16 July 2010

Tabling for Hillel at the ZBT Convention

Yesterday, my wife (who is the Director for Beach Hillel) and I manned the table representing Hillel at the national ZBT convention in the Marriott in Manhattan Beach. Hillel was one of a half-dozen organizations tabling, most of whom were Jewish (Young Judea, Chabad on campus, and Maccabi World Union along with OmegaFi and Movember).
ZBT, which are the Greek equivalent for the Hebrew initials צב"ת, stands for ציון במשפט תפדה - "Zion shall be redeemed with justice" (from the first half of Isaiah 1:27),1 is the first Jewish fraternity, which makes sense why there would be so many Jewish organizations represented. However, over time it became simply a historically Jewish fraternity (or, as it was described to me, a non-sectarian Jewish fraternity).
Although we were situated next to Chabad (yes, they had tefillin and were ready to help the Zebes wrap), the interesting ongoing amusing interaction took place at the table across from us. The lady at the Young Judaea table was primarily trying to get the Zebes to sign up for Birthright Israel trips, in which many brothers were interested. However, when she asked if they were Jewish, many of them said they weren't, whereupon she asked if they could pass on the word to their Jewish fraternity brothers. I found it amusing, but probably somewhat confusing to the gentile Zebes.
One further thought: an organization which was not subtly founded as a Jewish-Zionist organization, as mentioned above (and with an inspiringly hopeful phrase behind it, to boot), one would hope that it would be the same today. Although there was a ZBT chapter at the university from which I graduated, I wasn't very familiar with it. But, when I was looking recently into ZBT, I discovered what it's acronym stood for and thought that it was not simply a Zionist/pro-Israel group, but could be an advocate for Israel. Moreover, especially in light of what's been happening recently (e.g. the Goldstone Report), it would be a group that would yearn for Israel to be justified and advocate for it. Moreover, amongst the three Jewish fraternities (AEPi and SAM being the other two), it would be the one to attract students who would advocate and defend Israel on campus, perhaps being partners with either pro-Israel groups (e.g. Anteaters for Israel) or Hillel to strategically deal with anti-Israel activities, speakers, or other such matters (such as the traveling "Apartheid Wall"). However, just because that's the organization's name, doesn't mean that that's what they stand for, as they took out the Zionist part of it shortly after starting up.2 Nevertheless, it will still be interesting working with the local ZBT chapter, as a minority of the Zebes are Jews - but it should be fun :)

1 -
The initials ZBT and the group's chosen Hebrew motto, Zion be-mishpat tipadeh (Zion shall be redeemed with justice), a quotation from the book of Isaiah, well-known in learned circles, had been the suggestion of the men's Bible instructor, Rabbi Bernard Drachman (1861-1945). The ancient phrase had already been taken up by the budding Zionist movement, and the full quote - Zion be-mishpat tipadeh ve-shaveha be-tzedaka (Zion shall be redeemed with justice, and they that return of her , with righteousness) - is emblazoned in Hebrew on the delegate's badge, which Gottheil himself wore to the fourth Zionist Congress in August 1900 in London."
Marianne Rachel Sanua, Here's To Our Fraternity: One Hundred Years of Zeta Beta Tau, 1898-1998 (Hanover, NH: Zeta Beta Tau, 1998), 11.
2 - "The group's formal objectives, according to its first charter, were "to promote the cause of Zionism and the welfare of Jews in general; and to unite fraternally all collegiate Zionists of the United States and Canada." - Ibid., 12. However, soon, the Zionist part was taken out:
As one of the founders, Maurice L. Zellermayer, reported, in an early history of ZBT, "Zeta Beta Tau: The First Twenty-Five Years, 1898-1923," "It was found that it would be for the best interests of the Fraternity not to limit ourselves solely to the question of Zionism, that, as a Jewish College Fraternity, we ought not to shut out those Jewish college men who were desirous of entering our Fraternity, but had not, as yet, taken any definite stand on the Zionist question." Within a year (November 1901), ZBT's administration had revised its charter to eliminate the goal of promoting Zionism and had resolved that the new object of the fraternity would be simply the "promotion of Judaism."
- Ibid., 13-14.

15 July 2010

Excerpts from David Patterson's 2009 May Smith Lecture on Redemption, Anti-Semitism & the Messiah

On Sunday morning, while ellipticalling, I read David Patterson's lecture "Though the Messiah May Tarry: A Reflection on Redemption in Our Time,"1 and I wanted to select a few interesting passages from it: one on belief, one on anti-semitism/anti-messianism, one on redemption, and one on time and the Messiah. The selection of his regarding anti-semitism is, I believe, the most novel of these quotes (although time and the Messiah is also neat).
Here is an interesting quote regarding
belief (17-18):
The word faith appears in the Christian Scriptures one hundred times more frequently than in the Hebrew Bible, and the Hebrew Bible is about six times longer than the Christian Scriptures. Because of this accent on the faith of the individual, Christians generally view redemption in terms of a personal salvation, so that salvation belongs to the individual believer. And it rests at least as much upon the content of belief - on accepting Jesus as the Savior in accordance with John 3:16 - as it does upon the actions of the believer. This is not to say that from a Christian standpoint actions are meaningless; rather, it is to say that belief is essential.

In Judaism, belief is not so essential, at least not in the same way. Hence, in Judaism, we have the concept of the Righteous among the Nations, people who are near to God, even though they are not followers of Judaism. Because the Jewish accent is on living in such a way as to assume responsibility even for the actions of others, redemption is a matter that concerns the community. Because redemption is not about me - because it means serving others in spite of myself - it require getting rid of the one thing most precious to me: my ego. Perhaps here lies the key to waiting and working for redemption, both for Christians and for Jews. Here, too, lies one key to the animosity that both face in the effort to bring about the redemption of humanity, from left-wing intellectualism to Islamic Jihadism.
One on anti-semitism/anti-messianism (pp. 18-19):
...in the contexts of the Jewish wait for the Messiah, we discover the essence of anti-Semitism: it is an anti-messianism. The "wandering" Jew turns out to be the waiting Jew and, therefore, the hated Jew, for the Jew's wait unsettles those who would have things settled through the totalitarian rule of one worldview. The presence of the Jew is a constant reminder that we are forever in debt and that no payment will do, because payment is always due. And so, among the anti-Semites, it is a truism that the Jews control the ledgers of the world. The hatred of the Jews is the oldest hatred, because the challenge from the Jews is the oldest challenge to the ego that would curl up in the comfort of looking out for Number One. Both the religious and the ideological forms of anti-Semitism seek a final solution in matter of redemption. In their totalitarian appropriation of the other, both would either assimilate or annihilate the Jew, whose very existence disturbs their sleep with the insistence that the wait for the Messiah is an interminable service to the other person.
One on redemption (p. 20):
...the Jew waits not for the world to adopt a certain creed, but for the world to take on a certain character. One thing is clear, at least from a Jewish standpoint: the matter of redemption is not settled. What is clear to Judaism, however, may create some confusion in Christianity, where, according to traditional understanding, the redemption was accomplished with the Resurrection. Where redemption is concerned, most Christians believe there is nothing to wait for.
And, finally, one on time and the Messiah (pp. 20-21):
...in the Talmud, it is written that there will be no Messiah for Israel, because those days have already passed, in the time of Hezekiah (Sanhedrin 99a); the point is not to put an end to the wait and the expectation, but to underscore its endless duration. The Talmud also maintains that all the dates for the ultimate redemption have passed (Sanhedrin 97b). Once again, the teaching is not that we should leave off with waiting; rather, it is that now only we can bring the Messiah, for only we can wait infinitely, through the continual effort to meet an infinite responsibility to and for the other person. Only we can wait, and not God, because only we operate within the narrow confines of time. Time is the tarrying of the Messiah; that the Messiah tarries is what gives meaning to life, for the dimension of meaning is the dimension of time.
1 - Delivered on 26 January 2009 as the May Smith Lecture on Post-Holocaust Christian/Jewish Dialogue (published as a booklet in 2009, with an introduction by Alan L. Berger, Administrator for the May Smith Lecture Series at Florida Atlantic University)

14 July 2010

Crown Heights Riots, Protesting, and Harmony

Yesterday, Shemspeed released a press release that starts off with the title "20 Years After the Crown Heights Race Riots, Black and Jewish Community Leaders Endorse DeScribe's "Harmony" Music Video as a Constructive Tool for Unity and Racial Harmony in Brooklyn" with a link to the aforementioned music video. One of the paragraphs contained within include the following background:
It's been almost 20 years since the Crown Heights riots showed the ugly face of racial tension that exists between the Black and the Jewish communities in this Brooklyn neighbourhood. Many efforts since then have been made to create multi-cultural programming and social structures to work towards peace and mutual understanding between the two communities, but still today the lack of real communication remains, and most of all, the tension still remains. In a recent wave of violence and rising crime in Crown Heights it has become obvious that we must push for "raising an awareness of the need for racial harmony in Crown Heights and in the world."

Reading the press release in my inbox along with just having finished reading Rabbi Avi Weiss' Spiritual Activism, compels me to quote from that book regarding the Crown Heights issue. But before I get to that quote, let me quote a more relevant one first from an earlier book of his:
In August of 1991..., when Yankele Rosenbaum was murdered during the Crown Heights riots, we went directly after the big guy. We accused New York City mayor, David Dinkins, of holding the cops back in order to allow the raging mob to vent. Our language was precise: The mayor, like all of us, saw what was happening. If he remained silent, he - not a lower level official or police captain - is culpable.

There's no question that our accusations got through to Dinkins. In one of the most successful rallies we ever mounted, a mock coffin was brought to Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, as our way of placing accountability at the mayor's door. The mayor was incensed, and, that evening, on the local news, accused me of racially dividing the city. But an important point was made: The man at the top was responsible. Over the ensuing period of time, a large group of activists, mostly from non-establishment grassroots organizations, led by Yankele Rosenbaum's brother, Norman, militated against the mayor until he was voted out of office.1

Now, on to the quote from the book I just finished (and recently quoted on my blog):
The propensity to not listen, to discourage and stifle dissent, is by no means the exclusive characteristic of the right. At times, some of the most liberal and reputedly most tolerant voices in the Jewish community are equally guilty of refusing to listen.

In the fall of 1992, for example, I vigorously protested former New York City mayor David Dinkins's handling of the Yankel Rosenbaum case. Dinkins was the scheduled speaker at the Conservative rabbinic school, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York. From my seat in the front row, I rose to shake Dinkins's hand as he entered the auditorium. This was my way of communicating to him, in my mind, at least, that our conflict was not a personal one.

Throughout his talk, however, and particularly when criticizing some in the clergy for inflaming racial tensions, Dinkins, as the New York Post described it the next day, "stared directly at Rabbi Avi Weiss, one of his harshest critics in the case." When Dinkins completed his talk, the chancellor of JTS, who was chairing the event, invited questions from the audience. The chancellor obviously saw my raised hand, a clear indication to him that I had no intention of disrupting the proceedings. However, he refused to acknowledge me. He knew I disagreed with the mayor and, therefore, my views could not be tolerated. For good measure, the next day New York Newsday quoted him as labeling me "the Jewish Al Sharpton."2

1 - Avraham Weiss, Principles of Spiritual Activism (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 2002), 54.
2 - Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008), 148.

09 July 2010

Some Elements of Jewish Spiritual Activism

One of my job responsibilities is to be an activist, primarily on campuses. The amusing thing is that even though I went to YCT, I was one of the least inclined students to attend rallies, etc. Nevertheless, one of the factors (as I understand it) as to why I was hired was on account of having attended YCT, which Rabbi Avi Weiss founded and was supposed to be a social activist rabbi. In any event, I've been trying to figure out how best to utilize my resources and achieve results on campuses in the area, primarily with regard to anti-Israel occurrences. So, to that end, I started reading Rabbi Weiss' book Spiritual Activism a month or so ago, although I had put it on hold to read other things. However, recently, when I saw Rabbi Weiss at the IRF conference, he suggested I read it - so I recently resumed reading it. Although there have been a variety of interesting pieces in the work, I wanted to pull out a couple of particularly interesting points: one on "positive" vs. "negative" Judaism and one on speaking out for others and for ourselves.
With regard to his idea of "positive" vs. "negative"Judaism, he wrote that it is important
to recognize that the essence of spiritual activism is to ignite the Jewish spark within each of us. The activist who is grounded exclusively in physical defense - demonstrations, rallies, protests, political lobbying - doesn't understand the higher purpose of activism. If I am a Jew only to fight anti-Semitism, that is negative Judaism. If, however, I am a Jew because I appreciate the Sabbath, I treasure the Jewish laws and rituals that ennoble the life of the Jew, and I devote time to reading Jewish books and to Torah study, that is positive Judaism. Negative Judaism will not endure; positive Judaism will.

Yediat Yisrael, "Jewish knowledge," including the Torah education, is inextricably bound with ruach Yisrael, "the spirit of Israel." Yediat Yisrael is crucial to Jewish identity, Jewish activism, and Jewish survival. In its absence, Jews are in danger of forgetting who they are, of ceasing to stand up for Jewish causes, and of casting away Jewish values and rituals, which become meaningless without learning and understanding. The inevitable result is assimilation and loss. Yediat Yisrael, "Jewish knowledge," and ruach Yisrael, "the spirit of Israel," together encapsulate positive Judaism.1
And here is what he wrote upon the topic of speaking out for others and speaking out on behalf of one's self:
Speaking out for others carries relatively little risk and even brings acclaim and approval from the larger community. Speaking out on behalf of our own interests, on the other hand, touches upon our insecurities and heightened sensitivity to what others may think of us - insecurities and sensitivities that we, as Diaspora Jews, have acquired and absorbed over the years. As a result, we feel strong and unhampered when fighting for others, yet deferential and afraid when fighting for ourselves.2
Rabbi Weiss continues on and writes
As Jews, we have a responsibility to be both universalists and particularists. While our spiritual activism shares the universalist agenda, it can never be at the expense of the commitment to our own people. We easily remember that our sage Hillel asked, "If I am only for myself, what am I worth?" Yet we too often forget his more important question that immediately precedes it - "If I am not for myself, who will be for me?"3

1 -
Rabbi Avraham Weiss, Spiritual Activism: A Jewish Guide to Leadership and Repairing the World (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2008), 36-37.
2 - Ibid., 56.
3 - Ibid.

08 July 2010

Gahanna & Gehenna

I grew up in a suburb of Columbus, OH called Gahanna and it was a nice place. Gahanna, in the local native American language means "three in one", since there are three rivers that converge into one river.
When I got to high school, I would tell people where I live and would sometimes snicker, saying "Like Hell?" Although at first, I had no idea what they were talking about, but they said Gehenna. It's also been weird to tell people I'm going back home to visit my parents and people say, "You're going back to Hell?" since it's actually a pleasant place. In any event, whenever I've told people where I grew up and/or where my parents live, I've said "The city where I grew up rhymes with 'banana'" and then proceed to say "Gahanna."
Since I'm on the topic of Gehenna, I thought I would quote a couple of articles regarding its name:
The Greek noun gehenna, usually translated as hell in the English New Testament, is used in a bewildering variety of ways in ancient sacred literature. In the Bible and related literature, it occurs in three senses: as an ordinary geographical location in Jerusalem; as an extraordinary place of punishment for the wicked, located in the area of Jerusalem; and as an otherworldly place of punishment for the wicked after death. Eventually, the name Gehenna for the geographical valley became a term for the underworld.1
The New Testament renders Gê...Hinnōm by Γεέννα, "Gehenna," a term which has become a name for hell. Both Old and New Testaments use other terminology, such as Hades, Sheol, the Pit, the Grave, and so on. By the time of early Christianity, they seem to have more or less coalesced in meaning, though they will have had slightly different shades of meaning. While Gehenna occurs 10 times in the gospels (Matthew 5:22, 29, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33; Mark 9:43, 45, 47; Luke 12:5 and also in James 3:6), occurs 11 times (Matthew 11:23, 16:18; Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; I Corinthians 15:55; Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13, 14). This suggests a conception, probably still fairly fluid, which shares elements of contemporary Greek and Roman cosmology, themselves heirs to the Mediterranean koine, together with Jewish elements, which themselves seem to have absorbed earlier Egyptian or even Zoroastrian ideas (such as the Lake of Fire).2

1 - Lloyd R. Bailey, "Gehenna: The Topography of Hell," The Biblical Archaeologist 49, no. 3 (September 1986), 187.
2 - N. Wyatt, "The Concept and Purpose of Hell: Its Nature and Development in West Semitic Thought," Numen 56 (2009), 180.

06 July 2010

IRF Conference 2010

While away on my recent trip out east, where we attended a couple of friends' weddings, a bris milah of a baby boy of our friends', and saw friends and family, I also attended the annual conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF). It was held at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center in Reisterstown, MD, which was a very lovely facility - I would definitely like to return there for any conference, it was just that pleasant. The conference itself was a good time and I am certainly glad I attended. Although for the content of the conference, I will simply defer to the press release issued by the IRF about it, which can be seen below, I enjoyed the conference for both getting together with rabbis who were either in YCT with me or I had known elsewhere and getting to catch up with them, as well as being with and discussing issues with fellow Open/Modern Orthodox rabbis, which provided for an excellent atmosphere. I'm not sure when I will be able to go to the next IRF conference, but I look forward to when I can return.
Press Release:

International Rabbinic Fellowship

347 West 34th Street

New York, NY 10001

Press Release

Contact: Rabbi Jason Herman, Executive Director

Phone: 917.751.5265

Email: jlherman@jlherman.net


9 A.M. EDT, July 2, 2010


The International Rabbinic Fellowship, an organization of over 150 American, Israeli, and world rabbis met this past week at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center outside Baltimore, Maryland to strengthen collegial relationships, study torah, and discuss ideas that impact rabbinic practice. The group voted on and adopted several policies and resolutions that will guide Orthodoxy’s future.

A highlight of the conference was the presence of Rav David Stav, Rabbi of the Shoham community in Israel, Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Hesder Petach Tikva and founder of Tzohar, a large Israeli Rabbinic group. Conference attendees were privileged to discuss at length with Rabbi Stav critical issues facing the State of Israel and the Jewish people.

Resolutions that were discussed in depth and adopted by the IRF included the official establishment of the IRF’s conversion committee (Va’ad Giur) that will oversee, guide, and ensure the thoroughness of conversions performed by IRF members. The committee consists of several American and Israeli well known rabbinic scholars and has been constituted as a body not to centralize conversions but to help guide the group’s members in conversions that they may effect for their own congregants and constituents.

Said Rabbi Barry Gelman, IRF president, "The IRF's Vaad Giur will serve to ensure that each rabbi retains the proper ability to care for and guide their own candidates for conversion. The IRF Giyur process, which includes a very important mentorship component, guarantees that candidates for conversion will be well prepared and that the Rabbis are provided with ongoing guidance and support."

Orthodoxy’s broadest resolution yet outlining the role of and opportunities available for women working in Orthodox synagogues in Rabbinic capacities was also adopted at the conference.

The following is the text of the resolution as adopted by the International Rabbinic Fellowship:

IRF Resolution on Women in Communal Leadership Roles

The International Rabbinic Fellowship is thankful and grateful to the Almighty and to a cadre of visionary educators, rabbis and communal leaders of the Modern Orthodox community for the amazing growth of Torah learning for women, in all its forms, which has transformed the face of the Orthodox community for the better in the last fifty years.

We strongly support the work and efforts of the myriad of Torah learning programs and institutions for women, both long-established and new, both in the Diaspora and in Israel. We hope that these institutions continue to grow and that even more opportunities for talented women who would like to continue on to the next level of Torah scholarship, involving multi-year opportunities for serious Torah learning, will emerge in the years to come.

We express our support for the sincere desire of the graduates of these learning programs to contribute their spiritual talents to the Jewish people as teachers, spiritual guides and mentors. We also affirm the dedication and sacrifice of so many women in our community, and their desire to serve their congregations and their people in formal leadership capacities, while affirming the specific areas that Halakha delimits.

We strongly encourage communities and their rabbinic leaders to create opportunities to discuss this important phenomenon in an open and reflective manner, in order to enable continuing progress in a spirit of shalom and communal harmony.

In an effort to outline some practical guidelines that we believe our communities should consider – recognizing that each community and its rabbinic leadership retain the authority to determine what is appropriate for their communal context – we affirm that:

Observant and committed Orthodox women who are learned, trained and competent should have every opportunity to fully serve the Jewish community:

1. As teachers of Torah, in all its breadth and depth – Shebikhtav, Shebe‘al Peh and Practical Halakha – to both men and women.

2. As persons who can answer questions and provide guidance to both men and women in all areas of Jewish law in which they are well-versed.

3. As clergy who function as pastoral counselors – visiting the sick, helping couples work through relationship difficulties, taking care of the arrangements for burial, speaking at life-cycle events and giving counsel to individuals and families in distress.

4. As spiritual preachers and guides who teach classes and deliver divrei Torah and derashot, in the synagogue and out, both during the week and on Shabbatot and holidays.

5. As spiritual guides and mentors, helping arrange and managing life-cycle events such as weddings, bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrations and funerals, while refraining from engaging in those aspects of these events that Halakha does not allow for women to take part in.

6. As presidents and full members of the boards of synagogues and other Torah institutions.

For more information about the International Rabbinic Fellowship or its conference contact any of the following IRF officers:

Rabbi Barry Gelman, tel. 713.723.3850, email

Rabbi Hyim Shafner, tel. 314.583.4397, email

Rabbi Nissan Antine, tel. 301.279.7010 x 209, email<rabbiantine@gmail.com>

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, tel. 310.276.9269, email

Rabbi Marc D. Angel, tel. 212.724.4145, email <mdangel@jewishideas.org>

Rabbi Jason Herman, IRF Executive Director, tel. 917.751.5265, email