Monday, March 27, 2017

Jews may enter a Church for a Christian Funeral

Recently in our community we suffered two losses of beloved Christians whose funerals were in churches.   It has been asked if a Jew can attend the funeral in the church, likhvod hamet, for the honor of the deceased in a church.  The answer is yes, and here is why.

Those who prohibit Jews from entering a church must base their halakhik reasoning in Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a, which is not applicable to the circumstance we raise.  That source was traditionally used by sephardi sources from Jews in Muslim countries to prohibit entering a church.   The Talmud there presents a "heretic" as having spoken with Rabbi Eliezer, and that Rabbi Eliezer appreciated the Torah teaching that the heretic presented.  Rabbi Eliezer believes that he was subsequently punished for this act of openness, quoting the verse about idolotry and harlotry: "and do not come near the door of her house" (Micah 1:7).  The moral of the story is that even Torah is forbidden to learn from a heretic, and "her house" could mean the forbidden shrine.

Not surprisingly, the chain of tradition in the sephardi world of Muslim countries named the heretic as a follower of Jesus, and the "door of her house" the church.   This is because they considered Christianity to be idolatry, with all the incumbent prohibitions and condemnations. Maimonides, Rashba, Ritba, and today Ovadia Yosef all follow this chain of tradition.  The only "Ashkenaz" authority to do this is the Rosh, who actually is living in culturally Muslim Toledo Spain during the time of the Reconquista.

We now know, however, that Christianity is a legitimate form of monotheism, though not a form that we accept for ourselves. With Crusades and more, we can understand the Muslim Jewish cultural antipathy against Christianity and Europe.  We can also understand a classical Jewish discomfort with the Church.  However, it is not "idolatry," and Christians are not automatically to be deemed "heretics."  While the reasons for this are many, suffice it to stand as a point that the Talmudic passage here does not apply for that reason;  Christians are not idolators.  Since the passage does not apply, then the chain of tradition from the Sephardi world also does not apply.

In recent times, this prohibition was adopted by a major Orthodox Ashkenazi authority, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, z"l.  He, however, not only forbade entering churches, but mosques and  non-Orthodox synagogues as well - under the same rule.  This sweeping prohibition against attending "other" religious prayers is not justified under the Biblical and Talmudic prohibition against idolatry and heresy, unless you define all other religions, and all other Jewish denominations as idolators.  Obviously, the teaching of Rabbi Feinstein on this topic degrades the original source significantly, and merely serves to build walls around a very narrow definition of Judaism. We hold this teaching to be unfounded and unacceptable. Perhaps it is most clear to us because we in the Conservative movement are included in the accusation of heresy, but even objectively it is not based in an accurate understanding of either Christianity or the original sources.

Since a church is not a place of idolatry, it is permitted to enter even during a time of prayer.  A Jew should not engage the Christian aspects of the prayer services, but should be attentive and respectful - learning and living in relationship with our neighbors.  If there is a reading from "our" Bible, then the Jew should certainly feel free to participate or not based on his or her own comfort levels.  If asked to read or speak from our own tradition, that would also be permitted. We do not fear that "exposure" to Christianity (or Islam or other denominations of Judaism) will taint us or draw us away. In the strength of our own faith, we can be fully present even in relationships of difference.

There is nothing forbidden about a Christian burying a Christian.  No Jewish norm is at risk.  No prohibition applies to attendance, and even to appropriate participation.

Not only can we, but we should.  For the Talmud also taught, "We bury the dead of the gentiles like the dead of Israel, mipnei darkhei shalom for the sake of peace" (B. Gittin 61a).

In memory of those we've lost, and in support of their families and our community,

Rabbi Tobin

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Freedom of the Press in Palestine

From WAFA, the official English Language News Agency of the Palestinian Authority comes a piece of news that wants me to buy this novel and read it:

Attorney General says removing controversial novel from shelves is temporary

RAMALLAH, February 16, 2017 (WAFA) – Ahmad Barak, the attorney general, Thursday said his office did not confiscate the controversial novel “A Crime in Ramallah”, but that it temporarily removed it from bookstores until the conclusion of investigation.
The Ministry of Culture said it received a letter from Barak saying his office did not confiscate the novel because such a move requires a court ruling.
However, it added, the attorney general only temporarily removed them from bookshelves until a committee of critics and experts review the book and provide their feedback taking into consideration the level of controversy it has sparked.
The ministry welcomed the suggestion saying it is a sensible way to approach the issue in a way that guarantees freedom of expression and opinion and doesn’t contradict with rules, regulations and relevant laws.
On February 6, Barak issued an order to remove from book stores all copies of the novel written by Palestinian author Abad Yahya because the writer used “indecent texts and terms in a way that violates ethics, morality and general decency, which could have an effect on people, particularly minors and children.”
He claimed the novel “violates Palestinian and international laws of relevance, in particular press and publications law, the Penal Code, the law on the protection of juveniles and children's act, which prohibits publications that encourage behaviors opposing public order and morality.”
Barak also issued an order to summon the author, who was on a business trip to Doha, the publisher and the distributor to carry on the investigation.
Yahya, who previously wrote another controversial novel, “Blonde Ramallah,” criticized the ban on his Facebook page saying, he was “worried and surprised by this decision and all that came with it from interrogation and confiscation.”

Monday, January 30, 2017

You Shall Not Oppress a Stranger - Statement on Immigration and Refugees

The Conservative movement through its member organizations, The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Zielger School of Rabbinic Studies, the Cantors Assembly, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, Mercaz USA, and the Women's League for Conservative Judaism, have issued a joint statement on President-elect Donald Trump's executive order on immigration and refugees. 
Read the entire statement here.


This past shabbat, I reminded my congregation that the prayer for our country is a sincere one to be prayed with a full heart:

"Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask Your blessings for our country - for its government, for its leaders and advisors, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority.  Teach them insights from Your Torah, that they may administer all affairs of state fairly, that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom may forever abide in our midst."

This was our prayer for President Obama and his administration, and it is our prayer for President Trump and his administration.  In that spirit, I wish to speak to the point regarding "insights from Your Torah" on the topic of immigration and refugees.

Immigration is within the rights of every sovereign state to determine.  Some countries, such as the USA, have thrived as a result of a long and valued history of immigration from around the world. Others have closed borders.  Others, such as Israel, have privileged groups which are allowed to immigrate and others which are not.  All three systems can be "good" or "moral," depending on how they are determined and how they are administered.

Our system has had quotas and restrictions against certain areas of the world at different times.  As in the case against the Jews in the 20th century, this is usually due to prejudice.  The Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, and its tweaks over the following 3 years, was targeted against Eastern European Immigrants in general, but had a strong effect of barring Jews.  Asians were already largely barred by the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917.  It was not until the civil rights movement in 1965 that the Immigration and Nationality Act approached immigration from the point of view of skilled labor and family relations to U.S. citizens as the primary basis for coming to America.

In 1975 the U.S. resettled hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asian refugees through an ad hoc Refugee Task Force with temporary funding.  This experience prompted Congress to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, which incorporated the United Nations definition of “refugee” and standardized the resettlement services for all refugees admitted to the U.S. The Refugee Act provides the legal basis for today’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.

This past week, President Trump attempted to bar all immigration from 7 Muslim nations known for being places where terrorist training grounds exist.  They are Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Libya, Sudan and Yemen. He did it in a moment's notice, and swept up lawful permanent residents (Green Card holders) along with tourists, students, workers, or anyone else.

He also banned all refugee immigration for a period of time.

In my opinion as a rabbi, there are several items here that are deplorable and against Jewish law.

1)  The refugee issue is the simplest. We are duty bound to save lives.  Getting refugees to safety is a moral mandate.  How long did Jews sit in DP camps after the war? How would any have passed "extreme vetting?"  The ban on refugees, simply casting them off at the airport and returning them to the country they came from regardless of circumstance is irresponsible, uncaring, and contrary to Jewish Law.  Our obligation is to their safety first.  "you shall not subvert the rights of the needy in their disputes... You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:6, 9).  Whether here or somewhere else, the status of refugees is our concern. Dumping or ignoring humans in need is not an option.

2)  The selection of these 7 muslim nations is at least troublesome, and at most prejudice disguised under a false pretense of security.  Ambassador John Bolton on Fox News claims that the other muslim nations, such as Saudi Arabia, who have actually produced the vast majority of anti-US terrorists, including 19 of 20 9/11 attackers, "give us strong intelligence" on refugees, and therefore don't need the ban.  That is for you to decide. But the essence of the ban is both political and religious.  The President was clear, that Christians will receive favored treatment if they come from those countries, because of the persecution they face there. The vast majority of victims of terror in the world are Muslims, and to ignore that fact is to both misunderstand the nature of ISIS and to prejudice an entire people. We are commanded "al takir panim b'mishpat," - "you shall not be partial in justice." By not hearing the details of their situations, and condemning them by religion and country, we violate Torah norms of Justice. Each individual deserves to be judged as an individual. In as much as it includes lawful permanent residents, it is surely to be held to be illegal in the courts of America as well.

The civil rights movement made immigration "race and religion blind," by focusing on skills and families.  This is the proper ethos for our immigration policies.

I strongly encourage you to advocate peacefully on behalf of the victims of these actions, with your time, financial resources and political advocacy - regardless of which party you belong to.  This particular issue must be resolved differently, as a matter of Jewish morality and ethics. Republicans and Democrats may assert their advocacy in different circles, and must do so.

I continue to pray our prayer, and hope that you do as well. But no, life is not only about prayer. It is about action, which  is why the word "torah" means "instruction."


Sunday, January 29, 2017

To Blog, or Not to Blog

During the election, and the period of transition, I was forceful and deliberate that I would not "take sides" in the election, and that I would affirm that our synagogue is a safe and nurturing space for members of all political parties.  I deeply believe that this is the right stance to take as the rabbi of a diverse community. I did vote of course, and felt deeply about that vote.  But my vote is not my rabbinic voice.

Each week for the past three months I have been approached by dear members, and often friends, who lament the policies that are now being enacted by the process of Presidential Executive Order.  My response has not changed:

Any members of our synagogue who wish to experience and pursue their Jewish beliefs and values through political advocacy and engagement are welcome to do so at B'nai Shalom.  I applaud them, encourage them and support them, no matter which direction they take in their advocacy.  But, in general, I will not lead such efforts myself. I need to be everyone's rabbi, and I take that very seriously.

The truth is, it is not the primary purpose and role of rabbi to be a pundit or activist.  I am a pastor, teacher and guide for Judaism in your life.  I am a creator and programmer for experiences in our community.  I am an authority on what Jewish Law says we should or shouldn't do, both in our synagogue and our religious lives.

I will assert that we must protect the widow the orphan and the stranger, as that is what the Torah commands of us.   But I respect that how we protect the widow, the orphan and the stranger can be a matter of sincere difference in a political system.  

So, for politics in general I will not speak from the pulpit, nor lead marches on Washington.  I applaud those who do.  I will, however, respond to specific issues as they arise.  And I expect that they will.

So to my friends and family in my community, I pray that you will hear me when I chose to speak, and have patience for both my temperance and my sincerity when I do not.

I will blog before I preach.  This blog is a personal page, not an expression of my synagogue nor its board.  But I will think before I blog, so when I do weigh in you will know that it is a matter of extreme concern to me as a rabbi.

Kol Tuv.  All good things.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Peoplehood Project 4

Today I travel to Israel to join a cohort of Americans that I have been teaching with a parallel cohort of Israeof Israelis over the next week!  Stay tuned as we form lasting relationships between our region and our sister communities in Arad and Ofakim.