small matter—the latest research by the Pew Forum found that “beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance…” If Santorum succeeds in re-invigorating false claims that President Obama is a Muslim, the president’s approval ratings will likely suffer—despite his candid remarks on his personal religious beliefs.

Santorum is not the only candidate that has doubts about the sincerity of President Obama’s faith. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has also accused the President of “an assault on religion,” while Gingrich today called the president “the most dangerous president in modern American history,” arguing that the Obama administration has failed to address the problem of radical Islamists. Franklin Graham expressed similar notions on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” saying that “Islam has gotten a free pass under Obama.”

Santorum’s controversial remarks might win him support from evangelical Christians that are alarmed over the recent contraceptives debate, but in the long run the religion-based rhetoric could also alienate women and independent voters. Dick Polman points out that the largest Catholic college in America routinely offers birth-control coverage in its employee benefits and that the majority of Catholics support a federal requirement that private health insurance plans cover the full cost of birth control. In the end, Santorum’s attempts to brand himself as the most conservative of the GOP candidates and President Obama as an anti-Catholic may do the GOP more harm than good in November.

Left-leaning, But Not Left Behind

by Erica Shaps

I am not a rabbinical student. My talit was made in Israel and I recently celebrated my 20th birthday in Jerusalem, not Ramallah. I am not a card-carrying member of J Street. Although I do not fit the descriptions in Rabbi Daniel Gordis’s anecdotes, I strongly identify as a “young liberal American Jew” similar to those he has written about with increasing alarm and fear.

I have deep respect for Gordis, and have read his work fairly regularly since I was fifteen. However, I find his recent articles about rabbinical students’ relationship with Israel and, by extension, my generations’ shifting attitudes regarding Israel, to be shortsighted and concerning.

In a lengthy piece in Commentary, Gordis expresses trepidation regarding rabbinical students’ Israeli politics and what this may mean for the future. He poses the question, “Are Young Jews Turning On Israel?” I share his concern for the future of Jewish leadership and the wider community. However, my primary concern is not an abundance of future rabbis criticizing Israel from the pulpit. Instead, I am concerned about a day when they are indifferent toward Israel.

From my experience, many active liberal Jews in my generation experience a moment of epiphany in which they realize Israel isn’t perfect. Often, they respond with one of three broad reactions: They become completely apathetic to Israel; they join anti-Zionist organizations or become active in movements like the BDS effort; or, to use Gordis’s terms, they work to reconcile their inclination toward universalism with their desire to maintain particularism toward the Jewish people. They try to create a world and an Israel that is better than the one they inherited. This final category likely includes many of the rabbinical students in the Jewish Theological Seminary’s recent and fascinating survey, which was largely prompted by Gordis’ article. Ninety-four percent of both current and former students polled “feel Zionist.” When asked about specific groups, 58% of students said they favorably viewed J Street, a left-leaning Zionist organization that Gordis has criticized. Meanwhile, AIPAC, the largest and most established Israel lobby, was viewed favorably by only 42%.

In his latest article, Gordis still feels that rabbinical students are sacrificing Zionism for liberalism. I can’t comment on his claims regarding the survey’s validity, but I am frustrated by his analysis of its results. Maybe rabbinical schools should review their Israel education programs. My question is, what should this new curriculum include: Materials from diverse perspectives? Or should students simply re-learn the narrative from Hebrew school that failed to quench their thirst for knowledge years ago?

My greatest concern is Gordis’s claim that “responding to this challenge… will be a matter of admissions.” If I understand this correctly, it pains me to think of how many bright and passionate young Jews may be turned away by such a policy. As a member of the laity, I want a rabbi who thinks critically about everything–including Israel.

All of the reasons Gordis gives for this phenomenon (a commitment to universalism over particularism and naivete among them) point to faults within the rabbinical students. However, is it possible that the problem lies within Israel’s policies as well? Could it be that the current Israeli government’s actions, or lack thereof, and not the students’ naivete and universalism, are the catalyst for this notable shift in attitude?

If I could offer Gordis and his contemporaries some advice, I’d say this: We are not turning on Israel, so don’t turn on us. By all means, disagree with us, but please don’t push us away. Let’s talk openly and equally, without predetermined conclusions. If rabbinical students say they are Zionists, don’t tell them that they identified themselves incorrectly because of where they celebrated their birthday or what organizations they might support.

Gordis is right to say that “memory is the first factor.” My generation didn’t witness the 1967 war. Israel has been occupying another people for the entire duration of our lives. We have repeatedly witnessed Israel enact policies that further work against its long-term interest. For better or worse, these events are cemented in our memories.

Unlike my grandparents, I cannot see Israel as a mythic utopia out of a Leon Uris novel. After spending four months studying and volunteering here, I see Israel as a complicated and dynamic country that is my spiritual home, the epicenter of my culture and the eternal homeland of my people. It is a place that brings out the best in me. I do not love Israel less than my parents and grandparents: I love Israel differently. I’m sure many of the rabbinical students in question would express similar sentiments.

 

The Jewish National Pastime

By Aarian Marshall

Some people collect stamps, others baseball cards—Neil Keller collects famous Jews. He speaks quickly, with a slight lisp, and with his red polo and faded jean shorts, looks like he took a wrong turn on the way to a suburban Little League game, though it’s unclear whether he belongs with the throng of eager parents in the stands, or with the overexcited kids in the diamond. Before him is a tableful of binders, each nearly five inches thick. They are color-coded, their titles neatly typed and affixed to their fronts. And Neil Keller is grinning, in a way one rarely sees among men in their thirties.

His website boasts that Neil is the “Expert On Who Is Jewish,” and that his collection of Jewish memorabilia, which includes over 15,000 items, is one of the largest in the world. And that is what’s in those binders—pages and pages of sports trading cards, signed headshots, and personally addressed letters from thousands of celebrities, either confirming or denying their Jewish-ness.

“John Kerry is half-Jewish,” he told me. “His father changed his last name from ‘Cohen.’” So is Katie Couric—through her mother’s side. Blonde, buxom, blue-eyed Scarlett Johansson was raised celebrating the Festival of Lights. And Marilyn Monroe, that other blonde, converted to marry the playwright Arthur Miller. Most surprising? “Probably Elvis Presley. There’s a Star of David on his mother’s gravestone.”

Neil began his project on a whim. He was at a flea market in 1990 when he spotted a Sandy Koufax trading card. “I knew he was Jewish,” Neil said, “and that he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.” As the product of an Orthodox community (though not an Orthodox household), Neil respected that. “I read something about him, learned that his catcher was also Jewish,” he remembers. From sports, it moved onto entertainment, to politics.

With the advent of the Internet, Neil’s research has become a lot easier, but he spends a lot of time corresponding with celebrities themselves. He estimates that of all the celebrities he has written, 90-95 percent have written him back. Robert De Niro sent him an autographed headshot (not Jewish). Madonna reported that she had shared his website with her friends at the Kabbalah center. When Hall of Fame baseball player Rod Carew wrote Neil to tell him that no, he had not converted to Judaism (despite his taking to wearing a chai in photographs), Neil sent the information to Adam Sandler, whose popular Chanukah Song had included Carew in its run-down of Jewish people. Sandler wrote back to thank Neil, and subsequently changed the lyrics of the song.

Neil’s total investment in this hobby might seem strange, but considering his warm receptions at speaking engagements, it might not just be Neil: this obsession spans the Jewish community. Neil travels to camps and JCCs alike to give short talks, consisting of forty-five minutes of straight trivia. Perhaps short is an understatement—at one talk in Toronto, the audience kept Neil onstage for a full four hours. “People love to hear about this,” Neil says. “They love to know who is Jewish.”

He might have a point—something of a cottage industry has cropped up around the question of who, exactly, is Jewish. Sandler’s Chanukah Song aside, there’s Guess Who’s the Jew, a website that allows users to, well, guess who’s Jewish. The Chicago Tribune inexplicably maintains a website of celebrity Jews, as does Wikipedia. And the blog Stuff Jewish People Like, which occasionally updates a list of things that really get Jewish people going (Florida! All You Can Eat Buffets!), names Famous Jews as its number one.

Which raises the question: Why? Why are Jews so into knowing who is Jewish? For some, knowing whether a public figure is Jewish can become a strange, inexplicable need, the seed of a thousand Googlings. Maybe it’s because there’s something a little goofy about imagining that hot stud on the television chanting at his Bar Mitzvah, kippah slipping off his head. We do silly things for Judaism sometimes, but so do you, Jake Gyllenhaal.

Neil had as much trouble putting his finger on it as I did. “It’s…inherited,” he said. “We all want to know.” Heebz!, a group that maintains its own Famous Jews website, asserts that Jews are “at the center of every creative, scientific, cultural, political and philosophical endeavor,” and while that might be a bit of an overstatement, it’s true that there is this peculiar “Jewish Mystique.” Maybe it’s because being Jewish occasionally veers into the not-so-cool—the hair, the nose, the books—that famous Jews are so thrilling. Think we’re ugly? Take a look at Natalie Portman. Think we’re wimpy? Challenge Bruce Goldberg to a wrestling match.

Maybe there’s a bit Neil’s self-affirming, red-poloed exhilaration inside all of us. Neil wants to find me a picture of Elvis Presley’s mother’s grave, and his keyboard clacks furiously. “Oh!” he stops. “The creator of Google is Jewish!” And that, I decide, is kind of cool.

Governor Perry Wants You to Find Jesus

By Steven Philp

Whether you are Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, if you are passing through the Lone Star State on August 6 you might encounter an unexpected stranger: Jesus. That is if you believe the testimony given by Eric Bearse, spokesperson for The Response; according to a radio interview posted on Right Wing Watch, Bearse has promised that the event—an ecumenical prayer meeting scheduled at the Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX—will allow people “regardless of their faith tradition or background… [to] feel the love, grace, and warmth of Jesus Christ.”

Bearse’s comments—broadcast on American Family Radio—came after the event received heavy criticism for alienating non-Christian Texans; after all, The Response is being co-hosted by the office of Texas Governor Rick Perry. His administration published a press release on June 6advertising the event. In the statement, he issues an official proclamation for a “Day of Prayer and Fasting for our Nation to seek God’s guidance and wisdom in addressing the challenges that face our communities, states and nation” and encourages his fellow governors to give similar legislation in their states. The official website for the governor continues to carry the statement, which implies that his administration is strongly biased toward the Christian tradition despite the diversity of his constituents. According to the Association of Religion Data Archives, a 2000 survey estimates that both the Jewish and Muslim populations of Texas fall over 100,000 individuals respectively.

According to his press release, Governor Perry’s participation in the event is motivated by a vision of “unity and righteousness for our states, nation, and mankind.” He states, “Given the trials that beset our nation and world, from the global economic downturn to natural disasters, the lingering danger of terrorism and continued debasement of our culture, I believe it is time to convene the leaders from each of our United States in a day of prayer and fasting, like that described in the book of Joel.” Yet he is decidedly non-specific concerning what is degrading American culture. If anything, the language is uncomfortably similar to a number of extreme conservative voices; a quick search of the Internet will reveal that the term “debasement of our culture” or “debasement of American culture” is used in reference to the LGBTQ community, immigrants and us: the Jewish community.

The association between Governor Perry and the event is complicated by its co-host, the ultraconservative American Family Association. This organization has lent its voice to a number of national issues, including freedom of religion, same-sex marriage and abortion; their advocacy trends to the far right, and it has become a leader in the fight against religious pluralism, marriage equality, and the right to choose. According to the Action Statement posted on its Web site, the American Family Association hopes “to restrain evil by exposing the works of darkness.” A component of this is converting individuals to Christianity. It is evident that The Response is another evangelical tool of this organization; in fact, Bearse explained that a component of the event is to convey the message that “there’s hope if people will seek out the living Christ.” Naturally, religious expression and the right to assemble is protected by the First Amendment. Yet some are questioning whether Governor Perry’s sponsorship of an event that—in part—envisions the United States as a Christian nation is appropriate of his office.

On June 9, the Jewish Anti-Defamation League released a statement criticizing Governor Perry; while it supports the need to address the economic and social hardships faced by many Texans, the ADL does “not agree that official statements and rallies that divide along religious lines are a productive way to address these difficulties.” The press release—authored by Martin B. Cominsky, ADL Southwest Regional Director—continues, stating that elected officials should not be using the resources at their disposal to promote events that endorse a specific religion over others. Although the statement from Governor Perry promises that he has attended functions “hosted by various faith traditions,” it does not hide the fact that The Response is Christian, albeit “non-denominational” and “apolitical.” Regardless, his sponsorship of the event has revealed which Texans Governor Perry is representing, and it is certainly not all of them.

 

Jews Support Both Life and Choice

By Steven Philp

On Friday the House of Representatives passed a measure to suspend $330 million of Title X federal funding for Planned Parenthood on the grounds that tax dollars should not be granted to organizations that provide abortions. According to ABC News, votes were generally split along party lines: 240 to 185, with ten Democrats voting in favor of the bill and seven Republicans against. Debate concerning the measure was held the previous evening, including an emotional testimony by Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) about her personal experience with abortion. Responding to a graphic depiction of the procedure by Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), Speier explained that she had elected for an abortion at 17 weeks. She continued, “For you to stand on this floor and to suggest, as you have, that somehow this is a procedure that is either welcomed or done cavalierly or done without any thought is preposterous.” Speier then outlined how the removal of federal funding has little do with relieving the budget deficit, but rather is representative of a conservative vendetta against Planned Parenthood.

The author of the amendment, Representative Mike Pence (R-IN), argues that although the public supports legal abortions, they do not want to see their tax dollars pay for them. According to an article posted on Politico, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) agreed with Pence stating, “The time has come to respect the wishes of the majority of Americans who adamantly oppose using taxpayer dollars for abortions.” Cantor is the only Jewish Republican in the current congress. His views were echoed last month by Orthodox Rabbi Yehuda Levin, President of Jews for Morality and national spokesperson of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. In an interview with the New American given before participating in the anti-choice 38th Annual March for Life, he explained that “the traditional Jewish position on abortion is that the sanctity of the life of the unborn child and pregnant mother come first and foremost. Judaism does not sanction abortion on demand. In fact, abortion is forbidden in almost all circumstances.” At the rally he led the crowd in chanting “Defund Planned Parenthood!” He was joined by a number of religious leaders from across faith lines who oppose the use of tax dollars by organizations that perform abortions.

Yet the debate seems misplaced, as Planned Parenthood is prevented by law from using the $330 million it receives from the federal government for abortions. Instead these funds are funneled in to preventative health services including contraception, pregnancy screening and counseling, cancer screening, and HIV testing. This was touched upon by a letter sent to Congress by several branches of the Reform movement—including the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis—urging the House to vote against the amendment. Although the letter outlined the need to keep money spent on abortions apart from federal funding, it stated that “Jewish tradition is emphatic about the importance of the community providing health care for its most vulnerable residents. Supporting Planned Parenthood in its efforts to reach millions of under-served men and women helps us fulfill that commandment.” It is unfair to prevent Planned Parenthood from providing life-saving services on the grounds that the organization also allows for abortions, a non-federally funded and legal procedure. Whether one is pro-choice or anti-choice, Jews are pro-life: As the letter states, “all life is sacred in Judaism;” Planned Parenthood provides many essential services beyond this single procedure to millions of men and women each year. It should only make sense that Jews of all denominations “stand with Planned Parenthood.”

For Israel, Tough Choices on Egypt

By Steven Philp

On Saturday Israeli President Shimon Peres offered a defense of beleaguered Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, on the grounds that his rule has been characterized by three decades of stability between their respective nations. According to Haaretz, Israeli officials are concerned that if Mubarak is forced to step down the 1979 peace deal between their respective nations could be compromised. Peres seemed particularly concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that their participation in the opposition movement casts doubt over continuing peace with Israel. Addressing members of the European Parliament, Peres lauded Mubarak for maintaining accord with Israel, stating, “His contribution to peace, as far as I’m concerned, will never be forgotten.”

Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei attempted to assuage these fears in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press, stating that the peace established by the Camp David Accords – signed by former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin – is “rock solid,” even as the desire to see the emergence of a Palestinian state is vocalized by anti-government protestors. Yet these wishes, he assured “have nothing to do with the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel… which has been concluded.” It is his assumption that his nation will continue to respect the agreement. According to Haaretz, the Muslim Brotherhood – of which Peres expressed concern – has recently alluded to a tacit acceptance of the Camp David Accords, a possible reversal from their long-held opposition to peace with Israel.

Perhaps Peres’ fears will not be met. Yet – looking to his speech for members of the European Parliament – we are left to wonder if the maintenance of the Camp David Accords is reason enough for Israelis, or the wider Jewish community, to throw our hat in with Hosni Mubarak. Are we not similarly called by our heritage to oppose the tyranny of his authoritarian rule, which extends uncontested from his appointment to presidency on October 14, 1981 to the first demonstrations several weeks ago? Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed the Jewish hope for democracy in a speech made before the Knesset last Wednesday, saying, “All those who value freedom are inspired by the calls for democratic reforms in Egypt. An Egypt that will adopt these reforms will be a source of hope for the world. As much as the foundations for democracy are stronger, the foundations for peace are stronger.”

We walk a dangerous line when the security of Israel takes primacy over the Jewish value of human dignity. It is understandable that Israeli officials will support foreign leaders who honor stability in that region and peace with the Jewish state. Yet at what cost do we continue our allegiance? By speaking on behalf of Mubarak, Peres aligns his administration with an authoritarian leader who has stifled the voice of his people for three decades. Even as Netanyahu champions democracy, a resistance to the transition of power in Egypt belies this hope. For Jews living in the Diaspora, we can be torn between those politicians that support Israel and those who more accurately represent our ethical framework. It is troublesome when our identification with the Jewish community is more contingent on the former than the latter. In a perfect world they are not exclusive of one another. But as illustrated above, at times these issues will come in to conflict. The question is then to which Jewish value do we ascribe: allegiance to Israel, or human dignity? And does it matter if the dignity in question belongs to those outside the Jewish community?