Knesset OK of Pluralistic Prayer Ban Has Far Reaching Consequences

The Western Wall, with crowd in front and Jerusalem Skyline beyond.

The Western Wall

Imagine being invited to a party. Of course, you knew that you would be invited since you are related to the celebrants. In fact, you helped pay for the party. Even though you are an out of town guest, you have been in touch with the hometown family, following their lives, investing in their businesses, and supporting their decisions. Whether or not you agree with them, you have been there for them and with them – always with unwavering devotion. That is what you expect of yourself as a member of this large extended family.

After entering the dance hall, you approach a table with place-cards arranged alphabetically. It is strange that your place at a table is not listed. As the band plays, the celebrants dance the hora. You, however, are told to stand to the side. [Read more…]

Waking Up to a New World: A New President Is Elected

We awoke this morning to a new world. Of course, whenever a new president is elected, one can anticipate changes, if not in substance then in appearance, style and nuanced differences. But the change we anticipate today requires us to consider the notion of “a new world” more literally. [Read more…]

Thou Shalt Not Remain Indifferent

Rabbi Marks, left. Elie Wiesel, center.

Rabbi Marks, left. Elie Wiesel, center.

Elie Wiesel was not an Israeli citizen. Nevertheless, the news in Israel refers to him as “one of our own.” In a country whose establishment is inextricably tied to the Holocaust, the messages conveyed by his words, both written and spoken, articulate both the lessons of the Holocaust and, in a powerful way, the importance of the State of Israel. Israel, of course, provides the place to which Jews may escape and find safe haven when the forces of anti-Semitism imperil their lives. Today, the influx of Jews from France provides but one example of how important this aspect of Israel remains. But Wiesel’s message went beyond anti-Semitism, challenging Israel to be more than a place for Jews, but a place illuminated by Jewish values. Wiesel loved Israel. Had there been an Israel prior to WWII, one can only imagine how many Jews could have been saved. But Wiesel loved Israel not only because it was a place for Jews, but because it was the only place in this world where Judaism, Hebrew and Torah could gain full expression.

I had the privilege of hearing Elie Wiesel speak on numerous occasions. Most memorable was his visit to our congregation, some twelve years ago, arranged for by our member, my dear friend and friend of Wiesel, David Pincus, z”l. Each time I heard Elie Wiesel speak, the power and poetry of his words touched me deeply. But it was not just the stories of the Holocaust which stirred him. As distance from the Holocaust grew, his message to those who would listen focused powerfully and forcefully on today’s world. Whether speaking to the UN about the growth of anti-Semitism or identifying today’s tyrants who orchestrate the mass murder of their own citizens, Wiesel was tireless, fearless and unwavering.

While mourning Wiesel’s death, we were reminded of the urgency and timeliness of the message of his life. Over the course of the 24 hours before or after his death, we learned of a spate of brutal, gruesome and senseless attacks. In a cafe in Bangladesh gunmen entered and executed 20 people. In Baghdad a suicide bomber drove his van into an area crowded with people celebrating the end of Ramadan, killing more than 140. ISIS has claimed responsibility for these attacks, as well as the attack in the airport in Istanbul. Here in Israel, during that same 24 hour period, we learned of the stabbing of a 13 year-old girl by a terrorist who broke into her house and stabbed her while she slept in her bed.

And then there was the random attack on a rabbi and his family coming home to prepare for Shabbat.

Rabbi Marks, left, looks on as Elie Wiesel attaches mezuza.

Rabbi Marks, left, looks on as Elie Wiesel attaches mezuza.

Rabbi Miki Marks, the Head Rabbi/Rosh Yeshiva of the Yeshiva in the town of Otniel, had a reputation for being open and kind, a rare Rabbi who wanted to find ways to live and co-exist with his Palestinian neighbors. It was because of this reputation that Elie Wiesel agreed to come to that Yeshiva some years ago as the Yeshiva’s new building was being dedicated. In a photograph being circulated today, Wiesel and Rabbi Marks are seen smiling and clapping hands as the mezuza was affixed to the doorpost at the entrance to the building by Elie Wiesel. It is ironic that the Rabbi was killed just before Shabbat, less than 24 hours before Wiesel died.

Israelis, secular and religious alike, have been stunned by the senseless attack on the Rabbi of Otniel and the attack on a girl sleeping in her bed. Meanwhile, the world is shocked once again, by the murderous rampages of an unrestrained and unrepentant Radical Islam. (Israelis cannot comprehend how the world can be stunned by the terrorism perpetrated by ISIS around the world while remaining indifferent to attacks in Israel. But that discussion is for another time.) Even Wiesel’s powerful voice was unable to shake the world’s conscience in order to generate a global call for justice for Israel. But Wiesel never stopped trying.

I don’t know what Israel or humanity can do to fight the evil which seems to fill our world. Elie Wiesel charged us with the responsibility to bear witness. He implored us never to forget. In response to a lifetime of pleas by Elie Wiesel, in response to the terrorism which is inflicted daily upon Israelis, in response to a world which seems permeated with hatred, we must never stop trying. What then shall we do? That is a question we must each answer for ourselves. But this much I know: in response to a hate-filled and violence-crazed world, in solidarity with Israel and as an homage to the life and work of Elie Wiesel, z”l, we cannot forget, we cannot ignore, we must never become indifferent.

Transgender Rights are Jewish Values

all-gender-bathroom-flickr-640x480At the beginning of Parashat Emor, the Torah focuses on the Kohanim, the priestly caste among the Jewish People, whose responsibility it was to offer the sacrifices in the ancient Temple. A religion based on the rituals of animal and grain sacrifices, the ancient biblical religion, was very different from the Judaism which evolved from it and with which we are familiar. At that time, prayer, spoken prayer, was not the medium by which one addressed and “got closer” to God. Sacrifice was the way. In fact, the Hebrew word “sacrifice” (korban) means “to come close.” Sacrifices provided the vehicle for proximity to God.

And so, the parasha discusses the qualities and qualifications of the priests, only men, those who would facilitate and perform the rituals. But the Torah is not concerned only with training, with intent and skill. The Kohanim, we are told, were required to meet certain physical requirements:

No man… who has a defect shall be qualified (as a priest) to make an offering. No man who is blind or lame or has a limb too short or too long (is qualified). Neither shall a man who is a hunchback or has a broken leg or broken arm, a dwarf or one who has a growth in his eye. . .

To our modern sensibilities, this discriminatory position, disqualifying a person from serving God, from fulfilling his sacred responsibility as a result of a congenital deformity or an injury, through no fault of his own, seems grossly unfair. Indeed, these disqualifying characteristics became a source of discomfort and embarrassment to later scholars and serious readers of the Torah.

Maimonides, the great scholar of the 12th century, for example, was a physician by profession, a Jewish scholar and a great philosopher. As he tries to explain this passage, one has a sense, that he, too, is quite bothered by it. Commenting on the disqualifying characteristics imposed on the priesthood, Maimonides observes:

It may well be that this reflected a common prejudice of associating one’s character with his outer appearance and the necessity of the priest to inspire feelings of reverence and holiness in the people. . . Most people do not estimate a person by his true form, but by his limbs and his clothing.

Without saying so, in explaining this passage from the Torah, Maimonides seems to suggest that this law is there for the sake of those who are superficial, who judge others by outer qualities, not by the essence of that person’s deeper self. And Maimonides is not the only one to feel that way. That is what Martin Luther King, 850 years after Maimonides, proclaimed when he spoke on behalf of civil rights before the throngs gathered in Washington DC on August 28, 1963: “Judge not a person by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”

What Maimonides intimated, already in the medieval times, what Martin Luther King proclaimed to all Americans when he spoke, was we still have not learned. We must do better than this. We are better than this.

We have an obligation to look deeper at our fellow person, to consider the inner beauty of all creatures. One may not be outwardly beautiful; one may not appear to be in physical conformity to some arbitrary ideal; one’s appearance may not conform to society’s “preferences.” But today, we must be better than that. Our age requires of us greater sophistication and understanding. We must be able to look deeper, in a more discerning and more compassionate way.

Our ancient ancestors, who were ignorant of medicine and science, did not understand anomalies of nature. They believed that those who were stricken by disease, functioned with deficits or were hindered by a deformity were being punished by God. After all, how could God have allowed this to occur? How could this not be a punishment, a curse? That rather primitive view was prevalent in ancient times. But, sad to say, that ancient, anachronistic and hurtful theology seems to serve many people, even today.

There are people today who still view mutations and differences as punishments as evidence that God’s word is not being followed. For some, it is theology. For others, it may be simply fear of that which is different. But whatever the motivation, those whose appearances and identities do not conform to the standards and categories that make us comfortable are subjected to ridicule, condemnation and violence. Some seem intent, even self-righteous, as they inflict further pain and insult upon those who are different, rather than confronting their own fears and prejudices. And all of this has been laid bare for all to see, in its ugliness and in its discriminatory nature, in some responses, in West Virginia and elsewhere, to those who are transgender.

The condemnation in certain religious communities directed at those who are transgender carries its adherents back to times when differences were not understood, when those who were different would be penalized, shunned, discriminated against and ostracized. Today we have the benefits of science and medicine to inform us that those who do not conform to our notions of what is normal are not renegades or revolutionaries intent on changing others.

Those, to cite a different context, whose sexual orientation draws them toward others of the same, rather than the opposite sex, are not choosing a position in order to be contrary. Those who are gay or lesbian can legitimately say, “This is not a choice I have made. This is who I am: kach nivraiti. This is how I was created.”

A person who is deaf or blind is guilty of no sin. That is how they were created: “Kach Nitreiti : If you don’t like how I was made, take it up with God!”

It seems to me that these cases are not much different from those cases in which a man or a woman has been born into the wrong body. That is what a person who is transgender must contend with: to dwell in a body which is opposite their own identity. We cannot imagine what such a realization must be like: to realize that your body does not reflect who you are inside. My sense is that it is more difficult than anyone who has not faced this dilemma personally can imagine. But my concern today is not simply how a person who is transgender feels. My concern is how the rest of us respond.

Maimonides said of the people who lived at his time that their prejudice was to associate one’s character with one’s outer appearance. Most people do not estimate a person by his/her true form but by their limbs and their clothing. In this observation, expressed 900 years ago, Maimonides’ implicit criticism is felt. Maimonides knew that view was unfortunate and shallow. I believe this shallow view embarrassed him. And here we are now, 900 later, in the most sophisticated and highly educated society in the world, and we still have not figured out how to respond properly to those whose appearance may not match their deeper, true identity.

A question was once asked about the creation of humanity: Why did God create the world with only one male and one female rather than fully populated? The answer, found in the Talmud, is provided by way of beautiful analogy:

Humanity began with a single person in order to show God’s greatness. While a person may stamp many coins from a single die, and they are all alike, the King of Kings has stamped every person individually and yet none of them is alike.

Every person is created in God’s image. Yet every person is different, both inside and out. Those who do not conform to our prejudices and expectations are in God’s image no less than those who meet our preconceived physical standards. Each person must know that he/she is created b’tzelem Elohim  (in God’s image). Each person must say, not with resignation but with pride, kach nivreiti, this is how God made me. And who are we to say that one of God’s creations is more worthy, closer to God, dearer to God, than another?

Classical Jewish literature, going back more than 2,000 years contains frequent references to people who did not fit into existing categories, such as those who were androgynous or hermaphroditic. These are not new phenomena. And yet, the uproar this issue is causing might lead one to think that what we are dealing with is akin to confronting an alien who has just landed on earth: How shall we confront this strange, new situation? Is it dangerous? Contagious?

Whether or not one is familiar with the occurrence of transgenderism, why is not our first response one of acceptance, of compassion or of support? Why are we not able to address this issue, as individuals and as a country, from the Jewish perspective of kavod ha-briot, the religious value of showing honor and respect for every person? Has not the great teacher Hillel taught us that the essence of Torah, while standing on one foot, is simply: Don’t do to others what you would not want others to do to you? For this country to be embroiled in law suits and demonstrations over bathroom use says nothing about those who are transgender. This says something about us. And we must do better.

Our true “humanity,” in the best and fullest sense of that word, is not measured by our outer appearance. Our identity, who we are, is revealed in the acts of kindness we perform, in the compassion we display, and by the hand that we extend to those who struggle. Our world’s history has been stained many times by those who denigrate, denounce and even attack others based on their appearance. This, of course, touches a central issue of all civil rights. Jews understand this better than most. We, therefore, must be the ones to protect those who are viewed as different from this sort of prejudice. I am proud of the Rabbinical Assembly, which, this week at our international convention, will announce the unopposed passage of a resolution calling attention to the rights and protection of transgender individuals.

There is a bracha we recite when we see someone who is different, unusual or even, what some might consider, ugly or strange in appearance: Baruch Ata…Mishaneh et HaBriot.

This bracha is not recited for the sake of the person we see. We say this blessings for ourselves, to remind ourselves that this person we have seen, so different from what we normally see, was created this way by a God who blesses the world with diversity. No two people are the same.

The question which we must answer today as a society is not which bathroom should such a person use. I expect that we can figure that out. The question is: Are we able to look beyond externalities, as a transgender person must do in every waking hour of every day, and treat other people, all people, in the compassionate, kind and generous way we are expected to act? Over the past few weeks, this issue, to my mind, has exposed before all Americans some of the shallowest and most hurtful behaviors we have seen. It is time for the rest of us to say “no” to that shallowness and cruelty. It is time for all of us in this country in general, and for the Jewish community in particular, to do better.

Conservative Movement OKs Corn, Peas on Passover


Peas and Corn During Passover?

The Committee of Jewish Laws and Standards (CLJS) of the Conservative movement determined that it is permitted, for both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews, to eat kitniyot (legumes) on Passover:

These foods included: beans, corn, millet, peas, rice, soy, and some other plant based foods like mustard, buckwheat and sesame seeds.

The issue was discussed in the most recent Pesach Guide published by The Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the organization that represents Conservative rabbis, following the submission and discussion of a teshuva (legal responsum) on this question, submitted by Rabbi Avram Reisner. The guide presents in clear and unambiguous terms the various issues we confront as we prepare for and observe Passover.

Legumes, or kitniyot, historically have been on the list of prohibited foods for Jews of Ashkenazi dissent. Jews of Sephardi dissent have always included legumes in their Passover menus. Until this year, the CJLS position on legumes (for Ashkenazim) has followed that of the longstanding Ashkenazi tradition.

Hebrew label indicating "Kosher for Passover for those who eat legumes".

Hebrew label indicating “Parve and Kosher for Passover for those who eat legumes.”

Over the past several years, the question of Ashkenazim and the permissibility of eating legumes has been re-opened to study. In the fall of 2015 the CJLS passed two responsa that permit the consumption of legumes for Ashkenazim.

This permission does not require any changes to your traditional Passover practices. At the same time, this ruling provides new culinary opportunities, as well as new options for vegetarians, those with dietary restrictions and others.

Rabbi Marshall Maltzman, z”l

Rabbi Marshall Maltzman

Rabbi Marshall Maltzman

Rabbi Maltzman was the founding Rabbi of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El. He had been hired by Temple Beth El in West Philadelphia in the early 1960s. Realizing the very limited potential of that community, Rabbi Maltzman worked to bring his diminishing congregation into the small yet vibrant community of Temple Beth Hillel. Once the merge had been concluded, Rabbi Maltzman became the rabbi for Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El.

As the leader of this community, Rabbi Maltzman guided the cadre of young Beth Hillel families, urging them not to see themselves as a small suburban group. He pushed them to see themselves as a community with great potential for the future. He pushed them to build our sanctuary building, which included a sanctuary, social hall, kitchen and offices. And he filled the building with a range of activities, classes and programs. It was his vision which enabled our synagogue to believe in itself and to grow strong and vibrant.

Among the many accomplishments which he enjoyed was his early support for providing full participation to women in the context of religious services. Although this change encountered some stiff opposition, Rabbi Maltzman stood firm in his desire to create a traditional yet egalitarian congregation. By the time I arrived at TBH-BE, the egalitarian nature of this congregation had been accepted and embraced.

Rabbi Maltzman used his pulpit effectively to teach, to inspire and to build. He was a masterful speaker, drawing material from traditional Jewish sources while interspersing his presentations with poetry and quotable lines from great thinkers and writers. And one would be hard-pressed to find an example of a speech he gave that did not begin with, or included in the body of the speech, a humorous anecdote or joke. Whether one liked his humor or not (which depended on whether one liked hearing puns), all must agree that this practice was part of his ongoing attempt to present Jewish life in a way which evoked laughter, joy and spirit.

Rabbi Maltzman’s love of learning was also transmitted to his community. Under his direction, this synagogue gained a reputation for serious study and education. After retiring, he developed a “second career” serving as the “scholar-in-residence” on numerous cruise ships. He was known for his reviews of books, his passionate advocacy on behalf of issues which he championed and for his ability and skill as an educator.

It is difficult to speak of Marshall Maltzman without speaking, as well, of his beloved wife, Ruth, z”l. They worked as a model rabbinic couple. While Marshall oversaw matters of the larger congregation, Ruth became a great teacher and administrator for the religious school and for adult education. Together they would write and produce elaborate community plays, parodies and purim schpiels which left wonderful and indelible memories in those who were involved. These productions also created a legacy of creativity and humor which persists to this day.

The funeral for Rabbi Maltzman will be held on Sunday, November 1st at 11:00 am at Har Jehuda Cemetery in Upper Darby, PA. After the interment, family and friends will be returning to the Maltzman residence at 126 Foxhound Drive, Lafayette Hill, PA 19444. Evening services will be held on Sunday evening only, at the Maltzman’s home.

Following Rabbi Maltzman’s retirement twenty-five years ago, many in our community did not have the opportunity to meet him. Nevertheless, although a personal relationship may not have been formed, the impact and influence of his tenure as Senior Rabbi, for over three decades, continues to be felt throughout our synagogue community. I know that you join me in extending sincere condolences to his wife, Amy; to his three children and their spouses: Rabbi Jonathan and Julie Maltzman, Seth Maltzman and his wife, and Susan and Larry Gordon; to his grandchildren and his extended family. We hope that they will find comfort knowing that the thoughts and prayers of our entire congregation are with them at this most difficult time.

There is a verse from the Bible which reads as follows:

Ki mot namut u’kha-mayim ha nigarim artza asher lo yaiasfu

We must all die. We are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up.

These words were spoken to King David in the midst of a conversation with a very wise woman from Tekoa. At first these words seem to suggest not only the relative brevity of life, but the futility of life. I believe, however, the wise woman’s words contain a message of comfort as well.

Even if our lives are absorbed like water in parched earth, that water is necessary to provide sustenance and hope for that which is yet to grow. The death of a rabbi is similar in many ways to every other death. But when a rabbi dies, the sweet waters of Torah which flowed from his lips help to awaken the seeds of idealism for the future, thoughts of goodness and of devotion to God and Israel in the hearts of children and adults alike.

Water spilled on the ground cannot be gathered again. But for those beneficiaries of that sweet water, the growth that it fostered continues, remains an ongoing tribute and legacy to a life well lived.

May the memory of Rabbi Marshall Maltzman, z”l, remain always as a treasured blessing.

Tehay nishmato tzirura b’tz’ror ha-chayyim.

Visit Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s memorial page in tribute of Rabbi Maltzman. We will continue to add material to this section. Remembering Rabbi Maltzman

Rethinking Plans to Close Israeli Consulate in Philadelphia

Among the wonderful aspects of our Jewish community in Philadelphia is the close relationship we have with the State of Israel. We do not take that relationship for granted. It comes as the product of hard work, constant communication and, perhaps most importantly, personal contact. The close personal contact we have with Israel in Philadelphia comes from the warm relationship which we have with the Israel Consulate and, specifically, the Consul General.

I was saddened to receive the news that the government in Israel is considering closing our Consulate. Understanding the financial burdens which weigh on the State of Israel, I am sympathetic to the need to cut costs in many programs.  At the same time, the work of the Consul General and the Consulate creates the close and warm bond which we feel toward Israel, ultimately impacting positively on Israel’s economy through our support. We benefit from the Consul and his office through his personal presence at so many of our synagogues and Jewish Institutions. He provides a friendly and knowledgeable voice for the State when he speaks, contributing strong support for Israel when she is attacked, a voice of reason, warmth and encouragement for those of us who work to support Israel. [Read more…]

Boston Bombing: We are All Targets

As I reflect on the events of the past 24 hours, my thoughts and prayers are with the 130 people who have been injured, to greater or lesser degrees, by the bombs that exploded in Boston. May they be granted speedy and complete recoveries. May G-d strengthen the hands of those who tend to their injuries and wounds. May those in need be granted healing, both physical and spiritual. I know that you join me in extending heartfelt sympathy and prayers for comfort to the families of the three victims who died from their wounds. I pray that those whose job it is to find and apprehend those responsible are successful in their work. May those who are guilty be brought to justice and be held accountable for these heinous crimes. [Read more…]

Israel Under Attack: The Presbyterian Church USA

Israel is, once again, under attack.  This time I refer not to the rockets which have been fired at Israel from Gaza and from the Sinai Peninsula.  These new attacks are coming from our neighbors here, the national organizations of the Methodists and the Presbyterians (PCUSA), the liberal Protestant denominations in this country.  Each organization is considering resolutions comparing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the treatment of South African Blacks during Apartheid. Each has called upon its constituents to boycott Israel until Israel admits to adhering to racist policies. Only after such admissions, according to these resolutions, can Israel and the Palestinians work toward peace. [Read more…]